Tilting at Windmills

Determined to fail

Did you know that for 18 months after we defeated the Taliban in December, 2001, the United States-led coalition deployed no peacekeepers outside Kabul, according to David Rohde of The New York Times, leaving the security of provinces like Helmand to local Afghans? Rohde quotes Richard Haas, the former director of policy planning at the State Department, as saying, That was the mistake which I believe is coming back to haunt the United States now.

Why was this mistake made? Because of George W. Bushs Ahab-like obsession with invading Iraq. That caused troops needed to complete the job in Afghanistana mission for which we had the worlds supportto be diverted to carry out the invasion of Iraqfor which we have earned the worlds disdain.

It takes a village to elect a senator

Sen. Hillary Clinton did not win the warm regard of her fellow Democratic senators when she contributed one million dollars of her $30-million-plus campaign fund to help other senators get elected this fall. It wasnt that they didnt appreciate the million. It was the contrast between it and the $2.5 million that her colleague from New York, Sen. Charles Schumer, gave from his fund of only $15-million-plus.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%The great contracting scandal I
A little-known truth about Washington has become more evident through recent news about three seemingly unrelated subjects: Iraq, Katrina, and the nations richest counties.

Lets start with the last first. Americas three richest counties are all in Washingtons suburbs. The Wall Street Journal offers a two-word explanation for this phenomenon: government contractors. They have become wealthy courtesy of the United States taxpayer, and these counties are where they live.

As for how they became wealthy, two words again go a long way towards telling the story: Iraq and Katrina. Enormous sums have been appropriated by Congress for reconstruction in Iraq and Louisiana and Mississippi. Yet one report after another has described how little evidence there is on the ground that this money has accomplished its mission. Where, then, is the money? You guessed it. A very considerable portion of it is lining the pockets of those contractors.

Clever contractors have learned to promise anything to get a government contract. They know that government contracting officers are under pressure from their top administrators and from the White House and Congress to at least create the appearance of action. This is exactly what signing a contract does.

The contracting officers are relatively easy marks. After all, they are paid an average of only $57,000 a year. But their bosses, the congressmen and the White House, are also too easy to satisfy, because they are so eager for the appearance of activity. And all too often reporters are gulled into thinking that appropriations and contracts are in themselves action and fail to follow up to see if whats supposed to get done actually gets done.

Contracting out also satisfies conservative ideologues who do not want to face the fact that adding functions to government may require additional employees. If the work is done under contract, the people who do it are employees of the contractors, not of the government. Thus the IRS is now hiring outside collection agencies to collect back taxes. This despite the fact that the IRS knows that adding employees of its own would do the job for considerably lessthree cents a dollar collected, compared to 22 to 24 cents for the contractorsaccording to David Cay Johnston of The New York Times.

II

The Clinton administration went in for a bit of this sort of thing. Boasting as they did of downsizing the government, they were not averse to using contracts to hide additional personnel. But the Clintonites were pikers compared to the Bush administration, under which contracting out has exploded, not just to repair damage by Katrina and the war in Iraq but also in a giant new field of government spending: homeland security.

The latest example of using contracts for homeland security is to build a virtual fence along our borders. And here it is interesting to see where the administration is looking for help. The headline over an article by Eric Lipton of The New York Times tells the story: Seeking to Control Borders, Bush Turns to Big Military Contractors.

Lipton identifies these contractors as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrup Grumman. This illustrates the tendency of government officials to deal with familiar faces. They seem to feel that well-known names endow the contracting transactions with an air of respectabilityeven though the contractor may be, like Halliburton, known for its ability to separate large sums from taxpayers in the form of overbilling for services rendered.

III

The main justification for contracts is that the contractor can do something the government cant. Sometimes this means supplying personnel with skills and talent not readily available in the agency doing the contracting. But what are we to make of this recent headline from The New York Times: Former Antiterror Officials Find Industry Pays Better?

The reporteragain Eric Liptonreveals that at least 90 former officials of the Department of Homeland Security now work for the agencys contractors. They include former secretary Tom Ridge, former deputy secretary James Loy, and three former undersecretaries. If the government merely gets employees from the contracting agencies to do the work, what does the government gain? Indeed, it seems to lose. Now its paying the same people higher salaries.

IV

Back to the fellows in the rich Washington suburbs. How do they get the money that has yet to reach New Orleans? Once the contract is signed, money is available to pay the salaries of the contractors employees, but that does not mean anything is happening in New Orleans. The contract may subcontract the work or parts of it to subcontractors, who may in turn subcontract their share to other subcontractors. Creating this chain may mean a long time will elapse before some hapless Mexicans actually begin clearing the site.

All this does not mean that all government contractors are bad. Some actually do a better job for less money than the government could do. But congressional overseers and reporters should learn to make sure that that really is the case and that the contract is not like the one that the IRS is signing for back-tax collection.

