Archive Page 2


CN Column 04/23/10: Political dichotomy an illusion

A couple weeks ago, I was sharply critical of the GOP, citing a poll that revealed, as I wrote, “the extent to which black-hearted hatred, poisonous fear and wing-nut extremism have infected the modern Republican party.”

That column proved to be the most controversial I’ve yet written for publication here at Citizen’s News; it inspired a few objecting e-mails and at least one unreasonable phone call. Even Callum, my editor, agreed it was “one of [my] more pointed” pieces.

But the responses I’ve received illustrate, to some extent, one of the myriad problems with two-party politics in this country. To many, it seems, criticism of the conservative message or the Republicans automatically equates to unequivocal support for liberal ideas and ideals, and by default makes people like me seem like shills for the Democratic party. It may go both ways, but I’m not so sure; I’ve never gotten feedback about more conservative columns accusing me of being a GOP panderer.

Let me take a moment to say I truly appreciate any and all responses to my opinion writing, and I try to take the time to respond personally to those who take the time to write me. I’m always glad to engage readers in a conversation or e-mail exchange, regardless of whether they agree with me.

But on a few occasions, and especially on this one, I’ve been accused of being too liberal—one reader even called Callum several weeks ago to complain I’m too much of a “bleeding-heart.” Readers seem to believe that because I think the conservative movement’s rhetoric is going, or has already gone too far means I’m a Democrat, a liberal, a bleeding-heart, or what-have-you.

Although I like to think I make my stances sufficiently clear, I’d like to set the record straight to those of you who read my column and shake your head, writing me off as just another liberal media hack.

First of all: I stand for no ideology. I am not affiliated with any political party at the local, state or federal level. I am not a “party person.” I vote independently, and yes, I vote.

I do believe in nurturing a “marketplace of ideas” in the media, not to mention in political forums and in citizens’ everyday lives. I believe this marketplace could—and should—be devoid of hyper-partisan rhetoric, personal aspersions and assumption-making.

I believe if we must have two parties in this country, as appears to be the case, we need two healthy, high-functioning parties that can make equally compelling cases to independents. We need two parties with clear leaders whom everyone can at least respect—something we have in neither major party at this point. We need two parties that can respect each other as much as both claim to respect the American people.

I believe voters should judge issues on their own merits and according to personal values. I believe criticism of one thing is not the same as support for its perceived opposite, and by the same token, I believe that very diametric opposition is nothing more than a calculated illusion.

I do not believe in the political dichotomy we’ve all been fed by Washington bureaucrats and the media. I believe people’s opinions, like my own, manifest themselves across a wide spectrum of thoughts, ideas and beliefs. I do not believe in left and right.

That being said, I implore those of you who are good enough to read my columns to bear in mind that I, like you, believe in liberty, justice and freedom from oppression. I believe in the United States just like every “real American” out there. You don’t need to “take the country back” from people like me. The country is ours to share, and I think we’d all be better off if we tried to explore issues sans the talking points and platitudes.

Do I have liberal tendencies? Yes. I’m 22 years old. I just graduated from college, for God’s sake. I watch HBO, PBS and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; read the New York Times, Rolling Stone and Harper’s Magazine; and listen to college radio and NPR—bastions of the so-called liberal media, all. I have a bumper sticker quoting Kurt Vonnegut on my car, listen to Bob Dylan and am the proud owner of several wantonly ironic T-shirts. Give me a break.

But I was far more liberal a year ago than I am now. Several months fully engaged and entrenched in local politics and budget issues makes one immediately cognizant of the fact that fiscal conservatism is really the only spending philosophy that makes any sense. I opposed the bailouts under Bush and Obama, just as I oppose our foreign wars.

I believe small businesses should be given as many tax and regulatory breaks as possible; but big businesses, especially banks, insurers and trading firms, have proven they need to be monitored and policed. Conversely, I believe the banks shouldn’t enjoy a government safety net funded by tax dollars.

