Archive for March, 2010

Americans expect the nation to take care of our veterans, especially during war time when the needs of recently wounded

warriors increase. But at the Department of Veterans Affairs, some bureaucrats are using their positions to enrich themselves. A report issued last month by the VA inspector general sounds the alarm to shocking allegations of misconduct at a department charged with caring for our heroes.

Forty-two heavily redacted pages detail the antics of Diane Hartmann, the VA’s director of national programs and special events. In this role, her primary duty was to coordinate rehabilitative events for disabled veterans, but, according to the report, Ms. Hartmann had other interests. For example, Ms. Hartmann allegedly spent her work time coming up with strategies that would contribute to a successful grand opening event for a friend’s new business. Among the files investigators say they found on her government-issued computer were marketing plans, invitation letters, mailing lists and advertising flyers for this private event.

The IG report alleges that Ms. Hartmann used threats to compel subordinates to join the marketing effort. She also purportedly charged taxpayers for $727.37 in travel expenses for herself and an underling to make a trip to attend the friend’s grand opening.

The misuse of travel expenses didn’t stop there. By arranging meetings described as “unnecessary” at medical centers in places like Colorado, Las Vegas and San Diego, she was able to rack up thousands in taxpayer-funded travel for what she called official business. Investigators described photographs from Ms. Hartmann’s computer that showed her at “work” on these trips – golfing, sightseeing and taking a cruise on Stars and Stripes, the America’s Cup yacht. Time stamps on the digital images suggested to investigators that some fibbing may have been used to justify the junkets. In one case, according to the report, “the project that Ms. Hartmann supposedly went to see did not physically exist.”

All the travel must have taken a toll, as Ms. Hartmann, according to the report, granted herself 306 hours worth of compensatory time off. When Ms. Hartmann’s superiors learned of the pending investigation into her conduct, they tipped her off and she purportedly shredded her time sheets in an unsuccessful effort to hide the offense. Believe it or not, according to the inspector general, this is not considered a crime. The government system is so tilted in favor of preserving the status quo that rogue career bureaucrats only face “administrative sanction” for malfeasance of the sort described above.

Most Americans would consider a salary of $155,500 (not counting bonus) to be a godsend, especially in such a troubled economy. Although she was making triple the median household income, that apparently wasn’t enough loot for Ms. Hartmann. Investigators recommended that she be forced to pay back $26,704.48 in extra benefits she appropriated. That was the harshest penalty suggested.

The scariest aspect of this story is how little coverage it has received. In official Washington, misconduct of this sort among so-called public servants is considered business as usual. Little thought is given to being responsible stewards of public funds. But if lying, destroying evidence and misappropriating public funds don’t constitute a crime, then the laws need to be rewritten. Plundering government employees should, at the very least, be fired on the spot for putting themselves above their duty.

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By Stephen Dinan

It was a modest measure to designate several thousand beachfront acres of St. Croix as a National Historic Site, but in the hands of a skilled congressman such as Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, it became yet another jobs bill.

Likewise the Travel Promotion Act, which would create a nonprofit group to push U.S. tourism, has been billed as a job-producing machine by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

It doesn’t stop there – backers last week unveiled a bipartisan bill to create a visa category for entrepreneurs, predicting it “will create jobs in America.”

From immigration to clean energy to expanding the social safety net, there’s no better way to grease the skids for new government programs in Washington nowadays than to declare them job-producing bills, then watch supporters line up and potential opposition crumble.

When Mr. Reid dubbed as a jobs bill a simple $15 billion measure to offer payroll tax breaks and continued highway construction funding, it helped head off a potential Republican filibuster. Likewise, the Trade Promotion Act, which would tout the U.S. as an international tourist destination, sailed through the Senate after it was tagged with the almighty jobs-bill moniker.

Given an unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent, the focus on jobs is not surprising.

House and Senate lawmakers raised the jobs issue on the chamber floors at least 154 times over the past week, and the jobs issue is more popular in Congress now than it has been in nearly two decades – since the 1991-92 recession.

President Obama joined the jobs chorus Tuesday, touting a $6 billion plan to offer up to $3,000 rebates for energy-efficiency home upgrades as “a common-sense approach that will help jump-start job creation.”

Mr. Obama, who used the word “jobs” 11 times in his 17-minute speech in Savannah, Ga., said the issue is dominating his time right now.

“When it comes to domestic policy, I have no more important a job as president than seeing to it that every American who wants to work and is able to work can find a job – and a job that pays a living wage,” he said.

On Monday, Republicans fought back the ever-broadening definition of what creates jobs. They told Democrats to quit trumpeting a $104 billion bill on the Senate floor as a job creator and argued that it merely continues existing tax breaks and spending that are extended every year.

“The bill before us creates no new jobs, and I challenge my Democratic friends to show us how doing what we always do and what was done last year – extending the R&D tax credit, extending COBRA insurance, extending unemployment benefits – creates jobs,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said saving jobs is just as important as creating them. If Congress allows tax cuts to expire, he said, jobs definitely would be lost.

