Monday, November 13, 2006

Now Lets Move on to Laws! - Part one: The Inspector General of the United States

In the first three of these post-election explorations, I was bold enough to suggest a few valuable measures that the House of Representatives might take in coming months, even if they are blocked from passing laws by presidential vetoes.

Some of these measures are win-win-win propositions, letting Democrats be seen taking the high road, while achieving much good for the republic, while additionally helping to drive a corrupt GOP deeper into the wilderness. Where - one hopes - they might commence a regime of fasting and meditation, in order to re-commune with a better brand of conservatism.


Now I’d like to turn to more ambitious agenda items -- actual bills worth turning into laws. Some will strike the public as so needed and fair that the GOP won’t dare interfere.

But first, in fairness, let us start by looking at what the Democratic Senate and House leaders already say they want. One of my best- respected interlocutors, Marty Krasney, supplied some summaries:

Speaker Pelosi’s legislative priorities for a Democratic House:
Increase the minimum wage (within first 24 hours)
Overhaul House lobbying rules (I have already mentioned this)
Enact recommendations of 9/11 Commission
Cut student loan interest rates
Lower Medicare drug costs
Broaden stem-cell research
Reform education funding
Pass labor reform legislation (Employee Free Choice Act)

Over a longer time frame, Democrats have floated numerous policy proposals in some key areas:
Budget/Taxes
Trade
Finance
Energy
Environment
Health Care
Workforce/Education
Telecommunications
Agriculture
National Security/Defense
Judiciary

I won’t examine all of these in detail, but take just one of these categories: Budget/Taxes: For example, Democrats pledge they will “seek” return to balanced budgets. Well, almost. And, these days, almost sure is a big improvement!

Details: More oversight and hearings; return to “pay as you go” budget enforcement rules; Comprehensive tax reform/simplification unlikely; Continuation of middle-income tax cuts (set to expire in 2010); alternative minimum tax reform; extension of some business-friendly provisions (e.g., research and development credit).

Also: may repeal/let expire other tax cuts geared toward wealthier tax payers (e.g., lower rates on capital gains and dividends) to pay for other priorities. Plus some targeted increase in domestic spending (e.g., health care, environment, education). An so on...

(A few comments. Raising fleet fuel efficiency standards would appear to be such a no-brainer that dozens of GOP Congressfolk are already crowding aboard the band wagon. (Indeed, no act of betrayal so clearly shows where Bush & co. loyalties actually lie, than their longstanding obstruction of this simple move toward energy independence.)

(Likewise, genuine funding for sustainable energy research will be most welcome. Along with an asserted effort to fund adequate science to finally settle the question of global climate change and (if justified) let us all dismiss the credibility of those shill-deniers.

(On a more amusing note, Dems will probably leave in place the fluke in the tax code that lets the Inheritance Tax go to zero in 2010 and then back to older rates thereafter. Making 2010 the year that elderly moguls hide from their heirs.


----- All Right, It’s My Turn ----

Clearly, the “policy wonks” have been very busy while they were in exile. You can bet they return filled with enthusiasm and with an almost-puritan work ethic! (The trait that probably makes GOP Congressional folk shudder most.)

Still, might there be room on the reformers’ plate for a few more good ideas? Over the next few days, I’ll offer some (including one or two that were mentioned here before).


My Top Proposal... Create the office of Inspector General of the United States...

... or IGUS, who will head a uniformed agency akin to the Public Health Service, charged with protecting the legal and ethical health of government.

No, I am not asking for yet another new bureaucracy! Ninety percent of this service exists today. Every major department or agency already has an internal Inspector General, charged with examining operations and giving warnings - when it comes to minor infractions - or else stepping in when things get out of hand.

The problem? Nearly all of these officials owe their jobs and paychecks to the very same secretaries and directors who head the agencies they must inspect! In some cases, they were old pals, ensuring partiality and conflict of interest.

Only now picture this. What if we made a very simple change, by appointing and assigning and paying all of the inspectors through a civil service unit completely separated from each department’s political chain of command? Indeed, separate from the legislative, executive and judicial branches?

A uniformed service, with its own elite career path like the Coast Guard and NOAA and the Public Health Service... so that the word “general” has real meaning, encouraging higher-than-normal traditions and standards of conduct.

Under this simple law (possibly it could fit on one page), IGUS will command a corps of trusted observers, cleared to go anywhere and see anything. And thereby assure the American people that the government is still theirs, to own and control. IGUS might be appointed by a commission consisting of all past presidents and retired justices of the US Supreme Court, plus other sages, with advice and consent of Congress.

