DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

Obama Acts on Discrimination

President Obama’s decision to sign an Executive Order banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity by federal contractors is a significant step towards a broader ban than only Congress can establish. As the President noted, Congress has failed to do just that … for decades … and unless voters turn out in massive numbers this fall to cast votes reflecting their anger at Republican lawmakers, it will be a while before the Legislative Branch catches up with the Obama Executive Branch. 

Some supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) may fault Obama for some perceived weakness in the Order.  And needless to say, opponents of ENDA, including virtually the entire Republican Caucus in the House and Senate as well as their “pro-family” activists around the country who fundraise on their bigotry, will huff and puff about misuse of Executive authority. Expect Speaker John Boehner to issue an addendum to his recent (and absurd) taxpayer-funded lawsuit against President Obama for … doing his job (and, not incidentally, doing the job Republicans in Congress are spectacularly failing to do).

Here are a few observations about the Obama decision:

Most important, of course, is that blatant discrimination in employment by those profiting from federal contracts will be prohibited. It seems difficult to believe, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, and 50 years after the signing of the Civil Right Act, that employers are still free to fire (or not hire) qualified men and women because they don’t approve of their private and personal behavior. The President’s action today should not be surprising to anyone. As he noted in his 2013 Inaugural, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”   Republicans may not like the fact that the President acted, but they can’t pretend they were not on notice that eventually, he would counteract their inaction and indifference.

In addition, the Executive Order is noteworthy as another illustration of Obama’s newfound willingness to employ Executive authority when Congress fails to act on urgent priorities. As with his initiatives under the Affordable Care Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and his DREAM initiative under current immigration law, the President is doing what he promised he would do in the 2013 State of the Union message: not allow Republicans to continue to pour sand into the gears of government, complain the transmission doesn’t work, and refuse to take it to the shop to get it repaired. Eventually, Speaker Boehner’s loony lawsuit against presidential initiatives will be heard in a court and thrown out, probably long after Barack Obama is golfing in Hawaii as the former President, but in the meantime, Obama seems intent to utilize the authority Congress regularly gives to presidents to issue regulations to enforce laws, often because legislators don’t want to make the tough implementation decisions.

Obama’s action is also noteworthy because the Order illustrates something which I observed while working with the White House, but which is often overlooked, and that is Obama’s obduracy. True, his willingness to engage in extended and often counterproductive negotiations with implacable enemies can be exasperating, and he should have developed more effective strategies for dealing with GOP nihilism some time ago. But contrary to the popular notion, including among many Democrats, Obama is no pushover. I saw that during the health care negotiations in 2009, after Ted Kennedy’s death cost us our 60 vote majority in the Senate. Some in the White House and Congress argued for abandoning the broad coverage of the proposed law – perhaps limiting it to children (what Speaker Nancy Pelosi derisively termed the “namby panby” option). The popular lore is that Obama waivered and considered diluting the proposed bill to secure passage, but at least from my vantage point, and it was a pretty good one at the time, Obama was dug in and never vacillated. Similarly, he rejected those who argued, in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, for a religious cutout from the new Executive Order on contracting. Obama knows his decision to keep the Order broad will result in a court challenge, but he also knows that even a weaker Order would have similarly been challenged, and he rejected the “namby pamby” approach once again.

Still, some will second-guess the precise language and scope of the Executive Order, and predictably, their criticism will be aimed at Obama and liberal Democrats whom they demand approve a tougher policy. We have seen the same syndrome among climate change activists, for example. Obama seemed to recognize this inevitability, noting “I’m going to do what I can with the authority I have to act [and] the rest of you, of course, need to keep putting pressure on Congress.” That doesn’t mean pressuring Pelosi and other ENDA backers to pass legislation they don’t have the votes to pass. It means doing the hard work of organizing the electorate and motivating turnout to punish those who prevent broader policies from being debate. Criticizing Democratic leaders in Congress is a pointless act of political self-indulgence. When progressive voters are organized and vote, the culture in Washington and the work product on Capitol Hill will become more sympathetic. Standing back and clucking that the current effort is insufficient does not contribute to greater success, which will remain elusive until the caucus of progressives is substantially increased. That work needs to be done in the communities of America (which, incidentally, agree with anti-discrimination policies).

There is one area of caution worth noting. As one who spent nearly 40 years working in the Congress – the first branch of government under the Constitution – I am predictably wary of the potential for the resurrection of the Imperial Presidency. Among the most important congressional reforms of the 1970s were those constraining the President from the unfettered exercise of authority that distorted the balance of power that is, for better or worse, the cornerstone of our constitutional system. Angered by the heavy handedness of Lyndon Johnson on foreign policy and Richard Nixon both internationally and with respect to budget and impoundment over-reach, Congress on a bipartisan basis enacted important steps to constrain an over-eager White House and re-inject itself into critical decision-making. Caution is needed to ensure that, in the desire to facilitate policy initiatives, the proper role of the Congress is not undermined by a White House that can inevitably move more quickly and decisively than a diverse legislative body. However, until Congress proves that it can move at all, its members are hard-pressed to chastise the President for employing the powers he has been given both by the Constitution and by statutes approved by the Congress.

The Port Chicago Disaster — 70th Commemoration

A ceremony was held at the Rosie the Riveter Home Front National Park on July 19th to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster and the ensuing events which have such great significance in the history of the U.S. military and the evolution of the struggle for civil rights in mid-20th century America.  I received the Commemorative Hero’s Award for my work on creating the Port Chicago National Memorial and my efforts to secure exoneration for the sailors wrongly charged, by a racist judicial system, with mutiny.  Below are my remarks at the ceremony:

I would like to thank the Friends of Port Chicago for honoring me with this year’s Commemorative Hero’s Award, particularly our chair, Rev. Diana McDaniel, my fellow board members, and Superintendent Tom Leatherman and his outstanding team form the National Park Service. And especially, I want to acknowledge Congressman George Miller without whose leadership and determination, there would be no Memorial, no pardon of Freddie Meeks, and far less understanding of the significance of the events of July 17, 1944 and their aftermath.

We meet here at a time of momentous milestones. Not only is 2014 the 70th anniversary of the events that led to the de-segregation of the military and helped fuel the modern civil rights movement, but also of D-Day – June 6, 1944 – that marked the beginning of the liberation of Europe. Just 16 days ago, I walked on the beach at Normandy, and I brought back a vial of red sand that I deposited on the shore at the Port Chicago Memorial on Thursday to symbolically link these two places that share such historic significance.

Coincidentally, this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, during which more than 370,000 African Americans served in combat, as well as the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

These are important moments in our national history, and they require recognition and solemn celebration. They changed our country, and they changed the world.

We recall them not simply for reasons of sentimentality but because they compel us to think about something more than our own times and our own struggles. They challenge us to consider how we arrived at this place, the sacrifices that were required, and who we are as a result of these shared experiences. 