“If the provisions we are seeking merely to extend were not passed, it would be a job destroyer,” Mr. Baucus said.

Members of both sides of the aisle are joining the chorus.

Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, offered an amendment to the $104 billion extenders bill that would redirect unspent money from last year’s $862 billion stimulus bill to let small businesses write off more investments and give them a capital-gains tax cut.

“True job creation doesn’t happen when the government adds jobs; it grows when small businesses are given the incentives to thrive,” he said.

Meanwhile, the top Democrat and top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are sponsoring the immigration bill to increase visas for entrepreneurs.

It’s sometimes tough to see how the jobs math adds up.

The administration has estimated that the $862 billion stimulus act would create up to 3.5 million jobs, which would seem like a bad deal if a $15 billion highway funding extension could create 1 million jobs alone, as Mr. Reid has said on the Senate floor.

Mr. Reid also has said a health care overhaul “would create 400,000 jobs a year,” and that his travel promotion bill “will create tens of thousands of jobs in the service industry.”

“It is a jobs bill, and that is an understatement,” he said.

Among the other job creators being touted, the beachfront historic site in the U.S. Virgin Islands stands out.

Democrats, arguing for the bill in January, said designating the site and spending the $40 million or more to acquire the land will transform it into a popular tourist destination.

“It will create jobs and help ease unemployment on the island,” said Mr. Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat who shepherded the bill through the House.

Dubious Republicans pointed out that the cost of a ticket from the U.S. to the island and the travel time make it unlikely that the new historic site would be a major economic draw.

“Let’s quit spending like crazy. Let’s sell off some of our assets, pay down our debt and let America find jobs again,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican.

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By Rep. Doc Hastings

For the past two years, President Obama has given Americans mixed signals regarding his position on offshore energy production.

Sen. Obama opposed it. Candidate Obama changed his mind when gas prices soared. President Obama has stalled efforts to expand it, but then seemingly promoted it in this year’s State of the Union address. Understandably, his ever-changing position has left Americans confused and frustrated.

Yet we may have just discovered a valuable piece of information to help solve this puzzle. Hidden deep within the president’s budget proposal released on Feb. 1 are numbers that reveal his true intentions.

The budget shows that revenues collected from new offshore leasing will decline over the next five years – from $1.5 billion in 2009, to only $413 million in fiscal 2015. If the president planned on expanding offshore drilling, revenues would be increasing, not decreasing.

Despite what the president says, numbers don’t lie. This budget clearly indicates that he has no intention of opening additional areas to drilling off our nation’s coast.

To anyone who has been following the Department of the Interior, this revelation comes as no surprise. We’ve seen the writing on the wall.

First, there was a six-month delay on the new 2010 offshore drilling plan in order to extend the public comment period. Those six months came and went in September – yet still no plan.

Then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that a new plan may not be in place until 2012. This means it’s possible that no new areas will be opened for offshore drilling during the president’s term.

With 68 percent of Americans supporting offshore-energy production, this is not a record I’d want going into an election year. It’s flat-out unacceptable from a president who claims he wants to increase our energy independence.

Americans have already waited long enough for new offshore drilling. When families experienced pain at the pump during the summer of 2008, they demanded action. The president and Congress responded by lifting the nearly 20-year ban on drilling. But little did the public know that they’d possibly have to wait up to four more years before any further action was taken.

Removing the ban on drilling opened up over 500 million acres that were previously unavailable. Imagine the possibilities this creates for new jobs, more energy and increased security. In these economic times, it’s unfathomable that this administration has chosen to drag its feet on this incredible opportunity.

The No. 1 priority right now for Americans is job creation. While everyone recognizes the problem, those who control Washington continue to falsely believe that throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at projects selected by government agencies is the answer. Democrats passed a $787 billion “stimulus bill,” yet our economy continues to lose jobs. Now the administration wants Congress to pass another jobs bill, which means more government spending and putting our nation further into debt.

However, according to American Energy Alliance, new offshore drilling would create over a million new jobs at no cost to American taxpayers – in fact it would actually make taxpayers money. Moving forward with a new offshore lease plan will enable private companies to invest their own money into American energy production. This is private investment that will create jobs instead of government spending that balloons the debt. If the president is really looking to put people back to work, this would be an ideal place to start.

During a recent town hall, the president said that “American-grown energy is good for our security.” I whole heartedly agree, which is why I find it difficult to understand why the administration is refusing to increase American oil and gas production. We have domestic resources, but we are choosing not to use them. Instead, we continue to import oil and allow our country’s energy to be at the mercy of volatile and hostile foreign governments.

It’s important to recognize that expanding offshore drilling can be done in a responsible, environmentally safe way. State-of-the-art technology has allowed us to safely procure oil and gas from deep under our oceans. Without a doubt, drilling in the U.S. is cleaner and safer than in many foreign countries with far lower environmental protections and standards. Importing oil not only puts our national security at risk, but also the environment.

