Audit D.C. Notes: The Disappearing Watchdog, Dinner—and Dollars—with a Staffer, Tax Help Needed

Our comrades-in-criticism at the American Journalism Review are out with an important piece about the alarming decline of watchdog reporting at federal agencies and departments.

Jodi Enda, a pal of mine who wrote the story, has done great work here, looking at the shifting Washington media landscape and shrinking staffs at most D.C. bureaus, declaring that “the dearth of in-depth government reporting is palpable.”

As daily newspapers continue to shed Washington bureaus and severely slash their staffs, fewer reporters than ever are serving as watchdogs of the federal government. Rare is the reporter who is assigned to cover one of the many federal departments, agencies or bureaus that are not part of the daily news cycle. Even if they are large, even if they are central to how Americans live their lives, most parts of the federal government—the very offices that write the rules and execute the decisions of Congress and the president—remain uncovered or undercovered by the mainstream media. Consider that not one newspaper has a reporter who works in the newsroom of the Department of Agriculture, which, with a staff of 104,000, is one of the government’s largest employers. Trade publications and bloggers pick up a bit of the slack but have neither the audience nor the impact of more traditional media outlets.

And so, while reporters flock to the story of the day, on the Hill, at the White House, or maybe at the Pentagon, they’re leaving uncovered all kinds of other stories—about regulation, and what’s going on, and not going on, at government offices across the capital—with real life consequences.

Enda uses coverage of the Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion to powerful effect, noting that The Washington Post and The New York Times “produced lengthy exposés detailing a plethora of safety breaches that preceded the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in a quarter century”—but only after 29 miners lost their lives.

Just one Washington-based newspaper reporter covers the Mine Safety and Health Administration “on anything close to a regular basis.” But, as a one-man bureau for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, he has a lot of other things to do, too.

Carroll, who has won numerous awards for regional reporting from Washington, says he keeps tabs on MSHA “when they’re proposing safety initiatives and when they’re not putting out safety initiatives…With MSHA, we try to revisit issues that nobody else is covering.” For years, he’s been tracking government activity on “float dust,” coal dust that floats in the air and can lead to black lung disease and cause fires in underground mines. In the 1990s, the Courier-Journal reported that mining companies were falsifying records on coal dust, prompting the federal government to crack down.

“Over the years since then we’ve tried to revisit this story from time to time, absent any immediate event,” Carroll says. “With the changing administrations, now it looks like there is going to be some new energy coming up with regulations on coal dust.”

As AJR is smart to point out, “It is those types of stories, the ‘in-between’ ones that track government’s progress or lack of it, that so many Washington reporters either choose to or are forced to skip.” Some don’t think it’s sexy enough. Others just don’t have the time.

Big Chief Audit Dean Starkman has been worrying about the hamster-wheel-like productivity demands plaguing journalism these days, and the regional reporters that Enda speaks with are confronting them every day. Here’s the Courier-Journal’s James Carroll, on how he copes:

“It’s a real challenge because you have day-to-day things that are breaking all the time. And you have additional responsibilities, like blogs,” Carroll says. “You have to treat your enterprise stories like daily stories… Otherwise, you’ll never get to them.”

There’s much more to the AJR piece, including a perhaps too-quick look at some of the new media outlets that are filling the gap, some not-too-persuasive comments from editors about the paucity of coverage, and a chart that builds on work the magazine has done before on this topic to illustrate the declining attention to agencies and departments.

Enda left me with plenty to think about, like whether The Washington Post sees a role for itself in filling this gap (I think it should) and what the business-side folks at these papers have to say about their coverage choices.

As I said, it’s an important piece. It’s also a long one, and well worth the time it takes to read it. Well done.

Roll Call does good work with a story on yet another element of the money-in-politics machine. The paper reports that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is hosting a fundraiser this week, with lobbyists expected to cough up $1,000 for dinner. But the big draw for the event isn’t the members of Congress who usually headline these things. Instead, lobbyists are paying for a chance to mingle with about 50 top House staffers.

Ethics watchdogs don’t like it, but the DCCC says it’s not breaking any rules. Roll Call says Republicans do the same thing. And, for reasons that are a bit perverse, this has become a big night on the DCCC calendar:

The event has become an even hotter ticket as lobbyists have fewer chances to interact with staff in social settings following ethics restrictions that bar lobbyists from paying for most staffer entertainment and restaurant tabs.

That still doesn’t make me feel good about it. Neither does this:

Rick Kessler of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies also minimized the amount of official business that actually gets done at dinners like this.

“When you are at something that big, it makes the likelihood of something untoward happening much smaller,” Kessler said. “It’s not intimate in that sense. There’s very little business or shoptalk that I would engage in. It doesn’t feel right.”

Oh, is that supposed to make it OK?

—Jeffrey Sachs started a hot debate with an op-ed in the FT proclaiming that it’s time to prepare for a “post-Keynesian era.”

As Sachs, who directs the Earth Institute at Columbia, sees it:

Mainstream Keynesian economics is facing its last hurrah. The global fiscal stimulus championed last year by the Obama administration is coming undone, repudiated by the same Group of 20 that endorsed it last year. Now, against a backdrop of a widening sovereign debt crisis, we need to abandon short-term thinking in favour of the long-term investments needed for sustained recovery.

Faced with weak demand in the U.S. and Europe, big budget deficits, downgrading of sovereign debt and consumers who don’t want to borrow, governments are wrong to turn to spending cuts, Sachs argues. Instead, he offers five handy guidelines to “reset our macroeconomic timetables,” focusing on long-term investment, not short-term stimulus.

The last one is interesting:

Fifth, governments and the public should insist that the rich pay more in income and wealth taxes – indeed, a lot more. The upward re-distribution of the past 25 years has made our economies into extravagant playgrounds for the super-wealthy. Politicians of both the mainstream left and right in the US and UK have fawned over those who pay their campaign bills in return for low taxation. Even playgrounds should collect tolls – when it is billionaires in the sandpit.

Felix Salmon thinks it’s a nutty idea:

I don’t think this is possible, politically, in either the US or the UK. In the US, the middle classes are implacably opposed to tax hikes on people making more money than they themselves will ever make. I’m not entirely clear on the reasons for this, but I suspect it has something to do with the American Dream of becoming incredibly successful: no one wants to reach that gilded land only to find it full of taxes.

Kevin Drum read that, and turned it into an assignment:

Someone — a journalist or an academic, I’m not sure which — should consider this an assignment desk piece: Why are Americans so unsympathetic to higher taxes on zillionaires? Does it really have something to do with an unfounded optimism about themselves someday becoming rich? I’ve heard this explanation a thousand times, but there’s really never any evidence for it except for one thing: an old poll (which I can’t locate just at the moment) showing that 19% of Americans think that someday they’ll be millionaires. The problem is that (a) it’s just one poll and (b) it’s still only 19%. If that were really the reason Americans were opposed to taxing the rich, we’d still have about 80% of the country in favor.

It’s a good point, and one that should get an answer—or at least some examination—as the debate over taxes and spending heats up.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at