So much depends on how this new President looks at Washington, the images in Ronald Reagan's mind as he tries to impress his own image upon the town and the government.
There is the Washington we all grew up believing in. The gleaming temples of democracy, the marble shrines to justice and equality, our shared nobility as Americans.
This Washington is still real, still stirring, despite recent scandal and current cynicism. Every able President will manipulate these great national symbols with his words and deeds, for good purposes or ill.
There is Washington as the ultimate arena. America's jousting pit, where we can all watch the combat. In that sense, this town is never at rest; its purpose is to make contests between politicians and ideas (and, despite appearances, Washington is quite moral about which politicians and which ideas prevail -- the action follows the winner every time).
This political combat is what the newspaper and television concentrate on, mostly. Washington action is always lively if not always significant. Every active president chooses his own fights; the passive presidents are drawn into other people's fights.
Washington is, fundamentally, a maze of incredible complexity, hundreds of agencies, thousands of bureaus, cubicles within cubicles, impossible webs of interdepartmental task forces. Washington is a marblefront rat's nest of confusion.
That is the Washington Ronald Reagan talked about so much during his campaign. It is a place of ridiculous duplication and diffusion of purposes, 83 federal housing programs, 228 health programs, 1,200 or so commissions and councils and boards and all that. This new president intends to hack away at that jungle, to untangle the flow charts and simplify the organizational boxes. It needs doing.
These are the standard images of Washington and each is legitimate; all are true. Yet not of them really explains Washington, does it? None quite reaches down to the daily reality of this town, the functioning truth that produces the confusion, the distrust, the general dissatisfaction that Reagan used as his foil in last year's campaign.
Let me modestly suggest another image, a different mental picture of Washington, one that might explain why this government does not seem to satisfy most citizens, why it generates discontent even as it pours money over our problems.
Think of Washington as a grand bazaar, a steamy marketplace filled with tents and tables, an elegant bazaar where the din of buying and selling drowns out the patriotic music, and the cologne of expensive lawyers mingles with the sweaty aroma of hard bargaining. This is Washington -- not a government but a sprawling marketplace.
Buying, selling, swapping, hustling -- that is the poetic center of what goes on in this capital city. An effective bureaucrat does not perspire as he bargains out the law. An experienced senator, like a rug peddler, watches the pupils of the lobbyist's eyes.
The Department of Agriculture bargains with farmers about how much cotton to grow, the price of corn, the poison level of weed killers.
The Department of Education hands out money to school systems, public and private, then negotiates about how the money may be spent.
The Department of Commerce builds sewer systems for some towns, not others.
The Civil Aeronautics Board brokers airline prices and profits and referees intramural battles about routes.
The Department of Interior leases land, water, oil, coal, Indian reservations, whatever.
The Department of Defense buys rockets and sells them.
The Department of Transportation dickers with Detroit about how safe to make automobiles. The Environmental Protection Agency dickers on how clean to make them.
And so on, across the face of the federal government. Doctors bargain with the Department of Health and Human Services. Indian chiefs bargain with Interior. The rich folks talk to Treasury or send their tax lawyers to negotiate for them. The poor folks talk to HHS and HUD and Agriculture and Interior and Labor and wherever their lawyers can find an open door.
Nearly every interest group, every subsection of American society, goes after something, bargains with the appropriate subsection of the American government and strikes a deal. Often it settles for half a loaf but usually for something better than crumbs.
If Ronald Reagan were to look at the federal establishment in this way, not just at the official government on the organizational charts but also at the surrounding web of lawyers, agents, consultants and client groups that forms the supporting government of Washington, he might very well conclude that this marketplace works.
He would see that the confusion and duplication of government often has unstated purposes -- setting up different tents and tables so different groups can carve their own bargains without competition from hostile third parties.
A big city mayor goes to HUD for his sewer money. A small farm community goes to Agriculture for its sewer money. An Indian tribe goes to Interior. If they strike out there, they can all try Commerce.
What is being bought and sold in this Washington bazaar? Well, money from the federal treasury is the most obvious commodity.
In the last generation, Congress has created hundreds and hundreds of programs that hand out money to individuals or other governments or private organizations. Practically all of these programs assign considerable discretion to the agencies, the cubicles within cubicles, for deciding who gets what. There is never enough money for everyone, so rules are made, guidelines are written, priority lists are drawn up.
Each step is subjected to intense bargaining, of course. If a particular group is unhappy with the deal, whether it is cattle farmers or municipal police departments, it may scream and holler and appeal the matter to Congress.
