As President Bush's Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, will decide how federal authority is used to supervise an array of programs that reach the poor and disabled. He will also play a key role in proposing changes in these programs. How is he likely to use that power?
The press has raised questions about the extremism of other Bush appointments, but they've been easy on Thompson, who was confirmed 100-0 by the Senate on January 24. He's known as the father of W-2, the Wisconsin welfare program that virtually eliminated cash assistance to poor mothers. But, the story goes, he was also willing to spend money on the services and supports that women need to go to work and lift their families out of poverty. This, says the Washington Post, is "serious" welfare reform.
This is, in fact, sand in our eyes. Welfare rolls did plummet in Wisconsin, by 67 percent since 1986. By 1997 a mere 25 percent of Wisconsin's poor families were receiving cash assistance, compared with 60 percent in 1986. But income from work was not making up for these families' loss of welfare. The earnings of the 62 percent of welfare leavers or current recipients who worked averaged only $8,560 a year, substantially below the poverty line. Cuts in benefits caused the average income of families leaving welfare to fall by $2,000 a year, while 38 percent reported no income. These people tend to fall through the cracks in surveys, and Governor Thompson didn't have much interest in finding out what happened to them. When one commissioned study showed that his program to dock welfare benefits when children were truant from school seemed to be having the effect of increasing truancy, he simply terminated the research contract.
The number of children placed in foster care has risen rapidly in Wisconsin, by 32 percent in the past decade, and by 51 percent in Milwaukee, where the welfare population is concentrated. Reports of child abuse and neglect are rising, and so are the reported incidents of domestic violence and juvenile arrests. But by far the most Dickensian development is the rise in infant deaths. The national downward trend in mortality rates for black and Hispanic infants has been reversed in Wisconsin. The mortality rate of black newborns, once lower than other Midwestern states, is now the highest in the region. The bottom line is that Wisconsin's welfare cutbacks have left people working more but poorer, and substantial numbers of these people are desperately poor.
What then about those vaunted support services? In fact, Thompson vetoed one bill that would have allowed W-2 participants to count up to fifteen hours a week in vocational or technical college classes toward their work requirements, and another that would have exempted parents who need to be at home to take care of a disabled child. True, Thompson's administration has offered an ambitious childcare program, extending eligibility not only to former welfare recipients but to a wider swath of low-earning mothers. But what always matters as much as formal eligibility is how a program is administered, and the reality is that only 14 percent of eligible families participate.
Aside from what is left of cash assistance, the most important supports for the poor are the federal food stamp and Medicaid programs. Wisconsin boasts of what it calls the "light touch" in administering these programs. Not only does the state fail to inform people of their rights, but the US Department of Agriculture found that W-2 agencies put illegal obstacles in the way of people trying to obtain food stamp benefits. The result is that food stamp use has dropped in Wisconsin by 32 percent, the largest percentage drop in the nation. Medicaid enrollment also declined after the Thompson administration failed to implement a federal law requiring states to maintain coverage for families leaving welfare.
To be sure, Wisconsin has spent money, especially federal money. It pioneered a practice called "supplantation," which diverts federal welfare funds to pay for other state programs, or for tax cuts, while the state itself has reduced its spending on welfare to the bare minimum allowed under federal law. Meanwhile, administrative costs have skyrocketed.
The profits made by the private agencies that now administer much of W-2 contribute to the illusion that the state has spent money on welfare reform. In Wisconsin, as in several other states, for-profit and nonprofit companies now handle the determination of eligibility, job placement and the provision of support services. Because they receive a portion of the funds that are saved when caseloads and services are reduced, they have an incentive to deny benefits. As a result, the private agencies in Milwaukee have been able to keep for themselves $27 million of the $318 million in federal funds they administer. Moreover, recent investigations revealed that the largest of the private agencies, Maximus Inc. and Goodwill Industries, improperly billed the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What does a Thompson appointment bode for US social programs? As head of HHS, Thompson will be a strong and effective proponent of extending to the remaining big social programs for the poor--food stamps and Medicaid--the same changes in federal law that allowed welfare to be privatized and turned into block grants. He is already on record as favoring this, and even if Congress were to resist, he has the authority to use waivers to the same end. Wisconsin has a waiver request pending now to privatize the administration of food stamps. The Wisconsin record on welfare shows us the danger this poses to poor people. And with Bush in the White House and Thompson at HHS, even the modest restraints the federal government has until now imposed on rapacious state administrations will be gone.
For downsized workers in Bloomington, it's time to start thinking globally.