I believe in people’s freedom to do what they will with their own bodies at the counsel of their doctor and in their own homes, and I believe all people who pay taxes—and even many who don’t—deserve equal access to health care in a fully-developed nation like ours. I believe the government could and should play a role in ensuring it.

I’m just another guy who has a lot of opinions. The only difference between you and me is that I have a platform from which to disseminate them. So if you feel differently or have a cohesive counterargument, let’s talk. I’m a good listener.


CN Column 04/16/10: Fee hike will discourage park use

I love the Connecticut state park system. As I mentioned in passing in a previous column, I spent a summer working as a landscaper and maintainer at Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Wharton Brook State Park in Wallingford, West Rock Ridge State Park on the border of Hamden and New Haven and various smaller, satellite boat launches and pull-offs in adjoining towns.

While cleaning up after litterbug park visitors was not my favorite part of the job, the seasonal position was a suitable crash course about where nearby outdoor recreation opportunities were to be had. And if you’re not aware, there are dozens—for example, a network of variably difficult hiking trails leading to a breathtaking vista overlooking New Haven County at Sleeping Giant, a quaint lakefront beach and excellent trout fishing at Wharton Brook and precarious but rewarding bluff-side trails at West Rock.

And I couldn’t count on both hands the number of fond memories I have of stoking campfires, washing down burgers and dogs with cold suds and fishing—and all in good company—at Kettletown State Park in Southbury or Hammonassett State Park in Madison.

Were you to ask anyone who knew me circa 2005, he’d affirm that I was indeed the in-house master fisherman of what motley crew of half-cocked sportsmen I could cull on any given Saturday. Or Sunday. … Nevermind. Any day. I was the one who stocked the tackle box, researched angling strategies, cut the bait (and applied it to the hook, in at least one case), maintained the gear, wrangled innumerable lures from trees and underwater snags and led the gang through an ongoing flirtation with surfcasting (which, if you didn’t know, is better than you’d expect along Long Island Sound).

These things used to be cheap. I mean really cheap. The parks only charge for parking on weekends, and at many it’s no secret that visitors can park outside of them and walk in for free. I also happen to know that at least half the time, if you claim to have no money (in my case, it was normally less of a claim and more of a sad reality) and not know there’s a parking fee, most attendants will let you in anyway—especially if you have a canoe lashed to your vehicle.

A freshwater fishing license then cost $20. Saltwater fishing required no license at all.

Camping, to my recollection, then cost between $12 and $20 per site, per night for up to four people, depending on the park. Yes, that meant an outlay of $3-5 per guy. Even the most cash-strapped among my friends could usually scrape it together. Add to that the cost of food, charcoal, drinks, firewood, gas for the trip etc. and I think it’s safe to say anyone could have had a pretty damn good night for about $25.

Comparatively speaking, movie tickets now cost between $10 and $15, and that’s good for only 90 minutes of entertainment. Add to that a snack from the concession counter and … well, you know that’s a racket. A night of bowling is no cheaper, especially if you play more than one or two games. A few drinks at the bar? Forget that noise.

Nothing really beats the relaxation that can be the byproduct of a night or two out in the woods—close enough to a car and a grocery store to enjoy some convenience, but far enough from your digital life to dampen the constant, Internet- and cable-news-induced headache. Car camping is a great way to connect with family and friends in an organic setting without taking out a second mortgage or scaring the kids with the prospect of complete disconnection. It’s a hobby that pays dividends.

My love for this quasi-outdoorsy recreation (I do like real camping, too; it’s just more of a logistical challenge and thus not as leisurely, at least to me) is the prime reason I found myself quite enraged last October when the state announced the Department of Environmental Protection would increase all fees related to recreation. Everything that had been assessed at less than $150 is now doubled. That means a fishing license will run you $40 (opening day for trout fishing is Saturday). A campsite for a night will run you anywhere between $25 and $40 a night. Parking fees, reservation fees for said campsites, rentals of facilities like picnic pavilions and admission to state park museums have all increased, as well.

