In fall chill, bu­reau­crats get han­ker­ing for Caribbean

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY PHILLIP SWARTS

Down go the tem­per­a­tures, and away go the bu­reau­crats … to the Caribbean, none­the­less.

A group of fed­eral of­fi­cials skipped chilly Wash­ing­ton this month for a tax­payer-funded trip to the Vir­gin Is­lands in the name of pro­tect­ing the world’s coral reef.

The or­ga­nizer, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, isn’t say­ing much about the to­tal cost or rea­sons for the trip or why of­fi­cials chose the St. Croix beach­front re­sort Buc­ca­neer Ho­tel (made fa­mous by an episode of TV’s “The Bach­e­lor”) as their desti­na­tion.

But life couldn’t have been too bad

The Wash­ing­ton Times and one of its for­mer jour­nal­ists on Thurs­day sued the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, ac­cus­ing fed­eral agents of il­le­gally seiz­ing the news­pa­per’s re­port­ing ma­te­ri­als dur­ing the ex­e­cu­tion of a search war­rant in an un­re­lated case.

In a mo­tion filed in fed­eral court in Green­belt, The Times and reporter Au­drey Hud­son asked a judge to force the fed­eral agency to re­turn all re­port­ing files and doc­u­ments it seized from Ms. Hud­son's home of­fice dur­ing a raid in early Au­gust.

The news­pa­per al­leged that fed­eral agents ac­com­pa­ny­ing Mary­land State Po­lice on the raid took ma­te­ri­als from Ms. Hud­son’s of­fice that were not cov­ered

for the G-men and G-women at the swanky re­sort, which is sur­rounded by a lush green golf course and boasts rooms with rates that be­gin at $323 a night. “Gra­cious, el­e­gant, leg­endary” is how the 17th-cen­tury re­sort bills it­self.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials de­fend the trip by say­ing that on-scene ex­pe­ri­ence about Caribbean coral reefs is im­por­tant to the mis­sion of con­ser­va­tion. They also em­pha­sized that they man­aged to get a spe­cial gov­ern­ment dis­count rate of $135 a night for the ho­tel, topped off with a $74 meal per diem.

But for fis­cal watch­dogs clam­or­ing for re­duc­ing spend­ing and the na­tional debt, the trip stands as a pow­er­ful sym­bol of a gov­ern­ment that has lit­tle sen­si­tiv­ity to ap­pear­ances or the bot­tom line.

“Tax­pay­ers ex­pect ac­count­abil­ity re­gard­less of whether a par­tic­u­lar meet­ing was held in a coral reef or in a Hy­att,” said Tom Schatz, pres­i­dent of Cit­i­zens Against Gov­ern­ment Waste, a fis­cal watch­dog group.

For jet­ting off to the Vir­gin Is­lands at a du­bi­ous time of year and mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to mon­i­tor its costs, the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force wins the Golden Ham­mer, a weekly dis­tinc­tion from The Wash­ing­ton Times awarded for ex­am­ples of waste­ful or ex­ces­sive spend­ing.

With 11 agen­cies in­volved in fund­ing and sup­port for the coral reef task force, it can be dif­fi­cult to track down just how much is be­ing spent and by whom. Spend­ing records are spread across mul­ti­ple agen­cies, with no sin­gle record of just how much th­ese meet­ing might be cost­ing tax­pay­ers.

An In­te­rior Depart­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive said the task force meet­ing was held in con­junc­tion with a meet­ing of the Caribbean Re­gional Plan­ning Body, and many peo­ple par­tic­i­pated in both. Travel to the coral reefs di­rectly is nec­es­sary, the rep­re­sen­ta­tive said, as they are “places where on-the-ground con­ser­va­tion ac­tiv­i­ties are on­go­ing and lo­cal man­age­ment is­sues can be ef­fec­tively high­lighted and as­sessed for progress to goal.”

Coral reefs are some of the most di­verse habi­tats of the ocean, but they have been se­ri­ously harmed by pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change. The In­ter­na­tional Coral Reef Sym­po­sium, a multi­na­tional sci­en­tific con­fer­ence, es­ti­mates that a quar­ter of the world’s coral reefs have been de­stroyed and half of all reefs could be lost within 20 years. In ad­di­tion to bio­di­ver­sity, coral reef tourism and fish­ing of­ten bring mil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enue to the economies of is­land na­tions and coastal coun­tries.

The task force was es­tab­lished in 1998 by an ex­ec­u­tive or­der from Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, though pres­i­dents and politi­cians on both sides of the aisle have sup­ported sim­i­lar en­deav­ors.

With in­for­ma­tion and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties spread across nearly a dozen fed­eral agen­cies, get­ting a fi­nal tally of spend­ing can be dif­fi­cult.

