Wakes up long enough to help GOP Congress push through bill OK’ing corporate looting during Katrina cleanup
Sorry we complained that the federal government was taking its own sweet time responding to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Remember when Congress rushed to interfere with poor brain-dead Terri Schiavo? When it comes to the alive and kicking black people of New Orleans, it’s moving quite a bit more slowly.
But then again, when Congress does act, look what happens.
A House bill hurriedly OK’d, rubber-stamped by the Senate and rushed today to the desk of George W. Bush includes a provision that will make any previous looting in New Orleans seem downright poignant. The watchdog group POGO notes that the bill “encourages federal agencies to waive taxpayer protections on Katrina-related contracting.”
This provision, which the watchdog group POGO calls “Katrina Relief Bill: Contractors at the Pig Trough,” is absolutely unnecessary, chimes in bulldog congressman Henry Waxman. He notes that other parts of the bill allow equally speedy ways of getting money to the problems, but without the potential for fraud, abuse, graft and so on. Waxman immediately fired off a letter of complaint to Appropriations Chair Jerry Lewis (not that one, but the one who’s leading this telethon-like effort for the GOP’s bidness pals).
Waxman’s letter explains it like this:
I am writing about my very serious concerns with a provision in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill for Hurricane Katrina. A substantive provision was inserted in the bill, at the request of the Administration, which would raise the “micro-purchase” threshold from $15,000 to $250,000 for purchases relating to relief and recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Raising this threshold would mean that any federal employee with a government-issued credit card could buy up to a $250,000 in goods or services in a single purchase. There would be no limit to the number of such purchases. This is an unwise provision that could lead to contract abuse and extensive waste, fraud, and abuse.
The use of government credit cards has a track record, and it is not a good one. In the decade since these credit cards were first introduced, GAO and agency Inspectors General have documented millions of dollars in waste, fraud, and abuse.
Oh, Henry! Can’t be that bad, can it? Yes, it can be. While stressing that the vast majority of federal employees are honest, he plucks only three of many examples of abuse enumerated by the Government Accountability Office in past reports:
• A Navy cardholder who made $250,000 in unauthorized purchases in less than a year, including buying a dog. (GAO report)
• A Navy cardholder who spent $150,000 for automotive equipment, home building, and general home supplies, some of which the cardholder later resold for cash. (same report as above)
• A Department of Education cardholder who made fraudulent purchases from pornographic websites, including one named SlaveLaborProductions.com. (GAO report)
POGO’s executive director, Danielle Brian, sums up the onerous provision this way:
The insertion of the provision is the result of callous contractors and their allies in Congress taking advantage of the country’s desperate desire to help the survivors of Katrina. This provision opens up the possibility for much more waste, fraud and abuse and offers no improvement in the government’s ability to quickly assist the people who need it.
Speaking of contractors and their allies, it’s good to see ol’ Joe Allbaugh hard at work on another national crisis, as I previously noted. The ex-FEMA chief (Mike Brown was his college roomie) is back to doing campaigning. But instead of running Bush’s campaign, as he did in 2000, he’s running interference for Halliburton and other companies down on the ravaged Gulf Coast. There’s a ton of stuff now out there on Allbaugh’s current lobbying. One of the best is Thomas B. Edsall‘s account in today’s Washington Post. Edsall lets Allbaugh’s quotes speak loud and clear about this Bush political hack’s sense of community and civic service:
Allbaugh, now head of his own Washington lobbying and consulting firm, was in Baton Rouge, La., helping his clients get business from perhaps the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.
Allbaugh said he was there “just trying to lend my shoulder to the wheel, trying to coordinate some private-sector support that the government always asks for.” In the case of one client, UltraStrip Systems Inc., a Florida company, Allbaugh said he persuaded “them down here” to present the case for a water filtration system.
“I’ll tell them, ‘Here are the list of entities [that might buy the system] that are in town, here is where they are — go to it.’ ”
Allbaugh said he advises clients on how to present their product or service to government agencies. “I tell them how to best craft their pitch, to craft their technical expertise so everybody knows exactly what they do.”
Edsall does a fine job, but a must-read on the subject of Allbaugh, Brown, and FEMA is Jon Elliston‘s excellent “Disaster in the Making,” published in the fall of 2004 in numerous alternative papers around the country and starkly relevant right now. This long but fine piece of recent history gave a prescient look at how Allbaugh worked hard to privatize as much of FEMA’s duties as he could.
As Elliston wrote:
At FEMA, President Bush appointed a close aide, Joe Allbaugh, to be the agency’s new director. Allbaugh had served as then-Gov. Bush’s chief of staff in Texas and as manager of his 2000 presidential campaign. Along with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, Allbaugh was known as one part of Bush’s “iron triangle” of professional handlers.
Some FEMA veterans complained that Allbaugh had little experience in managing disasters, and the new administration’s early initiatives did little to settle their concerns. The White House quickly launched a government-wide effort to privatize public services, including key elements of disaster management. Bush’s first budget director, Mitch Daniels, spelled out the philosophy in remarks at an April 2001 conference: “The general idea —that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided — seems self-evident to me,” he said.
That approach comes in handy now that Allbaugh is putting his “shoulder to the wheel” to help companies profit from doing work that government used to do.
This hiring of consultants and private firms for everything is a tremendous waste, of course. Look at the millions of dollars in documented overcharges by Halliburton and its subcontractors during the Iraq debacle. It was only a few days ago that the Corps of Engineers demoted its top civilian contracting official, Bunny Greenhouse, for blowing the whistle on Halliburton’s sweet deals.
Our pasha in Iraq, Jerry Bremer, was possessed of the same mania for privatizing, and billions of dollars slated for work there remain unaccounted for — that’s the continuing and still not investigated oil-for-slush scandal, in case you’ve forgotten amid the self-righteous hubbub raised by the GOP concerning the U.N.’s oil-for-food scandal.
When it comes to more-or-less natural disasters like Katrina, the same problems with consultants and private firms like Halliburton running wild in Iraq hold true here in the homeland. As Elliston wrote a year ago:
William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warns that the rise of a “consultant culture” has not served emergency programs well. “It’s part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities,” he says. “Pretty soon governments can’t do things because they’ve given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don’t necessarily maintain those capabilities.”
But now the GOP-controlled Congress wants to loosen the restrictions on hiring private firms to work on the Katrina cleanup.
Who cares whether the problems are solved? Corporations and ironists are sure to get rich on Katrina.