Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Contracting–What Were They Thinking Edition

One of the unfortunate things about the daily tweet-storms and other indignities coming nonstop from the White House is that they inevitably distract us from the multiple reports of more long-term, ongoing damage being done by this Administration.

Case in point: Puerto Rico, where last week’s explosion at a power plant has once again deprived those who had actually gotten their power back of electricity.

For that matter, Trump has shown far less concern for the inhabitants of Puerto Rico than he has for the sensibilities of aides who are having a “bad time right now” because word of their wife-beating emerged. (Of course, people in Puerto Rico are brown…) His appointees at FEMA have made “Heck of a job, Brownie” of  Katrina infamy look almost competent by contrast.

First, there was the award of a 300 million-dollar contract to a two-man firm (“coincidentally” from Ryan Zinke’s home town) to restore power on the island. That generated enough blowback that it was terminated, but not before the entire fiasco further delayed efforts to return Puerto Rico to a semblance of normalcy.

Now, we learn that this is who got a $156 million Federal Emergency Management Agency contract to deliver 30 million meals in a matter of weeks:

[Tiffany] Brown, who is adept at navigating the federal contracting system, hired a wedding caterer in Atlanta with a staff of 11 to freeze-dry wild mushrooms and rice, chicken and rice, and vegetable soup. She found a nonprofit in Texas that had shipped food aid overseas and domestically, including to a Houston food bank after Hurricane Harvey.

By the time 18.5 million meals were due, Tribute had delivered only 50,000. And FEMA inspectors discovered a problem: The food had been packaged separately from the pouches used to heat them. FEMA’s solicitation required “self-heating meals.”

“Do not ship another meal. Your contract is terminated,” Carolyn Ward, the FEMA contracting officer who handled Tribute’s agreement, wrote to Ms. Brown in an email dated Oct. 19 that Ms. Brown provided to The New York Times. “This is a logistical nightmare.”

I am prepared to give FEMA a very dubious benefit of the doubt; unlike the power contract, I doubt this one was the result of “wheeling and dealing” or quid pro quo. My guess would be monumental incompetence–which has sort of become a hallmark of this administration. Whether corruption or incompetence is the explanation, however, Puerto Rican’s aren’t eating.

As a post to Daily Kos put it,

FEMA can’t claim to be an innocent victim here—Brown had a history of canceled government contracts for failing to deliver food to the prison system and for getting an order with the Government Publishing Office wrong. She also had no experience in this kind of disaster relief work. FEMA hired her despite having absolutely no reason to believe she could deliver what she was promising.

In more ordinary times, with more conventional Presidents–i.e., adults–the continued suffering of people in Puerto Rico would have been front-page news for months. With this Administration, however, the hits just keep on coming: ICE agents breaking up law-abiding families, Presidential aides accused of domestic violence, budget proposals to slash the already-inadequate safety net in order to fund the recent tax giveaway to the rich, an infrastructure “plan” that is equal parts fantasy and privatization…

Speaking of “thoughts and prayers,” I pray we aren’t all too emotionally fatigued by the daily doings of the Kakistocracy to vote in November….

Can We Spell Double Standard?

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton muses about the stark differences between Donald Trump’s response to accusations of wrongdoing against those he likes–rich or powerful white male cronies–and his attitude toward minorities who have actually been vindicated by the evidence.

As Brayton points out, when Trump finally commented about Rob Porter, a close aide who was forced to resign after reports that he had violently assaulted both of his ex-wives became public, his focus was all on the “rough time” Porter was going through–not a single reference to the women who had been beaten.

Well, we wish him well. He worked very hard. I found out about it recently, and I was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well.

It’s a, obviously, tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career, and hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it. And, certainly, he’s also very sad.

Now he also — as you probably know, he says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent. So you’ll have to talk to him about that. But we absolutely wish him well.

“He says he’s innocent.” Of course, the ex-wives have released photographs of the bruises and black eyes, there are contemporaneous reports by people in whom the women confided at the time…but, just as Roy Moore deserved the benefit of the doubt, according to Trump, we should reserve judgment.

Same with Putin. He says Russia didn’t interfere with our election….and Trump tells us we should believe him. (“He was sincere.”)

Now let’s contrast that with how he treats young black men accused of crimes who were proven innocent because of DNA evidence. This involves the Central Park Five, young black and Latino boys accused of raping a jogger in Central Park. Trump had taken out a full page ad demanding the death penalty for them. But DNA evidence proved that they didn’t do it and a serial rapist who was already in prison for another rape admitted to the crime. Their convictions were overturned. And Trump’s response? “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.”

So for those keeping score at home: If you’re a powerful white guy and Trump is on your side, nothing you are accused of is ever true, no matter how much evidence there is for it. But if you’re a powerless person with dark skin, you’re guilty of whatever he decides you’re guilty of even if the irrefutable scientific evidence says you’re not. Very convenient, don’t you think?

