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Tilting at windmills.

Julia's Choice * Designing for Polygamy * Auditing the IRS When the Royalton Wasn't Royal * Losing on Lumber

The New York Times recently devoted the better part of two pages to a story entitled "A House, Ten Wives: Polygamy in Suburbia." What the Times found worthy of discussion in all that space was the architectural challenges of this marital arrangement: "the first question,how to expand the [house's] design?" I suspect the rest of us might have been more interested in exploring the other challenges presented by 10 wives under one roof.

One of the more troubling of today's trends is the way America is timing out politics. According to a poll by Pew Research Center, the percentage of people who say they follow domestic policy news "very closely" or even "fairly closely" has declined from 62 to 51 in just the last four years. "There's a danger in not paying attention," observes Knight-Ridder's R.A. Zaldivar, whose story brought the Pew poll to my attention. "When people are distracted, government has a way of producing unpleasant surprises." As far as I can see, the only good that has come from this growing indifference is that the buckrakers, the Washington journalists who peddle their punditry on the lecture circuit, are seeing their speaking fees shrink. The income from speeches of one of the circuit's stars dropped from $466,625 in 1992 to under six figures last year, according to a recent report in The New York Times. Maybe now these fellows will go back to their real job, reporting. And, if instead of just being snide about political folly, they accurately describe the essential functions that government performs, their readers just might see that it's stupid not to pay attention.

Have you ever heard of iatrogenic illness? It's a disease you acquire while in the care of physicians. And it's not just a tiny little problem. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 24 million Americans get infected in a hospital each year, causing or contributing to 100,000 deaths.

What's even more unsettling is that the CDC says most of these infections could be prevented if health-care providers would just wash their hands. But, according to studies reported in The Washington Post, as few as 14 percent of physicians and 25 percent of nurses regularly wash their hands between patients.

Government may have its shortcomings, but those who assume private industry is always more efficient than government should consider recent revelations about E.D.S., Union Pacific, and Commonwealth Edison. Just recently Union Pacific messed up the merger of its operations with Southern Pacific, causing freight delays that have already cost Texas businesses $762 million according to The New York Times. The Times also reports that Commonwealth Edison has grossly mismanaged its nuclear plants, creating, among other dangers, the most troublesome nuclear incident of the last decade. Still another Times article describes foul-ups by Electronic Data Systems, which is under contract to handle the government's student loan program. So the government looks bad but the real fault lies with private industry, in this case E.D.S.

The truth is that any organization, whether public or private, can go bad. Union Pacific used to be great, so did the IRS. Never assume any organization will stay good. The private sector in America became fat and uncompetitive in the 1970s because of a lack of constructive criticism. The same thing happened to the government but liberals didn't want to face the problems and conservatives, more devoted to less government than better government, didn't want to fix them.

If you've seen photographs of the timber cutting in our national forests, you're probably distressed about the damage this logging does to the environment. But, you may think, the government uses the profits to reduce the deficit. Last year, however, the government lost money on the sale of timber from the national forests--$14.7 million to be exact.

Good news! Gasoline powered leaf-blowers have been out-lawed by the Los Angeles City Council. These machines from hell should be banned everywhere. Not only is the noise unbearable, they are big-time polluters. The Southern California Air Quality Management District says operating a leaf-blower for one hour makes the same amount of pollution as driving a car 300 miles. And the pollution is concentrated in one spot, which is not good news when that spot happens to be next door.

"We're no longer thinking about prolonged nuclear war," Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, commander of the United States Strategic Command near Omaha, recently told The New York Times. What's incredible is that for years that's exactly what our military was thinking about. Thousands of targets were picked that would be hit as we slugged it out with the Reds in a long nuclear nightmare. Among them were Russian bridges selected solely on the basis of how long they were and a minor Siberian outpost that an American general who last visited it found to be of absolutely no military significance. For this information about silly targets I'm indebted to a marvelous piece by R. Jeffrey Smith in The Washington Post Magazine about Gen. George Lee Butler, the former head of the Strategic Command who has dedicated himself to the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The state of Florida was to receive $11.3 billion in the settlement of its case against the tobacco companies. The only catch was that its lawyers were claiming as much as $2.8 billion in legal fees. But Circuit Judge Harold Jeffrey Cohen ruled against them, pointing out that the fee they were claiming amounted to $7,716 an hour for each of the attorneys and would have required them to work 24 hours a day for the 42 months that the case lasted.

