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Lorelei Kelly Headshot

Nature Abhors a Vacuum but so do Wingnuts: The Bailout and our National Security

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Taxpayers may be forced to bail out Wall Street today, but don't forget that this crisis is
actually a victory. Who really won? Ronald Reagan and his army of conservative operatives who have been selling off, systematically dismantling and scorning the guardians of the public sector--for decades now. And this has happened across all sectors of government, including agencies responsible for national security.

This philosophy directly impacted me as a child. My mom, my sisters and I packed up and left our home in the late 70's--in the wake of the conservative revolution in California. My mother was a school nurse--and seen as an unnecessary drag on the public budget. She lost her job.

Theories of market efficiency and principles of competition are helpful in organizational management, including government. But the lack of public confidence in American finances that precipitated today's crisis is not an accident. It is an outcome. Conservative lip service to ideas like free markets and a strong defense produced neither. These "values"--while
excellent campaign rhetoric--were never actually turned into priorities for policy making. I witnessed these effects first hand while working on Capitol Hill during the 1990s. One of the reasons Congress stopped doing thorough oversight at that time was because very few were asking hard questions. Among Newt Gingrich's first moves as Speaker was to wipe out
much of the institutional memory of the House of Representatives. Long term staff--along with their issue expertise--were eliminated. The science and technology experts dedicated to Congress in the Office of Technology Assessment were axed along with their organization. Huge numbers of committee staff disappeared. The bipartisan staff of the caucus system were
booted--eliminating one of the built-in ways for Members to get to know each other outside their party identification. The Democratic Study Group is perhaps the best known casualty. It provided unmatched rapid response help on issues -- and it was so effective that it had dozens of Republican members.

The results of this legislative lobotomy led to long-term structural damage to our democracy-- with dire consequences for individual Americans. The Republicans' elimination of public sector knowledge created a vacuum that was then outsourced to conservative think tanks, political allies and commercial lobbyists. No issue has been more damaged by this cavalier attitude about institutional memory that our nation's security.

Why? Because commercial interests don't transfer naturally to public service. For the former, its about expanding a business plan, for the latter, a larger cause, ostensibly for the common good.

National security is a slow-burning crisis in our country. Don't even get me started on lack of attention to terrorism after 1991. Today, the most obvious example of negligence on security oversight is the fact that it took four years into the Iraq war to get a counter-insurgency doctrine, making civilian protection paramount. Why? Partly because the conservatives in charge of Congress failed to learn the lessons of the 1990s. From Somalia to Bosnia, our Army and Marines were conducting peace and stability operations and reporting back immense shifts in threat environments. What did Congress do? Declare a readiness crisis because we weren't adhering to Cold War standards.

The Program on Government Oversight reports that between 2000 and 2006, contract spending by the government more than doubled, going from $200 billion to $420 billion dollars. Much of this increase happened in national security spending. Yet we still have a huge lack of skilled personnel in our government to deal with it. Conservatives--who constantly attack " lazy bureaucrats"--have created a situation where contractor oversight itself has been outsourced! This is like going from drinking the kool-aid to mixing the kool-aid--to soaking in a kool-aid jacuzzi.

My personal low-point happened just a few years back, on a trip to see missile defense in Alaska. The industry reps were the only ones who could answer questions from Hill staff in our "classified" briefings. When I pointed out weaknesses in the high tech system (obtained on a public university website) our guide growled: "that's secret!" It was not. But the rest of the staff took note. Of course, his lobbyist colleagues had no problem following us around the state picking up bar tabs--or our private rail car up the Seward Peninsula, or on our chartered fishing boat off Kodiak Island, where we spent 2 hours with the Navy Seals and 8 catching Halibut. Out of our large group, four of us (including the military liason) were continually appalled. What was worrisome was that most of the other staff didn't know that they should have been picking their jaws up off the floor the entire time.

Last fall, on a flight from Denver to DC, I sat next to an Air Force Officer. A friendly guy, I sighed when he started spouting Rush Limbaugh talking points about the election. So I asked him how he saw private interests impacting his role as a military officer. He didn't hesitate. "They are ruining the Air Force" he said. "I'm a missileer. I need to be the one who makes the decisions about operational procedure and launch, but the defense contractor who writes our instruction manuals makes the language so confusing, that we have to have them in the room when we make decisions" I asked him what he did about it. "I complained and they just laughed and said they would wait me out."

His story, in a nutshell, is what happens when our elected leaders privatize the memory of how you keep us safe. Fundamental national security decisions have stopped being part of a larger cause and started being part of a business plan expansion.

These days, I travel around the country training women candidates how to talk about real security. While they all recognize the value of a strong military, they question why diplomacy isn't given more credit, or why items like levees for New Orleans, and medical personnel aren't national security priorities. They don't see this as a guns versus butter tradeoff. Indeed, most fundamentally understand (like the Army) that the world has changed. A strong military remains important, but public health staff are defense against pandemic disease, roads and bridges that don't crumble are critical infrastructure.

So my mom, the California school nurse, was a security asset before her time. But in reality, our leaders remain stuck in the seventies. I had to laugh during last night's debate when Governor Palin kept telling Senator Biden that he was "looking backward". Not that she's from Alaska--given my impression of that state's outright sense of entitlement to kool aid jacuzzis-- but that Biden has been one of the most forward looking, most responsible Senators on issues of foreign policy and security in the US Congress for decades.

Yep. Palin would have fired my mom, too. Even today, with the House passing the bailout and despite the fact that the sun has finally set on Reagan's "morning in America." the myth about salvation through unfettered privatization and public sector destruction has not quite run its course. I pray that we don't have a national security equivalent to the Wall Street crisis.

And I hope the obsolete rhetoric fades away after election 08-- just like the shiny mirages in the Mojave desert that disappeared in the rear-view mirror as we drove to my grandparents house in New Mexico.