Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in May 2020

A post-coronavirus world

rainey

Ever sat in a constitutional law class taught by a sheriff? No? Didn’t think so.

But, here, in our cactus-littered state, several of said lawmen have declared the governor’s “stay-at-home” order unconstitutional and say they won’t enforce it. Scholars? Probably not.

In a small, rather independent community about 30 miles Northwest of us, three restaurants are serving meals despite said order. Confronted by local cops, one of the owners - proud of her “Trump 2020" shirt - said she’d keep serving because she, too, believed efforts to close her joint were “unconstitutional.”

Amazing how many regular folks have read - and understand - our Constitution. Just amazing. I’ve been waiting for one of what passes for reporters these days to just ask “Which part of the constitution do you find fault with? Which section?” Alas, it hasn’t happened.

Lots of other businesses are ignoring our Guv. In fact, it’s pretty close to “normal” around here. Seems those in charge of enforcement are part of the problem, too.

By now, we’re all familiar with those armed idiots who charged into the Michigan Statehouse. Got right up in the faces of the masked state troopers who held the line. Got right in their faces.

A Facebook friend calls such armed nutcases “ammosexuals.” I think he’s got it right. AK-47's and large handguns seem to loosen the same endorphins or whatever is felt during an amorous adventure. I can see them, sitting around the bars they so badly want reopened, saying “Mine’s bigger than yours.”

People from coast to coast are out frolicking about as if the disease that’s killed more than 80,000 is gone and “happy days are here again.” When an officer in Texas tried to get a crowd to “socially distance,” they pushed him into a lake.

The scary thing here is a distinct minority has forced a spineless set of politicians to put every damned one of us in a much larger majority at risk of dying! Since when does some “ammosexual’s” right to belly up to his favorite bar become more important than security of the rest of us?

History scholars tell us when the social pendulum swings too far in one direction, it eventually swings too far in the opposite direction. That being said, when our current pendulum begins to move back towards the center, where will the center be and what will that look like? Things are not going to return to “normal,” whatever your definition of that word may be.

Case in point: United Airlines. UA received several billion dollars in our last Coronavirus “relief” bill with the stipulation it keep all employees on-board for six months. With that being agreed to, UA has notified several thousand employees - 30-per cent of the workforce - they’ll be terminated in October and UA will, henceforth, operate on a much smaller basis as it sells off a major portion of its aircraft.

UA makes permanent cuts and General Electric, which makes jet engines, does the same because UA and other airlines won’t be buying new planes. So, suppliers of parts to GE around the world are laying off thousands more. And Boeing. And Airbus in Europe. And their suppliers.

That’s just one example among many, many more. There will be no return to “normal” when the virus goes away. We’re entering a period of profound change - in nearly everything.

Education: the way teachers teach and the way kids learn. The current period of “distance learning” via the I-Net is living proof. It’s also proof a large portion of kids don’t have I-Net access. That’s got to change. And it will. So, methods of instruction will have to adapt.

Homelessness and people without even basic health care. Those things will change. They must! Because providers - society as we know it - can’t survive the economic costs of millions of people overwhelming our systems of health care.

As we change in protecting our personal lives brought on by COVID-19, it’s foolish to believe all the other amenities of life won’t have to undergo major overhauls. The way we buy cars. The life-altering way we use the I-Net for shopping, medical care, entertainment, personal contact, banking, social activities. And more and more. And more.

But, as all this whirls about us, what about the “ammosexuals,” the small minorities to which politicians genuflect? The “base.” How long will we allow the malcontents, the few loud voices, the dangerously uninformed and the deniers of facts to intimidate the much larger majority?

Someone - or hundreds of someones - who shove AR-15's in the faces of law enforcement can’t be allowed to do such things with impunity. Politicians, who react in fear of these cretins, can’t be allowed to remain in positions of authority when that authority bows to civil disobedience. We, in the majority, must end that.

We’re facing a much different world - a much different living environment - when this worldwide pandemic is over. A year or two or three or four from now. However long it takes for this incessant, life-threatening virus to be eradicated.

How far will the pendulum swing in the opposite direction? How far will the majority let it go before it silences the voices of discontent? Of dissent. Of ignorance.

