August 31, 2007

Blinded by Power

By Javier Sierra

Grover Norquist, the Republican Party’s most influential ideologue, who has been called the Lenin of the anti-tax movement, years ago proclaimed that his ultimate goal for the federal government was “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

After seven years of the Bush administration in power, we have realized that its unheard-of levels of incompetence, nepotism and corruption are not accidental. Those are the unequivocal symptoms of an unbreakable discipline to fulfill Norquist’s prophecy.

Government is the problem, they say, and the basic strategy to solve it has been to make sure every henhouse had its fox to guard it. And the most outrageous, and also painful, instance of this strategy has been the federal response after Hurricane Katrina, whose second anniversary we are now observing.

We all remember the federal intervention’s catastrophic consequences before and after the storm, the endless lines of refugees waiting for the bus that never took them to safety, the tens of thousands of people piled up in the Superdome, and the dead bodies floating in the flooded areas where rescue workers never made it.

Katrina, unfortunately, turned out to be the logical consequence of the federal response after the 9-11 attacks. A secret Environmental Protection Agency report revealed a year ago that the White House and the EPA “conspired” to falsely reassure the public about the true dangers posed by the toxic nature of the terrible poisons that blanketed the area. Six years after the attacks, the overwhelming majority of the cleaning workers —most of them Latinos— and of the rescue crews who worked near Ground Zero are either sick or disabled; and many of them have died because of exposure to substances such as asbestos, benzene, dioxins and pulverized glass. And what was the response of the Bush administration to the storm of criticism about its response? It turned it into the national standard response in case of catastrophes like 9-11.

But, were the ignored lessons of Ground Zero finally learned after Katrina? Unfortunately, the hurricane’s echoes remain with us today. In order to house some of the hundreds of thousands of evacuees, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) distributed trailer homes, but those turned out to be toxic mousetraps impregnated with a carcinogen called formaldehyde. After learning of alarming reports by residents who were suffering from headaches and nausea, Sierra Club volunteers conducted several tests which concluded that the trigger of the symptoms was the formaldehyde. It took a full Congressional hearing to force FEMA to suspend the distribution of the toxic trailers. There, it was revealed that FEMA ignored the numerous reports from residents, several of whom may have died because of the toxic fumes. And what was the reason for this inaction? FEMA lawyers advised the agency that if they tested the trailers, then they might be expected to do something about it.

The list of foxes is endless. A few weeks ago, the catastrophic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis exposed the sorry state of the nation’s infrastructure. One out of every three bridges in the country needs to be repaired. And whom did the administration choose to supervise the rebuilding of the Minneapolis bridge? Richard Capka, who in 2002 was fired amid outrage over his incompetent management of the “Big Dig” public works project in Boston.

Or, what public official was in charge of supervising the rescue of coal miners trapped in Utah? Richard Stickler, who, during his years as a mining industry executive, his priority was profit making not mine safety. Because of his dismal record, Stickler was rejected by a Senate committee as the nation’s mine safety czar. President Bush solved the problem by resorting to a recess appointment of Stickler.

After Katrina, 9-11, Iraq and so many other examples of this cancer that is corroding the federal government, the Bush administration has generally been accused of coming up with poor solutions to problems. In fact, the administration set out for a smaller government but created a broken government. As administration advisors continue to abandon the sinking ship, those who remain are woefully blinded by power. Luckily Americans are increasingly observant, and we can still remember what effective government should look and feel like. While we push for reforms, we must continue to look out for each other while nursing our government back to health.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit

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