You will recall that Lawrence Lindsay, President George W. Bush’s first chief economic advisor, was reprimanded and ultimately fired for daring to suggest that the Iraq war could cost as much as $200 billion. The latest estimate of the actual cost–from no less an authority than the Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz: $2 trillion.

Some friends have complained that when they tune into the ESPN sports channels expecting to find football, basketball, and baseball games, instead, late every afternoon (and often at other times), they find a bunch of guys sitting around a poker table. The most strenuous athletic effort involved seems to be shuffling the cards. I then discovered that on the Travel Channel, where you might expect to see Tahitian islands, Roman ruins, or Parisian boulevards, you will find still another poker show. It’s called “Celebrity Poker Tours.” I guess “tours” makes it qualify as travel. ESPN tries to impart an aura of sport to its show by calling it “The World Series of Poker.”

Karl Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, once defended a precious metals dealer accused of laundering millions of dollars in drug money. His fee was paid with 45 gold bars worth $505,000, as well as Swiss wire transfers of $169,000. Luskin found nothing suspicious in this form of payment, but the U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island accused him of “willful blindness,” according to The Washington Post.

This reminds me of William O. Bittman, an attorney for one of the Watergate defendants, who was unperturbed when told to pick up his fee of $25,000 in cash left in a paper bag in a phone booth.

One fact about Luskin that I find delightful but that might not elicit a similar reaction from what conservatives lovingly describe as “the base,” is that he was the first man to wear an earring while arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, it was a silver stud; today he wears what the Post describes as “a barely noticeable” gold hoop.

It is possible that the Justice Department could have nailed Jack Abramoff several years earlier. In 2002, Frederick Black, a federal prosecutor in Guam where Abramoff had a lobbying practice, notified the Justice Department in Washington that he was investigating Abramoff. Oddly enough, a few days later Black was reassigned by the department and the investigation shut down. The attorney general at the time was John Ashcroft. According to Philip Shenon of The New York Times, “Mr. Abramoff’s internal email messages show that he boasted to clients about what he described as his close ties to John Ashcroft.”

Three of the greatest changes I’ve seen in Washington in the 45 years I’ve lived here have involved lobbying. One is the explosive growth in the number of lobbyists that occurred in the 1970s. My guess is that it was originally inspired by the astonishment felt by big business when the growth of regulatory agencies continued even under the Nixon administration, with the enactment of the laws establishing OSHA, the EPA, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission. The subsequent growth in the number of lobbyists manifested itself physically in the boom in construction of posh new office buildings in the area of the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and K Street. As this boom was occurring, we dispatched Nicholas Lemann, then a 23-year-old Monthly reporter, to one of the buildings to find out who the tenants were. Two-thirds, it developed, were trade associations and lawyers, terms which may have other meanings elsewhere, but which in Washington are practically synonymous with lobbying.

The takeover of the town by lobbyists was also reflected in restaurant prices. Until the early ’70s, the Washington economy was geared to civil servants’ salaries, which had traditionally been modest. I could afford to eat at even the best restaurants once a week. By the late ’70s, the lobbyists ruled the roost with their credit cards and expense accounts, and I had to become an expert in finding bargain restaurants.

The second change, first identified by our alumnus Steven Waldman in his book, The Bill, occurred in the ’80s and ’90s. Congressional staffers began to aspire to be lobbyists. When I came to Washington, Hill staffers were mostly bright and dedicated to getting their views enacted into law or were politicians who were grateful for the reward of a nice job in Washington. Few talked about becoming lobbyists, but as they saw the bucks the lobbyists were raking in during the ’70s and the fancy restaurants they were enjoying that the staffers couldn’t afford, the staffers got greedy. And the development that Waldman identified began to occur. Staffers, instead of trying to get their own views into law, were trying to please lobbyists, who might give them lucrative employment on K Street. Understanding this development turned out to be the key to Jack Abramoff’s rise to power.

Abramoff’s rise also reflected the third great development in lobbying, which was its Republicanization. In a move that apparently was largely engineered by Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay, the Republicans who gained control of Congress in the 1994 election have increasingly insisted that lobbyists who want access to the Hill be Republicans and raise money for Republican candidates. This has helped solidify Republican congressional majorities. Now, it appears that DeLay will get his comeuppance. There also is a chance that Grover Norquist may be in trouble because of his extensive involvement with Abramoff.

Gail Norton, Norquist’s partner in founding Citizens for Tax Justice, and now secretary of interior, may also be in trouble. Her former deputy, Stephen Griles, was described by Abramoff as his “man at Interior.”

What would I do about the lobbying scandal? First, I would forbid all congressional and staff travel other than that paid for by the government or by the individual himself.