Greed led to miscalculation, which led to brownouts and soaring rates.
Thousands of citizens can't register or have been wrongly thrown off the rolls.
The company that the Florida secretary of state contracted with in 1998 to help purge the state rolls of ineligible voters is well connected to GOP circles. The chairman of the board of Database Technologies, now the DBT Online unit of ChoicePoint Inc. of Atlanta, was former astronaut and prominent Republican Frank Borman.
Also on the board were billionaire Ken Langone, who was co-chairman of the fundraising committee for New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's aborted US Senate race; and big GOP funder Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot. Howard Safir, former New York City police commissioner under Giuliani, is a consultant to the company, and Vin Weber, best known as Newt Gingrich's legislative enforcer when the pair controlled the House of Representatives, is the company's lobbyist. The company says that it favors no party.
A report that Secretary of State Katherine Harris had ordered the removal from voting lists of 8,000 Florida citizens, every one of them wrongly identified by DBT as felons from Texas, first appeared in Britain's Observer, where I work as an investigative reporter. Harris and ChoicePoint claimed at that time to have corrected their erroneous ways, but the Observer, with the help of a team from Salon, reported in December that, extrapolating from known figures, at least 15 percent of the 58,000 felons named on the new scrub lists had also been wrongly identified as felons.
A ChoicePoint spokesman termed the British reports a "vile, lying, inaccurate pack of nonsense." A more upbeat spokesman noted with pride that "fifteen percent wrong [is] eighty-five percent right!" In a later statement the company said the scrub list contained the names of potential felons only, and that "Florida law prevents names from being removed from the voting roll unless the information is confirmed by local officials--not by us."
One county (Leon, which includes Tallahassee) allocated resources to verify independently the criminal records of those on the list who lived in that county. According to officials there, it could confirm only thirty-four of 694 names, indicating that the error rate could be as high as 95 percent, not 15 percent.
To a degree that's hard to appreciate outside Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson's impending move to Washington to become Secretary of Health and Human Services will transform this state's politics. Now entering his fifteenth year as governor, Thompson has for so long and so completely dominated our political life that we are used to mapping its history in Steinbergian epochs. There is Old Wisconsin, a receding green landscape where one can still glimpse the tiny figures of Fighting Bob La Follette, Father Groppi, Gaylord Nelson and the circling ghost of Joe McCarthy. And then there is Today's Wisconsin, an eternal, life-sized present, physically more akin to northern New Jersey and better known as "Tommy's Place." That yet another political world will soon come into view has us more than confused. We are dazed with hope. We even seem to be breathing differently.
But enough about us. What can we tell you about our "man from Elroy," the tiny farming town, deep in our coldest sticks, that is Thompson's lifelong home and the place he long represented in the State Assembly?
First, don't underestimate him. Before becoming governor, Thompson's twenty-year career in the State Assembly was distinguished only by painstaking party hacking and strident but ineffective advocacy of then still unfashionable right-wing views. Among liberals, his election as governor was greeted as a brief hiccup in state politics largely attributable to a Rustbelt recession that still resisted sleep here. Thompson was thought to be nasty but a rube, sufficiently at odds with the state's centrist political culture to be transient in his power.
Boy, were they wrong. Upon taking office, Thompson moved immediately to tighten his control of the state apparatus, overrunning Wisconsin's traditionally independent civil service with a small army of intensely loyal and openly political appointees. He patronized continuously and at scale, afterward tapping a river of corporate cash to float easily from one landslide re-election to the next. And he simply rolled legislative Democrats, stabbing them to death with his magic veto pen. Wisconsin grants its governors the unusual power to strike not just line items but individual words and numbers, and to reduce any proposed expenditure. Used infrequently before Thompson, the power in theory makes legislative budgets the equivalent of phone books, ready for gubernatorial cut and paste. Thompson made theory practice, boldly invoking the power some 2,000 times to shape law in his own image, and not once was he overridden. Make no mistake about it--the rube ruled.
Second, don't box him ideologically. Thompson signed one of the nation's most punitive late-term abortion bans (later overturned, with many others, by the US Supreme Court) and is on record as believing that abortion should be criminalized except where necessary to save a woman's life, or in cases of rape or incest. But he's also strongly defended stem-cell researchers (who use extracted embryo cells) at the state university and worked with Madison's liberal US Representative Tammy Baldwin, who happens to be an open lesbian, on women's healthcare concerns.
