Every once in a while a politician accidentally tells the truth, and then fails to recognize it.
President Barack Obama committed truth Wednesday at a press conference announcing his assignment of Vice President Joe Biden to an intensive month-long effort to craft a policy response to the Sandy Hook horror. "This is not some Washington commission," Obama said. "This is not something where folks are going to be studying the issue for six months and publishing a report that gets read and then pushed aside."
Right. Many reports are pushed to the side but that doesn't mean they should be.
Obama has initiated his share of commissions and brain trusts, establishing a 17-member Transition Economic Advisory Board soon after the 2008 election. He set up in February 2010 the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which delivered its report at the end of the year.
In May 2010 he appointed President George H.W. Bush's EPA Administrator, Bill Reilly, and former Senator Bob Graham as co-chairmen of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. I signed on that July as a senior analyst for environmental impacts.
The president's executive order directed the seven commissioners to deliver a final report to the White House within six months of their first hearing, which occurred on July 12th and 13th in New Orleans -- just as engineers and officials were successfully capping what a BP official memorably called a "nightmare well" before the accident.
Those July sessions started a frantic six-month countdown in which a staff that eventually grew to about 60 went from a blank sheet of paper to a 381-page serious-but-reader-friendly book (pdf) documenting everything from the rise of deepwater oil exploration to a minute-by-minute account of events on the Deepwater Horizon, to impacts of the spill on shoreline communities, the Gulf of Mexico and coastal ecosystems. There were enough recommendations to fix the federal government, the oil industry, the five coastal states and the Gulf once and for all, or so we preferred to think.
The presidential commission on the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident was also given six months, but avoided some of the limitations that the oil spill commission faced. Near the top of the list was subpoena power, which Congress granted the 1979 Kemeny Commission and denied the 2010 oil spill commission. An investigative commission without subpoena power felt familiar enough. It felt like journalism, which does just fine without ever having subpoena power.
Evidence for the commission's utility is in the final oil spill investigation report itself and, for the detail-minded, the working papers. Two papers in particular, written by staff colleagues, took the administration to task for its handling and communication of oil flow rate estimates (pdf) from the Macondo well and debates over the construction of sand berms (pdf) in Louisiana waters.
This oil spill investigation, like the 9/11 Commission report, or the Three-Mile Island report was undertaken to help prevent the senseless deaths of Americans. When Obama dismissed six-month commissions, he was dismissing mature investigations of how to prevent sad, senseless deaths of Americans. Why is it so easy in Washington to brush aside rigorous, independent assessments of fact accompanied by practical policy recommendations? Perhaps they're not all such. Perhaps it's just a dumb question, given the state of U.S. politics. But what is a safer source for ideas on topics of enormous technical, legal and organizational complexity than non-political reasoning drawn from accumulated evidence? We should have 50 nonpartisan, independent, investigative commissions on life-or-death topics of import going on continuously.
Decoupled from their founding premises, commissions, or probes, or investigations, are easier to ridicule. There's an old joke among high-level political appointees in Washington. The newly confirmed official sits down at his desk for the first time and finds three letters from his predecessor, each to be opened after administration crises. The first crisis comes and the official opens the first envelope: "Reorganize the department!" The second crisis hits and he reaches for the second envelope: "Appoint a commission!" Finally, the third crisis in his trifecta descends: "Go get three envelopes…"
That's just a joke. And the joke's not on the departments and the commissions. In this case it's on the 11 men who senselessly lost their lives for industrial sloppiness on the Deepwater Horizon. As the commissioners wrote in the dedication:
This report is dedicated to the 11 men who lost their lives on the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, 2010 and to their families, in hope that this report will help minimize the chance of another such disaster ever happening again.
Aaron Dale Burkeen
Roy Wyatt Kemp
Karl Dale Kleppinger, Jr.
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