In fall chill, bureaucrats get hankering for Caribbean
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.