He has crusaded ceaselessly against welfare recipients, eventually gaining national renown by time-limiting their eligibility for support. (This Wisconsin "miracle" is hardly that. It achieved massive reductions in welfare caseloads by simply losing track of former recipients or dissolving them in a sea of working poor.) But he's also been quicker than other welfare "reformers" to help those once on welfare rolls with expanded childcare assistance and health insurance, and extended those benefits to many others. He killed light rail in Milwaukee and is a god for the state's highway lobby. His most enduring legacy, indeed, won't be welfare reform but sprawl. However, as chairman of Amtrak, he's also recently promoted high-speed rail in the Midwest. As anti-union as the next Republican, he's supported joint labor-management efforts at worker training and job retention. And so on. Always happy to throw big bloody chunks of red meat to the right, Thompson makes deals with others, too. His only limit: "if business does not object."
Third, watch out. Thompson's intelligence and near-feral sense of power, along with his longstanding ties to the Bush family, samurai devotion to the Republican Party and close attention to political detail (not to mention his polished self-caricature as a happy Babbitt from the heartland, brimming with confidence and good cheer interrupted only by occasional tearful confessions of how much he loves public service, or the lightning decapitation of a political opponent) make him a formidable political force. Add in several hundred billion dollars in HHS programs and tens of thousands of lines of amendable administrative program code, and you have something worth worrying seriously about.
Worth emphasizing here is that Thompson is not another half-cocked James Watt. By nature--and despite his Zeus-like reign in Wisconsin--he is a team player who treasures political discipline. But as a political pro, he seldom shows his hand before he plays it, and it is seldom possible to predict just what that play will be. You can only rest uneasy that whatever it is it will come at you full-bore. Prudence recommends both a readiness to respond in kind and more than the usual openness to the possibility of tactical alliance.
Good luck, America.
When W. gave the nod to New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman for the top EPA spot in his administration, the tone-deaf national press corps praised the appointment of a "moderate" (largely on the basis of Whitman's inconstant pro-choice positions). A little digging would have revealed that Whitman has been an unmitigated disaster for New Jersey's environmental protection. Under her governance, fines of air and water polluters have plummeted 70 percent. Indeed, after her nomination the head of the Chemical Industry Council of New Jersey praised her to the Newark Star-Ledger for having restored "balance" to the state's enviro policies after the aggressively antipolluter measures taken by her Democratic predecessor, Jim Florio.
Thanks to Whitman's evisceration of state enviro regs as well as a raft of subsidies and tax cuts to developers, suburban sprawl gobbled up more open space and verdant land during her tenure than at any other period in New Jersey's history. Moreover, she decapitated the state Department of Environmental Protection staff by 738 employees in her first three years in office, cut the remaining staff's workweek by five hours, eliminated fines of polluters as a source of DEP revenue and made large cuts in the DEP's budget. That's why the New Jersey Sierra Club's Bill Wolfe has warned that Whitman might "dismantle [federal] EPA and take it out of the enforcement business. I believe that this is precisely the policy Whitman has presided over and legitimized in New Jersey." One mechanism was the Office of Dispute Resolution, which she established to mediate conflicts over environmental issues (usually resolved in favor of business). She also installed an Office of Business Ombudsman under the Secretary of State (the Star-Ledger labeled it "essentially a business lobby") to further grease the wheels of the bureaucracy for polluters and developers, and to act as a counterweight to the DEP.
If Senate Democrats want to take a serious look at Whitman's record in the Garden State, they should start with "Open for Business," a three-part exposé by the Bergen County Record in 1996. After a ten-month investigation, The Record detailed dozens of cases in which Whitman's corporate-coddling policies had circumvented laws designed to protect the environment. Often, those getting favored treatment were big campaign contributors, like Finn Caspersen, then chairman of Beneficial, at the time the nation's largest independent consumer-loan company. The firm got more than $182 million in taxpayer subsidies in the form of road construction designed to ease traffic around its lavish office complex in Peapack--improvements that increased the value of an open 700-acre tract that Beneficial owned nearby. While all this was going on, Caspersen, his family and their political action committee gave the state GOP $143,250.
A more recent example: For the past three years, Roche Vitamin, a manufacturing plant in Belvidere, has been "belching out 300 tons of methanol annually--at least 10 times the rate state permits allow," according to the Star-Ledger. And Clinton's EPA has been fighting Whitman's proposals to further dilute state regs controlling water pollution and coastal development, which would sanction gigantic increases in pollution and hand over environmentally sensitive lands to rapacious developers. No wonder The Weekly Standard's David Brooks praised Whitman's nomination (and that of her anti-enviro counterpart proposed for Interior, Gale Norton) as reflecting the Bush Administration's "corporate mentality."
