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Senator Landrieu airs her problems

As of this afternoon, Sen. Mary Landrieu is acknowledging some $34,000 of campaign-related flights, going back apparently a dozen years or more, that were improperly charged to her Senate office account, and therefore to taxpayers. She said her campaign has now reimbursed the Senate, and thus the taxpayers, for the errors.

Let’s be clear what this is and what it isn’t. What it is not, at least not necessarily, is a sign of intentional corruption. Sometimes record-keeping in Congress can indeed get sloppy. Sometimes when a trip from DC to Louisiana is mostly for official purposes, and then a quick campaign flight is added on, it can be possible for a Senate office worker who is not being attentive to just pay for the whole trip from the office account. And face it: Landrieu and her husband together are millionaires, apparently several times over, and her campaign fundraising always has been successful, too. For her or her campaign, $34,000 over 12 years is relative child’s play. There would be no real incentive to slough those flights off on the taxpayers, unless it was part and parcel of a habitual effort to stick taxpayers or other innocents with all sorts of tabs, amounting to a lot more than $34,000, that Landrieu or her campaign wanted to avoid. That certainly does not seem to be the case here. What we are then left with, it seems — absent a mens rea, meaning (approximately) a “guilty mind” — is an example of fairly longstanding book-keeping incompetence.

It’s definitely an embarrassment, but not likely “corruption” in the way the word is usually understood.

The question is, how big an embarrassment should it be?

Well, since it’s not just two flights, but apparently a dozen or more, that makes the incompetence itself somewhat habitual. Looked at one way, it also can be an indicator of an office staff that no longer is vigilant enough about making a distinction between politicking and governing. And, since staffs really do take their cues from the top, it could serve as an indicator that Sen. Landrieu herself might, somewhere along the line, have fallen into the Beltway blindness, combined with a feeling of entitlement which sometimes comes with a long practice of power.

There’s a potentially good analogy available: Back in the early 1990s, a huge number of congressmen were caught up in what became known as the “House Bank Scandal,” whereby a special bank for congressman was allowing them to kite checks for months or even years at a time. In conjunction with a similar sort of scandal involving the House Post Office, it quickly came to symbolize a Congress that had grown out of touch, with a sense of entitlement to special treatment that ordinary people wouldn’t get. Indeed, it became a national flash point, and over the course of two election cycles it played a huge role in re-election losses by dozens of incumbents.

Except in egregious examples (involving maybe two dozen members whose abuses were so large or habitual that it seemed to amount to deliberate corruption), most Members involved turned out to be responsible for only a few overdrafts here and there. The fewer there were, the more likely the problems were merely book-keeping, just as almost everybody at one time or another in his life makes a mistake and overdraws a checking account. Still, enraged voters often treated even one “kited” check as an indicator that the congressman in question had been captured by the self-serving Beltway mentality — and, in response, threw those Members out on their ears in the next possible election.

It seems to me that Landrieu’s airplane troubles — Mary’s Air Errors, perhaps? — fall in the same category as the House Bank Scandal, somewhere in the mid-level range of transgressors back then. In other words, Landrieu’s office didn’t err just once or twice or three times, which really could be shrugged off in the greater scheme of things; but she apparently did not rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars of false charges to taxpayers, involving dozens upon dozens of flights, either.

UPDATE: It’s a bit worse than I thought. By my count, there are right around 100 flights at issue, of which 43 (quick count!) were wrongly charged. That gets pretty close to “dozens.”

Louisiana voters should look at the totality of the record to decide for themselves if Mary’s Air Errors, in conjunction with other behaviors, are evidence that she has lost touch with the non-entitled lives of ordinary people. I make no judgment here. I hope, though, that I have provided some reasonable context.

Jindal’s Suit Isn’t Really THAT Outlandish

My colleagues at the Advocate, columnists and editorialists alike, seem to think that Gov. Jindal’s federal lawsuit against Common Core was concocted out of thin air. That’s not really true.