It is clear that more drilling is not the single magic solution to our nation’s energy crisis – but it is an important component that can’t be ignored. Increased oil and natural gas production must be part of an all-of-the-above energy plan (like the Republicans’ American Energy Act, H.R. 2846) that also promotes clean, renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric and, especially, nuclear.

For a president who boasts about transparency, the public shouldn’t have to dig through budget numbers and analyze charts to figure out his hidden agenda.

The administration must change course and immediately finalize the new 2010 offshore drilling plan that opens as many new areas as possible for energy production. With our economy and national security on the line, there is absolutely no justification for this administration to continue blocking progress.

Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state is the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.

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You’d think the Obama administration is busy enough controlling the banks, insurance companies and automakers, but thanks to whistleblowers at the Department of the Interior, we now learn they’re planning to increase their control over energy-rich land in the West.

A secret administration memo has surfaced revealing plans for the federal government to seize more than 10 million acres from Montana to New Mexico, halting job- creating activities like ranching, forestry, mining and energy development. Worse, this land grab would dry up tax revenue that’s essential for funding schools, firehouses and community centers.

President Obama could enact the plans in this memo with just the stroke of a pen, without any input from the communities affected by it.

At a time when our national unemployment rate is 9.7 percent, it is unbelievable anyone would be looking to stop job-creating energy enterprises, yet that’s exactly what’s happening.

The document lists 14 properties that, according to the document, “might be good candidates” for Mr. Obama to nab through presidential proclamation. Apparently, Washington bureaucrats believe it’s more important to preserve grass and rocks for birdwatchers and backpackers than to keep these local economies thriving.

Administration officials claim the document is merely the product of a brainstorming session, but anyone who reads this memo can see that it is a wish list for the environmentalist left. It discusses, in detail, what kinds of animal populations would benefit from limiting human activity in those areas.

The 21-page document, marked “Internal Draft-NOT FOR RELEASE,” names 14 different lands Mr. Obama could completely close for development by unilaterally designating them as “monuments” under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

It says all kinds of animals would be better off by doing so, like the coyotes, badgers, grouse, chickens and lizards. But giving the chickens more room to roost is no reason for the government to override states’ rights.

Rep. Robert Bishop, Utah Republican, made the memo public because he didn’t want another unilateral land grab by the White House, like what happened under former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Using the Antiquities Act, President Carter locked up more land than any other president had before him, taking more than 50 million acres in Alaska despite strong opposition from the state.

President Clinton used the authority 22 times to prohibit hunting, recreational vehicles, mining, forestry and even grazing in 5.9 million acres scattered around the country. The law allowed him to single-handedly create 19 new national monuments and expand three others without consulting anyone.

One of the monuments President Clinton created was the Grande Staircase-Escalante in Utah, where 135,000 acres of land were leased for oil and gas and about 65,000 barrels of oil were produced each year from five active wells. But, President Clinton put an end to developing those resources.

President Obama could do the same in other energy-rich places unless Congress takes action. At least 13.5 million acres are already on his Department of Interior’s real estate shopping list.

This includes a 58,000-acre area in New Mexico. The memo said this should be done so the lesser prairie chicken and the sand dune lizard will be better protected. Are these animals going extinct? No. The bureaucrats wrote that the land should be locked up to “avoid the necessity of listing either of these species as threatened or endangered.”

In Nevada, the Obama administration might make another monument in the Heart of the Great Basin because it, supposedly, is a “center of climate change scientific research.”

In Colorado, the government is considering designating the Vermillion Basin as a monument because it is “currently under the threat of oil and gas development.”

Americans should be wary of any plans a president has to seize land from the states without their consent. Any new plans to take away states’ freedom to use land as they see fit must be stopped.

That’s why I sponsored an amendment to block Mr. Obama from declaring any of the 14 lands listed in the memo as “monuments.” Unfortunately, the Senate, led by Democrats, rejected it on Thursday evening by a vote of 58-38.

It was particularly disappointing that the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, voted against the amendment. The government owns more than 80 percent of the land in Nevada and the unemployment rate there is 12.8 percent. Surely it would help job prospects if more land were open for business.

This is a nationwide problem. The government currently owns 650 million acres, or 29 percent of the nation’s total land.

Federal bureaucrats shouldn’t be wasting time thinking up ways to acquire more, especially in the middle of a recession. Taking the nation’s resources offline will stifle job creation and dry up tax revenues.

If anything, the government should be selling land off, not locking more up. By voting against my amendment, the Democrats tacitly endorsed Mr. Obama’s secret plan to close off millions more acres to commerce.

If enacted, the plan would mean fewer jobs for Americans.

The Democratic Congress refused to stop it, but one sure way Americans could help block it is if they decide some Democrats should lose their jobs on November.

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