Columns » Ernest Dumas

For the few – much

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The test of our progress is not whether we provide enough for those who have too little; it is whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. — George W. Bush

Actually, none of President Bush's speechwriters has got around yet to penning the inverse of the famous Franklin D. Roosevelt line from his second inaugural address. Maybe for the future Bush memorial on the Tidal Basin.

But that is the subtext of much of the daily news from Washington, Baghdad, New Orleans, wherever the Bush administration leaves its imprint. Government is the servant of the rich and favored businesses, not the tribune of ordinary people as FDR tried to say it was.

Everyone — well, almost everyone — by now acknowledges that the four rounds of tax cuts in the first Bush term tilted heavily in favor of the rich. When Dick Cheney proposed a third round of tax cuts mainly for investors at a private session early in 2003 Bush said he thought they had already taken care of that class, but he quickly capitulated. Most of his '03 tax cuts would go to those making more than $1 million a year, and the real income of the richest tenth of 1 percent of Americans sailed 51 percent the next two years.

Everything governmental is tailored to maximize profits. Social Security was to be privatized so that brokerages and corporations could get their hands on FICA withholdings. The celebrated energy bill crafted by Cheney provided billions of dollars in benefits to companies run by 22 executives who qualified as either Pioneers or Rangers because of their large gifts to Bush's 2000 campaign.

Pressured politically to provide drug coverage for the elderly, the Bush plan inserted hefty profits for insurance and pharmaceutical companies at considerably higher cost to taxpayers.

A GAO audit released last week provided a perfect example of the rationale. The Bush administration allowed private insurance companies participating in Medicare to keep tens of millions of dollars that the law required them to give to consumers — the administration said it did not think it had the power to make them cough up the money — but when the government failed to withhold enough money from patients for insurance premiums it aggressively ran down the consumers to make them reimburse the insurance companies pronto. Although the government pushes the elderly to patronize the insurance companies through the costly Medicare Advantage programs, it rarely audits the companies, as the law requires.

You would think that war would summon the better impulses and that it might be exempt from the ravages of greed. In the wars and reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, far more than in any other conflict, the government contracted services to private American businesses, wherever possible to the best-connected corporations and entrepreneurs. Six months after the invasion of Iraq, the Center for Public Integrity reported that more than 70 U. S. companies had won billions of dollars in contracts for work in the two countries, the big ones of course being Kellogg, Brown & Root, the subsidiary of Dick Cheney's Halliburton, and the Bechtel Group, big contributors to Bush and the Republican Party. Most of the contractors had official ties to the government, including officers who were former high-ranking government officials.

Frequently, the contracts were handed out without the benefit of bids or else through a controlled process that screened out other bidders. The no-bid contract, in fact, has become the norm throughout government, not just at the Pentagon. A congressional report last month estimated that federal spending on contracts without “full and open” competition had tripled since Bush took office, rising by $60 billion last year alone. It means higher costs and poorer services for taxpayers.

The Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and then the military parceled work to well-connected people who had no relevant experience. An Eastern entrepreneur and his buddy, as consolation for having lost a congressional race in Rhode Island, got a contract to provide security for the Baghdad airport. He picked up $2 million in cash and drove to Lebanon to deposit it in a bank. His outfit didn't provide the security, but they did get convicted eventually.

Now, thanks finally to a little congressional oversight, most notably Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the corruption is coming to light: self-dealing, wholesale bribery of Army officers and civilians, inexcusable work, disappearing arms and equipment. Yielding to the culture they saw around them, officers took huge bribes from U. S. contractors. A colonel committed suicide after admitting to an investigator that she had taken $225,000 in bribes from a company.

Seventy-three separate Army investigations of bribery and other contract fraud are now under way.

And it is an ill wind that does not blow some good for the well connected. Last week, Hunt Oil Co. of Texas, which is run by Bush Pioneer Ray Hunt, signed a production-sharing agreement with Kurdistan for exploration in the oil-rich province of Iraq, which has enjoyed autonomy guaranteed by the United States. The Kurds long ago forgave the Americans for having protected Saddam Hussein when he was gassing Iranians and also the Kurds for allying with Iran in the Iraqi-Iran war and specifically Donald Rumsfeld, who had been dispatched by President Reagan after the gas attacks to present Saddam a pair of golden spurs as a token of friendship.

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