WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- The UPI Think Tank Wrap-Up is a daily digest covering brief opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events, and position statements released by various think tanks.
Buying In: Enron's contributions were chump change.
By Michael W. Lynch
Washington, being the center of the universe, is still struggling to understand the Enron meltdown, centered as it is in finance, not politics, and in Houston and Wall Street, not D.C.
But one lobby has jumped on Enron's collapse to push its cause quicker than John Ashcroft jumped on Osama's terrorism to bug America's phones.
"The Enron scandal has thrust a real human face on campaign finance reform," the press secretary for Marty Meehan, D-Mass., informs the Cox News Service.
"No bones about it," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who like 70 other senators and 188 representatives cashed Enron checks, tells Newsweek. "I'm tainted too."
Enron presents a conceptual problem for the campaign spending police, who nevertheless may soon get their bill to a vote in the House. Unlike the Keating Five, the last scandal that "tainted" McCain, there's no evidence that anyone did Enron any favors at crunch time. The agile Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) tried to squeeze this lemon into lemonade, claiming that this lack of action was an outrage.
"The facts can take on almost a secondary role in these things," former Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart told The Washington Post. "For better or worse, this will not ultimately rest on whether someone can prove that someone did something wrong."
Forgive me, if you will, for nevertheless revisiting the facts.
On Nov. 9, the Center for Responsive Politics posted a dossier of Enron's political giving. It seems the company has pumped out $5.8 million in federal campaign contributions since 1988-89.
"The federal government's involvement could create a quandary for President Bush, who raised nearly $114,000 in PAC and individual contributions from Enron in 1999-2000, making the company one of his biggest donors," writes the center's Steven Weiss.
The real story is how small his biggest donors are. $114,000 isn't even a rounding error in the $193 million that Bush raised on his way to the White House. And Enron, it turns out, is not even among the top 20 contributors to the Republican Party.
It may seem scandalous that Enron spent $5.8 million on campaigns over the last 12 years -- $480,000 a year. Yet such generosity is not even a drop in the D.C. bucket. In the last election cycle alone, House candidates spent $457 million campaigning. Senate candidates spent $558 million more.
It's also important to keep in mind what the proposed campaign finance reform legislation does. It outlaws soft money, and Enron distributed $1.67 million of that in 2000. It doesn't regulate other contributions, and doesn't restrict a company's spending on lobbying or on communicating with legislators.
We don't know what Enron's spending bought. It didn't appear to buy it any help in its time of dire need. But some say it bought policy changes on its way up. The company certainly had access to those formulating the president's energy policy. Yet even here its batting average was far less than perfect. As an article in the New York Times business pages notes, "for all the self-generated hype about its influence, for all the envy of competitors and detractors, Enron, it turns out, failed to score many victories."
In fact, it had more luck with President Clinton's Securities and Exchange Commission than with the Republican Congress. In 1993 Enron secured a decision exempting it from the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act. And in 1997 it secured an SEC exemption from the Investment Company Act, allowing it to set up subsidiaries.
Columnist Arianna Huffington frets that Bush, presumably under Enron's spell, "abandoned a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide." Enron, however, lobbied hard for Bush to regulate the gas, and put his decision in its loss column.
In making a fool out of herself, Huffington nevertheless makes an instructive point: Any change in policy will benefit some interests and hurt others. The carbon dioxide decision wasn't necessarily good because it hurt Enron, and it wouldn't have been obviously bad if it had helped the company. And Enron wasn't operating in a vacuum. Sophisticated forces with plenty of money were working the other side of the argument.
God didn't hand down the U.S. regulatory code at a pristine point in time. Human beings developed it at particular moments in history, responding to particular crises and events. One can't say, on the face of it, whether Enron should be exempted from a Depression-era law, or even if the law still makes sense. That only can be determined by a process that is centered on open debate. Debate requires people, and people, as Marx taught us, must earn enough to show up at work the next day. That takes money.
Meanwhile, keep in mind that while Enron spent $1.9 million of its shareholders' money lobbying politicians in 1999, Uncle Sam spent nearly $1.7 trillion of yours.
Censorship Gravy Train: Oh, to be a seven-figure victim of the New McCarthyism.
By Matt Welch
After Sept. 11, editors who had spiked exactly zero of my previous 152 columns and articles about politics and the media suddenly refused to publish five out of 11 about the terrorist attacks and their aftermath.
