Un-Covering Livingston

Whatever visceral joy Press Clips took in watching last week's postelection punditry meltdown has, alas, been replaced by a great sense of disappointment in working political reporters— or, at least, those who have been charged with the mission of better acquainting the public with Bob Livingston of Louisiana, the all-but-elected new Speaker of the House.

Since the unexpected stage-right exit of His Newtiness, Livingston has been introduced to beyond-the-Beltway readers as "an effective legislator devoted to budget cutting and trading favors" and a "straight-up dealmaker" (Time) who "occasionally resort[s] to theatrics like wielding a machete to show he is a budget cutter" and holds a black belt in karate (New York Times)— or is it tae kwon do (Time)? He is, says The Washington Post, "much more the backroom dealmaker" than Gingrich, and, though no moderate, "has clashed with . . . other conservatives of his own party, frequently rebuffing their attempts to attach 'riders' to appropriations bills to advance pet GOP policy goals."

While the aforementioned characterizations do indeed describe Livingston, it's what's unsaid that truly distorts the picture.

"The recent coverage of Livingston reinforces my view that Washington reporters don't do their jobs very well," says Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project. "The fact is, there's been no real analysis of what he's done since coming to Congress in 1977, which includes making war on the Federal Election Commission and subverting the House ethics process."

Queries about campaign finance reform have consistently shown that the subject is popular with voters and that quite a few know that the FEC is the official campaign- finance watchdog. Not many, however, are familiar with Livingston's crusade to yank out the restrained hound's remaining teeth. Upon assuming his post as House Appropriations Committee chairman in 1995, Livingston quickly sicced his investigative staff on the chronically underbudgeted and understaffed agency. The investigators' final report drew no damning conclusions, save for one pseudo finding: because the FEC tries to format data based on citizen requests, the potential for "abuse" is "extremely high." What form that abuse might take was left unexplained— though, as observers pointed out at the time, congressional Republicans were certainly feeling abused because of the FEC's investigation of Newt Gingrich and GOPAC.

Livingston cut the FEC's budget in 1995. Then, in 1996— the year the Christian Coalition was slapped with a FEC lawsuit— he tried to trim the commission's already overburdened press office (average calls per day: 100) from five people to two. Foiled by moderate Republicans who amended his bill, allowing him only one flack's scalp, he steadfastly refused FEC requests to hire more investigators (there are only two) to handle the load of approximately 300 cases— a budget item, The Wall Street Journal and others reported, that even the FEC's Republican commissioners believed was essential.

Though Livingston's anti-FEC zeal has been attributed to his resentment at a random audit in the late 1970s (not long after, Congress took away the FEC's power to conduct audits), there are other reasons why the notion of fewer people to answer reporters' calls would appeal to Livingston. Monday's Washington Post did note that Livingston "helped to pump more than $1 billion of project funds into the Avondale Shipyards, which in turn supported his political activities." However, the Post failed to note— as The Progressive's Ruth Conniff did earlier this year, courtesy of the dreaded FEC records— that Livingston is the top House recipient of PAC contributions from Freeport McMoRan, a New Orleans mining company that has contracts with the genocidal Indonesian government. And while The Washington Post, New York Times, and others have benignly referred to the congressman's fondness for military appropriations, no one specifically mentioned that a chunk of his PAC money comes from the same contractors who continue to get Livingston's support for Star Wars projects, even though the billion-dollar defense systems' test records have been less than stellar.

Other peculiarities of Livingston coverage: though the Times pointed out last year that the Livingston-led House Ethics Reform Task Force had made congressional ethics enforcement "even weaker," nary a word about one task force legacy— namely, that citizens can no longer file ethics complaints against their representatives— was to be found in any Times article on Livingston within the past two weeks. Nor was there mention of Livingston's intriguing hiring practices when he cochaired the task force: for chief counsel, he tapped Washington lawyer Richard Leon, whose clients include lobbyist Ann Eppard. Along with her former boss and current focus of lobbying activity, Representative Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, Eppard was under investigation by the Justice Department. (Roll Call's plaintive editorial wail for a lawyer without "a clear conflict of interest" went unheeded; Eppard was indicted earlier this year, while Shuster remains under investigation.) And Livingston's other, distinctly far-right initiatives— blocking abortion funding, stopping OSHA from promulgating ergonomic standards, discon- tinuing Americorps— have received virtually no mention.

Observes The Progressive's Conniff, "In the wake of Gingrich, Livingston's being presented as the reasonable Republican. He's not someone the Democrats are going to go after, because what he's done has been to the benefit of both parties."

Rupert's Closet Quid Pro Quo

While precious little about British political scandal has made the U.S. press this year, last Thursday's New York Times carried a story from across the pond detailing a sudden change of editorial policy at The Sun, Britain's leading tabloid.

After years of unhesitatingly "outing" gay public officials, and on the heels of playing up disclosures about the private lives of two cabinet ministers, The Sun suddenly changed its policy, the Times reported. "Our readers are tolerant of private behavior and find unwarranted intrusion offensive," The Sun editorialized.

However, although it raised the question, the Times did not probe for an answer as to "what exactly prompted The Sun's U-turn." Indeed, the paper noted, even a spokeswoman for The Sun's parent company "said she could not explain why The Sun decided to do what it did." Hard to say for certain, but Press Clips hazards a guess: It just might have had something to do with the increasingly symbiotic relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Sun's owner, Rupert Murdoch.

The Australian-born press lord has never shied from using his holdings to suck up to whoever might be useful. That this applies to Blair was ably documented by Michael Leapman in the October Mother Jones, which, apparently, the Times didn't consult. According to Leapman, in September 1994— about the time that the British Conservatives' downward political spiral was increasing in velocity— Murdoch and his wife invited Mr. and Mrs. Blair to dinner. Although Labour was officially no friend of Murdoch's (he gained the party's enmity by breaking the London print unions in 1986), Blair dined with the Devil, who the next year invited him to speak at a NewsCorps management retreat in Australia. Dangling before Blair the whole time was the prospect of an endorsement from the Sun; six weeks prior to the 1997 elections, Blair got it.

The investment appears to have been a good one for Murdoch. Earlier this year he asked Blair to do a little recon for him on a potential business deal in Italy. The prime minister obliged, going so far as to sound out his Italian counterpart, Romano Prodi, about whether a Murdoch move in the Mediterranean media market would be well received. Blair seems only too happy to help on the domestic front as well. Earlier this year, the House of Lords trained its sights on Murdoch, attempting to introduce legislation that would prohibit his dubious practice of taking a loss on the newsstand price of his London Times. The measure, Leapman reports, remains bottled up in Parliament— thanks to New Labour.

Blair is not, however, completely on board Murdoch's corporate yacht, which may help explain the Sun's change in policy. While Blair has aided Murdoch, the tycoon doesn't cotton to the notion of Britain adopting the Euro currency and cementing ties with the European Union. According to Leapman, "Blair hopes the magnate and his editors will begin to see the virtues in establishing closer links," which would "make it easier to sell the [Euro] concept to voters."

Murdoch, however, has used his papers to skewer Blair on the issue, going so far to ask, on the Sun's front page, if Blair is "the most dangerous man in Britain." While Blair is by no means on the same thin ice that Clinton is, a series of other non-sex-related scandals have dogged him. Is it possible that Blair will appreciate the fact that the U.K.'s best-selling tab won't out any more ministers? Press Clips suspects Rupert might think it'll count for something.

Research: Lauren Reynolds

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