When Conservatives Govern

No, The Curmudgeon isn’t writing about any of the ridiculous things Republicans now in power want to do. Well, actually, he is a little, but that’s not his main purpose today. No, his primary subject today is one of the less visible challenges we face when conservatives control the reins of government.

It’s very fashionable today for Republicans to express their disdain, their contempt, even their hatred for government. The Curmudgeon chooses to take them at their word when they talk this way.

But when a conservative is elected, say, president, where does he turn for people to help him run the government?

To fellow conservatives: people who have publicly expressed, or demonstrated, their disdain, their contempt, even their hatred for government.

Is there any chance that these people, once selected for cabinet positions and having already expressed their disdain for government, are going to do anything to try to improve the agencies they’ve been appointed to lead? That seems awfully unlikely, doesn’t it?

Put company over country? Every time, baby

Consider Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil. In July the Treasury Department fined Exxon $2 million for “ blatantly” violating U.S. sanctions against Russia with “reckless disregard” for those sanctions; the penalized actions were undertaken under Tillerson’s leadership. Before that, in 2011, the State Department asked Tillerson not to negotiate leases on oil fields in Iraqi Kurdistan because doing so would undermine U.S. foreign policy there. Did he heed that request? Of course not: the guy never hesitated before putting his shareholders’ interests ahead of those of his country. He also (successfully) lobbied against a bill that would have made it harder for presidents to lift sanctions against Russia. Why? Because from his perspective it was more important to make money in Russia than it was for his country to find a way to get that rogue country to act a little less roguish.

So why should we be surprised that he decided his company’s welfare was more important than his country’s?

Since becoming Secretary of State, Tillerson has kept a pretty low profile because, as is often the case, foreign policy in this country is run mostly out of the White House rather than the State Department. But what about that State Department? Many career people have left it, disgusted at the idea of serving under a president and Secretary of State who know nothing about international relations. So has Tillerson replaced those who fled? No, for the most part, he hasn’t. There are hundreds of positions that still haven’t been filled, more than nine months into the new administration, and most of them don’t require Senate confirmation, so that’s not the problem, contrary to President Trump’s complaints. In addition, Tillerson, his contempt of government showing, has decided that he’s never going to fill some of those vacancies.

So in the end, Tillerson is probably going to leave only a skeleton crew at the top of the State Department. As an organization, as a unit of the federal government, he will leave behind – probably in the not-too-distant future – a department much weaker than the one he inherited. Does he care at all? It doesn’t seem likely. In fact, he may very well view trashing the State Department as the legacy he wants to leave.

But that’s what conservatives want, right?

Making a career out of suing the federal government

Then there’s Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has spent much of his career suing the EPA so that businesses could go about their business without worrying about silly little things like polluting the air and water. Pruitt is in the process of gutting his department, overturning regulations to support clean air and water, and seeking advice, when he needs it, from industry rather than experts and staff.

Not that there’s much staff left to provide any advice.

The Los Angeles Times recently took a look at Pruitt and what he’s doing at the EPA.

It isn’t pretty.

Perhaps the most disturbingly effective person on the Trump team is Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. In the few months since Trump’s inauguration, Pruitt, has transformed the EPA into a supine lap dog for the oil, gas and coal industries and is well on his way to erasing years of environmental policy built on scientific research.

 As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA to block regulations that business interests found annoying. Industry lobbyists frequently provided him with draft letters that Pruitt signed and sent off to federal regulators as if they were his own words. And his coziness with the people the EPA is supposed to regulate has not changed since he took over as the nation’s chief environmental officer.

 A Freedom of Information Act request filed by the New York Times revealed that the calendar of the EPA boss lists one meeting after another with executives and lobbyists from agribusiness, the chemical industry and, of course, oil companies. He regularly attends dinners and conferences hosted by industry organizations, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Just days before the EPA reversed a ban on a dangerous pesticide that is known to have ill effects on children, Pruitt huddled with the chief executive of Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of the pesticide. It is not difficult to imagine what they talked about.

 Ignoring scientists and specialists within his own agency, Pruitt seeks counsel outside the EPA from lobbyists, lawyers and longtime allies who share his pro-industry attitude. The result has been dramatic. Pruitt has loosened, delayed or sought to repeal a wide range of environmental rules covering concerns that include spills and explosions at chemical plants, methane leaks from oil and gas drilling sites and pollution of waterways.

 Pruitt has become Trump’s lead man in attacking climate science and dismantling American compliance with the Paris accord on climate change. A specific target is President Obama’s Clean Power Plan that sought to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.


