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Lack of Congressional Oversight Plagues MMS

Today’s topic is oversight, or lack thereof. But before I get to that, I want to focus a bit on Rep. Bob Inglis. I met the South Carolina Republican when he first came to Congress in 1993. I did not like him. A revolutionary leading the way for the class of 1994, he was, in my view, smug, rigid and a bit simplistic as he railed against the evils of Washington, D.C.

I did not especially mourn his departure after six years, but I admired his integrity — unlike some of his colleagues, Inglis took a pledge to limit his service to three consecutive terms and kept his promise. In 2005, he returned to the House after a six-year hiatus — but the Bob Inglis I saw in his second round of service was a very different man.

This Bob Inglis saw the political process, the legislative process and Congress in a different way. He was thoughtful, determined to make a contribution to public service, public policy and the House of Representatives, and willing to consider nuance and the importance of pragmatism, bipartisanship and the fabric of governance in his approach to his job — without sacrificing his still-conservative views or neutering his partisanship. He has been a terrific and valuable lawmaker.

I am writing this before Tuesday’s South Carolina primary, and I don’t know what will happen to Inglis. There is a strong chance that he will be forced into a Republican runoff, and even a chance that he could lose his nomination for re-election. If that happens, it will be a shame, and a depressing reflection on our political culture — a man genuinely trying to find solutions to pressing problems, informed and enlarged by his own experiences in politics and government, punished for just those qualities. Another sign, in other words, of the larger state of dysfunction in our politics.

There are other signs of dysfunction, and one of them is the obvious failure of Congress for decades to do responsible and meaningful oversight of the embarrassingly inept and corrupt Minerals Management Service. The MMS’ failures to provide any protection against the Gulf Coast oil disaster were in so many ways predictable, given the awful history of the service. Created not by Congress but by executive fiat during the Reagan administration (the MMS was James Watt’s baby), the MMS ran into trouble early and often for negotiating offshore leases with oil companies that failed to provide any fair or reasonable royalties to taxpayers — in essence, providing gifts of billions of dollars to major oil companies.

As the New York Times’ Edmund Andrews pointed out in an article in early 2007, the report of the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General that showed a leasing blunder costing taxpayers as much as $10 billion over the succeeding five years caused a major political brouhaha — one that focused some attention on the sweetheart relationship between key officials in the Bush administration’s Interior Department with the oil barons, but also that the initial set of blunders had occurred in the MMS during the Clinton administration. Some lawmakers moved to focus a serious spotlight on the unholy alliances going on, including Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), but they did not get very far in securing serious support from either party for doing something to restructure the agency or alter its uncomfortably close ties to the industry.

Why? One reason is the provenance of the service; since Congress did not create it, it did not feel the same responsibility. Another is the fact that the MMS, despite the outrageous giveaway of royalties to oil companies, also pulled in a pretty penny from the industry, enabling it to be both self-financing and a source of revenue for a cash-starved government. If the service were subject to an appropriation, it would have at least received some ongoing attention from the appropriators, who have been key sources of real oversight in the past. And another, not surprisingly, was the close relationship between the industry and Members of Congress, made concrete through the campaign finance system.

If the problem were simply money, it would be awful but not disastrous. But when the next scandal erupted, in 2008, with the bombshell report that the MMS’ royalty collection office in Denver had workers who had sex with industry types, took drugs and accepted major favors such as gifts and trips from those they oversaw and regulated, Congress promised much more aggressive and serious oversight. It was, however, déjà vu all over again — the same office, along with its Dallas counterpart, had had a scandal involving sex with prostitutes in 1990! Yet again, not much happened — and in particular, nothing serious happened to look beyond the tie of sex, drugs, job offers and gifts to royalties. For an agency corrupted and in the pocket of industry, the logical extension was to look for flaws in its oversight of safety.

That did not happen. For one thing, Republicans and some Democrats feared that a serious and tough-minded look at the MMS might put a crimp in the effort to expand offshore drilling. The “drill, baby, drill” advocates, with a big issue and traction in the presidential campaign, had no interest in pursuing a scandal that might tarnish their issue and slow their momentum. For another, there had not been the kind of disaster that usually triggers a real and meaningful legislative reaction — the offshore industry had gone decades without any significant spill across tens of thousands of rigs.

This disaster naturally demands a different reaction, and no doubt we will see multiple Congressional investigations of how this happened and a serious look at Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s proposal to break the MMS into three parts. But the disaster makes one wonder how many other disasters are in the making at other agencies, bureaus or services — and where the failure of due diligence in oversight will next embarrass Congress.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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