First, to be clear, the odds of Jindal actually winning this suit, in federal courts that are usually loathe to strike down anything but the most egregious overreach by regulatory agencies, are slim. But that doesn’t mean that, on the merits, the suit has no, well, merit. The simple fact of the matter is that some very astute legal analysts have argued that the Obama Administration’s Race to The Top program does exactly, and illegally, what Jindal says it does: effectively dictates curriculum to the states.

The second- and third-ranking lawyers in the G.W. Bush Education Department argued as much several years ago, in a white paper for the Pioneer Institute that was quite well regarded for its clarity and the power of its arguments. Among those who wrote approvingly of the white paper (several times, as a matter of fact) was columnist George Will, clearly a conservative but no one’s idea of a radical or a writer who doesn’t do his homework thoroughly and thoughtfully.

(By the way, one of the two authors of that white paper is Louisiana native Bob Eitel, a distinguished attorney who went to Ben Franklin High School in New Orleans, and thence to Georgetown University and then to Tulane Law School.)

This whole subject merits a full column, not just this blog post, so I won’t delve too heavily into the weeds here. I only note that Jindal’s legal argument is quite well grounded in reality. Whether it is politically astute or not, and whether it is tactically wise for the governor’s purported policy purposes, and whether the legal fees will be worth it when charged to Louisiana taxpayers, also are questions for another day. But the sneering being visited on Jindal’s head is, well, wrongheaded.

Locally Owned Group Wins Airport Competition

Something encouraging might be in the air in New Orleans, all because a competition became more grounded in fairness.

In an Advocate column two months ago, I air-dropped into a dispute about the award process for the contract for a long-needed new airport terminal in New Orleans. I’m certainly no expert on construction, but I know something about public contracting procedures, and it seemed obvious to me there were some major anomalies at play — all of which seemed to unfairly disadvantage the largely locally owned group known as Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro, in favor, seemingly unfairly, of a partially foreign-owned group known as Parsons Odebrecht. Note that while I do think a real “tie” should be broken in favor of local contractors (for obvious reasons of helping the local economy), the important objective was to make the process fair to the competitors and, ultimately, to provide the best outcome (in terms of cost, timeliness, and quality) for the public and taxpayers. regardless of local ownership.

Because the Aviation Board, rather than the specially formed Review Committee, makes the final decision on the contract, I recommended then that (considering all the red flags I identified), the board take extra time and fully review the contract bids for themselves, rather than just rubber-stamp the committee’s questionable work. Instead, the board did an an almost equally wise thing, and re-started the entire process while convening an entirely new review committee.

Yesterday, the new committee strongly ratified my impressions from the earlier competition: Without the anomalies and apparent unfairnesses, the Hunt Gibbs bid won the recommendation by a fairly substantial margin.

Significantly, the new committee recognized and corrected two of the very problems I had identified with the first process. First, it no longer docked Hunt Gibbs for a supposed lack of minority-owned business partners, when the points originally subtracted on those grounds were taken away not due to anything really lacking with the Hunt-Gibbs arrangement, but only due to a technicality stemming from an error made by airport officials themselves. Second, the new committee this time gave proper credit for a key advantage Hunt Gibbs offered in terms of costs.

Also, Hunt this time was given proper credit for extensive experience in building other airport terminals.

Absent any weird developments after yesterday’s Review Committee recommendation, the Aviation Board will be asked within a couple of weeks to ratify the decision and officially award the contract to Hunt Gibbs. Let’s hope no jokers show up in this deck, and no undue political interference emerges, so that the Aviation Board can give the go-ahead and get the construction schedule on track.

Vitter Wrong on Common Core; Dardenne Straddles Before Kowtowing

U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, both hoping to be elected governor next year, clearly are putting their hopes with big business rather than with grassroots conservatives and parents.

Vitter’s surprisingly strong embrace this week of the Common Core educational standards is ignorant and probably somewhat Machiavellian, as he knows darn well that big-money interests line up overwhelmingly behind the Core.

