Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now
America's most irresponsible, incompetent and ideologically obsessed presidency not only left most of these political and economic crises on its successor's plate, it often masked significant problems that received virtually no attention, so prominent were the crises it caused. Many of these are more worrisome than the ones that made the front page. Entitlements were rising unsustainably. So was US foreign debt to China. Our education system was falling farther and farther behind other Western nations' as "No Child Left Behind" failed by virtually every appreciable measure, save number of tests given. Fifty-five percent of Americans were on their way to being laid off, having their work hours reduced or being forced into part-time employment. And, almost entirely uncovered by the media, much of our physical infrastructure had corroded to the point of near collapse. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, "More than 26%, or one in four, of the nation's bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete," a problem that would likely cost roughly $17 billion per year to repair, or almost twice what had been budgeted. One-third of America's major roads are "in poor or mediocre condition and 45 percent of major urban highways are congested." Its drinking water systems "face an annual shortfall of at least $11 billion to replace aging facilities." Inland waterways, wastewater systems, levees: all of these crucial systems rate a "D" or lower according the Civil Engineers' report card. What's more, this neglect at the federal level is matched by an equal lack of interest in these topics by the mainstream media. A valuable study by Jodi Enda in the American Journalism Review revealed an almost total lack of interest in these issues on the part of virtually every major news organization.
The result of this malign neglect is that post-Bush America is one disaster waiting to happen after another, all of which—when they do—are laid at the feet of the current president, regardless of whether addressing them is consistent with his policy agenda. For if he does not find a way to do so, they will likely overwhelm it. The financial crisis that dominated Obama's early months—and almost brought down the entire world economy—is one obvious example. But consider for a moment the crisis of the moment: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that so many in the mainstream media have sought to portray as "Obama's Katrina." Of course Obama himself is responsible for his administration's reaction to the spill as well as his ill-considered decision, taken just weeks before it took place, to allow expanded drilling in coastal areas. But almost all MSM debate on the question has treated the oil spill as an act of God, or of BP's negligence. In fact the conditions that led to the spill—including the egregious malfeasance that empowered BP and the rest of the industry to ignore the most basic precautions—were a direct outgrowth of the Bush/Cheney industry-friendly defenestration of the basic functions of the government's regulatory functions.
As Enda's report noted, before the spill no editor or producer thought to call a reporter and say, Hey, why not take a look at what's up over at the Minerals Management Service? Almost nothing had been written about the MMS at all of late, save for its now infamous four-year sex scandal. According to MMS spokesman Nicholas Pardi, there's not a single reporter in the country who covers its activities full time. And yet in the wake of this endless disaster, thanks to the energetic reporting of those institutions that are now on the job, we've learned, for instance, that the Minerals Management Service did not require oil companies to have backup systems to trigger blowout preventers in case of an emergency. No enforcement mechanisms existed at all. In recent years, regulators allowed the oil executives to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil, which were then traced over and submitted. Free hunting and fishing trips, tickets to games, expensive meals were the norm at the Lake Charles office, all provided by the oil companies. Taking such gifts "appears to have been a generally accepted practice," according to the department's acting inspector general, Mary L. Kendall. Two years ago, one MMS employee undertook four inspections of platforms while in the process of negotiating the terms of his employment with that same company. Another was suspected of using crystal meth during his inspections. It's no wonder that that the MMS collected only sixteen fines from the more than four hundred investigations of Gulf of Mexico drilling incidents over the past five years. The agency found roughly 200 violations of its regulations, but showed virtually no interest in pursuing any of them.
Meanwhile, as a result of this almost comically lax enforcement, BP executives felt no compunction in ignoring safety and environmental rules to which it was allegedly subject. One 2001 report found that the company paid little attention to the equipment it would need in the event of an emergency shutdown, equipment that might have prevented the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. It often fell back on the least expensive and less reliable deepwater well design—called "long string"—and did so far more frequently than its industry competitors. Another report, from 2004, discovered a pattern of company intimidation toward its employees who expressed uneasiness about its safety or environmental practices. California officials accused the company of falsifying its 2002 fuel tank inspections, adding that four of five of its storage facilities failed to meet proper standards. BP was forced to settle a lawsuit brought by the South Coast Air Quality Management District for over $100 million. In 2005, a Texas City refinery explosion cost fifteen lives, owing in part to a failed warning system that one report found consistent with practices at "all five U.S. refineries, not just Texas City."
Given all of the above, Paul Krugman is quite right to point out that the failures of both the MMS and BP that led to the spill—MMS's failure "to require a backup shutdown system that is standard in much of the rest of the world, even though its own staff declared such a system necessary," as well as the exemption it gave BP "from the requirement that they file plans to deal with major oil spills" and its allowing "BP to drill Deepwater Horizon without a detailed environmental analysis"—are part of a pattern relevant not just to the MMS or even to the Bush/Cheney administration's lackadaisical approach to environmental regulation. Rather, they reflect the entire administration's attitude toward governance in general, and regulation in particular. "For the Bush administration was, to a large degree, run by and for the extractive industries," Krugman notes. Its appointees were not merely corporate lobbyists and shills who frequently enjoyed little interest and less competence in the areas they were being asked to regulate. They were often also corrupt. Again to take just one of many potential examples, the Bush/Cheney deputy secretary of the interior (the man credited with actually running the place) was the coal-industry lobbyist J. Steven Griles, who, in 2007, pled guilty to lying to Congress about his ties to Jack Abramoff's operation.
As it happens, Dick Cheney's role was crucial in creating these conditions. As Joshua Dorner of the Center for American Progress wrote, "Former Vice President Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy Task Force concluded in May 2001 that 'advanced, more energy efficient drilling and production methods: reduce emissions; practically eliminate spills from offshore platforms; and enhance worker safety, lower risk of blowouts, and provide better protection of groundwater resources.'" Dorner continues:
One of the worst elements of what has come to be known as the "Dick Cheney energy bill" had a direct role in eliminating the kind of regulatory oversight that may have prevented the blowout of BP's Mississippi Canyon 252 well on April 20 of this year. Section 390 of the legislation dramatically expanded the circumstance under which drilling operations could forego environmental reviews and be approved almost immediately under so-called "categorical exclusions" from the National Environmental Policy Act. The use of such exclusions went on to widespread abuse under the Bush administration. BP's blown-out well did not undergo an environmental review thanks to a categorical exclusion. (BP was lobbying as recently as April to expand the use of such exclusions.)
Paul Krugman correctly notes that Barack Obama "isn't completely innocent of blame in the current spill," owing to the fact that BP "received an environmental waiver for Deepwater Horizon after Mr. Obama took office." Indeed, as the current deputy interior secretary later mused, "What happened to all the stakeholders—Congress, environmental groups, industry, the government—all stakeholders involved were lulled into a sense of what has turned out to be false security." But the "broader pattern" here, Krugman notes, is one of "the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology." As a result of this ideology's ruinous effects, we are likely being lulled into a similar sense of "false security" about any number of aspects of our public life and the government's regulatory responsibilities. These failures have the potential to despoil almost every aspect of President Obama's positive agenda, not unlike an oil gusher spewing its poison into a pristine Louisiana wetland.