“Tax­pay­ers ex­pect ac­count­abil­ity re­gard­less of whether a par­tic­u­lar meet­ing was held in a coral reef or in a Hy­att.”

The In­te­rior Depart­ment and the Com­merce Depart­ment’s Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion lead the group. NOAA es­ti­mates it con­trib­uted about $21,000 to the meet­ing, spokesman Ben Sher­man said.

In ad­di­tion to the room rates and food per diems, the var­i­ous de­part­ments were also re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing air­fare for at­ten­dees. A quick search of travel web­sites shows that flights from Wash­ing­ton to St. Croix, where the meet­ing was held, range from $500 to $1,000.

Mr. Schatz said gov­ern­ments of­ten use ex­ist­ing re­sources and per­son­nel to sup­port such mul­ti­a­gency en­deav­ors. But the de­cen­tral­ized na­ture means that of­ten there is no sin­gle depart­ment that can eas­ily track spend­ing, no sin­gle con­gres­sional com­mit­tee that can over­see it, no sin­gle body with re­spon­si­bil­ity to de­ter­mine whether the group has ac­com­plished its task.

“If tax­pay­ers were more aware of why th­ese things were hap­pen­ing or what the re­sults were, there could be a bet­ter de­ter­mi­na­tion on whether the ac­tiv­ity was worth­while,” he said.

“Be­lieve me, I’m not rec­om­mend­ing Congress set up an in­ter­a­gency com­mit­tee to look at this task force,” Mr. Schatz joked.

The main meet­ing of the task force was held in the Great Hall of the Univer­sity of the Vir­gin Is­lands. There were speeches from the gover­nors of the five U.S. is­land ter­ri­to­ries, up­dates on sit­u­a­tions fac­ing the is­lands, and time for pub­lic com­ment.

At­ten­dees also par­tic­i­pated in lo­cal out­reach events to help ed­u­cate the pub­lic and went on “site vis­its to re­gions of St. Croix that have seen re­cent coral reef con­ser­va­tion ac­tiv­i­ties,” Mr. Sher­man said.

The task force meets twice a year, once in Fe­bru­ary in Wash­ing­ton and once in the fall in one of the re­gions un­der U.S. con­trol with coral reefs: Amer­i­can Samoa, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Vir­gin Is­lands, the North­ern Mar­i­ana Is­lands, Florida and Hawaii.

But fac­ing bud­get cuts and con­gres­sion­ally man­dated se­ques­tra­tion cuts, many agen­cies have been look­ing to trim spend­ing. “In the pri­vate sec­tor when com­pa­nies are hav­ing fi­nan­cial prob­lems they tend to cut back on travel,” Mr. Schatz said. “It can be equally ef­fi­cient to use mod­ern tech­nol­ogy to have group dis­cus­sions through Skype or other forms of tech­nol­ogy that al­low com­mu­ni­ca­tion with­out be­ing in the same room.”

The task force, how­ever, faces par­tic­u­lar prob­lems in long-dis­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “If you’re look­ing at the coral reef, it’s a lit­tle tougher to do that with­out see­ing it in per­son,” Mr. Schatz said.

Fed­eral agen­cies have been try­ing to rein in spend­ing on meet­ings since a se­ries of lav­ish, va­ca­tion­style con­fer­ences in Las Ve­gas held by the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion. The agency’s in­ter­nal in­spec­tor gen­eral uncovered $6.7 mil­lion in meet­ing costs, in­clud­ing the $823,000 Ve­gas con­fer­ence that in­cluded tens of thou­sands of dol­lars worth of food, al­co­hol and sou­venirs. Sev­eral GSA of­fi­cials were forced to step down, and White House of­fi­cials reis­sued a pres­i­den­tial or­der di­rect­ing agen­cies to cut un­nec­es­sary spend­ing. fed­eral agen­cies.

“It’s time to change. It’s time to change the Se­nate be­fore this in­sti­tu­tion be­comes ob­so­lete,” Mr. Reid said as he pushed his col­leagues to co­a­lesce on the crit­i­cal vote.

In­deed, it was a vote many of them — par­tic­u­larly the newer Demo­cratic mem­bers — have been an­tic­i­pat­ing. Frus­trated by Repub­li­cans’ re­peated abil­ity to thwart Mr. Obama through the fil­i­buster, they have been push­ing Mr. Reid to limit fil­i­busters of nom­i­nees and leg­is­la­tion.

The ac­tion, how­ever, lim­its fil­i­busters to nom­i­nees and doesn’t ap­ply to Supreme Court picks, which Democrats deemed im­por­tant enough to be sub­ject to a 60-vote thresh­old.

In­deed, hours af­ter the rules change, Repub­li­cans and Democrats fil­i­bus­tered the an­nual de­fense pol­icy bill, say­ing they wanted to ex­tend the de­bate to make sure their amend­ments get fair con­sid­er­a­tion.

