The 20th century thinker G.K. Chesterton once likened democracy to blowing one’s nose: You ought to do it yourself, even if you do it badly.
Attorney Kory Langhofer, 35, a prominent political lawyer, would like to see that nose-blowing exercise done a little more efficiently.
“I am not a fan of government,” he tells the Arizona Capitol Times one morning in October. It’s beginning to cool down in Phoenix, but the leaves have yet to turn yellow and orange and the vestiges of the long summer are clinging like a leech on the skin.
Langhofer is busy organizing, or rather, cluttering his desk, one of those off-white folding plastic tables that typically dot a wedding on a golf course. On the desk is a white elephant, made of plaster or maybe ceramic, bullishly pointing its trunk skyward, summoning its invisible herd. In one corner sits a flat TV, with its plastic cover still intact, like the skin of a snake that’s ready to fall off. Opposite the TV is the carton box that had kept it safe on the journey to this surprisingly spacious and bare office on Fourth Avenue in Phoenix. For now, the box doubles as a dress stand: A lonely brown jacket has found its temporary resting place.
As Langhofer is finding out, starting a new practice is no cakewalk. In the past few months, he and his partners have had to hunt for an office, paint it and wire it. As of the end of October, a hole sits where the kitchen is supposed to be.
In the meantime, Langhofer worries about data security, mindful of the gigabytes of information he will soon be exchanging with his partners and with clients.
He also worries about the less mundane: What design and color to use on his calling card. The paper it’s on is thick, all the better to distinguish it from other cards.
And, even as he is deeply mired in the present, he has his eye fixed on the future. Langhofer steps momentarily into the sunshine to look at two adjacent properties that, if all goes well, he believes he can use to expand his practice.
Langhofer had burst onto the political scene three years ago, when the Senate tapped him as special counsel in an ethics proceeding against then-Sen. Scott Bundgaard, who was accused of beating his girlfriend on a Phoenix freeway. Langhofer was patient, efficient and methodical. After he was done presenting witnesses, including Bundgaard’s ex-girlfriend, it was clear the senator stood very little chance of convincing the ethics committee to save his political career.
By lunch break, Bundgaard had resigned as a senator, an abrupt end for a once-rising politician. But the episode also marked the rapid rise of a young lawyer eager to make his mark in Arizona. Prior to setting out on his own, Langhofer had worked for two prominent law firms, served at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and was a litigation counsel at Mitt Romney’s Boston headquarters in 2012.
Then, as summer was ending, Langhofer’s previous law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, decided to shut its Phoenix office. He thought it was time to start his own practice. (Lobbyist Janna Day, Brownstein’s managing partner here, has also opened her own practice in government affairs).
But this expert in government and law isn’t exactly enamored by government.
“There is definitely something to the talking point (that) what the government does, the private sector can do better,” he says. Government workers are members of a privileged class, he says, adding, “The Republican Party is totally underselling the inefficiencies of government workers.
“There are government workers who get paid a significant amount of money and have a pension. Think about that! They get a pension. Who has pensions anymore? It’s government workers… That’s horrifying to me that you can work 20 hours a week and get a full-time pension when you retire,” he says.
His other problem is what he calls the “hubris of government.”
“They start working there, in elected capacity or bureaucrat capacity, and they just take on this belief that they are right, and whoever is on the other side is wrong – and whoever is on the other side is (the) people,” Langhofer says. “And they’re not open to reason or compromise or to just a sort of like a common sense approach to things, because they have this dogmatic, bureaucratic approach to things.”
Langhofer quickly admits that, when he accuses government workers of dogma and unreasonableness, he is not citing a representative sample of this “privileged” class. After all, he partly views government workers through the lens of his clients, and they wouldn’t have needed his help if a “reasonable” person exists at the other end of a government table.
Still, he contends that there are plenty of anecdotes to point to “government hubris.” Chief in Langhofer’s mind is a long-running case, recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court against the town of Gilbert over its sign code, which had placed a limit on the number, size and time of placement of “temporary directional signs,” such as those that direct the public to a church. The Good News Community Church brought the challenge after it was cited for failing to abide by the code’s time limits. Embarrassing to Gilbert, the justices ruled unanimously to strike down the code, arguing it violated the church’s First Amendment rights.
“So for 10 years, a church is in like a knock-down, drag-out legal war with the city over whether they can put a sign up that says, ‘Come worship with us,’” Langhofer scoffs. “No one in the private sector would ever act that unreasonably.”
To view government as unyielding, uncompromising and dogmatic might be an apt caricature in the case of Gilbert, which offered two middling governmental interests as rationales for its sign code: aesthetic appeal and traffic safety. The justices had dismissed both: “Assuming for the sake of argument that those are compelling governmental interests, the (sign) code’s distinctions fail as hopelessly under-inclusive.”
But policymaking is, for the most part, neither unyielding nor dogmatic. The curse of America’s experiment in democracy is also its blessing: Its elected officials are often viewed as woefully lacking in credibility because they change their minds and turn back on their campaign promises. But often, that change is necessary and follows a quick realization that, once they are off the campaign trail and are now running the affairs of government, they must modify or even abandon promises in order to get things done.
Indeed, many of the great laws have been achieved only because politicians have been willing to yield and make compromises. Consider the Arizona Legislature: With its labyrinth of committee hearings, debates and votes, it’s difficult to get members of two chambers, who often have differing priorities, to agree on exactly the same thing, while ensuring that the governor, too, is agreeable.
The genius of the American political system lies in its design, which is meant to resist change. This means the only way to get legislation through is to water it down, smooth its rough edges and make it sufficiently palatable to enough people, who must give up a lot in order to gain a meaningful something.
Actually, Langhofer sees the necessity of compromise in policymaking. But he notes that when legislators hunker down to convince each other of the merits of their proposals, they more or less act as equals.
But the relationship between bureaucrats and the people is unequal, he says.
“So you get to see this sort of unyielding hubris, not when you’re looking at legislators dealing with each other, but at government bureaucrats dealing with the public,” he says, noting that government workers have access to free counsel and have broad discretion in wielding their enforcement powers.
This is where Langhofer wants to step in and recalibrate that balance of power.
“There are some things government can do, and there are some bad things that government can do. They are what they are. You can’t stop that,” he says. “But there are limits, too, to what they can do, and so when we find a government actor who has crossed those limits – and this happens with regularity – then you call them on it… and go to court if necessary.”
Interestingly, the recalibration of the levers of power that Langhofer describes is, in many ways, elitist. After all, not all citizens can afford a lawyer to help them tip the balance in their favor, which proves another point of America’s experiment in governance: Sometimes, it takes high-caliber lawyers to make people in government wipe their noses more efficiently.