How far?
 

A cautionary tale

richardson

There are many reasons I don't take the predicted "second wave" of the Covid-10 Pandemic lightly. Among them is the fact that the devastation caused by the second wave of the 1918 Pandemic resonated in my mom's life and, hence, in mine.

In early May of 1913, my mom, Angeline Dvorak, was born. The daughter of Czech and Croatian immigrants, mom was the third child and first girl born in her family. In rapid succession, her parents had three more children -- two more girls and another boy.

Mom was just five years old in 1918, when the so-called "Spanish Flu," swept the planet. The Dvorak family lived in a tight-knit Slavic community outside Chicago, and my grandmother tended the ill and dying and helped care for those they left behind. She survived the first wave.

Then came the fall and the even more deadly second wave. Mary Dvorak was one of the last to fall ill. In early November of 2018, she was struck and died, one of an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims worldwide. She left behind a devastated husband who was ill-prepared to care for his young brood.

The pain of Mary's sudden and terrible passing haunted her children all the days of their lives. Mary was much more than a statistic. She was a young wife, a loving mother, a flesh-and-blood member of a connected community where she had nursed the ill and given all she had to help others.

Every time I see the face of a doctor or nurse, a paramedic or ambulance driver or one of the many other care-givers who has died of Covid-10, I think of my grandmother, and I pray for their survivors.

A recent survey showed that only one in eight of our fellow citizens knows someone who has died of Covid-19. For most of us, the thought of dying from -- or losing a loved one to -- the virus remains a remote possibility. We may have been troubled to learn that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson had tested positive -- and we may have been heartbroken to learn that John Prine had died from the infection, but such news of prominent people is still steps removed from our daily lives.

And maybe, with luck, the first wave will spare the great majority of us from any immediate loss. But Dr. Anthony Fauci tells us that a second wave is "inevitable." If history repeats itself, the second wave may well be much worse than the first.

Like many, I often think of my departed parents and wonder how they would respond to the issues of the day. On my mom's birthday, I found myself asking what she would want me to write about. I feel certain she would want me to tell this part of her story. It is, without doubt, a cautionary tale.
 

Never Trump and the GOP’s soul

johnson

In the wee hours of last Monday morning the president of the United States picked up his iPhone and rage tweeted four times at the conservative leaders of a new Never Trump group that calls itself “The Lincoln Project.”

Trump was fuming about a powerful new ad – “Mourning in America” – a takeoff on one of the most famous and effective television spots in presidential history, Ronald Reagan’s 1984 ad “Morning in America.” Rather than Reagan’s claim that he brought to the country a new dawn, the Lincoln Project ad says Donald Trump has made the country “weaker, sicker and poorer.”

“Americans are asking,” the devastating ad concludes, “if we have another four years like this will there even be an America?”

Trump ranted that the ad and the group behind it were “a disgrace to Honest Abe” and he slashed at the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, calling George Conway, a prominent Never Trump conservative, “a deranged loser.”

For good measure Trump slipped in a slur – Moonface – directed at Conway, whose mother was of Filipino descent. Trump also slashed at long-time Republican operatives John Weaver and Rick Wilson, as “all LOSERS.”

Weaver, a former John McCain guy and adviser to former Ohio governor John Kasich, seemed to revel in the attention Trump brought to the Never Trumpers.

The president’s rage might be understood as another example of his absolute insistence that every Republican bow before him and accept his incompetence and character shortcomings as the Idaho congressional delegation regularly does. But, on another level the incident and the vicious open break with a GOP president by a cadre of conservatives who have been unwilling to accept how Trump has remade – and deeply damaged – the Republican brand illustrates a real and lasting problem for the once Grand Old Party.

An important new book – Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites – co-authored by Idaho native Robert P. Saldin, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, explores the conservative push back against Trump that dates back to the 2016 Republican primaries. The book, published by Oxford University Press, will be out soon and is based on extensive interviews with a range of conservatives who oppose Trump. Saldin’s co-author is Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins.

