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The Denizens of Gucci Gulch: America's Mandarin Class

At the end of the most recent fiscal year, states in the Union scrambled to make up a more than $100 billion shortfall. This not only includes huge shortfalls in California, Texas and New York, but also shortfalls in smaller states, cities and even some small towns.

Faced with the prospect of laying off policemen, firemen and teachers, state and local governments have turned to the federal government for help. Actually, they have turned to K Street lobbyists.

A recent story in the Washington Times describes how representing state and local governments on Capitol Hill is a new cash cow for the denizens of what is known as “Gucci Gulch,” named after the lobbyists’ footwear of choice.

For instance, the California State Assembly pays a K Street lobbying firm more than $2 million a year to “represent its interests” in Washington. That’s only one branch of the California state government, not to mention local governments in the Golden State.

In 2009, state and local governments paid lobbyists $84 million, three times as much as they did only a decade earlier.

Some of the explanations for this phenomenon are understandable: State and local governments are concerned that some of what passes for “budget cutting” in Washington is merely shifting costs to them in the form of unfunded mandates. They also want to make sure that they get their share of federal dollars.

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of these goals. In any case, that’s not what I find striking about this story.

What I find striking — actually, outrageous — is the way state and local governments are forced to deal with Washington. Instead of making their case directly with their representatives and senators, they are paying K Street lobbyists to make it for them.

Instead of making a case based on an appeal to the common good, enlightened self-interest or even old-fashioned politics, they are paying people in expensive suits for their access to power.

To put it mildly, that is not how it is supposed to be in a democracy. Nor is the way it has always been. Of course, there have always been people with special access to power or whose opinion counted for much more than the average person’s. It would be foolish to expect otherwise in a fallen world.

But what you see here goes far beyond that: It’s more akin to the Mandarin class in the Chinese Empire than the Republic the Founders intended. Virtually every decision of any consequence in American life is the decision of an intramural discussion between members of the American Mandarin class: politicians, lobbyists and media elites whose primary allegiance is to this class, not to ideology and certainly not to the general welfare.

Even when the people shake things up electorally, eventually most of the fresh blood is transfused and replaced with Mandarin blood. That’s why outsiders in Washington rarely leave, even when they lose: They become lobbyists and consultants, often, as Gregg Easterbrooke has noted, naming their firms after themselves.

No wonder the people's faith in government is at historic lows, and that Americans are, according to Democratic pollster Pat Caddell, in a “pre-Revolutionary” mood.

Unless the ruling class wakes up and learns to walk in other people's (far less expensive) shoes, revolution may be what they get.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication date: September 27, 2011

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