Dardenne, meanwhile, sent a letter to the editor of The Advocate that seemed to straddle the fence, but on Friday he forcefully clarified to Advocate reporters and to his own supporters that he still strongly supports the standards. This does comport with his long-stated position — although how it squares with his July 30 letter’s demand for Louisiana to “establish its own standards and tests” is quite a conundrum — but, combined with Vitter’s stance, it leaves the grassroots bereft of a candidate for 2015.

I’d like to see either of them explain what makes the Core, in Vitter’s words, “very strong, significant, positive standards.” I guarantee they aren’t using Common Core arithmetic when adding up the donations they hope to get from the business community in return for this stance. It would take too long, and their astronomical numbers would probably be in error.

Both Republicans were critical of the way Gov. Bobby Jindal has tried to unilaterally jettison the Core, rather than working through the normal legislative process — and in that, they have a good point. But it’s hard to understand how either could say, with a straight face, that locals could maintain (again quoting Vitter, but my emphasis added) “complete control over curriculum” when there’s an entire industry, specifically promoted through links from the Common Core website, growing up around the notion that only certain texts and tests can call themselves “Core-aligned.”

The truth is that there was nothing wrong, and plenty right, with Louisiana’s existing LEAP standards. Louisiana’s numbers on educational attainment, where they still lagged, were the result not of insufficient standards but of a starting point of low socio-economic status in numerous communities, along with curriculum and possibly teaching (in some areas) that wasn’t up to par. But test scores have been rising along with the implementation of school choice (especially in New Orleans), and I have yet to see anybody explain why Louisiana should risk this progress and kowtow to national educrats and their unproven instructional theories.

Vitter and Dardenne both claim to be conservatives. But just about every conservative think tank in the country, along with most thoughtful conservative columnists (such as George Will) and educators, opposes Common Core and provides multiple reasons for doing so. If even the supposed conservatives in the race for governor support this boondoggle, who will speak for the parents?

Common Core Needs Special Session

The asininity level has reached new heights, or rather depths, from all sides of Louisiana’s battle over the Common Core education standards. Common Core supporters offered asinine reasons, or rather non-reasons, in support of the Core during this year’s regular legislative session. The Jindal team in recent weeks made asinine insinuations that state school superintendent John White isn’t merely wrong on the topic but perhaps “corrupt.” A charter school organization, in an asinine misunderstanding of its own best interests, joined a group of parents and others in filing a lawsuit against the Jindal administration to force it to back off its anti-Core actions. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education today took the asinine step of joining that lawsuit. Later today, Jindal took the asinine step of intervening in the suit, by using presumably expensive outside counsel to make what is more a philosophical point than a legal one, while further entering Jindal in the “I can sound like Rick Perry too” national conservative presidential sweepstakes.

Enough already.

Rather than embroiling the state in so many suits and counter-suits that it will take a Dickensian eon to unravel them (see Jarndyce v. Jarndycein the novel Bleak House), all sides should stop wasting money on lawyers and tying up the courts, and instead solve this through ordinary representative processes. A special session should be in order. (About which, more, momentarily.)

Let’s unpack, far too quickly, why each step has been asinine.

First, even though the topic of Common Core created considerable sturm und drang during the legislative session, it actually catalyzed very little cogent debate. Opponents repeatedly were treated rudely, while some legislators pronounced themselves in favor of Common Core before asking what it was. A committee chairman took to cyberspace to offer embarrassing pablum in favor of the Core, while the governor, suddenly opposed to it, barely lifted a finger to actually persuade legislators in his direction. In short, the spectacle was asinine.

Jindal made matters worse by sending out his minions to question Superintendent White’s integrity. For that matter, his original press release announcing Louisiana’s “withdrawal” from the Core focused far more on his policy disagreements with the Core than on his legal reason (or pretext) of saying BESE’s procurement process for the Core-aligned tests was flawed. (The administration later tried just to emphasize the procurement issue, but that didn’t explain the governor’s unilateral “termination of [Louisiana's] participation in the Common Core.” If anybody thinks Jindal’s aim was merely the dutiful attempt to enforce a state law, rather than to curry favor with national conservative audiences, they are more gullible than TV’s Gilligan.)

