Porn On The Federal Payroll

A television station in Washington, D.C. sent a Freedom of Information Act request to 12 federal agencies.  The FOIA request, directed to the inspector generals of the 12 agencies, sought records of cases of “egregious on-the-job pornography” viewing by federal employees at the 12 agencies.

lawmaker-calls-to-block-federal-employees-porn-accessIn response, the inspector generals produced records showing that almost 100 federal employees at the 12 agencies were caught, or admitted to, watching vast amounts of porn while at work.  One employee, at the Environmental Protection Agency offices in Washington, D.C., said he had spent up to six hours a day watching porn for “several years.”  A patent and trademark employee at the Department of Commerce was found to have made 1,800 connections to pornographic websites and told investigators, by way of explanation:  “When I am working hard, I go to these images to take a mental break.”  A worker at the Federal Railroad Administration was found to have searched for porn for 252 hours in one year.  And some of the cases addressed in the inspector general records were criminal in nature, because they involved viewing child pornography.

Watching porn on the job apparently falls within the category of “computer misuse,” which is subject to different penalties at different federal agencies, with sanctions ranging from a written reprimand to suspensions and termination.  As one deputy assistant inspector general put it, the computer systems, and the employees, are supposed to be performing government work while on the job, and checking out porn instead constitutes some of the “waste, fraud, and abuse” we taxpayers often hear politicians talk about.  Notably, the TV station report provides no information on whether disciplinary action was taken against the supervisors of the employee who says he spent six hours a day watching porn on his work computer for several years without being detected, or whether the EPA concluded that his job clearly wasn’t necessary and could be eliminated.

About 100 employees out of the vast payrolls of the 12 federal agencies obviously isn’t a huge percentage; you’re going to find a few “bad apples” in just about any workplace.  But the TV station FOIA request was targeted specifically at “egregious” porn viewing, and the fact that federal employees can spend hours watching porn on the job watching pornography, undetected, just adds fuel to the budget-cutting and payroll-cutting fire.  President Trump’s budget plans already have federal employees worried that federal payrolls are going to be slashed.  Don’t be surprised if, in the debate about downsizing the federal government, bureaucratic porn-watching habits get trotted out as a talking point.

Feet Off The Furniture!

Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway has come under fierce criticism on social media after a picture showed her perched on one of the couches in the Oval Office, with her feet tucked under her.  Close-ups showed that she was wearing shoes at the time, and her heels were digging in to the fabric.

TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-TRUMPGasp!

Critics said she was being disrespectful of the Oval Office through her pose and her treatment of the furniture.  Conway says she meant no disrespect, and her defenders say she was just getting ready to use her phone to take a photo of President Trump meeting with leaders of historic black colleges.  They also cite pictures of President Obama with his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office.  (And, of course, it’s not just any desk, it’s the famous Resolute desk made from timbers of the British vessel  H.M.S. Resolute and presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria in 1880, and therefore presumably has a lot more history going for it than the sofa on which Conway was perched.)

Only one month or so into the new Administration, and already we’ve reached the point of arguing about treatment of furniture!  Hey, I know — let’s call it “Sofagate”!

desk1Maybe some of the angst about the furniture in the Oval Office comes from people whose parents were hyper-concerned about maintaining the condition the furniture in their home, and covered it with uncomfortable plastic slip covers for daily use so the furniture would always look brand new for company.  These were the people whose mothers were always yelling “feet off the furniture!” when you went over to their house as kids.  Other people, like the Webners, grew up in households where furniture was not viewed as a some kind of sacred item and putting your feet up on the coffee table, or stretching out on the sofa to watch TV, was a perfectly acceptable practice and a little wear and tear on the couch and chairs was to be expected.  And still other people recognize that putting your feet up on a wooden desk is different than putting shoe-clad feet up on a fabric-covered sofa.

This is a classic example of the kind of tempest in a teapot that makes Washington so baffling and weird, with people with an inside-the-Beltway mentality consciously trying to blow little things up into huge disputes.  It’s gotten worse in the social media age, where Twitter allows anyone (including our new President) to immediately make snide comments about anything and everything and create purportedly hilarious “memes.”

In the grand scheme of things, shoes with heels on an anonymous sofa, even one in the Oval Office, aren’t that big a deal.  With President Trump in office, there’s lots of meaningful, substantive stuff to argue about.  Can’t we at least focus on that, rather than feet on the furniture?

State Of The Union

Tonight President Donald Trump gives his first speech to a joint session of Congress.  It’s not being called a State of the Union speech, because by tradition a President is supposed to be in office a year before giving a State of the Union speech — but effectively, this speech is a SOTU.

gettyimages-84211317I’m trying to decide whether to watch.  As a general rule, I hate the bloviations and the planned standing ovations and the other political theater that has become part of any presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, and you’d be hard pressed to identify any SOTU speech that was especially memorable.

At the same time, even months after his election and weeks after his inauguration, I’m still having a difficult time comprehending that Donald Trump is the President.  It’s like I’m expecting that somebody else will step out from behind a curtain.  So maybe watching tonight’s speech, and seeing Trump walk down the aisle after the Sergeant at Arms of the United States House of Representatives bellows “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States,” will help to make Trump’s status as President more real.

I don’t expect Trump to say anything particularly meaningful, because that’s not what speeches to joint sessions of Congress are all about.  Instead, they tend to be laundry lists of proposals that, for the most part, are never heard from again.  When you think about it, the rapid-fire listing of initiatives that we often hear in such speeches is a lot more in line with Trump’s approach to speech-making than, say, what we expect from an inaugural address.  He doesn’t need to try to develop flowery language or deliver memorable phrases.  The SOTU and other presidential addresses to joint sessions are more like a CEO’s speech to shareholders at an annual meeting for a corporation.