Second, I would forbid all fundraising outside of the district or state represented by the congressman or senator. I know some liberals resist this reform because they get money from Hollywood or New York, but it would destroy much of K Street’s power. [I also like the approach suggested by James Carville and Paul Begala, ( “Not One Dime,”) March 2006]

Third, I would forbid former congressmen and staff from ever lobbying Congress. There is now a one-year prohibition that is not enforced. But before lobbying became a major industry, these fellows were able to get retirement employment elsewhere, and they can do so again.

Finally, I would find a way to keep spouses of members and staffers from lobbying. I recently ran into a friend who told me she is now chief of staff to a very prominent senator. I was delighted because I thought her both able and a good person. Then she introduced me to her husband. I asked what he did. He said, “I’m a lobbyist.” My heart sank.

We have run several items criticizing District of Columbia ambulance dispatchers for their apparent ignorance of the city’s geography, as they send ambulances all the way across the city to pick up injured citizens despite the fact that other ambulances closer to the scene are available.

Recently, my friend and fellow journalist David Rosenbaum was the victim of the same idiocy. When he was mugged in northwest Washington, an ambulance was dispatched from six miles away at Providence Hospital in northeast Washington, even though two other ambulances were much closer to Rosenbaum. David, a truly good man, died.

The terrible truth about the District government is that it is loaded with incompetents at every level. No mayor wants to face this fact, so even though the bow-tied, Ivy-league Tony Williams seemed to be an improvement over the cocaine-addicted Marion Barry, he has made little difference in the performance of the city’s bureaucrats.

Among the recent examples is the D.C. medical examiner’s office, which has a backlog of 1,037 unfinished autopsies. Seven hundred and sixty five are at least a year old. “Maryland and Virginia, by comparison,” reports the Post‘s Cheryl W. Thompson, “have no cases more than a year old.”

One reason District employees have difficulty getting their work done is that they aren’t in the office. They are out of town on “official travel,” often attending what the Post‘s Dan Keating and David S. Fallis described as “week-long conferences in casinos and resorts.” The district spends five and a half times as much per employee on travel each year as does Baltimore.

Elizabeth Davis has taught in seven District schools over the last 30 years. All seven, she recently wrote in a letter to the Post, would be “on a ‘Condemned: Do Not Admit Humans’ list if they were residential properties.” As for her current school:

“I have to cover books, computers, and student work stations with plastic to catch the falling plaster and water from the leaking roof. In the school cafeteria, 55-gallon garbage cans are strategically placed to catch the water from gaping holes in the ceiling. In warm weather, we swelter without air conditioning; in cold weather, we shiver.”

“Whenever I attend D.C. board of education or council meetings, I marvel at the state-of-the-art facilities…. When some of my students have accompanied me, I’ve noticed how awed they are…. They must wonder why their school is crumbling while those who run the city meet in comfortable, cushioned, air-conditioned or well-heated rooms.”

Her description of the council and board meetings can be verified by tuning into the Washington TV channel devoted to district government proceedings. Unfortunately, it does not show the crumbling schools.

Speaking of travel abuses, The Wall Street Journal reports that a growing number of corporate executives are using the company jet to fly them on jaunts to their private golf clubs. Albert Lord of Sallie Mae flies from Washington to Naples, Fla. Edward Zander of Motorola wings from the company’s headquarters in Illinois to Monterey, Calif. U.S. Steel’s Thomas Usher and National City’s David Debarko like variety, Usher flying to golf clubs in Augusta, Ga., and Naples, and Debarko to Martha’s Vineyard and Palm Beach. Needless to say, the cost of these trips is concealed from stockholders with accounting devices worthy of Enron. Left out of the computation are such items as crew salaries and the price of the plane, which for corporate jets can range from $15 million to $40 million.

It sometimes seems that we will never find a way of ending our dependence on oil from the Middle East, but there is a precedent for our solving a similar problem. I was reminded of it by a recent article in the Charleston Gazette by Clarence M. Nelson regarding the giant synthetic rubber plant in Institute, W.V.

When Malaya fell to the Japanese in 1942, our supply of rubber was cut off. Rubber for tires was needed for all the cars and trucks in America, as well as for the enormous military machine we would send abroad. This was definitely not an easy challenge to meet, but a solution had to be found, and found fast.

Scientists from 11 universities joined to do the necessary research. The giant rubber companies–Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone, and the company that became Uniroyal–pooled their technology. The time pressure was intense. Existing stockpiles of natural rubber would last only a year. But by 1943, the synthetic plants were in operation and supplied the tires that were needed to move the nation and win the war.

