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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2007
Table of Contents
 
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Sierra Magazine
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Ways & Means: The Cult of Reagan
Making bad government a self-fulfilling prophecy
By Carl Pope
November/December 2007

Carl Pope "Government is not the solution to our problem," Ronald Reagan famously declared in his first inaugural address in 1981. "Government is the problem." Since then many politicians have found Reagan's formulation to be a convenient cover not only for attacks on environmental regulation and social services, but also for incompetence and corruption. And none has so excelled at making government the problem as President George W. Bush.

New Orleans remains the iconic example. After ignoring the city in the days following Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided contaminated trailers to 120,000 hurricane victims. When the refugees complained about health problems, FEMA did nothing. The Sierra Club tested the trailers and found high formaldehyde levels in most of them, but the agency still refused to act. On June 16, 2006, three months after news of the cancer-causing compound surfaced, FEMA's Office of General Counsel advised the agency not to conduct its own testing because doing so "would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." The agency still owned the trailers, however, and had to dispose of them as the refugees moved on to permanent housing. So it sold them to the public—despite their toxic hazards—right up to the day when FEMA administrator R. David Paulison was hauled before Representative Henry Waxman's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. There he declared that the Club's intervention had been "a wake-up call" for the agency. "Mr. Paulison," retorted Waxman, "you're a heavy sleeper."

Waxman's concise summary of FEMA's sorry approach—"They didn't want the moral and legal responsibility to do what they knew had to be done"—could just as well be applied to the EPA, the Interior Department, or nearly any other department of Bush's executive branch.

The U.S. Forest Service, for instance, knew that homeowners in California's Tahoe National Forest were living in a firetrap. Among the causes were years of high-grading (the removal of large, fire-resistant old-growth trees), suppression of small fires that had historically thinned out the forest, a drier climate, and insect infestations. Since 1997, the Forest Service has pledged to thin 30,000 of the most flammable acres in the Lake Tahoe basin. But the agency turned out to be less interested in helping woodland communities than in protecting salable timber, so only 13,000 acres were thinned. Then–Forest Service chief Mark Rey did less than half the job he was supposed to, and this June, as a consequence, 250 homes went up in smoke in the Angora fire.

A lot more went up in smoke on September 11, of course, but even then the Bush administration made sure that government was part of the problem. Public-health professionals were denied a say in how cleanup workers were protected, first responders and residents were misled about safety issues, and fire equipment leaving ground zero wasn't checked for toxic contamination. This summer, called before Congress to account for the EPA's assurances of air safety in lower Manhattan, former EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman argued that "dust and air are two different things." The air was safe to breathe, Whitman maintained—it was just all that dust that was making people sick.

By the standards of a White House that scorns government, Whitman, Rey, and Paulison—like former attorney general Alberto Gonzales and former FEMA director Michael Brown—all did a "heckuva job." But low expectations for government are not exclusive to Republicans. Politicians of both parties have become accustomed to a government that thinks small and provides less—even when enormous societal challenges like global warming demand sweeping action. Yet after seven years of Bush, we have nowhere to go but up. Pollsters report that 18- to 24-year-olds are increasingly engaged in politics and voting. Among the most popular politicians at the state level are governors like Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and Charlie Crist (R-Fla.), both advocates of big ideas and actions. Embracing the national tide of rising expectations for government might even lift the sinking fortunes of the party of Reagan and Bush.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club's executive director. E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.


Photo by Lori Eanes; used with permission.

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