Then came the lawsuit by the parents and the charter school group. Most of the suit sounds like a policy argument devolving into a whine session, but it does eventually make some points actually relevant to legally actionable claims. That’s not what was asinine. What was asinine was that the “Choice Foundation,” an otherwise excellent group which runs three admirable charter schools in New Orleans, chose to stick its nose into the morass of the courts. It did so against its own best long-term interests. To wit:

One of the biggest policy arguments (among many other good ones) against Common Core is that is probably will have the tendency to homogenize instructional methods, curriculum, and other educational practices nationwide. One of the beauties of charter schools is that they resist homogenization in favor of innovation, particularity, and an understanding that different strokes work for different folks. Inherent in that idea is the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that, to the greatest extent possible, decisions be made and implemented at the most local level practicable. This key aspect of charter schools thus runs directly contrary to the Core’s nationalizing impulse. For the Choice Foundation to join this suit amounts to an illogical fit of pique rather than a wise use of time and resources. (And yes, I read its explanation of the “harm” it will supposedly suffer due to the governor’s actions, and I just don’t buy it.)

Today, BESE upped the ante by joining that lawsuit. It did not need to do so. There’s even a question as to whether it has the authority to hire its own counsel to do so. The layering of lawyers (or is that lawyering of layers?) further complicates an already awful situation, and further raises the legal stakes for all involved.

Then came the administration with what, at first glance, appeared to be a rather ludicrous “third party demand” — an intervention in this same lawsuit — by the governor to nullify something called a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between BESE and a Core-aligned outfit known by the acronym PARCC (which also provides the material for the tests at issue in the procurement controversy). It does so on the basis of a legitimate doctrine, questionably applied. The doctrine is known as “non-delegation,” and in layman’s terms it means that a public body may not delegate its authority to a private entity or an entity outside of the state.  Yet by the very terms of the MOU cited by the administration’s lawsuit — an MOU originally signed by Jindal himself — the “authority” being delegated is revocable by the state at any time, so BESE retains control (without threat of penalty) over whether or not to participate in PARCC’s processes. That hardly seems, to an outside observer, to be an illegal delegation of BESE’s responsibility.

It’s all rather complicated. Let’s simplify it: Jindal in effect is yelling “state sovereignty” at the top of his lungs, trying to get attention back from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is gaining ground in the Republican presidential sweepstakes by making valid points about state sovereignty with regard to the border crisis and the Obama administration’s perfidy related thereto.

All of which leads to this: It’s horrible public policy to rush to the courts, which take months or years to rule, to solve what really amounts to a policy dispute, while holding children, parents and school hostage to the political battle. This should be a matter handled not by judges, but by the people’s elected representatives. Those representatives did a pathetic job this year in their so-called consideration of whether or not to withdraw from Common Core. They were dealing with hundreds of other issues at the same time, and few legislators even had a clue what they were really talking about.

Jindal should call a special session devoted to the Common Core issue, alone, and then use all his persuasive ability to try to move legislators his way. Those of us who oppose Common Core would cheer him on, all the while. Legislators would be forced to own up to their decisions, sole-focused, without excuses. And the public could watch how outside players — lobbyists and campaign donors — influence the proceedings.

It would be a donnybrook. But it would last a finite time period. A decision would be made, one way or the other. And, afterwards, education could move forward.

Jindal Administration’s Unfortunate Insinuation

I start writing this as I am still listening to a phone press conference by Jindal Chief of Staff Kyle Plotkin, about the governor’s meeting with State school superintendent John White regarding procurement contracts relating to the state’s school tests (which, of course, are related to the overall debate about the Common Core standards, although Plotkin went to great pains to say that the meeting in this case was only about procurement and not about the Core). I write to suggest that Plotkin should walk back some of his comments, or at least disavow some unfortunate implications thereof.