Thirty-two se­na­tors, more than half of the 52 who voted for the rule change, have never served in a Repub­li­can-ma­jor­ity Se­nate. Of those, 11 took of­fice in Jan­uary and have not served for even a year in the cham­ber.

“They don’t know what it’s like to be in the mi­nor­ity, so they want to have a ma­jor­ity that will ride roughshod over the wishes and views and in­put of the mi­nor­ity,” Sen. John McCain, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, told re­porters.

“Now be­cause of the par­ti­san­ship and the new peo­ple who have never been in the mi­nor­ity, we are prov­ing one thing, and that is, if the ma­jor­ity only can change the rules, then there are no rules,” Mr. McCain said. “That’s the les­son here.”

Ex­actly how far Mr. Reid’s move re­ver­ber­ates will de­pend on Repub­li­cans. Even with­out a full fil­i­buster, the mi­nor­ity has plenty of other tools to slow op­er­a­tions in the Se­nate.

The level of par­ti­san­ship Thurs­day seemed to re­main. De­spite the heated floor speeches, Repub­li­cans and Democrats chat­ted am­i­ca­bly with one another on the floor, and the top law­mak­ers on var­i­ous com­mit­tees were talk­ing through de­tails.

At the White House, Pres­i­dent Obama wel­comed the change. As a se­na­tor, he reg­u­larly par­tic­i­pated in fil­i­busters, in­clud­ing when Democrats pi­o­neered the block­ade of ju­di­cial nom­i­nees un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

But Mr. Obama said Repub­li­cans’ use of the fil­i­buster is worse.

“It’s no longer used in a re­spon­si­ble way to gov­ern. It’s rather used as a reck­less and re­lent­less tool to grind all busi­ness to a halt. And that’s not what our founders in­tended, and it’s cer­tainly not what our coun­try needs right now,” he said.

In the near term, the move will help speed through Mr. Obama’s nom­i­nees for chair­man of the Fed­eral Re­serve and sec­re­tary of the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment.

Down the road, the changes could help Mr. Obama win con­fir­ma­tion on some of the more ob­scure but pow­er­ful fed­eral boards that is­sue rules and de­ci­sions that make up much of the work of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

The tim­ing of the vote struck Repub­li­cans as sus­pi­cious, par­tic­u­larly be­cause the num­bers show that Repub­li­cans have not fil­i­bus­tered many of Mr. Obama’s ju­di­cial picks.

In­deed, un­til the most re­cent push to put judges on the D.C. ap­peals court, Repub­li­cans had helped con­firm 215 judges and fil­i­bus­tered just two.

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, Ken­tucky Repub­li­can, said Democrats are reel­ing from a dis­as­trous roll­out of Oba­macare and needed to try to change the head­lines.

“There’s a lot of ner­vous­ness on the Demo­crat side. They’re in a panic about Oba­macare. The ma­jor­ity leader is des­per­ately try­ing to change the sub­ject. We want to get back on the sub­ject,” Mr. McCon­nell said.

Three Democrats voted against the change: Michi­gan’s Carl Levin, Arkansas’ Mark L. Pryor and West Vir­ginia’s Joe Manchin III.

“To­day’s use of the ‘nu­clear op­tion’ could per­ma­nently dam­age the Se­nate and have neg­a­tive ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” Mr. Pryor said. “Dur­ing my time in the Se­nate, I’ve played key roles in the Gang of 14 and other bi­par­ti­san coali­tions to help us reach com­mon-sense so­lu­tions that both sides of the aisle can sup­port. This in­sti­tu­tion was de­signed to pro­tect — not stamp out — the voices of the mi­nor­ity.”

Mr. Reid’s move is known as the nu­clear op­tion be­cause it re­quires com­plex par­lia­men­tary pro­ce­dures and chang­ing the rules in the mid­dle of the ses­sion through a sim­ple ma­jor­ity vote. The Se­nate usu­ally must change its rules through a two-thirds vote, which is one way the cham­ber en­forces comity — some­thing that sets it apart from the par­ti­san House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

The new rules don’t tech­ni­cally end the fil­i­buster, but they re­duce the vote to­tal needed to cut off a fil­i­buster from 60 to a sim­ple ma­jor­ity — the same level needed for con­fir­ma­tion.

The cham­ber still will have to abide by the time lim­its that ac­com­pany fil­i­busters, which al­low for up to 30 hours of de­bate once a fil­i­buster has been de­feated.

Se­nate Repub­li­cans came close to do­ing a sim­i­lar sort of rules change in 2005, when Democrats pi­o­neered the prac­tice of fil­i­bus­ter­ing Mr. Bush’s ap­peals court nom­i­nees.

Repub­li­cans backed down when a bi­par­ti­san group emerged and set­tled on a gen­tle­man’s agree­ment that headed off the rules change but pre­served the right to fil­i­buster.

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