Midday Scan: A local try at reforming Congress' ethics; Border Patrol amok; initiative issues

For trying to reform one of the most egregious abuses in Congress, ex-Rep. Brian Baird gets a role on "60 Minutes." Ron Judd explores the tensions between farmers and border agents in Whatcom County. Free spending on state contractors in Oregon.

Crosscut archive image.

Brian Baird, while he was a member of Congress.

For trying to reform one of the most egregious abuses in Congress, ex-Rep. Brian Baird gets a role on "60 Minutes." Ron Judd explores the tensions between farmers and border agents in Whatcom County. Free spending on state contractors in Oregon.

60 Minutes is the news-media equivalent of a Kurosawa film or John Ford Western: The hero is the only role you ever want to play. On Sunday night, former Washington Rep. Brian Baird aped Henry Fonda, tendering a moral counterweight to the cluster of self-dealing members of Congress profiled by Steve Kroft. (Lawmakers getting rich from "legal" insider trading and IPOs? This registers an 11 on the ugh meter). When Kroft confronts Nancy Pelosi on her investment in a Visa IPO that coincided with related legislation, the former House Speaker responds with the consummate you-got-me stammer. "The — why — I — I don't know what your point is of your question. Is there some point that you want to make with that?"

In contrast, Baird is the white hat. "There should only be one thing in your mind when you're drafting legislation, 'Is this good for the United States of America?' That's it. If you're starting to say to yourself, 'how's this going to affect my investments?' you've got — you've got a mixed agenda and a mixed purpose for being there," Baird says. As Kroft reports, "Baird and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter introduced the Stock Act, which would make it illegal for members of Congress to trade stocks on non-public information and require them to report their stock trades every 90 days instead of once a year." The legislation predictably went nowhere. Nevertheless, given the magnified ugh factor, there could be another push for the Stock Act. Who doesn't want to be the hero of the story?  

The value of austerity, like a nervous breakdown, is the opportunity to look at the world differently. In Oregon, austerity demanded a renewed focus and scrubbing of an anemic state budget. The still-unseen (or at least unacknowledged) budget elephant? Contracting. As the Oregonian's Harry Esteve writes, "The state of Oregon has forced furlough days on its workers and cut services to the poor, but it remains a cash cow for private contractors who charge as much as $300 an hour for their services."    

The Oregonian investigation ilustrates the best in public-service journalism. Esteve writes, "Reporters reviewed thousands of state contracts and identified nearly $10 billion in state commitments to outside vendors, some of which appear to contradict the penny-pinching messages coming from state leaders. Others simply show a state quite willing to pay top dollar when it needs outside help." Take just one of multiple egregious examples: "Of Oregon's $9.7 billion in active contracts with more than 4,000 private vendors, at least $3.3 billion, or about a third, is going to out-of-state companies. A Michigan-based printer, for example, got a $133,000, 10-year contract to print and bind the Oregon Blue Book, the state's official almanac." Is it a stretch to assume that similar patterns are hard-wired into Washington, Idaho, and Alaska state contracting?

Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd profiles the Whatcom County poster boy of border-patrol excess, farmer Larry DeHaan. As Judd writes, "Larry DeHaan loves his country, loves his family, loves his land. But he probably never would have started raising middle-finger salutes to those government helicopters if not for a different lifelong passion. Judd writes of DeHaan: " 'I love my cows,' he says, without a hint of sarcasm, explaining how he's become the unofficial spokesman for the local Please-Call-Off-The-Border-Patrol movement."

Reporting on an overstaffed Border Patrol has mostly concentrated on the agency's purported racial profiling. At one point, agents set up a road block to the entrance of North Cascades National Park, demanding to see drivers' "papers." Judd's essay also illustrates public-service journalism, one that will galvanize a more conservative community element. "Farmers — most of whom don't want to be quoted publicly — complain about white-SUV traffic becoming so heavy that their farm roads need repair. Others say they've been left shaken and confused when agents swarmed onto their property in some mystery operation, only to withdraw without telling residents why they were there," Judd writes. "Most conspicuous of all is a military Blackhawk helicopter that patrols the border and, until recent months, routinely flew late-night, low-elevation sorties that not only rattled windows, but scared the bejeebers out of farm animals and farmers alike." 

Jerry Cornfield of the Everett Herald asks some needed follow-up questions regarding the various initiative campaigns. For example, "What will the Yes on 1183 Coalition do with its leftover $2.4 million?" Cornfield acknowledges that refunding Costco is the likely outcome. However, there are other scenarios. "State law allows the coalition to donate any or all of its unspent money to candidates or political action committees," Cornfield writes. "Nothing prevents them from writing a check to the gubernatorial campaign of Rob McKenna who publicly backed the measure. Or, if they thought legalizing same-sex marriage was worthy of support, they could send money to help that effort." How about a public charity or, better yet — the ultimate penance — bankroll a measure for publicly supported campaigns? One other key Cornfield observation: How will the legislature fund Initiative 1163 on training for home care workers with state coffers tapped out? 

Lastly, the race for mayor of Darrington underscores politics' better angels. As the Seattle TimesErik Lacitis writes, "In this town of 1,300 in the foothills of the Cascades, something unusual — at least by acrimonious city-slicker standards — is taking place in the mayor's race. Only six votes separate the two candidates. And, of course, both want to win. But they also are genuinely wishing each other well and speak in nothing but complimentary terms about the other." Congress (and those lawmakers featured on 60 Minutes) take note.  

Link Summary

CBS News"Congress: Trading stock on inside information?"

The Oregonian, "Oregon talks about penny pinching but pays big bucks to contractors" 

Seattle Times, "Beefed-up Border Patrol jolts farmers, cows"

Everett Herald, "Votes on initiatives raise some new questions" 

Seattle Times"Nothing dirty in Darrington's close mayoral race"


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About the Authors & Contributors

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson is the former editorial-page editor of the Everett Herald. Follow him on Twitter @phardinjackson