Equal parts cronyism, racism and misogyny…and 100% despicable.

Gerrymandering Is A Two-Sided Sword….

There’s an old adage heard among real-estate developers and businesspeople: If you owe the bank several thousand dollars, you have a problem; if you owe the bank several million dollars, the bank has a problem. Guess which debtor is most likely to be successful in renegotiating the terms of the loan?

So–I hear you asking–what in the world does that have to do with our currently dysfunctional GOP, or with partisan redistricting, aka gerrymandering?

Among the Republicans in Congress, there are plenty of “true believers”–fanatics and zealots of various types. (Honesty compels me to note that there are also some nut jobs among the Democrats, although not as many.) The crazies in the GOP, however, are widely outnumbered by people who do actually know better, people who have managed to get elected by playing to the ignorance and bigotries and extremism of voters who probably do not represent the majority of their constituents, but who can be depended upon to turn out, volunteer and vote.

The problem is, once they have energized that “base,” it owns them. The voters who make up the GOP base–in both senses of that word–demand fidelity to their passions, and their Representatives know it. That base controls a significant number of districts.

When the national Republican Party engaged in a wholesale redistricting coup after the 2010 census, that effort was wildly successful. (I have referred to the book “Ratf**ked” before; it sets out chapter and verse of “Operation Redmap.”)

Too successful.

There were two consequences of that wholesale gerrymander. The first was intended: Republicans won many more seats than their vote totals would otherwise have garnered. The second consequence, however, was both unanticipated and extremely damaging. The people elected to Congress from those deep-red districts the mapmakers created don’t feel any allegiance to the leaders of their party, or to reasonable or productive policymaking. They are only interested in doing the bidding of the voters to whom they are beholden, and avoiding a primary battle that–thanks to the gerrymander–can only come from the right.

The political reporters babbling on cable news consistently express surprise at the inability of the Republican part to govern, to control the factions that range from Hard Right to “wow, that guy’s a Nazi.” The answer is the success of their 2011 gerrymander.

The sane among them have a problem–and a choice.

If they have any integrity, they can follow their consciences, risk being primaried and defeated, or quit. (Every day, it seems, a GOP Representative announces a decision not to run again, and it isn’t hard to see why.) If they don’t have any integrity, they accept that they are wholly owned by the most rabid members of their base, and they simply pander accordingly. (In Indiana, we have a delegation composed entirely of True Believers and panderers. If you live in the state, you can decide who’s who.)

Unfortunately, this country needs two rational parties populated with adults in order to function. So not only is the GOP broken, our whole government is broken.

Happy Valentine’s Day…

 

Polluting The Judiciary

Assuming a sufficient turnout of Democrats, Independents and Republicans horrified by Trump, much of the daily damage being inflicted by this administration can be rectified.

But some very real damage cannot be undone, and the evisceration of the role played by the federal courts in checking unconstitutional behavior by government is one of the most consequential.

We’ll be stuck for a generation with judges like Kyle Duncan–one of the many ideologues and bigots being nominated and confirmed to the federal bench.  

Lambda Legal has sent out an alert about Duncan:

Kyle Duncan, a lawyer who has built his career around pursuing extreme positions that target members of the LGBTQ community, has been nominated by Donald Trump for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

A brief Google search confirms Lambda Legal’s warning. Duncan is best known as the lead lawyer in the infamous Hobby Lobby case, in which he argued successfully that closely-held corporations should be able to deny their employees insurance coverage for birth control.

A Louisiana news organization called the Bayou Brief described his career:

“(He) is staunchly and vociferously pro-life… (and he) is staunchly and vociferously pro-religious liberty,” Sen. John N. Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, told colleagues. “I like that about him.”

When a lesbian mother was stripped of her parental rights after moving from Georgia, which recognized her rights, to Alabama, which did not, he argued to the United States Supreme Court in defense of Alabama, claiming, among other things, that the mother’s harms were “overstated.In a per curium decision, he lost that case as well.

Just this year, he unsuccessfully attempted to convince the United States Supreme Court to uphold a North Carolina law that was specifically intended to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote.

He has won some cases too, though. He successfully convinced a split United States Supreme Court that a district attorney- in this case, former Orleans DA Harry Connick, Sr.- cannot be held liable for certain violations committed by their prosecutors, even if those actions result in a man spending 18 years behind bars on a wrongful conviction.

It is clear from the reporting about Duncan that he is a skilled lawyer, albeit on behalf of what I consider “the dark side,” so I found it interesting–and baffling–that Duncan and his supporters on the religious right found it necessary to beef up his resume by mischaracterizing one of his former positions. The claim was that he had been  “Solicitor General” of Louisiana.

