Salon: Try, if you can, to ignore all the lurid coke-and-sex bombshells contained in the three Department of Interior Inspector General reports about the shenanigans at the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS). The program director who snorted speed off a subordinate’s toaster oven, and made her give him a blow job while driving around the neighborhood. The two “MMS Chicks” who were notorious for getting plastered at conventions and having one-night stands with oil industry employees.
Try — and yes, I know it’s hard — try even to ignore the allegation that one program director told a subordinate that if she could score him some coke during the MMS performance appraisal period, he would increase her performance award. What’s the big deal? Who wouldn’t be motivated by such an incentive? And what’s a little drunken sex and coke binging on government time among friends? It happens to the best of us.
The significance of the three reports delivered by the inspector general to Congress on Wednesday lies not in the prurience of some of the indiscretions, but in the symbolism. The Royalty-in-Kind Program of the U.S. Minerals Management Service is where offshore drilling meets the U.S. government. And gosh, is it ever one heck of a mess. You want a toxic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Just read the reports.
You'll happy to know that this isn't happening now, but in the misty, far-flung past of bustling 2008. This was the Bush administration's scandal and it was bad. The MMS was responsible for leasing federal land for oil and natural gas drilling. And it was corrupt nearly beyond belief. An Inspector General found not only ethical breaches, but criminal misconduct in an agency who's mission had changed under the Bush administration from serving the interests of the American people to making as much money as possible for the oil and gas industry. The agency was basically run by lobbyists, practically guaranteeing malfeasance. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the agency was finally eliminated under Interior Department restructuring.
I don't bring this up to try to distract from the current controversies plaguing the White House, but to make a simple point; as salacious and shocking as it was at the time, no one talks about the MMS scandal anymore. Of course, the Bush administration had four colossal scandals that leap immediately to mind: the failure to take terrorism seriously, resulting in 9/11; the lies and hype about WMD that led to the invasion of Iraq; the awful response to Hurricane Katrina; and the use of torture. There were also warrantless wiretaps, blowing the cover of Valerie Plame, Dick Cheney getting hammered and shooting some poor guy in the face, and some I'm either forgetting or skipping over for the sake of brevity. In the scandal-production department, the Bushies were overachievers.
Still, you'd think that sex and drugs would sustain people's attention. But in the end, people were fired, people were found guilty of crimes, and America moved on. What really sank the story was that beyond the orgy atmosphere, the story became stultifyingly dull. The actual scandal was about the way the payments were made for leases and how those payments were abused. MMS was using a program called "royalties-in-kind" (RIK), where instead of paying rent with actual money, companies would pay in oil and gas, which MMS would then sell to raise revenue. This resulted in a circle-jerk of corruption, with the MMS renting storage for all this oil and gas from pipeline companies and tank farms. All very bad for American consumers and taxpayers -- and all very boring.
What the controversies involving the White House today lack is that easily understandable hook. If the MMS scandal had only been about meth and blow jobs, it might have had more of a lasting impact on the American memory. But the core controversy was something not so accessible. If all you talked about was drug parties and sexual misconduct, you'd be practicing journalistic malpractice because -- as bad as those things were -- they were not the source of the big crimes. And eventually the public just lost interest.
This is the problem Republicans face with Benghazi -- except they don't even have sex parties and drugs to work with. The GOP timeline for their scandal is hopelessly convoluted and overly-complicated -- Occam's Razor hacks it to bits. You barely even get started explaining it and people's eyes glaze over. Beyond making no sense, the Republican Benghazi story is boring as all get-out and too complicated to follow. As a result, no one but Republicans care and no one but Republicans believe the Republicans.
The Tea Party/IRS controversy has a different problem -- once you take a close look at it, it's hard to see what the supposed "scandal" actually is. It's turning out that the IRS scrutinized organizations on both the left and the right and, of those, turned down tax-exempt status for none of the Tea Party groups. Only a lefty group was denied. Further, people are more likely to start wondering how in Hell a Tea Party group can be classified as a charity and not political. If anything, it highlights a flaw in the system, where political groups are getting a free ride on the taxpayers' dime (and isn't the Tea Party supposed to be against things like that, anyway?). They'll make hay with this and throw around a bunch of victim cards, but -- like Benghazi -- this "scandal" has been on life support since the day it was born.
Finally, there's the AP phone records scandal. That's the one that's probably the most genuine and that's the one Republicans are the least interested in. The problem here: Republicans wanted leaks chased down and they're big fans of monitoring private communications in the name of national security. The media will talk about this one a lot, because it involves themselves and their interests, but Republicans are mainly on a fishing expedition here -- they're hoping someone screwed up and seized phone records illegally. If they don't find evidence of a crime, they're walking away from this one.
Unless Republicans can manage to scare up a good old-fashioned hookers-and-blow scandal -- and only hookers and blow -- their second terms scandal line-up is looking a little weak. They're hoping for Watergate and all they have are Whitewaters.
[photo via Des Moine Register]