In his new book, After, Steven Brill paints a picture of Tom DeLay at work that confirms the worst suspicions in the minds of liberal Democrats: “At about 2 a.m. the airline lobbyists were still pouring drinks for Tom DeLay at the Majority Whip’s office at the Capitol. They had stayed since Thursday night to make sure the congressional staff didn’t screw up anything in the rewrite of the airline bailout bill…[with one exception] everyone else in the Majority Whip’s office, including two staffers from the Air Transport Association and one lobbyist for United Airlines, were direct or indirect contributors to Tom DeLay.”
Incredibly, the CIA director–who most people think is in charge of the national intelligence community–doesn’t even have a voice in determining the budget of the Pentagon’s intelligence agencies. As a result, when he recently tried to get the Defense Intelligence Agency to cooperate with the CIA, the head of the DIA, according to Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times, said, “Don Rumsfeld is my boss, not Mr. Tenet.”
I had been impressed by the job the Transportation Security Agency did in hiring screeners. Indeed, it seemed to have been done with efficiency and dispatch, with the target of just over 40,000 reached before the congressionally imposed deadline and ultimately a total of 55,000 brought on board. Now comes the news that background investigations into at least 40 percent of the new employees are still not finished. “Dozens” have criminal records, according to both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, several for the “unlawful use, distribution or manufacture of explosives or weapons.” Add to this unsettling news word that the TSA is eliminating 6,000 of the screeners’ jobs by Sept. 30. A PR genius at the agency has come up with the term “right-sizing” to describe this process. But if you consider for a moment, that seems to imply that the TSA’s previous estimates of the number of employees needed amounted to “wrong-sizing.” Even more troubling is the possibility that the agency’s decision is not based on real security need, but is in fact another consequence of the loss of revenue due to the Bush tax cuts. Indeed the TSA’s own press release concedes as much when it describes the “right-sizing” as “driven in part by budgetary constraints.”
Speaking of the impact of tax cuts, Tom Friedman of The New York Times–who incidentally, to our delight, has pronounced himself a neoliberal–has come up with a great idea: Democrats should point out that every time Bush mentions “tax cuts”he means “service cuts.”
Friedman’s point is illustrated by a recent article in The Washington Post by Peter Whoriskey about the Shenandoah National Park: “Budget constraints have been shrinking what visitors can find at the park.”Indeed, what is needed is not less money, but more funds for park operations–money to better monitor air pollution that is “stunting forest growth and pocking leaves with black spots,” to catch poachers who are slaughtering the park’s black bears, to eradicate invasive pests that are decimating the park’s hemlock trees, and to study and control the effects of acid rain, which is killing young black trout. The magnificent views from the park’s Skyline Drive are among my most cherished memories–as a child, I thought they were a glimpse of paradise. Now they are usually obscured by a brown haze of pollution.
Is there something in the water in Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia? They have long been known for their less-than-admirable addiction to political hanky-panky. Now it appears that another form of naughtiness is common to them as well. We all know about Arkansas’ Bill Clinton. More recently caught in adulterous relationships were Kentucky’s Governor Paul Patton and West Virginia’s Governor Bob Wise. State employees tend to be the favorite target of these gubernatorial Lotharios. Patton’s girlfriend is a member of the state lottery commission, and Wise’s an employee of the state’s development office. Gennifer Flowers says she got her state job only after she had come across. It is not clear whether Patton and Wise similarly insisted on an advance deposit.
The conservatives are getting control not just of the judiciary, but of too many other institutions that used to be liberal or at least balanced. A couple of months ago, we talked about their increasing domination of the press and television. Now comes the Associated Press’ Hillel Italie to report, “The success of Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, and other conservative authors has led the [book] publishing industry to turn more to the right.”
Speaking of corruption in West Virginia, I recently read a doctoral dissertation that was not only as detailed as most such treatises are, but also highly readable, as most are not. In it, the author, Allen Loughry II, reminded me of a story by Scott Finn that had originally appeared in the Charleston Gazette about a group of state mine inspectors who had wanted a raise: Mine inspectors brought a brown paper bag filled with cash to the House of Delegates and asked that it be delivered to Delegate T.J. Scott, who was the sponsor of legislation to increase their salaries. The money was intercepted by House Speaker Lewis McManus, a rare honest man, who called the mine inspectors in for a meeting. The mine inspectors admitted that the payment was intended for Scott and did not think that they had done anything wrong. At the end of the meeting they asked, “What about our raises?”
Intramural conflict among members of the Democratic Party is not exactly unusual in the history of American politics, so I don’t want to make too much out of the recent dust-up between the party’s left and center. Still, I believe the warriors on each side would be better advised to stop beating up on one another and to start seeking common ground if the party is to have any chance of defeating Bush in 2004. I should disclose that I have a leg in both camps, on the left as a member of the board of TomPaine.com, which used one of its New York Times ads to attack the DLC, and as a neoliberal, many of whose causes have been adopted by the DLC.
