Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Drop in the, Tank

I ran across this article today in the Detroit News and was - frankly - unsurprised. The House Oversight Committee has opened another investigation into the workings of the Executive Branch:

The U.S. Department of Transportation secretly lobbied dozens of members of Congress in recent weeks, urging them to join the Bush administration in opposing California's request to impose its own strict fuel efficiency regulations, according to a House investigative committee.

Using a one-page script and a list of auto facilities obtained from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group that represents automakers, staffers at the Department of Transportation called nearly every congressional member from Michigan and Ohio, urging them to oppose California's request[*], according to records released this week by the House Oversight Committee. They also targeted other auto-heavy districts and governors in at least seven other states.

While federal law bars government officials from lobbying lawmakers on issues before Congress, there are no such restrictions on regulatory questions, such as the California waiver.

Still, the lobbying suggests an "improper hidden agenda" because it comes as the administration is making "an independent assessment of the merits" of California's request, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the oversight committee, said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters...

...Until now, the Bush administration has not taken a public position on the California waiver, but the records released by Waxman show the Department of Transportation mounted a fairly extensive opposition effort that essentially supports automakers.

The Department of Transportation turned over 71 pages of e-mails and other records to Waxman's committee, which began investigating last month after a House staffer gave the committee a voice mail received from Heideh Shahmoradi, a special assistant for governmental affairs at the Department of Transportation...

...The lobbying blitz came ahead of a June 15 deadline for submitting comments to the EPA on California's request. [Joe] Knollenberg, [Candace] Miller and five other Michigan congressional Republicans sent a letter to the agency urging it to reject the waiver.

"The stakes for Michigan and American manufacturing could not be higher," the letter said. "The EPA should not allow California and other states to make a mad rush to saddle the auto industry with technologically infeasible mandates"...

...Joan Claybrook, director of Public Citizen, criticized the campaign. "How is the EPA going to make an independent decision if the Transportation Department is lobbying to oppose it?"
Read the whole article for the full content. I really have no informed comment at this time regarding an increase of fuel standards versus economic impact, and that's not really what this comment is about...The fight over fuel and emission standards is one of those wonky things that the average American cares about only in a vague manner - not that they shouldn't care more, mind you - but it lacks the sexiness of the politicization of the Department of Justice or the outing of a CIA covert operative. As (possible) scandals go, it's a drop in a much bigger bucket**.

What this article (and investigation) does, however, is to further highlight the modi operandi of the Bush Administration: Press or puncture the legal and ethical envelopes that are necessary for a properly functioning democracy and then mislead and deceive to avoid accountability. When being held to account is inevitable, as in the case of Scooter Libby's multiple convictions, use whatever legal loopholes are available to lessen the impact on the Inner Circle and shrug off any criticism...there will always be another professional wrestler or useless socialite to attract the public's attention.

And, even larger than that, is the issue of how the American government has been co-opted by business interests in such a way that government operates as an extension of those businesses...How else can you explain the apparent lobbying by the Department of Transportation on behalf of the automobile industry? You'd think that foreign and domestic auto companies have lobbyists with contacts in Congress that can express the same sentiments...I know that buying elected officials' votes has been around as long as there have been elected officials to buy, but our government institutions like the EPA or DOJ should be above and independent from partisanship, ideology, or the fiscal concerns of business.

Finally, I'm left with the same set of questions, only asked to different members of this administration...from the article:

The Transportation Department withheld 53 e-mails from the oversight committee. [DOT spokesman Brian] Turmail said Peters did not personally lobby any members of Congress on the issue.
Well, who were the persons in the DOT that lobbied members of Congress? Who directed them to do so? What is the DOT's rationale for withholding those messages?

I feel that these hearings won't get much coverage, but it would be interesting to hear the responses to those questions.

*The request by California is to establish limits on greenhouse gas emissions and create a higher standard of fuel economy. The adoption of these standards cannot take effect without a waiver from the EPA, hence the lobbying effort...Also, eleven other states want to adopt California's standards.
**Hence the title. Clever me.