Tilting at Windmills

Why do the bills from the Pentagon for Halliburton’s subsidiary, KBR, always seem on the high side? In the case of the company’s contract to restore oil services in Iraq, the explanation is not difficult to understand. Under the terms of the contract, writes Griff Witte of The Washington Post, “KBR earns its profit as a percentage of its costs.” The more the company inflates its costs, the greater its profit.

Everyone is worried about Iran–and with good reason. But I worry even more about Pakistan. It already has the bomb–and not just one. Its ruler, Pervez Musharraf, is unpopular, seen by many to be a stooge of the United States. Islamic fundamentalism is growing. Yet when I talk to the experts, they assure me the Pakistani army is on our side and can control any revolt. That’s what they used to say about the Shah’s army.

The American Foreign Service Association presents four annual awards for “constructive dissent.” This year there were only eight nominations for the awards, even though there are 10,000 foreign service officers. Last year, there weren’t many more–17, to be exact–and the year before there were only seven.

“The problem is not that there aren’t people who deserve an award, but that people don’t want to be nominated,” explains AFSA president J. Anthony Holmes to Nicholas Kralev of The Washington Times. “They worry about negative repercussions. There is a feeling that questioning policy is extremely risky.”

This is definitely part of the problem. Discouraging dissent has been characteristic of the Bush administration. Indeed, on the same day that Kralev’s article appeared, Michael Gordon had another piece in The New York Times, dealing with the harm done by the suppression of dissent at Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

Although part of the problem is the Bush administration, another part is buried deep in bureaucratic culture. The foreign service is a risk-averse culture, Barbara Bergen, coordinator of the awards, tells Kralev, who reports that “[n]one of the nominations this year is related to a controversial foreign policy issue, such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Two of those nominated voiced disagreement with visa procedures, one with a personnel issue involving a local employee of an embassy overseas, and one with a policy denying basic benefits to same-sex partners.”

I must say that in my experience, nothing stirs the passions of the foreign and civil services more than issues involving pay and benefits. Still, a lot of these people are very smart and do have dissenting opinions that they now share sotto voce only among friends. They should be encouraged to speak out. And they are not encouraged by the Bush gang.

“This administration does not tolerate dissent,” one foreign service officer tells Kralev. Condoleezza Rice “runs a tight ship, and you’d better stay on board.”

The Earned Income Tax Credit promised to be a great boon for the working poor, the very people who most deserved a helping hand. Yet many of them don’t take advantage of it. The reason is that it is way too complicated.

“It’s so complex that the IRS publishes more than 50 pages of instructions,” writes Prof. Dorothy Brown of the Washington & Lee University School of Law in a New York Times op-ed. “It is so complex that a Government Accountability Office report showed that taxpayers, tax return preparers, and IRS staff members regularly made mistakes while calculating and administering it.”

Congress has attempted to deal with the problem by pressing the IRS to audit more low-income returns. The result is that a disproportionate amount of the IRS audit effort has gone to taxpayers who, even squeezed to the maximum, can offer little more to the treasury when the obvious targets of the auditors should be rich cheats from whom the take could be substantial.

Instead of auditing the poor, the obvious solution is for Congress to simplify the law and restore the credit to what Prof. Brown describes as its original purpose–“rewarding the poor for working, not penalizing them for being poor.”

If you are driven round the bend by those automated phone responses offering you the choice of 7, 8, or 9 options–“listen carefully because our menu may have changed”–none of which fits your case, Clint Swett of the Sacramento Bee has some tips for you. First, press 0. Sometimes this works right away; occasionally, as when I call Amtrak, you have to wait for the first pitch to be spoken. Or say, “get human” or “get an agent” or “get a representative.” Or just wait, pretending you have an old-fashioned rotary phone.

But my favorite of Swett’s suggestions is, mumble. It seems that if the system can’t understand your answer to its questions, it will connect you to an actual live human being.

A jilted fianc has provided the key to the case against Jack Abramoff and ultimately the one against Tom DeLay. It seems that Michael Scanlon, DeLay’s top staff connection to Abramoff, had planned to marry another DeLay staff member, Emily Miller. After they got engaged, according to The Wall Street Journal, “Scanlon bought a $4.7 million oceanside mansion and guest house, formerly part of the DuPont Estate in Rehoboth Beach, Del … furnished it down to the monogrammed towels” and told his bride-to-be it would be theirs. Then, adds the Journal, with the wedding a few months away, he called it off and started dating a 24-year-old waitress.

Emily Miller was not delighted by this development. So when prosecutors sought her help in building a case against Scanlon, she said sure. Now Scanlon has been indicted and has agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors, as has another DeLay staffer, Tony Rudy.