One might imagine special rules requiring inspectors to stay mum when it comes to legal policy decisions that fall rightly in the political sphere, but giving them a range of options when they uncover violations of basic ethics and/or the law. These needn’t all entail immediate revelation or disciplinary action! One might even picture the Inspectorate as a way to provide basic rights to people who are being held under urgent “special circumstances” -- ensuring that those rare exceptions aren’t abused or over-used. And above all, that they are temporary.

Ponder this; the very act of establishing such a General Inspectorate would so clearly be neutral, offering no visible long term advantage to the Democratic Party, that this law would have immediate political effects, triggering so much public approval that (ironically) the Democrats who push this would certainly benefit!

Indeed - (and this will be important, in overcoming a Bush veto) - it is hard to imagine how the GOP (and President Bus) could dare to oppose it.

Consider: there are those who want us to immediately emulate the loony era of Ken Starr, loosing bloody-minded attack dogs across the land in order to ferret out vastly worse and more numerous dastards than ever were seen in the Clinton Era. Part of me wants this, too. But...

...but, in fact, who needs a special prosecutor? We need to uncover truth while MINIMIZING the appearance of petty, immature vengefulness. What better way than to remove impediments that have prevented "the system" from working, all by itself?

When every agency already contains the pieces that we’d need -- all of the right parts in order to create an ideal force for accountability -- how about simply lining those parts up, so that they slip into gear?

Let us first unleash a professional service that serves the people and the republic and the cause of honest government.


==Next time: A series of capsule suggestions.

or see my Suggestions to a New Congress

27 comments:

Don Quijote said...

ABC memo reveals Air America advertiser blacklist

Memo

Among the advertisers listed are Bank of America, Exxon Mobil, Federal Express, General Electric, McDonald's, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and the U.S. Navy.


I am assuming that they also find The Savage Nation and the Rush Limbaugh equally offensive...

David Brin said...

ALways look at the meta. somebody blew the whistle on this. We need more such. And more.

Matzebrei said...

Wow, and Hewlett Packard has their name prominently on the top of the document.

With all the bad press about them, you'd think they would learn to keep a low profile for a while, and not do anything that could come back in their faces.

ochreous said...

It seems to me that this conception of an independent IG is tantamount to either adding another branch of government or formalizing the role that a free press needs to play as a check on the government. Is there any mechanism for checking and balancing the power of this new IG office so that can't be turned into Hoover's FBI on steroids?

Andrew Smith said...

Democrats not likely to increase mileage standards.

David Brin said...

Ochreous, you miss the point. An IG cannot persecute or prosecute. He or she can inspect and report. All of the IGs already exist, charged with this responsibility. What is lacking is a senior IG for them to report TO!

IGUS would provide all of our IGs with the training - and protection - enabling them to inspect with true independence. Since their only "power" is the power to reveal when others abuse power... I am unclear as to what "checks" you would require.

Certainly I am not underplaying the role that the media should play in American life. But that is the point. We have seen the media become patchy and uneven and sometimes outright suborned and controled! We need a diversity of light sources.

We deserve something that is systematic and relentless and that is trained and paid and charged to read and scour every single line, of every single ledger. That is a different personality than any press reporter I know!

It is the personality of a CPA with added doses of prim, puritan readiness to find fault. Yummy!

Andrew! Thanks for pointing out this potential flaw in the Democratic agenda! Pelosi will pass a serious test if she holds Dingell's feet over the fire in the coming Democratic caucus. Either he accepts fuel efficiency standards or he gets to chair a different committee. Make it fisheries and tourism!

Nancy, get this from him in writing! Then he can tell GM and Ford "This one is out of my hands."

Rob Perkins said...

DQ, according to news reports I've read, the answer is yes, those corporation avoid Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh as well.

jomama said...

Let us first unleash a professional service that serves the people and the republic and the cause of honest government.

"Why does corruption in government always surprise us? Why do we expect anything else from it? Government is organized force. It takes our wealth and makes war. And we think honest men would do that work?" --Joseph Sobran

Who in their right mind would argue with that?

Carl said...

Improving fleet efficiency standards is indeed a no-brainer -- as in brain dead. The existence of fleet efficiency standards is why we have so many SUVs in the first place. Cheap big cars got effectively outlawed, so people who needed the cargo capacity bought trucks.

If you want people to burn less carbon , tax the carbon. End of story. No other programs needed.

BTW: Al Gore has recently endorsed the idea of using a carbon tax as a replacement for the regressive Social Security taxes. Kudos to Gore!

