Getting Reform Results in Gridlocked DC

Madeline Drexler

Madeline Drexler, a journalist seeking improved food safety for the public, has recently achieved a rare trifecta of accomplishments. She published a major article in field, then promptly obtained Washington reform -- and is now winning well-deserved recognition. The Society of Professional Journalists bestows its annual public service award for magazine writing on her in a ceremony July 20 at the National Press Club.

Jason Peuquet

Jason Peuquet, research director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, is another reformer with a big goal. Portrayed at right, he and his group launched a major effort this week, also at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, to enact a plan now that would gradually put debt on a downward path as a share of the economy.

Each was my guest July 19 beginning on MTL Washington Update with co-host and producer Scott Draughon. We examined the substance of their goals -- and the complex Washington process of accomplishing reform in an era of gridlock in Congress. The process is complicated by an ever-growing lobbying industry that threatens to overwhelm even sensible reform. Click here to listen to the show, which may be heard nationwide by archive.

Drexler, above left, is the editor of Harvard Public Health magazine and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, where I am a fellow also. She won the public service award for her article, "Why Your Food Isn't Safe," published by Good Housekeeping last fall. The reporting was so powerful that it prompted reforms the same week it was published. The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared all “Big Six” strains of deadly E. coli bacteria “adulterants” — a move she and Good Housekeeping strongly recommended.

This means, she says, that starting this year certain food producers (such as those working with beef) will have to test for these strains and, if they are found, destroy the batch or cook it to kill the bacteria. Previously, people had to fall ill — even die — before the contaminated food was tracked down.) She'll provide a progress report on how the federal government is progressing on its plan, and will amplify on the scope of the problem.

Each year, she reported, contaminated food sends 128,000 victims to the hospital, and it kills 3,000 children and adults. The article described how the government safety net failed those victims — and how those in the public can protect their families.

"More than 17 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product is spent on health care --- in many cases, for conditions that could be prevented or better managed with public health interventions," she points out. "But only 3 percent of the government’s health budget is spent on public health measures -- and public health programs are usually the first to be cut in a budget crisis."

In pointing out such problems, Drexler draws on extensive experience as a leading science and public health journalist.

Madeline DrexlerHer book, Emerging Epidemics: The Menace of New Infections, (Penguin, 2010)  is an update -- with new material on SARS, H1N1 influenza, and innovative approaches to global pandemic preparedness -- to her 2003 book, Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections (Penguin). Both books have received wide critical praise. Drexler’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, among many other national publications.

We expect our discussion also to cover the nature of "reform" these days in an era when almost any initiative creates opponents, often well-funded and articulate in their opposition. These days Congress is heavily focused on cost-cutting in domestic safety-net programs. Food inspection programs are often under threat. Drexler argues that cuts are false economy and the nation can well afford to focus on food safety when an estimated 48 million people a year undergo at least one incident of food poisoning, despite reasonable precautions by many of the victims.

Jason Peuquet, our other guest, approaches reform from a big picture standpoint. His organization is part of the Fiscal Policy Program at the New America Foundation, which sponsored a high-profile press conference that garnered lots of news coverage this week for the launch of its campaign. "At the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013," his group argues in its policy paper, "several policies are set to take effect that would reduce deficits and debt, but in untargeted and abrupt ways. At the same time, lawmakers much not extend these policies without offsets. A smart and gradual debt reduction plan can be the solution."

At the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, many major-scale events are set to occur all at once. They include the expiration of the 2001/03/10 tax cuts, the winding down of certain jobs provisions, the activation of the $1.2 trillion across-the-board “sequester,” an immediate and steep reduction in Medicare physician payments, the end of current Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patches, and the need to once again raise the country’s debt ceiling. At the end of 2012, we face what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke calls a "fiscal cliff.”

Taken together, these policies would reduce ten-year decits by over $6.8 trillion relative to realistic current policy projections – enough to put the debt on a sharp downward path but in an extremely disruptive and unwise manner. Gradually phasing in well- thought-out entitlement and tax reforms would be far preferable to large, blunt,and abrupt savings upfront. Policies set to take effect at the end of the year could seriously harm the short-term economy without making the changes necessary to address the drivers of our debt or strengthen the economy over the long-term.

However, the worst-case scenario would be for lawmakers to repeal the sequester and once again extend expiring debt-expanding policies without offsetting their costs. If policymakers were to walk away from this potentially action-forcing moment to help them put the country’s debt on a sustainable path, it could lead to a loss of confidence in their ability to govern that could set off a dangerous chain reaction in markets.

Peuquet works on a wide array of budgetary issues and conducts research on budget and economic policy. For instance, he has recently worked on examining the economic recovery, defense and non-defense spending, structural health care reforms, as well as the overall federal budget. Peuquet graduated from George Washington University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics and international affairs.