I asked Saldin this week if there were historical parallels to the push back against the president. The answer, of course, is yes, including modern intraparty objections to Barry Goldwater by Republicans in 1964 and Democratic opposition to George McGovern in 1972. But Never Trump still seems unprecedented.

“In the context of these historical parallels,” Saldin told me, “the depth and breadth of the 2016 GOP opposition was remarkable. While objections on policy and ideological grounds were certainly important, it was—and is—Trump’s character that constitutes the central objection of Never Trumpers.”

So how to explain a party where most elected officials claim to honor the legacy of Lincoln and celebrate the probity of Reagan, while embracing a characterless character like Donald Trump?

“Among the political pros, for instance,” Saldin told me, “what initially was a massive contingent of Never Trumpers declined rapidly once he became the apparent nominee. These professionals are uniquely beholden to staying in the party’s good graces. That’s how they pay their mortgage. And they don’t have the other kind of options that are available to other partisan networks. They don’t get to go back to the university or think tank jobs. So the ones who stuck it out as Never Trumpers tended to be the celebrity consultants who’d already made a ton of money, had side gigs, and had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Obviously, there are always exceptions, and there certainly are in the Never Trump landscape. But the professional dynamics and constraints go a long way toward explaining the degree of flexibility people had.”

This understanding goes some distance to help explain the situational ethics of Republicans like Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Mike Simpson, both of whom effectively disowned Trump in 2016 when he lewdly confessed on videotape to sexual abuse. But gradually and eventually totally they embraced Trump as the leader of a conservative movement that now rejects a vast array of the tenets that once represented core conservative values, from free trade to intellectual honesty, from American leadership of NATO to a rejection of activist judges.

Crapo and Simpson and so many others accepted the character of a leader who many of the party’s political professionals knew would destroy the values that made them Republicans. They got flexible as the price of survival in a party they can hardly recognize any more.

If Trump were to lose in November – a big if, but with his abandonment of leadership against the pandemic and with unemployment headed toward Great Depression levels, not a bad bet today – Saldin believes the Never Trump movement could become an important faction in a Republican Party that will struggle to define itself in a post-Trump world.

“To be sure, it would be a minority faction,” he says. “But that faction could be pretty competitive in places the dominant faction isn’t competitive. Such a faction could find a following among the educated middle-class, business, and upwardly mobile segments of ethnic minority groups. It would likely embrace free trade, constitutionalism, pluralism, law and order, and be pro-market. There’d be stark differences with the Trump-style populists when it comes to issues like trade and immigration.”

If such a thing were to happen it might well mark the resurrection of the GOP as a serious governing party, as opposed to a soap box for Trump’s personality cult and his grievances, and those of his angriest followers, over issues of race and hatred of “elites.” It might also be the salvation of American politics where a new center dominated by moderates willing to compromise on issues like climate change and rebuilding the middle class. It’s a big hope, but it might be all we have.

“In bluer parts of the country where the Democrats’ Left wing is strongest—and where Trumpy populists are a non-starter—such Republicans could find a sweet spot,” Saldin argues. “In fact, we already see examples of something like this in the form of these popular Republican governors in Massachusetts (Charlie Baker) and Maryland (Larry Hogan).”

If the Never Trumpers have done nothing else, they remind us of something we should never forget about politics and political leaders: character matters.
 

Election messages

stapiluslogo1

In Camas County this month, voters are being asked by one of the local districts to increase tax rates by about seven-fold.

That’s not quite as dramatic as it might first seem. It’s a barely-there jurisdiction: The cemetery district, where the taxes are small in scale; the management argues that needed upgrades and repairs have been put off for years and really shouldn’t wait longer. And the district says the increase, or at least most of it, isn’t intended to last for long, only until certain projects are done. But they do also acknowledge: Right now, in the midst of an economic collapse, is a hard time to ask voters for a tax increase, even a small one.

The vote - which in the very small-population county will be cast by people who probably are mostly familiar with the cemetery situation - may actually be worth a watch from beyond. How willing are people right now to spend money on longer-range projects, even those they’re close to?

That’s one of the perspectives that we can measure in the primary election, which thanks to the mail system already is underway in Idaho.

