Permanent Power in Washington


No matter who wins, the permanent government survives. The establishment denizens of this city profit with either party in power.

Foremost among the institutions of permanent rule is the largely unaccountable Federal Reserve. With the bull market slowing and signs of a recession on the horizon, the Fed’s lending policies will become the principal economic trigger for the nation. All the more so since New Deal-style pump priming is long out of fashion. Run by bankers appointed by the president, the Fed is otherwise independent of all three branches of government.

A little lower in the permanent pantheon are the lawyer-lobbyists. There are 21,000 of them registered in the capital (the actual number is listed as high as 50,000). Some eagerly await the next round of trade negotiations for a South American free market. Others are girding for a down-and-dirty congressional fight over construction of a new missile defense system. A growing contingent salivates at the thought of fees to be won in the fight over designing a system to regulate (or not to regulate) the Internet. Most go where the big money is. An elite makes a steady income pleading the cause of extending drug patents for pharmaceutical companies. The coming year figures to be a bonanza in this regard, what with Prozac’s patents due to run out. Of course, lobbyists become more influential if they are related to members of Congress, in which case they decorously refer to themselves as “consultants.”

Then there are the journalists, who number nearly 40,000 in Washington. Every day in what still looks from the outside a little like a movie set, thousands of reporters go about their appointed rounds, attending press conferences, rewriting press releases, accepting “leaks” over lunch from “sources.” A fortunate few accompany politicians on trips or cover military actions from a safe distance. By and large, the Washington press is an arm of the state, and it usually becomes a propaganda machine for the administration in power. Where once at least a pretense was made of independent “investigative journalism” in Washington, today what’s produced is largely fluff, like celebrity gossip or “opinion polls.”

Most Washington reporters are mindful of climbing the social ladder, which they do by getting on school committees or local boards in hopes of establishing peer relationships with political staffers or government functionaries or, if they’re lucky, maybe a judge or even a cabinet member. They flock to book parties, cocktail parties, lawn parties, and pool parties, many of which are given by campaign contributors, another key link in the permanent government food chain, who keep its machinery greased and whirring.

As always at centers of power, drawn as if by gravity, are the representatives of organized religion. In recent decades, beginning with the Carter administration, and then during the Reagan years, the church has been enjoying a major comeback. With “welfare reform,” churches are again becoming important political institutions, since, in the wake of the destruction of the social-welfare net, they are being increasingly used as dispensers of charity. In a city with little real style, the staff and the mitre fill the bill.

Rogue Diseases Stalk the Docks

New World Disorders

Much purple rhetoric during the presidential campaign dealt with the danger of stealth attacks from so-called rogue states. But some of the most dangerous enemies the new administration faces are rogue microbes hidden in the ballast water of ships, riding the feathers of birds, or buried in crating. These microbes often have their origins in the impoverished third world, where they flourish amid poverty, bad sanitation, and nonexistent medical care, exacerbated by pollution from neocolonial dam and canal projects.

West Nile virus is such a disease. Last week, President Clinton declared an emergency in areas of New Jersey affected by the virus, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to release up to $5 million to ensure public health throughout the state. So far the mosquito-borne disease also has turned up in birds in New York, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. It can result in encephalitis (swelling of the brain) or meningitis (swelling of the lining of the brain and spinal cord).

Last year, when the virus first surfaced in the Western Hemisphere, seven people died and 55 were infected in the New York City area. Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical School, writing in Scientific American, ascribes part of the cause to global warming, which induces hot summers, mild winters, and drought. Writes Epstein: “The mild winter of 1998-99 enabled many of the mosquitos to survive into the spring, which arrived early. Drought in spring and summer concentrated nourishing organic matter in their breeding areas and simultaneously killed off mosquito predators, such as lacewings and ladybugs, that would otherwise have helped limit mosquito populations. Drought would also have led birds to congregate more as they shared fewer and smaller watering holes, many of which were frequented, naturally, by mosquitos.”

Ships are a major means of microbe transportation. According to the journal Nature, there have been significant concentrations of a type of cholera that can cause fatal intestinal illness in the ballast water of freighters landing in Norfolk and Baltimore over the last three years. Scientists don’t think the Chesapeake is a good incubator for this type of cholera, but they are worried that freighter traffic could turn out to be a hidden conduit for deadly diseases from abroad. Ships often have been implicated as carriers of imported diseases. Take the case of the Asian long-horned beetle, which currently is eating its way out of Brooklyn and elsewhere on Long Island onto the mainland. It is thought that this beetle came to the U.S. in crating on ships.

When a ship unloads its cargo in a foreign port, it fills its ballast tanks with water from the local port to stabilize the vessel on its return voyage. On nearing its destination, the ship dumps the water, which often contains small fish, shellfish, bacteria, and other microorganisms. These creatures can sometimes flourish in local waters, destroying native species. Estimates are that ships pump some 79 million tons of ballast into U.S. waters every year.

Scientists have found genetic evidence that ties Japanese oysters to MSX, a disease that has killed off Chesapeake fisheries in recent years, according to The Washington Post. Others believe ships carrying ballast water containing an Asian type of cholera led to an outbreak of the disease in Latin America in the early 1990s. The same microbe has turned up among shellfish on the bottom of Mobile Bay. And investigators are convinced that zebra mussels that have been clogging the infrastructure in the Great Lakes had their origin in the Black Sea, whence they were brought in ballast water. Australian experts believe that a new form of algae that is causing them to close shellfish beds is the result of ballast water contaminants.

Odious House

“Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; ye, who were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves become the greatest grievance… Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God’s help, and strength he has given me, I am now come to do; I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place; go, get out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone!” — Oliver Cromwell to the rump Parliament, April 20, 1653; a speech that rings as true in the U.S. in November 2000 as the day it was delivered.

Additional reporting: Rouven Gueissaz and Theresa Crapanzano