The Journal‘s story, by Brody Mullins, reminds me of an email that Rudy once sent Scanlon. First revealed in The Breach by Peter Baker, the email urged a hard charge to impeach Bill Clinton and tells a lot about the philosophy of the Abramoff/DeLay crowd.

“This whole thing about not kicking someone when they are down is BS. Not only do you kick him, you kick him until he passes out–then beat him over the head with a baseball bat, then roll him up in an old rug, and throw him off the cliff into the pound[ing] surf below.”

One wonders what the New York Post is going to do about the “Page Six” scandal. Will it insist that there be some sort of independent investigation of the allegations against Richard Johnson? Did he or did he not have that deal with Ronald Perelman and Harvey Weinstein to have their coverage “finessed”? It does seem clear that Perelman’s company gave a nice job to Johnson’s fiance. And were there tits on Page Six for the tat of that $50,000 bachelor party Howard Rubenstein and Joe Francis threw for Johnson in Mexico? And what benefit, if any, did Mercedes-Benz derive from that first-class airfare and hotel stay at the Four Seasons for Johnson to go attend the Academy Awards in Los Angeles?

I’m confident that the Post will make sure that this investigation is pursued with the same vigor it urged Ken Starr to go after Bill Clinton.

Speaking of the working poor’s need for a break, according to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, reported by The New York Times: “Last year was the first year on record…that a full-time worker at a minimum wage could not afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country.” The minimum wage hasn’t been raised for nine years. During that time, average rents have risen more than 28 percent.

You may recall that after the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, a number of news stories mentioned that the fines against coal companies for safety violations often went unpaid or were reduced to a pittance. It turns out that the problem is not confined to mine safety. It is true of federal fines generally.

“The government is owed more than $35 billion in fines and other payments from criminals and in civil cases, according to Justice Department figures,” report Martha Mendoza and Christopher Sullivan of the Associated Press. Another example: “When nuclear labs around the country were found to be exposing workers to radiation and breaking other safety rules, assessments totaling $2.5 million were quickly ordered.” The only problem was that the assessments were then waived.

This failure to collect fines also happens at the state level. “When a gasoline spill and explosion killed three young people in Washington [state], officials announced a record penalty against a gas pipeline company: $3 million to send the message that such tragedies ‘must never happen again.'” What happened then? The pipeline fine was reduced by 92 percent.

Government programs have a tendency to outlive their usefulness, to continue long after their original purpose has been accomplished. One of my favorite examples of this comes from an article by James Bennet, the new editor of The Atlantic, written while he was working here in 1991. It described how the Rural Electrification Agency lasted long after every farm in America had been wired by finding other worthy projects, such as helping out country clubs.

The most recent example I’ve discovered was in an article about hardship pay for the State Department’s overseas posts. It describes how money to pay for posts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been found by eliminating hardship pay in Athens, Warsaw, Hong Kong, and Seoul, meaning that up until now, State Department employees at these posts have been pulling down the extra bucks. Athens was found suitable for the Olympics two years ago, Seoul 18 years ago. Warsaw has not been a hardship post for almost as long, and Hong Kong has not been one for at least 50 years.

Everyone tells me Michael Chertoff is a smart fellow, and no one can question his dedication. After all, he gave up a nice lifetime job as a judge on a federal circuit court of appeals. Still, he talks in a way that makes alarm bells sound in my mind as I recall long dull meetings in the bureaucracy. He calls for a “properly risk-managed approach to critical infrastructure” and “an integrated, sensible, systems-based approach.” And according to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, to whom I am indebted for these examples, he speaks of “the critical points of triangulation” and of “better information about the constituents of the supply chain.” At DHS, he aims for “internal integration into a unified command structure.” I have to say that I have never known anyone who talked this way who was also an effective leader.

Don’t automatically assume a hybrid car will save gas. If it’s a big SUV or you use the car for long trips, the savings won’t be significant, writes Jamie Lincoln Kitman in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. I like corrections to conventional wisdom like this, but I do have a complaint about how the Times presented the piece. Its subhead: “If you want to save gas, don’t drive a hybrid.” That is not what the article says. Indeed, it makes clear that if your driving is predominantly around town, you will save gas and money with the Toyota Prius.

Over one-third of male high school students–35 percent, to be exact–do not graduate, according to a recent study by the Manhattan Institute. This follows a recent cover article in Time about the deplorable number of high school dropouts. My son, who teaches at a high school in San Bernardino, Calif., and who has for several years run a program to encourage students to go to college, thinks he knows the reason. “A lot of these kids don’t want to go to college, and you aren’t going to persuade them. What they need to keep them in school is a good vocational education program that they can see is going to train them for a real job they can get.”

