Sunday, February 15, 2009

"McCain laments politics as usual"

"The old business as usual." That's John McCain's blunt assessment of the Obama administration, on CNN this morning.

Hence the headline atop Reid Wilson's piece in The Hill. And here's the top:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Sunday bemoaned what he called politics as usual and criticized President Obama's early Cabinet choices as typical Washington appointees.

"I'm not happy, and most of us aren't at the lack of true bipartisanship in approaching this legislation," McCain said of the stimulus package during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union."

The eight-pound, thousand-page measure is "the old business as usual," McCain said, criticizing the president for going back on his pledges of transparency.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Three New Business As Usual Data Points

First: "Congressional Offices Don't Have the Stimulus Bill, Lobbyists Do" -- that's the very business-as-usual headline from Paul Bedard at US News, who notes:

We're receiving E-mails from Capitol Hill staffers expressing frustration that they can't get a copy of the stimulus bill agreed to last night at a price of $789 billion. What's more, staffers are complaining about who does have a copy: K Street lobbyists. E-mails one key Democratic staffer: "K Street has the bill, or chunks of it, already, and the congressional offices don't. So, the Hill is getting calls from the press (because it's leaking out) asking us to confirm or talk about what we know—but we can't do that because we haven't seen the bill. Anyway, peeps up here are sort of a combo of confused and like, 'Is this really happening?'" Reporters pressing for details, meanwhile, are getting different numbers from different offices, especially when seeking the details of specific programs.

Second: "The new D.C.: Same as it ever was"--Charles Mahtesian and Patrick O'Connor sum up the situation for Politico: "So much for post-partisanship."

Third: "Democrats Abandon Transparency on Stimulus Vote"--a headline from Rob Bluey, writing in

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed this afternoon that Democrats will break their transparency pledge by bringing the stimulus bill to a vote tomorrow morning, giving lawmakers and the public significantly less time than the 48 hours promised.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A New NSC?

If spending, per the previous post, is showing distinct signs of same ol' same ol', this article here, on reorganization of the National Security Council, shows that the Obama administration is thinking fresh thoughts about organizing the government.

If national security adviser James L. Jones means it when he says that he wants to concentrate power in the NSC, well, that's a change.

History tells us that the only way that things get done is through such centralization. That's why the notion of a "czar" is a good one, if the goal is profound change. It's just not possible to get anything done if there are a bunch of people in the room.

One can like or dislike Obama's health care policy, or his energy/environment policy, but from the point of view of supporters, it's a good idea. And the same with a centralized approach to national security policy making.

So count this as a change from business as usual.

Business As Usual Updates

Here's a front-page Washington Post headline to make fans of the status quo happy: "If Spending Is Swift, Oversight May Suffer Plan's Pace Could Leave Billions Waste."

And this was in the WaPo!

As reporter Robert O'Harrow puts it:

The Obama administration's economic stimulus plan could end up wasting billions of dollars by attempting to spend money faster than an overburdened government acquisition system can manage and oversee it, according to documents and interviews with contracting specialists.

The $827 billion stimulus legislation under debate in Congress includes provisions aimed at ensuring oversight of the massive infusion of contracts, state grants and other measures. At the urging of the administration, those provisions call for transparency, bid competition, and new auditing resources and oversight boards.

But under the terms of the stimulus proposals, a depleted contracting workforce would be asked to spend more money more rapidly than ever before, while also improving competition and oversight. Auditors would be asked to track surges in spending on projects ranging from bridge construction and schools to research of "green" energy and the development of electronic health records -- a challenge made more difficult because many contracts would be awarded by state agencies.

And this skeptical tone reflects the reality of today's media. They are liberals, sure, but many of them are liberal libertarians--"liberaltarians," as Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute calls them. They don't really believe in this spending stuff.

But as the President said last Thursday night to the House Democrats:

So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? (Laughter and applause.) That's the whole point. No, seriously. (Laughter.) That's the point. (Applause.)

And as this transcript, from, shows, the House Democrats loved it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Bill Richardson, Tim Geithner, Tom Daschle, and Nancy Killefer

When it comes to dubious people, who flouted the rules, there's not much new here.

But Tom Daschle's little red eyeglasses? Those are new.

The Song Remains The Same

Is the "stimulus package" a fresh approach to actually growing the economy, or is it just the same old stuff? Here's Newsweek's Bob Samuelson weighing in on the question, "Will Obama's Stimulus Work?":

The decision by Obama and Democratic congressional leaders to load the stimulus with so many partisan projects is politically shrewd and economically suspect. The president's claims of bipartisanship were mostly a sham, as he skillfully maneuvered Republicans into a no-win position: Either support a Democratic program, or oppose it—and seem passive and uncaring.

But in fact, the BAUI is not convinced that the Obama is good politics--the latest Gallup poll calls its popularity into question.

So bad politics AND bad economics? Wow.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Change or No Change?

A couple of interesting developments to note for the next iteration of the BAUI.