These events marking the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster are a good example of why we need memorials and commemorations.

For decades after the war ended, few knew anything about Port Chicago, or the racism that pervaded the military during the War. Apropos of our presence here today, few understood the crucial, changing role of women on the Home Front during the war – not just the Rosie the Riveters who built the Victory ships and tanks right here in Richmond, but also the unprecedented role that women began to play in the nation’s economy.

These events also serve as a reminder that it can be time-consuming and frustrating to challenge old stereotypes and erroneous records. It took an Act of Congress in 1992 to compel the Navy even to review the shameful prosecution of the sailors convicted of mutiny after the explosion. Unfortunately, the Navy refused to overturn the convictions.But as a result of the determination of Congressman Miller, with strong support from other Californians like Barbara Boxer and Ron Dellums, legislation was soon passed creating the Port Chicago Memorial.

Yet even military has begun to revise its views of the Port Chicago disaster and its aftermath. It is worth noting the remarks at the memorial service on Thursday of Lt. Colonel Timothy Zetterwall, the new commanding officer in Concord, which included unprecedented recognition of the Navy’s serious shortcomings in the handling of both the Port Chicago facility and the prosecutions that followed the disaster. That acknowledgement is a very important step.

When I began researching Port Chicago back in the mid-1980s, I remember calling an African-American veteran who had served there at the time of the explosion. Like many others, he had put the memory of that terrible night far behind him. He had rarely discussed his experiences even with his own family. Yet, when I told him I was calling to talk about his recollections of July 17, 1944, he quietly said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this phone call.”

My work on Port Chicago conjures up a number of such vivid scenes for me:

  • Percy Robinson, Robert Routh and Yale Lewis telling me of having to write home for gloves to prevent their hands from being cut in the loading of weapons — because the Navy would not supply them;
  • how a trumpet, sent by a worried parent, resulted in a fortuitous assignment to the base band instead of an assignment loading the E.A. Bryan on that night 70 years ago.
  • the unapologetic testimony of the purported “ringleader,” Joe Small at a congressional hearing when we began the effort to create the National Memorial;
  • the quiet dignity of Freddie Meeks when Rep. Miller and I visited him shortly after the issuance of the pardon by President Clinton in 1999 – the aging photos of him in his Navy uniform still proudly displayed in his living room.

After the story of the pardon appeared in the newspaper, many people wrote to Mr. Meeks to share their own recollections and emotions. One told Mr. Meeks, “Your fight is not just for you, or just for black people, but for all people. The United States is still on the path to Freedom and Equality. You have helped us stay on that path.”

Out at Normandy last month, I saw a few of that Greatest Generation wearing their veterans’ caps, carrying canes and riding in wheelchairs pushed by children or grandchildren. They had brought their families back to France, to that hallowed beach, to create a personal connection to that shattering experience – to ensure that they would always remember the sacrifices that were made for future generations.   It is in that same spirit that we continue our efforts to explain the significance of Port Chicago to our children and grandchildren.

When I wasn’t working late nights in the Congress or helping my wife raise our two sons, I also composed and recorded songs, including “The Ballad of Port Chicago.” I’d like to close by reciting to you the last verse and the chorus, which seem appropriate to today’s celebration. It goes like this:

And out in California, a flag still flies today,

Right where old Port Chicago stood

Before it blew away.

It waves there to remind us brave men served there once and died

And we must fight for justice still

That’s why they gave their lives.

Chorus:

Oh, my, what a terrible sight

The sky blew apart with a thundering light

And all those boys were blasted right

To Kingdom Come on that terrible night.

Their legend lives on and it’s quite a tale.

Half a hundred went to jail.

They took a step down freedom’s trail

Those Port Chicago boys.

When the National Anthem was played at the Port Chicago Memorial during Thursday’s memorial service, a flock of pelicans appeared from nowhere and suddenly formed a perfect “V” for “Victory,” hovering high over the fluttering flags until the song ended, and then disappeared, as did the 320 victims of the Port Chicago explosion.

I am very grateful to you for recognizing my work for this important cause, and I salute all those committed to telling the story of Port Chicago.

The Paradox of Governing

The unexpected defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Tuesday’s Republican primary highlights a dilemma that increasingly confronts congressional leaders of both parties. There are demanding leadership responsibilities associated with managing Congress as a co-equal branch of government, made all the more challenging by the tight margins that foster daily strategic and parliamentary combat, and the changing rules on campaign finance. Those who rise to the highest levels of national leadership in an ideologically polarized House, where the battle for control is a constant strategic concern, often must perform in ways that do not measure up to the expectations of their core partisans back in the district who send them to Washington.

Cantor, it has been noted, is the first Majority Leader ever defeated in a primary. (Speaker Tom Foley lost his seat in the 1994 Republican landslide that cost Democrats control of the House.) His loss is closely linked to his increasingly prominent role in the House and party leadership where his duties led him to act in ways that left him vulnerable to critics in the hard core base that often decides primary elections. In Cantor’s case, his complicity as Majority Leader in maneuvering the surprise voice vote passage of the Medicare “doc fix,” (which infuriated the Tea Party faction) or hinting that he might be open to a negotiated compromise on immigration, did not square well with the hard Right base he helped create and which puts little value on conciliatory behavior.

There are important historical observations to be drawn from the Cantor collapse. Over the past 40 years since Watergate and Vietnam, Congress has steadily reasserted itself as a co-equal branch of government, rejecting the deference to the the imperial presidency that often treated the First Branch as an afterthought. Members of the House and Senate have not only challenged presidents of opposing parties during frequent periods of divided government, but often have confronted executives of their own party who took Congress for granted. Republicans voiced concerns with conservative icon Ronald Reagan over such basic issues as raising taxes, and Democrats were unsparing in their anger at Bill Clinton for his triangulating compromises with Speaker Newt Gingrich on welfare reform and other issues. Many Democrats share congressional Republicans’ irritation at a perceived coolness towards Congress by President Obama, and privately express concerns about his use of signing statements, pioneered by George W. Bush, to qualify the scope of measures he signs into law.

To emphasize Congress’ equal status with the Executive Branch, leaders have increasingly promoted their own legislative agenda rather than defer to the Administration, as was often the case historically. More than any other modern Speaker to that point, Jim Wright in the late 1980s issued a legislative program distinct from the Reagan White House, whose Teflon clout had been diminished by the Iran-Contra scandal. Gingrich went several steps further with the development of the “Contract With America,” which he used to castigate long-term Democratic hegemony over Congress during the 1994 election which resulted in a Republican majority in the House. Gingrich explicitly articulated his desire to re-establish the Congress as a co-equal branch of government, asserting, “The Congress in the long run can change the country more dramatically than the President. I think that’s healthy. One of my goals is to make the House the co-equal of the White House.” A dozen years later, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi promoted a legislative package – “Six for ‘06” – that she pledged a Democratic House, under her speakership, would enact in its first 100 hours and that President George W. Bush would sign. She was right on both accounts.

