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Book Launch: Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism From the Clubhouse to the White House and Beyond

October 20, 2010 // 4:00pm5:30pm

Pinstripe Patronage is aptly subtitled, "Political Favoritism from the Club House to the White House and Beyond," because it covers the multiple levels of American government and their various branches as well as a wide variety of favors they dispense in return for political support—from photos with the president to multi-billion dollar government contracts.

Martin and Susan Tolchin published an original version of the book in 1971 under the title, To the Victor: Political Patronage from the Club House to the White House, but decided an update was needed in the wake of five Supreme Court decisions, beginning in 1976, severely restricting various types of political patronage. Their new book poses the question: How have these Supreme Court rulings affected the time-honored practices of rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies. Their conclusion, which they both repeated at a Wilson Center book launch on October 20, is that "political patronage is bigger and better than ever," for a variety of reasons. These include the growth of government itself and myriad new opportunities for contracts, projects and jobs; and the high costs of political campaigns and the links between government work and political contributions.

The Tolchins revealed that they originally set out with the idea that patronage was only about government jobs and that most of it is "sleazy," but after talking with governors, mayors and Members of Congress concluded that it is an integral part of what makes our government work and that it has taken on many guises beyond just government jobs: privatization, contracts and outsourcing, constituent service and earmarks, and quasi-governmental agencies not bound by civil service rules, salary caps and accountability standards. The resulting picture they present is more nuanced than the sleazy stereotype of patronage dispensed by the old party machine bosses who handed out turkeys to their supporters at Christmastime—though much of the old city patronage system remains.

The Tolchins conclude that patronage has been central to bringing about change in the U.S., from the New Deal alphabet soup agencies to President Lyndon Johnson's use of favors to enact Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, to President Barack Obama's use of earmarks to win support for his healthcare bill. At the same time, they point out that much of the patronage being used today is costly, wasteful, inefficient and not accountable to strict scrutiny, and may only worsen public trust and confidence in government. While change in the patronage system's worse practices has been hampered by public apathy, the Tolchins take some heart in greater pubic concern today about debts, deficits and the size of government. However, they caution that the answer is not to continue to eviscerate regulatory agencies that provide a check on irresponsible business practices, but to strengthen those arms of government that protect the people from personal and financial harm. The Tolchins do not see meaningful campaign reform as a realistic possibility to counter patronage problems, nor do they think further civil service reforms can alter the situation. The best hope they see is in increased public and media scrutiny that shines a light on abuses of the system.

Lynn C. Ross, who served in the government for 15 years at OMB, OPM, Defense, HHS and as a Senate staffer before returning to academia to earn a Ph.D. in public policy, praised the Tolchins' book as a real eye-opener which should be read by every student planning a career in public service as well as by concerned citizens. Ross said the book informs our ideas about governance and citizenship and also challenges the conventional wisdom that political parties are weak and in decline. They remain strong at all levels of government, she concluded, and patronage provides the vital link between reelection and public policy in a positive way. At the same time, certain practices do raise legitimate questions about institutional capacity, especially when we contract-out vital government functions. What is needed is both strong political leadership and dedicated civil servants who can provide timely and objective information to produce sound policies. Ross expressed concern about the instances of corruption in government that are atypical yet contribute to increasing public cynicism and distrust of government. That could cause a "death spiral of democracy" as people grow more apathetic and less engaged, resulting in an even lower quality of government. She said on balance she remains an optimist, and that while money remains the "mother's milk of politics," our current economic and financial crises could help dry-up some of that and produce meaningful changes through belt-tightening and more public-private networking to solve problems.

By Don Wolfensberger, Director, Congress Project

 
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