The less obvious commodities are intangible but much more important in terms of private economic rewards. These include those lucrative "rights" that numerous government agencies confer upon private citizens. TV licenses. Airline routes. Powerplant construction permits. Long-term leases on public property, from western grazing land to the broadcasting airwaves.
The bazaar also sells chunks of the law. Discretion is the better part of enforcement. In so many areas, the law is not fixed firmly in standards of right or wrong; it is a sliding scale of limits, values, acceptable tolerance levels. And, naturally, subject to bargaining up or down. If anyone knew how to count up all these intangible bargaining issues, they would undoubtedly outnumber the cash transactions in this marketplace.
The regulatory agencies -- the FTC and the EPA and the FCC and the ICC and the CAB and the SEC and the NLRB and many more -- are the best-known stalls in the marketplace where this sort of bargaining goes on. It is their main business. But most of the major departments of government do the same thing, whether it is the Agriculture Department regulating meat quality or the Justice Department negotiating antitrust settlements.
They do not, of course, call it "bargaining." They call it "rule making" or some other bureaucratic euphemism, lending the authority of law to a process that actually invents the law as it goes along.
Congress, after all, does not really enact laws in most areas -- it proposes subjects for bargaining in the bazaar. A law, one would think, tells all citizens or certain recognizable classes of citizens that they must do something (such as pay their taxes) or must not do something also (such as commit murders.)
But so much of modern legislation does not do that. It declares worthy intentions. Let us end poverty. Let there be literacy. Let there be clean meat. Modern laws announce high purposes, noble goals, but they usually turn the crucial questions in the fine print, the language that declares: Thou shalt not.
The legislative process have become a reflexive exercise in wishful thinking. Congress concludes that too many workers are killed and maimed every year in American industry. To general applause, it enacts a law that says industrial deaths and injuries are a grave national affliction and unsafe working conditions ought to be eliminated.
Then the whole mess is turned over to an agency of the executive branch with vague instructions to work out the details (actually, it is turned over to several agencies). Some very broad guidelines are provided on how to proceed (subject to revision of the political backfire is too great), and a new pot of money is appropriated for enforcement (though not enough to enforce this new law thoroughly since that would cost an outrageous amount).
When this new law gets to the agency, it must read all sorts of wondrous exceptions and hidden implications into that broad congressional language. The question is not who is breaking the law but who is breaking the law worst. Or, put another way, where will the limited number of enforcement dollars save the most arms and legs and lives?
Any sensible bureaucrat, faced with these countless choices, will pick his fights wisely, if he hopes to survive the political heat of the semiprivate bargaining that follows.
If his agency pushes the enforcement language to its fullest implications, he will be denounced as a "radical bureaucrat' who usurps congressional powers. If he proceeds timidly in certain areas, he will be exposed sooner or later as a "captive" of the industry he is supposed to be regulating. The irony of our present condition is that both accusations are often correct and both probably inevitable considering the way this government is fashioned.
The political advantages for members of Congress are obvious. They can claim credit for attacking the great problems of the society while they insulate themselves from direct responsibility for the hard decisions. Indeed, when they exercise "oversight" of the executive departments, this allows them to second-guess the tough choices they could not resolve among themselves.
Once in a while, Congress gets its back up and decides to be specific. In 1970, stung by environmentalist critics, Congress enacted a very tough air pollution law that set specific standards for cleaning up automobile exhaust.
Since then, the auto companies have bargained directly with Congress and won three postponements in the timetable. The lesson is clear -- far better to let the faceless bureaucrats take the heat.
Presidents have played the same game, of course, but with more style. They send lofty and inspirational messages to Congress, confident that the final legislation will add more murk than clarity to their original declarations of purpose.
In modern usage, presidents are not really blamed for the bad bargains negotiated by their agencies -- they are extended sympathy. Everyone knows that the president, like the rest of us, was not at the table when the deal was struck. In many cases, he would violate the law if be attempted to influence the terms of the deal.
This is hardly a government at all, in the classical meaning of the word. It is more like a feed trough or a poker table or a game of Parcheesi or a pinball machine. The games were invented by modern liberalism.
If you wish to see these notions discussed more soberly, turn to one of the original thinkers on the subject. Theodore J. Lowi, whose 1969 book bore the provocative but premature title, "The End of Liberalism."
The sprawling bazaar, overrun with lawyers and other merchants, was created largely over the last 40 years by the generous impulses of modern liberalism, from FDR to Gerald Ford. Ford and Nixon must be included in the liberal traditions because their conservative chatter notwithstanding, they and most other conservatives long ago bought this liberal approach to government.
