‘House of Cards’ policymaking

House of Cards, Frank Underwood, Season 4

I have a confession.

If “House of Cards” offers any guide, I should shut up now. It is not my secret alone, but rather, one shared by countless well-intended staffers throughout Washington, not to mention capitals across the country and likely the world over. The stakes are too high, however, and so it’s worth a quiet conversation; just you and me.

We all know D.C. operators who live and breathe legislative and budgetary processes. These are impeccably dressed pros wielding Rolodexes that would make any Gladwellian connector wither. They cite obscure Senate rules and fire off acronyms as if a mother tongue. It is not to say their intent is anything but honorable. In fact, these are some of the brightest people in town. They’ve just lost the plot.

In the late 1990s, I found myself rapt, watching with a front-row seat. Fresh out of school, I was thankful for the opportunities I found to work in government and to learn on the job, but was I dangerous? Armed with a good degree, multivariate regressions and a commitment to public service, I thought I was good to go. Herein I have no interest in rerunning the folly of youth or naivete, however. Seasoned veterans were just as guilty.

{mosads}The crime? All too often, we do not know the full story. We have the scripts and meet many of the main characters, but we lack essential history and context.

As much as I might have wished to start a new day with a scenic sunrise hike, while working hours that translated into scarcely seeing daylight, it just did not happen. Consequently, I found myself working on environmental policy from climate-controlled offices, disconnected from the very issue that drew me to Washington. Looking around, I realized I was hardly alone.

The ambitious schedules and daily rat race meant well-meaning colleagues were focused on issues with which they felt little direct connection in any regular way. There were health policy folks living unhealthy lives and transportation policymakers who had not experienced much other than their well-trodden Metro routine in years.

Fast-forwarding to today, we have some unexpected plot twists. Moving every few years with a spouse’s military assignments was never in my script. While I would never sugarcoat the myriad challenges military families face when navigating dual careers, today I would argue that moving every few years has made me a better policymaker than I could have been, had I remained in my Beltway bubble. Why? There is no substitute for learning with “boots on the ground.”

Despite State Department reports that more Americans hold passports today than ever before, foreign policymakers lament the small fraction of Americans actively traveling, seeking to understand other countries and cultures. Similarly, our very own decision-makers often suffer from a lack of exposure to the very experiences and people their decisions most acutely affect.

Vivid is a headline about a then-Mayor of Newark, now-Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) taking the “food stamp challenge,” because firsthand immersion is so very rare. Or consider that in the early 1970s, when member military service was at its peak, veterans made up 72 percent of members in the House and 78 percent in the Senate. According to the Brookings Institution, veterans comprise about one-fifth of Congress today.

When Department of Defense orders first launched my favorite Army guy to Fort Huachuca in rural Arizona, I was sure we had moved to Mars. Hailing from Pittsburgh, tumbleweeds existed only on film. While the experience required no small amount of adjustment, a day does not go by that I do not consider the education proffered from living and working mere miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, south of the Border Patrol’s interior checkpoints.

Cochise County in 2004 offered an unexpected microcosm for so many of the issues about which I care: economic development, immigration, water and natural resource management, education, and public health, to name just a few. And military policy means something altogether different when you have literal skin in the game.

It did not matter that in graduate school, I devoured classes like Legislative Processes and International Environmental Policy, taught by renowned scholars. Nor did it matter that I had read stacks of political memoirs and could survive for weeks on-end on a questionable diet of stale pizza and lukewarm coffee. I was a well-read news junkie, and Washington already had its share in spades. Despite the droves of freshly minted graduates embarking on Washington, book smarts do not equate to more, better or smarter policy.

Today, when asked by Type-A students for advice, I often encourage them to do much of what they are already wont to do, in addition to what makes them wholly uncomfortable. For many, rerouting to gain life and professional experience beyond D.C. is nonlinear and therefore not intuitive.

Some of the savviest policymakers get it, though. Consider the paths of former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin or Paul O’Neill, working on the very issues they care about from public, private and independent sector vantage points over the course of their careers. O’Neill recently explained to me that in order to make informed decisions, “you need to know what a place smells like.” Indeed, he gets it, all right.

I love getting lost in Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s latest as much as the next Netflix addict, but I know better than to trust anything beyond their tidy scripts and my flat screen. As rich as their dialogue may be, it is a healthy reminder that government portrayed by Hollywood is as realistic as governing in two dimensions.

While mired in partisan gridlock, it is all too easy to see politics as sport, rather than the realities of policy — good and bad — for real people. We all deserve decision-making connected with real, live experience. That means three dimensions — and includes the smells. It’s listening and learning at the local diner or farmers’ market, and being comfortable having more questions than answers.

Okay, so maybe this lack of perspective is a known secret. Aren’t many secrets in Washington just that? In Francis Underwood’s words, there’s value to “a flood of naked truth.” For those taking deliberate care to live and work in three dimensions, keep up the good work. For those glued to their screens, please walk away. Get some air. Come back next season.

Babcock-Lumish, president of Islay Consulting, previously served as the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute’s founding director of public policy and as an economics professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She currently lives in Hawai’i while her spouse is assigned to historic Fort Shafter.

Tags DC House of Cards Paul O'Neill policymakers Robert Rubin Robin Wright staffers Washington
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