If cemetery repairs are among the low-visibility issues at hand, the statewide “stay at home” orders during the Covid-19 rise are on the other side of the scale. (You wonder if an initiative on the subject might have made the ballot, if legal deadlines allowed.) A number of candidates, not exclusively but mainly in the Republican primary, have raised the subject of shut-in behavior, and it could be pivotal in some places.

Covid-19 was the prime subject in a Twin Falls Times News article about the primary challenge to County Commissioner Brent Reinke by David Hansen, a small business owner. The paper said, “Last week, Hansen began visiting local restaurants for lunch or dinner to support local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic in a daily event he calls ‘Social Distance with Dave.’” If that sounds as if he might be sympathetic with the statewide anti-Covid steps, guess again: Hansen has placed himself at “100%” in opposition to sheltering in place orders.

Stay-at-home is likely to factor in a number of Republican legislative primaries too, even as Governor Brad Little loosens the rules somewhat.

It will surely be a consideration, for example, in what may be the premier Republican legislative primary in the state, between incumbent Representative Chad Christensen of Ammon and Dave Radford, a Bonneville County commissioner and long-time Republican Party worker. Christensen said in a legislative newsletter, “I do not agree with the Governor’s announcement to extend the stay-at-home order. I will be attempting, with other legislators, to push for a special legislative session.” The relatively Little-aligned Radford, in contrast, has supported the governor’s order.

Covid could play into this cycle’s from-the-right primary challenge to federal Representative Mike Simpson; this one from Kevin Rhoades of Boise. Rhoades, who ran two years ago for the state House (unsuccessfully) in a central Boise district, got more attention back then for allegations of making anti-Islamic remarks aimed at a fellow “pro cage fighter.” This year, his web site wraps up his list of "conservative values" with "pro MAGA" - in case you were wondering where he's coming from - which would likely include anti-shutdown arguments. (Or presumably: What’s the White House saying today?)

Another kind of health angle may play out in the Idaho Falls House Republican race pitting incumbent Bryan Zollinger against challenger Marco Erickson. The East Idaho News reported, "Erickson said he decided to run for the seat because of Zollinger’s relationship with a debt collection company (MRS) that hires Zollinger as an attorney to collect on medical debts. Erickson believes Zollinger and MRS are ‘preying on a vulnerable population’.” Might this subject emerge in other races too?

All races are, of course, their own beast, and sometimes the tendency of analysts to look for through lines between them can extend a little further than the facts realistically allow. And this year’s Idaho primaries overall seem to be on the quieter side of the spectrum. But don’t be surprised if a few broader lessons emerge anyway.
 

Response to protest

schmidt

There were pictures of armed protesters in the Michigan state capitol last week. They came to publicly disagree with governor-ordered restrictions on activity in response to the ongoing viral pandemic. No shots were fired, but the internet flamed with outrage. I remember a day when protests were a bit more dangerous.

Please don’t dismiss this old man’s reflections, but protestors got shot in my day. Unarmed protestors on college campuses were fired upon and killed by the state-run “well ordered militia”: The National Guard.

It’s been quite a while since a public protest has been met with such sanctioned violence. I don’t pine for the good old days. But when I looked at the images of the Michigan protesters with their long guns and side arms, I wonder if any would have had a smidgen of recognition if I’d whispered to them “Kent State”.

When the armed protesters wander through the halls of the Idaho Capitol, declaring through public brandishing of a semiauto their “inalienable” Second Amendment rights, I wonder, do they really expect to be fired upon? Maybe they do. Martyrdom can be powerful. It is less so when sought.

Last week, the Idaho Freedom Foundation organized a protest at a closed Meridian playground. They publicized their intent to protest and filmed it. Unfortunately, the woman who got arrested had to beg for the cuffs for a half hour. She only got them when she refused to leave after being politely asked to do so a dozen times. Her attempt at martyrdom was a sham.

I suspect the Freedom Foundation hoped to inspire widespread civil disobedience in response to Governor Little’s stay at home orders. People are frustrated and anxious. But a sham doesn’t inspire. Maybe they were hoping for shots fired.

