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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Is Barack Obama Going to Bring the Change that We Really Need?

First a Little Faint Praise

I have very little doubt that Barack Obama is going to be better than George Bush. Of course, that's not exactly saying alot. Improving on George Bush's performance is just not the highest mountain to scale. Being the worst president in America's history and possibly the worst leader in the history of the western world during modern times is no easy task You have to really hone your craft and, as Bush was so fond of pointing out, it's hard work. Yet in just about every category, from abusing the Constitution to starting unnecessary wars and every point in between, Bush managed to excel at being bad.

But the real question here isn't whether Barack Obama can leap that short hurdle of being better than his predecessor. The question is will Obama bring "the change we need" to Washington, as promised, or will it be politics as usual at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Of course, this entails the question of whether someone who has spent the entirety of their adult life learning to work within the system and who would never be in a position to attain the presidency without that system, can be expected to make fundamental changes to that same system. That is the change we really need and it might be a bit of folly to expect that sort of change to come from within the very thing that we hope to see changed. In fact, let's take a look at Barack Obama's first few actions as president elect and subsequently after taking office to see if they can give us a bit of foresight into how much change he is really going to bring.

Barack Obama's Short-Lived Ban on Recent Lobbyists Among Cabinet Members

The prevailing thought is that the reason for all the corruption is the ease with which lobbyists gain access to the government. This is due in large part to career politicians who effortlessly move from jobs either in Congress or as White House staffers into positions as spokesmen for companies lobbying for legislation that will benefit their companies and then, periodically, rejoin government. We're to believe that Barack Obama's administration is going to be different because he has pledged not to allow his cabinet to be tainted by recent lobbyists. To ensure this, one of his first actions was to institute a "revolving door" ban that prevents anybody who has work as a lobbyist within the last two years from being involved in any decisions related to their former employers:

"If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on or in the agencies that you lobbied during the previous two years," Obama said. "When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president."

Problem is that another one of his first actions was to issue a waiver to that rule so that he could appoint a defense contractor lobbyist as the second in charge at the pentagon. William J. Lynn, the new Deputy Defense Secretary (pending Congress' rubber stamp), formerly worked for Raytheon Inc., who just happen to make 90% of their income from Pentagon contracts. Lynn has pledged to sell his Raytheon stock as a way of eliminating any sign of impropriety and something that is being lauded as a great sacrifice even though he stands to profit half a million dollars from the sale.

Another nominee, Mark Patterson, the prospective chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (I'll get to him later), was a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs from 2005 until April 2008, according to public filings. Golman Sachs is one of the largest banking and investment firms worldwide and has a huge stake in the financial bailout which is being administered by the Treasury department.

According to the National Journal Magazine, at least 13 other recent lobbyists are in line for high level positions in Obama's Whitehouse staff including: William Corr, who lobbied through most of last year as an anti-tobacco advocate (deputy secretary at Health and Human Services); Richard Verma, a lobbyist for Steptoe & Johnson (assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the State Department); and Mark Gitenstein, who took a leave from the Mayer Brown law firm last summer (head of the Justice Department's Office of Policy -Development).

In addition, Tom Daschle, the former nominee as Secretary of Health and Human Servies (once again, I'll get to that later), is an "unofficial lobbyist" for the law firm of Alston & Bird. He also earned $220, 000 in speaking fees from health care groups some of which he recieved as late as two weeks ago. Not only that but his wife, Linda Daschle, is a registered lobbyist for a firm that includes health care clients.

Eliminating Earmarks or Just Renaming Them?

Another highly lauded ethics move was Barack Obama's ban on earmarks in the $825 billion economic stimulus package. Problem is that, in order to identify projects for the funding, local mayors and state governors were asked to submit proposals. The vast majority of these proposals have consisted of all the little pet projects that would normally be tacked on to other bills as earmarks. The net result is that the stimulus package has become one enormous list of earmarks and the process has become even more secretive and harder to track.