Another marvelous piece--this one by David Plotz in Slate--describes how New York's chic Royalton hotel is supported by the expense accounts of Si Newhouse's editors and writers. When Graydon Carter, Anna Wintour, and other Newhouse editors and sub-editors lunch at the Royalton, the tab for two can be $80, and that's without fancy wine.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the old days when a less grand Royalton was the official New York residence of The Washington Monthly. This was in 1968-69 when we were making frequent trips to New York to recruit writers, investors, and advertisers. At this pre-Ian Schrager, unfancified Royalton, the minimum room, which was alas often our choice, went for $8-50. If you wanted to live it up, you could get the deluxe room for $17. Room service was provided by a luncheonette next door. They never seemed to understand scrambled eggs soft, but since the check came to less than $2 including juice, toast, and coffee, I forgave them.

During the Senate's most recent session, Republicans using a device called a hold "effectively stalled the confirmation process for 42 nominees" to fill vacant seats in the federal government, according to The Washington Post's Bill McAllister. All a senator has to do to place a hold on a nomination is to write a letter to the majority leader. Originally the device, which is not, by the way, provided for in the rules of the Senate, "evolved as a courtesy for senators who could not be present when a vote was scheduled, or who needed time to bone up on a subject before ... debate began," explains the congressional scholar Norman Ornstein.

But in the last decade this innocent practice has been turned into a technique for killing nominations or to use the nominee as a hostage to extort favors from the administration. My friend Nancy Ann Min-DeParle's nomination to be administrator of Medicare was delayed for several months by Sen. Jon Kyl not because there was anything wrong with DeParle, but because the senator wanted the administration to change its Medicare billing procedures and to give Arizona more Medicaid money.

Jesse Helms' hold didn't just delay William Weld's nomination to be ambassador to Mexico, it killed it. What amazed me at the time was how much of the media accepted this as the way things are. To request a hold is not authorized by law. It is a gift to the prima donnas of the Senate that could and should be abolished. All it will take, I'm convinced, is a generous helping of ridicule from the nation's editorial writers and cartoonists.

The pentagon's cost-cutting is clearly slicing right down to the bone. The latest evidence is a memo from Robert L. Ellis, the commandant of Naval District Washington. Use of the district's motorpool limousines and sedans "will generally be restricted" to admirals and senior executive service civilians.

Washington's mayor, Marion Barry, says he has given up crack. But he appears to have replaced it with another substitute for work--travel. This year the mayor, while his city has been falling apart, has made trips to Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Korea, and China. "Let me remind the citizens of Washington that Washington is an international city," Barry recently said, "and part of my official duties is to be a good-will ambassador."

Of course when the mayor is not absorbed by his diplomatic duties, he's all business. Witness the recent lease he entered into with the MCI Center for a $625,000 sky box that would have afforded the mayor, according to The Washington Poses Yolanda Woodlee, a splendid view of the basketball and hockey games that are played there as well as "12 theater-style seats with two remote-control televisions, a telephone, a refrigerator, an ice machine, and individually controlled heat and air conditioning ... four bar stools ... [a] quartet of comfortable arm chairs, upholstered to ... the box owner's taste [that] surround a coffee table in the mirror-walled lounge."

The lease was finally overruled by the D.C. financial control board. But before the board voted on the matter its chairman, Andrew Brimmer, who is supposed to be the responsible adult overseeing the mayor, actually fought for the lease. Some days it's hard to have hope.

The bad news is that young people today aren't interested in careers in government, according to a recent survey by Peter Hart and Robert Teeter. The good news is that they're interested in teaching. Seventy-six percent of our young Democrats and 66 percent of young Republicans ranked teaching as the most appealing career. This could signify a growing respect for teaching that may lead more of them to actually choose it as a career.

If all those traffic jams you've been enduring have led you to suspect that there are too many cars on the road, you're right. There are now 176 million vehicles in the United States. That means that there is one for every driver. And sometimes the driver has more than one car. Indeed, since 1969, according to the Department or Transportation, the number of households with three or more vehicles has grown from 4.6 percent in 1969 to 18.7 percent today. And I used to think that the two-car family was pretty fancy!

When an FAA inspector discovers a safety violation at an aircraft repair facility, does he or some other FAA inspector check back to find out if the violation has been corrected? No, reports the General Accounting Office. The GAO looked at the records of 172 violations. In a quarter of the cases the records showed no response from the violator to the inspection complaint. In the other three-quarters there was no way of telling whether the FAA had approved what the violator did to correct the problem.

