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The Case for Corruption

Why Washington needs more honest graft
James Walton

The government shutdown last fall wasted billions of dollars, upset innumerable plans, and besmirched both political parties. But it did have one constructive effect. Surveying the wreckage, grown-ups in both parties realized that the politics of public confrontation is a lot better at closing the government than running it. So, to avoid a repeat, they decided to try something old. Something very old. In a healthy return to machine politics, they handed budget negotiations over to political hacks cutting deals behind closed doors.

Once upon a time, the budget process was reasonably regular. In fact, it was conducted under what was called regular order. The budget-committee chairmen would do some horse trading to build a consensus within each chamber, the House and Senate would then pass those budgets without too much ado, and the two chambers would work out their differences in a conference committee. Then the appropriations committees would do more or less the same thing, making sure to spread around enough pork-barrel goodies to get their friends paid off and the budget passed. The president and the congressional leaders would be involved throughout the process, every now and then calling a budget summit, but most of the real work would go on behind the scenes.

In the past few years, by contrast, regular order has been replaced by regular chaos. Public ultimatums supplanted private negotiations, games of chicken replaced mutual back-scratching, and bumptious Republican House members took to dictating terms to their putative leadership. Last fall, after one tantrum too many, Congress seemed exhausted. As part of a deal to reopen the government, it returned the task of setting the next fiscal year’s budget to the budget and appropriations committees, sending them off to a smoke-free smoke-filled room to cut a deal. The result, a trillion-dollar spending bill loaded with incentives for each side, sailed through Congress in January.

How often backroom deal making will work in today’s age of hyper-partisanship remains to be seen, but Congress’s recourse to it represents a welcome rediscovery of a home truth. Politics needs good leaders, but it needs good followers even more, and they don’t come cheap. Loyalty gets you only so far, and ideology is divisive. Political machines need to exist, and they need to work. No one understood this better than the street-smart political sage George Washington Plunkitt, who articulated the concept of honest graft.

Plunkitt was a factotum of New York’s renowned Tammany Hall political machine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among his accomplishments was holding four public offices at once, drawing salaries for three of them. It was his custom to opine on politics from the shoeshine stand at the county courthouse, where his reflections were taken down by a reporter named William L. Riordon and published in a 1905 classic called Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. His greatest insight was the distinction between honest and dishonest graft.

“There’s the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin’ their eyes wide open,” Plunkitt said. “The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin’ his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization’s interests, and the city’s interests all at the same time.” Dirty graft is parasitic, mere larceny, whereas honest graft helps knit together a patronage network that ensures leaders can lead and followers will follow. Reformers who failed to understand this crucial distinction, Plunkitt said, courted anarchy. “First,” he reasoned, “this great and glorious country was built up by political parties; second, parties can’t hold together if their workers don’t get the offices when they win; third, if the parties go to pieces, the government they built up must go to pieces, too; fourth, then there’ll be h--- to pay.”

Plunkitt’s warning, however colorfully expressed, was no mere wheeze. Writing just a few months ago in The National Interest, the political scientist Vivek S. Sharma, sounding like Plunkitt with a Ph.D., made an academic version of exactly the same point, noting that in many countries, patronage “is the grease that keeps the gears of the system running.” Well-intentioned Americans who try to stamp out patronage networks in places like Afghanistan and Iraq usually just make things worse, Sharma observed, because “building formal institutions can in no way substitute for the creation of incentive structures that govern actual lives.”

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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