Tilting at Windmills

March/ April 2013 McCruzyism … Too big to jail … Wake up, Democrats

By Charles Peters

Wake up, Democrats
It’s time for Democrats to wake up to the need to get out their voters in nonpresidential election years. This is where Republicans have been winning races for state legislature, governor, attorney general, and the U.S. Congress. The state legislatures, with their governors’ consent, determine how redistricting is done for both their own seats and for members of Congress. They and the attorneys general determine state voting laws, and how those laws are enforced.

Allowing Republicans to win so many of these elections has landed us in the mess we’re in today, with the House Republican majority and the Senate Republicans’ abuse of the filibuster combining to produce a paralyzed government.

Remember 2010, when liberal intellectuals devoted most of their time to criticizing Obama for not being perfect, and allowing Republicans to win far too many state and congressional races. Similar sitting-on-hands in nonpresidential election years has been a curse for the Democratic Party for as long as I can remember—but there have been exceptions that prove what can be accomplished. In 1934 and 1974 there were Democratic landslides that took seats that had seemed permanently Republican. So it can be done, and now’s the time to do it. There are gains to be made in this year’s legislative and gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey.

She’s back!
In our last issue, I lamented the disappearance from the news of Paula Broadwell and the Kelley sisters. I am thus happy to report that Jill Kelley has stepped forward to fill the vacuum by granting interviews to Jeffrey Rosen of the New Republic and Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast.

Kelley told Rosen that she was speaking to him in pursuit of her new cause of protecting the individual’s right to privacy. According to Rosen, Kelley “compared herself to Erin Brockovich. She promised that briefs would be written and bills passed about her case. She said: ‘I have the resources that I can make a change in the world, whether it was diplomatically, which was my last life, or now it would be constitutionally. It’s all part of democracy and freedom.’ ”

God, how I love that woman. By the way, have you considered the possibility that General Allen corresponds with her because he has a sense of humor?

Who’s not intimidated?
The Washington Post captured what seems to have been the general reaction to Chuck Hagel’s testimony at his confirmation hearing in this excerpt: “Hagel struggled when Lindsay Graham asked him to expound on his past assertion that the Israeli lobby ‘intimidates a lot of people’ and challenged him to point to a single senator who had been intimidated. ‘Now, name one, name one,’ Graham said, eliciting a meek response from Hagel who said, ‘I do not know.’ ”

What could Hagel have said in response? Should he have singled out one senator when it was true of the majority? Most members of Congress, definitely including Lindsay Graham, and indeed most presidents in my memory, have been keenly aware of the power of groups like AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

As long ago as 1980, in the first edition of How Washington Really Works, I told of the reaction to Senator Charles Percy’s modest criticism of Israel, as described in a memo to him by a member of his staff a week later: “We have received 2,200 telegrams and 4,000 letters in response to your Mideast statement. They are 95 percent against. As you might expect, the majority comes from the Jewish communities in Chicago. They threatened to withhold their support in the future.”

It is not that AIPAC or its allies represent the majority of the Jewish community, but they certainly do represent a very vocal and well-heeled segment of it. And it seems to me that when Hagel’s testimony is discussed, the reality of that segment’s influence should be acknowledged. Not only the Post but very few other media outlets rose to that challenge.

Too big to jail
Were you as alarmed as I was about the state of our big banks by recent articles by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, and by Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger in the Atlantic? If not, consider a report from this winter’s World Economic Forum by Rana Foroohar of Time: “one of the world’s richest hedge funders,” Elliot Management’s Paul Singer, said that “even his team of skilled analysts couldn’t make heads or tails of the trading positions of major global banks.”

Or how about the report by Jonathan Weil of Bloomberg, which addresses the question “How did JPMorgan’s chief investment office, which manages deposits that the bank hasn’t lent, go from being a conservatively run risk manager to a profit center speculating on higher-yielding assets such as credit derivatives?” It was a transformation that recently caused the bank to lose $6 billion. The man who “pushed” for it? None other than Morgan’s CEO himself, Jamie Dimon.

Another criminal escapes?
Timothy Cannon, that Federal Emergency Management Agency official who we reported in the last issue was charged with helping the Gallup Organization secure a $6 million FEMA contract as he was being offered a job with Gallup, has pleaded guilty. What we hadn’t known was that the job he was offered paid $175,000 a year.

Ironically, after Cannon had done the deed and Gallup had been awarded the contract, Gallup decided that it might get into trouble for hiring him and withdrew the job offer. Cannon, who is sixty-three, faces up to five years in jail. But maddeningly, Gallup and its employees, who appear to have engaged in bribery, have escaped punishment entirely.

