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May 23, 2008


Before we begin, get a wagonload of this. You know the election year farm bill that's been so much in the news this week? The one that gives billions of dollars to very wealthy farmers and landowners passing themselves off as farmers? Well, it turns out that buried deep inside its nearly 700 pages is a hidden, additional $16 billion of taxpayer dough that is, as the WASHINGTON POST reported Wednesday, "lucrative beyond expectations."

True, the bill contains more money for the hungry, but this windfall proves two things: one, before you can help the poor in this country, you have to buy off the rich, and second, so many vested interests have a stake in our government's dysfunction, they don't want to fix it. Just another reason for the candidates - and all of us - to read a new book by one of America's top students of government - Paul Light.

He calls it "a government ill executed" - a phrase from founding father Alexander Hamilton, who warned his fellow architects of our Constitution that "a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government."

Just look at the past six months, says Paul Light. We've seen the federal government at its worst, thoroughly unable to guarantee the faithful execution of all the laws or look out for your interests as citizens.

Where were the watchdogs who should have barked when lenders and borrowers went crazy and sub-prime mortgages began to melt down?

Where were the inspectors before those risky mining practices in Utah led to the deaths of nine men? If you were sitting on one of those grounded airplanes this spring, it's because the FAA had been treating the airlines - not the public - as their customers. When this FAA inspector blew the whistle on his agency - for allowing Southwest Airlines to fly for months without mandatory safety checks, putting lives at stake - his own management threatened him.

DOUGLAS PETERS: On his way out the door he made the following statement: "You have a good job here and your wife has a good job over at the Dallas FSDO. I'd hate to see you jeopardize yours and hers career trying to take down a couple of losers."

BILL MOYERS: It was one more reminder that whistleblowers are often our first line of defense against corruption and incompetence.

VOICE: The question is on passage of the bill…

BILL MOYERS: Congress recognized the importance of whistleblowers last year with bills to strengthen protections for those who speak up about wrongdoing in the workplace. This man, Scott Bloch, is supposed to be their guardian.

SCOTT BLOCH: Wrongdoers and those who retaliate against them - against whistleblowers should receive real discipline to punish behavior, set the example and reassure the public they are protected by effective oversight.

BILL MOYERS: Bloch talks a good game. He was President Bush's choice to run the independent Office of the Special Counsel. He's supposed to make sure whistleblowers aren't punished while their allegations are vetted. He's also supposed to uphold the Hatch Act that forbids partisan political activities in federal agencies.

But this month the FBI seized Bloch's computer and boxes full of documents after someone blew the whistle on him, for allegedly closing hundreds of whistleblower complaints without investigating them, for retaliating against whistleblowers on his own staff, for discriminating against gay employees, and for possibly erasing evidence from his hard drive.

So much for this "independent" watch dog, the administration's own chief enforcer of honesty in government.

That's just the beginning. One federal agency after another has been compromised for partisan reasons.

In a recent survey of more than 1,500 scientists at the environmental protection agency, 60 percent of them - that's 889 scientists - said they had experienced political interference with their work. And their work, remember, is the protection of environmental and human health.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI): Setting aside the statistics or percentages or any conclusions you might draw, just the raw data point of 889 scientists who work for your organization who say that their work has been interfered with politically -

DR. GEORGE M. GRAY: I will say that 889 is a number that is unacceptable to me as the head of the Agency's science and technology office and as the Agency's science adviser.

BILL MOYERS: There have been so many scandals in government it's hard to keep track. Which is why you probably missed the story of Lurita Doan.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D-CA): And I'm very pleased to welcome the Honorable Lurita A. Doan.

BILL MOYERS: Doan headed one of the most important but little known agencies of government, the General Services Administration. It's supposed to be non-partisan, charged with overseeing nearly $500 billion dollars of goods and services for the government…

But Doan, a big contributor to Republican campaigns, allowed Karl Rove's White House deputy, Scott Jennings, to detail a partisan strategy right there in her offices - a violation of the Hatch Act.

REP. BRUCE BRALEY (D-IA): The Committee has been informed by multiple sources that after Mr. Jennings finished his presentation, you stated, "How can we use GSA to help our candidates in the next election?" Now, reminding you that you are under oath, can you tell the committee whether in fact you did make that statement?

LURITA DOAN: I do know that I am under oath, and I will tell you that honestly and absolutely I do not have a recollection of actually saying that.

BILL MOYERS: As evidence against Doan mounted, it was too much for House Oversight Committee Chair, Henry Waxman.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D-CA): It's unusual for me to ever call for the resignation of a federal official. But in your case, I don't see any other course of action. I would urge you to resign.

BILL MOYERS: That was almost a year ago and Doan didn't resign until last month when the White House finally asked her to. Not for violating the Hatch Act but because her ongoing and public feud with her agency's own watchdog had become what her bosses at the White House called "a distraction."

ALPHONSO JACKSON: Madam Chair, I am here to present FY 2009 HUD Budget.

BILL MOYERS: Speaking of distractions, there's Alphonso Jackson, a Bush fundraiser as well as friend and former neighbor. The President rewarded him with a cabinet post running HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a 35 billion dollar agency whose mission, among others, is to help Americans become homeowners.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D-WA): This subcommittee has a tremendously important oversight…

BILL MOYERS: But Jackson, it seems, was also helping friends and cronies get lucrative housing contracts. For half his tenure he's been under investigation and ducking questions.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D-WA): You have an opportunity to set the record straight here and I'm asking you a direct question.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: Therefore I'm going to let the investigators complete their work before I make any public comment.

BILL MOYERS: And, in Philadephia, the city's housing director Carl Greene, says Jackson threatened his agency's funding after he refused to hand over city property worth two million dollars to one of Jackson's friends.

Philadelphia's lawsuit against HUD uncovered this incriminating exchange of email between Jackson's top assistants.

"Would you like me to make his life less happy? If so, how?"

"Take away all of his federal dollars?"

"Let me look into that possibility."

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA): When you have this exchange of email about making his life unhappy and taking away the funding, and "I'll look into that" and then the same day they take action to withhold what is now amounting to 50 million dollars that's just too much of a coincidence.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: As I stated in a memorandum to you. I saw this for the first time on Tuesday. And I am making every effort to get to the bottom of it.

BILL MOYERS: But weeks later, Jackson decided he was needed at home.

ALPHONSO JACKSON: There comes a time when one must attend diligently to personal and family matters.

BILL MOYERS: Even as the president nominated Jackson's replacement, he still had some good words for his good friend Alphonso.

GEORGE W. BUSH: He's worked tirelessly at HUD to help America's homeowners. He has transformed a lot of lives. And America is a better place because of your service.

BILL MOYERS: We've heard that before.

GEORGE W. BUSH: And Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.

BILL MOYERS: You remember Brownie - Michael Brown - the President's man at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Brownie became the personification of high level appointees chosen for loyalty over experience.

Scores of others have won their own brownie points - and lost their bearings - tripped up by conflicts of interest, corruption, or incompetence - they resigned.

If these were simply unconnected anecdotes, it would be one thing. But there's a pattern to them, one our new President is going to have to deal with from day one.

Right away that new President will have to appoint almost 3,000 political executives to oversee the 15 million people who make up the federal workforce.

Paul Light's book pulls no punches, but he also points to changes that could invigorate our government.

So, not only the presidential candidates, but everyone running for Congress should read this book. If our political leaders do not confront this pattern of desperate concern, says this sober scholar, "they are likely to preside over a string of meltdowns that will make the federal response to Hurricane Katrina look like a minor mistake."

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