Tilting at Windmills

The population of Los Ange-les County is 10 million, more than that of 42 states. Its county supervisors are “among the most powerful public officials in America,” according to Governing magazine. Yet almost no one in the rest of the country knows who they are. Indeed, that ignorance is shared by a good many residents of the county. This reflects the almost total neglect of county government by the press, even though counties are often responsible for police and fire protection, and water and sewage systems in unincorporated areas, and also frequently for roads, bridges, airports, and schools. But Governing cannot be charged with that neglect. The fellows who put it out, Peter Harkness, Elder Witt, and Alan Ehrenhalt, are notable for attending to what’s going on at the state, county, and municipal levels of government that are the subject of vast inattention by media biggies in Washington and New York. Governing recently presented a report card on county governments. The best are Fairfax County, Va., and Maricopa County, Ariz.; the worst is San Bernardino, Calif.

The most pathetic utterance on the recently released Nixon tapes came from Arthur Burns, himself a Jew, then the Federal Reserve Board chairman, who told Nixon, “In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never heard of what even resembled what could be interpreted as a touch of anti-Semitism.” Of course, the rest of the tapes overflow with Nixon’s vicious anti-Semitism, a sentiment that seemed to be fully shared by quite a few of the notables to whom he confided, including the Reverend Billy Graham, who should be thoroughly ashamed of himself, and the former Texas governor and secretary of the Treasury John Connally, who after Nixon told him “look at the Justice Department, it’s full of Jews,” replied, “Any place of power.”

Remember that promise by the administration that all flights into Washington, D.C., would have a federal marshal aboard? It pretty much is, as bureaucrats love to put it, “no longer operative.” Al Aitken, the head of the Allied Pilots Association’s Washington unit, tells The Washington Post that at least a dozen pilots flying into Washington report a decline in the number of marshals aboard. What’s happened is that the Transportation Department has been increasing the number of flights into the city without regard to having enough marshals to staff them. The Post confirms, by the way, an item reported in this space last fall about how few air marshals were available on September 11. We said 32; the Post, “fewer than 50.”

Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times is one of the few people in the media who, before Enron’s collapse, blew the whistle on brokerage firm analysts who made “wildly bullish pronouncements about companies that could benefit themselves or their firms.” Now she says that they still don’t seem to have learned that this is a no-no. She cites the case of Holly Becker, a Lehman Brothers analyst who recently puffed Alloy Inc. Becker praises Alloy’s “proven profitable business model.” Morgenson points out, however, that “Alloy has incurred nothing but losses since its inception.”

Morgenson notes that Becker’s “buy” rating came just after her employer, Lehman Brothers, had managed an offering of 6 million Alloy shares, and as Lehman continued to make a market in Alloy securities. A disclaimer accompanying Becker’s report adds that “an analyst who contributed to the report (or a member of his or her household) owns shares [in Alloy].”

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the compensation of many of these analysts is tied to the amount of business their firm gets from the companies they rate.

The Clinton administration’s proposal to prohibit snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park is in danger of being overturned by the Bush administration. Bush’s Interior Department has proposed three alternative policies, two of which will permit the snowmobiles to continue using the park. Most of the public has supported keeping the snowmobiles out of the park because of the noise they make and the pollution they emit. “Pollution at the West Entrance of Yellowstone has become so intense,” writes Katharine Q. Seelye of The New York Times, “that the National Park Service has had to pump fresh air into the booths staffed by park rangers there, and last week provided respirators for them, as well.”

Last fall I urged the Bush administration to make sure that the Islamic world knew what the United States had done to protect Muslims and to restore peace in Bosnia and Kosovo. They have not taken my suggestion. Could it be because the Clinton administration was responsible for what we did in Bosnia and Kosovo, and that Bush’s father had seemed indifferent to the violence?

There may be a similar explanation for Bush’s failure to explain to the Islamic world what the U.S. has done to promote peace in the Middle East. After all, it was the Carter and Clinton administrations that by far did the most for peace.

Instead of praising the Clinton effort in the Middle East, Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer criticized it for making an attempt to “push the parties beyond where they were willing to go.” But publicly stating what the White House privately thought was deemed imprudent, so Fleischer was forced to repudiate his remark.

Thus far Fleischer appears not to have been asked to retract another of his gems. This one was about a 1931 treaty with “Pakistani authorities then under British rule.” There were no Pakistani authorities in 1931. There wasn’t even a Pakistan. It did not exist until 1947 when Britain freed India and West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were created.

Bush has talked such a great game about education that even many of his non-fans have been impressed. Unfortunately, he fails the classic test of putting his money where his mouth is. His budget increase for education—2.8 percent—is the lowest in seven years.

San Francisco bank customers, upset about excessive ATM fees, sued Bank of America and Wells Fargo in federal court. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the federal banking regulator, intervened. For the customers? Of course not. The comptroller supported the banks.

“Time and again the one agency that bank customers might assume is on their side has lined up with the banks to fight state and local measures that purport to aid consumers,” write The Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin and Paul Beckett.

regulation has dropped by 45 percent. Since the comptroller’s of-fice is supported by fees paid by the banks it regulates; this is not good news for the office. So the Comptroller has every reason to be indulgent to-ward banking practices that might screw the customer, but if indulged, might keep the banks loyal to the Comptroller.

