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Sunday, May 19, 2013

“Scandals” or Diversions?

It is common knowledge by now that fully ONE-THIRD of the Radical Right-controlled House committees are investigating the Obama administration.  The most important question to be raised currently is not: what did the Obama administration know and when did they know it?  The most important fundamental question to be asked is:  to what end? For what purpose are these hearings being held? 

I have heard it said that the answer to that question lies in the oversight function of the Congress.  According to Wikipedia:

“Although the Constitution grants no formal, express authority to oversee or investigate the executive or program administration, oversight is implied in Congress’s array of enumerated powers. Reinforcing these powers is Congress’s broad authority “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
“The authority to oversee derives from these constitutional powers. Congress could not carry them out reasonably or responsibly without knowing what the executive is doing; and whether officials are obeying the law and complying with legislative intent. The Supreme Court has legitimated Congress’s investigative power, subject to constitutional safeguards for civil liberties.
“The ‘necessary and proper’ clause of the Constitution also allows Congress to enact laws that mandate oversight by its committees, grant relevant authority to itself and its support agencies, and impose specific obligations on the executive to report to or consult with Congress, and even seek its approval for specific actions.  Inspectors general (IGs), for instance, report their findings about waste, fraud, and abuse, and their recommendations for corrective action, periodically to the agency head and Congress.”

Unfortunately, Congress takes advantage of this inherited power to play a political game of ‘cat & mouse.’  They are all too willing to use their “oversight power” to stir-up political issues and to harm politicians of the opposite party, than they are to find ways to solve or resolve problems.  Worst of all, they often fail to bring legislation forward to deal with problems, bureaucratic flaws and inefficiencies, or to change the procedures of government that sometimes get in the way of effective legislation and execution on behalf of the citizenry.

A perfect example of this exists right now in the three so-called “scandals” that have been brought to the attention of the public.  Although the Right can’t seem to find evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the White House, they rely on their usual tactics of innuendo, conspiracy theories, and character assassination to achieve their purposes which we shall enumerate later.  Fact-based rhetoric is not their strong suit!

1)    The Benghazi attack.  Radical Republicans would have us believe that the important things to know about this attack upon our embassy in Libya are:
--Why was it not referred to as a “terrorist attack“?
--Why did the administration use Susan Rice to put forward the story that an amateur video was to blame for the attack and not al Qaeda?
--Who gave her the talking points?  How were they fashioned?

--Why did the State Department refuse to use the military to aid the embassy while they were being attacked?  Who gave the order to stand down?
--Why didn’t the State Department. respond to a memo of need for embassy protection before this attack occurred?
--Did the Secretary of State have a part in this neglect?
--Why didn’t the President use the full might of our armed forces, in Libya (and Syria), to bring these people down and to help the rebels?

We could, of course, go on and on, as there are many more, mostly political questions, being raised by the radical right-wing ideologues.  In light of the many emails provided to the Committees, many of the questions have been answered.  Once again, the key to dealing with this issue is not to raise political “whodunit” questions so one can simply fix blame.  The issue for a legislative body must always be: what are the problems here and how can we fix them?  OR:  what can we do legislatively to solve the policy, procedural and budgetary problems that are at the heart of this incident?  So, some of the questions might be:

  • What are the laws, rules, strategies, procedures, etc. that are supposed to apply to these types of situations?
  • Do any of those laws and procedures need to be modified, repealed, amended, enhanced to help prevent this sort of thing from happening again?
  • What are the underlying problems at our embassies that make our people vulnerable to attack? 
  • What additional monies are needed?
  • What is our current protocol about notifying State about inadequate protection?  Is that sufficient, or do we need a better protocol?
  • What should our Mission be in other Mid-eastern countries that present such dangers to our embassies and personnel?
  • What should our strategy be toward rebel groups in such countries?  Do we need a different strategy toward each country, rather than one-size-fits-all?
  • What can Congress do, what can the Executive Branch do, what can State do to strengthen our presence in these middle-eastern countries, or do we need to find safer locations for our embassies and personnel?

These are fundamentally different questions than those being raised in Congressional hearings where blame, fault, missteps, political posturing, and political gamesmanship hold sway.  I predict that little will come from these “hearings” by all of these committees in the way of new resources, new strategies, new goals, effective new legislation or in terms of new spending to improve the dangerous situation for our overseas diplomats.  Because if you aren’t asking the right kinds of questions, you cannot get the right answers to fit the situation.