The reason for the increase is obvious: The state is trying to make ends meet.

But is it really fair to even further discourage the recreational use of our beautiful public lands? Wouldn’t we all like to see more kids and families recreating outdoors instead of playing video games or watching TV?

The state’s budget is wracked by what many are now calling the Great Recession. That much goes without saying. But legislators should take notice that people, like governments, are also struggling, and a lot of people will be looking to vacation and recreate on the cheap this summer. Camping at state parks has always been a great way to do that.

It is still cheaper, nightly, to rent campsites in the park system than it is to stay in a hotel. But not by quite as much.


CN Column 04/09/10: Republicans should recognize that “change” can be a buzzword for their party, too

“Change.” It was the clarion call of Barack Obama’s transformative presidential campaign. It was the rationale that summoned Congressional Democrats’ harried last-ditch push for a comprehensive health care overhaul—which ended up being less than comprehensive and only nominally change-ey (not to mention opposed by a consistent majority of Americans in most polls). And it was the very prospect of said “change” that got conservative leaders spitting venomous, hyperbolic rhetoric and drumming up all kinds of anti-Obama, anti-entitlement and anti-establishment sentiment.

But hey, this is how two-party politics works. Those in power push their agenda, and the opposition tries everything in its power to grind the machine to a halt. It’s really nothing new. Right?

Well, to a certain extent that’s the truth. But it’s reached a new level.

Far more concerning than polls which show Obamacare may never win broad voter support is a new poll that reveals the extent to which black-hearted hatred, poisonous fear and wing-nut extremism have infected the modern Republican party.

According to the study, 67 percent of self-avowed Republicans (and 40 percent of Americans overall) believe Obama is a socialist. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans (32 percent overall) believe Obama is a Muslim; 45 percent of Republicans (25 percent overall) believe Obama was “not born in the United States and so is not eligible to be president”; 38 percent of Republicans (20 percent overall) say that Obama is “doing many of the things that Hitler did.”

Perhaps the most ominous finding: 24 percent of Republicans (14 percent overall) say Obama “may be the Antichrist.”

Pretty stunning, no?

But it should come as no surprise that this pathological hatred of the nation’s top elected official—which, ironically, masquerades as patriotism and good American citizenship—has taken root, and even verged on threats of violence toward Democrats in Washington.

Leaders of America’s right have stoked the fire of dissent into the inferno we are now witnessing. And they did so with little to no regard for the consequences.

Take, for example, House Minority Leader John Boehner’s comments on the eve of the historic health care vote: The bill’s passage will result in “Armageddon,” he said, and “ruin the country.” Holy crap! Armageddon?? The End of Days?! Grab the kids, fire up the gas generator and get into the fallout shelter; it’s going to be raining ash soon enough!

“For most of the 20th century, people fled the ghosts of communist dictators and … with passage of this bill, they will haunt Americans for generations,” said Devin Nunes, the California Republican, on the House floor that day. “Your multitrillion-dollar health care bill continues the failed Soviet socialist experiment. It gives the federal government absolute control over health care in America … Today Democrats in this House will finally lay the cornerstone of their socialist utopia on the backs of the American people.”

Yes, because the elected leader of our free republic has so many things in common with a former Soviet dictator. Get a grip.

Then there’s Sarah Palin, who, while not a bona fide Republican leader—seeing as she has shirked her governance responsibilities in Alaska to pursue a career pandering feel-good patriotic platitudes on Fox News—still holds the largely extreme right-wing Tea Party protestors under her sway. After the health care vote, she posted a militant propaganda piece on her Facebook page: a map of the U.S. with health care yea-voters’ locations identified by cross-hair gun sights. She implored her fellow patriots not to “retreat,” but to “RELOAD!”  Now that’s what I call responsible leadership. (EDIT: Palin appears to have since changed the wording of her appeal to “Don’t get demoralized. Get organized!”)