Maybe Ammon Bundy was also hoping so when he and some followers, also egged on by the Freedom Foundation showed up at the home of the arresting officer that night to protest and deliver a “citizens summons”. They were asked to leave and they did, no casualties, though I’ll bet showing up at the Ammon ranch near Emmett with a citizen’s summons might get you a warning round or two.

No, sanctioned civil violence against our citizens these days isn’t about protests for a cause. You won’t get shot demonstrating against abortion or marching about global warming. The sanctioned violence that occurs today happens at a traffic stop or a response to a domestic violence call, or even when you are called to dispatch your injured bull on the highway, as Jack Yantis experienced in Council, Idaho a few years ago. Police kill us, though not as often as we kill each other. We are an armed, restless populace. And staying at home can make us grumpy, unsociable, maybe even stupid.

The unarmed students that got shot by Ohio State militia at Kent State fifty years ago were protesting what they considered an illegal war, raging in South East Asia. Our government was drafting their colleagues, sending them to kill and die without following the Constitutional requirement that a war can only be declared by an act of congress. Nixon had just expanded the war to invade Cambodia. The students were outraged. They were protesting. And they were fired upon, nine wounded, four killed.

I remember my mother’s reaction to the deaths. I was a junior in high school, wondering about my draft status and the right and wrong of that war across the Pacific. “They deserved it!” she said. “They shouldn’t have been protesting!” I still get fundraising mailers to her from the Republican Party, though she’s been dead 14 years.

I can’t say I ever protested, though I don’t always like what our government is doing. I did run for political office and served. It was the best I could do to fight for justice. Public service isn’t as inspiring as martyrdom, but neither is it a sham; though it can sure feel like it at times. It shouldn’t.

Going postal

jones

Colonial America had a postal system before we had a country. Ben Franklin was appointed as Postmaster General by the Continental Congress in 1775 as a show of defiance to King George. The Founding Fathers knew that a postal system was essential to the growth and prosperity of our new nation. The Postal Clause in the U.S. Constitution empowered Congress “To establish Post Offices and Post Roads.”

The postal service has been a vital part of the American story ever since. It has brought us together, facilitated unprecedented economic growth and enriched our lives. Despite the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, postal workers have gone about their day-to-day work of delivering the mail. In fact, they are just now delivering 90 million campaign-style letters from the President, congratulating him for those stimulus payments.

Like every other business, the Postal Service has had a drop in revenues, largely because of a substantial reduction in business mailings. The President has called the Postal Service a “joke” and has refused its request for emergency funding to carry out its critical work. Trump is sore because the Service has failed to carry out his demand to quadruple the amount it charges for delivering packages for Amazon. The Service points out that it makes money on the Amazon contract, that it has no basis to increase charges, and that such a large increase would drive away a profitable part of its business.

The President’s purpose is to punish Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire founder of Amazon, who also happens to own the Washington Post newspaper. Trump is mad at the Washington Post because of what he views as unfavorable coverage. It is true that the paper often prints Trump quotes, but that is not necessarily unfair and it provides little justification for punishing the Postal Service. Essentially, Trump is using the financial plight of the Service as a means of carrying out a vendetta against a perceived political enemy.

Rural America will suffer severe collateral damage from Trump’s vendetta, unless he changes course and provides the financial relief the Postal Service desperately needs. If there is a part of the postal business that does not pay its way, it is rural free delivery. Revenue is not the critical issue here; it is serving a vital need of county folk. We have always taken it for granted that each local community will have a Post Office and that mail will be delivered to mailboxes in the country, regardless of party affiliation.

That brings me to the role my Postmaster, Mary Jane Kelly, played in my community of Eden, Idaho 83325. Mary Jane worked about 40 years in the Eden Post Office, beginning as an assistant in the 1960s. She was appointed Postmaster in January 1973 and served in that role until February 2005, when she retired at age 83. She was not just a person who parceled out the mail. She was an important part of the glue that held the community together.

Mary Jane greeted you with a smile, she knew what was going on in the community, she played an important part in community affairs, she made us feel good about who we were. My daughter, Kathy, loved her and called her Grandma Kelly. Kathy’s daughter, Kylee, met Mary Jane in her late 80s and also remembers her as Grandma Kelly.