We always welcome listener questions for our guests. Call (866) 685-7469 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The show is part of our weekly public affairs series that just began its seventh year, distributed nationally via the My Technology Lawyer network. Visit the archives for previous interviews with top authors, political leaders and other news-makers.

In related news, Rebekah Cowell, another of my Schuster Institute colleagues, is an additional national award-winner in the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) competition. Based in North Carolina, Cowell collaborates with the Independent Weekly on investigative projects involving environmental injustice in African-American communities across the Southeast. Her award in the category of non-daily newspapers was for a three-part series, listed below, identifying hazards for those at health risk because they live near garbage landfills. A complete list is here of the SPJ award-winners to be honored later this week.


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Related News Coverage

Good Housekeeping, Why Your Food Isn't Safe, Madeline Drexler, October, 2011. Each year, contaminated food sends 128,000 victims to the hospital, and it kills 3,000 children and adults. How the safety net failed them — and how to protect your family. Don't miss our special on the 11 foods that cause the most illness.

Rebekah CowellIndependent Weekly. (Durham, N.C.), The Waste Land and other stories of people living near garbage, Rebekah L. Cowell (at left). Three-part series: 1)The Waste Land: The people of Lincoln Heights live among three city dumps. This is the story of their war on trash, Feb. 16, 2011; 2) Living on the Edge: Residents endure legacy of old Chatham County landfill, April 20, 2011; and 3) Digging Deeper: In Orange and Guilford counties, neighbors fight landfill expansions, July 6, 2011.

Campaign to Fix the Debt, Media coverage, Staff compilation, July 18, 2012.

Washington Post, Coalition urges tax hikes, entitlement cuts to tame national debt, Lori Montgomery, July 17, 2012. A coalition of business leaders, budget experts and former politicians launched a $25 million campaign Tuesday to build political support for a far-reaching plan to raise taxes, cut popular retirement programs and tame the national debt. With anxiety rising over a major budget mess looming in January, the campaign — dubbed “Fix the Debt” — is founded on the notion that the moment is finally at hand when policymakers will be forced to compromise on an ambitious debt-reduction strategy.

Catching Our Attention on other Justice, Media & Integrity Issues

Government Crackdowns and Cover-ups

Wall Street Journal, Covert FBI Power to Obtain Phone Data Faces Rare Test, Jennifer Valentino-Devries, July 17, 2012.  Early last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent a secret letter to a phone company demanding that it turn over customer records for an investigation. The phone company then did something almost unheard of: It fought the letter in court. The U.S. Department of Justice fired back with a serious accusation. It filed a civil complaint claiming that the company, by not handing over its files, was interfering "with the United States' sovereign interests" in national security. The legal clash represents a rare and significant test of an investigative tool strengthened by the USA Patriot Act, the counterterrorism law enacted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The case is shrouded in secrecy. The person at the company who received the government's request—known as a "national security letter," or NSL—is legally barred from acknowledging the case, or even the letter's existence, to almost anyone but company lawyers. "This is the most important national-security-letter case" in years, said Stephen Vladeck, a professor and expert on terrorism law at the American University Washington College of Law. "It raises a question Congress has been trying to answer: How do you protect the First Amendment rights of an NSL recipient at the same time as you protect the government's interest in secrecy?"

Main Justice, Grassley Presses for Answers on DOJ Lawyer Who Demanded Anonymity at Public Hearing, Mary Jacoby, July 17, 2012. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote Attorney General Eric Holder today to demand answers about a June 12 incident in Louisiana, in which a Civil Rights Division lawyer is described as having tried to intimidate a reporter into not quoting her statements in a public hearing.

Mark FullerWVTM (Montgomery), Judge rejects Don Siegelman's request to vacate new trial denial, Jon Paepcke, July 16, 2012. A federal judge has rejected Don Siegelman's request to erase an earlier ruling denying the former Alabama governor a new trial. Federal Judge Mark Fuller, right, has denied Don Siegelman's request that Fuller vacate his ruling in which he denied a new trial for Alabama's former Governor. Meanwhile, Siegelman is still set to be sentenced on August 3 in Montgomery's federal courthouse. In June 2006, Siegelman was convicted of accepting bribes from HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy in exchange for appointing Scrushy to the Alabama Certificate of Need Board. (Phil Fleming Photo.) Editor's Note: This is report reflects conventional reporting about the latest official development in what is widely documented elsewhere (including many reports by this Project) as the nation's most notorious political prosecution and cover-up of the decade.