Killing us sleepily

Since I was misdiagnosed by a sleepy intern 45 years ago, I have taken a keen interest in reducing the number of hours worked by those poor souls. After years of effort by this columnist and many others, hospitals responded by imposing an 80-hour-per-week limit. This still seems way too long to me. And now we learn from the Sept. 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that 43 percent of interns and first-year residents say theyre working more than 80 hours a week. Two-thirds said they had exceeded 30 consecutive hours on duty.

Does their fatigue cost patients? Forty-four percent of the residents of the Mayo clinic admit to making at least one major error.

Youre so billable to me

If youve ever worked in a law firm, as I have, you know that the temptation to pad bills by inflating estimates of time worked is hard to resist. After all, the lawyer knows his success depends on his total number of billable hours. And it is hard for a client to know whether the lawyers estimate is accurate or not. Sometimes, even lawyers who are meticulously honest have their hours inflated by senior partners who can benefit from overbilling.

A recent example is provided by Matthew Farmer of the Chicago firm of Holland & Knight, LLP. He accused the firms billing partner of having inflated the bill to his client, Pinnacle Corp., for which he had won a major case. When the firm failed to act on his accusation, he resigned and left for another firm, even though it meant taking a reduction in pay.

A law professor named William Ross has conducted a study of over-billing. He tells The Wall Street Journals Nathan Koppel that two-thirds of the attorneys he surveyed reported knowledge of bill padding. Hows a client to know, he asked, whether an attorney spent three hours doing research instead of five hours?

Golf course seduction

Foxes guarding chicken coops have been characteristic of regulatory agencies under the Bush administration. But what are we to make of the Democratic governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, who has just appointed Ronald L. Wooten, a lawyer and lobbyist from Consol Energy, a leading West Virginia mine-owner, to direct the states Office of Miners Health, Safety, and Training? Wooten has been a lobbyist not only for Consol but also for an industry group called the American Mining Congress and he admits to The Charleston Gazettes Ken Ward that he has helped big law firms defend coal companies from wrongful-death and injury cases filed by miners and their families.

Ironically, Gov. Manchin had Davitt McAteer, a respected advocate for mine safety, head the commission that investigated the Sago disaster. Although the two appointments seem wildly inconsistent, I think I understand whats going on.

Ive seen one Democratic governor of West Virginia after another torn, on the one hand, between his loyalty to the coal miners who helped elect him and, on the other hand, to the mine owners and their lawyers and lobbyists, with whom he dines and plays golf in the capital city. The social seduction doesnt always work, but it does so far too often for the good of the miners.

Senior surgeons

In another medical article, Carla K. Johnson of Associated Press points out that we require airline pilots to step down at age 60, but there is no mandatory retirement age for surgeons, who like pilots hold life in their hands.

Johnson cites a study published in the September Annals of Surgery to justify her concern. It found, she reports, that for three complicated surgeries, including heart bypass, doctors older than 60 had higher patient death rates.

This, the study found, was especially true if the doctors didnt operate frequently. So, if your doctors a senior citizen, be sure to find out how many surgeries he does each year.

And a caution for hospitals: The recertification exams that surgeons must take every ten years are written and do not evaluate physical skills. The only way a hospital can find out is by monitoring error rates and by creating a climate that encourages other operating personnel to speak up when a physician is showing signs of decline. When Johnson asked an aging surgeon how he would know when to retire, he said, Im counting on the fact that, if I dont recognize it, somebody will tell me.

Uncle Sam: Generous boss

One of my more conspicuously unsuccessful campaigns over the past few decades has been to convince talented people outside of government that the pay for civil servants isnt all that bad, especially when benefits are considered. The problem has been that comparisons of federal and private sector pay have usually omitted these benefits. Now comes a survey by the Commerce Departments Bureau of Economic Analysis showing that with these benefits included the average federal employee is now making $106,000 a year, compared to only $53,000 in the private sector.

Since the early 1960s, federal workers have been receiving annual cost-of-living increases that are not typical of the private sector. Federal workers also receive frequent step or merit increases that are practically automatic as they are paid to 99 percent of those eligible. And while benefits in the private sector have been shrinking, the feds have gotten even better. They now include inflation-indexed pensions, health insurance during work and retirement, additional retirement savings plans with generous contributions by the government, and 26 days of annual leave. Thats five weeks and one day off, whereas for the private worker its usually two weeks.

Furthermore, government jobs offer unusual security. The rate of layoffs and firing in the government is just one fourth that of the private sector. And the resignation rate indicates that most federal workers appreciate the deal theyve got. It is also just one-fourth that of the private sector.
Of course, some government jobs are underpaid. An example is the contracting officer mentioned above. But, as a rule, the compensation is attractive enough that many more smart people should consider going into government. And those government employees who annually moan about the pay gap should abandon their self-pity.

More harm than good

What worries me about the Middle East is the explosive mixture of overly aggressive behavior by the United States and Israel, combined with reckless provocations by the Islamic extremists. Just when we were reading that Hamas and the PLO seemed to be getting together to recognize Israels right to exist, hopes were dashed by the capture of Israeli soldiers on the Gaza and Lebanon borders. These actions, which, one has to suspect, were inspired by mischief-making Iranians, led Israel, supported by the United States, into a bull-in-a-china-shop overreaction, complete with indefensible cluster bombs. One has to wonder how much of Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza Israel has already demolished with its bombs and bulldozers, creating a new generation of haters of the West.