In the Washington arena, liberals and conservatives favor different clients at different stalls, and that is what they fight over, but very few of them are opposed to the idea of government as a marketplace.
Liberals will attack big business interest that have won rich plums from bargaining; conservatives will attack poor people who are lining up at the same trough. Only a few eccentrics, however, dare to suggest that the bazaar itself is what is wrong.
The liberal idea was that government would be broker for the down-trodden, the powerless, the political interest groups that were not getting justice in the private economy and were not likely to get it without government intervention. This idea was extended again and again into various sectors of private life, from surplus farm commodities to stock market swindles to unsafe toys.
By dividing the American society into interest groups, it was thought, the government might create a sort of crude democracy among them, a rough parity between the weak and the strong. Aid the afflicted, curb the predator, ameliorate the grossest social ailments. This was the inspiration for most modern legislation and a noble dream truly.
This was the wish that created the bowl of spaghetti. What is now obvious, though rarely acknowledged by buyers and sellers and dreamers, is that interest-group liberalism is the wrong dream for America.
It works quite well if the only purpose of American government is to make deals with various interest groups; it fails utterly because Americans expect something more than that from the national government. They expect real temples and shrines, built of principles and aspirations more noble than buying and swapping in the great bazaar.
After 40 years of evolution, the marketplace has not become a rough replica of democracy. Everyone knows that, if they think about it. If anything, the powerful are rewarded with more power, the economic inequitied of the society are magnified.
Over the last decade, some liberal reformers began to nibble at the problem without acknowledging its dimensions. They began usually by attacking "special interests" who hired the expensive law firms and contributed heavily to political campaigns in order to influence the bargaining.
The reformers' solution, only partly realized, is to outlaw some of the buying (the huge secret political gifts) and to increase access, to the tents and tables where the bargains are struck (bottom representation for two other interest groups -- the poor and the consumer).
Yet, despite marginal improvements, the system still leaves most everyone feeling a bit cheated. Why? Because most citizens, most of the time, will not be at the table when the bargaining among the interest groups is done. A "consumer representative" adds another voice to the dickering but not necessarily your voice or mine.
Everyone in America is a consumer, after all, and the pretense that a "consumer representative" can speak for all of us is as simple-minded as claiming that the war on poverty spoke for all poor people.
Increasing access to the government decision games, while it seems worthy, is bound to fail ultimately. Access will not insure "democratic" decisions by the government brokers because citizens at large simply do not have the same direct stake in each outcome as those various interest groups.
Milk producers (who are mostly small dairy farmers) have an intense interest in the government-decreed milk prices. It can make them prosperous or bankrupt. The rest of us care, too, because the decision may cost us a few pennies a gallon, but we do not care enough to lobby Congress or bribe politicians over it.
The nasty reality is that, given the modern structure of laws and government, broad public dissatisfaction is bound to result. The marketplace itself breeds jealousies among the interest groups, rich and poor, and discourages the disinterested public spirit that all citizens want to see expressed.
By definition, if the government bargains out the law with the organized interest groups, the process is bound to leave out all of the unorganized citizens -- everyone who was not in the tent when the rug was sold has the right to feel sour about the deal. This modern government is ultimately a statement on our nature as people, as a society, and many Americans are repelled by the image it expresses.
It took at least two generations to make this place what it is today, and any reasonable fool can see that one president, one administration, could only barely begin the job of dismantling the Washington marketplace. If Ronald Reagan simply rushed through the bazaar knocking over some tables and chasing off selected peddlers, that would help slightly. It would help further if he does not add any new tents or tables.
More fundamental changes will follow, only if people generally begin to see something fundamentally wrong in the way the federal government functions. A president can move the boxes around, simplify the traffic patterns and weed out the memo files, all in the name of efficiency.
None of that will alter the basic nature of the game or the source of discontent. Only fundamental lawmaking will do that -- scraping off the wishful thinking, paring down drastically on fuzzy disretion, creating a government which does "less" in terms of bartering with private interests but perhaps more in the realm of influencing real changes in the society.
Any fool can see that there is no political support at present for that sort of government, one that withdraws from the bargaining table and begins to enact real laws. Every citizen, after all, is a member of an interest group, in one way or another, and every interest group wants to keep its deal going.
As citizens all, however, we are distressed. We would like to see a different image of Washington, something closer to those marble temples beside the Potomac.