---

Another possible move would be to jack the standard deduction sky high (say 50K) and have a national sales tax. That way, the middle class has an incentive to save. We could tax capital gains at the regular income rate without crashing the market if we could give the middle class more incentive to save.

OdinsEye2K said...

Just to play Devil's Advocate here - who would appoint or elect the Inspector General? If appointed, we are stuck in infinite regress, since appointments are of course political. The so-called independent labor board, the NLRB, has been stacked with corporate boot-lickers ever since Bush took office. Their rulings to continuously restrict labor power are an obvious result.

Electing the IG would be better. Of course, we have the same problem as with all other elected officials. But when you can tell me how to get money and dirty tricks out of elections, you'll likely when some kind of medal.

Further devil's advocacy - how would writing a law to develop the IG be different than restoring the Fairness Doctrine or anti-trust rules that forbid a given media outlet from controlling more than 30% or so of its market? Or rules the forbid the ownership of multiple types of media ownership (radio, TV, website)?

Also, how does the IG function differently from the GAO? Those guys gripe about everything, but no one ever reads the reports.

Anyways, some CITOKAE to try and build up the concept.

Blake Stacey said...

OdinsEye2K asked, "Just to play Devil's Advocate here - who would appoint or elect the Inspector General?" As DB phrased it in his original proposal, "IGUS will be appointed by a commission consisting of all past presidents and retired justices of the US Supreme Court, with advice and consent of Congress."

Something seems odd in the notion of returning power to the people by establishing a commission of Aged White Males never directly elected to public office. . . but hey, this is the place to think of a better way.

Rob Perkins said...

You'll pardon my confusion, then, if I wonder how Sandra Day O'Connor is supposed to be an Aged White Male?

Blake Stacey said...

@Rob Perkins:

Yes, yes. . . . I aimed for a snappy phraseology to express the idea of a body far removed from the citizenry, at a slight cost to accuracy and comprehensiveness. Hey, the Blogotubes thrive on inaccuracy. The real point is whether the commission DB described is where we want the appointment power to reside. I'm not judging that one way or the other, yet, just raising a point which I'm fairly sure somebody will find troublesome.

Speaking of inspectors general, did anybody see "IGs Probe Allegations On Global Warming Data" in the Washington Post?

David Brin said...

OdinsEye, I like the notion of restoring the Fairness Doctrine - or anti-trust rules that forbid a given media outlet from controlling more than 30% or so of its market. Forgot about that one. Will add it to my list!

I do not claim that IGUS solves all problems. But the key point is that all these departmental Inspectors General already exist! They are there right now, with staffs and accountants, some of them working hard and some of them hardly working. All I suggest is sliding them away from the departmental chain-of-command and adding 10% to this force at the top, providing infrastructure and leadership so the reports have a place to go, toward a major public figure who can step in front of Congress, or the President -- or, if necessary, the People -- in full dress uniform and say “we have uncovered this.”

Further, by making all IGs members of a uniformed service, they are subject to traditions and training and codes of behavior that are far more strict than in civilian life. This kind of career path can also reduce the “revolving door effect.” Of inspectors knowing they will later get jobs from the people they inspect.

I am not wedded to my appointment method. It just seemed simple. And with Bill Clinton clearly “chairman” of the Council of Ex-Presidents.... ;-) But I’d be happy with additional members of the appointment boad. Say all IGs voting their OWN members to add to that board. Or give a vote each to the heads of: the Academy of Science, and so on.

Details. What matters is this could cost maybe $10 million and save maybe $50 Billions.... and our way of life.

Good citation, Blake. Let folks see what IGs do:

November 2, 2006; Inspectors general at two agencies have begun an investigation into whether the Bush administration has suppressed government scientists' research on global warming, officials at NASA and the Commerce Department confirmed yesterday.
Prompted by a request this fall by 14 Democratic senators, the IGs are examining whether political appointees have prevented climate researchers at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from conveying their findings to the public.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp dyn/content/article/2006/11/01/AR2006110103269.html

Finally:
jomama asked: “Who in their right mind would argue with that?” after quoting an absurd pile of drivel-cynicism that is utterly repudiated by the vast sweep of the American Experiment.

That’s the trick of dogmatists, folks. (You can see it illustrated by the smarmy Tobacco Exec in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING.) Never argue a point on its merits. Instead use distraction. In this case, shrug and simply ASSUME that an asinine statement is OBVIOUS!

