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Dubya's land mines

ROSA BROOKS

November 20, 2008|ROSA BROOKS

You knew that W & Co. wouldn't go gently into that good night, didn't you?

Please. We're talking about the people who brought us precooked intelligence, Guantanamo, torture and extraordinary rendition. Who developed bizarre legal doctrines, asserting that the commander in chief is allowed to ignore federal law, and the vice president doesn't "belong" to the executive branch. Who enthusiastically dismantled long-standing regulatory frameworks and who still insist (as George W. Bush did last week) that "too much" government regulation is our main problem, even as the economic crisis deepens.

You really didn't think these guys would exit meekly, did you?

Don't expect anything undignified, like a Cheney-engineered coup (sorry, conspiracy theorists). But the administration can -- and will -- hamstring the incoming Obama team just as effectively with a raft of poisonous eleventh-hour rules and regulations.

Pick your issue. The environment? A Bush administration rule transmitted on Nov. 4 hands over responsibility for assessing the environmental impact of federal ocean management decisions to advisory councils made up primarily of people tied to the commercial fishing industry -- who often have a financial stake in the outcome. Workers' rights? A new rule (effective Jan. 18) would limit workers' ability to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Worker and road safety? A rule announced Nov. 16 will allow trucking companies to require drivers to spend 11 consecutive hours behind the wheel. Gun control? On election day, the administration put forward a rule to end the 25-year-old ban on carrying loaded weapons in national parks. Other last-minute rules the White House is trying to ram through would allow federal and state law enforcement agencies to monitor and share information on the activities of individuals deemed merely to be "suspicious," ease rules on dumping coal mining waste into rivers and streams, and further limit women's access to contraceptives and abortions from federally funded medical providers.

These rules can be enacted by the outgoing Bush administration with relative ease and speed, but reversing them will be far more difficult for the Obama administration: extensive study, notice and comment requirements mean that reversals may take several years, during which a lot of damage will have been done.

Bush also has signed more than 250 executive orders since taking office. Some are innocuous; others, not so much (permitting the use of interrogation techniques most experts consider torture, for instance). Some are still classified. The Obama transition team will need to go through these with a fine-tooth comb, identifying executive orders that require immediate change or reversal.

Even more complicated, Justice Department lawyers in hundreds of pending cases are still advancing the legal theories developed by the Bush administration's political appointees. The Obama team will need to carefully review every case. (Otherwise, imagine the mess if President Obama announces on Jan. 21 that his administration will never sanction torture, but lower-ranking career lawyers in the executive branch continue, in pending litigation, to advance the same old Bush administration arguments defending "enhanced interrogation.")

The administration also appears to be seeking the last-minute conversion of some political appointee job slots to career civil service positions. If Bush appointees can "burrow" into the civil service, Obama is more or less stuck with them.

Before Bush's inauguration, Clinton staffers allegedly removed all the Ws from White House keyboards. In a new twist, the Bush administration appears to be trying to leave a lot of hidden Ws behind.

This, incidentally, is why -- contrary to some net-roots hopes -- Clinton administration veterans also won't be going gently into that good night. "Change" is great, but it is difficult to implement when you're constantly stepping on bureaucratic land mines. Obama needs people who understand the federal rule-making process, who know why the Office of Management and Budget can halt the secretary of State's best-laid plans, who know which obscure Justice Department offices are the likely repository of crucial information, and who can undertake a rapid bureaucratic de-mining operation. And virtually the only Democrats under 65 who know these things are Clinton administration veterans.

Obama has an ambitious agenda, but housecleaning will come first. Keep asking for change -- but it may take a while for Obama to sweep all those little Ws out the door.

--

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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