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Two Years (Sigh) of Living Dangerously

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Washington, DC -- Shortly after George Bush became President, the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO urged him not to repeal the federal regulation which required that, in order to be eligible for federal contracts, companies had to obey federal laws, including those on the environment, civil rights, and treatment of their work force. Bush, of course, stiffed us and repealed the "Responsible Contractor" regulations. At the time it appeared to be another irresponsible and reckless act, but not, on the grander scheme, terribly important. What emerged, however, was that enabling criminal companies to get federal contracts on a massive scale, without oversight and regard for competence, was an essential foundation stone of the Administration's strategy to seize and hold power at any cost.

As a recent article in the New York Times reported:

Without a public debate or formal policy decision, contractors have become a virtual fourth branch of government...Competition, intended to produce savings, appears to have sharply eroded. ...Agencies are crippled in their ability to seek low prices, supervise contractors and intervene when work goes off course because the number of government workers overseeing contracts has remained level as spending has shot up. ...A just-completed study by experts appointed by the White House and Congress, the Acquisition Advisory Panel, found that the trend "poses a threat to the government's long-term ability to perform its mission" and could "undermine the integrity of the government's decision making."

This shift towards contractors -- including, most prominently, war contractors like Halliburton who have been accused of scandalous overbilling, waste and profiteering -- was combined with a strategic effort to "dumb-down" the staff of federal agencies. The Heritage Foundation urged the Administration to "make appointments decisions based on loyalty first and expertise second". (The federal response to Katrina and Iraq are only the most catastrophic results of this policy.)

And now, as its clock runs out, the Administration is desperately seeking to suppress the last remnants of the public service ethic within the federal government. It appears that while the Office of Management and Budget has successfully prevented civil servants in agencies like EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of the Interior from carrying out congressional mandates to protect the public through formal regulations, agencies have still found ways to carry out their duties with less formal guidance documents. So, just as in December the Administration stripped EPA's public health scientists out of the health standards setting process (TTI), it has now issued a new Executive Order mandating that "give the White House much greater control over the rules and policy statements that the government develops to protect public health, safety, the environment, civil rights and privacy." Under the rules, agencies cannot issue new guidance unless it is designed to remedy an identified "market failure," rather than the previous standard, which was to protect the public interest. And these rules must now be reviewed and approved by the OMB, a process which guarantees that most of them will be held up indefinitely, even if they have been required by an act of Congress.

It is now crystal clear that the Bush Administration is determined to ignore the will of the voters and the message of the November election. In an unprecedented act of presidential hubris, Bush is going to attempt something last tried by Andrew Johnson -- to govern the country on the basis of executive fiat, in the face of a hostile Congress and a complete collapse of popular support. The Congress, which Bush is attempting to render irrelevant, is beginning to fight back. Just this week Senator Barbara Boxer took on EPA Administrator Steve Johnson over his Agency's stewardship of its environmental protection mandate. "These decisions and actions all accelerate the pace of environmental protection. They all deliver environmental results," Johnson told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"Nobody's fooled by this," responded Boxer, the new chair of the committee. But while we may not be fooled, we should be alarmed. Andrew Johnson, of course, was impeached, but with Dick Cheney as vice president, Bush's harshest critics may not find that an appealing option. It's clear we are going to need some extraordinary leadership from the Congress, and some extraordinary followership from the American people. Business-as-usual, which too often translates to inattention-as-usual, is far too dangerous for the two years that lie ahead.