Of course, the core purpose of the State of the Union is to discuss the state of the country, and even though this speech might not technically be a SOTU, we can expect President Trump to address that topic.  Presidents tend to characterize the state of the union through their own lens, and often what they describe seems to have little to do with what many of us perceive.  President Trump probably will say that we’ve got big problems in a number of areas.  We’ll hear about immigration, and tax reform, and repealing Obamacare, and trying to keep manufacturing jobs in the United States, and the other themes that seem to be part of every Trump speech.

What do I think is the state of the union these days?  If I had to describe it in one word, that word would be “divided.”

Lessons From A Crumbling Spillway

People have been holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed out in northern California.  Thousands of residents from a number of communities have been evacuated after a spillway from the massive Oroville dam was determined to be on the brink of failure.  As of early this morning, fortunately, it looks like the spillway will hold.

oroville-dam-side-view-associated-press-640x480The Oroville Dam story is an interesting one.  California has been struggling with drought conditions for years, but then recently got hit with lots of rain and snow that has filled its reservoirs and allowed officials to declare that drought conditions are over.  Now, though, the spillway failure raises questions about whether the state’s water control infrastructure is up to the task of dealing with water flow in non-drought conditions.

It’s a story that you probably could write about much of America’s infrastructure from the east coast to the west coast, and all points in between.  As you drive under bridges that look to be cracked and crumbling, with chunks of concrete missing and rebar exposed, travel through airports that are beat up and obviously overtaxed, and walk past retaining walls that are bowed out, you wonder about whether the folks in charge are paying much attention to the basics.  And, of course, that doesn’t even begin to address “hidden” infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, sewer piping and spillways, electrical grids and stormwater drains, that are underground or removed from population centers.  There is a lingering sense that the concrete, steel, and piping that holds the country up has been neglected — perhaps because bridges, tunnels, dams, and reservoirs don’t vote, lobby legislators, or fill council chambers, demanding their share of tax dollars.

President Trump has talked about addressing these infrastructure issues — such as our “third world” airports — and it’s an issue about which there seems to be some consensus among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.  But there’s more to it than that.  Not every bridge or reservoir is a federal issue that requires federal tax dollars or federal bureaucrats issuing approvals.  Local and state governmental officials need to recognize that they have responsibility, too, and they can’t continue to shortchange maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure.  Rather than just holding their hands out to Uncle Sam, they need to look to their own budgets and tax revenues to fund the repair and refurbishment effort, too.

Perhaps the Oroville Dam story will get people to start paying attention to what they should have been paying attention to all along.

Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

Looking To Fill The “Stolen Seat”

Last night President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the vacant seat on the United States Supreme Court.  His formal nomination triggers the start of what will undoubtedly be a bruising confirmation process, with some Democrats already promising to do everything they can to prevent seating Gorsuch on the high court.

US-POLITICS-COURT-NOMINATIONThere are three reasons for this.  First, the Supreme Court has assumed an increasingly important role in the American political process over the last 70 years, with people at all points on the political spectrum looking for the judiciary to recognize a new right, provide a remedy, issue an injunction, or overturn a statute or executive action.  The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch, and every year, the Court accepts and decides cases that require it to tackle difficult issues — some constitutional, some statutory, some procedural — that can have broad ramifications for people, businesses, the legal system, and how government works.

Second, as the importance of the Supreme Court has increased, the process for nominating, reviewing, and approving potential Supreme Court justices has changed.  Republicans blame Democrats for the growing politicization of the Supreme Court confirmation process, and Democrats blame Republicans, but no one doubts that we have moved into a new era of “extreme vetting.”  Nominees not only have their credentials, backgrounds, and prior opinions scrutinized for the tiniest kernel of a potential argument against nomination, but advocacy groups immediately declare sides and start their scorched-earth campaigns before the nomination speech is even completed.  Last night, only a few minutes after Gorsuch was nominated by President Trump, an anti-confirmation demonstration began on the Supreme Court steps, and opponents of the Gorsuch nomination appeared on the cable news shows, describing him in the darkest, most ominous terms imaginable.

And third, the atmosphere has become even more poisonous because the seat on the Supreme Court Gorsuch has been nominated to fill has been vacant for almost a full year, and the Republicans in the Senate refused to take any action on Merrick Garland, the jurist that President Obama nominated to fill that seat.  That’s why the New York Times, in an editorial today, calls the vacancy the “stolen seat” — reasoning that if the Senate had just acted properly last year, Garland would have been confirmed, and the balance of power on the Supreme Court would already be changed.  The Times editorial castigates the Senate Republicans for obstructionism and abuse of power in their treatment of the Garland nomination, but seems to also implicitly encourage — with a wink and a nod — Senate Democrats to respond to the Gorsuch nomination in kind.

So now we’ve got a Supreme Court nominee who has served on the federal appellate bench for 10 years, has all of the educational bona fides you would wish, and is classified by some as a “very conservative” judge.  I’m interested in seeing how the confirmation process plays out and what is brought out about Gorsuch’s background and judicial opinions — but that means the confirmation process has to actually start.  Here, too, as in other areas I’ve pointed out recently, Congress needs to do its job.  The Republicans need to shut up about the “nuclear option” that Harry Reid unwisely imposed, and the Democrats need to get over the Garland nomination inaction, and both sides need to acknowledge that the Supreme Court has nine seats that can only be filled if the Senate acts and start to address the Gorsuch nomination on its own merits.

One other thing:  as the current Supreme Court justices age, delay and inaction is not an option.  If we don’t get over this self-imposed roadblock to the proper functioning of our government, we might soon have another vacancy to fill, and another.  If the Republicans and Democrats don’t get over their political titting for tatting, we might end up with a gradually vanishing Supreme Court.