Watchdog One – Week in Review – Jan 6, 2018

Can a newsletter be in beta? Well, this one is. Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Watchdog One Week in Review. We hope that you enjoy this humble attempt to keep tabs not on what politicians are saying, but what the Federal Government is doing. What you’ll find here on a weekly basis is a mix of the esoteric hidden-in-plain sight information that the US government makes available to those who look for it, and highlights from the best accountability journalism being done today. What you won’t find is a rehash of the latest political mini-scandal to dominate the headlines.

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OIL AND GAS UNLEASHED!
“Secretary Zinke Announces Plan For Unleashing America’s Offshore Oil and Gas Potential” screamed the headline on a Department of the Interior press release that would make Kim Jong Un’s press shop envious. The release explains that the draft proposed program would “consider nearly the entire U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for potential oil and gas lease sales.” Secretary Zinke said in the release that this will provide, “billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks.” If you think this sounds like a good idea, you can share your thoughts with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management online starting Jan 8, or at one of the public meetings being held around the country starting Jan 16.

– Ten Governors from coastal states have already come out in opposition to the plan, including Florida Republican Rick Scott who said in a statement, “I have already asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration.” Read more here.

– Meanwhile, a 9¢ per barrel tax on oil that helps fund oil spill cleanup lapsed on Jan 1.
The Washington Post Reports that, although GOP leaders opted not to renew the tax in December, they are considering reinstating it retroactively in an “extenders” bill that would revive several recently expired taxes. Industry officials noted that the U.S. Coast Guard or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could always ask Congress to reimpose it if either felt it was needed.Read more in the Washington Post.

SNOW DAZE
It was a snowy, short week in Congress, with just the Senate in session. They swore in Democrats Doug Jones of Alabama, and Tina Smith of Minnesota, and took just one vote: confirming ex-Lockheed executive John Rood to as undersecretary of Defense for policy with 81 yeas and 7 nays (Sanders, Warren, Wyden, Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, and Markey), in spite of a bit of sparring that occurred during his confirmation hearing in November.

MILITARIZED BUSINESS JETS OVER NORTH KOREA
File under: Things We Didn’t Know Were a Thing. The Department of Defense on Tuesday awarded a $33mm contract to Lockheed Martin to continue supporting South Korea’s “Peace Krypton” system: a private jet retrofitted to conduct aerial reconnaissance over the DPRK. While the U2 missions that are still being flown out of Osan Air Base tend to capture the attention of visiting news crews, the Peace Krypton flights have been operating without much fanfare since 1996, when Lockheed first won the contract. The optimistic-yet-ominous sounding Peace Krypton is actually a Raytheon Hawker 800XP business jet, modified to carry a wide range of imagery intelligence and signal intelligence dodads that we won’t pretend to understand. On the homefront, this means about 30 people in Colorado Springs get to keep their jobs.

“NATIONAL SLAVERY AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING PREVENTION MONTH IS HERE!”
That was the exclamation that kicked off the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Bulletin for January, reminding you that Jan 11 is #wearblueday to raise awareness and help #endtrafficking. More info about the Blue Campaign here.

– Human Trafficking in the Heartland
A federal judge in Ohio unsealed an indictment  on Wednesday charging a fourth man in a labor trafficking conspiracy that reportedly forced minors to work at egg farms there, including one of the nation’s largest: Trillium Farms (whose logo bears an unfortunate resemblance to the biohazard symbol). Pablo Duran Ramirez, a US citizen, was apprehended by the US Border Patrol on New Year’s Eve, according to a press release from the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio. “The indictment unsealed today alleges that Duran Ramirez contracted to provide labor for Trillium Farms while knowing or being in reckless disregard of the fact that some of the workers were being trafficked,” the release said. “Three other defendants have pleaded guilty to participating in the trafficking scheme. Those defendants admitted to recruiting workers from Guatemala, some as young as 14 or 15 years old, falsely promising them good jobs and a chance to attend school in the United States.  The defendants then smuggled and transported the workers to a trailer park in Marion, Ohio, where they ordered them to live in dilapidated trailers and to work at physically demanding jobs at Trillium Farms for up to 12 hours a day.”

– Emily Mills at The Marion Star has more background on the trafficking case, which goes back to 2013.

SURE, YOU COULD READ FIRE AND FURY THIS WEEKEND…
Or you could curl up with a scintillating, just-published data set from the Federal Government. Earlier this week, the State Department published the 35th edition of World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers. It’s a fascinating data set that reveals, among other things, the countries that have the highest military burden, as defined by the ratio of military expenditures to GDP. The good news is that worldwide that burden is currently about 2-2.5%, down from its high at the end of the cold war of 4.7%.

