Eric Boehlert, Michael Massing, Frank Rich and other critics have rightly raised hell over the mainstream media’s coverage and non-coverage of issues related to the war in Iraq. There was what Boehlert called the “lapdog” reporting of the run-up to the invasion. Then came the burial of devastating post-invasion revelations such as the Downing Street memo, which showed that President Bush had secretly decided by July 2002 to go to war with Iraq.
For more than a decade, however, critics have mostly ignored another grave MSM failure: its non-reporting of the collapse of congressional oversight of government and corporate conduct despite its immensely destructive–and continuing–impacts on the checks and balances so carefully built into the Constitution, on national security, on the safety, health, and pocketbooks of all of us, and on our country’s reputation.
The other day, the House Government Reform Committee released a bipartisan report saying that corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his team had billed clients for hundreds of contacts with White House officials over three years. “This White House,” Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) told the New York Times, “doesn’t want any oversight at all.” In stating the obvious, Davis left unstated a less obvious but crucial corollary: For five-plus years, with rare exceptions, Congress has acted as an agent or partner of the White House by giving it exactly the non-oversight it wanted. To this subversion of the separation of powers the MSM generally turned a blind eye.
Now a fresh, bright light has been cast on this sustained failure of Congress by an article in the October issue of The American Prospect, by a new book, The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing the American People and How to Get It Back on Track, and a report by the Institute of Medicine.
In a Prospect article headlined “A Slight Oversight,” Robert Kuttner cites a stunning political contrast: While Senate Democrats barred their former majority leader, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, from continuing to run their caucus, “Vice President Dick Cheney, who never served in the Senate,…regularly attends Senate Republican caucus meetings, sometimes accompanied by Karl Rove.”
The consequences of this un-natural wedding of the congressional and Executive branches and the resultant decline of congressional oversight are illuminated in this excerpt:
The default of Republicans in Congress is staggering. No ongoing investigations on waste and incompetence at the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing on the vast self-serving mess that is the Medicare prescription-drug program. Nothing serious on the scandals by defense contractors in Iraq, or on Cheney’s possible role in securing a $7 billion dollar no-bid contract for Halliburton, or on his secret energy task force. Nothing on the enforcement default by the Environmental Protection Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. No serious oversight of the FBI. Precious little on the ongoing failure to rebuild New Orleans, or on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, or the illegal domestic spying, or on the Justice Department’s failure to enforce the right to vote. Nothing on the data-mining program that has revived the supposedly discarded John Poindexter plan by the back door….
Over the years, the most effective oversight has been bipartisan, often with the president’s own party challenging his policies. Senator Harry Truman’s Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, beginning in 1941, eventually called 1,798 witnesses, held 432 hearings, issued 51 reports exposing procurement corruption, and saved taxpayers nearly $200 billion in today’s dollars [my boldfacing].
Authors Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein paint a similarly dismal picture in The Broken Branch:
When the Republicans took control of Congress [in 1994], there was substantial aggressive oversight–for the period when Bill Clinton was president, that is–although the oversight of policy was accompanied by a near-obsession with investigation of scandal and allegations of scandal. But when George Bush became president, oversight largely disappeared. From homeland security to the conduct of the war in Iraq, from the torture issue uncovered by the Abu Gharib revelations to the performance of the IRS, Congress has mostly ignored its responsibilities.
Anyone who had to wait to learn from Kuttner or from Mann and Ornstein how Congressional “conservatives” knowingly and willfully chose not to conserve a fundamental organizing principle of the Constitution might reasonably ask, why didn’t the mainstream press tell us long ago?
The Institute of Medicine report was summarized by the AP: “Two years after the withdrawal of the painkiller Vioxx” officials of the Food and Drug Administration “still lack the resources necessary to track the safety of new drugs and respond quickly to any problems that might crop up.” But the lack of resources flows from the lack of congressional oversight, and from press non-coverage of the non-oversight, as I emphasized in a talk to Washington Nieman Fellows in April 2005 (subsequently posted by Niemanwatchdog.org).
Here’s a timely excerpt:
“From the mid-1960s through much of the 1980s”-I’m quoting a 2002 article in The American Prospect-”Congress played an integral role in drug safety. Lawmakers”-principally the late Reps. L.H. Fountain and Ted Weiss, but also including Gaylord Nelson and Ted Kennedy in the Senate-”meticulously probed the regulatory histories of dubious drugs, uncovered FDA weaknesses and ordered corrections.”
The writer was Daniel Sigelman, who, as an investigator for Weiss, found that Eli Lilly, in the case of the anti-arthritis drug Oraflex, and Hoechst AG, in the case of the antidepressant Merital, had known of but failed to report many deaths of patients on these drugs….
Congressional oversight of the FDA and the drug industry began to decline in the late 1980s,…[and] collapsed utterly in January 1995, when the Republicans took control of the House and drug and tobacco industry campaign contributions took control of them….
The collapse of oversight had appalling consequences.
In the decade ending in the Fall of 2002, 13 dangerous drugs were withdrawn from the market after causing many hundreds of deaths and many thousands of injuries….
Just seven of the unsafe drugs caused more than one thousand deaths. How and why had FDA hurried them to the market? Why had withdrawals been slow?…House leaders had no interest in investigating the FDA’s role in approving even one of the drugs that caused needless deaths and injuries….Least of all did they want to investigate why and how the FDA had become a partner of an industry that has more lobbyists than Congress has members,…
But does the press deserve a pass? No way. For a full decade, it has failed to inform the public of the prolonged, corrupt pre-[Senator Charles] Grassley abdication of congressional oversight of the agency [my boldfacing].
Sigelman told me the other day: “FDA was merely doing what Congress wanted it to do. I remember, for example, in 2002–not that many years ago–as part of the reauthorization of PDUFA [the highly dubious law allowing the industry to pay so-called user fees as a way to speed FDA approval of new drugs], congressional leaders ordered FDA to go behind close doors and negotiate with industry representatives on what FDA review goals and requirements should be put into the legislation for congressional approval. Congress had no compunctions about outsourcing public drug regulatory policy to secret deal-making with the drug industry. And yet now congressional leaders are hypocritically bemoaning all that they were instrumental in creating.”
“While I have never had that much sympathy with FDA management,” Sigelman added, “it troubles me that the Fourth Estate consistently gives Congress a pass.”