As the Congress’ profile has risen under both parties, the demands on, and expectations of, party leaders have changed. Since 1994, there has often been a biennial contest for control of the Congress and the narrow margins between the parties make the outcome a genuine question throughout an entire Congress. Those tight margins and battles for control necessitate constant expansive fundraising, a burden that often falls to the high-profile leaders, those who can fire up the base where most of the contributions and reliable votes are found. Electorally-driven behaviors like these that play to the fervent base of voters and contributors contribute invariably to the rise in partisanship that has characterized congressional politics for a generation or more.

Leaders like Cantor, Pelosi and Speaker Boehner always need to keep a close eye on constituents who may not understand or agree with their impure actions as leaders. On the one hand, they promote party loyalty by highlighting issues of concern to their respective bases, without whose money and turnout they cannot hope to gain or maintain control. But they also face the inescapable duty to address national concerns, though only minimally under the current Republican majority.  As a result, leaders spent vast amounts of time traveling away from their districts – identifying and promoting candidates, raising money, speaking to constituency organizations, and feeding the local press. They have no choice; in an era where personality often matters more than policy, there is no substitute for a highly familiar face appearing in person at far-flung fundraisers, conventions and county fairs.

But time on the road means less attention to the home district, and when grassroots constituent groups question a Member’s primary loyalty to the district, that can spell trouble, even for a prominent national politician who can be accused of falling in love with his title, his obsequious staff, or his hyper-inflated entertainment budget.  

Leaders have to govern, especially if they assert the equality of Congress in the policy-setting process. But the compromises required of effective governing rarely involve serving up the red meat that satisfies the revved-up base. Pelosi faced criticism from leftist groups because several liberal touchstones — tough restrictions on corporate pay in the TARP legislation in 2008, the Single Payer option in the Affordable Care Act in 2010 – lacked the votes to be included in the final version of urgent legislation. As a result, throughout her speakership, the hard-line Code Pink maintained a nearly constant presence outside her San Francisco home, excoriating her for passing appropriations bills that funded the troops during the Iraq War which neither they nor she supported, but which she dutifully brought to the floor to allow the House to work its will.

Boehner apparently will not give the House the same option on issues that would secure a large majority vote, like immigration; instead he allows the minority of his own Conference to stymie the House from acting on a bipartisan basis that would surely light up the Tea Party base. Boehner has come under relentless criticism for cutting deals with President Obama and House Democrats throughout his term, especially on must-pass bills like Continuing Resolutions, the raising of the debt ceiling, and the expiration of the upper income Bush tax cut in 2013. Without Democratic votes, none of these measures would have passed because of widespread Tea Party defections within the GOP conference. Yet Boehner had little choice but to reach the best agreements he could with Obama and Pelosi; when he allowed negotiations to collapse and the government shut down last year, as the hard-liners had demanded, the result was a political and public relations disaster for Boehner and Republicans from which they were rescued only by the botched roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.

Throughout most of those battles, Cantor was a constant thorn in Boehner’s side, walking away from deficit reduction negotiations to which the Speaker had (perhaps cynically) appointed him, and undermining the Speaker’s standing with Members and the press. Ironically, Cantor’s downfall is being attributed to his own flirtation with conciliation on immigration and specifically on the question of a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally. True, Cantor may have been motivated by a recognition that absent a policy overture to the growing Latino population, Republicans face a grim electoral future. But party zealots rarely think long term, focusing instead on electing ideological loyalists, and the more hard-line, the better.

Cantor’s rejection by the constituents he long served illustrates how the practical demands of leadership can draw a leader away from the very base he creates to build political victories. Electorally, leaders play to the base while institutionally, in a Congress that seeks legitimacy as a co-equal branch of government, leaders must make the system work, if only marginally. An extreme base, inclined to become inflamed at anyone who even hints at compromise, need not be respectful or tolerant of those leadership obligations or to the responsibility of governing.

Kaddish for Cantor?

One can only imagine the guffaws and fist bumps pervading Speaker John Boehner’s office tonight with the report that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was taken out in Virginia’s Republican primary by a Tea Party hardliner named … please … David Brat. It looks like this David has truly laid low the Goliath of the House GOP, and Mr. Cantor is the one singing Kaddish.

That there is no love lost between Cantor and the House Speaker is not an especially well-kept secret. What makes tonight’s upset defeat delightfully ironic is that Cantor, who has spent the last three and a half years whipping up right wing dissatisfaction against Boehner’s alleged moderation, is himself the victim of accusations of collaboration.  In the past, I have directly heard quiet comments from those in Boehnerland whenever Cantor’s bravado and snarky style got him into trouble. Tonight, I imagine, the atmosphere in the Speaker’s Office is unadulterated glee.

It seems there are several explanations for Cantor’s collapse, most especially the widely reported suggestions that he might be willing to entertain some compromise with the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill that provides, under rigorous conditions, a potential path to citizenship. For months, I have told my classes at the University of California campus here in Washington that there was no chance House Republicans would consider action on the Senate bill until after the primaries were concluded. It was obvious that any Republican incumbent who even remotely suggested a path to anything but deportation was inviting a primary challenge. If the Senate bill was to be considered, surely it would only be after the opportunity for hardline Tea Partiers to file against vacillating incumbents had passed; and even then, I have been skeptical given the ability of grassroots Tea Party activists to launch write-in movements. Cantor’s defeat makes it clear that House Republicans will not only never agree to a compromise, but will not even take up immigration this year except, perhaps, to pass a hair-raising anti-immigrant bill.

The certain abandonment of immigration reform by Speaker Boehner (unless he is thinking about an early retirement himself) has profound implications for 2016 and perhaps even for some districts in 2014. It is extremely unlikely now that the GOP will include anything but a Tea Party-friendly immigration plank in their 2016 platform, and prospective nominees will have to hone a very anti-Latino line to be anywhere near the Convention when the platform is adopted. The impact is to further alienate the Latino vote, and especially the younger Latino vote, which might have been approachable had the GOP accepted Speaker Boehner’s immigration proposal a few months back. Boehner withdrew the plan within two days after harsh reactions.

There will be plenty of analysis of Cantor’s defeat over the next few days, but I will speculate that Mr. Brat owes some thanks to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. By raising the prospect of expanding Medicaid through Executive action rather than allow the Republican Senate to kill it, I suspect that McAuliffe helped flare up the Tea Party electorate who were looking for someone to get angry with, and they found Eric Cantor.

If there is a serious silver lining in Cantor’s defeat, it is that money does not always determine the outcome of elections. Brat reportedly spent about $200,000, although that doubtless was supplemented by lots of independent expenditures that targeted Cantor, like the PAC formed by Brat’s former strategist. Still, Cantor had more than $5 million that couldn’t defy a grassroots uprising. Somewhere, campaign reform activists must be smiling, although grimly.