After removing Law, the Vatican should announce that the church approves of priests marrying either women or gay partners. Then the threat of horny clerics would be largely eliminated. I say largely because there are obviously some priests who are pedophiles. To keep them from being attracted to the Church, why not abandon the practice of having altar boys? No boys, no pedophiles.

Ken Lay’s self-portrayal as an innocent dupe has one big problem. In the 13 days after he was informed by Sherron Watkins that his company’s accounting problems were seriously serious, he sold $16.3 million worth of Enron stock.

Speaking of Enron, won’t it be a great and wonderful day when someone smart enough to bring Skilling down appears and escorts the Prince of Arrogance to his just fate? Unfortunately, our senators and congressmen have not been smart enough or well prepared enough to do the job. This, as aficionados of congressional hearings know, is not uncommon. Even when they stumble onto the truth, the right follow-up question is rarely asked.

Amtrak is in bad shape. Its bosses have been less than swift on too many occasions. Congress has burdened it with hopelessly unprofitable routes, which account for just 18 percent of its passengers, but 75 percent of its losses. Congress has also failed to appropriate nearly enough money to improve the rails, railbeds, bridges, and tunnels on its heavily-traveled corridors. In spite of all these problems, we should never lose sight of the fact that a viable rail system is essential. Huge numbers of people travel between our major cities every day, and trains cause less pollution than other forms of transportation, so we can’t just give the back of our hand to Amtrak. We must find a way to make it work. Insisting that it make a profit seems silly to me. We don’t insist that other essential services like our highways, sewer systems, waterworks, or police or fire departments make a profit, and we should not demand it of Amtrak.

At the same time, the lines that hemorrhage losses should be abandoned or subsidized by the states they pass through. This is a reform that I pray does not happen before I get a chance to take the Empire Builder through Glacier National Park, a trip I’ve long dreamed of, but it does have to happen.

All this reminds me of a point I want to make about the kind of journalism I believe in. David Carr’s article on Amtrak in our October issue (“Slower Than A Speeding Bullet”) did a beautiful job of describing how it was failing. In so doing, it participated in an honorable tradition of journalism. Yet it is a tradition that has always left me feeling frustrated. It is good at telling us what is wrong, but not at telling us what should be done about it. How do we get out of the mess? Abandon Amtrak? Fix it? If so, how?

To be sure, the search for a solution can turn a writer into an advocate. But there’s nothing wrong with that as long as he makes his case in a way that shows that he has gone out of his way to face the holes in it.

the Enron scandal? The Wall Street Journal’s Jim VandeHei suggests that it has made the administration “wary of seeming too friendly to business interests.” There is at least a remote possibility that this concern with appearances might lead to an improvement in the reality.

Remember when Donald Rumsfeld was supposed to be leading the charge for military reform, advocating an end, for example, to the Army organizing itself in 15,000-20,000-men divisions, and instituting instead a system of compact units designed to fight today’s wars? That Rumsfeld seems to have retreated, to be replaced by a man who has permitted the Army to marginalize one of its most brilliant reformers, Col. Douglas MacGregor. Not good, Rummy, not good at all.

The Red Cross has been knock-ing on doors in upscale Tribeca offering 9/11 relief checks to residents. The average annual income of new property owners in Tribeca is $417,000. The average apartment rents for $3,600 a month. An explanation and a solution comes from Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, who tells The Wall Street Journal: “They overdid it and raised more money than they needed in this crisis. Maybe they need to go to some of their big donors and say We’re in the position of having to give away money to these yuppies.'” They could ask donors’ permission “to send it to the Congo or something.”

The disturbing fact about farm subsidies is that most of them go to the rural equivalent of these Tribeca families. The depressing evidence cited in last month’s “Tilting” came from www.ewg.org, a website maintained by the Environmental Working Group. It is the brainchild of Ken Cook, who grew up spending his summers on a small farm owned by his uncle Paul. Cook decided he wanted to devote his life to protecting the environment and farms like his uncle’s. He and Richard Wiles formed the Environmental Working Group in 1993 with the aim of producing research that had an impact on policy. “All research projects had to include plans showing how the project would open political debate and be used by journalists,” explains Elizabeth Becker of The New York Times, in a story about Cook. It took six years of hard work to develop the subsidy database, but the work paid off just the way the group planned: Journalists and politicians are taking notice. I congratulate Cook and Wiles and their associates. There are hundreds of similar groups in Washington, but few have managed to affect debate the way the Environmental Working Group has.

Leading candidates to head two of our most important health agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, have been shot down by the White House’s conservative and business allies. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who had seemed the likely choice to head NIH, was rejected by the White House. “Conservatives, who opposed Dr. Fauci because of remarks he made 14 years ago supporting fetal tissue research, took credit for scuttling his candidacy,” reports Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times. Dr. Alastair Wood of Vanderbilt University, an expert on drug safety who had been a top candidate to head the FDA, was dropped by the White House, according to Robert Pear of the Times, after drug company officials said that “They worried he might be too zealous in regulating their products.” Pear explains that “Dr. Wood had suggested that the drug agency be more aggressive in monitoring medicines on the market.”