Clearly, there is a dispute between Jindal and White both about Common Core and about how the testing contract was done (sole-sourced, or no-bid, rather than openly bid). There seems to be a difference of legal opinion as to whether that bid process is in accordance with state law. It seems to me at very first glance that Jindal’s team has the better legal argument, but that is immaterial to the point I am about to make. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Jindal is right about the law. Even so, it could well be that White or his staff misinterpreted the law, or were unaware of its provisions, or some other honest explanation.

Yet, repeatedly in the phone conference, Plotkin stressed that Jindal made a great point with White of recounting the state’s history of “corruption” and of stressing that such corruption is what Jindal has pledged to put an end to. In that light, said Plotkin, Jindal stressed how important it is that White follow the law.

Note the context. This goes beyond Jindal explaining what he thinks the law is, or why his interpretation of the law must govern White’s actions, or any other legitimate reason why White should cry uncle. This goes beyond any assumption that there is an honest difference of opinion. The obvious subtext is not just that White is wrong, but that he is willfully and deliberately wrong. One doesn’t bring up “corruption” in such circumstances unless one is insinuating that there is corruption afoot. (Or, it could be a hamhanded way of scene setting by Jindal, trying to explain why he must be an absolute stickler for the law, in light of the past corruption, but without intending to suggest corruption on White’s part. It’s a stretched interpretation, but at least it’s possible.)

But here’s what is troubling: If it was just a vague scene setter, rather than an insinuation of something worse, why would Plotkin mention it repeatedly in the press conference? Why would he continue to raise the specter of “corruption” rather than of just a legal disagreement?

I asked, quite specifically, if Plotkin really meant to raise the possibility of deliberate malfeasance. I think it was clear that I meant to give him a chance to walk back the noxious inference, made about Jindal’s hand-picked superintendent.

Plotkin didn’t budge. He refused to offer any olive branch at all to White. He left my question hanging, by saying (and, alas, I didn’t get the exact quote) again words to the effect that “White must follow the law, period.”

Look, I oppose Common Core. I also think Jindal is right that the testing contract should have been open to public bid. But I have seen not an iota of evidence to suggest deliberate malfeasance, or “corruption,” on White’s part. And I think it behooves the Jindal administration to quickly, publicly, and graciously clear up such a misimpression.

If not, then it obviously is not an unintended misimpression, but instead a virtual allegation of wrongdoing. Now, unless the administration has evidence we don’t know about — in which case, the evidence should be released, forthwith — then the insinuation must be assumed to be a deliberate assault on White’s reputation for integrity. From what I’ve seen, such an assault is unwarranted.

And if it’s unwarranted, there’s a word for what the administration just did. The word is “smear.” It’s dirty pool. And it should not stand.

 

 

Scalise wood

Scalise Brought the Wood

Saints Coach Sean Payton and former U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston served as exemplars for a bit of inspirational fun that Jefferson’s U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise had with his organizational team the night before his victory in this week’s race for Majority Whip of the House of Representatives.

Several weeks ago, Scalise was dining with friend and informal political advisor Rick Legendre, the former longtime district representative for Livingston when Livingston served southeast Louisiana in Congress. This was a week or two before House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was upset in his re-election primary in Virginia. Having no idea that a race would be upon them so soon, Scalise and Legendre were talking about Scalise’s hopes to run for Whip after the fall elections, or at whatever later time a spot opened up. Legendre suggested that in the course of any such race, Scalise should have some fun while firing up his supporters by imitating the motivational tool Payton used to start the 2010 playoff run that led to the Saints’ famous Super Bowl victory. Payton had handed out baseball bats to his players, telling them to “bring the wood” to the Arizona Cardinals.  Considering that Baton Rouge-based Marucci Sports is the major provider of bats for Major League Baseball, Legendre figured they could get the bats made in a jiffy if needed.