Maybe Cantor will figure out a way to reappear on the November ballot and fight for his seat, but for the moment, it is satisfying to think about how entertaining Congressman Brat will be come next January. He may have a PhD (in economics, like former Majority Leader Dick Armey), but he has a lot to learn about how Washington works. He was, for example, recently quoted as speculating that a House Member would have to pay $150,000 to secure a seat on the House Ethics Committee, perhaps the most undesirable appointment one can receive!   I suspect there are many time more Members who would pay $150,000 not to be on Ethics than pay a dime for the honor.

For Boehner, the short-term satisfaction of ridding himself of the backstabbing Cantor is not likely to last long. Cantor’s loss is a further illustration of the volatility of the Republican grassroots and the uncontrollability of the GOP House Conference, all bad news for a Speaker who, at the unveiling of Rep. George Miller’s portrait last month, mused about their days as chairman of the Education Committee, when people who disagreed still were able to legislate on a bipartisan basis. Instead of trending back towards that nostalgic professionalism, the signs tonight point to his facing, at the beginning of the 114th Congress, an aptly named Brat Pack of hardline conservatives for whom inaction and gridlock are certain signs of strategic success.

 

The Deadbeat Cowpoke (and Other Hypocritical Chiselers)

The press can’t get enough of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who uses an armed posse to defy government bill collectors while tossing off racist bromides. Even conservatives like Senators Rand Paul and Dean Heller decided to back off from their reflexive support for his anti-Washington babble that concealed his long practice of chiseling the taxpayer.

Bundy’s views on minorities – few of whom are responsible for implementation of grazing fees on public lands – reveal not only his antebellum intellect, but also his wry sense of irony.   Bundy castigated African Americans as perhaps having been “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life” than they are living “under government subsidy.

Bundy’s fulminations against those who live “under government subsidy” is nothing short of absurd given the billions of dollars in public subsidies lavished not only on public land grazers but on many other private interests who fatten their wallets off free and reduced price exploitation of publicly owned resources.

Two decades ago, I was the staff director for the House Natural Resources Committee when President Bill Clinton decided to bump up the ridiculously low fee for grazing livestock on public lands to help pay for land management improvements necessitated, in part, by overgrazing of cattle. (That was not long before Bundy decided he just wouldn’t pay his grazing bills at all; he is now a $1.1 million deadbeat cowpoke, according to the Bureau of Land Management, which runs the grazing program for the Interior Department.)  

The ranching community and its elected officials in Congress promptly lashed out at Clinton and his Interior Secretary, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. Having been through resources battles in Congress over onshore and offshore oil and gas drilling, Western irrigation water, and mining, I had a pretty good idea of the reception awaiting Babbitt when he stopped by the committee offices before the hearing at which he was to be pilloried.

“I’ll tell you, John,” Babbitt confessed, describing the beating he was taking on the other wide of the Capitol. “Those senators are as bad as the Arizona State Senate!” I laughed and replied, “Mr. Secretary, believe me, they are a whole lot worse than the Arizona State Senate!”

Nothing aggravates Western free marketers more than the notion that they should pay the public a fair return for their use of taxpayer resources. Mining conglomerates, agribusinesses, oil and gas drillers and proud ranchers like Cliven Bundy conveniently forget who owns the raw materials they use to build their private fortunes, and have a tendency to convert federal leases, permits and contracts into permanent property rights for which they need pay little or nothing to the owners: the American public. Listening to them complain about the interference of the federal government in their private companies conjures up memories of the misguided picketer outside the Capitol during the health care debate in 2010 waving a sign that demanded, “Keep the government out of my Medicare.”

When Clinton proposed raising the antiquated fees in 1993 for ranchers grazing their livestock on nearly 300 million acres of federal lands, the response was seething. A renewed “War on the West.” Echoes of President Jimmy Carter’s crackdown on boondoggle water projects that also crippled a young Democratic presidency. The proposal, which of course was shot down by the ranchers’ defenders in Congress, would have made modest adjustments in the grazing fee but left the federal rate many times lower than the price for cattle grazing on private lands. The reform would have raised about $25 million a year according to the Congressional Budget Office (others say that figure is far too low), a tiny fraction of a rounding error in the federal budget, but it was $25 million too much for the 3 percent of ranchers who were lucky enough to have federal permits.

Oil and gas companies that pump from public lands similarly make off like bandits (and very profitable ones, too) by shortchanging the taxpayer. Like the ranchers and farm program beneficiaries elsewhere, they have no greater protectors than the self-professed conservative politicians who lecture us about “running government like a business.” Overseas, these same companies pay foreign governments royalties of 70-80% for the privilege of pumping public resources. Not here. Companies typically pay anywhere from 12.5% to 16.6% in royalties after having plunked down “bonus bids” – the cost of anteing up in the offshore lotteries – that may be a complete waste of money (if the land is dry) or a ridiculously low bid (if it is productive). Back in the 1970s, an ad hoc select committee of the Congress authorized the Interior Department to utilize a number of alternative royalty arrangements to yield a better return to the taxpayer; needless to say, the pro-industry Interior Department ignored those options.

Catering to the oil industry was not unique to the Reagan-Bush Administrations. In the 1990s, to entice these same companies to explore for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico, the Clinton Administration and the Republican Congress gave away leases royalty-free. The purported intent was to induce companies to drill in more perilous “deep” waters that were actually far less deep or dangerous than the wells they already were producing in the North Sea. Dubious of the need for such an incentive, I asked oil company executives whether the promise of royalty-free oil would entice them to bid on deep water tracts they otherwise might avoid. Every executive told me the same thing: “I would no more make a decision to invest a billion dollars in a deep water rig based on the reversible promises of the Congress than I would consult a Ouija board. If you want to give me royalty-free leases, go ahead and do it, but it won’t affect my decision to bid or not to bid.” Taxpayers have lost tens of billions of dollars for that needless giveaway, and recent efforts to recoup the losses, before handing out new leases to the same companies, have been blocked in Congress by conservatives.

Even so, the offshore fiasco looks good compared to the onshore giveaway of resources. For years, until Congress changed the law in the 1980s, the Department of the Interior gave away onshore leases for oil and gas for less than $10, regardless of the value of the land. Sure, much of it was worthless; but a lot of it wasn’t, and the companies got the profits while the taxpayers got the shaft. An uncle of mine in Texas told me about the lottery for onshore leases which he heard about on a matchbox cover – he was furious that he hadn’t won one — and I dismissed him as uninformed about leasing procedures … until a friend in the Interior Department glumly confirmed his story.

Mining corporations enjoy the public’s resources as well without adequate compensation, and have fought off reform for a century and a half. Under the Mining Act of 1872, stakeholders can mine for valuable mineral resources on public lands and pay taxpayers: nothing! A succession of reformers has tried in vain to modernize this law and secure royalties – to make government run “more like a business” – but principled conservatives in Congress, and the resource companies they shill for, have obstructed mining reform efforts for decades.