Yeah, that Sentelle
On Friday, January 25, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the D.C. Circuit handed down a decision declaring unconstitutional three recess appointments made by Barack Obama. The media described the decision as a “blow” to the administration and as a “victory for Republicans.” The Washington Post told of the decision in its lead story on the front page, giving it a total of twenty-eight paragraphs with a four-column headline on the continued page. But with all that, it never managed to mention the fact that each of the three judges on the panel, including its chief, David B. Sentelle, was appointed by a Republican president.

The most revealing indication that Sentelle is not a friend of Democratic presidents: it was Sentelle who, after consulting with the Republican senators, Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, from his home state of North Carolina, led the judicial panel that named Kenneth Starr to be the independent counsel investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the Whitewater real estate deal and the death of White House Counsel Vince Foster.

When an exhaustive inquiry into those matters failed to yield any misdeed by the Clintons, Starr asked the same panel, again led by Sentelle, for authority to extend the investigation to Bill Clinton’s sex life. That, in turn, led to what I am sure will be remembered as one of the more absurd episodes in American history: the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about an adulterous affair, as has every single spouse I have ever known who was similarly involved. Sentelle’s reward: a job for his wife in Senator Faircloth’s office.

When the wire service beats the Post
There may be some excuse for the Post not giving the historical context about Sentelle and Starr—neither did the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Associated Press. But the fact that the judges were appointed by Republicans was noted by all but the Post. Indeed, the AP had the most thorough account of the judges’ backgrounds. Which brings me to a suggestion I have for the Post. Now that the paper is suffering from an ever-dwindling staff, why not use the AP for stories that it can do as well or better than the Post? The Post would then be free to use its own reporters, many of whom are highly gifted, to do in-depth reporting about important issues, a rarity in the world of Twitter dee and Twitter dumb.

More than anything we need what I call preventive journalism, stories that inform us in time to fix problems before they become real headaches. The Post itself is providing an example with a series of stories by N. C. Aizenman about potential pitfalls in the implementation of Obamacare.

So a tech geek walks into a bar …
Another comment on the Age of Twitter comes from an article in the Style section of the New York Times about a San Francisco bar called Jones. It seems that Jones has instituted a new policy, proclaimed by a sign in its entrance: “You’re now entering a technology and device free zone.” In order to help its patrons engage in normal human conservation, the bar provides them with a Mason jar labeled “Digital DeTalks,” filled with suggestions on one-liners designed to start conversation, as well as “various analog distractions” to “ward off withdrawal: board games, butcher paper and markers, colored threads for friendship bracelets.”

Afghanistan for Afghans
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a long article by Yaroslav Trofimov about the prospects of the Afghan troops going it alone after American soldiers are withdrawn. The article could not be deemed entirely optimistic, but it did have a quote from an Afghan district governor that struck me: “Before, the Taliban were telling everyone they are fighting to free our country from the foreigners. So now, I will be telling the elders: There are no foreigners anymore, just the Afghan troops, so come on over to our side.’ ”

Turning the corner?
In the decline into selfishness and greed that has been the story of America from at least the early 1980s until very recently—and I may be optimistic in using those last three words—the moment that most clearly signaled the beginning of that era was when California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1979. This was the measure that enabled owners to hold down their property taxes, which provided local funding for public schools. It had great appeal to those who were childless, whose children had left school, or who were affluent enough to afford private school—and who were selfish enough not to care about what happened to other people’s kids.

Thirty-three years later, in November 2012, came what I hope is a turning point. California voters passed Proposition 30, providing for higher taxes that will help finance the public schools. There seems a chance that this country could return to the willingness to share both society’s benefits and burdens that has been characteristic of it at its best.

(Don’t) pay it forward
Just after I wrote the preceding item, I picked up the New York Times and found myself confronted with a story that seemed to suggest my optimism had been premature. Headlined “California School Finance Upgrades by Making the Next Generation Pay,” it describes a financing device called “capital appreciation bonds” that enables school districts to borrow building funds for which they can delay “payment for years, or even decades.” For one loan, the Poway Unified School District has borrowed $105 million that it does not have to begin repaying for twenty years. So I have to face that this is not exactly a clear step in the right direction. Still, it’s better than not building schools at all. And I continue to believe that Proposition 30 is a hopeful sign.

McCruzyism
When we watched Ted Cruz’s comment on Chuck Hagel during the Senate Arms Services Committee’s confirmation vote, those of us who are old enough to remember Joseph McCarthy felt we were seeing a ghost. Not only does Cruz look like McCarthy—the main difference is he’s cleaner shaven—he uses one of McCarthyism’s favorite tactics. Here’s what he said: “We do not know, for example, if he received compensation for giving paid speeches at extreme or radical groups.… It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.”

The doubt becomes an accusation, without a shred of proof. In the McCarthy era, people were actually fired from government jobs because they might be communists, without any proof that they were, beyond the accusation.

