Recently enough that you may still recall it, a secretive, paranoid man who had previously headed a major multinational energy company found himself vice president of the United States. This man deliberated privately with the heads of major oil companies as his administration set up a new energy policy that, perhaps coincidentally, wound up being strikingly generous to oil companies. The same man played a crucial role in leading the nation into a disastrous and costly war in a country that -- again, perhaps coincidentally -- held the world's second-largest oil reserves.
When, at the time, a few annoying sticklers for detail suggested there were problems with this flavor of policymaking, that perhaps it would have been better to hold deliberations in public so that people other than the heads of giant energy companies could have a say in the nation's handling of energy, they were derided by this man and members of his party as naive and idealistic. Why clutter up the proceedings with citizens, journalists and other nudges who do not know how to get oil out of the ground? Leave things to the experts, we were told.
So it is nothing short of astonishing to absorb the current spectacle. Republican members of the House -- the same people who defended national troglodyte Dick Cheney in his effort to block public scrutiny on oil policy -- are now criticizing the way Elizabeth Warren is making preparations for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as if it were some sinister plot to destroy the republic.
The White House's appointment of Warren "circumvented the advice-and-consent process and undermined one of the key checks and balances in our Constitution," declared Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) in a letter addressed Monday to the inspector general at the Treasury. "Treasury Department officials have provided little or no transparency with respect to their activities such as which organizations are meeting with Treasury officials."
Far be it from anyone to defend the Obama Treasury against charges that it lacks transparency. From its handling of its feckless homeowner-aid program, sold as a fix to the foreclosure crisis, to its administering of the Wall Street bailouts begun by its predecessors, this Treasury has been a maddening and combative model of misinformation, evasion and outright dishonesty. Again and again, it has sided with Wall Street over the public's right to know, protecting Goldman Sachs and Bank of America in much the same way Dick Cheney lavished his nurturing ways on Halliburton and Exxon.
But this idea that Republicans in Congress are now pursuing the public interest in challenging Warren's authority, trying to derail her devious plot to make the world safe for people with credit cards and bank accounts, is nothing short of hilarious. It is a brazen exercise in what regular people call balls, one that must be admired for its sheer, breathtaking nature.
Vice President Cheney, you will recall, had previously run Halliburton, a company that makes its money helping multinational energy firms extract more precious black liquid from the earth. This gave him an Oklahoma-sized conflict of interest when it came to deliberating on energy policy. It was fair to assume he would not be a particularly aggressive proponent of tighter energy-efficiency standards or an advocate for capping carbon emissions to limit climate change. He also played a central role in the nation's national-security apparatus just as the deliberations -- and perhaps that is a generous word -- commenced on the ultimately horrible decision to invade Iraq.
Cheney not only had personal truck with the heads of the oil majors, a clubby relationship with people who had every financial incentive to push for greater consumption of oil, but also the reasonable expectation of financial enrichment himself on the other side. Much as Larry Summers and Robert Rubin used their time at the Clinton Treasury to open up fresh profit-making opportunities for high finance in ways contrary to the public interest before landing on Wall Street, where they made enough to live like Maharajahs, Cheney could certainly have set himself up for a lucrative return trip to the oil patch.
In short, the less-than-transparent way he handled energy policy could reasonably have been expected to hide some sweet goodies for powerful companies whose interest might have deviated from the public's.
Elizabeth Warren, the woman tasked with creating the CFPB, on the other hand, is a longtime law professor, an author of respected books on the breakdown of the American middle class, and a darling of consumer advocates. Are Republicans suggesting that she is using her current position to set up a consumer protection bureau that is so to the liking of consumer advocates that she could some day cash in with a plum job at, say, the National Consumer Law Center? Are they intimating that she stands to benefit in some way by using her new agency to damage the public interest?
And how to square the Republican demands to know where she is drawing counsel with the Bush administration's stonewalling on efforts to glean Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's conversational partners as he was crafting plans to send $700 billion in bailout funds to his old compadres on Wall Street?
In the most generous reading, the Republicans really believe the rhetoric in their broadside and are clinging to a cultish reverence for free markets, one so extreme that they are adamant that the same bankers who brought the economy to its knees should enjoy the freedom to try it again.
But don't bet on that reading. The demands for transparency from a party that has only recently regained an appreciation for constitutional jurisprudence is merely the latest example of its oppose-everything mantra, a dynamic we are stuck with right up until the next presidential election.
It is a cynical ploy premised on the belief that American memories run short -- so short that we have already forgotten how today's ardent protectors of due process are the same people who allowed Dick Cheney to run energy policy like an elaborate Christmas morning for oil companies.
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