Conservatives who object to the president’s agenda for reasons not steeped in misinformation, hatred bordering on violence or latent (or explicit) racism should disassociate themselves from the Glenn Beck acolytes, the costumed crazies who contribute nothing to intelligent discourse and, most importantly, from their party’s national leadership, many of whom have chosen to adopt the ludicrous apocalyptic tone propagated by protestors and, often, the conservative media.

Change absolutely must become a GOP selling point if the party truly wishes to repeat the 1994 Republican Revolution in 2010’s midterm elections.

Conservative constituents and activists can institute that much-needed change by excising the bad apples from the Republican Party—by removing the Boehners, Nuneses and Michael Steeles from positions of prestige and influence. They can disinfect their partisan rhetoric and focus on the values that make conservatism—and, by association, conservative candidates—appealing to independent voters and moderate thinkers.

Their national committee can stop spending its money faster than it can solicit donations—and stop patronizing bondage-themed Hollywood strip clubs.

As an aside, I must point out that the Republican National Convention can spend a million bucks a day on strippers and booze, for all I care. That’s why I don’t donate.

But nothing says family values like blowing a couple G’s at a strip club, right? That just can’t ring true for social conservatives or the religious right, who comprise a sizable chunk of the GOP’s voting base.

Anyway, it’s becoming increasingly clear that conservatives need to change their message—and their manner of delivering it—if they want to change Washington. And they can start by leaving Palin to the wing-nuts (that means you, John McCain), getting rid of Steele and finding some smart leadership. Maybe in the process the GOP can forge a new identity that makes sense to moderates and independents. I sure hope that proves to be the case.


CN Column 04/02/10: UConn admins should take a cue from Calhoun—not on behavior, but on fiscal conservatism

“Not a dime.” That was UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun’s response to the governor’s request that state employees make voluntary concessions to help bridge the state’s budget deficit in 2009.

A reporter had asked Calhoun if he, as the highest-paid state employee in Connecticut—he makes approximately $1.6 million a year—would give anything back, as many state employees already had.

“Not a dime,” Calhoun retorted. “I’d like to retire one day. I’m getting tired.”

What could be called an abundance of fiscal caution—I call it a ridiculous assertion: as if pulling down $1.6 million a year isn’t enough leverage for one to retire early, and comfortably—is something I, for one, would like to see mirrored across UConn’s administration. If the university proper were as tight-fisted as its most prominent (and most boorish) figurehead, I’d have little to complain about.

Let me briefly disclose my bias. As a UConn alum only one-year removed from bona fide matriculation, I take news about the school rather personally. I’m pretty ambivalent about college hoops, but whenever I read anything about the school’s balance sheets, my blood really starts to boil.

In February, the UConn Board of Trustees voted to jack up tuition by 5.66 percent. Room and board fees increased as well, bringing the overall hike to almost 6 percent. OK, so the increases add up to only about $1,000 per year, per in-state student; it’s not the end of the world. The school has inflation and its own budget deficit to contend with, not to mention any number of capital improvement projects across the main campus in Storrs.

But this month, the Hartford Courant reported that tuition funds had been tapped to foot part of the bill for $35,000 worth of furniture for President Mike Hogan’s office in Gulley Hall. The overall renovations to the building were pegged at almost a half million dollars.

I’m having a really hard time reconciling the former figure. Can someone explain to me how one could conceivably spend $35,000 on office furniture (I’m serious; if you know, e-mail me). I mean how do a desk, some chairs, lounge seating and a few end tables add up to $35,000—the equivalent of room, board and tuition for more than three semesters? It truly boggles my mind.

Putting aside what is perhaps my removal from and ignorance of the fine furniture market, I’ll admit that, rationally speaking, the sum is relatively insignificant, much like the aforementioned tuition increase. The Courant also reported that two-thirds of the cost is being covered by the UConn Foundation, a private fundraiser organization.