Woe! Censorship! Dissent squashed!
In Europe over the holidays, I met up with an editor friend from an academic journal who was struggling over how to "tone down" a strident column by a prominent elected official critical of Arab regimes' dreadful human rights policies. "We don't want to be seen as being in the pocket of the Jews," he explained.
Woe! Censorship! Possible whiff of anti-Semitism!
A few days ago, my French journalist wife, whose personal Web site is mostly in her native tongue, received an e-mail that warned: "IF YOU WANT TO WORK IN THIS WONDERFUL COUNTRY, THEN SPEAK DE ENGLISH OR HIT THE ROAD!"
Racism! Censorship! Internment camps!
My viewpoints quashed, my wife a potential victim of ethnic cleansing: It's high time I stood up and declared myself a fully vested target of the New McCarthyism. After all, every other victim is so damned rich.
There's millionaire television comedian Bill Maher, who responded to outrage over one of his bad jokes by reminding the oppressed proles at Vanity Fair: "If you can be quashed for speaking your mind, then we become our enemy."
There's Brentwood socialite Arianna Huffington, who leapt to Maher's defense by accusing ABC sponsors and executives of "using the Taliban's trademark weapon -- the stifling of dissent."
Best-selling author and long-toiling intellectual Susan Sontag also made the conceptually daring connection between criticism of her foolish reactions to Sept. 11 and the domestic victory of the Thought Police: "It turns out," she concluded, "we have increasingly become incredibly conformist, and very afraid of debate and criticism." Too true! Pass the book deal!
As Vanity Fair's Leslie Bennetts so rightly lamented, "Some frustrated American commentators have even resorted to publishing in British and European outlets." Oh, to feel that pain!
Of course, the downside of my new Get Rich Quick scheme would be a certain amount of personal embarrassment, a condition my seven-figure role models don't seem to suffer from. It's hard to keep a straight face while crying "censorship" in 21st century America -- with its cheap and widespread Internet access, tiny percentage of state-owned media, and hundreds of thousands of media jobs -- when you've met people like Cuban baseball historian Severino Nieto. Nieto has written more than a dozen important works of scholarship since 1959, knowing full well that none will be published in his lifetime unless Fidel Castro dies first. (El Jefe doesn't like reminders that there were organized sports before the Revolution.)
"Yes, but I'm talking more about self-censorship," one editor told me (before he stopped running my columns). Well, sure. It must be hard to pull down $62,000 and benefits at a media company while not quite having the guts to write what you think. I'd sign up for that gravy train, too, but I guess invertebrates are born, not made.
So that leaves me with no choice but the narcissistic thrill of imagined persecution. With Attorney General John Ashcroft accusing his critics of aiding the enemy, and President George Bush classifying decades of presidential documents as secret, there certainly is some promising material with which to build a case for a current "chilling climate" for speech.
But what do you know? I was able to find other editors from more prominent, higher-paying publications who liked my rejected columns just fine. Not only that, I can also publish anything I want on my Web site, which costs $25 a month to maintain and has more readers than Cuba has non-government Internet users.
It doesn't quite top Bill Maher's salary and sloe-eyed perks, but at least I don't have to act like a moral jackass in a comparatively free country.
(Matt Welch is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles.)
National Center for Public Policy Research
(NCPPR is a communications and research foundation dedicated to providing free market solutions to public policy problems, based on the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility. NCPPR was founded to provide the conservative movement with a versatile and energetic organization capable of responding quickly and decisively to late-breaking issues, based on thorough research.)
A different standard for the powerful means no environmental justice from Washington
By Syd Gernstein
Laws are supposed to make our society orderly and protect the public interest. But red tape can overwhelm and actually cause more harm than good. The process can also be corrupted.
Take, for instance, "environmental justice." This policy empowers the government to stand up for the rights of the poor and minorities who may not have the political clout to stop a polluter from coming into their neighborhoods.
A success story occurred when the Environmental Protection Agency second-guessed the Missouri Department of Natural Resources approval of a proposed landfill. The EPA feared porous rock and geological faults in the region could cause pollutants to seep into the water supply of a neighboring minority community.
