August 1, 2019
By Matthew Groves, House District 6 Co-chair
Today, I want to talk about what people hastily call ‘the swamp.’ Popularized by Reagan and Trump, this phrase goes back to Winfield Gaylord, who wrote about the term as early as 1903. Then about capitalism, it was applied to politics in the early 80’s by Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan.
It’s often bantered about by political newcomers. Which is appropriate, because virtually no one who uses the term properly understands what they’re railing against. That’s why you don’t hear veteran politicians say it.
Is the swamp a city full of special interest lobbyists? Business leaders who support both parties? Political donors turn appointees who govern when legislating is unpopular? In short, no.
The swamp is a gravitational force that pulls the city and all in it in back to center. This force largely governs the city despite the political newcomers with the will to change long-standing tradition, because it pervades every corner of our nation’s capitol. Ground zero is Congress.
This is where the swamp is born. Just about every politico you’ve met got their start here. Coming to a new city with a degree in government, a need for acceptance, and desire to be president someday, they build a network among interns and junior staffers. They learn professionalism, decorum, sneak into social events together, and date and marry colleagues. These are deep networks. I’m in Denver two years, and I still talk to mine daily.
Ten years later, these networks sprawl into mid to senior positions in every facet of governance, press, and non-profit. The theory is that we all come up together. Great job available that’s not in your wheelhouse? Put your people in that spot. They’ll remember you did it. Collectively, that staff creates the gravitational force that outsiders call the swamp. Still, this force keeps the nation grounded when the electeds they serve let their tempers get the best of them.
The group of electeds in Washington call the shots and possess the almighty vote. But the way bills are drafted, negotiations entered, policy framed, and “anonymous sources” establish narrative, all come from a group of about 8,000 constantly turning over Congressional staff – working for members, committees, the parties, and leadership. There are even several that work for the institution itself. They have incredible latitude often times to operate free of supervision.
In my 5 years, I served 3 different members – though 90% of that time was with one. We had a very effective partnership, though a rocky one at times. I gave him cause on several occasions to fire me for acting beyond my authority. Fortunately, he didn’t. But, if he had, I would have had no problem landing with another member given my experience. In fact, most staffers survive their bosses by at least 3 or 4 years after retirement or election loss. It’s what propagates the swamp. It’s also what gives staff the confidence to go out on a limb, knowing that their job could be on the line.
Most bosses have a specialty area, a reason they got elected. But, they are responsible for the entire gamut of issues facing the nation. So, if your thing is economy and you really don’t want to deal with Agriculture, Education, or Foreign Affairs, you hire a good staffer to do it for you. You would provide strong oversight and participate in the economic matters. But, largely, on the non-economic votes, you just ask your resident expert how you should vote. No questions asked. This is incredibly empowering for staff, who isn’t necessarily credentialed on this issue.
After 3-5 years, those staffers become lobbyists and political appointees. Often, it’s the network of former staffers that gives an elected member his/her gravitas. Ever curious why a cantankerous John McCain or Robert Byrd (barely hanging on at the end) or Ted Kennedy (under enormous pressure to step down) still wield the power they did? It’s because their alumni network was a legion of high-ranking officials to stand in their defense. They had sources in the agencies and in the White House for their current staffers to tap. They knew how to drive new cycles, create leaks, and effect change by by-passing cabinet officials and going to the agency staff – formerly their own staff.
Here’s the point of all this. When members in a caucus disagree, it’s theater. It’s reported in the press non-stop, to try to drive fissures. It’s why the Freedom Caucus never faced substantial punishment from the RNC. It was a member disagreement. Sure, there were some slaps on the wrist here and there, but ultimately, they rose without fear of reprisal. Because the staff paved the way. When things got out of hand and real action got taken, you’ll see top staffers fired.
NOW – Contrast that with what is going on right now in the Democratic Caucus, which is potentially catastrophic. The Democrats’ campaign arm (DCCC) has a member who leads it, but a cadre of staff who organize, recruit, and operate it. At least, they used to:
Six senior staffers managing the 2020 movement just walked out. In statements from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus – prepared by their communications staffers – they were not accused of being bad at their jobs, or risking their house majority, or bringing discredit or financial mismanagement to the party. They were accused of not being diverse enough.
Herein lies the problem. This senior staff, who are certainly resentful of being uprooted over this issue, aren’t packing their bags and going home. They will be recycled into the swamp. Policy staffers, individual campaign chairs, and members of the media. And this bitterness will fester throughout their future work.
The diversity conflict isn’t the only rift. The DCCC is the lifeblood for thousands of contractors to member campaigns (same jobs, vastly more money). However, certain progressive staffers want to unseat incumbent Democrats to make way for more “squad” members. Against this idea, the DCCC cut off the money hose to those contractors who seek to primary Democrats.
Those contractors won’t just go away. They will recycle into the swamp, forming their own faction and carrying their own animosity. They end up as Chiefs of Staff for members like AOC, and their hostility and discord festers like osteoporosis, weakening the backbone of the party.
This is an existential problem for the Democrats. In part, because it’s not an ideological divide, but a personal divide at the center of the rift. And in part, because the current expanding political system supports the livelihoods of tens of thousands of political pundits. It’s not just the majority that is on the line, it’s these staffers’ careers. If that does not raise the stakes in a way that spirals out of control of the elected majority, I simply don’t know what does.
Ultimately, this is the peril of the majority. These folks have gotten so tired of fighting us over the past decade, they’re turned to fighting themselves. Having worked in both parties, I can tell you that theirs is a colder, more heartless bunch when it comes to ending careers and character assassination. But, the fallout will spill over into the 2020 races. Balls will get dropped, opportunities will open, and we must be waiting to capitalize.