Questions on Media Coverage and Campaign Donations

CNN, Dan Rather: 'Quote approval' a media sellout, Dan Rather, July 19, 2012. Dan Rather says newspapers and other news outlets must push back on candidates' demands to review quotes. Reporters are agreeing to let candidates vet their quotes before they appear in stories. Dan Rather: Allowing candidates to edit their quotes makes reports fraudulent
By making this "bargain" for access, he says, reporters essentially become PR agents. Rather: Newspapers and media outlets must push back on "quote approval."  A New York Times front-page article Monday detailed a new phenomenon in news coverage of the presidential campaign: candidates insisting on "quote approval," telling reporters what they can and cannot use in some stories. And, stunningly, reporters agreeing to it. This, folks, is news. Any way you look at it, this is a jaw-dropping turn in journalism, and it raises a lot of questions. Among them: Can you trust the reporters and news organizations who do this? Is it ever justified on the candidate's side or on the reporter's side? Where is this leading us?
As someone who's been covering presidential campaigns since the 1950s, I have no delusions about political reporting. Candidates bargaining access to get the kind of news coverage they want is nothing new. The thicket of attribution and disclosure deals is a deep maze reporters have been picking their way through even before my time. But this latest tactic by candidates revealed by the Times gives me, to say the least, great pause. It should give every citizen pause.

Huffington Post, David Gergen, CNN Analyst, Reveals Extent Of Bain Capital Ties While 'Reporting' On Firm, Michael Calderone, July 18, 2012. CNN senior political analyst David Gergen defended Mitt Romney this week against the Obama campaign's charges that the presumptive Republican nominee hasn't been honest about his tenure at Bain Capital -- a private-equity firm the former presidential adviser-turned-TV pundit knows something about. On Monday, Gergen acknowledged having a "past relationship with the top partners at Bain that is both personal and financial" -- a disclosure that the Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan suggested is "what's wrong with the press corps" and raised questions about Gergen's role in analyzing Romney's experience at the firm. "I have worked with them in support of nonprofit organizations such as City Year," Gergen wrote. "I have given a couple of paid speeches for Bain dinners, as I have for many other groups. I was on the board of a for-profit childcare company, Bright Horizons, that was purchased by Bain Capital. It was a transaction with financial benefits for all board members and shareholders, including me."

Who What Why / Op Ed News, Russ Baker Interviewed By OpEd News, James Huang, July 14, 2012. OEN: So that’s what you do at WhoWhatWhy, Russ? What kinds of stuff do you investigate? Give us a sense of what goes on over there, please. RB:  We find that conventional journalism is jam-packed with disinformation, and we aim to correct it.

Op Ed News, Rupert Watch, Murdoch Faces Shareholder Rebellion in UK, Michel Collins, July 20, 2012. hNews Corporation is facing an investor rebellion in Great Britain that parallels a similar rebellion occurring in the United States. "A consortium of 18 heavyweight investors is calling for Mr Murdoch to stand down as chairman in the interests of good corporate governance and be replaced by an independent figure who is seen to be acting in the best interests of shareholders." The Independent, July 20 The investors have filed a resolution to remove Murdoch from power at the October News Corp shareholders meeting. The resolution will accompany those already filed by large investors in the United States. What upsets the 18? Murdoch and his family have too much control. That control serves the family well, but not the shareholders. Specifically, recent scandals have hurt News Corp performance.

Reader Supported News, Presto! The DISCLOSE Act Disappears, Bill Moyers, July 19, July 12. Ask any magician and they’ll tell you that the secret to a successful magic trick is misdirection -- distracting the crowd so they don’t realize how they’re being fooled.  Just like democracy. Once upon a time conservatives supported the full disclosure of campaign contributors. Now they oppose it with their might -- and magic -- especially when it comes to unlimited cash from corporations. My goodness, they say, with a semantic wave of the wand, what’s the big deal?: nary a single Fortune 500 company had given a dime to the super PACs. (Even that’s not entirely true, by the way.)  Meanwhile the other hand is poking around for loopholes, stuffing millions of secret corporate dollars into non-profit, tax-exempt organizations called 501(c)s that funnel the money into advertising on behalf of candidates or causes. Legally, in part because the Federal Election Commission does not consider them political committees, they can keep it all nice and anonymous, never revealing who’s really behind the donations or the political ads they buy.

This is especially handy for corporations -- why risk offending customers by revealing your politics or letting them know how much you’re willing to shell out for a permanent piece of an obliging politician? That’s why passing a piece of legislation called the DISCLOSE Act is so important and that’s why on Monday, Republicans in the Senate killed it. Again. All of this, of course, is more blowback from the horrible Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which unleashed this corporate cash monster. Just this week, Justice Richard Posner of U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals -- a Republican and until recently, no judicial liberal -- said that Citizens United had created a political system that is “pervasively corrupt” in which “wealthy people essentially bribe legislators.”