Outsource this

By the way, not just the federal government, but state and local governments also provide more generous compensation than the private sector. An average hours worth of work in state and local government pays $24.17, plus $11.29 in benefits, compared to $17.21 and $7.03 in private employment.

These institutions also provide greater job security than the private sector. Sometimes, however, the security seems excessive. Consider the case of the operator of Washingtons Red Line subway train, who was fired after he forgot to fix the brakes on his train and apparently fell asleep, allowing the train to roll backwards and hit another train. His union protested, bringing about hearings that resulted in the subway system being ordered to rehire him.

Plane scary

How secure is air travel today? Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times provides a couple of revealing statistics. One is that there are fewer than 2,500 air marshals, and there are only 6,000 pilots who have been trained to carry guns. But there are 25,000 to 30,000 flights a day. This means that there are anywhere from 16,500 to 21,500 flights a day that are not protected in the air. If a terrorist takes over the plane, the only option will be for a military jet to shoot it down.

How secure are those new cockpit doors that are supposed to keep terrorists from taking over the plane? In one instance, reports Hudson, a passenger watched a crew member input the door code and later used that code to open the door, thinking it was a lavatory. In another instance, on a bet, a cleanup crew drove a beverage cart through the door.
More hopeful news comes from recent cases of apparent terrorist threats aboard a plane, when the passengers themselves have taken action in a way that should alert potential terrorists that their fate might be the same as that of their colleagues aboard Flight 93.

Sedimental journey

You may have seen that an executive of BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, took the Fifth Amendment on Capitol Hill recently. But did you know the facts behind his refusal to testify? His name is Richard Woollam, and he was head of BPs corrosion control program for Alaska in 2002. When the company received a report that said that the accumulated sediment in the pipeline might be corroding it, he reduced the inspection personnel responsible for monitoring the pipeline by 25 percent. On Aug. 6th of this year, as we know, BP shut down the pipeline because of corrosion. Now you understand Woollams reluctance to talk.

Stock up in December

Did you know that hot fuel was costing you money last summer? Actually, I had never even heard of hot fuel until I saw an article by Steve Everly of McClatchy newspapers explaining the phenomenon. It seems that gasoline is supposed to be sold at a temperature of 60 degrees, but the standard is not enforced. And, writes Everly, every degree over the 60-degree standard diminishes the energy in a gallon of gas, because the gas expands as it is heated. Fuel pumps could adjust for temperature change, but gasoline companies are naturally not eager to make the adjustment, because the more the customer has to pay, the more they make.

Government regulation seems like the obvious answer. And the case for it is made, unconsciously Im sure, by Anne Peebles of Shell Oil, who, in the course of arguing that Shell cant do anything about the problem, tells Everly, Temperature correction is not something one company can do. It would have to be [a] regulatory requirement that puts all facilities on the same page.

The Wal-Mart effect

With Wal-Mart, the question is, does the good outweigh the bad? The good is low prices that help low-income customers, fight inflation, and have caused the company to grow to the point that it gives jobs to over one million Americans.

The bad is that it pays low wages with lousy benefits, destroys downtowns by forcing mom-and-pop businesses to close, and creates unemployment by pushing its suppliers so hard to lower prices that it drives them into bankruptcy. I hope you saw the excellent article by Barry C. Lynn in Harpers that shows that four of Wal-Marts top 10 suppliers have been forced into bankruptcy. This is not to mention the hideous wages and poor working conditions that Wal-Mart has forced on its overseas suppliers, many of whose employees look suspiciously as if they belong in primary school. To me, all that adds up to more bad than good.

Life, liberty, and whatever whatshisname said

One of our least honored founding fathers is George Mason. A new biography by Jeff Broadwater reminds us that, in May of 1776, Mason was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which begins: All men are born equally free and independent and have certain inherent natural Rights. among which are the enjoyment of Life, Libertyand pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. Two months later, Jefferson, who was aware of the Virginia declaration, sat down to write the Declaration of Independence. He was a better writer, to be sure, but the ideas were Masons.

Gold diggers

Nearly Half of Women Fear Life as a Bag Lady was the headline over a recent article by Jennifer Harper in The Washington Times. The article cites a survey of 1,925 women by a large insurance company, to which 46 percent of respondents said they feared becoming bag ladies. Incredibly, for women with incomes of more than $100,000 a year, the figure was not lower but a slightly higher 48 percent.

This accords with my own experience. Women have always seemed to me to be more concerned with financial security than men. In those romantic novels so many of them love to read, the heroes are usually not only hunks, but rich, or clearly on their way to being rich.

Thats why I was delighted to learn about one exception from an article about Nora Roberts in The New York Times. She is a romance novelist who herself married a carpenter and whose hero is usually a man of modest means. Her woman, writes Ginia Bellafante of the Times, might be a schoolteacher and [her] man might drive a cab.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.