First, Barack Obama's interview with Al Arabiya TV is a huge deal, and offers (or threatens, depending on your point of view) a hug change in the direction of American policy toward the Middle East. For Obama to say...

But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task. to signal a huge change in and of itself. After all, the Bush administration had routinely scorned the previous decades of America ME policy preceding its own tenure, as examples of what not to do. And now Obama is calling the period dominated by Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, in effect, the good old days.

Of course, just because the President says it, doesn't mean that it, whatever "it" is, always gets filtered down through the bureaucracy. As Harry Truman observed about presidential power to historian Richard Neustadt, Dwight Eisenhower would find it tough in the White House:

He'll say, "Do this! Do that!" And nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating.

Eisenhower, of course, proved to be an effective president, although he was hardly a game-changer, especially on the domestic front, where he was content to keep on keeping on with the New Deal and even Truman's Fair Deal.

But that excursion into presidential power aside, the Business As Usual Index focuses on domestic and economic issues, especially as they relate to the way that government works.

And so, second, and more pertinent to the BAUI, we should all be very curious to see what sort of reception Phil Longman, my colleague at the New America Foundation, gets for this visionary infrastructure proposal, "steel wheels," which he will discussing in testimony on Capitol Hill tomorrow.

Phil's proposal--in a nutshell, putting trucks on trains--would save energy, reduce pollution, and create jobs. It's exactly the sort of new idea that any government official should be looking for (even if, obviously, it is based on old ideas, ideas that are already working elsewhere in the world; the picture above is from Switzerland).

Are the Democrats up for it? Are the Republicans? If they are, that will be real change. Stand by.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Business As Usual Index -- First Number

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being complete stasis, and 10 being the world turned upside down, the initial Business As Usual Index for the Obama-Biden administration is 5.5. As detailed in the preceding posts, the BAUI is not a measure of personnel change. Instead, it is a measure of true policy change, confined to the fiscal/governmental arena. And in this realm--how the government spends its money, and operates the bureaucracy--there has been less change than might first appear.

To be continued...

The Debut of the Business As Usual Index

OK, change fans, let's review the state of "change" in Washington. Or no change, per these key variables, cited in earlier posts:

Ethics Waivers for Lobbyist Insiders? (William Lynn and William Corr.) Check!

Turning a Blind Eye To Ethics Violations? (Timothy Geithner.) Check!

Same ol' same ol' in dealings with Congress? (Letting the Liberal Establishment call the shots.) Check!

Same ol' same ol' from Congress? (Earmarks under a new name.) Check!

That would seem to mean, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "no change," and 10 being "total change," that the Obama administration is keeping low to the ground, change-wise.

But wait! Larry Summers, Chairman of the National Economics Council, pledges to Bloomberg's Rebecca Christie that the Trouble Asset Relief Program, or TARP, is going to get better: “It’s going to emphasize transparency, it’s going to emphasize accountability.”

Summers is a serious man, and he deserves a chance to show what he means to do different.

So the Business As Usual Index metrics team must ponder that for awhile.

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.

Introducing the Business As Usual Index

President Obama campaigned on the promise of "Change We Can Believe In." In his acceptance speech in Denver, he said, "It's time for us to change America."

And his official Election Night victory tee shirt reads, "Change Can Happen."

And during his Inaugural Address, the new President aimed his criticism at the failed culture of complacency in Washington, accusing both parties of being part of the "stand pat" problem:

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

OK, great. At a time when solid majorities think that the country is going in the wrong direction, and have felt that way for a long time, there's obviously a huge constituency for change.

But change--true change--is much more profound than just changing the names, and the party labels, of top decisionmakers and politicos in Washington. Real change comes from transformation, not just substitution. If the government isn't working, well, a different set of appointees won't make any meaningful difference. As I have said in the past, we need a new paradigm, not just new personalities.

There is evidence that the new President understands the nature of real change. He has said in the past that Ronald Reagan was one of the few presidents who really changed the direction of the government, and the country. Obama is no Reaganite, of course, but those words suggest that he knows real change when he sees it.

But there's one catch: Did anyone tell Congress? Or the bureaucracy? Or institutional Washington, including K Street? OK, maybe they were told about Obama;s big plans for change, but did they agree? Are they are part of the change we are looking for--or not? So far, at least, the answer appears to be "not."

Go down the list of House and Senate leaders, in either party, who signed on to the Obama message--really signed on. If they didn't, if they like the way that things have been done in the past--and after all, many of them were re-elected, too, in 2008--then there's reason to think that these barons and baronesses of Capitol Hill will prove to be "guardians of gridlock," as a despairing Bill Clinton once referred to them.

So what happens when "Agents Of Change" meet "Pillars of the Beltway"? Well, we're about to find out.

And so, confining ourselves to just domestic fiscal policy and the workings of the federal government, let's begin to assess how much change is coming to Washington, where "business as usual" has become synonymous with "waste, fraud, and abuse." Hence the Business As Usual Index (BAUI), aimed at measuring how much change there has been, and whether we can believe in it.