There are thousands of postal employees in over 30,000 postal facilities across the nation who provide valuable mail services, while also making important contributions to their communities. Over 100,000 of them are military veterans. They handle about 48% of the world’s mail volume and do a remarkable job of getting it delivered in a timely manner. They are not a joke and do not deserve to be demeaned or ill used in political games.

Idahoans can contact members of the Idaho Congressional delegation to demand that the Postal Service not be held political hostage by anyone. Our Mary Jane Kellys are too important to the well-being of local communities.
 

Just thinking

rainey

Between our deadly pandemic and Trump’s pathological bloviating, there’s not much air left in the room. So, this is sort of a mental grab bag of disassociated thoughts.

I found it odd when Jared K took to the “boob tube” to announce the “good” news that “victory” has been achieved in our intensive battle with Covid-19. Apparently the deaths of 64,000 Americans because of that virus was an acceptable loss. “Victory?”

Jared, my boy. Your daddy’s HHS department just ordered 100,000 new body bags. Can you make the connection? “Victory?”

At last count, the publicly known deaths among medical personnel on the front lines totaled 21. There are probably more. Dedicated to their work and dead because they took on the virus face-to-face. Not sure how Jared would spin that but he’d find something.

Though no responsible agency around our parts will tell us exact numbers, we know about 120 citizens in our triple 55-plus retirement communities have been infected. That’s 120 out of about 90,000 gray hairs. Don’t know exactly how many have died but likely some have. One thing we do know. There’ll be more.

It’ll be interesting - and terribly sad - a few months from now, when we see the national and worldwide numbers of how many were affected by the virus. And how many perished.

We noted the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds have been buzzing various big city hospitals in a salute to front line health care workers. Not to be outdone, residents of Sun City West came up with their own special way of honoring the same. Did so with a parade of golf carts. Some 300 of them. Many with flags and banners. You shoulda seen it.

Unlike a lot of other Republican governors, ours has kept the lid on until mid-May at the earliest. I asked wife Barbara last evening if she’d go to church Sunday if allowed. My always thoughtful spouse, who takes a moment to consider her responses, immediately snapped “NO!” To which I silently agreed.

Our Pres-ee-dent has called the armed protesters demanding everything be opened up “good people". Some guy, with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder, demanding his favorite bar be unlocked, does not qualify as a “good person” in our neighborhood.

Odd how some of those “good people,” who’ve been screaming about immigrants “taking their jobs,” are now demanding some of those same folk leave the safety of their homes to clean “citizen” houses, mow their lawns and take away their garbage. Just odd.

Governors who’ve chosen to throw the doors wide open are pretty pleased with themselves right now. Doing just what their “leader” wanted. Downright pleased. Well, in a few weeks, those same governors may well find themselves complaining about the rise in hospital admissions. And renewed demands for front line medical supplies. And renewed death counts. Just saying.

Grocery stores in these parts have begun stocking up on occasional TP and paper towels. Somehow, in our preparations for staying put, we’ve got about as much TP in the garage as a Hilton hotel. Guess we didn’t coordinate our shopping lists in March.

In our occasional runs to the store for perishables, it’s been a joy to have so little traffic on our excellent roads. Not only are other seniors around us hunkered down but many of the Snowbirds have “flown the coop.” Canadians have to get home now because their visas are only good for six months. The other “birds” noted the 102 temps last week and decided the Dakotas, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois environs were more suitable.

Most seniors hereabouts are wearing face masks. That’s good. But, if like me, you have to occasionally rely on lip reading, makes it tough to order a latte with just the right ingredients.

We’ve adjusted to “attending” church online. Some medical appointments have been cancelled. But, on the whole, this penned-in life has not changed things a lot. At least not until you get the sudden urge for a burger and a beer. Just not the same in your own kitchen.

We sadly note some 35-million people have filed for unemployment support. Many others have tried to do so but haven’t been successful. The important questions now are how long will this shutdown last and how long can states keep sending out those checks.

Some at CDC are seriously predicting this Covid-19 bug may be around for a year or two more. Very bad news! Many states are already on the edge of bankruptcy. The fed can’t keep printing money to meet continuing demands. At some point the till runs dry.

