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Questions about Enron's links to the White House and Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force are reassuring. They mean that the nation, after the September 11 attacks, is now confident enough to focus on some of the more traditional threats to our democracy, like the corporate takeover of our political system.

Following the release of the White House energy plan last year, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) demanded the Energy Task Force's records, including any interactions with major Bush campaign donors like Enron's Ken Lay. The Vice President's office refused to release the documents, claiming that Congress was exceeding its oversight authority. One of the oil and gas men whose privacy the White House wants to protect is Cheney himself, who in 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, was a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Energy Department. The council issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and of roadless areas of the West to fossil fuel exploitation, proposals incorporated into the White House plan.

The GAO was preparing to sue for the first time in its eighty-year history when the terrorists struck. It then put its suit on hold so it could focus on "homeland security" and let the White House do the same. With the collapse of Enron and the beginning of Congressional hearings on the largest bankruptcy in US history, that holding pattern appears to be ending.

Still, even as environmental groups backed away from criticizing the President after September 11, the White House continued to push its "free market" environmental agenda. This past October, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had to explain why she'd altered scientific data, in a letter to the Senate, to make it appear that oil operations in the Arctic would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when in fact her own Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had provided her with data suggesting it would. "We did make a mistake. We will take steps to clarify and correct that," she told reporters in explaining one of the many discrepancies in her letter.

Norton has also concluded that drilling in the Arctic won't violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The FWS, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed to "correct these inconsistencies" with Norton's position. Polar bears can live with oil drilling, the FWS now tells us. They'll just look more like panda bears.

Ten years after President Bush Sr. pledged "no net loss of wetlands," George W. has signed off on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that will make it easier for developers and mining companies to dredge and fill America's vital wetlands through a "general permitting" process that is rarely if ever challenged. Again, Norton failed to forward comments from her FWS to the corps, even though the FWS had written that the proposed policy change would result in "tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat."

Among the beneficiaries of the new engineer corps rules will be mining companies involved in "mountaintop removal" in Appalachia. J. Steven Griles, Norton's deputy, was a longtime mining lobbyist, and Norton herself lobbied for the lead industry.

Over at the EPA Christie Whitman won greenie points when she ordered GE to begin dredging PCBs out of the Hudson River. At the same time, the EPA has begun moving top career people (from the office of wetlands, enforcement, etc.) around the agency in a strange reorganization no one quite understands. "Are they purposely designing this to hamstring EPA for the next twenty years?" wonders a career employee who also complains that enforcement actions (as opposed to industry-friendly out-of-court settlements) are down significantly in the past year.

Under White House and lobbyist pressure, the EPA is also getting ready to relax clean air standards (that, as governor of New Jersey, Whitman supported) requiring old coal-fired power plants to shut down or significantly reduce gaseous emissions that contribute to acid rain and other forms of pollution.

Even Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's recent Detroit auto show announcement that the government will work with the auto industry to develop pollution-free hydrogen-fuel-cell cars got mixed reactions. That's because he used the announcement to abandon a program aimed at improving existing auto fuel-efficiency standards. As usual, most of these environmental policy decisions are rife with corporate conflicts of interest, but conflicts that in recent months have gotten even less media attention than they normally would.

In her public appearances Whitman now emphasizes the need to protect America's water supply from terrorists (if not arsenic). Norton has been pushing the argument that drilling in ANWR can provide as much oil as we import from Iraq in eighty years (or the oily equivalent of sixteen years of Cheney's diet), and President Bush insists that Arctic drilling will make us "more secure at home." If nothing else, America's new "war on terrorism" is helping the Bush White House in its old war on the environment.

Congress returns--will the Democrats challenge Bush?

It was a mistake--and a beaut--in Matt Bivens's piece "The Enron Box" where he confused the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. It is hereby duly acknowledged and regretted. But what really astonished us was the way it unleashed a slick triple play by the Right-Wing Conspirators (a Class C club that plays the Washington-New York corridor). You've heard of Tinker to Evers to Chance? Well, this was Wall Street Journal to The Weekly Standard to Fox News's Brit Hume. The WSJ caught Bivens's blooper; then The Weekly Standard grabbed amd waved it long enough to say "Nyah, nyah" before Brit (Mr. Inside) Hume gobbled up the ball and hinted darkly of cover-up (or something) on Fox News. This dazzling play illustrates how the opposing team will seize on a minor miscue and use it to clear George W. Bush of any involvement in the Enron scandal. OK, we admit the error shows we are sometimes sports-challenged; next time we'll check with a baseball expert like George Will. Lest the real issues be lost out in right field, however, we bring you a comment on Bush and baseball posted by the witty sportswriter Charles Pierce, a commentator on NPRs Only a Game and the author of Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game. He posted it on Jim Romenesko's Media News (www.poynter.org):

"As to The Nation's unfortunate collision with the national pastime--the passage ought to read:

'When George Bush co-owned the Texas Rangers with a bunch of businessmen who had all the real money, construction began on The Ballpark At Arlington, after the ownership group finagled the eminent domain laws in order to swindle some property owners out of the market price for some valuable land. The property owners sued and won, but The Ballpark arose anyway, enabling Mr. Bush to cash out his original investment several times over without ever having done any actual work. This helped launch the successful portion of his political career, culminating in his becoming President of the United States, a job from which he took an evening off last spring in order to be the guest of Kenneth Lay for the opening of Enron Field in Houston. Mr. Lay was CEO of Enron and a well-known political supporter of the president who, these days, of course, would not recognize him from a box of turnips.'
"The Nation, I am sure, regrets the error."