Within 48 hours of Cantor’s unexpected loss, Scalise called Legendre and asked him, quite literally, to bring the wood. Marucci was able to do a quick turn-around of some distinctive, deep-red bats and have them delivered to Scalise earlier this week. The bats were inscribed with the words “Bring the wood! Scalise Whip Team 2014. Geaux!!!”

At the end of his team’s last organizational meeting, Wednesday night before the Thursday vote, Scalise surprised his colleagues with the lumber, and his fellow congressmen reportedly exited the meeting brandishing the bats and laughing, full of enthusiasm for the election.

Just as it did with the Saints, the “wood” let to an overwhelming victory for Scalise.

The Saints, however, were only one of the inspirations for the idea. Legendre also had remembered another catchy bit of symbolism that helped set the tone for some major accomplishments back in the 1990s. When Livingston took over as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in January of 1995 — the first Republican Approps chair in 40 years — he was on a mission to achieve nearly unprecedented savings in federal domestic discretionary spending. (In other words, on items other than defense or entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.) Opening his first committee meeting, laughing, Livingston pulled out a glisteningly sharp alligator skinning knife and said something along these lines: “I told you we will cut the budget, and I mean it. We’re going to cut carefully, even surgically, so we don’t harm any essential services, but we’ll use sharp knives. This (pulls out knife) is what I call my ‘Cajun scalpel.’ It’s tough enough and sharp enough for alligator hide, but it can be wielded with precision!”

After the laughter died down, Livingston said: “Now, if that doesn’t work to save enough taxpayer money, or if you people won’t do cooperate with surgical cuts, then we’ll use THIS!” From under his desk, Livingston pulled out a huge Bowie knife, twice as big as his alligator skinner. And, to howls of laughter, Livingston added: “And if we can’t get the job done that way, well, then we’ll really get serious!”

With that, Livingston pulled out a very large machete and made an exaggerated hacking motion.

By that time, aides had passed out to every Approps member a lapel button featuring an image of the alligator skinning knife along with the words “Cajun Scalpel.” The good-natured, can-do spirit was so infectious that ever several of the committee Democrats left the room wearing the buttons.

(Alas, most of the media garbled the story and missed Livingston’s point that he wanted his savings to be deep but surgically precise; instead, most reports just focused on the machete and the image of crazy Republicans madly hacking away at supposedly popular programs. Oh, well.)

Anyway, Livingston’s committee did succeed in entirely eliminating 300 duplicative programs while saving $50 billion in actual dollars (not from projected increases) in just two years. And the Saints went on to win the Super Bowl. Scalise now can hope that his experience as whip will be equally successful.

After all, it’s pretty darn hard for anybody not to like a little Louisiana theatricality and humor, expressive of Louisianan’s famous joie de vivre. 

Transparency in Insurance

One bill that flew under the radar in the recently completed state legislative session, but which could prove extremely beneficial, was HB 909, which will require far greater transparency within the home insurance industry. This, in turn, eventually could help counteract any unwarranted maltreatment of home owners in coastal zones, which especially since Hurricane Katrina have faced much higher rates and much more difficulty in purchasing any homeowner insurance at all.

Alabama passed a similar “Clarity Bill” a couple of years ago, and the data collected as a result showed that coastal zones were not nearly as much at risk for greater damages as most people would assume, or as insurance companies want to charge them for via higher premiums, deductibles, etc.  For one thing, hurricanes and tropical storms tend to cause significant wind damage and river flooding well inland in addition to the obvious damage to the coasts. For another, inland counties tend to be more susceptible to major tornadic activity, of the sort that flattened parts of Tuscaloosa in 2011. Therefore, the higher premiums and deductibles, and even redlining of entire coastal zones, may not be warranted after all — or at least not to anywhere near the degree that they now exist.