Some of these "ready to go" jobs eligible for the stimulus plan include: the building of a Metrolink station in Placentia, Calif.; a stretch of beach in Sandy Hook, N.J., that could really use some more sand; and a water park in Miami. Describing it as a "40 year wish list" for Democrats, the Wall Street Journal points to this list of proposals that has little to nothing to do with stimulating the economy: $1 billion for Amtrak, the federal railroad that hasn't turned a profit in 40 years; $2 billion for child-care subsidies; $50 million for that great engine of job creation, the National Endowment for the Arts; $400 million for global-warming research and another $2.4 billion for carbon-capture demonstration projects. There's even $650 million on top of the billions already doled out to pay for digital TV conversion coupons. Yet another list, encompassing 300-plus-pages and totaling $150 billion, by the United States Conference of Mayors includes a skate park in Portland, Maine and a mobster museum in Las Vegas.

Other provisions aimed at special interests, according to MSNBC, include an insurance exemption for companies that work on 65+ foot yachts, the lifting of a Medicare restriction that applies to only three hospitals nationwide, a requirement for the Transportation Security Administration to buy 100,000 new American made uniforms, and $198 million in compensation to Filipino veterans of World War II, most of whom live outside the United States. In addition, plans to include $200 million to resod the National Mall, $75 million to help smokers quit, and $400 million to fight HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases were dropped after they were roundly criticized.

"'No earmarks' isn't a game-ender," said Peter Buffa, former mayor of Costa Mesa, Calif. "It just means there's a different way of going about making sure the funding is there."

"Somebody's going to earmark it somewhere," said Howard Marlowe, a consultant for a coalition working to preserve beaches.

Instead of being spelled out in the bill as earmarks, the money will be allocated at the discretion of federal, state, and local officials with little to no legislative oversight or public scrutiny. Which means that lobbyist will have even more access to those in control of the money except now they will be able to do so indirectly from behind the scenes.

"We hate earmarks, but at least it's a way of tracking where influence is had," said Keith Ashdown of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "There is a challenge now that projects will be added behind closed doors without a paper trail."

Already the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has submitted a list of 5,000 projects totaling $64 billion, which consists of just a list of the number of projects in each state and the overall price per state. The lack of specific information on the actual projects makes it impossible for lawmakers, advocacy groups or members of the public to scrutinize the true nature of them.

What's more striking than the amount of wasteful funding is the scarcity of funds that will go to projects which might actually stimulate the economy. According to the same Wall Street Journal article cited earlier, less than 5% of the $825 billion bill (approx. $30 billion) goes to fixing bridges or other highway projects. Broadband and electric grid development, airports and clean water projects account for another $40 billion in infrastructure related funding. Once you include the $20 billion for business tax cuts, you end up with a grand total of $90 billion out of $825 billion that could legitimately stimulate the economy. This works out to about 12 cents of every $1 in the bill and most of these projects will take a long time to help the economy.

Peter Orszag, the President's new budget director, told Congress a year ago, "even those [public works] that are 'on the shelf' generally cannot be undertaken quickly enough to provide timely stimulus to the economy."

So what exactly is being stimulated with the other $735 Billion, and when will this stimulus actually happen?

At Least We Can Count On Obama to Clean Up the Corruption in Washington

After the corruption and abuses of the last 8 years, the public was tired of constant scandals and partisan politics. Which is why the nominees for both parties ran as political outsiders and reformers. Barack Obama's promises to bring about change and end corruption on capital hill played no small part in his election victory. Yet, just weeks into office, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of partisan bickering or ethics scandals. While you certainly can't hold Obama entirely responsible for the partisanship in Washington, statements like these don't exactly help:

Republicans wanting to play nice with the Democratic majority and the Obama administration will need to quit listening to Rush Limbaugh, Obama said, and get used to the new sheriff in town.

"You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," Obama told GOP leaders whom he had invited to the White House. Obama set up the meeting to discuss his planned nearly $1 trillion stimulus package...

..."I won," he told GOP leaders. "I'm the president."

Meanwhile, even before he got into office, Obama had already lost one of his cabinet nominees to a "pay for play" scandal. This involves allegations that CDR Financial, an investment advisory company, contributed to PACs set up by New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in return for favorable consideration in the awarding of contracts with the state. The post that Obama had nominated Richardson for, Commerce Secretary, oversees both foreign trade and business plus most federal infrastructure related contracts. It would seem that having the head of such a department undergoing a grand jury investigation concerning contract improprieties would be a bad idea, if for no other reason than for the sake of appearances. Especially, when you are trying to convince the public that you are going to end government corruption. However, Richardson was nominated anyway, even though the investigation was already underway and had been widely reported.