And then there is irrigation water. Giant farmers in California’s Central Valley have become enormously wealthy and politically powerful thanks to multi-billion dollar federal water projects that are massively subsidized by taxpayers. Beneficiaries repay a share of the project’s cost without interest over 40 years, or more, and receive water under contracts whose prices are locked in for decades. (Urban water beneficiaries pay interest on their project repayments, and pay much higher prices for the water they receive, but 80% or more of the project water goes to the subsidized irrigators.)

The massive farm subsidies were originally justified a century ago because the projects were built under the Reclamation laws that promised to deliver the benefits to small, family farmers. Instead, agribusinesses with good lawyers and lapdogs in the Interior Department cornered most of the water and use their profits to fight reform laws in the courts for years. They almost always lose, but in the meantime, they are pocketing billions. The mega-farmers are still reaping the subsidies – hundreds of millions of dollars a year – often on farms that run to the thousands and even tens of thousands of acres. Much of the subsidized water is used to grow crops that we pay others not to grow, or that are ill suited to desert agriculture, or that receive crop subsidies in addition to the water subsidies.

Cliven Bundy is a mean-spirited racist backed up by whack-job militia extremists who think it’s their constitutional right to point automatic weapons at federal officials defending the public’s resources. But he is also emblematic of the hypocrisy and greed of the conservative movement which talks tough about cutting government waste and protecting property, but whose loony theories and profligate policies run up record deficits while abandoning responsibility to manage the public’s resources: water, oil, gas, mineral rights, timber – as well as grazing lands. “Run government like a business? “ Please.

The Deadbeat Cowpoke (and Other Hypocritical Chiselers)

Maybe I Was Wrong…

Over the past fourteen months, I have been writing, teaching and speaking on the state of American politics. Buoyed by decades of successes in many policy battles, my perspective has frequently been at odds with the prevailing grim assessment: however dismal the current state of U.S. politics, I reasoned, this condition is part of a cycle from which we will emerge when a more enlightened electorate – and special interests as well – decide there is a need for effective governance.

But several recent developments have led me to entertain the idea that I may have been wrong; that the rot goes far deeper and is more sinister, and therefore will be far more daunting a challenge to reverse.

How can a system go, I asked, from being “the most successful Congress in 75 years” to “the worst Congress ever” in just 3½ years? This same institution created historic legislation during periods of divided as well as unified government, even in the midst of bitter political campaigns. Surely that that system surely had not “failed.” Rather, the problem is that effective control has passed from skilled legislative leaders to ideological nihilists for whom failure is success because it reinforces the popular notion of governmental incompetence.

The event that has me questioning my prior optimism is the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, but my concerns go well beyond this single case. The deeper issue is that McCutcheon, like Citizens United, enshrines a broader trend in which enormous concentrations of wealth are replacing democratic and egalitarian methods for shaping public policies. The dangers posed by the drift (or lurch) towards oligarchy are far more difficult to remedy at the ballot box than is the temporary dysfunctionality in Congress.

Abraham Lincoln warned that concentrated capital had become “enthroned” in the political system and he worried about an era of “corruption in high places … until the Republic is destroyed.”

What might Lincoln have made of the twisted opinion of Justice Anthony Kennedy who declared he saw nothing wrong with money being used to buy “influence over or access to elected officials”? What makes McCutcheon so much more appalling than Citizens United is that, at least in the case of the latter, one could naively assert (as did Chief Justice John Roberts) that little damage could come from ending restrictions on contributions.

Roberts was cringingly wrong. The 2012 election cycle was a smorgasbord of campaign gluttony, with super PACs, tax-exempt nonprofit organizations and businesses spending over $1 billion – a third from undisclosed donors. Overall, three times as much was spent to influence elections in the 2012 cycle as in the prior two. And while President Obama’s campaign raised much of his sizeable war chest from small donors, think about this: 100 of the wealthiest Americans contributed nearly $340,000,000 to superPACS.   Anonymously.

This cycle, it is estimated, groups affiliated with the Koch brothers are spending over $33 million to sustain a media offensive against potentially vulnerable Democratic senators — eight months before the election.

But this hostile takeover of elections by the super-affluent is only part of the impact of massive wealth on American democracy, part of a shift of influence, agenda-setting, and governance away from the broad majority and elected leaders and into the privileged and largely unaccountable hands of those with great private wealth: young and old, Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative. Almost every day, it seems, some multi-millionaire or billionaire is announcing a new initiative to promote his or her own private policy agenda, some laudatory, some ludicrous; some designed to benefit the country, some designed to further enrich the rich. Increasingly, political issues and political movements are created not by mobilizing the grassroots, but by creating the grassroots — with lots of green fertilizer.

When Republicans won back control of Congress in 2010, one of the first folders I made to track political developments was titled “Income Inequality.” From past encounters with Republican majorities, I had a pretty good idea of what was coming. Today, the file is bulging. The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s overall income in 2012, the highest proportion in the century for which there are records. According to a study by Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Gabriel Zucman of Berkeley, affluence is now super-concentrated not just in the wealthiest one-tenth of one-percent, but the wealthiest one-hundredth of one percent.   This hyper-concentration of affluence is part of a longstanding trend beginning with the Reagan Administration’s policies that favored the rich and smashed the unions of the middle class, according to a 2010 study by economists Carola Frydman and Raven Saks, a trend that by 2012 saw U.S. CEOs earning not 11 times the salaries of their employees, as in Europe, but 200-300 times.

The Congress responded to such stunning wealth polarization by permanently increasing the threshold for the mega-millionaires’ estate tax in January, 2013 and permanently indexing it. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a similar indexing of the minimum wage or the Child Tax Credit, which benefit low- and middle-income workers (and the economy).

This concentration of wealth allows a small number of absurdly wealthy players to sling around exaggerated influence in the halls of Congress, in foundations and NGOs, in think tanks and the media – all of which they often own or control. Increasingly, given a legislative process that is hamstrung and immoveable, this private money is bypassing the electoral system and generating policy on its own.

The expanding power of concentrated affluence is evident in the growing prominence of institutions financed by the same privileged pockets – think tanks that promote self-serving issues, publish studies, propose legislation, advocate positions all without a shred of the accountability or transparency designed to be woven into the public process. That same elite funds many of the foundations and the non-governmental organizations that influence policymakers, elevate the prominence of their issues with the press and media, and determine which researchers will be funded, all without a whit of need for balance or public accountability. As dollars for public spending, including peer-reviewed research, have dried up under the relentless budget cutting, these private sources of money and influence are shaping not only the design of policy, but its implementation as well.

The influence of money is further enshrined with the ability of the super-wealthy to buy and control the increasingly partisan media outlets that allow them to amplify their agendas and their self-interests. Designed to entertain as well as to propagandize, these sources do a far more effective job at distorting the record and super-charging the public debate than most of the plodding hearings on Capitol Hill, to the extent there are hearings any more.