 Pruitt is cleverly undermining the role of science in his agency in other little noticed ways. In May and June, he dismissed 47 members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, a group of respected scientific experts who advise the agency. Now, only 11 members are left, and all meetings for the summer and fall have been canceled. If the board is reconstituted, the expectation is that it will be stacked with industry-friendly replacements.

 Pruitt has said that he wants to shift the EPA’s focus to “tangible pollution.” One would assume, then, that a successful, ongoing project like the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay would have his support. Instead, funding for the EPA’s Chesapeake program that is protecting one of America’s most abundant fisheries is being zeroed out in the Trump administration’s budget plan. Similar projects around the country are also facing drastic budget reductions. At this rate, there will be plenty of tangible pollution for the EPA to deal with in the years to come.

The EPA Pruitt leaves behind when he leaves the federal government to go make millions of dollars advising manufacturers and power companies on how to evade federal environmental laws and regulations will be a shell of the organization he inherited, far less able to protect our land and our air and our water.

But that’s what conservative government is all about.

Back to flying coach

(Three paragraphs about now-former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price deleted. Let’s let that sleeping dog lie.)

Next let’s look at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She’s a professional gadfly who has spent much of her time in recent years attempting to undo or undermine almost everything about what the Education Department does and how it does it.

DeVos isn’t a teacher, isn’t an educator, and has no experience working in any kind of organization that teaches people of any age. Mostly she attempts to undermine educators and educational institutions. She’s a champion of charter schools and wants as many charters as possible, to replace public schools. In fact, she spends more of her time criticizing public schools than she does working to improve them.

Time magazine described DeVos’s agenda and early efforts.

One of President Trump’s first acts was to appoint the most anti-public education person ever to lead the Department of Education.   Betsy DeVos has called public schools a “dead end” and bankrolled a private school voucher measure in Michigan that the public defeated by a two-to-one ratio. When that failed, she spent millions electing legislators who then did her bidding slashing public school budgets and spreading unaccountable for-profit charters across the state. The result? Nearly half of Michigan’s charter schools rank in the bottom of U.S. schools, and Michigan dropped from 28th to 41st in reading and from 27th to 42nd in math compared with other states.

 Now DeVos is spreading this agenda across the country with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence’s blessing. They’ve proposed a budget that takes a meat cleaver to public education and programs that work for kids and families. After-school and summer programs — gone. Funding for community schools that provide social, emotional, health and academic programs to kids — gone. Investments to keep class sizes low and provide teachers with the training and support they need to improve their craft — gone. Their budget cuts financial aid for low-income college students grappling with student debt at the same time the Trump administration is making it easier for private loan servicers to prey on students and families.

 The Trump/DeVos budget funnels more than $1 billion to new voucher and market strategies even though study after study concludes those strategies have hurt kids. Recent studies of voucher programs in Ohio and Washington, D.C., show students in these programs did worse than those in traditional public schools. Further, private voucher schools take money away from neighborhood public schools, lack the same accountability that public schools have, fail to protect kids from discrimination, and increase segregation.

So what can we reasonably expect from her as the country’s leading advocate of public education? Damn little, one suspects. Are we supposed to believe she’s going to do anything – anything – to improve public education and the federal agency that oversees it? Doesn’t seem very likely, does it? Surely people who have a choice are going to choose not to work there and DeVos will bring into the department people who share her zeal for trashing the department and trashing government rather than using it as a tool for improving education.

And let’s not forget Rick Perry.

As if we could possibly forget Rick Perry.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Energy Secretary of the United States. Ole!

The former Texas governor (and Dancing With the Stars contestant) was a two-time loser on the presidential campaign trail and during the first of those disastrous runs he said that if elected he’d abolish the Department of Energy. Now, miracle of miracles, he’s Secretary of Energy. You have to wonder why he accepted the job of running a department he thought should be abolished. Now that he has, though, what do you think the chances are of Perry doing anything to improve the way that department does its job?

Another thing that’s amazing, and troubling, is that some of these folks continue to belittle government even after they’re chosen to run it. It’s not a stretch at all to suspect that the continued vitriol aimed at government by Florida Governor Rick Scott and Texas Governor Greg Abbott contributed to the decision of so many people to wait out in their homes the recent hurricanes that hit their states. Sure, there are always going to be people who refuse to heed such warnings, but how many people who ignored the warnings from government were influenced by people like Scott and Abbott who are constantly conveying their disdain for government – even the very governments they lead?

So it is any surprise that conservatives always seem to leave government more dysfunctional than when they inherited it? Of course not. When you think about it, how could it possibly be any other way?

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