Another thing that George Bush was widely criticized for was cronyism among his government officials. One of the worst offenders being former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who was criticized for using his office to push Republican policies and ideology rather than to uphold the law. And yet the new Attorney General under Barack Obama, Eric H. Holder Jr., faces his own criticisms of having a tendency to recommend policies that pleased his superiors rather than what was legally proper during his time as Bill Clinton's Deputy Attorney General. This includes his approvals of the flood of pardons at the end of Clinton's time in office that some have alleged involved payoffs by those pardoned.

The latest development in regards to Obama's nominees is that seemingly none of them know that they are required to pay their taxes. Ironically enough, the leader of the pack is the new Treasury Secretary, who overseas the IRS a part of his official duties. Timothy Geithner failed to pay over $34 thousand during the years he worked for the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2004. His claim is that it was a unfortunate mistake and that he "promptly" paid it as soon as he realized he had made an error. Problem is that every year, when the IMF sent him their portion of the Social Security and Medicare taxes (which is what he failed to pay), they also sent him a statement that he had to sign and send back stating that he was to use the funds to pay those taxes. In addition, an IRS audit of his 2003 and 2004 returns, conducted in 2006, revealed that he hadn't payed those taxes. Yet he still didn't pay the 2001 and 2002 back taxes until after he was informed that he was going to be nominated as the Treasury Secretary.

While Geithner did manage to survive and was confirmed in spite of his tax troubles, two other nominees were forced out by their own tax "mistakes." Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the nominee for the Secretary of Health and Human Services, along with Nancy Killefer, nominated for the newly created position of Chief Performance Officer, had to remove themselves from consideration for those positions as a result of past tax issues. Daschle's case is particularly interesting in that he suddenly realized in June of 2008 that he might owe taxes for the free use of a private car and driver, which was considered a form of income. That just happens to be right about the time when Obama locked up the Democratic nomination and he found out that he might be in line for a cabinet position. Regardless, he still didn't actually pay the back taxes that were due until January 4th of 2009, when he knew that he was going to be nominated. Furthermore, even before those issues came to light, Daschle was already being investigated by the Senate Finance Committee over his use of a company's private jet for trips to the Bahamas and the Middle East, which also could be considered income. Even more troubling, from an ethical standpoint, is that all of these suspected improprieties involve income he earned as an "unnofficial" lobbyist. The reason that he wasn't an official lobbyist is because he had to skirt the Congressional rule that prohibits former members from accepting employment as a lobbyist for a year after they leave office.

These scandals, in which ongoing investigations and previously disclosed improprieties were overlooked, tend to bring into question Barack Obama's true dedication to reforming Washington politics. Another, much more indirect scandal that possibly sheds some light on this question concerns former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached over his attempts to garner favors in return for an appointment to Obama's former Senate seat. While there is no reason to believe Obama or anyone working for him was involved in the scheme, Blagojevich was recorded during the investigation discussing how Obama's "team" had refused to give him anything in return for preference toward their favored candidate. The fact that they didn't agree to participate in the scheme certainly is a good thing, but it does beg the question of whether a reform minded campaign should have reported that a high ranking public official had contacted them about selling a Senate seat.

So Can We Really Expect a Product of the System to Bring About Meaningful Change Within that System?

The problem isn't that Barack Obama is a bad person or that he has bad intentions toward this country. It's not that he himself is corrupt or unethical. The problem is that the political system itself is corrupt. In addition, ultimately Obama, everybody involved in his administration, and everyone else working in politics are products of that system. In order to get elected and to advance through politics a person needs to know how to "play the game" and has to keep people around them that know how politics works. Which is why the same people get recycled over and over again. It's also the reason that it is so hard find people to fill government posts that aren't tainted by the corruption of politics.

"There are two ways to look at this," said Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. "Either he is backtracking on his pledge, or it's that to find the best, the most-experienced people, it's impossible to fill these jobs without hiring people who have been lobbyists. It's disappointing either way, but it seems to be the [political] system we have."

The simple truth is that anybody who truly would change the system would never make it into a position to do so, because they would be filtered out by that system long before they had the chance.

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