From Liberty Street: Investigate!

John Turner

Clearly, there is one overriding duty for the Democratic Congress over the next two years. They must use their authority to find out exactly what the Bush administration has done since January 2001 and make it all clear to the American people. The public generally is already aware that the Republicans have fouled up many areas of public life. But exactly how the foul-up has proceeded and what the motives for it were are not yet widely understood.

The craziness of the Iraq invasion should come first, of course. Yet, it shouldn't be allowed to dominate to the degree that other behavior is ignored. Two articles in today's New York Times offer examples of the basic impulses of this administration,

Eric Schlosser points out that recent outbreaks of contaminated food come from a food safety system which been more concerned with industry profits than with safeguarding the public. Since Mr. Bush took office, four/fifths of the political donations made by the fast-food and meatpacking industries have gone to Republican candidates. They didn't give that money for nothing. In the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration made 35,000 inspections annually. Now, it makes less than ten percent of that number. Furthermore, there's a revolving door between officials changed with food regulation and operatives of the food industry. The current chief of staff at the Agriculture Department, for example, used to be the beef industry's chief lobbyist. I see no harm in pointing out the obvious. This administration would rather see people die from poisoning than it would to have the food industry's profits affected. The electorate needs to understand that.

In a column titled "Outsourcer in Chief," Paul Krugman notes that though Mr. Bush says he won't respond in detail to the Iraq Study Group's report because he doesn't want to "outsource" the role of commander in chief, his administration has tried to outsource as many government functions as possible to large corporations. The Coast Guard, for example, recently spent $17 billion for refurbishing its systems and equipment, and the whole project was outsourced to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. And now the Coast Guard says the results were very bad.

The average voter remains unaware how the details of gigantic contracts involving billions of dollars offer numerous ways for contractors to skim off vast sums for themselves that would not be possible if government agencies were determined to see that taxpayers get full value. But when the contracts were awarded for the purpose of private profit rather than public benefit, it's obvious that alert scrutiny of the provisions never takes place. The Democratic Congress needs to inform the people about who got how much, and what they got it for. If people who are wracking their brains in an effort to live decently on what used to be considered a middle-class income knew exactly about the bloated fortunes that have been granted out of their tax dollars, they might begin to pay more attention to the officials who make these insane profits possible.

In my scale of values, greed is bad but the arrogation of blatant, unquestionable power is worse. The latter delivers us to the door of tyranny, and, lately, that's where we have been. The president of the United States has said, and has had his legal representatives argue forcefully in the courts, that his office gives him the power to seize anyone on earth and do anything to his body the president wishes, without having to give an account for his behavior to anyone. If you don't believe that's the case, go and read some of the arguments government lawyers have made in civil liberty cases. The motive for doing this is said to be good and therefore the behavior is justified. But there is no motive to justify unrestrained power. It is always bad, no matter how noble tyrants try to make it sound. If the United States is supposed to stand for anything, it is that every person has the right to defend himself against unreasonable search and seizure. George Bush has tried to negate that principle, and now the Congress of the United States needs to reveal how he has done it and who has been unjustly treated because of his effort.

If over the next two years we could have a wide scale public education project, headed by the Congress of the United States, to make all citizens aware of what has been done in their names over the past six years, we might have a chance to return our nation to decent behavior-- or, at least as decent as the nation-state is capable of -- and the respect of the rest of the world. We have been wallowing in dishonor and now the Congress and we ourselves should acknowledge our misdeeds.

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Harvard Square Commentary, December 11, 2006