In the short run, this information can be used by state authorities to force the insurance companies to more nearly equalize the rates between coastal counties and inland counties. But the ultimate goal isn’t to create a war within states by pitting the coast against everybody else. Instead, the goal is to set the stage for a national alliance of all states within a “coastal band,“ to create its own separate risk pool for insurance in a way that isn’t so costly, in part by avoiding exorbitant “re-insurance” rates by international companies unduly assuming that the coasts are more at risk.

After New York and New Jersey suffered from Superstorm Sandy, the odds are better for non-Gulf states to want to join such a coastal band. Eventually, say the coastal band activists, they hope that every state with an ocean or Gulf coastline will join the band and, with such a large swath of the citizenry affected, be able to have enough strength in numbers to force “a more logical private/state/federal partnership on natural disasters.”

Governor Jindal signed HB 909, which at least will make public the accurate data, upon which any reform movement will rely.

Aviation Board Gets it Half Right

The New Orleans Aviation Board avoided a horrid rush to judgment today in the contracting process to build a new airport terminal, but now it has made the opposite mistake of pushing off judgment too long. The new mistake is of admittedly lesser magnitude than the first would have been, but it’s still a bit problematic.

My column yesterday explained how the process had been bungled by a special Review Committee, which certainly looked as if it mis-scored both the original bids and a tie-breaking assessment after the two contract bids were afforded exactly equal assessment scores the first time.

The Aviation Board, to its great credit, took the concerns seriously. It would have been foolhardy to award the contract today to the international Parsons-Odebrecht group in the face of the multiple existing controversies.  So it didn’t do so. It decided to push the “pause” button for the process.

Good. As Mayor Mitch Landrieu rightly said in a message read to the board before the board made its decision today, this $546 million project is of utmost importance for the future not just of the city but of southern Louisiana — so Louisiana must get it right. Hitting the pause button will increase the chances of doing just that.

So what’s the problem? The board threw out the baby with the bath water

Rather than choosing to pause just a month while itself taking over a detailed review of the contract bids (thus taking into account the Review Committee’s existing work but not crediting its conclusions), the Aviation Board decided to completely junk the existing bids and to put forth an entirely new Request for Proposal (RFP). The upshot is that the pause in the process surely will be at least three months, not just one. (I expect it will take longer: several weeks at least to create the new RFP and possibly to name a new Review Committee, plus probably three more months on top of that for the bidders to submit their proposals and have them assessed by the committee and then considered by the Aviation Board.) This will make it far harder to have the project ready for the city’s Tricentennial celebration in 2018.

Furthermore, while fairness to the bidders is less important in the long run than getting the best deal and especially the best final product, it remains true that fairness to the bidding companies is an important component of getting the best deal and product. Why? Because any company or partnership that games the systemduring bidding seems more likely to game the process (and cut corners) in the actual construction phase for the new terminal. Yet by creating a new RFP, the board opens the door for the system to be gamed in two ways: either by shenanigans on the front end, by insiders massaging the new RFP to better fit one of the existing bids over the other; or on the back end, by one of the bidders mis-using the information from its competitor’s original proposal.

When federal projects are re-bid, this is exactly what sometimes has happened — most notably recently when the Gulf Coast lost an immense, apparently-won bid to build new air tankers after pressure from Boeing forced a re-start to the whole process, in a way that definitively disfavored the earlier advantages of Boeing’s competitor.

But what’s done is done. A entirely restarted process is better than a rushed decision that ignores anomalies and surely would attract a lawsuit. The Board (and the mayor) are to be commended for getting this procedural decision at least half right.

Now comes the crucial consideration for Round Two: At least some of the membership of the Review Committee should be changedOne of the controversies in Round One stemmed from a potential for bias by committee member Cedric Grant, the deputy mayor, and two of his employees also on the committee, because Grant once worked for one of the two bidders. Grant and his two employees may have meant well and may have done fine work on the committee, but they should not be appointed to the new committee. Indeed, the mayor’s existing staff should have far less representation on the committee in toto — not because he doesn’t have good staff, but in order to avoid the appearance of a politicized process.

Surely there are other people with the requisite backgrounds to sit on the Review Committee.

