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Why I'm rankled by privileges of rank

In Washington these days, the political equivalent of salad dressing is office space.

There is a type of human behavior that fascinates me because it's often disparaged and ridiculed but has managed to survive in every society since the dawn of recorded history. It seems impervious to economic collapse, political disorder, or natural disasters. It's the RHIP effect (Rank Has Its Privileges), also known as the pecking order.

You'd think that in America, with its enthusiastic support of equal opportunity and fair play, citizens would be hostile to all forms of pecking orders and the RHIP effect would be in serious decline. It's a nice thought, and total fantasy.

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Two organizations that have produced a mother lode of RHIP lore during the past 200 years are the armed forces and Congress. One of my favorite military examples can be found in a published combat diary titled "The Only War We Had," by Michael Lee Lanning, who served as a platoon leader in Vietnam.

After a tactical briefing at brigade headquarters, Mr. Lanning spoke with an aide to the commanding general, and the man seemed "nervous and preoccupied." Lanning was scheduled to have lunch with the general and wondered if bad news was coming in from a battle zone. The answer wasn't combat related. "He explained that the general had been wanting blue cheese dressing and that he had tried all over Vietnam to locate some with no success."

In Washington these days, the political equivalent of salad dressing is office space. With Democrats taking control of the House and Senate, Election Day triggered sudden planning for moving day. To the victors go first dibs in the pecking order of interior real estate.

Many factors are in play. Some offices have great views, more-spacious floor plans, perhaps even a balcony. If a group of high schoolers were obsessing over such issues, a teacher would quickly break up the meeting and say, "Stop worrying about who gets the best view! You're not here to stare out the windows!"

I know some people will say our representatives deserve work space that conveys dignity and respect, and they probably think I sound like the cold, calculating warden in "The Shawshank Redemption."

But even if I were to seize power and become a boomer version of 17th-century British strongman Oliver Cromwell, I wouldn't bother remodeling all the Capitol offices so each one has the same configuration. That would only cause a new pecking order, based on some other variable, such as mood lighting or exotic plants. I would, however, establish some new rules.

First, dole out the offices any way you please, but each member has to clean their own space. Love those massive glass panes and giant desk tops? Fine, here's a broom, dustpan, old rag, and a can of Pledge. Shine on. Second, no seats available for lobbyists. They can either stand during office visits or bring their own folding chairs. That should help keep that crowd confined to K Street.

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Will the human race ever get fed up with the RHIP effect? I'm doubtful. People and pecking orders seem to have an affinity for each other. Like salad and blue cheese dressing.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.


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