Monday, December 15, 2008

A devious lame duck

We have "only one President at a time," President-elect Barack Obama continues to say in press conferences. Normally, that would be a safe assumption – but with the financial crisis growing worse by the day, it has become obvious that one President is no longer enough (at least not the President we currently have). So, Obama has become a more public presence. He has quickly named his economic and national security cabinet members to try to help the psyche of the markets. He has promised an enormous stimulus package that would somehow create 2 million new jobs, and has begun to push the new Congress into having the bill ready soon after being sworn in this January.

That we have slightly more than one President for the moment is mostly a consequence of the collapsing economy. This final humiliation for George W. Bush seems particularly appropriate. At the end of a presidency of stupefying ineptitude, he has become the lamest of all possible ducks with an approval rating that hit a very low 19% just a few weeks ago (although it has risen a little since then). This is a presidency that has wobbled between two poles – arrogance and paralytic incompetence.

Paralytic incompetence has held sway these past few months as the economy has crumbled. In rating the performance of Bush's economic team, we have more than enough evidence to say, definitively, that at a moment when there was a vast need for national reassurance, the President has not been a leader. He's a lame duck with one of the lowest approval ratings of any president ever. He doesn't have the clout to influence Congress, even in the conduct of foreign policy, because people know he is only going to be there another few weeks. He is less than President now, and that is appropriate. He was never very much of one.

In the end, though, it will not be paralysis that defines Bush. It will be his intellectual laziness, at home and abroad. Bush never understood, or cared about, the balance between freedom and regulation that was necessary to make the economy work. He never understood the necessity to maintain a strong middle class – required for both prosperity and democracy - because he has never been a part of it. He never considered the complexities of Iraq’s cultures when he invaded. He never understood that religious faith when unaccompanied by rigorous questioning is a recipe for nearsighted foolishness.

But he is not just lazing around the Whitehouse waiting for January 20. There are proclamations and regulations in the works that harmful to the public good and are bypassing Congress’ and the public’s approval:

Recently, the Washington Post reported that the Bush Administration is preparing to formalize a deal which would allow Plum Creek Timber Company to convert hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland in Montana into residential subdivisions. The deal was made behind closed doors between the Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment and Plum Creek Timber. Neither local officials in the region nor the public were granted an opportunity to have a say in the matter. Forty years of Forest Service history has been reversed in the last three months without even standard environmental assessments.

Similarly, the New York Times recently reported that Bush Administration appointees are preparing to propose a number of regulatory changes to securities rules, changes which critics say would dilute measures put in place after the Enron scandal in order to forestall accounting gimmicks and corrupt practices.

The harm to our country perpetuated by these two deals, and many others like them, pale in comparison to the damage to national security caused by the nuclear deals the Bush administration is promoting. The fact that some of these deals have been in the making for a long time does not make them more benign. For decades, those committed to preventing a nuclear conflagration have called on nations that have nuclear arms to gradually scale them back until they are all removed and urged all other nations not to acquire these weapons. The treaty against these horrible arms had been quite effective with several nations that started down the nuclear road reversing course and folding their nuclear plans. Others decided not to even set out in this way. But now, as a favor to various American corporations, the Bush Administration is promoting the sale of nuclear technology to Russian corporations, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. This is despite the fact that Russia is helping Iran to build its nuclear facilities. These acts by an administration on its way out the door could pave the way for more countries to acquire nuclear military power.

In another midnight regulation, on November 4, while the nation’s attention was turned toward the presidential election, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it will sell oil and gas leases on areas in eastern Utah‘s Nine Mile Canyon region. The December 19 sale threatens large swaths of several magnificent public landscapes, including Upper Desolation Canyon, where the Green River meanders through hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness in the northern Book Cliffs. Desolation Canyon was named and apparently first described by John Wesley Powell during his historic expedition in 1869 down the Green and Colorado rivers to the Grand Canyon. The BLM had, under previous administrations, declared these pristine lands to be wilderness caliber landscapes and off limits to new oil and gas leasing.

Utah already has a surplus of lands that have been leased for oil and gas development, as well as a surplus of applications for permission to drill. At the end of the fiscal year, there were approximately 4.6 million acres of BLM- managed lands in Utah under lease.

This giveaway to the oil companies borders on criminal malfeasance. At a time when oil companies already hold millions of acres of public lands under lease -- but not being developed -- there is simply no reason for the Bureau of Land Management to rush ahead with this sale. Handing over the magnificent Desolation Canyon and the surrounding wild lands is the icing on the gift cake given to the oil and gas industry over the last eight years.

The administration has taken another disturbing step in recent weeks. The IRS restored tax breaks for banks that take big losses on bad loans inherited through acquisitions. Now we learn that JP Morgan Chase and other banks are planning to use their bailout funds for mergers and acquisitions, transactions that will be greatly enhanced by the restored tax write off.

In coming weeks, it is expected that the Environmental Protection Agency will issue a final rule that would weaken a program created by the Clean Air Act, so that utilities no longer have to install modern pollution controls when they upgrade their plants to produce more power. The EPA is also expected to issue a final rule that would make it easier for coal-fired power plants to locate near national parks in defiance of longstanding Congressional mandates to protect air quality in areas of special natural or recreational value. Along this same vein, the Department of Interior is awaiting EPA’s approval on a proposal that would make it easier for mining companies to dump toxic mine wastes in valleys and streams.

For industry they're rushing through some rules
To ease restraints on using toxic goop
And dumping tops of mountains into streams.
In every hole, they seek a larger loop.

The ornithologists can tell us that
Such actions have a simple explanation:
A lame duck, though incapable of flight,
Is fully capable of defecation.

Poem By Calvin Trillin From The Nation magazine, December 2, 2008

But all is not lost. As usual, Bush hasn’t read the fine print. In fact, he doesn’t read much at all. There is a clause in the Congressional Review Act that states that “any regulation finalized within 60 legislative days of congressional adjournment is considered to have been legally finalized on the 15th legislative day of the new Congress, likely sometime in February. Congress then has 60 days to review it and reverse it with a joint resolution that can’t be filibustered in the Senate.” That means that executive orders signed within the last six months can be eliminated with a quick party-line vote if Congress will do it. This even applies to regulations that have already been enacted.

So do not worry about any future sneaky lame duck moves. The only thing left for Bush to do that cannot be undone is figure out who will get quick pardons the night he leaves office. I have read that he plans to do a blanket pardon for everyone who has served the administration so that there is no possibility for anyone being prosecuted for the crimes they have committed.

Soon we can say sayonara to a devious lame duck who has led the most destructive, secretive, and immoral presidential administration in the history of our nation.