To make this coming together work, we need a little self-criticism from both the left and center. The pragmatists of the DLC sometimes get a little too cozy with the lobbyists, and too often opt for compromise as their first position. The left, on the other hand, can be infuriatingly strident and self-righteous, and too often adopts a never-compromise stance even when compromise makes sense, as former Medicare director Nancy-Ann DeParle points out is the case with getting prescription drugs included under Medicare–it is certainly arguable that it is better to get a law on the books that can be improved later than to get nothing at all.
Robert Reich recently offered some advice to young graduates that I want to endorse: If you can’t find that perfect job, don’t automatically decide to go to graduate school. Learn about a field you’re interested in by working in it, even if you have to be a low-paid gofer, or even if you have to take an unpaid internship. The important thing is that you’re finding out about the world you think you want to enter. You might decide it’s not right for you, but if it is right, you’ll be getting a head start. Go to graduate school only if you really know what you want and need further study. Don’t waste your own money or your parents’ money if you’re just marking time.
To keep you up to date on the latest scandals in that parody of public institutions, a.k.a. the District of Columbia government: The former deputy director of the department of property management, according to The Washington Post’s Yolanda Woodlee, ordered $640,000 worth of Italian furniture for an office that the city cannot afford to rent. And the D.C. public school system, according to the Post’s Justin Blum, has managed to hire 640 more employees than it has the budget to pay for. The latest example, this just in, is a D.C. employee who used his official credit card to run up $440,000 in charges, including one at a furniture store that sells only home furnishings.
We do not doubt that the FCC’s solicitude for big media, most recently evidenced by its decision to increase the number of outlets one corporation can control, is motivated by principles deeply held by the commissioners. Cynics among you, however, may be interested to know that over the last eight years most of the 2,500 trips the commissioners have taken to conventions and symposia at fun spots around the globe have been paid for by media and telecommunications organizations, according to Frank Ahrens of The Washington Post. The most popular destinations have been those centers of public policy discussion, Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York, and London. The leading financers of these jaunts have been the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
A couple of months ago, I expressed my hope that our record on reconstruction in Afghanistan would not be a forecast of what we would do in Iraq. As time has gone by, I have been troubled at how little attention the media has given to what has happened in Afghanistan. The Washington Post reporters have done a good job, including April Witt’s May 18 piece “Karzai Powerless as Warlords Battle,” but the Post has relegated its articles to the inside pages. The New York Times front page has been similarly barren, but the Times Magazine did come through with a good piece by Barry Bearak in its June 1 issue. Its title told the story: “Unreconstructed.”
Of all the journalistic stars born of the Monthly, Michael Kinsley has shined brighter and longer than most, not only as a great editor but as a highly regarded columnist. His agile brain, however, has had a tendency to move from subject to subject, bestowing a brilliant insight here, a witty aside there, but seldom staying with one very long. Recently, however, he seems to have settled on the defects of capitalism as a matter worthy of fuller exploration. In doing so, he is answering a prayer from his old friends back here at the Monthly. A dozen years ago, we published an article by Katherine Boo entitled “Why We Need a New Marx.” We weren’t advocating a rebirth of communism. Far from it. We believe in capitalism but we also believe it has grave deficiencies, some of which no one has figured out how to correct.
The New Deal saw, for example, that regulatory agencies were needed to protect public health and safety and to provide for economic fairness. Yet history has shown that, although on occasion these agencies have performed nobly and on the whole it’s better having them than not, they have an unfortunate tendency to be taken over–or at least to be disproportionately influenced–by the regulated industry. The reason is that the public only pays attention to these agencies when there is bad news–a plane crash, a mine explosion, a dangerous drug reaction, an Enron. Then there are headlines, and Congress acts. As time goes by, however, the public loses interest and the lobbyists move in. This sad tale has been repeated again and again. The only solution I’ve been able to think of is for the media to give continuing coverage to these agencies so that the public will know when and how the lobbyists are doing their dirty work. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, and that’s why we need you, Mike.
Of course, free trips have long been a favorite tool of lobbyists. Another, less familiar, device is to provide free legal work for the lobbying target. Take Continental Airlines lobbyist Steven Hart, a senior partner of Williams and Jensen, a leading Washington law and lobbying firm. According to Steven Brill, in his new book After, Hart is Tom DeLay’s personal lawyer and “liked to tell clients (and was not embarrassed to tell a reporter) that he did DeLay’s personal legal work (as well as that of several other congressmen) for free, as a ‘loss leader.’”