Anyone who has worked in a large organization for long has to master the art of appearing busy even if he’s thinking about baseball or sex. Marshall Wittman, Washington’s new king of quotes, has an answer to the problem: “The key is to always walk with a piece of paper in your hand and always walk fast, even if you’re just going to the bathroom. Walk fast, carry a piece of paper, and look harried.”

The media has done a miserable job on the Medicare prescription- drug benefit. Last fall, one story after another told how confused the public was. But I could never find an article that made a serious attempt at dispelling the confusion and explaining the benefit. To be sure, it would have been a difficult story to do, but it could have been done, with enough examples of typical cases to clarify the choice seniors were faced with.

I was so concerned that I left messages for both Bill Keller and Len Downie, the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post, urging them to do the story. They chose not to. As the program began in January, all we got were stories saying that it was a mess. We were told that it would be a mess, that it was a mess, without ever getting a serious attempt to prevent the mess.

The student loan bill just passed by Congress encourages students to take out private loans instead of borrowing directly from the government, according to Bloomburg News, even though a study by the Government Accountability Office shows that backing the private loans costs five times per dollar more than the direct government loan.

One explanation for this apparent insanity is offered by Anya Kamenetz in a New York Times op-ed. It seems that Sallie Mae–remember, its CEO flies the company jet to Naples, Fla., for golf–is the “largest contributor by far to members of the House Education Committee.” The committee’s chairman, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), received $172,000 from private lenders and loan consolidators like Sallie Mae.

What I liked about Judge Samuel Alito was that he wanted to join the ROTC that liberals had expelled from the Princeton campus. The disrespect the left showed for the military then still haunts us today. It was also self-defeating. The military needs more liberals and more liberals need to join the military.

What I can’t understand about Alito–or forgive–is that memo he wrote that defended the shooting in the head of an eighth grader with a stolen purse and 10 dollars on his body. The boy was not armed and the officer who shot him did not think he was. All he was doing was running away. How could Alito call that killing reasonable? To me it was murder.

I often complain of not being at my best when I wake up in the morning. If my wife starts listing problems that must be dealt with that day, the wheels in my brain grind with agonizing slowness and often fail to mesh. Now comes the news that I’m not alone.

According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that was reported by Lee Bowman of Scripps Howard, “people awakened after eight hours sleep have more impaired thinking and memory skills–equivalent to being drugged–than someone kept awake for 24 hours.” This impairment can last for up to two hours, which helps explain why many of us feel the need to give our internal re-start button a quick jolt of caffeine.

“[M]uch of the press has abandoned reporting on health and safety regulation until disaster strikes,” writes Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post. “How many reporters have dug into the Labor Department’s Mine, Safety and Health Administration, which under the Bush administration was run by a former Utah mine manager until last year? About as many as did pieces before Hurricane Katrina on why a former Arabian horse official was running the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

In the case of FEMA, we know it was only Jon Elliston of The Independent, a small, North Carolina publication, who took a good look at the agency and warned that it was heading downhill. In the case of MSHA, the media record is not much better. The main alarm sounder was also a reporter for a publication that does not enjoy national readership, the intrepid Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette, who has made a career out of holding the coal barons’ feet to the fire.

This is not a recent problem. For more than three decades, I’ve been pointing out that while the media gives major attention to mine disasters, it does almost no reporting on what’s being done to improve mine safety between disasters. Few reporters are eager to go down into dark, dank mines where the air is foul and the ceiling usually so low you have to stoop or even crawl.

–The amount of fines collected from mine companies for safety violations dropped by more than 75 percent between 2000 and 2004.
–In the same period, the number of mining companies referred to the Justice Department for prosecution dropped from 38 to 12.
–The average amount of the fines is now just $150.

Nothing better illustrates the Bush administration’s tender solicitude for the feelings of mine owners than the change of the inspectors’ title to “Compliance Assistant Specialist.” The Bush people have even denied public access to the inspectors notes and agreed to hold violation hearings behind closed doors, sometimes even excluding union and victim representatives. MSHA did not shut down the Sago mine even though:

–It was cited for 16 serious violations in just the last year.
–There were 20 roof collapses last year, 14 since June.
–Yet its owner, Wilbur Ross, felt smug enough to tell “Prime Time Live”: “We were confident based on assurances from our management that the mine was safe.”

Of course, all of the facts about MSHA and the violation should have been reported before the disaster, when reporting could have prevented all those lost lives. One of the reasons I started The Washington Monthly was concern about this kind of failure of journalism–and it was the sole reason I started a foundation called Understanding Government, to encourage the press to report regularly on government agencies, how well they are doing their job, and how they can get better. This mission is not just some pious “good government” endeavor. It is also about saving lives, and not just in the mines or from Katrina–think what good reporting about what had gone wrong at the FBI and CIA might have done to prevent 9/11 or to keep us from invading Iraq for the wrong reasons.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.