The Washington Establishment Presents Itself with Awards

As long as politicians have money to hand out, money will flow to politicians.
December 7, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on December 7, 2011.

This story is not new, but it’s such a perfect encapsulation of the Washington establishment that it’s still worth looking at. The Washington Post reported:

At a black‐​tie dinner Saturday, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will receive an award from an outfit especially sympathetic to the rigors of his old job: the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, an academic center co‐​founded by Gates’s successor at the Pentagon, Leon E. Panetta.…

In addition to Gates, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alice Rivlin will receive the Panetta Institute’s annual Jefferson‐​Lincoln Awards for public service Saturday.

So let’s see … an institute founded by and bearing the name of the secretary of defense, who also served 17 years in Congress, including four years as chairman of the House Budget Committee, and as director of the Office of Management and Budget, White House chief of staff, and director of the CIA, is giving an award to his immediate predecessor, who also served as CIA director, and to a quintessentially establishment Washington journalist, and to a scholar at both Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution who in addition to her time at the Federal Reserve has served as director of the Congressional Budget Office, director of OMB, co‐​chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Task Force on Debt Reduction. That is like an entire Washington establishment at one head table.

This happens all the time, of course. As the Post noted, “The Panetta Institute’s devotion to honoring lawmakers and journalists with whom the Pentagon chief now works highlights the cozy and mutually beneficial relationships that influence how Washington operates.” Others honored by the Panetta Institute have included such pillars of the Washington establishment as New York Times columnist David Brooks, television journalists Tom Brokaw and Jim Lehrer, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D‐​Calif.), Susan Collins (R‐​Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I‐​Conn.), Every week I get emailed invitations to attend events at which the Washington establishment awards honors to itself, or where I’ll have a chance to hear policymakers and pundits give speeches on the topics that they talk about all the time. And remember, these are the Washington leaders who have given us a $14 trillion national debt, two endless wars, a million drug arrests a year, a financial collapse, 9 percent unemployment, multigenerational poverty and dependency in our inner cities, and an unsustainable middle‐​class welfare state.

The Panetta dinner raises additional questions. You might think it’s awkward for defense contractors to make donations to the secretary of defense’s institute. And indeed Lockheed Martin and other companies are contributing to the dinner. But not to worry:

Panetta, who took over from Gates in July, has recused himself from direct involvement in the Monterey, Calif.-based institute since 2009, when he returned to government service to lead the CIA. But Panetta is expected to attend the dinner with his wife, Sylvia, who has run the nonprofit institute in his absence.…

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said that Leon Panetta had “absolutely no role whatsoever in selecting this year’s honorees” and that the secretary would attend the fundraising dinner not in an official capacity but as Sylvia Panetta’s husband.

Little said Leon Panetta is prohibited from making any decisions affecting the institute or even taking a passive role in fundraising. In June, he added, Panetta voluntarily signed an ethics clause under which the defense secretary promised that his wife would not communicate directly with the Pentagon on behalf of the institute or its clients.

Now, the Panetta Institute “has a general policy of not accepting donations from defense contractors. “ But, cofounder Sylvia Panetta says,

she made an exception for Lockheed Martin because it has contributed financially to the institute for several years.

“These folks have been supporters of ours before Leon became secretary of defense,” she said. “Do you really think they would give us money if they didn’t think we were doing a good job? They like what we’re doing.”

Nothing to see here, folks. Move along. How could anyone think that a defense contractor would get any special consideration from the secretary of defense when he has recused himself from running his eponymous institute and is only attending the Lockheed‐​supported dinner in his capacity as Sylvia Panetta’s husband?

These kinds of relationships permeate Washington. Political scientists write about the “iron triangle” of interest groups, bureaucracies, and congressional committees that oversee them. The permanent Washington establishment has even more staying power.

People — including Leon Panetta — often promise to reduce the power of special interests by limiting campaign contributions. That’s why the Panetta Institute in 2002 gave its Jefferson‐​Lincoln Award to John McCain and Russ Feingold. (Imagine giving an award named for Thomas Jefferson to someone who tried to limit the amount of political speech!) But the very existence of the Panetta Institute shows why that’s a futile gesture. If you limit direct contributions, interested parties will donate to PACs, or to even‐​less‐​transparent Super PACs, or 527 groups. If you could ban all political contributions — ensuring that no incumbent would ever again lose an election — then favor‐​seekers would make contributions to the Panetta Institute, the (Mitch) McConnell Center, the Harry Reid Center at UNLV, the Dole Foundation, the Charles B. Rangel Center, and so on. As long as politicians have money to hand out, money will flow to politicians.

The only real solution is to take power away from Washington. Term limits might create some rotation in office, instead of congressmen serving for decades and getting ever cozier with the special interests. Reducing the amount of money spent by politicians, and the amount of intervention in the economy, would reduce the incentive to cozy up to the politicians. It might even cause some talented people to get out of politics and apply their talents to more productive endeavors.

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