But the policy backfired in Louisiana when the same EPA denied the Shintech Corporation a permit to build a factory in a minority community. With 40 percent of the population living below poverty level, residents and the local NAACP desperately wanted the wages and benefits the factory offered. Regrettably, the government decided that the factory was not in its best interests, so Shintech relocated to a predominantly white community.
It's heartbreaking to see regulations destroy someone's ability to earn a living. It's infuriating when government regulators ignore the rules they zealously impose on the weak or poor when those same rules adversely affect government projects or the rich and powerful.
Two perfect examples of this do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do behavior are found in our nation's capital, the home of those who write and enforce federal laws.
The Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting Maryland and Virginia across the Potomac River needs to be replaced. It's one of the capital region's highest transportation priorities because the existing bridge cannot meet current traffic demands. Construction of a new bridge, however, poses a threat to the habitats of the endangered bald eagle, shortnose sturgeon and dwarf wedge mussel.
Regulators are looking the other way as bridge construction devastates habitats that should, by law, be protected. Commenting on the lax enforcement, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., said "Even though fish have a tough time swimming upriver to spawn when the bridges are being exploded and river bottoms dredged, Washington regulators plan to avoid harming the fish by eliminating their habitat, which would keep them out of the area -- a big no-no under the (Endangered Species Act)."
The National Wilderness Institute filed a lawsuit against the government's actions regarding the Wilson Bridge reconstruction.
NWI Director Rob Gordon said, "NWI agrees that the bridge needs replacing. It is not our goal to inconvenience friends and neighbors. ... If inconvenience to the citizens of the Washington, D.C. area does occur, it is because the federal government failed to follow the law."
Federal policies place the concerns of people over the needs of the habitat in the nation's capital, but the federal government's priorities are reversed elsewhere. In the Klamath valley region of Oregon and California, the federal government cut off water to farmers because of concerns over endangered coho salmon and sucker fish habitats. The decision cost 2,000 jobs. The regional economy lost $134 million, and farmers lost $71 million in revenue.
Would the federal government have been as willing to cut off water to Washington, D.C.? In Washington, upriver from the Wilson Bridge, near D.C.'s trendy Georgetown neighborhood, is the Washington Aqueduct. For years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has used the aqueduct to pump toxic sludge into the Potomac. Aluminum sulfate in the sludge has negative effects on the endangered shortnose sturgeon and the grasses it depends on to spawn. An alternative is to remove the sludge by truck, but that would require the trucks to drive past the homes of rich and powerful Georgetowners. Instead of inconveniencing residents, the Corps continues to flush the sludge into the river -- often under cover of night or during storms.
According to NWI's Gordon, "Millions of pounds of toxic sludge destroying habitat is an enormous problem that demands immediate attention."
Would regulators allow private businesses or landowners to cut corners as the government has in Washington, D.C.? Clearly not.
All this points to the notion that our environmental laws have two modes of enforcement -- one for the government and those it favors and one for the rest of us. Although the government is allegedly committed to protecting "the little guy" from environmental harm, it's obvious that lawmakers need to take a closer look at the nation's regulators -- and their hypocritical policy of treating the powerful better than the weak.
Institute for Public Accuracy
(The IPA is a nationwide consortium of policy researchers that seeks to broaden public discourse by gaining media access for experts whose perspectives are often overshadowed by major think tanks and other influential institutions.)
Major Legal Issues: Domestic Detainees, Guantanamo Bay Prisoners, Walker/Lindh, Ariel Sharon
* Sarah Hogarth, director of the National Lawyers Guild Post 9-11 Project:
The government is talking out of both sides of its mouth about the detainees. It is claiming that the detainees held on just immigration charges have no connection to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, yet it is denying them bond and is holding secret hearings. We need to know who is in jail, who wants a lawyer and that they are being treated fairly.
* Michael Ratner, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ratner spent extensive time at Guantanamo Bay when he represented Haitian refugees held there.
Article 5 of the third Geneva Convention clearly states that if there is 'any doubt' as to whether those captured are prisoners of war, they must be treated as such 'until such time as their status has been determined by a competent tribunal.' Similarly, the U.S. Army has nearly identical requirements. The U.S. government's assertion that they need not be treated as POWs violates the Army's own regulations.
* Kevin Gray, civil libertarian and former military officer.