Indeed we do.

For weeks, conservative commentators and Bush White House defenders have been huffing that the Enron matter is a corporate scandal, not a political controversy--that it is an affair of business sku

Welfare reform has left America dangerously undefended against hard times.

It was not without warning that Congress voted to end welfare-as-we-knew-it in 1996, but still, it seemed to catch the progressive community off-guard.

As Congress revisits the welfare debate, it's time to look at what the law has wrought.

With the "family cap," the state says to welfare moms: no more babies!

What would the government have to do to convince you to get married when you otherwise wouldn't? More than pay you $80 a month, I'll bet, the amount Wisconsin's much-ballyhooed "Bridefare" pilot program offered unwed teen welfare mothers beginning in the early nineties, which is perhaps why then-Governor Tommy Thompson, now Health and Human Services Secretary, was uninterested in having it properly evaluated and why you don't hear much about Bridefare today. OK, how about $100 a month? That's what West Virginia is currently offering to add to a couple's welfare benefits if they wed. But even though the state has simultaneously cut by 25 percent the checks of recipients living with adults to whom they are not married (including, in some cases, their own grown children, if you can believe that!), results have been modest: Only around 1,600 couples have applied for the bonus and presumably some of these would have married anyway. With the state's welfare budget expected to show a $90 million shortfall by 2003, the marriage bonus is likely to be quietly abolished.

Although welfare reform was sold to the public as promoting work, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of l996 actually opens with the declaration that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society." According to Charles Murray, Robert Rector and other right-wing ideologues, welfare enabled poor women to rely on the state instead of husbands; forcing them off the dole and into the rigors of low-wage employment would push them into marriage, restore "the family" and lift children out of poverty. That was always a silly idea. For one thing, as any single woman could have told them, it wrongly assumed that whether a woman married was only up to her; for another, it has been well documented that the men available to poor women are also poor and often (like the women) have other problems as well: In one study, 30 percent of poor single fathers were unemployed in the week before the survey and almost 40 percent had been incarcerated; drugs, drink, violence, poor health and bad attitudes were not uncommon. Would Murray want his daughter to marry a guy with even one of those strikes against him? Not surprisingly, there has been no upsurge of marriage among former welfare recipients since 1996. Of all births, the proportion that are to unwed mothers has stayed roughly where it was, at 33 percent.

Since the stick of work and the carrot of cash have both proved ineffective in herding women to the altar, family values conservatives are calling for more lectures. Marriage promotion will be a hot item when welfare reform comes up for reauthorization later this year. At the federal level conservatives are calling for 10 percent of all TANF money to be set aside for promoting marriage; Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma have already raided TANF to fund such ventures as a "healthy marriage" handbook for couples seeking a marriage license. And it's not just Republicans: Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, are also interested in funding "family formation." In place of cash bonuses to individuals, which at least put money in the pockets of poor people, look for massive funding of faith-based marriage preparation courses (and never you mind that pesky separation of church and state), for fatherhood intervention programs, classes to instruct poor single moms in the benefits of marriage (as if they didn't know!), for self-help groups like Marriage Savers, abstinence education for kids and grownups alike and, of course, ingenious pilot projects by the dozen. There's even been a proposal to endow pro-marriage professorships at state universities--and don't forget millions of dollars for evaluation, follow-up, filing and forgetting.

There's nothing wrong with programs that aim to raise people's marital IQ--I love that journalistic evergreen about the engaged couple who take a quiz in order to qualify for a church wedding and call it off when they discover he wants seven kids and she wants to live in a tree. But remember when it was conservatives who argued against social engineering and micromanaging people's private lives and "throwing money at the problem"?

Domestic violence experts have warned that poor women may find themselves pushed into marrying their abusers and staying with them--in a disturbing bit of Senate testimony, Mike McManus of Marriage Savers said domestic violence could usually be overcome with faith-based help. Is that the message women in danger should be getting? But there are even larger issues: Marriage is a deeply personal, intimate matter, involving our most private, barely articulated selves. Why should the government try to maneuver reluctant women into dubious choices just because they are poor? Even as a meal ticket wedlock is no panacea--that marriage is a cure for poverty is only true if you marry someone who isn't poor, who will share his income with you and your children, who won't divorce you later and leave you worse off than ever. The relation between poverty and marriage is virtually the opposite of what pro-marriage ideologues claim: It isn't that getting married gives feckless poor people middle-class values and stability, it's that stable middle-class people are the ones who can "afford" to be married. However marriage functioned a half-century ago, today it is a class marker. Instead of marketing marriage as a poverty program, how much better to invest in poor women--and poor men--as human beings in their own right: with education, training for high-paying jobs, housing, mental health services, really good childcare for their kids. Every TANF dollar spent on marital propaganda means a dollar less for programs that really help people.