Affluent people and organizations obviously have the right to promote whatever activities they choose. But when they do so without any public accountability or balance, and, more ominously, when the public sector effectively retreats from a responsible role in prioritizing public policies, key decisions are dictated by elite, privileged, non-transparent private interests with private agendas. That isn’t democracy.

Balance and fairness are supposed to be safeguarded in a democratic society by chosen and accountable leadership, but that role has been crippled by the courts and the political process itself.

The dilemma of democracy is not unique to the United States, which makes the trend even more disturbing. Stein Ringen of Oxford University has noted that ancient Athens, the world’s first democracy, imploded when the “super-rich refused to play by the rules and undermined the established system of government. When money is allowed to transgress from markets, where it belongs, to politics, where it has no business,” Ringen notes, the wealthy “get two swings at influencing politics, one as voters and one as donors.”

A similar observation was issued last year by the Transatlantic Academy, a group of think tanks which ominously warned, “Democracy is in trouble” because “the collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding.” Harry Reid recently put it more bluntly, as Harry Reid is wont to do. “[W]hat is un-American,” the Senate Majority leader said, “is when shadowy billionaires pour unlimited money into our democracy to rig the system to benefit themselves and the wealthiest 1 percent.” 

Who can blame the cynical, frustrated, increasingly disengaged citizenry – particularly young people – for doubting whether a system of governance designed to permit majoritarian rule can flourish when government is regarded as the enemy and decision-making is usurped by those whose claim to leadership is based on their prowess at selling petro-chemicals, or pharmaceuticals, or software, or overpriced coffee. And while a new generation of billionaires has emerged from the technology boom, it is worth recalling that much of the opinionated plutocracy comes by its affluence, as Ferdinand Lundberg noted three decades ago in The Rich and the Super-Rich, not from its own wisdom and creativity, but from inheritance.

As an historian and as one who worked in government during decades of phenomenal productivity, I am reluctant to fully embrace such a profound and demoralized outlook. But it seems that the underlying reasons for much of what confronts and confounds us today lies deep in the national DNA and far from remediation by a favorable election outcome, whatever that might be. To the extent to which a revitalization of democracy requires an aggrieved (and hopefully, an informed) citizenry to mount the barricades (or at least show up to vote), I worry that the years of denigrating democracy and its product, government, have taken their toll among much of the public.   I still believe that the revitalization of the democratic spirit is possible, but it would be nice to see some evidence that such optimism is justified.

 

Member Departures Not Prompted by November Prospects

Political analysts are always quick to impute motives to the career decisions of politicians, and Capitol Hill observers are having field day with the recent retirement announcements of top Democrats John Dingell, George Miller, and Henry Waxman.  Predictably, commentators interpret such decisions from an institutional perspective that emphasizes the impact on Congress.  More specifically, they conclude that the decisions were predicated on the Members’ estimation of the likelihood of Democrats regaining the House majority this November.  

Republicans also are quick to interpret retirement decisions in optimistic electoral terms.  “The House Democrats don’t think they’re going to be wielding the gavels,” chortled Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), who chairs the Republican Congressional Committee. Walden and other Democratic doomsayers conveniently overlook the fact that half of those retiring from the House in November are Republicans, including former chairmen and other senior Members like Spencer Bachus, Buck McKeon, Doc Hastings and Frank Wolf.

My point is not so much to predict what will happen this coming Election Day – winning back control is always tough and the sixth year of a presidency presents special challenges – but to point out that decisions to run or retire are more often motivated by personal timetables and agendas than by trying to read political tea leaves eight months down the road.  Two months is a lifetime in politics.  I remember telling a Republican friend in the fall of 1994 that he was about to become the majority and he was shocked; similarly, until the Member scandals hit in mid-2006, the chances of Democrats taking back the House were far from certain, even with the 6th year curse and President Bush’s helpful proposal to privatize Social Security. 

Making the decision to retire can be a tough one even for people who have spent decades in the turmoil of Capitol Hill.  Leaving the familiarity and support structure of the House is a very challenging decision (I know because I did it a year ago after 38 years, albeit as staff, not a Member).  For veterans like Dingell, Miller and Waxman, who will be highly valued in the private or non-profit sector, the specter of losing that familiarity must still be daunting.  They have spent their entire lives in electoral office and currently rank 1, 29, and 30 in terms of historical longevity out of 10,156 men and women who have ever served in the House.  Being a senior Member of Congress isn’t just a job; it is a big part of who you are and how you conceptualize every aspect of your life, and I don’t mean the glory and prestige, of which there is surprisingly little, especially after decades.

Sure, it is gratifying to have the room applaud when you are introduced, to have audiences rapt with attention as you describe the intricacies of the budget process, and to grill uncooperative witnesses at hearings and write laws on issues of great significance.   But the novelty and glamor quickly wears off , while the job, especially in a contentious political environment, remains filled with stress and uncompromising personal demands.

Disapproving constituents often ask about Members’ limousines or other amenities, and many are disbelieving of the lack of luxury that goes with public office.  Members face the same personal and financial burdens as regular citizens whether it be the costs of college and child care, or the difficulties of scheduling family time.  Many worry about the financial sacrifices their families are making, if not now then in retirement, so that they can pursue a very gratifying career that while comfortable, is unlikely to make one wealthy.  Most Members are working around the clock in Washington and their districts, with incessant demands for personal appearances, meetings and fundraising.  When district appearances require weekly transcontinental flights (as Miller has undertaken every week for 40 years) or plane changes in unpredictable hubs with long car rides afterwards, the commute is brutal.  And then the town hall meetings start. 

Now, no one needs to feel sorry for Members of Congress; they chose the jobs, and they can leave anytime they want with plenty of people anxious to walk into the meat grinder that is House politics.  So it should not be surprising when some who have enjoyed decades of achievement, while enduring decades of stress, decide to explore other options while there is time to do so.  Dingell declared he didn’t “want people to say I stayed too long,” and at age 87 with 58 years in the House under his belt, he is probably pushing that rationale to the limit.  Waxman, who will be 75 when he departs, decided, “if there is a time for me to move on to another chapter in my life, I think this is the time to do it.”  And Miller, who arrived with Waxman in 1975, says, “I look forward to one last year in Congress fighting the good fight and then working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me. 

With the exception of Dingell, who termed serving in the current House “obnoxious,” (while nevertheless endorsing his wife, Deborah, to replace him), those who are departing have been remarkably uncritical of the institution (although understandably disapproving of the current, dysfunctional  management).  Among the former chairmen, all enjoyed lengthy periods in the majority as well as in the minority; all put their names on historic (and bipartisan) legislation; all know that politics runs in cycles that are both favorable and frustrating.  Sure, if they were sitting in the big chair with gavel in hand, they might not walk off; but deciding now to leave, with the inevitable uncertainty about the majority next January but no doubt about the sacrifices and stresses of two more years in the job, is not the same as writing off the party’s chances eight months out. 