When Americans are treated similarly, like during Vietnam, the U.S. is quick to raise the Geneva Convention. Now this government is subverting it. This type of hypocrisy is part of the reason the U.S. government is resented around the world. We should insist that the U.S. abide by the Geneva Convention; it is the best assurance that our soldiers will be treated fairly and humanely.
* Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law, Boyle sued Israeli Gen. Amos Yaron in a civil proceeding over the Sabra/Shatila massacre.
* Yesterday a car bomb killed Elie Hobeika, a former militia chief whose forces carried out the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps while surrounded by the Israeli army. Hobeika had recently indicated his willingness to testify against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials, including Yaron, at an ongoing criminal trial in Belgium for their role in the massacre.
(The East-West Center is an education and research organization established to strengthen understanding and relations between the United States and the countries of the Asia Pacific region. The center carries out its mission through programs of cooperative study, training and research. It is supported by the U.S. government and the governments of nine Asia Pacific nations.)
War on terrorism faces risks in Asia, requires careful approach.
With more than 600 U.S. troops facing a difficult, dangerous and unclear mission in the southern Philippines, the United States needs a careful and well thought out approach to its fight against terrorism in the region, East-West Center researchers said.
"The goal of the American presence in the Philippines is unclear and appears to be drifting from day to day," said Gerard Finin, a specialist on the Philippines and the Pacific islands.
With no guarantee that U.S. and Filipino troops will be able to subdue Abu Sayyaf bandits, and with the U.S. military presence already a divisive political issue in Manila, "the worst-case scenario may ultimately lead to a lack of success militarily and a weakening of bilateral relations," Finin said.
Richard Baker, a specialist on regional security and on Indonesia, said working with Indonesia is even more complicated. American and Asian officials believe Osama bin Laden has been working for the last two years to establish a base in the world's most populous Muslim nation. But Baker pointed out that Indonesia is home to numerous and vocal Islamic activist groups who are pressing their government to not cooperate with the United States in the war against terrorism.
"Anything we do in Indonesia has to take into account the very complex local scene and political tensions in the country," Baker said. "It's not in the U.S. interests to do anything that exacerbates internal tensions there."
Finin notes a number of uncertainties and difficulties facing the U.S. Special Forces and support troops sent to help the Philippine military rid their country of the Abu Sayyaf group, which has kidnapped Filipinos and foreigners and is still holding two U.S. missionaries.
"It's unclear whether the U.S. mission is really for training, rescue of the American captives or subduing al Qaida sympathizers," Finin said. "Moreover, the mission does not appear to have a clear exit strategy or timetable."
The Abu Sayyaf operates well in dense jungle and can move rapidly via speedboats throughout the islands and as far away as Malaysia. The difficult terrain, plus the group's ability to use knowledge of local conditions to stage ambushes, pose great dangers to U.S. troops. Even the basic identity of the guerrillas is under question.
"Is the Abu Sayyaf truly a terrorist organization with operational links to the al Qaida network or a kidnapping-for-profit ring with no real political ideology? How will U.S. forces in the field distinguish them from other armed groups in the region such as the Moro National Liberation Front or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front?" said Finin.
Finin also emphasized the domestic conflict the U.S. presence has already stirred, and said it may undermine the confidence of Filipino troops to eradicate banditry within their own borders.
"Philippine nationalists see this as an infringement upon sovereignty and a return to an era when the presence of U.S. bases played a significant role in domestic policy."
Regarding Indonesia, Baker said little is known about organizational links or active collaboration between Indonesian militants and al Qaida. But some Indonesian Islamic groups do share bin Laden's vision of creating Islamic fundamentalist states around the world. Indonesian officials worry more at this point about the problems caused by indigenous fundamentalist groups than any international links, Baker said.
However, a disturbing new development is increasing evidence of operatives working in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore who have direct links to al Qaida. And Baker notes that if al Qaida could become established in tightly controlled Singapore, it could more easily operate in the politically unstable Indonesia.
Baker believes the best U.S. approach at this point is to encourage cooperation among the three southeast Asian countries to meet their common concerns, and assisting them, for example, through sharing U.S. technology that can be used by all of them.
"At least for the foreseeable future, direct involvement by the U.S. military in Indonesia does not appear called for or advisable," Baker said. "It's more a case of working with Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, exchanging intelligence to get the best consolidated picture, and then jointly developing a response with the forces that are most appropriate for the job."