There are probably no “bad guys”here. But there are indeed some bad impressions that must be corrected in the name of public confidence.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Maybe the same two partnerships will again be the only ones to submit new bids, after seeing the new RFP. Maybe Parsons will win again, fair and square – or maybe not. Maybe one or both of the earlier bidders will give up the ghost, while a third or fourth bidder emerges. No matter what happens, it is in everybody’s interest to keep politics out of the process and make competence and cost the true, deciding factors. It is also in everybody’s interest for the Aviation Board itself to familiarize itself far more intimately with the bid details, so it can better adjudge, the second time, whether the (new) Review Committee has done its own job well.

A good Aviation Board and good mayor can and must get this right. Here’ s hoping that today’s delaying action turns out to be the pause that refreshes.

 

Two-and-a-quarter Cheers for Mary Landrieu

For the first time (as far as I can tell) in the Obama presidency, Louisiana’s U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has voted against the administration on a judicial nominee (or important Justice Department nominee, too, for that matter). But, in part because of an earlier vote from Sen. Landrieu, the awful nominee remains on track toward probable confirmation.

I had written about nominee David Barron, and Sen. Landrieu’s political discomfort relating to him, here. Barron is a radical’s radical who advocates almost unlimited judicial latitude to ignore the law and guiding precedents in order to reach “progressive” ends, and he is particularly hostile to private property rights.

First, for whatever reasons she did it, let’s credit Sen. Landrieu for bucking the president today, when she voted against “cloture” (ending debate and thus moving forward with the nomination) for Barron’s consideration. Barron clearly is far more leftist than the majority of Louisiana citizens are  – and a good senator will vote to represent her constituent’s viewpoints unless her own strong principles to the contrary demand a stand, on conscience, against public opinion.

It should be noted, however, that under the formal Senate rules that had existed for more than two centuries until last November, the 52 votes for cloture (of 100 senators) would have fallen eight short — in other words, a virtually insurmountable barrier — of moving forward with Barron’s nomination. In short, the nomination would have failed, as well it should, one way or another. Landrieu voted with Majority Leader Harry Reid to kill the permanent filibuster for all presidential nominees, and thus to pave the way for approval of radicals like Mr. Barron.

Ordinarily, I would not criticize that vote last November by Landrieu. I have long argued that while permanent filibusters against nominees for judgeships might technically have been allowable under Senate rules, those filibusters nonetheless violate longstanding and valuable Senate traditions and also violate fairly clear constitutional intent. I am perfectly happy seeing an up-or-down vote on all judicial nominees who make it through committee (although not necessarily other presidential appointments which don’t involve an entirely separate and putatively nonpartisan branch of government, e.g. the judiciary). That’s what Landrieu’s vote last November helped achieve.

The problem here is Landrieu’s inconsistency on these issues. In 2003, she provided a key vote in favor of the first-ever permanent filibuster against a judicial nominee in American history, and then had joined the so-called “Gang of 14″ who warded off a rules change to formally disallow such filibusters. She argued then that the filibuster should be an inviolable power of a large Senate minority, and that it should therefore be preserved. Having broken tradition by filibustering would-be judges, and then having fought against the rules change that would have outlawed such filibusters, she then voted last year for the very rules change she earlier had pronounced unconscionable. It was that rules change last year that now allows Mr. Barron’s nomination to advance.

All that history aside, Mr. Barron still isn’t a judge quite yet. He still faces a vote on final passage, and there remains a chance that at least three more Democrats will join Sen. Landrieu and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin to kill the nomination then. This assumes that Landrieu’s “no” vote on cloture indicates that she will vote “no” on final passage as well — a position that Landrieu’s constituents ought to let her know they approve.

If Sen. Landrieu does vote against Barron on final passage, Louisianans ought to thank her for doing the right thing. They should thank her even more if she publicly, vocally, and successfully lobbies for her Democratic colleagues to do likewise.

A throwaway vote is one thing; real effort to win a vote is far more useful.