Yes, Sobran’s statement was 99% true, for 99% of human history. And it is still a dismal lie. Because those 1% exceptions were:

1) responsible for or helpful in nurturing half of recent human progress and

2) the trend all across the Enlightenment has been for honest and decent and vastly sincere men and women to strive to increase that 1%... AND THEY HAVE LARGELY SUCCEEDED, in fits and starts, using hundreds of innovations such as the “accountability arenas” described at:
http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html

The utter hypocrisy of cynics, who have benefitted and lived in cushy comfort, protected by the very same (imperfect) institutions that they disdain, educated by society’s schools, spewing their cynicism across the most liberating medium ever built... built BY government... is hilarious.

Look at these examples, folks, and recognize the playground sneers that have always been aimed at the enthusiasts who want to make things better.

Tony Fisk said...

I'd have no complaints about an Inspector-General (having already mentioned how attempts to defang the Victorian equivalent proved to be the downfall of the Kennett government)

I will veer off topic long enough to point out this New Scientist article:
Preach Your Children Well

Is this how the next generation of Scudderites are being reared? While I'm not going to lose too much sleep over this yet, I do find the accompanying graph concerning. Why have the number of home schooled children tripled since 2000 (and doubled since 2004)?

Keep an eye on Patrick Henry College and its ilk (plus our old friend, the Discovery Institute)

OdinsEye2k said...

Jeez, Tony. I thought I was up to date with this kind of thing.

Tin foil aside, this whole network of organizations really is a little on the scary side. There are these paralell schools (meant to win arguments with shallow rhetoric and philosophy untarnished by empirical reality), a phony ACLU known as the ADF, this David Horowitz jerk dancing around campuses "representing" conservative students of dubious scholarship from the "persecution" of filthy liberals with PhD's ...

Our struggle for the Enlightenment and brave futurism against the old hierarchies is like a bad zombie movie. You shoot 'em down a couple of times, and up they come again, just that much closer to you and still howling for brains.

Although there is a good org or two out there. These guys haven't formed up much yet, but I like the cut of their jib so far:

http://www.sefora.org/

On the plus side, I heard someone managed to shut down Jesus Camp not too long ago. And we've got Karl Rove and the moderate Republicans poking each other in the eyes for now. If we are lucky, either the crazy base will be dispirited for a while, or the moderates will finally leave them to wander the wilderness alone.

Okay, so that may have totally hijacked the thread. But, still, important stuff.

Anonymous said...

"most liberating medium ever built... built BY government"

Be accurate.

Government didn't build a "liberating medium" - it just funded R&D into reliable ICBM launch control.

Universities, IBM, Bell Labs and such pushed the net into society as a liberating medium.

Commerce built it into the giant it has become.

David Brin said...

And so we weave convenient fantasies that let us deny that our own waste products (dogmas) stink.

Conveniently forgetting DARPA or the NSF grants that linked the first networks to UCLA, or Vint Cerf's research and TCP/IP, or the decisions to deliberately open tha gates to commercial use, or, indeed, one of the most staggeringly visionary steps of all time... the release of the entire internet... to the world... without the creator claiming even a vestigial right of ownership (except ICAAN's tennuous Commerce Dept connection.)

That one act, probably the greatest act of libertarianism, ever, is utterly ignored by a dogmatic libertarian movement that cannot, ever, see beyond its Randroid reflexes and recognize that government is only a tool. And when it is used accountably, by truly visionary men and women, it can do fine and good things.

Some libertarians realize that the key to their movement is to be FOR freedom and markets... and to drop the insanely rigid doctrine of having to always be AGAINST government. These two concepts sometimes have some overlap. But JUST AS OFTEN they do not.

Right now, government is our best weapon in defense of freedom and markets against the REAL enemies of all such things. Enemies who destroyed freedom and markets in 99% of human history. Enemies who Adam Smith would recognize in a shot.

Even if you do not.

rushmc said...

Implementing a new system to better oversee those subjected to the temptations of power and wealth is well and fine, but unless there is quick, clear, and unequivocal accountability for the crimes that have ALREADY occurred, the United States is nothing but a joke. The will of the people has to be that certain abuses will not be tolerated--this has nothing to do with partisanship! If that will does not exist, demonstrably, than neither your IGUS nor any other new anti-corruption system will make a lick of difference.

Anonymous said...

What, not enuf govt worship for you DB?

FIDONET and USENET were far more forerunners of the liberating spirit of today's internet than ARPANET that was more about time-sharing and communications experiments and that prohibited commercial use.

As for stinking of dogma, go re-read your own posts. Everyone who disagrees with you is the target of a smear or a sneer.

Sure govt is just a tool - just like a gun is just a tool, and both are effective for the same reasons.

When you hone force as a tool for your own ends, it'll eventually fall into the hands of the likes of Bush - or worse.

