When the water spilled over the broken flood walls in New Orleans and filled the Crescent City with the backwash from Hurricane Katrina, it was a perfect metaphor for what the Republican Party has done to the federal government.
After all, George Bush's mentor, Grover Norquist, famously said the party's goal was to reduce the size of government by half so that they could drown it in a bathtub. We just didn't realize he meant it literally.
The Bush/Cheney administration hasn't reduced the size of government, of course -- Dubya is glad to push budget deficits into the next generation to make billions of dollars for corporate sponsors such as Exxon and Halliburton -- but he has starved programs that would help working people, as he cut funding from projects such as rebuilding the levees in New Orleans. The money went to more important priorities, such as making war in Iraq and tax breaks for the wealthy. Then, after New Orleans was flooded, he ordered prevailing wage laws suspended -- a move of dubious legality -- so that workers won't see a windfall from Gulf Coast rebuilding jobs even as FEMA was handing out lucrative contracts to Bush and Cheney's corporate friends.
With systematic placement of political hacks, the Bushites and House and Senate majority leaders Tom DeLay and Bill Frist have turned the federal bureaucracy into a graft delivery machine that would make a Chicago alderman blush. The difference, of course, is that a Chicago alderman has to get the potholes fixed and the snow removed.
The determination of the Bush administration to spend billions from the US Treasury without actually helping regular people is a remarkable thing to see. Even after Rita cut a swath through Southeast Texas, knocking out power lines that will take weeks if not months to rebuild, local officials in Beaumont complained that FEMA was still frustrating their requests for assistance. The feds sat on 50 generators in a local park that local officials wanted to power water treatment plants, police and fire departments, hospitals and other agencies engaged in the post-hurricane mop-up. Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith threatened to take them by force, the Beaumont Enterprise reported, but Russell Rickart, a FEMA ideologue, said the federal agency would not jump in until all local and state resources were depleted. "Federal government and fed assets are only brought to bear as a last result," he told the Enterprise.
Time magazine reported Sept. 25 that Bush has gone further than most presidents to put political "stalwarts" in important government jobs with centralized control over the bureaucracy. Internal email messages obtained by Time showed that scientists' drug-safety decisions at the Food and Drug Administration are being second-guessed by Scott Gottlieb, a 33-year-old doctor turned stock picker with ties to the drug industry. At the Office of Management and Budget, ex-lobbyist David Safavian oversaw $300 billion in spending as the chief White House procurement officer until his arrest in September on charges of lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with the federal government. The New York Times on Sept. 27 reported that the Justice Department's inspector general and the FBI are looking into the demotion of a federal prosecutor whose reassignment three years ago shut down an earlier criminal investigation of Abramoff, who is an old golfing buddy of Tom DeLay.
In a separate column, the Times' Paul Krugman noted that regional administrators for the General Services Administration, which oversees federal property and leases, also is a good place to look for hacks. For example, the administrator for the Northeast and Caribbean has no obvious qualifications other than being the daughter of the chairman of the Conservative Party of New York. The administrator for the Southwest, Scott Armey, has little to recommend him other than his father, former House majority leader Dick Armey.
At the Department of Homeland Security, Julie Brown, a well-connected White House aide with minimal experience, was picked to become director of Immigration and Custom Enforcement, a crucial post in ensuring that terrorists do not enter the country again. Myers, 36, is a special assistant handling personnel issues for Bush. She worked briefly as chief of staff for Michael Chertoff when he was at the Justice Department's criminal division, but she barely meets the five-year minimum required by law, Time noted.
Inspectors general are supposed to be the watchdogs at federal agencies, but Time found they may be increasingly chosen more for their political credentials than their investigative ones. The post-Watergate law creating the position of inspector general (IG) states that they must be hired "without regard to political affiliation," on the basis of their ability in such disciplines as accounting, auditing and investigating. But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, found that more than 60% of the IGs nominated by the Bush administration had political experience and less than 20% had auditing experience -- almost the obverse the Clinton administration.
The Times on Sept. 26 reported that AshBritt, a Florida company with ties to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican national chairman and lobbyist, landed $568 million in contracts for debris removal. More than 15 contracts exceed $100 million, including five contracts of $500 million or more. And more than 80% of the $1.5 billion in contracts signed by FEMA were awarded without bidding or with limited competition, the Times reported. Two major contractors, the Shaw Group and Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root have been represented by Joe Allbaugh, Bush's former campaign manager and former director of FEMA.
The administration has been criticized for putting aside $5 billion to buy 300,000 mobile homes to house Katrina refugees in trailer park ghettos instead of providing vouchers to fill some of the 1.1 million apartments that are available in the South. Bush likes vouchers for private schools, but not for housing. Nathan Newman notes that the use of housing vouchers would draw attention to the cuts the Bush administration has made in the Section 8 voucher program in the past few years. "A successful use of vouchers in the Gulf Coast would just make people ask why are we not expanding the program to take care of the housing problems in the rest of the country?" He added, "A lot of people may look at the Bush administration and fear that they will screw up the recovery. But maybe the smart conservatives are actually fearing success -- which would undercut their overall attacks on social programs."
Progressives are rightly frustrated with the corrupt Republican administration and Congress. The best way to bring change is to support progressive Democratic candidates for the House and the Senate. Don't wait for the primary election ballots to be printed next spring to complain that there are no good candidates. Certainly don't wait until the fall to decide that you're going to punish the Democrat who voted for the bankruptcy bill, CAFTA and the war in Iraq. Voting Republican in November isn't going to help anybody you know.
By the same token, I'm sorry, but voting for a Green or other fringe party candidate won't improve the balance of power in Washington, D.C. Get a progressive candidate to run in the Democratic primary who will vote for universal health care, will protect Social Security benefits and will make sure that the government is there for the little guys instead of the big corporations. We need Democrats running hard in every House district next year who will hold Republicans to account for their malfeasances and help make Nancy Pelosi the next House speaker, John Conyers the judiciary chairman and Harry Reid the Senate majority leader. Then we can talk about impeachment hearings. -- JMC