But it’s not really about a $1,000 increase here and a $35,000 expenditure there, is it? Students and taxpayers, I’m willing to bet, aren’t so concerned about the financial impact of such expenses on the university’s bottom line. I know I’m not.

It’s really all about the message these people are sending to us sinners cutting our teeth down here in the real world, where we buy flimsy furniture at Walmart and IKEA because we can’t afford anything better; where many among us face foreclosure, unemployment and downright destitution; where even some of us who enjoyed an engaging education from one of the best state universities in the country find its administration’s actions unconscionable.

At best, the university has created a severe public relations problem for itself. At worst, it’s recklessly spending hard-earned tuition money on such amenities as, well, really expensive office furniture.

And what message did Jim Calhoun send when he flipped his lid on the reporter who asked him about givebacks to the state? Here’s what I heard:

“Hey, it’s me, Jimbo. I make $1.6 million every year. I know that some state employees who make 2 percent of that, who toil through lives of manual labor and hardship, made voluntary concessions. But not me. I want to retire someday. Yes, I know most of you are barely scraping together enough cash to foot some small part of your kids’ tuition bills, or maybe you’re a recent grad slowly suffocating under the crushing weight of tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, but none of that really matters. Don’t ask stupid questions. Let’s talk about basketball.

Am I being a little dramatic? A little too class-sensitive? Probably (you should have seen me at the time). Obviously it was Calhoun’s decision whether he wanted to give anything back. And I’m not even contesting his salary; I happen to think it’s well-deserved.

Maybe I’m just bitter because the tuition money I repay every month, at least in some small part, helps fund double-dipping faculty (yes, there are several “retired” professors who draw both a pension and direct pay for part-time work), fancy new furniture for the president and Calhoun’s salary. And sometimes I think he must get a bonus for acting like a blowhard.

What’s worse, I get occasional calls from the Alumni Association, which apparently thinks I’m in a position to donate money to the university. Want to know what I tell them?

“Not a dime.”


CN Column 03/26/10: Health care: Stick to the facts, cut the rhetoric

Well, I suppose I must eat my words. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about budget reconciliation and advised my readers to “expect lots of noise but no action” on Capitol Hill when it comes to health care reform.

I was right about the noise part; but on Sunday evening, the House of Representatives proved the 111th Congress is not so infirm as it’s seemed the past several months.

You’ve heard the news, or some form of it; I won’t inundate you with redundant details. I’ll concede I provisionally support the legislation, though as something of a political moderate, I find competing philosophical interests pulling me in different directions. The progressive in me wanted a public option and worries the bill doesn’t go far enough; the fiscal conservative in me wonders how accurate was the Congressional Budget Office’s calculation that the measure will actually significantly reduce the deficit over the next decade; and my common sense tells me the individual mandate is an onerous burden.

At any rate, I’m mostly interested in how the conservative noise machine and the GOP proper managed to so galvanize so many moderate Americans against the final legislation with blatant misinformation, which increased by orders of magnitude as the debate drew to its long-awaited close. People are inflamed and people are discontent, but more than anything else, a lot of people are somewhat oblivious to the truth of the matter.

There are dozens of entirely legitimate objections one can make to this bill, but on the whole, all I’ve seen has been a whole lot of groundless, abstract and downright paranoid bloviating about socialism and the fall of our great Republic, instead of intelligent examinations of the Constitutionality of the individual mandate, the imposition of new costs on insurers and business owners at the butt end of a deep recession (and their subsequent effects on the costs of premiums and the already-unstable job market) or the privately-negotiated deals legislators were awarded in exchange for their votes.

The Internet (or, more accurately, Facebook) was my unofficial gauge of public opinion on Sunday. Between bouts of CSPAN—where viewers were treated to the baffling, esoteric parliamentary theater of the House, replete with gavel-banging, bickering over (literally) seconds of floor time, and members’ references to one another as “the gentleman from Arkansas” or “the gentlewoman from Massachusetts”—and regular references to for updates, I watched as friends and family proffered their fiery opinions on the 2,000-plus-page legislation they apparently knew very little about.

