Monday, August 9, 2010

Diary of a Chart Guy: An inside-the-Beltway look at the ascendancy of charts and the men who make them happen

(Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2010]

"Hey, where's my chart guy?" The words echoed down a marble corridor in the Treasury Department building, where there was a clamor of Medicare Trustees, two cabinet secretaries, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, eight high-ranking staff—and me. Conversation ceased and heads swiveled in my direction as I held the chart above my head. There was a clear sigh of relief.

It was late April, 2007, and we were about to hold a news conference on Medicare's disastrous financial outlook. We had all the right ammunition: big binders and accordion folders jammed with spread sheets, computer models, and talking points on complex economic terms. But the 3-by-2 chart I'd helped develop said it all: fiscal catastrophe.

The news conference had an overflow of reporters, but with all the high-powered leaders and documentation to explain the crisis, it was the chart that had the biggest impact in the next day's stories.

Let's face it, the chart is now a must-have political prop. Charts, on both sides of the aisle, dominate what we like to call political discourse. The Senate floor debate on health care featured more than a dozen.How did we get here? Washington used to feature elegantly crafted speeches by gray-haired, jowly statesmen in dark suits.

Until 1994, when the GOP's Contract With America was displayed on a chart: 10 bold bullet-point goals with red boxes next to each to be checked off as the legislation passed the House. The Contract sparked politicians and decision-makers everywhere to rely less on soaring rhetoric and more on colorful charts that would explain everything—from the reasoning behind cutting one-third of House staff to the need for a 34% increase in ICBMs. Who's going to argue with a chart?

Overnight, you saw legions of Hill rats like me hauling charts while trailing earnest politicians all over town.My boss on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, then-Chairman Bud Shuster, jumped into the fray. His committee became ground zero for charts—Members always had vibrant displays showing interstate lane dimensions, per-mile construction costs, transit ridership, bridge-span engineering ratios. Other committees soon followed suit.

One day on the House floor Rep. Shuster and I were approached by then-Congressman Joe Scarborough with an aide buckling under tubes of maps and folders. "Bud, I got this Army Corps project in the district . . . funding . . . levees . . . big-time hydraulics . . . really need your support." Bud listened, then simply pointed at me and said, "Give it all to Nelligan. He'll make a chart."

Later, working for David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States and the head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, we developed charts (sometimes shrunk to PowerPoint slides) to be displayed at numerous congressional hearings and editorial-board meetings. The charts showed frightening measures of spending, future entitlement growth, rising marginal tax rates, nondefense discretionary outlays—impending doom. Those charts even made it into the 2008 documentary film, "I.O.U.S.A."

Charts are now a fixture of the landscape, and in a 23-year career spanning the executive and legislative branches, I humbly consider myself present at the creation.

In that ornate hallway three years ago at Treasury, I waited patiently with my chart underneath a huge portrait of Albert Gallatin, America's fourth Treasury secretary. The bio next to the painting noted that Gallatin was the son of a wealthy Swiss grain merchant and an influential senator before Thomas Jefferson picked him to lead Treasury. And it suddenly hit me: There I was standing beneath Old Washington carrying the baggage of New Washington.

And what baggage. Projected Medicare spending alone in 2010 was 1,010 times the entire United States GDP when Gallatin was Treasury secretary. How did I know? It was on the chart.

Mr. Nelligan is a veteran of Capitol Hill and the Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations.
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