Unfortunately, voc. ed. has been unfashionable for many years. Many articles are written about the value of a college education, but few about the need for job training in high school. The result is a large number of dropouts, a large percentage of whom are unemployed.

Vocational education has not just been out of fashion. Training for work as electricians, plumbers, and other well-paying construction jobs has been discouraged by the labor unions who don’t want competition. Furthermore, high school faculties are dominated by teachers of college prep courses who want their subjects to dominate the curriculum and command the lion’s share of the school budget. It’s going to take a mighty effort to change this sad situation. But it’s good to know that at least one prominent politician, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, is actually trying to do something about the problem.

Speaking of DHS, you have to wonder who has been doing the hiring over there. One employee has been arrested for indecent exposure. He was the second-highest ranking investigator at U.S. Customs and he was actually in charge of an operation to catch sex offenders. Another, DHS’s deputy press secretary, was allegedly attempting to use the internet to seduce what he thought was a 14-year-old girl, who unfortunately for him turned out to be a detective in a Florida sheriff’s office. And don’t forget that female lawyer from DHS, who almost blew the government’s case against Zacarias Moussaoui by trying to coach witnesses after having been specifically instructed by a judge not to do so.

Back to risk-averse bureaucrats for a moment. Another example comes from the recent trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. When the Minneapolis bureau of the FBI was trying desperately to get a search warrant to go through Moussaoui’s belongings, where they could have found evidence of the 9/11 plot before 9/11, a Washington FBI supervisor named Michael Maltbie kept refusing to help. At the trial, one of the Minneapolis agents testified, according to The New York Times, that “Mr. Maltbie had told him he was reluctant to press for a warrant because doing so would be risking his career and ‘he was not about to let that happen to him.'”

“South Carolina officially started its state lottery yesterday, becoming the last state on the East Coast to add government-sponsored gambling,” reported the Associated Press recently. And The Wall Street Journal reports that state-sponsored slot machines are now in use in nine states: Delaware, Iowa, Maine, New York, Oregon, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Pennsylvania will soon join them, and other states are considering the move.

The Journal calls slots “one of the most popular and addictive forms of betting.” If they are addictive, why are states sponsoring them? Because, observes Richard Leone, who was a member of the national gambling commission, they see the revenue they gain as a “free lunch.” They think they are avoiding unpopular taxes, but in truth, the revenue produced by lotteries and slots is a tax–only as Leone also observes, it is a tax “more regressive than any.”

Lottery tickets are purchased and slots are played largely by people of modest means. For a state to advertise its lottery and slots is enticing people to spend money many of them cannot afford to lose. And, what may be worst of all, it lures potential addicts into becoming real ones.

Back to homeland security for a moment. Did you know that some of the DHS’ grants to fire departments are being used for physical- fitness programs? “In Florida, the Plantation City Council recently voted to use its $28,000 for treadmills, stationary bikes, and training machines for police and firefighters,” reports Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times. “The Crawfordsville Fire Department in Indiana is using its $55,000 to buy gym equipment and provide nutritional counseling and instruct firefighters on how to become fitness trainers.”

Thirty years ago, Gerald Ford was rejected by the American public when he sought four more years in the White House after succeeding Richard Nixon in August 1974. Yet, before he pardoned Richard Nixon a month later, Ford had seemed to be on one of the most notable presidential honeymoons in our history. His straightforward manner and Midwestern openness provided a welcome contrast to his predecessor’s convincing imitation of Richard III. Choosing as his vice president the moderate Nelson Rockefeller, the man Nixon had seen as his principal Republican rival, had only appeared to solidify the esteem in which Ford was held. Even the liberal Arthur Schlesinger Jr. expressed warm approval. Then came the pardon.

The reaction was swift and unforgiving. Ford’s approval ratings immediately dropped 22 percent. The nation’s leading newspaper, The New York Times, thundered its editorial condemnation of the pardon. Even the presidential press secretary, Jerry terHorst, resigned in protest. As Barry Werth recounts in his new book 31 Days, Ford’s presidency never recovered.

Yet, looking back on it, the pardon has struck a good many of us as the right thing for Ford to have done. The country had already overdosed on Watergate. It had dominated the news for over a year. The desire for vengeance on the part of most Democrats and even some Republicans was palpable. Of course, Nixon had earned every bit of the hatred. But it seems to me now that we should have been satisfied to have forced Nixon’s resignation. Why heap more humiliation on him? And why distract the country from dealing with important problems like the war in Vietnam and escalating inflation? A Nixon trial would have dominated the news from the moment he was charged until he was sentenced.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.