Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- More than 30 years ago, Martin and Susan Tolchin wrote a book called "To the Victor," about political patronage in the days when the mayor of Chicago could hand out jobs as city sewer workers or even cops and firefighters. Looking back, that volume reads like "Goodnight Moon."

In those days, Marty was a reporter at The New York Times, sitting next to me in that great old City Room on West 43rd Street. His wife was a young instructor at Brooklyn College. They've moved on since then. He became the founding editor and publisher of two Washington must-read journals, The Hill and She is a university professor of public policy at George Mason University.

And patronage? It has moved farther, expanding like an oil spill or the cloud from Chernobyl. It is difficult to read their new book on the same subject, "Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism From the Clubhouse to the White House and Beyond," without becoming sick to your stomach.

The book, published this week, makes even someone like me sympathize a bit with the noise coming from the Tea Party movement. The folks chanting out there are right when they say their country is being taken away from them. But they are wrong about who's doing the taking. It is not really politicians running the country and it is not ideologues, the Tolchins write. The new bosses are corporate and bipartisan. Governance is being privatized; government is being taken away from both politicians and civil servants, usually without competitive bidding.

That's the new patronage. An example: At the end of 2008, the United States had 147,000 troops in Iraq. The number of private contractors, corporate employees working for the United States government there, was 170,000. A total of $415 billion was awarded to 176,172 corporations by the Bush administration during the war. Among the questions raised by the Tolchins is that it was often unclear whether military officers or private contractors were actually giving orders in the field.

What companies are getting the money, and presumably calling some of the shots? From January of 2002 to June 2004, 10 companies were paid a total of almost $40 billion. By name: KBR Inc. (called Halliburton), Parsons Corp., Fluor Corp., Washington Group International, Shaw Group, Bechtel Group, Perini Corp., Contrack International, Tetra Tech Inc., USA Environmental Inc.

Again, most of this work was given out without bidding. But the unspoken, unrecorded dealing between the government and the contractors had to do with deferred compensation. Retired generals, congressmen and White House aides more often than not are hired by the companies they dealt with as federal employees. And there is a large gap between what those folks made as government employees and their salaries and perks as contract employees. On average the cost to taxpayers of contract workers is in the $250,000-a-year range -- including benefits and bonuses -- compared with half that amount for civil service employees doing the same jobs. One example: The privately hired bodyguards protecting American generals in Iraq and Afghanistan often are paid more than twice as much as the generals themselves are paid.

Then there are the payoffs when appointed government officials return to private life. When Rahm Emanuel left President Clinton's staff before returning to Chicago, he was appointed to the board of the quasi-governmental Freddie Mac and paid $292,774 a year.

Staffers earn that money by serving the powerful interests who later become their employers. At the top of the Freddie Mac pyramid, the president, a former aide to Vice President Mondale, was making $21 million a year, plus bonuses and benefits. Elected officials are paid twice, in campaign contributions and then with post-service jobs or investments.

"The new rewards still follow the old patterns," conclude the Tolchins. "Bread cast upon the waters comes back as an 18-layer cake."

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