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network repeated the same claim in a short column published in The National Review. “Kyle served four years as Louisiana’s first Solicitor General,” she wrote (emphasis added), “performing so well that he has since been called back to represent the state repeatedly as special counsel.” (Severino’s organization spent a small fortune promoting Duncan, even releasing a television ad on his behalf).

Among many others, Breitbart and the Heritage Foundation also described Duncan as the state’s very first Solicitor General.

There is no such office under Louisiana law.

“Captain Crunch has more of a real job than anyone claiming to be Solicitor General of Louisiana,” a lawyer with extensive experience in state government told The Bayou Brief, on the condition of anonymity, “because at least Captain Crunch is on a cereal box.”

While this transparent puffery suggests a lack of integrity–or at the very least, the sort of meticulous attention to accuracy that good lawyers possess–that’s the least of the problems we should all have when a committed culture warrior is elevated to the federal bench.

Lawyers advocating for their clients, or for their favored interpretation of the law or the constitution are entitled to be zealous (albeit not zealots). We expect judges to approach their jobs with a very different, far more disinterested “judicial temperament.”

If Senate Republicans cared about their obligation to the Constitution and their duty to “advise and consent,” ideologues like Duncan would not be confirmed. But the Senate GOP–described by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum as “lickspittles”–has abandoned even the pretense of independence or statecraft.

We the People are about to lose objective courts of law for a generation.

Too Many Assaults, Too Little Time

It isn’t possible to keep up with this administration’s assaults on American government (not to mention decency, healthcare, the poor…).

A regular reader sent me a link to an article that highlighted an overlooked passage from Trump’s State of the Union speech.

Standing in front of a divided Congress, with possible obstruction charges looming over him and facing governance struggles produced by his ineffective leadership, the president sought to undermine a 135-year-old law protecting federal civil servants from the whims of tyrants and hacks. “I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” he said.

Now, as the author of the article readily concedes, this sounds perfectly reasonable. We’ve  been regaled for years with stories–some true, most not–about all the red tape that prevents public officials from firing incompetent or insubordinate workers. Of course, as the old saying goes, one person’s red tape is the next person’s accountability…and that, of course, is the issue.

In this case, it’s important to understand just how and why the law Trump wants to repeal was passed in the first place.

“To the winner goes the spoils” applies to politics as much as war. Political patronage persisted far longer at the local level, so most of us don’t realize that until the late 1800s, when a new President took office, he  (it was always he) could fire everyone who worked for the federal government and install his own people. If his victory ushered in a change of parties, that was pretty much what happened. (Federal service wasn’t what you’d call a stable job.)

But in the 1870s, consistency and competence in the federal bureaucracy became more important as the nation’s political and commercial life grew more complex. Americans became increasingly aware of political corruption (see: the Grant administration) and its drag on government and commercial efficiency. When, in July 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by disgruntled office seeker Charles Guiteau, the push for reform gained enough momentum to force Congress to rein in the patronage system.

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 cost its namesake, Sen. George H. Pendleton (Ohio), his job in a political backlash against the new anti-spoils system. Nevertheless, the Pendleton Act was a major step forward for good government, and over the next quarter-century the majority of ordinary and largely essential civil service positions became disconnected from political machinations, filled instead through a standard set of hiring practices and exams, and protected from arbitrary firing.

Today, most state and local governments have implemented similar reforms. A new chief executive–Governor, Mayor– is entitled to policymaking folks who agree with his or her agenda, but not entitled to replace the guy who gives drivers’ tests at the BMV, or the clerk in planning and zoning.

The result is a more stable and experienced government workforce, a Congress that gets accurate reports from its research bureaus and federal departments that provide a certain level of regulatory consistency for citizens and businesses at home and around the world.

Because civil service incorporated mechanisms that prioritized merit-based hiring and firing, rather than finding a spot for your donor’s brother-in-law, the bureaucracy became attractive to minorities; today, African Americans are 30 percent more likely to work in civil service than white Americans. Which brings us back to the danger Trump poses.

Over the past 30 years, conservative valorization of “market solutions” has been accompanied by deeply racialized notions of government inefficiency that aim to undermine these civil rights achievements by invoking the image of a wasteful, corrupt public workforce — one viewed by many Americans as dominated by African Americans.

Trump’s assault on the Pendleton Act isn’t simply part of his desire to dole out jobs to his favored sycophants and toadies. It is another effort to pander to his base, much of which shares this profoundly racist worldview.

Despite the widespread belief that civil service employees can’t be fired, they can be. They simply have to be accorded reasonable due process.

Most of us want government managers to be able to dismiss incompetent people, or people who aren’t doing their jobs. What we don’t want–and what current law prohibits–is permission to hire and fire based upon race, gender, sexual orientation or other identities that offend bigots’ sensibilities but have absolutely nothing to do with competence.

For that matter, I wouldn’t trust Trump or his “best people” to recognize competence if they fell over it.