Washington has its traditions just like any other city. But unlike other places, Washington is the home of the second-oldest profession: politics. This makes the city impervious to demands for change -- especially change that strikes at the core of its deal-based political culture. And while the 2008 election promised "change" at all levels, signs of "business as usual" remain abundant.
Mo' Money, Mo' Problems!
Last week, the House passed an omnibus budget that contains billions of dollars in earmarks proposed by lawmakers in both parties. Several members of the Obama administration, including Obama himself, have sponsored earmarks which appear in the proposed budget.
During his presidential campaign, however, Obama routinely condemned earmarks. His opposition to earmarks led to the media's obsession with Alaska's so-called "Bridge to Nowhere," which Democrats said proved that Sarah Palin engaged in double-talk on fiscal conservatism. Recently, after fiscal watchdogs began publicizing the volume of earmarks in the proposed budget, Obama scrubbed his name from a multi-million dollar earmark that previously designated him as a co-sponsor. The earmarks, however, remain in the bill. Members of Obama's staff have defended the inclusion of earmarks in the budget on the grounds that the concern over pork spending was "last year's business."
Lobbyists are another staple of Washington's political culture. Obama campaigned on a pronounced anti-lobbying theme, and after he was elected, he immediately implemented rules that prohibit former lobbyists who join the government from shaping policy on issues related to their previous work. But Obama immediately ignored his own rules in order to appoint William Lynn as Assistant Secretary of Defense.
He was also presumably set to waive the rule (or at least ignore the spirit behind it) for Tom Daschle, his original pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Although Daschle ultimately withdrew from consideration over controversy surrounding unpaid taxes, some critics also complained that he had earned millions of dollars representing and providing advice to insurance companies and that he was a trustee of the Mayo Clinic. Daschle, however, was not formally registered as a "lobbyist."
In addition, as a campaigner, Obama promised transparency and accountability on health care reform, but lobbyists for insurance companies and other groups have held private meetings with Senator Ted Kennedy to discuss the issue before the public debates. According to the L.A. Times:
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama said that in overhauling healthcare he would make the negotiations public, and even invite C-SPAN to air the talks on television.As Chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Kennedy will have a large role in shaping health care reform. As usual, lobbyists are directing their attention to the appropriate persons.
Yet in recent months, lobbyists and health insurance company representatives have been meeting behind closed doors -- with the White House's knowledge -- in the office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to debate options for a new health system.
Improving "Our" Image in the World
Obama's supporters promised that his election would repair the image of the United States in the world community, which, they contend, Bush's militaristic practices and abusive antiterriorism policies severely damaged. A combination of legal strategy, politics and policy considerations, however, have caused Obama to retain many of the same Bush-era practices or legal positions that liberals believe injured the country' reputation. These policies include rendition, blanket usage of the state secrets privilege, the openness to "harsh" interrogation methods "if necessary," support of indefinite detention of Al Qaeda suspects, and the right to bypass federal courts to prosecute certain detainees.
Moving or Closing Guantanamo Bay?
Although Obama promised substantial changes in these areas, to date, the differences relate more to form, rather than substance. For example, although Obama has ordered the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the Navy has produced a study, at the president's request, which concludes that the facility complies with the Geneva Conventions. Although some human rights advocates condemned the Navy's report, Attorney General Eric Holder subsequently visited the facility and offered favorable reviews as well.
Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay in response to sharp criticism among domestic and international human rights activists who argued that the Bush administration unlawfully detained captives, denied them access to courts, and subjected them to torture. The Supreme Court concluded that detainees at the facility had a right to judicial review of their detention and, subsequently, that procedural deficiencies in military commissions authorized by Congress made the commissions an impermissible alternative to federal courts.
Although the President has ordered the closure of the facility, the government will likely send many present and future detainees to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan (and to other locations). The Obama administration, following Bush's lead, contends that detainees at Bagram do not qualify for access to the federal courts. Also, Holder and Solicitor General Elena Kagan stated during their confirmation hearings that the United States can indefinitely detain suspected members of Al Qaeda (whether or not they were caught on the battlefield, according to Kagan). If the President acts upon the broad authority his staff claims he possesses, Bagram could easily become the functional equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.
Governing in Prose
During the Democratic Primaries, Senator Hillary Clinton attempted to explain why she believed her "on the ground" approach was better in a president, even though members of the media and millions of Democrats preferred the "excitement," energy, and crowds of Obama's mammoth rallies. Clinton, quoting former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, reminded voters that: "You campaign with poetry, but you govern with prose."
At this point, it is unclear whether even solid prose and policy could alter the power of lobbyists and the impulse for members of Congress to secure earmarks. It is abundantly clear, however, that the wave of excitement that shaped the 2008 election has not transformed Washington into a place that welcomes substantive reform. As Sheila Krumholz, Director of the Center for Responsive Politics, tells the L.A. Times:
"I don't think anyone who is familiar with the way Washington works was under any illusions about the ease in doing this. . . .It's very different to make promises on the campaign stump than it is putting together an administration and running a government. . . . I don't think it's a given that it's possible to change the culture of Washington."I wholeheartedly agree with Krumholz's assessment. There's an old saying about change-resistant people going into new situations "kicking and screaming." But things look so remarkably the same around Washington that even the most stubborn adherents of the status quo have not even begun preparing either to kick or scream. They are definitely engaging in partisan whining and bickering, but that is so yesterday.
Another recent post: Silly Me: Opposition to Earmarks Is "Last Year's Business"
Correction: Please note that the description of the size of the "earmark" that Obama sponsored has been edited for accuracy.