23 November 2014

AUSTIN -- Under the radar. Wheee, it is coming down fast and hard out here.

The Wall Street Journal devoted some coverage to the interesting case of Janet Rehnquist, inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Rehnquist, daughter of the chief justice, is in hot water for politicizing her nonpartisan office and forcing out longtime career civil servants: This is the kind of thing that draws attention in Washington, D.C., but buried in the story, we find some interesting nuggets concerning Inspector Rehnquist's efforts to create a kinder, gentler IG department.

"The HHS office is responsible for safeguarding $450 billion-plus in annual spending, including Medicare and Medicaid, giving it a big role in policing health-care fraud. It annually makes cost-saving recommendations totaling billions of dollars, participates in hundreds of criminal prosecutions and bars thousands of entities from government work," reports the Journal.

The perfect job for some Republican who hates waste, fraud and abuse, right? Whoops, nope. According to the Journal, "The new inspector general quickly put her stamp on the office, easing antifraud measures and instead emphasizing voluntary compliance. She scaled back the use of 'corporate integrity agreements,' in which health care companies found to have defrauded the government acquiesce in strict reporting conditions, saying she was 'concerned about their financial impact' on providers."

June Gibbs Brown, Ms. Rehnquist's predecessor in the office, says she has "weakened the system. It's really giving in to industry."

Hey, with an alert guardian watchdog like that at work, how come the FBI had to raid Tenet Healthcare Corp., now accused of pumping up its Medicare revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars?

Perhaps it has something to do with Tom Scully, the HHS official who oversees Medicare and Medicaid, and who thinks Ms. Rehnquist is doing a dandy job. Mr. Scully is the former head of a hospital industry group.

Another raccoon in the henhouse. The new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Program is Sen. James Inhofe, a man with a zero rating from environmental groups. Inhofe advocates letting industry police itself and less government oversight.

We have already tried letting industry police itself in Texas; it does not work. According to his own environmental commission, W's voluntary legislation for the 850 plants with more than 900,000 tons of pollution "grandfathered" out of the Texas Clean Air standards resulted in a grand total of 134 tons of pollution reductions. The voluntary law was such a failure that immediately after W moved to Washington, the Texas legislature replaced W's program with a mandatory one.

If the Republicans really think it is such a good idea not to have government regulation, let's try an experiment. Let's just take down all the traffic signs and signals and see what happens. Think voluntary compliance will make us safer? And there's not even a monetary incentive to drive unsafely.

The drug industry is salivating. No special interest campaigned harder for Republicans than the pharmaceutical firms, using phony front groups like "United Seniors." Wait'll you see the payoff for them: no price controls, no patent reform and new laws to keep drugs that are sold at cut rates abroad from being resold in the United States at lower prices. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that drug manufacturers are the top spending lobby. The industry has 400 lobbyists in Congress (there are only 535 members) and spent nearly $97 million in 2000. As of June 30, the industry ranked ninth among more than 80 industry groups in direct contributions to congressional candidates and political parties: 73 percent of its $18.1 million spent to that date went to Republicans.

The Federal Communications Commission is contemplating new horrors. The FCC, headed by Colin Powell's son (didn't we used to think that hereditary power was a bad idea?), is fixing to repeal the last of the restrictions on how many media outlets can be owned by one company. We already know from repeated experience that this decreases competition in the field. The numbers are irrefutable, the facts are all there, so that's why Chairman Michael Powell is repealing the restrictions, "to increase competition." Gosh, maybe it will work this time: Why let experience and evidence bother us?

The administration is expected to revive its so-called plan to reduce the risk of forest fires -- a giveaway to the timber industry.

The litany of horrors, both completed and contemplated, could go on for days, but that is no excuse for giving up. In fact, it's much easier to stop bad legislation than it is to pass good legislation. Playing defense in politics is much easier than playing offense. Smart Democrats in Congress and citizens raising hell can derail most of this. Just stay alert and involved, team. There is fun yet to be had. Indeed, given the number of blue-bellied nitwits who are about to become Senate committee chairs, we can look forward to a high degree of unintentional comedy.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.