I tell myself to stay away from people’s politically-charged Facebook repartee, but in many cases, I just can’t resist. Just about anything my 18-year-old brother—one of only a few conservative college freshmen I’ve ever known—posts inspires a livid response from me.

I tried to explain, in what limited capacity I command, that the bill is far more moderate than he apparently thinks; leaves us to rely on private health insurance just like we always have (thus rendering the constant comparisons to Canada obsolete); would only positively affect our deficit, at least in projections; and certainly, if nothing else, is a far cry from anything even remotely resembling a socialist agenda.

Amid accusations that the bill would allow uninhibited federal funding for abortions (false: as of the president’s promise to sign an executive order ensuring it wouldn’t, to win those last few key votes) and give illegal immigrants “free health insurance” (unequivocally false: to my understanding, no one will be getting free health insurance, least of all illegal immigrants, who are explicitly prohibited from receiving subsidies to buy insurance), he made the following rather instructive offhand admissions (original text intact): “i am deleting this post if there is one more political remark that I dont have the attention span to read” and, most importantly “I don’t even watch a lot of news, its common sense, were headed towards socialism, were passing something that the American people don’t want.” So he admits he doesn’t watch the news or have the patience to read a 200-word Facebook post, yet claims to know something about a 2,000-page bill only the best news reports (the origins of which would be altogether lost on him) have aptly summarized.

I don’t want to single my brother out. I love him to death, in spite of his shortcomings in this respect. But the kind of radical rhetorical language he casually employs and his willful disregard for the cold, hard facts are reflective of, I think, the attitudes of many of the people, especially the young people, who brazenly oppose health care legislation in its current form.

A quick look at the most popular Google searches Sunday night was telling, as well. The most popular searches when I logged on around 11 p.m. were “Tyne Daly,” an actress who was featured in a new episode of Fox’s inane “Family Guy” spinoff, “The Cleveland Show;” “GSI Commerce,” most likely because the company had been the subject of that night’s “Undercover Boss,” CBS’ feel-good corporate propaganda vehicle; and also for NCAA tourney results and Terri Schiavo. Clocking in around number eight were search terms such as “did the health care bill pass?” and “what does the health care bill mean for me?”

Putting aside for a moment the fact that people apparently are still confused about how a search engine works, it became clear to me Sunday night that generally speaking, many were rather more interested in intellectually vacuous television shows and college basketball than they were in the possibility of broad health care reform and an unprecedented, historic policy decision.

I have but one appeal to self-proclaimed opponents of the bill: Do us all a favor and turn off the TV, read a newspaper for a change and try to frame smart objections to a bill that’s so far been controversial for all the wrong reasons.


CN Column 03/19/10: Democrats take a step toward greater accountability in spending

Finally, Congressional Democrats have proposed something I can get on board with!

No, they haven’t changed lanes on health care reform. They haven’t stood up to financial industry lobbyists on regulation, nor have they come any closer to restoring the tenets of due process, protection of privacy or just law which were disintegrated during the so-called War on Terror.

No, what they’ve done is really an internal matter, hardly on par with the gravity of those unanimous concerns. Really, by comparison, it’s not much.

But legislators have taken a step toward proving to voters they’re at least superficially concerned about special interests’ influence on political discourse. They are adjusting the earmarking process, which over the last decade has increasingly aroused public suspicion of federal spending.

House Democrats swore off no-bid budget earmarks to private industry last Wednesday, thus ending, at least for them, a practice that has funneled billions in noncompetitive contracts to for-profit entities, like military and construction contractors.

It’s still unclear whether the Senate will follow House leaders’ example, but if it does, we might actually start to see a measure of honesty in federal spending.

Hell, not even the stalwart Republicans had much to say in opposition to the measure. They only tried to one-up the Dems by saying the ban should extend to public entities, in addition to profit-bearing enterprises.

