Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Sordid Legacy of Tip O’Neill

From Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe, a comment on a governmental fiasco.
All politics is local, Tip O’Neill famously said, and it surely doesn’t get any more local than when a 6,000-pound slab from a project championed by the late House speaker falls on a 38-year-old newlywed from the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, crushing her to death as her husband drives her to the airport. O’Neill died in 1994, but the political culture he epitomized is alive and well and enshrined in the Big Dig, a slough of corruption, callousness, and cover-ups that had become a synonym for government mismanagement long before it killed Milena Del Valle on July 10.

It would be going too far to link O’Neill to the incompetent workmanship and negligent oversight that led to the collapse of a 3-ton ceiling panel in the Interstate 90 connector just as the Del Valles drove beneath it last week. But the culture that he embodied is still solidly in place. Only one month earlier the lords and ladies of Bay State politics had gathered to christen the longest section of the Big Dig as the Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. Tunnel and proclaim the immense -- and immensely expensive -- highway project his triumphant legacy.

[. . .]

Senator John Kerry, assuring one and all that “those who were sometimes critical of this project, those who worried about its cost, are going to look back and they’re not going to see the cost. . . . The fact is, this tunnel will be a bargain.”

The fact is, only someone marinated in the political culture that produced the Big Dig would say something so clueless. Granted, Kerry and his fellow preening pols didn’t know on June 5 that part of the connector tunnel was soon to come crashing down on an innocent victim. But it wasn’t exactly a secret that the project was in many ways a bloated catastrophe, vastly over-budget and marred by leaks, delays, and falling debris. For years news stories, outside audits, and internal memos had been documenting a shocking history of failures and errors. Just a few weeks earlier, in fact, six employees of Aggregate Industries, the Big Dig’s largest vendor of concrete, had been arrested for allegedly falsifying records to disguise the poor quality of the concrete supplied.

Long before the dedication ceremony in June, the Big Dig had come to stink of cronyism, corner-cutting, and deceit. The odor grew stronger with each passing year, during Republican administrations no less than during Democratic ones. But that didn’t stop Kerry, et al., from singing hosannas to O’Neill and pooh-poohing the critics’ warnings. Only now that a woman is dead is Kerry suddenly talking about how he, like “every citizen in this state, wants accountability,” and how there was “clearly a failure with respect to design and certain levels of oversight.” So good of him to finally notice.

The Big Dig is indeed a monument to O’Neill. It captures perfectly the costly big-government sloppiness for which he was the poster child. Only in the public sector, where market discipline is nonexistent and financial losses are the taxpayer’s problem, would such mismanagement be tolerated for so long. Only in the public sector, where political considerations far outweigh the bottom line, and where consumer satisfaction carries little weight, is such shoddiness and lack of oversight routine. In the private sector, incompetent performance generally means lost business, reduced earnings, or even bankruptcy. Only in the public sector -- under Democrats and Republicans both -- are negligence and failure commonly rewarded with ever-increasing budgets.

“Giving money and power to government,” P.J. O’Rourke once observed, “is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” In both cases, the results can be lethal.

Our first reaction to Jacoby’s polemic is that this is less about ideological liberalism than about old-fashioned pork barrel politics.

But at a deeper level, he’s absolutely right. He doesn’t in fact mention the word “liberalism,” but rather “costly big-government sloppiness.” When people lose sight of the limitations and typical incompetence of government, that opens the door to this sort of thing. It also opens the door to Republican senators wanting bridges to nowhere built in Alaska, and Republican representatives from Wisconsin wanting ethanol subsidies and mandates.

It is hard to know who is worse: the Republicans who know better, but do this kind of thing anyway, or the Democrats who often don’t know better.

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