Fasten your seat belts
One would have thought that after that terrible regional jet crash outside Buffalo that cost forty-nine lives in 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration would have acted to eliminate the causes of the crash. It turns out that the agency did impose some new rules requiring pilots to get more rest between flights. According to Joan Lowy of the Associated Press, however, the FAA still has not acted on proposals to increase the amount of experience required of pilots, to provide pilots with more realistic training, and to have experienced captains mentor less-experienced first officers. The agency has also failed to establish a centralized, electronic database of pilots’ flying skills. Such a database would make it easier for airlines to hire the safest pilots. So why hasn’t the FAA acted? The AP story doesn’t say, but in my experience, the main reason for inaction is that a lobby, in this case that of the aviation industry, has more influence over the congressmen that control the agencies’ budget than any consumer or safety group.

In the lobby’s pocket
The extreme example of a lobby’s influence is the power the gun industry’s National Rifle Association exercises over the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A recent article by Peter Finn and Sari Horwitz of the Post explains the extent of the NRA’s sway. Because of the NRA, the ATF has fewer agents than it did in 1970, takes up to eight years between inspections of gun stores, and is prohibited from creating a searchable database of gun ownership. Over the last six years, the Senate, because of pressure from the NRA, has refused to confirm the appointments of the director of the ATF by either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

Another assignment for the Post
Sequestration provides another example of the kind of story I wish the Post would do. All the stories I have seen seem to accept the Pentagon’s claims that the planned budget cuts would do harm to essential defense. Of course, taken together, it is clear that the size of the cuts would almost certainly damage the economy and some parts of our defense, but common sense suggests that there are sensible cuts to be made at the Pentagon.

My own experience in government long ago taught me what I call the “Firemen First” principle, meaning that an agency, faced with a budget cut, will quickly announce that those cuts will result in the loss of its most essential service—firemen, for example—while the excess bureaucrats at the head-
quarters go unmentioned.

Slice this layer cake
These excess bureaucrats are the subject of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary for policy at the Department of Defense during Obama’s first term. One example she gives is that over the past decade in the Pentagon, defense agencies, and defense headquarters staff, “the number of DOD civilians increased by more than 100,000, to roughly 778,000 in 2010.”

Flournoy, who also served at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, says that the 600 people working in policy in the ’90s had, by the time she returned, “grown to nearly 1,000.”

One method she suggests for eliminating the excess employees is “de-layering.” If that term mystifies you, “layering” refers to the tendency of a government employee to want to be a chief, and when he gets to be a chief, to have deputy chiefs and assistant chiefs to make his role seem more important. Then new titles for new layers of bureaucracy have to be invented so the chiefs, deputies, and assistants can be promoted, and so on and so on.

When more is better
Though it’s true that some budget cuts can be made, it is also true that more government spending is often needed—in improving the nation’s infrastructure, for example, or in strengthening the enforcement arms of the Internal Revenue Service and many regulatory agencies, which Republicans regularly gut because of their biases against taxes and regulation. Thus we need reporting that helps us sort out not only where agencies need less money, but where they need more.

Dangerous minds
I am a supporter of stringent gun control, but I am troubled by the conviction of some pro-control advocates that their position is somehow weakened by conceding that serious mental health problems contribute to the violence. The Gabby Giffords shooting in Tucson, the shooting at the Aurora movie theater in Denver, and the shooting at the primary school in Newtown were all committed by men who were quite obviously mentally ill.

Years ago, after we had been shocked by movies like The Snake Pit, we decided to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, but as the psychiatrist Fuller Torrey pointed out in these pages a decade ago, we neglected to fund enough outpatient mental health clinics. Those that were funded tended to favor the easier-to-treat neurotics, rather than the more difficult, potentially violent patients. And few of us have wanted to face the difficult problem of how to compel the potentially violent to take the necessary medication.

Do you get a promotion for finding bin Laden?
Speaking of promotions, Maya did not get one. In case you’ve not seen Zero Dark Thirty, Maya is the name the movie gives to the CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain, who single-mindedly pursued her belief that al-Qaeda’s network of couriers would eventually lead to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout.

She was proven right, of course, but along the way, she managed to antagonize the many other CIA officers who were wrong.

The promotion she was denied was from GS 13 to GS 14. There are about 120,000 GS 14s in the civil service. In other words, it’s not exactly a Congressional Medal of Honor-type distinction, but more an expected rite of passage for someone of Maya’s experience. One of her colleagues, explaining her problem to Greg Miller of the Post, said, “She’s not Miss Congeniality”—but, he added, “that’s not going to find bin Laden.” I agree. It sounds very much like she should have been promoted. At the very least, the fact that she was denied a promotion should have received much wider attention from the media.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.