In contrast to these so-called ‘hearings’, a 2012 Government Accountability Office report by an independent review panel said serious lapses in management and leadership left the Libyan consulate badly unprepared.  Despite those deficiencies, the board determined that no individual officials ignored or violated their duties and recommended no disciplinary action.  Moreover, the panel called for a greater commitment from Congress to support the State Department's needs.  The Senate on Feb. 4, 2013  did approve legislation to allow the State Department to transfer $1.1 billion in surplus funds, no longer needed in Iraq, to improve security at U.S. embassies overseas in the aftermath of the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya last September.  The bipartisan measure gave the department the authority to expedite construction of Marine security guard posts at overseas facilities, and to build secure embassies. 

The GAO report suggested that embassy security remains vulnerable so long as the State Department maintains missions in dangerous locations amid staffing shortages. President Obama’s new budget includes $4 billion to improve security at America’s more than 270 diplomatic posts worldwide. That includes a $2.2 billion boost–proposed by the Accountability Review Board–in State’s embassy security construction budget to fund new facilities in high-threat areas, but Congress has yet to approve the funding. (Michael Crowley report, May 08, 2013). 

Just as they did in 2011 and 2012, will the radical Republicans vote against an increase in funding for our embassies and their security?  Highly likely.

2)   The Associated Press.   Attorney General, Eric Holder, is once again being harassed by Darrel Issa’s Committee that Issa uses as his personal forum for attacking the Obama administration.  This so-called “scandal” is that the Department of Justice allegedly over-reached its bounds, and confiscated the personal phone numbers of certain Associated Press reporters in an attempt to find a leaker who let out certain classified information that could have endangered the lives of soldiers, diplomats, and covert agents. 

According to Michael Isikoff, National Investigative Correspondent, NBC News:
“The Justice Department used a secret subpoena to obtain two months of phone records for Associated Press reporters and editors without notifying the news organization, a senior department official tells NBC News, saying the step was necessary to avoid "a substantial threat to the integrity" of an ongoing leak investigation”,  apparently in pursuit of the source of a leak about an al Qaeda bomb plot in Yemen.

The seizure of the phone records, is the latest move in a series of high profile and controversial investigations by the Justice Department of leaks of classified information. In a letter of protest to Attorney General Eric Holder,  AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said obtaining more than two months of AP phone records on 20 separate telephone lines without prior notice was a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into news-gathering operations.

However, Bill Miller, spokesman for Ronald C. Machen, Jr., the U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C.,  said in an email that the subpoena for the records was done by the book.  "Consistent with DOJ regulations, the department provided notification to the Associated Press of the receipt of toll records in a letter dated May 10, 2013." He noted that Justice regulations "do not require notification to the media prior to the issuance of legal process to obtain toll records."

In a separate email, Miller wrote: "Those regulations require us to make every reasonable effort to obtain information through alternative means before even considering a subpoena for the phone records of a member of the media. We must notify the media organization in advance unless doing so would pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation.”

We have here the possible conflict of a witch-hunt with a more reasoned approach to a fundamental matter in our democratic society: when is a subpoena necessary for records of  a sensitive nature?  And what are the bounds within which such a subpoena should operate?  Since the promulgation of the Patriot Act under the George W. Bush administration, there have been questions about intrusion into the rights and lives of many of our citizens.  That Law must now come under greater scrutiny to determine if it has over-stepped some important boundaries that speak to the freedoms we all enjoy.  The Congress needs to examine all other Acts that allow the government to somehow “get around” the Fourth Amendment.  Have we crossed over too many boundaries in our efforts to combat terrorist activity?

After all, the Constitution in Amendment IV has some very important things to say about searches and seizures:  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

This is less of a “scandal” and more of a wake-up call to determine if we have misguided policies and procedures in place, even though the proper procedure was followed and nothing “illegal” occurred.  The questions that must be raised have less to do with who did what to whom, and who authorized it, than they do with how do we decide what is necessary for maintaining national security while protecting our constitutional rights?

Perhaps Congress needs to pay more attention to passage of a Media Shield law, especially those Republicans who have opposed or demurred about such legislation.

3)    The IRS scandal.  By now, this story seems to be the clearest of all, and the one of most concern to ordinary citizens.  USAToday sums it up:

“Washington's latest political scandal involves a little-known unit of the Internal Revenue Service that determines which groups don't have to pay taxes. Staff in that unit had singled out conservative political groups for greater scrutiny of their applications for tax-exempt status, an IRS official said last week.” 

The IRS says it subjected Tea Party-affiliated groups to additional scrutiny based solely on the name and stated goals of the organization. Often, those groups were asked invasive questions about their donor lists, affiliations and contacts with the media — questions not routinely asked of other groups.