Whether the Dems have the stomach for a real fight against Whitman is an open question--her nomination has already been endorsed by her state's influential senior Democratic senator, Robert Torricelli. (Says a knowledgeable state Dem: "This is The Torch's way of paying back [Woodbridge mayor] Jim McGreevey," whose aggressive politicking in the gubernatorial race caused Torricelli to abort his plans to run this fall. "With Christie at EPA, McGreevey's GOP opponent, State Senate president Donald DiFrancesco, becomes acting governor and gets a big advantage.") Whitman and The Torch also get campaign cash from many of the same corporate polluters, and such bipartisan influence-buyers are likely to go all out in lobbying Senate Dems on Whitman's behalf.
Montgomery's transit system isn't segregated anymore. It barely exists.
In Texas, vote-counters routinely count a dimpled chad as a vote
for the candidate because it clearly establishes the voter's intent.
Three weeks ago, that sentence would have been gibberish, a sure sign
that the writer had lost his mind. But I offer it today as the key point
in the debate about who should be President and as proof positive that
the Bush camp is being, to put it politely, disingenuous.
Both Texas and Florida law hold that a voter's intent is all important
in determining how a vote is counted. An indented ballot--the now-famous
dimpled or pregnant chad--has been interpreted in states, from Texas to
Massachusetts, as proof that the voter intended to vote for a particular
All the Florida Supreme Court has done, by a unanimous vote, is to
affirm that the manual count is legal, just as it would be in Texas. So
what's the fuss? Why are all of the Bushies yapping about the possibility
of a stolen election, given that what county election officials are now
doing in Florida has long been the common practice in their candidate's
George W. Bush is acting as if he believes the presidency is part of
his natural inheritance. Otherwise, why wouldn't he gracefully play out
the hand that the Florida Supreme Court has dealt and accept Al Gore's
offer to agree to support the decision of the voters as announced in four
days, a decision that is still most likely to go Bush's way?
Even with the dimpled chad ballots included, Bush may be the next
President, ambiguous though his victory may be. He did, after all, lose
the national popular vote by more than 250,000 votes, which would make
him the first loser since 1888 to squeak through in the electoral
college. But our system requires that, if that happens, he be granted the
awesome powers of the presidency, in which case we should all give him
the respect due to the occupant of that office.
By endorsing the manual count, the Florida Supreme Court made the best
of a bad situation. The Bush team is solely responsible for not
exercising its right--after Gore asked for recounts in several
counties--to request hand counts in those counties where Bush could have
picked up more votes. Instead, Bush and his aides have done their best to
obstruct the fairest way to recount legitimate votes in disputed
counties, and they have muddied the waters with their attacks on manual
counting as some sort of Democratic plot. It isn't, as demonstrated by
the widespread use of this device to check the fallibility of machines
throughout the nation. Imperfect, yes; devious, no.
And what about the other voting irregularities in Florida, most of
which seem to have cheated Gore? The case of the Republican campaign
helpers in Seminole County who were allowed to work in the registrar's
office--some up to ten days--adding required information to thousands of
absentee ballot applications that would have been disqualified; the
flawed butterfly ballots in Palm Beach County; the tens of thousands of
ballots of black voters around Jacksonville that were rejected because of
a confusing ballot that led to double-punching.
The Gore campaign decided against asking that the outcome of the
election be held up pending an investigation of those cases. Gore also
stated that he wouldn't accept any electoral college votes cast for him
by Bush electors in any state, and will willingly accept the results of
the count underway in Florida as a final disposition of the presidential
race, no matter the outcome.
The Bush camp appears ready to accept that result only if its man is
the victor. Toward that end, it is willing to trample on the cherished
Republican principle of states' rights by appealing to the US Supreme
Court to overturn Florida's highest court. It has also threatened to use
Florida's GOP-controlled state Legislature to undermine the court, making
a hash of the principle of an independent judiciary.
The Bush blitzkrieg against the Democrats for exercising their right
to ask for a manual count betrays the bipartisan cooperation that Bush
promised during the campaign. It is neither candidate's fault that this,
the most closely contested election in over a century, has proved so
difficult to call.
Bush probably will win the electoral battle, but he will only emerge
as a true winner by taking the high road now and joining Gore in pledging
to be bound by the vote totals as reported to the secretary of state in
keeping with the Florida Supreme Court's order.
A land-claim suit is pitting Oneidas against other upstate residents.