THE POLITICAL HACKS' ULTIMATE FANTASY BOOK
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Contrary to what you might expect, the hottest book here in Washington these days is not Dick Morris's scandal-free memoir--in which the suddenly discreet political consultant doesn't even mention his prostitute's name, much less her feet. In fact, the hottest book in Washington isn't really a book. It's a government pamphlet, 260 pages long, called Policy and Supporting Positions, more commonly known as the Plum Book. And it is the most subversive publication the federal government dares to release.
The Plum Book comes out every four years, around the time of the presidential election. It is really nothing more than a list of jobs. But not just any jobs: These are what used to be known as patronage jobs, but which today are known as "political appointments." The Plum Book lists 8,000 of them: the highest-paid, most powerful, best-connected, juiciest jobs the federal government has to offer.
Each entry in the Plum Book is stripped to essentials. There's the job title, the city in which the job is located, the name of the person who currently holds it, and the relevant pay scale. The job titles alone are enough to make you nod off: the Deputy Director for National Office Operations of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, for instance, or the Special Assistant to the Assistant Archivist for Policy at the National Archives and Records Administration. (These people must have business cards the size of billboards.)
How could a book so dry be so subversive--more devastating, in its way, to political pretensions than a thousand antigovernment tracts from Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman? Start with the name of the book itself. Why the "Plum Book"? Some establishmentarians claim the first edition came with a plum-color cover, hence the title. This explanation is quaint but unlikely. The more plausible etymology can be found in Webster: "plum: something choice or desirable; specif., a well-paying job requiring little work [emphasis added]." Of course, it wouldn't do for bureaucrats to suggest that their political-appointee jobs are cushy gigs. But the fact remains that no one ever suggested calling Policy and Supporting Positions the Gray ("dreary, dismal") Book or the Black ("full of sorrow or suffering") Book.
Besides, at these salaries, who's got time for sorrow or suffering? We are often told that government employees are overworked and underpaid, and at the lower echelons this may be true. But the Plum Book deals with political appointments--the jobs that go first to Friends of Bill and then radiate outward, to friends of friends of the fellow who managed the President's campaign for hall monitor in the second grade at Hot Springs Elementary. After that roster is exhausted, the jobs go to party hacks, campaign fundraisers (those not under federal investigation), field organizers, lawyers, PR consultants, and other members of Washington's permanent political class. Every taxpayer will be delighted to discover that he is paying them very well.
Let us say, for example, that your highly developed expertise at sucking up to a Democratic National Committee member has earned you a seat on the Panama Canal Commission. Congratulations! Enjoy your $115,700 annual salary. (Best of all, you don't even have to move to Panama.) As a member of the board of something called the Farm Credit Administration, you'll get a paycheck of similar size. Most of the jobs listed in the Plum Book, in fact, are on a pay scale that begins at $86,160 and tops out at $148,400.
Now, most taxpayers would say that this is pretty good dough. But when a political appointee leaves government, the phrase most often heard (after "He wants to spend more time with his family") is: "He needs to go make some money"--presumably several times the $100,000 salary he's been making in government work. And he almost always does! As a result, many Washingtonians pretend that a federal job constitutes economic hardship, which they undertake only because of their enlarged sense of patriotism. This is why the term "public service," a phrase redolent of sacrifice, can be used, without irony, to describe a six-figure job with plenty of power, great benefits, and free parking.
The Plum Book is unintentionally subversive in one final way: It reminds us of the sheer vastness of the federal enterprise. From the Physician Payment Review Commission to the Federal Housing Finance Board; from the Office of Lead-based Paint Abatement to the Office of Bilingual Education; from the cradle (Administration for Children) to the grave (Administration on Aging): Our public servants are busy, busy, busy, leaving scarcely a nook or cranny of American life unprobed.
"The era of big government is over," said our Democratic President as his Republican adversaries cheered. The Plum Book puts the lie to all that. The book itself certainly hasn't shrunk lately, and in fact the jobs sound more and more exotic. The next edition may even offer a seat on--who knows?--the National Board for Tire Rotation, or the Federal Council on Children's Bedtime Avoidance. Big government may be finished, but the Plum Book proves that the possibilities for public service go on.