The Hightower Lowdown

The New Environmental Regime; Ripping Off the Pentagon

The New Environmental Regime

The official motto of Washington, D.C., is: "Say one thing, do another."

Take the new regime of Bush the Second, for example. The two top officials appointed to oversee our environment have loudly said that they'll protect our air, water, and other natural resources, but if you look at their records, you'll see that putting them in charge is like hiring Bonnie and Clyde to be bank guards.

As interior secretary, Gale Norton is supposed to be the steward of our national lands, forests, and waterways, shooing off the spoilers and speculators that constantly scheme to pollute these invaluable resources. But Norton comes to the job not as some tireless conservationist, but as a tenacious corporatist, including having been a Washington lobbyist for the likes of NL Industries Inc., a notorious polluter responsible for 75 Superfund and other toxic waste sites. Norton also was national chairwoman for Republican Environmental Advocates, a front group funded and controlled by oil, chemical, mining, and timber companies. She even gave a speech asserting that a corporation's property rights include the "right to pollute."

How about Christie Whitman, the New Jersey governor appointed by Bush to lead the Environmental Protection Agency? Some protector.

As governor, she slashed her state's environmental enforcement budget by 30%, eliminated the position of environmental prosecutor, abolished the office of public advocate in the state environmental agency, weakened state oversight of pesticide use, eliminated the state's hazardous waste program, tried to eliminate the clean water enforcement act, failed to implement farm-worker health protections, and allowed polluters to monitor their own air and water emissions, letting them comply with regulations on a voluntary basis.

While Gale Norton and Christie Whitman mouth soothing words about good stewardship, their hands will be holding open the doors for polluters. With the Bush Administration, watch their hands -- not their lips.

Ripping Off the Pentagon

It's back. Remember in the 1980s when we taxpayers were horror-stricken to learn that the Pentagon had paid $640 for a toilet seat and $7,000 for a coffeepot? Well, Pentagon "sticker shock" is back in a big way.

How about paying $1,887 for a machine bolt that was supposed to cost us taxpayers only 40 bucks? How about a self-locking nut that was listed at $2.69, but the Pentagon paid $2,185 for it? These are some of the nutty prices that the General Accounting Office has uncovered in an investigation of spare parts that weapons contractors sell to the Pentagon.

The contractors generally make an estimate of what various spare parts will cost for a fighter jet, submarine, or other weapon that they are bidding to build. When they deliver the weapon, however, the prices for the parts are jacked up by 1,000% or more. For example, the GAO found that a contractor estimated that a simple hub would cost $35, but in the final bill, the contractor charged $14,529 for it.

Such rip-offs occur because the contractors bury the prices for spare parts in the jumble of details in the itemized bill for the weapon, and, believe it or not, the Pentagon makes no item-by-item review of the bill. Such fiscal sloppiness can be traced directly to Congress, which responded in the past decade to contractors' lobbyists who whined that mean ol' auditors were hounding them. So, Congress whacked the Defense Contract Audit Agency's staff by 19%.

The agency had been successful at reining in industry fraud, saving us billions of dollars -- but instead of being applauded, Congress whacked its investigative budget ... and the fraud is back.

Lions With Cell Phones

It is an Aesop fable that gives us the phrase "the lion's share," which has come to mean the biggest part of something. However, the lion in the fable didn't merely take the biggest share of the stag that it and three other animals had hunted down -- it took all the prize.

Today, the giant telecommunications corporations are absolutely Aesopian in their grab for total control of all phone service.

Take the cell phone business, in which a handful of giants have become dominant simply because they have the raw money power to out-bid smaller competitors for the airwave licenses needed to operate. So, to prevent AT&T, Cingular, Sprint, and a couple of other giants from grabbing all of the market, the Federal Communications Commission set aside 422 of these licenses in 195 markets across the country, allowing only small cell phone companies to bid on them.

It was a good way to preserve some bit of competition and innovation in the industry -- but the anti-competitive giants got sneaky. They formed "partnerships" with small companies and provided them with the money to win the license. For example, Alaska Native Wireless is a small outfit that, amazingly, won 44 of these licenses, including paying $1.5 billion for a license to operate in New York City. Where does a little company like Alaska Native get billions of dollars? From its "partner," AT&T.

Indeed, of the 422 licenses that were supposed to go to small competitors, 95% went to front companies for AT&T, Sprint, Cingular, and the other giants. As one genuine small firm put it, "We've been topped [in the bidding process] by sham entrepreneurs."

Jim Hightower's latest book, If The Gods Had Meant Us To Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, is available in stores everywhere.
For more information on Jim Hightower's work – and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown – visit You can hear his radio commentaries on KOOP Radio, 91.7FM, weekdays at 10:58am and 12:58pm.

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