What then?

As I said at the top, some disassociated thoughts. That kind of describes all of our lives these days. Disassociated. We keep hearing the bad medical news and having to listen to our truth-challenged occupant of the White House using TV time for medical updates as platforms for “distanced” political rallies.

His son-in-law may believe we’ve achieved some sort of “victory” in our Coronavirus fight. But, the final body count isn’t in yet. The war’s not won.
 

Crapo’s hot seat

johnson

Over the last six weeks Congress has appropriated $3 trillion to ease the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is by far the largest financial effort to prop up a faltering economy in American history. More spending is sure to come as the economic crisis worsens.

With millions losing jobs, widespread numbers of businesses small and large in danger of complete collapse and growing worry about the ripple effects on state and local governments, the historian Jill Lepore says there is typically some historic precedent we can relate to for moments of such enormous upheaval. But in the current moment Lepore says “there is no precedent for this.”

Who will get all that money? Will we even know who receives and who needs this kind of assistance? Will the watchdogs call out the abusers, and it’s inconceivable there will not be massive abuse? Who will provide accountability to an administration that has time and again proven its fundamental inability to handle the most basic tasks of running the government?

Already the relief effort has floundered in major potholes, with critical money to small business and many workers held up or disappeared. “The initial program,” as Bloomberg reported, “which launched April 3, was marred by delays and glitches after guidance on how to process loans wasn’t released until the night before, and many big banks weren’t ready to participate or held back until rules became clearer. Advocates complained that many small mom-and-pop shops were shut out as outrage built over larger, public companies and big chains getting funded” The follow up program was just as incompetently rolled out this week.

At the same time, well-connected political operators like big Trump donor Monty Bennett, a hotel operator, had no trouble navigating a process that left many small businesses frozen out. Bennett scored over $96 million in Paycheck Protection “loans,” even as his companies reported revenue last year of $2.2 billion and while Bennett pulled in compensation of $5.6 million, including a $2.3 million bonus.

In March, as the website Popular Information revealed, as the pandemic spun out of control Bennett’s companies were flush enough to pay $10 million in dividends to certain shareholders, including Bennett’s father.

Forbes reported that more than 70 publicly traded companies, including some outside of the U.S., received cash that it appears Congress intended to go to small businesses. Some like the deep pocketed owners of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team have returned relief money after taking a public relations beating, but many others continue to hold the cash.

It is a massively complicated, hastily thrown together effort involving a half dozen federal agencies dispersing money, which after all – even if it is borrowed money or created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve – belongs to taxpayers. So who is watching over all this?

The answer, at least in part, is Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and the man designated by the Senate majority as the point man to provide oversight of pandemic relief. It could be a career defining assignment for Crapo who is in his 22nd year in the Senate, operating mostly as a little noticed backbencher with an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and a polished ability to stockpile campaign cash from the financial services sector.

While Crapo will manage the Senate oversight other panels will oversee additional aspects of the relief efforts. But the Idahoan has a big stage if he cares to use it. Crapo’s committee, for example, will apparently hold hearings next week on Brian Miller, appointed by Donald Trump as the special Treasury Department inspector general. Miller got the call after the president said he would not be bound by a legal requirement that the new IG report directly to Congress if he is “unreasonably” blocked in seeking information.

Crapo has an opportunity to put a stamp of independence on oversight that is not only required by law, but necessary to see that these vast sums of money get where they are most needed. His initial response has been very Crapo-like, which is to say he has offered almost no signal as to how he will proceed. He might have said he will be a determined watchdog, exposing the truth and providing accountability wherever it leads, but he hasn’t. He might have insisted on the independence of the inspectors general. He won’t. He might have laid down a marker with the White House insisting that he will demand transparency. He hasn’t.

“Required information and reports will be posted on the Banking Committee’s website,” Crapo staffer Amanda Crutchfield told me in an email this week. “Senator Crapo will be holding hearings and requesting information as required by law, and as needed,” she added.