What undoubtedly will suffer is institutional memory, particularly the recollection of the traditional, orderly legislative process where subcommittees and committees actually met, conducted serious hearings, drafted and marked up legislation that predictably went to the floor, and where House-Senate conference committees resolved differences – the quaint old textbook flow chart of legislation, long since consigned to piles of undistributed official “How Our Laws Are Made” pamphlets.  That process has largely vaporized over the past 20 years as the closeness of party margins, the existence of intra-party schisms, the chronic fight for control, and the emergence of the perpetual campaign have necessitated tighter discipline and more strategic maneuvering by the leadership on both sides.  Today, what political scientist Barbara Sinclair once termed “unorthodox lawmaking” has become the new normal, and many of those who will serve in the 114th Congress will never have known anything different in Washington.  David Goldston, a former skilled Republican staffer now works at the Natural Resources Defense Council (and doesn’t that make you sit up straight?) laments for all of us, “Congress is increasingly left with people who not only don’t know how to do those things; they don’t know that they can be done.”

“I was never in awe of the ‘indispensable man’ theory,” George Miller recently told a reporter, and one of the other retiring Members – not one of those I have mentioned – recently told me that the only truly indispensable Democrat is Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose skills at managing the diverse Democratic Caucus and securing funds to run competitive races is simply unparalleled.  And she recently announced she is running again.  Those who might think she is unconvinced of her ability to pull of an electoral victory in November, that she might simply be going through the motions, don’t understand her unquenchable dedication to her mission: money, message and mobilization.  If and when she resigns herself to another two years in the minority – and don’t hold your breath waiting for that – the pundits will have the material they need to conclude Democrats are faltering.  But when Members decide that after 40 years, or 58 or similarly extended service they would like to just do something else, to escape the pressure cooker, regardless of the possible outcome on Election Day (and with reasonable expectations their successors will also be Democrats), I am inclined to take them at their words, and wish them well.  They’ve earned it.

 

The Republican Reliance on Mendacity

The dust-up over the recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) illustrates a well-documented truth: underlying a substantial proportion of Republican policies is a persistent absence of truthfulness. Ultimately, one challenge conservatives will confront in improving their miserable brand is that so many of their policies and arguments are insincere, hypocritical or downright misrepresentations.  And sooner or later, a political platform constructed on a foundation of mendacity will crumble, although I wouldn’t place a bet on when that might happen.

The response to the CBO report offers a dramatic illustration of the longstanding Republican reliance on the twisting of truth in pursuit of political objectives.  “By 2017, CBO projects that people will be working fewer hours precisely because of the incentives created in this law,” Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan breathlessly noted, “and these changes disproportionately affect low-wage workers.”   The Wall Street Journal similarly intoned on February 4 that “the new health law is projected to reduce the total number of hours Americans work by the equivalent of 2.3 million full-time jobs in 2021.”

“ Translation,” Ryan helpfully explained, “Washington is making the poverty trap much worse.” 

If Ryan is going to add “translator” to his many skills, he needs a good “English to English” dictionary.  His explanation is not what the CBO said at all.  Rather, CBO noted that some workers would no longer feel compelled to stay at a job simply to qualify for the health insurance the employer provided.  Instead, workers – whether low income or not – could look for other jobs, increase volunteer activities, retire, take care of their children or elderly parents, or elect to do many other activities that help their families and their communities without being trapped by the very “job lock” that Ryan and other conservatives decried only a few years ago.  Eviscerating those who seek to escape the “job lock” that conservatives identified as a goal of any health reform plan is sort of a first cousin to Republicans decrying the socialistic “individual mandate” in the ACA which originated with the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton health care bill in the early 1990s.  Besides, I thought conservatives wanted Americans to spend more time strengthening their family units.

Hypocrisy and mendacity are the sine quo non of Republican rhetoric.  Sure, Democrats exaggerate and tweak the truth, but not with the reliability and venality that has come to be the hallmark of the Right.  Indeed, the underlying (and highly successful) strategy of Newt Gingrich, Frank Luntz and Karl Rove is to apply an ominous appellation to a Democratic target and hammer relentlessly, regardless of the  inaccuracy or hyperbole of the accusation).  The strategy is hardly novel, but no group in American politics has played it as cunningly or uninterruptedly as the Hard Right. 

The Right’s obsession with prevarication is not limited to misrepresenting what Democrats say or do, e.g., alleging “death panels” as a central tenet of the ACA, or asserting that a tax on estates that kicks in at $3 million would pose a danger to small business owners and farmers.  The most central tenets of conservative thought are premised on ideologically inspired balderdash that persists despite years, even decades, of disproof.  Think: lower taxes will cut deficits, or the corollary, slash discretionary spending to reduce deficits (while preserving low tax rates for the wealthiest.  I won’t even reiterate the shameless hypocrisy of Republicans who castigate federal spending, including the 2009 stimulus, while simultaneously pulling strings to ensure their districts secured funding from the law.

Which brings me to a new outrage that is even more stunningly egregious than the misrepresentation of the CBO report.  Not content with raising vast sums of money from fat cat right wing special interests, Republicans have now embarked upon a cynical strategy to mislead Americans into funding efforts to defeat Democratic candidates.  The plan is almost stunning in its cynicism and deceit. 

The clever conservatives of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) have been quietly buying up dozens of URLs to confuse contributors who intend to donate to Democratic candidates.  In fact, the money will be used against the very same candidates.  Hilarious!  Worthy of Dick Tuck, a master political trickster of the 1950s – but not the agent of a national political party.   To date, the Republicans have created at least 15 deceptive sites featuring large photos of Democratic officeholders or candidates, and including the candidate’s name.  Even a careful reader could be forgiven for believing that a web page that screams, for example, “Kirkpatrick for Congress,” is likely to be raising money for Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat.

But according to the fine print, the money will be used against Rep. Kirkpatrick, who is described as “a huge embarrassment to Arizona.” If you read the fine print.  Which many do as often as they read the “terms and policy” on other websites before clicking “accept.”

An NRCC spokesperson not only confesses to the orchestrated deception, but promises to roll out many more misleading URLs during the election season, siphoning needed funds away from Democrats and into the pockets of their GOP opponents.   One need not be a Democratic sympathizer to be appalled by the NRCC ruse; Time magazine asserts that the “NRCC has set up that are clearly designed to trick the viewer.”  Not to be deterred, GOP spokesperson Daniel Scarpinato responds by asserting that Democratic websites are similarly “deceptive” — because they do not acknowledge a candidate’s support for President Obama’s programs.  Scarpinato declares he is “proud of this program.”

Fortunately, the NRCC’s deceptive behavior is receiving the legal response it warrants.  The Democratic Committee of Atlantic County (NJ) will file a complaint challenging ads being run against Bill Hughes, Jr., who is running against longtime incumbent Rep. Frank LoBiondo.  Expect more lawsuits to follow.