The very fact that welfare reformers are reduced to bribing, cajoling and guilt-tripping people into marriage should tell us something. Or have they just not hit on the right incentive? As a divorced single mother, I've given some thought to what it would take for me to marry against my own inclination in order to make America great again. Here's my offer: If the government brings Otis Redding back to life and books him to sing at my wedding, I will marry the Devil himself. And if the Devil is unavailable, my ex-husband says he's ready.

When Washington gets back to business, there will be squawking over presidential appointments. Before the Christmas recess, GOPers were charging Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and the Democrats with slow-walking on George W. Bush's executive branch and judicial appointments. By year's end, about 70 percent of the top 500 major executive branch positions had been filled--which is not slam-dunk ammunition for the Republicans' anti-Daschle campaign. But the delays of two nominations in particular have irritated Republicans: Otto Reich, nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs; and Eugene Scalia, nominated to be Labor Department solicitor. Reich, an anti-Castro lobbyist, ran a State Department office during the Iran/contra affair that, according to a government investigation, "engaged in prohibited covert propaganda." Scalia, son of the Supreme Court Justice who greased Bush's slide into the White House, is a lawyer who represents management in labor disputes and is a harsh critic of ergonomics regulations; his nomination has drawn an outcry from labor. Senate Democrats, blocking the pair for reasons of policy and payback, have turned these two nominations into partisan controversies. But there are other nominees who warrant scrutiny.

§ Gerald Reynolds, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Department of Education. Reynolds, senior regulatory counsel at Kansas City Power and Light, is an avowed enemy of affirmative action. He has been affiliated with several conservative interest groups, including the Center for New Black Leadership and the Center for Equal Opportunity, which have waged war on affirmative action and minority set-asides. The position to which he was nominated enforces all discrimination laws covering the nation's public schools and universities. It also oversees Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs, including sports. Senator Ted Kennedy has raised "serious concerns" about Reynolds, and civil rights groups have assailed his views on affirmative action and his lack of education policy experience. "While we don't know the nominee's position on all of the issues that are important to Title IX, his very dogged opposition to affirmative action is very problematic for women and girls in education," says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

§ Gaddi Vasquez, Director, Peace Corps. Vasquez, a prominent Latino GOP politico in California, resigned as Orange County supervisor in 1995, months after the county, having misled and defrauded buyers of more than $2.1 billion in risky municipal securities, filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history. After resigning, he became vice president of public affairs for Southern California Edison. In 2000 he donated $100,000 to the Republican Party. Senator Barbara Boxer, a liberal California Democrat, has endorsed Vasquez, and every Latino member of the California Assembly, Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter supporting his nomination. But a group of outraged former Peace Corps volunteers has been lobbying against Vasquez, arguing that he has no experience in international humanitarian affairs or managing a large agency and that this is not a job for a political hack.

§ Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary for Land Management, Department of the Interior. As a partner in a Montana law firm, Watson has represented mining companies yearning to dig up more and more federal land. Previously, she worked for the American Forest and Paper Group, and five years ago she represented a Montana business group battling an initiative requiring mining companies to remove carcinogens from their discharges. Industry groups have hailed her nomination; environmentalists have decried it. "She is a corporate lackey, but she will fit in this Administration like a hand in a glove," says Jim Jensen of the Montana Environmental Information Center. According to Friends of the Earth, which has been campaigning against her, she represented Montana businesses (unsuccessfully) in a 1999 court case that challenged language in the state Constitution guaranteeing a clean and healthful environment.

§ Eve Slater, Assistant Secretary for Health, Department of Health and Human Services. Before tagging her for this post, the Bush Administration contemplated nominating Slater, senior vice president for clinical research at Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, to be FDA commissioner. That rankled Senator Kennedy, who protested, "You don't want the fox guarding the chicken coop." The FDA job didn't materialize for Slater, but at HHS she will still have to deal with former industry colleagues.

§ Janet Hale, Assistant Secretary for Management and Budget, Department of Health and Human Services. In the 1980s, as a senior official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hale was a second-tier figure in a HUD scandal that involved politically connected developers winning big-money contracts and favors from the department. The Wall Street Journal reported that while Hale held one of HUD's highest-ranking positions, she approved waivers of regulations that permitted the construction of a problematic project sought by the former law partner of HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce. Her predecessor quit rather than OK that deal. Hale initialed it and sent the politically wired contract ahead.

These nominations--most of which are for not-so-high-profile jobs--are unlikely to generate the sort of fire and thunder accompanying the Reich and Scalia tussles. But they add new details to the family portrait of a Bush Administration loaded with corporate-friendly and not-so-compassionate conservative appointees.

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