A good reason for the Democrats to emphasize their concerns about terrorism comes from a recent poll reported by Stephen Dinan of The Washington Times that showed that 47 percent of the public would oppose a candidate they otherwise preferred if they thought he wasn’t tough enough on terrorism, compared to 42 percent who would stick with their original candidate. The Democrats have a long way to go. Another poll asked if any of the Democratic candidates had convinced respondents that they could handle terrorism. Sixty-two percent said no.
When you read recently about mad cow disease in Canada, did you know that there are holes in this country’s mad cow safety net? The disease is concentrated in the brain, spinal cord, and central nervous system of the infected animal. In the United States, these parts are allowed to be included in what is ground up to make animal feed. Although our regulators prohibit cow parts being used to feed cows, they are used to feed other animals–and, here’s the rub, those other animals can be ground up to provide feed for cows. Furthermore, the General Accounting Office has found that some firms repeatedly mislabeled feed that contains the prohibited substances and, adds “i>The Wall Street Journal’s Tara Parker-Pope, “cuts of meat with bone, such as a T-bone steak, are stripped directly from the animal’s vertebrae and may contain portions of the spinal cord.”This appears to be another case where more regulation–rather than the less conservatives are always demanding–appears to be necessary.
There are Tom DeLays in the Senate as well as in the House. Former Sen. Paul Simon recently testified about a time back in 1995 when he was fighting a lobbying effort by Federal Express and overheard a colleague complaining, “I’m tired of Paul always talking about special interests. We’ve got to pay attention to who is buttering our bread.”
Still other examples of where more regulation is needed that have made the news lately are mountaintop removal and water pollution. “The Bush administration,”reports Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times, “[recently] released proposed rules to allow mountaintop coal mining to continue.” As Ken Ward, the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette’s award-winning reporter who has been the leader in exposing the horrible effects of this practice, has pointed out, more than 700 miles of streams have already been buried by debris produced by mountaintop removal.
As for water polluters, disciplinary action has been taken against less than half of the polluters who exceeded pollution limits by more than 100 percent. And in those cases, the fines averaged only $6,000, according to a study by the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance, reported by Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin of The Washington Post. The offenses are definitely not insignificant. According to the Post they can “cripple fisheries, taint fishing holes and increase the risks of illnesses ranging from skin rash to lead and mercury poisoning.”
I recently saw Tom Daschle, complete with flip charts, bragging on C-SPAN how Senate Democrats had blocked only two of President Bush’s judicial appointments. Even that bastion of conservatism, The Washington Times, concedes that despite all the wailing of right-wingers, Bush has seen more of his appellate court nominees confirmed by the Senate at this point in his term “than any other president since at least the 1970s.” With the conservatives clearly dominating all but one of the appellate courts, Daschle should, instead of bragging about how many Bush appointees he has confirmed, make sure he and his colleagues carefully scrutinize not just a couple of appointees, but every single one.
Back to the war between the Democrats. To be more specific about where I think the two sides are wrong: The DLC should not have attacked Howard Dean, who showed courage in opposing the war in Iraq, or come out so quickly in favor of Joe Lieberman, the man who managed to lose a debate with Dick Cheney; TomPaine.com, on the other hand, is foolish to imply that the middle is always the cowardly place to be. Sometimes it is the wisest and the bravest.
Consider public schools. Liberals have been right that impoverished schools need more money. The conservatives have been right to insist on higher standards and better teachers. The man in the middle who sees the wisdom on both sides has to endure the fury of the teachers’ unions for suggesting that incompetent teachers should be fired, and of the Bushies for pointing out the hypocrisy of a president who proclaims Leave No Child Behind yet cuts taxes so that there is not enough money to give poor schools a fair chance.
Have you wondered why Democrats in the House seem to put up less of a fight against the Republicans than their colleagues in the Senate? The New Republic’s Michael Crowley has an explanation. It’s not that the Democrats are gutless. It’s that the powerful House Rules Committee is stacked against them. From its lair in Room H-313 of the Capitol Building, the committee “dictates nearly everything that happens on the floor of the House of Representatives, from how long bills will be debated to which amendments and legislative alternatives–if any–will be granted a vote.” The Republicans control the committee by a nine-to-four vote.
Incidentally, Crowley, a former Monthly intern, tells a story that seems to confirm Steve Brill’s report about airlines lobbyists plying Tom DeLay with liquor at 2 a.m. the night the airline bill was being put together. Speaker Hastert had made one of his rare gestures of bipartisanship by agreeing to have Daschle and Gephardt’s staffers work on the bill with Republicans. But at around 3:30 a.m., DeLay “‘stormed into the room in a rage–absolutely red-faced, screaming and yelling,’ according to a Democratic aide who was present…To the Republicans he shouted, ‘We’re getting out of here.’”