Nothing Conservative About It

by dday

A week or so ago, Ezra Klein argued that America is a small-c conservative nation from a structural and operational standpoint, in that the checks and balances between the different branches and the practice of the filibuster in the key lawmaking body frustrate major change or rolling back policies already enshrined into law.

Insofar as you take the traditional definition of conservatism -- which prizes stasis over change -- America's legislative process is designed to prevent large scale action. The reason we don't have a universal health care system, for instance, is not because Europeans wanted health care while Americans didn't. It's that in Europe, the desire for change aligned with the system's capacity for reform. In a parliamentary democracy, where there's no filibuster, you can do things like universal health care. It's a rather heavier lift in our political system, which is choked by the filibuster and the committee structure and a thousand other traps designed to protect the minority from having to submit to reforms desired by the majority (this is all well-described in Sven Steinmo and Jon Watts's essay, It's The Institutions, Stupid).

That doesn't make us ideologically conservative -- it doesn't mean that we, as a country, agree with Republicans. But it makes us operationally conservative in a way that's as frustrating to those who would try to roll back the welfare state or privatize Social Security as those who would try and act to prevent global warming or reform our health care system.

And this is entirely true, if you focus on the theory of government, and consider the laws of the land as a guide for how government operates. On the question of universal health care, which is used as an example here, the operational conservatism of the country certainly plays a role. But in terms of how government has changed over the years, even in the last three decades, the change is nothing short of radical. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR's best correspondent, kicked off a fine series today about the federal contracting process, which has gotten completely out of control since Ronald Reagan and his "government is the problem" rhetoric, to the extent that nobody inside the government knows precisely how many contractors have been hired or whether or not they are using taxpayer dollars effectively. And this goes well beyond contracting out jobs like mowing the grass in a national park, but to basic decisions being made inside federal agencies.

•Since President Bush took office, the government has doubled the amount of contracts with industry. The administration paid corporations more than $400 billion last year to work for everybody from the Forest Service to the CIA.

•The administration has given the majority of that contract money to companies that didn't have to compete to get it — or faced only limited competition.

•There are actually more contractors handling the war in Iraq than American troops.

All these figures come from government reports. And for the most part, these contractors aren't the ones making Humvees or computer systems or other kinds of products. The administration is paying most of the contract money to corporations to perform the kinds of services that federal employees normally do. And the administration has done all this with almost no public debate.

Tomorrow's Zwerdling segment will cover the fact that private contractors are paid to recover tax money, despite the fact that countless reports have shown them to be less successful than IRS agents, while costing the taxpayer far more than they take in.

One way to measure the program's performance, Kelley said, is by the amount of revenue collected by the private contractors; that sum continues to be only a fraction of the IRS's initial estimates. When start-up costs of $71 million are considered, the IRS program resulted in a net loss of $50 million in its first year of operation. This small return has forced the agency to revise the break-even point for the program to the year 2010—at the earliest.

"The bottom line is who does the work more cost effectively?" said Kelley. "According to IRS numbers, IRS employees bring in $13 for every dollar spent, whereas private debt collectors bring in $3 for every dollar spent. It doesn't take a TIGTA report to figure that out."

Where the operational conservatism has come in is when the Congress has tried to stop this program. The House voted to end the use of private debt collectors, and it has died every time in the Senate.

But these are truly radical steps, where government has become a conduit for profit-taking by giant corporations and policy is set with an eye toward those contracts.

And a "conservative" nation would never allow this:

The U.S. military expects to have 20,000 uniformed troops inside the United States by 2011 trained to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear terrorist attack or other domestic catastrophe, according to Pentagon officials.

The long-planned shift in the Defense Department's role in homeland security was recently backed with funding and troop commitments after years of prodding by Congress and outside experts, defense analysts said.

There are critics of the change, in the military and among civil liberties groups and libertarians who express concern that the new homeland emphasis threatens to strain the military and possibly undermine the Posse Comitatus Act, a 130-year-old federal law restricting the military's role in domestic law enforcement.

What do you mean, possibly?

This goes to the other side of how this nation is changing radically - with a series of programs conceived largely by executive fiat that weakens civil liberties protections and subverts the plain letter of the law. This includes illegal wiretapping of American citizens, indefinite detention of prisoners without charges, and the dehumanizing practice of torture, which is ineffective and deeply dangerous to the lives of our troops, as this senior interrogator in Iraq explains.

Torture and abuse are against my moral fabric. The cliche still bears repeating: Such outrages are inconsistent with American principles. And then there's the pragmatic side: Torture and abuse cost American lives.

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.

Yet this practice is what slaves to executive power like Bill Kristol think are worthy of the Medal of Freedom.

In fact, what anyone who has been paying attention must conclude is that this has become a deeply radical nation, from deregulation to privatization to the dismissal of the rule of law, and the key project for the next President is to rein in the radicalism and return us to the, yes, conservative principles that are supposed to govern. Russ Feingold ably explains the need from the standpoint of the rule of law and the Constitution in this interview. But it can be expanded to the de-fanging of federal agencies and the transfer of government wealth to corporate bank accounts.

Any restraint and respect for the structure of government from the radical right only kicks in when they're out of power, when they have to use the means at their disposal to block the reversal of their extreme policies. If the Obama Administration plays the game inside the lines, if "going through the federal government line by line" means cutting services that are purported to not work instead of getting the government back from corporate takeover; if "reviewing every executive order" means trying to maintain extreme executive power by promising to carry it out competently instead of abolishing anything that subverts the rule of law; then there will be no return to the traditional values that have made America a lasting democracy.