In a way, I think they’re right, but not for the same reasons they do. First of all, the practice of awarding contracts without competitive bidding is the real crux of the issue. Dems should focus not solely on private-enterprise deals, but rather on disallowing any and all such noncompetitive awards, barring irregular urgency or unique services.

Allow me to frame a small-scale, hypothetical spending measure, for the sake of clarity. Humor me and suspend your disbelief for a moment with a view to the larger point.

Let’s say the federal government is in the market for a contractor to perform structural repairs to, say, a dilapidated federal courthouse (if such a thing even exists). Contractor A wants $10 million for the work. It promises to put 70 master tradesmen on the job and use the highest-quality materials. Contractor B has only 50 master carpenters, masons and electricians to put on the job and will save by using slightly cheaper materials. It’ll do it for $7.5 million. Contractor C has assigned only 10 master tradesmen to the job (let’s say the minimum required for such a project) and will employ the cheapest unskilled labor and use the lowest-grade materials. It wants $5 million.

In an honest, competitive-bid-seeking government, a public engineer assesses the details of all three bids, weighs all mitigating factors, and recommends the appropriating committee award the bid to the company he or she thinks will provide the most bang for taxpayers’ buck—and meet specifications. He’d probably recommend contractor B, judging A too cost-prohibitive and C too great a risk.

In the pay-to-play earmark culture we’ve endured for years, legislators forgo seeking competitive bids—perhaps even cutting planners and engineers out of the loop—and simply award the contract to friendly companies (also known as campaign financiers) with little to no regard for the competition.

We’re still in hypothetical world, here, so let’s say Contractor C is somehow a major donor to Sen. John Doe’s congressional campaigns, and Sen. Doe is the one inserting the earmark for the courthouse rehabilitation. The outlay of a few million bucks hardly attracts peer oversight. Sen. Doe awards the bid to contractor C without even requesting open bidding from competitors like A and B.

And it certainly doesn’t stop at relatively simple construction projects. Remember Blackwater? Well, the security contractor no longer holds a license to operate in Iraq, where it won a reputation as a group of “reckless, shoot-first guards who were not always sober and did not always stop to see who or what was hit by their bullets,” according to an October 2007 New York Times story based on an investigation conducted by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Blackwater, which has since changed its name to Xe Services—ostensibly in an attempt to shake its bad rep—was accused of various crimes throughout the course of its involvement in Iraq, which I won’t detail here.

Some referred to its many foreign operatives as “mercenaries” or “guns-for-hire” and complained they were compensated much more generously than were enlisted American servicemen and women. Author Jeremy Scahill went as far as dubbing Blackwater “something of a Praetorian Guard for the Bush administration’s global war on terror.”

But more to the point: How did the company secure its lucrative government contracts? You guessed it (in this case, Blackwater may have been the only contractor legitimately able to provide large-scale private defense and security services, thus necessitating no-bid awards).

At any rate, when Democrats took control of Congress, in 2007, they made the earmarking process a matter of public record, which was the first step toward discouraging legislators from rewarding donor companies—or just plain unethical ones—noncompetitive contracts. The House has now taken the next step, by requiring competitive selection of for-profit vendors.

If the Senate keeps pace and adopts an analogous measure of its own, in the words of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wisc.), “It will be far more open and transparent than during the ‘good old days’ when a committee chairman would simply pick up the phone and instruct government agencies to fund member requests behind the scenes with no transparency, no fingerprints, and no public accountability.”

Here’s to hoping Obey is right.


CN Readers: Check out page 23

If you read the regular print edition of Citizen’s News, don’t miss my first published crossword puzzle on page 23 this Friday. I’ll be submitting a puzzle for publication every week from now on.

We might eventually find a way to embed them on the site; in the meantime, though, please feel free to send me any feedback. Did you give it shot? Is it a good addition to the paper? Is it too easy? Too hard? Want more local clues? Let me know by e-mailing