Crutchfield said Crapo declined comment about Miller’s nomination and had nothing to say about Trump dismissing another IG who was apparently seen by the White House as too independent. When I asked if Crapo had any view on whether the inspector general was “accountable to the executive branch or to Congress,” I received no reply.

An emergency like the one shaking the foundation of American society and the economy, “offers unparalleled opportunities for the coordinated looting of public coffers,” says Sarah Chayes, who has written extensively about how widespread corruption thrives when oversight and accountability lags or lapses under regimes that use turmoil to consolidate power and resist accountability.

“In the scramble, tested procedures are ignored and structures are disorganized,” Chayes says, and “exhausted decision makers, pressured to ‘do something,’ miss crucial details, even as quantities of cash are injected into the chaos.”

There is a historical parallel that Crapo could reference regarding his new responsibilities should he choose, uncharacteristically for him, independence over fealty to the Trump White House.

Harry Truman, then a backbencher in the Senate, made his career by heading a committee that rooted out waste and profiteering in the defense industry during World War II. Senior military officials implored President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 to oppose the congressional oversight Truman envisioned, figuring it would be trouble. It was. Truman exposed vast corruption with military housing contracts, uncovered contractors who were paid despite shoddy performance and he exposed the much hyped corporate “dollar a year men,” who volunteered to help the war effort, as mostly being useless.

Truman was a Democrat investigating a Democratic administration. He’s remembered today as a feisty fighter with a reputation for candor and independence. It’s a good model.

We’ll see soon enough how the senior senator from Idaho wants to be remembered.
 

Some isolation breakdown

stapiluslogo1

About a decade ago I spent several days spread over a couple of months in volunteer work at an organization in Portland called Free Geek. The work that’s done in that industrial district building is about as elegant as the name is awkward.

I was working in a team with a half-dozen other people building computers from salvaged parts. It wasn’t just altruism; I had incentives. First, I was learning how to build a computer, which was an enlightening and useful exercise for almost anyone in this era. Second, after having helped build five computers from old parts, I got to keep the sixth, at no charge.

None of this was primary to the purpose behind Free Geek. The main thrust of the work done there was to get computers in the hands of people who need them. The organization takes in massive amounts of old computers, equipment and supplies donated by individuals, businesses and others around town. They turn them into useful machines that are either sold at low price (the public can buy, and there are some great deals) or in many cases simply given away to people and (usually non-profit or educational) organizations that need them. (The software is Linux, which costs nothing to use and allows people to do nearly everything they can with more expensive systems.)

This is an attempt to overcome the “digital divide,” the gap between people who have easy access to the online world and computing capabilities, and those who don’t. That’s been a significant driver in the splits in our society for a generation, but it has become especially important in a time of pandemic shutdown, when digital communications often are the only way many of us can keep in touch with each other. There are limitations even with equipment in hand: If you live in a rural area with poor or no broadband capability, that’s a problem. But if more people in those areas obtain the equipment, broadband providers are more likely to improve their service. That’s a significant split between communities of people in Idaho.

Several organizations around the country have developed over the last decades to try to get more digital equipment - computers, smartphones and more - into more hands. Some are governmental, such as California’s recent program to get 70,000 laptops into the hands of students. Others are private or non-profit; Free Geek, in a recent publication, cited the Texas group, “Restore Education, a nonprofit that helps low income at-risk youth and adults prepare for college and a career, [which] handed out 40 refurbished laptops, virtual education materials and gift cards.”

Idaho has this kind of initiative too, through the business-backed group Idaho Business for Education. Its website notes that, “In conjunction with the Idaho Community Foundation, we have set up a fund where anyone can donate whatever they can to help us bring connectivity to the students of Idaho.”

And there’s more. Its president, Rod Gramer (disclosure: he’s an old friend and colleague), said in an email that, “We’ve collected over 1,100 computers in about 2½ weeks. By the end of this week we should have finished distributing nearly 1,000 of those to the school districts. The digital divide is a huge challenge, but we are chipping away at it.”

The usefulness of this is especially obvious right now, when so much of what we do that was direct and interpersonal - from education to medical consultation to many kinds of work to family connections - has now been relegated to the digital.

But if we use this time to expand our capabilities, many people can come out of what we’re going through with more options.