But it should not take litigation to shut down such blatantly deceptive tactics.  Federal Election Commission regulation 102.14 prohibits an unauthorized committee like the NRCC from using a candidate’s name in an advertisement like the websites.  Former FEC general Counsel Larry Noble, who now runs the bipartisan Americans for Campaign Reform, has little doubt the phony websites violate FEC rules.  But Republicans have obstructed enforcement actions by the equally balanced FEC which, under the best of circumstances, is unlikely to act during the current election season as the fake websites proliferate and siphon off Democratic dollars.

If lawsuits and regulatory action are unlikely to halt this latest example of the NRCC’s reliance on deception, maybe Democrats should offer Republicans the old bargain devised by Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 presidential campaign. If Republicans stopped telling lies about him, Stevenson offered, he would stop telling the truth about them.  Not a bad bargain, but then again, it would leave Republicans without much to say.

 

 

California Needs Water Reform, Not Hot Air

 

It might come as a surprise that House Republican leaders, who have wasted hundreds of hours (and millions of tax dollars) “repealing” the Affordable Care Act 45 times have a more cynical way to waste the time of our nation’s legislators while ignoring the urgent needs of the American people.   If all goes according to plan, sometime next week, Republicans will pass a bill to end the drought plaguing California, overturning decades of balanced, negotiated, collaborative legislation and judicial opinions on which modern water law is based. 

Now what makes this exercise in hydropolitics especially ludicrous is that this bound-for-oblivion bill — H.R. 3964, the   Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act – has never been the subject of Committee consideration.  Or subcommittee consideration, for that matter.  That’s because it was introduced … two days ago.  By 15 Republican House members who, with one exception have never been even marginal participants in the hair-pulling world of California water politics.  You know this all-GOP maneuver is doomed from the get go when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who can be overly sympathetic to the Valley’s water barons, dismisses the legislation in the strongest terms. (Sen. Barbara Boxer probably won’t even waste her breath commenting on the atrocity.) 

For the vast majority of Americans, water has little to do with politics.  But in the arid West, beyond the 100th meridian, and especially in California, hydropolitics are the political equivalent of a schoolyard knife fight, with big knives.  Government can always print more money to address the deficit, but you can’t create more water to address a drought.  For over a century, engineers, ranchers, farmers, city planners, and others dug, drilled, diverted and dammed their way to bigger and bigger supplies. In the middle part of the last century, environmentalists successfully entered the fray, demanding that proper water management reflect more than simply maximizing diversions.  Reformers during Democratic and Republican Administrations were able to legislate and litigate protections for sensitive estuaries and fisheries that had been decimated by the inability of politicians to say “no” to irrigators (who use over 80% of the state’s water).

What makes the misallocation of water in California so absurd is that the heaviest users are also the most heavily subsidized – by taxpayers (yes, like the legislators they elect, these welfare famers are also conservatives who love to denounce government spending and federal involvement in private industry, but let’s let that hypocrisy go for the moment).  Over the years, often with the compliance of a somnambulant (if not complicitous) Bureau of Reclamation, irrigators gobbled up the lion’s share of the state’s water as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in annual subsidies.  Water was used to irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of low-quality lands (the Bureau, asleep at the switch again), to grow crops that were either ill-suited to desert cultivation or that taxpayers were paying farmers elsewhere not to grow. Or both.

Congress finally started getting its hands around the crisis in the 1970s and over the next 20 years wrote laws to reduce subsidies, protect the areas where the water originates, improve water quality, rejuvenate fisheries, and create balanced mechanisms for modernizing water management and planning future development.  The response of the big irrigators was less than cooperative; fat with taxpayer subsidies, they remain content to spend a tiny percentage of their annual profits on legal fees that obstruct implementation of reform laws, challenge judicial decisions, and complicate essential federal-state cooperation.  One can walk away from California water politics for a number of years (as I did last decade), return, and find the players and the positions virtually unchanged, and the problems unsolved.

One of the reasons hydropolitics is so fascinating is that it is, in microcosm, an illustration of so much of what is wrong with our political system, especially the malevolent and pernicious influence of big money on behalf of unworthy causes.   If Valley irrigators did not have the billions dollars in profits provided by taxpayer subsides, they could not afford to perpetuate decades of litigation to prevent reforms that have been approved on a bipartisan basis in Congress, by the courts and by regulatory agencies.  In the past, when Members of Congress tried to push their irrigation constituents to accept reasonable changes, they were literally ordered to walk away from the negotiating table.

California, and much of the West, have serious water misallocations, no question about it. Unlike other states, however, California remains obdurate about initiating necessary reforms. 

  • Unlike almost every other Western state, there is no effective groundwater management program, so aquifers are being mined faster now than before construction of the massive state and federal water projects that were designed to relieve groundwater overdrafts. 
  • Poor quality land is still irrigated without any drainage plan decades after the discovery of serious biological hazards linked to drainage contamination.  
  • Low-quality lands are being irrigated, mainly to pump up their “value” in hopes that if the federal government buys out the farmers, the land will be considered “productive” and therefore, cost taxpayers more to retire.
  • Some urban areas still refuse to install water meters to measure consumption. 
  • Twenty year old efforts by Congress to promote waste water reuse are drastically underfunded by the Bureau of Reclamation, which equates the pouring of concrete with success. 
  • Farmers who were supposed to pay off their interest-free loans for water projects not only are decades late in doing so, but will remain several hundred million dollars short when the new due date is reached in two decades. 

Nor has the state government been much of a help.  Gov. Jerry Brown, whose father concealed the real costs of the State Water Project he built as Governor in the 1950s, continues to promote a multi-billion expansion that will damage the environment and fisheries but leave in place many of the wasteful practices of the past; and his cost estimates are highly suspect, too.

So next week, House Republicans will offer up their drought “solution,” having involved none of the state’s multiple interests in developing or approving their ridiculous, doomed proposal.  At least they are straight-faced about their real goals.  Right up  there, in sections 101 and 103, H.R. 3964 directs the Secretary of the Interior to “renew any existing long-term repayment or water service contract that provides for the delivery of water from the Central Valley Project for a period of 40 years.” At the “lowest reasonable cost.”  Translation: ignore decades of laws, court opinions, negotiations, state-federal collaborations, investigations, exposes, scandals and environmental nightmares.  Keep doing exactly what we have been doing for another 40 years, at the cheapest rates possible, regardless of the fiscal, environmental and political chaos that has roiled the state for a half century. 

It is safe to predict that after the House passes H.R. 3964, each of those 15 Republican congressmen will send out press releases extolling their extraordinary achievement in securing vast additional water guarantees for their districts.  But it is all a bunch of hooey.  H.R. 3964 is simply the latest in a long series of deceitful maneuvers that substitute symbolism for the hard work it takes to address a tough environmental, economic and political challenge.  California needs water, not hot air; what’s coming next week is a lot of the latter, and it will not deliver a thimble of additional water to anyone.

 

 

 

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