COMMENTARY: MOLLY IVINS -
Bush's Corporate Moles
Bush’s appointees have walked straight out of the boardrooms of big
AUSTIN, Texas -- More bizarre appointments by the Bush administration.
This problem is reaching tidal wave proportions. It's not so
much a matter of setting the fox to guard the chicken coop as it is
letting the raccoons loose in the henhouse.
Those of you who know how government works are fully aware of the
difference agency heads and other top officials can make in the
workings of a bureaucracy. With a president who is notoriously
uninterested in details, those in charge of the details often actually
set the policy. As we have seen in Texas, even when George W. has what
might be a good idea, like charter schools, sloppy execution
can result in disaster.
"Captive agencies" are a constant problem in government. They are
agencies supposedly in charge of regulating an industry or group,
which then acquires undue influence over or even control of the agency.
In Texas, the most spectacular example is the state's
equivalent of an environmental protection agency, to which then-Gov.
Bush appointed three commissioners who literally represent
major groups of polluters. Texas is, of course, Number One in toxic
pollution. The pattern continues in Washington.
-- Bush has nominated B. John Williams, a corporate tax attorney, as
chief counsel to the Internal Revenue Service. According to The
Wall Street Journal, Williams won a case that could jeopardize the
government's attempts to crack down on corporate tax havens.
The decision allows two companies to post the same loss when one sells a
money-losing unit to the other. Sure, that's fair, just the way
you get to double your deductions, right? If the decision stands, it is
expected to cost the IRS $10 billion in annual revenue.
-- In another case, also reported in the Journal, B. John Williams
(beware the man who parts his initials on the wrong side) tried to
justify disputed tax credits taken by his client, Shell Oil Co. He did
so by hiring a private investigator, who provided false information
to destroy the credibility of the government's expert witnesses. One
witness later sued for defamation, a case that was settled out of
court, the settlement paid for by Shell.
-- The curious case of John Graham, the "regulatory czar," who can block
any new regulation from his position inside the Office of
Management and Budget, has attracted some attention because of Graham's
unusual public record. While serving on an EPA
subcommittee on dioxin, Graham said reducing dioxin levels too far might
"do more harm than good." He argued that dioxin might
prevent cancer in some cases, an argument so outlandish it produced more
amusement than outrage. He also claims the problem of
pesticides on foods is "trivial," that the public has "paranoia" about
toxic chemicals (it is to be hoped), that safe housing codes kill
people and all manner of other dandy theories.
-- Graham was director of the Center for Risk Analysis at Harvard, which
tries to apply cost-benefit exams to health, safety and
environmental protection. This curious idea, of assigning a dollar value
to human life, illness and harm to eco-systems and then seeing if
that outweighs the cost of regulation, is like some chilling
mad-scientist fantasy. You say it will only cost three lives per million
spent and so it's not worth it? Fine, then let one of them be your wife
and the others your son and daughter.
-- J. Steven Griles, new deputy secretary at the Interior Department,
was a top lobbyist for the oil, gas and coal industries. The new
solicitor, William Myers III, was top guy at the National Cattlemen's
Beef Association and represented the grazing interests in lawsuits
against the policies he will now be enforcing. The new Number Two at the
EPA was a lobbyist for Monsanto. And as the new
chairman of the Council on Environmental Equality, Bush wants the lawyer
who represented General Electric in its fight with the EPA
over toxic waste sites.
-- A sentimental favorite of mine is Jon Huntsman Jr., the new deputy
trade representative, who is hot to trot on a new round of trade
liberalization under the World Trade Organization. Huntsman resigned
from the privately-owned Huntsman Corporation, a familiar
name in Bush's hometown. Huntsman is famous in Midland-Odessa for its
"upsets," burn-offs of benzene, butadiene and other
carcinogens. Huntsman gets fines even under Texas' toothless standards,
and has already paid millions to the plant's neighbors over
"upsets." A Huntsman spokesman was memorably quoted in Vanity Fair
magazine: "We fear that Huntsman is being held up as the
poster child for Bush's shitty environmental record here in Texas."
Junior was a Commerce Department official under Bush the Elder.
Some of these appointments are merely ironic, if you have a strong
stomach. Others literally involve matters of life and death. As
Arthur Miller once wrote, "Attention must be paid."