This was prompted by the number of applications for tax-exempt social welfare organizations doubling from 2010 to 2012, to 3,400 a year. According to the IRS, that's largely because of a surge in politically oriented groups before the 2012 presidential election and in the wake of favorable court rulings. In response, an IRS unit in Cincinnati began to sort politically oriented groups into a separate "bucket" of applications. IRS Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner said this was done for consistency.

The normal process for seeking tax-exempt status involves an organization filing an application and answering a 36-item questionnaire on its structure, purpose and activities. Based on those answers, the IRS may seek additional information.

Lerner said about 300 groups went into a "bucket" of applications getting more scrutiny. About a quarter of them were groups that had "Tea Party" or "Patriot" in their names, she said. The others may have drawn scrutiny based on broader criteria that pulled out groups whose issues involved government spending or debt, or whose goals were critical of the government, according to a timeline provided to members of Congress.”

President Obama has called these actions outrageous and unacceptable,  and now those who did not conduct proper oversight and management are losing their jobs.  This is appropriate.  What is not appropriate is for Radical Republicans to imply and aver that the Obama White House directed that such activity take place.  The evidence for such accusations is just not there. 

What is evident, at least to me, is:

  • The new head of the IRS has not been confirmed by the Senate, and so a Deputy Director, a career civil servant, was running the agency, and he was preceded by a Bush appointee 
  • The 501(c) (3), (4), (5), (6) sections of the IRS code need in-depth scrutiny by the Congress and the White House.  These classifications leave much to be desired, and the restrictions regarding political activity are not clear nor do they have any “bite”
  • There are not enough staff at IRS to handle the number of applications for 501 status
  • IRS staff may not be adequately trained in their responsibilities
  • Laws need to be changed to correct abuses, ensure training, protect the public; perhaps Congress should give serious consideration to the Disclose Act which they have not done heretofore.

In all these incidents, the Congress is failing in its responsibility to lead by legislating.  It is failing in its oversight responsibility to examine judiciously the underlying problems in a bipartisan manner.  It is failing in it’s responsibility for staffing and budgetary support of Executive Branch offices and departments.  It has failed to provide confirmation of major staff appointments leaving Executive agencies hampered by lack of leadership and plagued by lack of direction.  Career appointees as agency leaders have little incentive to carry out the best intentions of the current administration.  Finally, Congress has failed to give the President the authority to consolidate and re-order the departments and offices of the Executive Branch. 

At least a large part of the failure of certain agencies of the Executive Branch to do their jobs well can be traced to the intractability of the Congress on approving appointments and on providing monetary support for adequate staffing.  But the wicked obsession of too many members of both houses to see this President fail is a major problem.  So here, at long last, are some of what I consider to be the purposes behind all of these hearings:

1)    To delay action on, and consideration of, President Obama’s main policy agenda.  The Right Wing wishes to avoid any further dealings with real issues like gun violence, women’s issues, immigration, jobs, infrastructure, the climate, and dependency on fossil fuels because their rhetoric and lack of solutions has not played well on the national stage.

2)    This is a continuation of the right-wing strategy of  damaging the public’s view of national government.  They want the public to believe that government is out to get them, that government is intervening in their lives (ObamaCare their prime example), that government is responsible for all the ills of society, that government cannot be trusted, that government is their enemy and may have to be overthrown by armed insurrection. 

3)    This is a blatant attempt to discredit President Obama.  Not able to carry out Mitch McConnell’s all-consuming dictum to prevent this President from winning re-election, the Radical Right has turned to trying to destroy his legacy.  And that leads us to:

4)    The continuing attempt to “tar & feather” our first black President.  These so-called “scandals” are one more way to keep race covertly at the forefront and to attempt to convince as many as possible that you can’t trust this President or his administration (symbolized by the shameful attacks on his African-American Attorney General and UN Ambassador).  It is evident in the all-out attempts to connect everything negative to the White House, including the use of a Marine to hold an umbrella over his head, and more particularly, the charge that the President is not interested, is lazy, is incompetent or unable to manage the bureaucracy.

5)    The IRS scandal is ready-made for the Radical Right to use as another pretext for its on-going attempts to “flatten” tax rates, or to “simplify” the tax code.  Guess who the flat tax would most benefit?  The richest 1%, of course.

6)    And finally, it is the desperate attempt of the Right-wing to deflect the public’s distrust of their policies and philosophy illustrated in the Romney campaign, the Ryan Budget, the Sequester, the attack on women, and their campaign of obstruction against any legislation or program that would help the middle class and the working poor. 

The Republican Right-wing is once again the villain in it’s own production.  It is time to throw the bums out before they destroy both the Legislative and the Executive branches of our government.