Some Ways to Improve Washington's List Culture

Lists should be used for bringing D.C. egos down a notch.

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Rush hour traffic on Independence Ave. makes its way past the U.S. Capitol Building on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006, in Washington.

Washington is a city obsessed with lists.

It's probably because politics is so much about ego, about the sense of gratification and appreciation that most politicians, political activists and even some policy people need to keep going, to keep their game face on, to gird their loins and show up ready to fight each and every day.

Politics is not a profession for the faint-of-heart; it's a blood sport. That's why articles that are little more than lists of names in boldface are so popular and everyone reads them. They want to see if they are named as one of "The Most Beautiful People on Capitol Hill," one of the "30 Most Important People Under Thirty," or one of "The Ten Lobbyists You Definitely Want on Your Side" on a hot-button issue or key legislative battle – and if they are not they usually think they should be.

Being listed affirms a kind of importance which, while being good for job prospects and an increase in billable hours, also warms the soul. Unfortunately, they are also, at least for those not named, boring.

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Seriously, in a town where lobbyists are more numerous than dandelions on my front lawn in spring, can you really winnow down the entire population to just 10? It may help reporters win friends and influence sources to put something like that together, but it rarely reflects the last word on the subject.

What Washington really needs is the creation of more lists on which no one, no one in their right mind anyway, wants to appear. Instead of the "10 Most Effective Legislators on Capitol Hill," how about a piece listing the "10 Members of Congress Who Almost Certainly Won't be Coming Back." That would get attention, and would be talked about for months.

We don't need another list of the most beautiful people. What we need, and what would make for some interesting television during the next congressional recess, is "The 10 Politicians Who Should Never Be Seen Naked – Even When They Are Alone."

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Egos in Washington are too big, especially among the political class. It's unhealthy for democracy, for the endurance of the republic for elected officials, political appointees, and, worst of all, staff to ascribe to themselves positions of importance so out of line with what the average American believes about him or herself. It's how you end up with members of the House and Senate pleading with the president to provide generous, taxpayer-funded subsides to cover the cost of health care, regardless of how expensive that turns out to be and that no one else in the country is going to get it or could get it.

The Washington press corps used to do this and it was healthy. People in GOP circles still tell the story of the U.S. senator who called a press conference to refute the allegation made in one of these list stories that he was in fact "the dumbest member of the Senate." Suffice it to say it was one of the more notable things he did in his final term in office.

Just so no one thinks anyone is playing favorites, the press corps can stand to be humbled as well. This is why my next column is probably going to be a list of the "10 People It Isn't Ever Worth Plagiarizing" and will have my own name listed second, right below Vice President Joe Biden – because you never know where Biden's comments have been before he makes them. 

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