“Potomac fever” is the condition where a politician is gripped by a desire to stay in government, whether to make a change or for power’s sake.
The term describes a politician who never intended to stay in Washington, D.C. (which is adjacent to the Potomac River) but eventually “gets infected” and decides to stay for a long time.
The fever is, of course, named after the Potomac River, on whose banks Washington D.C. was built. The fever affecting the political class should not be confused with the Potomac fever that sometimes affects horses, causing them to go off their food and develop equine depression.
As The Atlantic has pointed out, people love to hate Washington DC. Bashing the US Capitol as a “swamp,” or a hotbed of corruption, or a kind of cultural wasteland, is a popular position. That’s why Potomac fever is such an interesting phenomenon. Often, the very people who come to Washington DC vowing to spend just a short time there (ideally draining the swamp) contract Potomac fever early and, as a result, may never leave again. As the Atlantic put it:
The real secret of Washington, D.C., is that it is an extraordinary city. The harsh caricatures with which its critics commonly describe it have little in common with reality. Of course, the U.S. capital is a city where politics, with its intrigue, vanity, manipulation, misery, and greatness is important and very visible. And yes, political gridlock and dysfunction are rife. But Washington is much more than that…
…In fact, Washington’s less-publicized positive attributes have been known to cause what long-time residents call “Potomac Fever”—the contagious condition that afflicts many new arrivals who come with the manifest intention of “just staying for a couple of years” but who then never leave. This condition is common among members of Congress and politicians who come to work in government. Much like what happened to the Underwood family.
There are other definitions of Potomac fever out there, naturally. Back in 2005, the Cato Institute argued that the country’s budgetary problems could, in fact, be traced back to Potomac fever. The fever, according to this theory, made Congressmembers believe that they could fix all the world’s problems just by spending public money:
The real problem is the pro‐spending mindset ingrained in long‐time legislators. It’s called “Potomac Fever,” and it causes members of Congress to see themselves as philanthropists with unlimited means to solve every problem in society.
Potomac Fever is fueled by the thousands of interest groups in Washington that trumpet the benefits of favored programs. For legislators, spending rewards their egos because they get lauded in the media for their noble public service, they get praised by program beneficiaries, they get toasted at gala dinners in their honor, and they get buildings and highways named after them.”
Ironically, the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once used the phrase Potomac fever to (satirically) describe the agony faced by politicians as they tried to adjust to a new, no-perks lifestyle during the Newt Gingrich era. Dowd’s piece was titled “Political Memo; New Kind of Potomac Fever Is Caused by Spartan Living.”