Carl said...

Regarding ARPANET. Yes, it is the ancestor of the Internet. But did it HAVE to be?

This is a spurious argument that I have seen come more from the Left than the right: that because a government program or union action or [insert liberal thing here] caused a good result, such program was necessary to produce that good result. It ain't so.

Without ARPANET, we might now be using an expanded Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, or somthing.

It may well be possible that the Internet as we have it is far superior to what would have arisen without ARPANET. We might otherwise be trapped in proprietary networks like AOL or Genie without ARPANET.

Then again, in that ARPANET free parallel universe we might have ended up with an email protocol which verifies the sender, eliminating spam as we know it. We might have a markup language that is neat and orthogonal instead of the hideous combination of HTML and JavaScript that we have today.

Who knows?

I am not saying that an open market would necessarily produce a better solution. We have the QWERTY keyboard as evidence that markets are not perfect at arriving at standards. I am only saying that SOMETHING would have likely arisen. Something possibly better, or possibly worse.

Carl said...

@Tony

The New Scientist article was at times quite laughable. Yes, we have all these theoretical high standards for high school teachers, but the reality is that many have teaching degrees, and are incredibly ignorant of the sciences. The amount of inane science teaching I have personally been subjected to in the public schools (among other things) is a my major motivation to destroy the public school system.

As for evolution? So what! We have plenty of people trained in evolution. We no more need to have everyone fluent in evolution than we need everyone fluent in differential equations.

Interesting irony: most of those who preach that everyone learn evolution flinch from the idea of actually applying such knowledge. Meanwhile Biblical Law includes a welfare system that ensures the survival of the poor while at the same time encouraging the productive rich to breed more than the poor -- evolution in action. (The rich could have multiple wives. But these were not the idle rich of feudal societies. Inheritance laws broke up large fortunes and the Jubilee laws prevented wealth accumulation through rent seeking. To be rich meant you or a very recent ancestor earned it.)

So, whatever the merits of Darwin over creationism, I am fully willing to sacrifice them in return for disposing of the psychological abuse, criminality, semi-literacy, moral vacuousness, fake history, bogus economics, and mind numbing boredom that is foisted upon the young by the public school system.

Markbnj said...

David/Friends;

This is off topic, but a critical thought.

What I think could help prevent a war with IRAN AND (sigh) make Bush's Legacy "stupid-proof"

IN brief:
If Bush were to send Nancy Pelosi as a OFFICIAL ambassador to Iran, they might hate bush enough to do business with Pelosi.

After all, Pelosi is the Enemy of THEIR enemy (Bush), and so the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

SO. perhaps Pelosi can keep us out of a war, and become a force to make BUSH have a legitimate place in history too..

sigh.

Markbnj

TwinBeam said...

Carl - I agree with your point regarding the internet.

David sees government as a "useful tool". If only all those people running the government could be brought under control. I know, we'll add ANOTHER layer of government - that'll fix it!

It isn't cynicism that causes distrust of government 'doing good'. It's open eyes willing to see, not blinded by lust to use that potent reservoir of force to do all the good things one thinks need doing.

Government repeatedly tries to do good things - but inevitably tramples much more value into the dust than it creates.

Take the civil war - a classic example of government doing good worthy of the terrible cost. More than half a million lives lost, and about $12B (pre-inflation) dollars spent, but in the end, about 4 million slaves were freed. Surely it was worth it?

Of course, every one of those slaves could have been bought and freed for well under $2B total.

But that wasn't a solution government could implement. Those who wanted to use government force to end slavery would have objected - "Why should we have to pay the evil slaveholders to do what's right? Just MAKE them give up their slaves!"

If government is a tool, it's pretty clear that it's a sledge hammer.

We'll never know all the potential value that was destroyed to get the Internet as we know it. It certainly wasn't free, and the likelihood that all that tax money was spent in the most cost-effective manner is zero.

Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

Twinbeam: Precisely how would buying all the slaves have prevented more people from being made slaves?

(not to mention that slavery was hardly the sole cause of the civil war, albeit one of the major ones.)

TwinBeam said...

Michael:

International slave trade was already outlawed by the US in 1808. No new slaves to buy. Besides, the political deal would likely have included an end to slavery.

Without the slavery issue stirring passions, I suspect the other issues could have been resolved.

Or the South might have seceded and the north not have felt morally justified in attempting to prevent them. Far more people believed in states rights in those times. It was slavery that polluted the concept.

Jack said...

The near-utter demolition of standards for soliciting bids and awarding government contracts. Especially with war” as an excuse. This should have been a major scandal of the campaign!