The Top 10 Countries With the Highest Military Burden
(11 year mean highest based on 2005-2015)

  1. North Korea / 23.3%
  2. Oman / 11.5%
  3. South Sudan / 9.3%
  4. Saudi Arabia / 8.6%
  5. Eritrea / 6.5%
  6. Jordan / 6.2%
  7. Myanmar / 6.1%
  8. UAE / 5.1%
  9. Iraq / 5.0%
  10. Syria / 4.6%

IT’S ONLY MONEY
While the United States didn’t make the above top 10 list (it came in at number 13 with 4.3%), the Congressional Budget Office this week revised upward by $300bn the amount of debt American taxpayers will carry as a result of the recent tax cut. “As a result of those higher deficits, debt held by the public would increase from the 91.2 percent of gross domestic product in CBO’s June 2017 baseline to 97.5 percent,” it said. Or, as the Washington Examiner put it, “The federal debt held by the public will grow to nearly the size of the U.S. economy within 10 years under the GOP tax cut legislation.”

CHURCH AND STATE
On New Year’s Day, FEMA announced that private nonprofit houses of worship are now eligible for disaster relief as community centers. The policy reversal comes after a lawsuit brought by a trio of Texas churches that were denied Federal relief after being damaged by Hurricane Harvey in August. Dena Sher, assistant legislative director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, told the Washington Post that while long standing policy treated nonprofits equally, this decision gives houses of worship special treatment, “It’s troubling. We know communities need support as they rebuild and we can’t ignore fundamental principles of religious freedom. But the constitutional principle at stake says each of us gets to decide how and if to support any religion. That’s the promise the constitution makes and we should hold to it in good times and bad.”

– It’s Only Money, Part 2
FEMA’s decision to expand the pool of those eligible to receive federal funds comes after the most recent report from the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said that FEMA failed to heed previous recommendations from the OIG, and has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.

– Related: How Harvey Hurt Houston, in 10 Maps (ProPublica)

THE VA’S VERY OWN COMPSTAT
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the apparent results of an attempt to measure and grade the quality of care of Veterans Administration hospitals include practices that lower the quality of care and one VA doctor calls, “extremely unethical.” That’s according to a New York Times investigation by Dave Phillips published on Monday that manages to be both shocking and sadly predictable:

Fewer patients meant fewer chances of bad outcomes and better scores for a ranking system that grades all veterans hospitals on a scale of one to five stars. In 2016, administrators began cherry-picking cases against the advice of doctors — turning away complicated patients and admitting only the lowest-risk ones in order to improve metrics, according to multiple interviews with doctors and nurses at the hospital and a review of documents.

Those metrics helped determine both the Roseburg hospital’s rating and the leadership’s bonus checks. By denying veterans care, the ratings climbed rapidly from one star to two in 2016 and the director earned a bonus of $8,120.

Read more at NYT.com

RECRIMINALIZE IT
Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo on Thursday that calls marijuana a “dangerous drug” and marijuana activity a “serious crime.” While a DOJ press release said that the new policy is a “return to law and order,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance was just one of the many reformers who slammed the new policy, saying that “Jeff Sessions’ obsession with marijuana prohibition defies logic.”

Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take it Anymore
Republican Senator Cory Gardner took to the Senate floor Thursday to denounce the new pot policy (video), saying “I will be putting a hold on every single nomination from the Department of Justice until Attorney General Jeff Sessions lives up to the commitment he made to me in my pre-confirmation meeting with him. The conversation we had that was specifically about this issue of states’ rights in Colorado. Until he lives up to that commitment, I’ll be holding up all nominations of the Department of Justice.” Read more at CNN.

– Related: “Did Jeff Sessions Just Increase the Odds Congress Will Make Marijuana Legal?” (Politico)

NOW YOU SEE IT…
Andrew Bergman and Toly Rinberg at the Sunlight Foundation just published a compelling breakdown of how the Trump administration has reduced the amount of public information available online in its first year, replete with side-by-side comparisons. They report that, “the most significant reduction in access to federal resources occurred at the EPA when its climate change website was removed on April 28, 2017. This is only part of the censorship of climate change Web content that has gone on at the EPA and across federal websites. The site has been down, without a legitimate explanation for more than eight months. A portion has been returned, but with mentions of climate and almost all climate Web resources removed.” Read more and see the examples over at the Sunlight Foundation.

-JTM