The tragedy is that what Wood proposed is precisely the reform needed most at the FDA. If you read Stephen Pomper’s article (“Drug Rush”) on the agency in our April 2000 issue, you will know that the FDA devotes most of its resources to the drug-approval process with far too little attention paid to how the drug performs once it’s on the market, when the adverse reactions appear.

The pattern of influence by business interests over the Bush administration is astonishing. Consider that “all but one of the 65 people who met last year with Deputy Energy Secretary Francis S. Blake to discuss clean air rules represented energy companies or industry groups,” according to a letter to President Bush from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) of the House Committee on Government Re-form, reported by The Washington Post’s Dan Morgan and Eric Pianin. And what about this other report from Pianin:

“A senior Environmental Protection Agency official resigned this week protesting what he described as the Bush administration’s effort to undermine tough legal action against dozens of aging, coal-fired power plants and refineries that have violated federal emissions standards. Eric V. Schaeffer, who headed the EPA’s Office of Regulatory Enforcement, said that, energy department officials treat the power industry as their client.'”

George W. Bush, according to The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, “runs the most disciplined White House in recent memory.” This is why I doubt that Ari Fleischer would have made those critical remarks about Clinton’s Middle East peace efforts unless he had heard similar criticism expressed by senior White House officials. And I strongly suspect that their criticism of Clinton for having done too much for peace reflects their embarrassment at having done too little. As we go to press, they seem at long last to be moving on this matter. I pray that by the time this appears they will be on the case in a major way. History will not be kind to them if they continue to prattle about terrorism and the “Axis of Evil” while doing nothing to eliminate a major cause of terrorism, the perception of injustice to the Palestinian people that is almost universal in the Islamic world.

This seems to be my month for handing out congratulations. Maybe we should have a ceremony and present miniature windmills to the honorees. In any event, two more deserve praise, David Broder and Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. Both had the courage, despite their employer’s ownership of several television stations, to report how the media lobby had stripped the campaign-finance reform bill of a provision that would require broadcasters to sell time to federal candidates at a cost no higher than they charge their best customers.

The media lobby’s voice comes through loud and clear on Capitol Hill because senators and congressmen fear the power of station owners who might tilt news and editorials against them. And make no mistake, they can tilt. Kurtz points out that in all the vast coverage that campaign finance reform has received “the broadcast networks somehow failed to mention that high-powered television lobbyists killed an amendment that would have provided cheaper rates for candidate advertising.” He adds, “With a few exceptions—such as The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and Variety—the rest of the media ignored it as well, despite their usual delight in reporting on the maneuvering of powerful special interest lobbies.”

Campaign spending, despite Shays-Meehan, is likely to remain outrageous unless something is done to reduce the cost of television for candidates which, according to Broder, has quadrupled in the last decade. As we have pointed out, broadcasters should be required not just to charge reasonably, but to give free time to the candidates in exchange for the free licenses to mint money that the public confers on them.

In December, a man who had just joined the Marines but who realized he was the exception not the rule, told The Washington Post: “There’s a huge untapped will. Everyone wants to do something, but what they’re told to do is go shop.” That will has begun to dissipate. The failure to tap it more than tepidly represents one of the four great failures of the Bush administration. The others: the tax cut that left us without enough money to meet pressing needs in health and eduction, the aforementioned failure to make a major effort for peace in the Middle East in time to avoid the horrible bloodshed of recent months, and the tendency to defer automatically to business, illustrated over and over again in this column.

Another example of the last tendency comes from Katharine Q. Seelye of The New York Times, who reports a new policy on toxic site cleanup: “The Bush administration has decided to designate fewer sites for restoration and shift the burden of cost from industry to taxpayers.”

Good works have a lament-able tendency to attract people gifted with entrepreneurial skills of a kind that, if not downright illegal, seem less than ideally suited to benign endeavor. The Washington Post recently documented two cases in which such fellows have taken the District of Columbia to the cleaners.

One involves special education. Federal law requires the District to pay the bills for attorneys, diagnostic services, and private schools when the District’s own schools can’t meet the needs of people requiring special ed. One lawyer has found a way to turn this mandate into a personal gold mine. As a lawyer he represents parents who say their children have special needs, then he sends the children to diagnostic testing at a company he runs, then he sends them to private schools that offer the most expensive special ed in the District and that in the Post’s words have “corporate ties” to him and his firm. His law firm and his associated enterprises were paid $9.6 million in public funds in the last fiscal year.

The other of the Post’s examples is the “nonprofit” organizations that have over the last decade received more than $100 million of public funds but completed just 70 of the 200 projects they have undertaken. The head of one of these nonprofits drives a Mercedes-Benz provided by the nonprofit, which previously furnished him with two Jaguars. Another exotic use of public funds was to purchase $25,000 worth of Mali gold that just happened to get lost in transit. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, where are you? There are still great parts to play.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.