Do you remember how Clinton pledged to cut 250,000 jobs from the executive branch? Well he's done even better. There has been, according to The Washington Poses Mike Causey, a reduction of 308,624. This is a considerable accomplishment for which the administration deserves praise. There are, however, several matters that worry me. Fewer than 10 percent of the jobs lost were through firing, meaning that too much dead wood remains, and one fears too many able employees were allowed to take early retirement. Worse still, there were hiring freezes,which means the government wasn't attracting the fresh talent it desperately needs.

I know I have beaten this drum awfully hard but I do become alarmed because no one else is talking about the government talent shortage. One exception is David Broder, who recently wrote that he was told by two former IRS commissioners that the agency's real problem was the decline m the quality of its lawyers and accountants.

The National Football League can be severe in its punishment of players who use drugs. Leon Lett of the Dallas Cowboys, for example, just finished serving a year's suspension. But, as Dan Daly, a sports columnist for The Washington Times points out, the NFL is much gentler in its treatment of players who maim other players sometimes intentionally. The worst punishment meted out to even the most vicious is a fine, even though they may have inflicted permanent injury on one of their opponents.

As for the IRS' other problems, I see three. One, which I won't explore because so many other writers have pointed it out, is the hideously complicated code Congress has given it to administer. Another I probably should discuss at some length because I have seen it so often in other agencies. It is the grotesque results that the pressure to meet goals can produce. The horror stories from the IRS' Arkansas-Oklahoma district featured in the congressional hearings are just another example of the harm this pressure can do, of which the body count in Vietnam is the best known.

So why don't they get rid of the goals? The problem with that solution is that it can lead to a lot of long lunches. Employees need goals in order to perform at their best. So what can be done to avoid the bad effects that goals often have? The answer is first to make sure the goals are reasonable. The second is for the people who run the agency to make sure they know what the people in the field are doing to achieve the goals. In the case of the IRS, this means auditing the auditors. In other words, random spot checks of what IRS agents are doing to achieve the goals. That way you will uncover a pattern of bad behavior such as occurred in the Arkansas-Oklahoma district. And when you find real wrongdoing by employees such as what took place in that district, you should fire the offender. Instead here's what the IRS did to the district's two main culprits: One was permitted to retire with a nice pension, the other transferred.

In defense of the IRS, there are a lot of greedy crooks in the country, people who delight in cheating the government. We don't want IRS employees to be nice to such people. We want them to be tough. We want them to collect what's due to Uncle Sam so the rest of us won't have to pay more than our fair share.

Thurmond, West Virginia, has a beautifully restored train station. What's wrong with that, you ask? The restoration cost the National Park Service $2.5 million at a time when, according to Knight-Ridder's Frank Greve, zero dollars were being allotted for construction projects in such major national parks as Yellowstone and Grand Teton. And one other thing: Thurmond's population is eight. That's right, eight people.

What distinguishes Thurmond is that it's only a few miles from the home of Sen. Robert Byrd, who was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time the money was I slipped into the budget.

"Who's going to buy all this economic output?" asks William Greider in a recent oped piece in The New York Times. He cites an article in The Economist that says the automobile industry will be able to produce nearly 80 million vehicles by the year 2000 for a market of fewer than 60 million buyers. The big problem, as Hedrick Smith notes in this issue of the Monthly, is that wages aren't rising. At the same time consumer debt is mounting, so Greider's question is more than a little troubling.

Remember the item I wrote in our November issue saying I was suspicious about Thomas E. Dewey's pardon of Lucky Luciano? Soon after the item appeared I received a letter from a son of David Dressler, who had worked for the New York Parole Board at the time. After his father died, the son found in his papers an unsigned affidavit describing how Dewey had pressured the Parole Board to recommend commutation of Luciands sentence and how Dewey was "piqued at our insistence that a thorough investigation be made of the claim that Luciano had contributed to the war effort" Dewey accused the board chairman of being "overcautious" and "paranoid" Dressler was told by the chairman that "it was obvious that Governor Dewey was not going to take `No' for an answer." So it appears that my suspicions were correct. But we can't know for certain because of the inconvenient fact that the affidavit was not signed.

That writers and editors would go a long way to line up a celebrity interview and cover story was pointed out by Joshua Wolf Shenk last year in these pages ("Basest Instinct," June 1996). But it now seems that some of them are willing to walk the last mile. In order to gain access to Julia Roberts, Harper's Bazaar, according to The Wall Street Journals Patrick M. Reilly, "agreed to let the actress decide on her own interviewer."

New York city's public school principals cannot be transferred from their buildings with out the union's permission. And they cannot be demoted or expelled without lengthy disciplinary hearings. It's odd that a school system that is able to tell its pupils that they have failed cannot tell its principals the same thing.
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Title Annotation:brief commentaries on US politics and current events
Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Words:2983
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