Sunday, January 25, 2009

First Five Metrics for the Business As Usual Index

Let's start with five issues that speak to the change in the culture of Washington--if any. These five topics will form the beginning metrics of the Business As Usual Index.

First, Barack Obama campaigned on a "no lobbyists" pledge: He wouldn't take their campaign contributions, and he wouldn't hire them in his administration.

But then the Obama administration issues an ethics waiver to William Lynn, slated to be Deputy Secretary of Defense, in re: Lynn's past lobbying for Raytheon.

But Lynn nomination prompted Sen. John McCain to declare: "I am disappointed in President Obama's decision to waive the 'revolving door' provisions of the executive order for Mr. Bill Lynn," adding, "While I applaud the President's action to implement new, more stringent ethical rules, I had hoped he would not find it necessary to waive them so soon." McCain, a member of Senate Armed Services Committee, which must confirm the nomination, added that he would ask Lynn "to clarify for the record what matters and decisions will require his recusal" before the Arizonan would decide whether or not to support his confirmation.

, the Obama administration has also issued a waiver to William Corr, his choice to be Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, leading US News' Robert Schlesinger to snap, "No Lobbyist in the Obama Administration ... Except When There Is One."

Third, the personal tax controversies surrounding Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner. Everybody makes mistakes, of course, but one has to wonder: Is Geithner, who has worked closely with the Bush team on bailouts over the last year, really the best we can do? Geithner looks a lot more like "steady as she goes," as opposed to "change we can believe in."

But "change," of course, can't be limited to just the Executive Branch. Change must come to from the Legislative Branch, too--including "The People's House," which is presumably the most subject to popular pressure.

And yet maybe not. And so we come to our fourth metric: After heavy discussions with Congressional Democrats, the Obama administration is backing away from its plan to make tax cuts a big feature of the "stimulus package." Those of us with memories of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, will recall that there was a similar back-and-forth between the White House and Congress back in 1993: Clinton had campaigned on a "middle class tax cut," but the Democrats back then weren't interested in that, and prevailed upon the 42nd President. And now the same thing seems to be happening to the 44th President.

As detailed by LA Times reporter Peter Nicholas, the "stimulus package" is being made more friendly to Capitol Hill Democrats, and thus moving away from Republican wishes.

Obama initially called for 60% spending, 40% tax cuts. Folding in tax cuts was a gesture meant to woo Republicans.

Under Democratic pressure, though, Obama is now backing a plan that relies more on direct spending, less on tax cuts.

That's politics, of course, and conservatives should applaud the reassertion of Congressional authority over the fisc--Article One, and all that. But the fiscal tug-of-warring between Democrats--in which the Legislative Branch wins, following a revised "majority of the majority"strategy--reminds me of the famous phrase, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." And is that change we can believe in?

, it even appears that Congress is backing off on any serious earmark reform. I first noticed this thanks to Mike Allen of Politico, who headlined it in "Playbook" this morning, "The 'no-earmarks' charade."

The AP headline wasn't as harsh, but still got the point across: “Stimulus Lobbying: Lobbyists skirt Obama's earmark ban.” AP's Julie Hirschfeld Davis gets right to it in her lede:

President Barack Obama's ban on earmarks in the $825 billion economic stimulus bill doesn't mean interest groups, lobbyists and lawmakers won't be able to funnel money to pet projects.

They're just working around it — and perhaps inadvertently making the process more secretive.

Yikes: "making the process more secretive"? That's not good!

As Davis details, the earmarking is continuing, but they just aren't calling it that anymore. With apologies to the late economist Alfred Kahn, maybe we should call earmarks "bananas." So here's earmarking/banana-ing in action:

The projects run the gamut: a Metrolink station that needs building in Placentia, Calif.; a stretch of beach in Sandy Hook, N.J., that could really use some more sand; a water park in Miami.

There are thousands of projects like those that once would have been gotten money upfront but now are left to scramble for dollars at the back end of the process as "ready to go" jobs eligible for the stimulus plan.

The result, as The Associated Press learned in interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers, lobbyists and state and local officials, is a shadowy lobbying effort that may make it difficult to discern how hundreds of billions in federal money will be parceled out.

"'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."

And, of course, here come the special interests and lobbyists, going through the revolving door of politicking, pressuring, and yes, earmarking:

In California, Buffa, now board chairman of the Orange County Transportation Authority, said he's changed his strategy from asking for specific projects to pleading for more favorable general guidelines, including more money for infrastructure projects overall and a formula that lets cities — not states — decide how to spend it.

His organization has enlisted Potomac Partners, a large firm that specializes in lobbying for project spending, to help.

And lets give the last word to a close observer in that process:

"Somebody's going to earmark it somewhere,’ said Howard Marlowe, a consultant for a coalition working to preserve beaches. Lobbyists are hard at work figuring out ways to grab a share of the money for their clients, but the new rules mean they're doing so indirectly - and sometimes in ways that are impossible to track.”

To believers in pluralistic representative democracy, this is nothing new--this is the way things work in Washington. But that's the point: It's nothing new. Which is to say, it's "Business As Usual." And should thus be rated as such.

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