You have probably read about the Republican efforts to make it difficult for poor Democrats to vote. In order to register to vote, the people of Kansas, for example, are now required to prove they are citizens with a birth certificate or other document. Then when they go to the polls, they must produce a government-issued photo ID. These requirements are supposedly aimed at preventing fraud. But, as an editorial in the New York Times points out, “Kansas has had only one prosecution for voter fraud in the last six years,” and concludes, “because of that vast threat to democracy, an estimated 620,000 Kansas residents who lack a government ID now stand to lose their right to vote.”
You go to war with the war you have, not the war you want
The Pentagon is organized to plan a war, not fight a war, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently observed. This is gospel truth, and it is why billions of dollars have been wasted on weapons systems designed for wars that aren’t happening instead of the wars we have actually been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is why simple things like body armor and IED protection were so long neglected.
Stalled on stalls
In May the Federal Aviation Administration issued proposed rules requiring adequate crew training in how to handle engine stalls. The catch is—or, rather, the catches are—first, that they come more than two years after the Colgan Air crash near Buffalo that cost fifty lives because the pilots did not know how to deal with a stall; and second, that they are only “proposed,” with the final rule, according to Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, “still likely years away from taking effect.”
The reason is that the FAA is allowing the airlines time to comment. Now for what is totally infuriating: the FAA had already issued a version of the proposed rules in 2009, and the new proposed rules were announced only after the airlines had two years to comment and complain.
To sleep, perchance to crash a jetliner
I believe that most federal employees are generously compensated, taking into account their salaries plus pension and health benefits. But some crucial fieldworkers are underpaid. As we recently pointed out, this was certainly the case with oil rig inspectors in the former Minerals Management Agency. Now as we read about sleepy air traffic controllers in the press, we learn that the Bush administration cut their starting salary down to $30,000 in 2006 in some parts of the country. Controllers were moonlighting to supplement their income.
To accommodate underpaid controllers who needed time to work their second jobs and to promote long weekends for other controllers who were adequately paid, the FAA allowed them to set their schedule as follows: two evening shifts, followed by only eight hours off before a pair of day shifts, and then another quick turnaround leading to a midnight shift, giving the controller very long weekends that lasted from early Friday morning till late Monday afternoon.
It also was a schedule almost guaranteed to produce drowsiness in the control room. Now salaries are being raised—but the schedule is only being slightly amended, meaning, of course, that the hazard of sleepiness continues, which in turn means that the FAA has to use extra controllers to make sure someone is awake.
Prestige for rent
Magazines as respected as the Atlantic, in an understandable search for fiscal survival, have drifted into potentially dangerous relationships with corporate America. The problem is illustrated by recent issues of the New Republic and the New Yorker. After the New Republic had cosponsored a conference with the nuclear power industry, the inside front cover of its May 26th issue contained an ad for that industry featuring a photograph of the New Republic’s editor, implying that the magazine endorsed nuclear power. And after the New Yorker had cosponsored a conference with the University of Phoenix, that institution ran a four-page ad in the magazine flaunting the relationship. I was shocked. The University of Phoenix has been shown to be a business that finances itself with loans given to students it has enrolled without regard to their qualifications and who often prove unable to repay the loans, leaving the federal government, which had guaranteed them, holding the bag. It is well known that the admissions counselors for the university were paid on the basis of the number of students enrolled, without regard to the merits of the student.
The Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is removing the name of Frances Perkins from a state facility. For those too young to be offended, let me explain: Perkins, a Maine native who became the first woman to be named to a president’s cabinet, was a great secretary of labor in the 1930s and ’40s. She also wrote one of the most perceptive books about her boss, Franklin Roosevelt, called The Roosevelt I Knew.
The grass is greener—dangerously so
Of all the problems in the federal government, the one that worries me the most is the increasing number of public servants who look forward to cashing in by selling their expertise to corporations or lobbying firms who will give them cushy jobs when they leave government service. Far too often, their anticipation of this outcome leads them to curry favor from their future employers while they are still in government service. A recent example is Meredith Atwell Baker, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, who “criticized the FCC’s review of Comcast’s joint venture with NBC/Universal for taking too long,” reports Cecilia Kang of the Washington Post, “and voted in favor of the merger.”
In June, she got her reward: a nice job with Comcast.
The Securities and Exchange Commission requires that its former staff members file a statement if they plan to represent a client before the commission within two years of leaving. The Project on Government Oversight, headed by Danielle Brian, one of Washington’s savviest critics, has found that between 2006 and 2010, 219 former SEC employees filed 789 such statements. They were so eager to cash in that they couldn’t wait two years.
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