Prior to the changes in 1974, a few senior committee chairmen held the power to do almost anything. Today, an individual politician has very little power to pass legislation. On the other hand, he has many avenues available to avert legislation. Techniques such as filibustering, and invoking little known rules have enabled senators such as Jesse Helms to hold off a large amount of 'disagreeable' legislation. These 'porcupine' tactics are some of the few remaining sources of power available to the lone senator. Unfortunately, these tactics don't allow him to pass legislation. To do that, he must have an elaborate, supportive network.
The iron triangle, a mutually supportive network consisting of groups of congressmen, executive bureaucrats, and economic interest groups exercises an enormous amount of clout in today's political environment. All the groups are dependant on each other for information and action. The triangle's innerworkings ensure that each side's needs are met and remove all outside 'distractions' that would halt the machinery.
The iron triangles solidified the 'Hollywood' personality that had began to envelope Washington. Everybody in Washington has their own role in forming the political movie. The senators, representatives, and president get the staring roles. The voting public looks to them with awe. People are thrilled by the mere opportunity to actually meet the stars. Very few voters care about the inner-workings and 'production'. The executive branch is the group of movie executives. They demand blockbusters at all costs. The lobbyists and the special interests determine how the movie is actually made through their role as producer and director. Finally, the staff takes all the remaining responsibilities such as special effects, makeup, and screenwriting.
Rarely are these other groups noticed, yet without them, there would be no production.
The role of the staff has grown enormously in today's modern society. In the past, the congressman felt free to act the way he pleased while in session - the only thing the voters saw was the finished product. However, in today's C-SPAN society, the audience sees everything. A representative must be careful not to say anything offensive to his constituents. A senator must appear knowledgeable on all topics discussed. Unfortunately, with the great demands of public relations, their is no time for him to carefully probe all the issues. Thus, his staff, his committees' staffs, and other independent staffers are enlisted to help him bluff his way through situations, and ensure that all his key special interests are appeased.
In carrying out their responsibilities, staffers build many personal relationships which can be used to their advantage, should they decide to shift to another region of the triangle. The transition from staffer to lobbyist is especially common. The special interests are eager to have a spokesman knowledgeable about their plight, and familiar with the battlefield. The staffer is in the ideal situation to help them out.
The lobbyist lacks any 'official' power. However, his de facto power is enormous. The congressman knows that accommodating of the needs of the special interests is crucial if he wants to receive their money election. He also knows that a few bad vibes with hometown interests could have a disastrous effect on his future reelection chances. Even a lame-duck congressman must keep an open ear towards the lobbyists, unless he aspires to a life on the streets after leaving congress. Unfortunately, lobbyists outnumber congressmen by a forty-three to one margin. Thus, techniques must be perfected to get his point across.
In the 'old' school, all lobbying was carried out on a person to person basis. Lobbyists knew that a congressman's ego was his week point. They would attack at this Achilles' heel, and more often than not, come out victorious. However, with the power rupture and lobbyist explosion of the seventies, one on one lobbying became limited in its uses. The 'new' lobbyists used alternative techniques, such as 'campaign' style lobbying.
The new breed lobbyist uses technological advances to his greatest advantage. From census data, neighborhood groups are identified in order to produce the best response to a certain issue. Congress is flooded with mail from constituents. The media is called into action. When carried out properly these techniques can be highly effective. Occasionally, they backfire and have a negative effect, like the conservative-run Clarence Thomas advertisements.
Often paired with a lobbyist are political action committees. Legitimatized in 1974, the PACs are theoretically limited by the $5000 maximum per-campaign donation. However, this limitation can be easily sidestepped by techniques such as 'bundling', in which the PAC serves as a collection base for many individual checks. There are also various similar PACs that exist, increasing the money available to believers in their cause. PACs are quite selective in their fund distribution - they only donate to congressmen they think will win. Sometimes they even turn down a more ideological agreeable candidate in favor of an incumbent who has shown progress in dealing with their issues. Such was the case for Israeli groups who put their money on an incumbent instead of a true Jewish challenger.
The role of the PACs have also made drastic changes in the way elections are held. Like movie stars who start looking for new roles while still filming an old one, representatives start working on their next campaign almost immediately after they reach office. Even senators begin fundraising for the next election shortly into their term. The escalating costs of reelection necessitate a close interaction with the 'money bag' of the iron triangle, the PACs. The congressman must also protect the interests of his constituents. If he votes for one devastating measure to his local economy, all his 'good' votes will soon be forgotten. Thus, about the only way to beat an incumbent is to convince the electorate of all his bad deeds; and the most effective way to do that is through the mudslinging campaigns.
Crucial to the structure of the triangle, but continually ignored are the executives, the department bureaucrats. They suggest the plan of action, and ensure that it is carried out. They also have prime access to the president. The economic interests must play up to them to ensure that their needs are being met. Congressman need the support of the president to transform their ideas into law. The bureaucrats realize the needs of both, and are quick to help out the other legs, if the others would be kind enough to help them. If not, it's an uphill battle.
The congressmen star in the movie. The executive bureaucrats plan it. Lobbyists direct it. PACs produce it, and the staff works behind the scenes to ensure are professional project. Where then, is the general public left? Exactly where they are with a movie: sitting in the theatre, paying their $5 to get in. They have almost no say in what movies are made. They can write to the company and suggest, but all they can expect in return is a form letter. The only way remaining for them to cause a serious change is if en masse, they decide not to see a film. Chances are an unseen film wont have a sequel. However, a bomb doesn't guarantee the next movie will be a blockbuster. The iron triangles have created a government much like Ishtar - big, overbudget, and a box-office disaster. American's don't mind. After all, everyone else is envious of Hollywood, the film capital of the world.
- Jeremy Hubble October 1, 1991