washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How To Sound Like A Washington Insider

Just before the election, I offered readers a list of Ten Magic Phrases designed to make them sound like political insiders, and promised to eventually publish a parallel list of terms aimed at helping aspiring young jiveasses sound like Washington Insiders. True, at the time I thought this might prove helpful to Kerry campaign alumni, instead of eager-beaver BC04 staffers fresh from vote-suppresion efforts in Ohio, but what the hell, a promise is a promise.
I should mention that I’ve picked up these tips at a respectable distance, having worked pretty hard to avoid becoming a Washington Insider myself. Yesterday marked my tenth anniversary of full-time work here in the Emerald City, and I’m proud to say I’ve never attended a Washington cocktail party, made anybody’s list of up-and-comers or even has-beens, eaten lunch at The Palm, or hung out in a Georgetown Salon. Still, you soak up a lot of this crap by simple osmosis, so here we go:
1. “This Town.” Washington, DC, is a city of more than a half-million people, and the center of a metropolitan area of about three million people. But Insiders invariably call it “this town,” as in: “Those of us who understand the real sources of power in This Town…” or “The word around This Town….” The terminology is intended to convey the Insider’s intimacy with the small, cozy network of fellow Insiders who actually pull the levers in “This Town,” and also to indicate membership in the Permanent Washington Establishment, as opposed to the shabby parvenus who come and go because, say, they are elected to the U.S. Senate.
2. “Downtown.” Another geographical Insider reference, which sometimes refers generally to The Executive Branch of the Federal Government, and sometimes specifically to The White House and its hyper-powerful occupants.
3. “Style Profile.” This refers to the ultimate goal of every Washington Insider, which is to be profiled in a big, fat article on the front page of the Washington Post Style Section. If given a choice, most Washingtonians would rather achieve a Style Profile than win a Nobel Prize.
4. “The Hill.” Short for Capitol Hill, meaning Congress. Subsidiary terms include “House Side” and “Senate Side,” which refer to entire neighborhoods, not just to the legislative chambers or their office buildings, as in the common Hill Intern greeting: “It’s Dollar Margarita Night at Red River over on the Senate Side.”
5. “Chairman’s Mark.” One of many magic phrases from the congressional arena, this refers to a first draft of a committee or subcommittee’s version of a bill, before “mark-up,” the formal drafting action. Getting hold of an pre-release copy of a “Chairman’s Mark,” or speaking knowledgeably of its contents, is a really big deal in Washington, usually legal tender for free drinks.
6. “CR,” “UC,” “Rule.” Just three of the magic parliamentary phrases that deal with congressional floor actions. A CR is a “continuing resolution,” a means of providing appropriations when, as is generally the case, appropriations bills are late or never finished. A “UC” is a “unanimous consent agreement,” which means regular business can be suspended to handle some quotidien chore unless a Member objects. In the House, The Rule represents the restrictions placed on amendments to a bill on the floor, with “closed rules” prohibiting amendments becoming wildly popular under that chamber’s current management.
7. “Columbus Day Recess.” In America, Columbus Day is a relatively minor bank-and-government holiday of special significance to Italian-Americans. In This Town, it represents a lengthy annual Congressional recess thanks to its proximity to both the beginning of a new fiscal year, and biennially, to Election Day. Definitely make and loudly announce your plans for the Columbus Day Recess early in your Washington tenure.
8. “CBO Baseline.” The most popular of many budgetary phrases, meaning the Congressional Budget Office’s annual estimates of present and future spending and revenues based on what would happen if, miraculously, Congress did nothing. “Out-Years,” referring to future budget estimates, is another nice phrase, as in: “That prescription drug benefit is pretty tasty for seniors today, but the out-year costs will be a bitch.”
9. “Hold Harmless.” This is just one example of thousands of cool Insider terms from the wonderful world of federal grant programs. It means a provision which ensures that no jurisdiction actually loses money when the funding formula for a program is rejiggered to benefit some constituency favored by Hill Barons or an Important Person Downtown.
10. “Meet.” Short for the most important weekly gabathon, “Meet the Press,” the Washington equivalent of Sunday School, as in “Didja see what Russert asked Frist on ‘Meet?'”
Ah, there are so many other Magic Phrases, and given the relative seclusion of my messy little office on The House Side, I’m probably a few years behind in the latest legerdemain. After all, WashingtonTalk does evolve. Ten years ago I would have included the term “A.A.,” short for Administrative Assistant, the then-universal term for congressional chiefs of staff, an appellation since discarded when Washingtonians realized the title had become a neologism for “secretary” throughout the private sector. And some once-Insider terms, including “K Street,” “West Wing,” and of course, “The Beltway,” have entered the common vocabulary via television and other popular media.
So: use these Magic Phrases judiciously, but never forget that Insiderdom is a circle constantly exerting centripetal pressure to exclude People Like You. Because there’s only enough air here to nourish a limited number of ever-expanding egoes.

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