In the week before the Presidential elections, Ronald Reagan made these three decisions:
(1) Reagan pocket-vetoed the Whistleblowers Protection Act which provided safeguards for federal employees who speak out against corruption, waste or other wrongdoing in their agencies and departments. Existing law is too weak and many courageous civil servants, who have blown the whistle, have seen their careers ruined.
The Act, which Reagan vetoed, had been worked on for two years by both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress. It was passed in a bipartisan spirit to detect and stop bad government such as the Pentagon procurement scandals. Wasn’t that what Reagan said he was coming to Washington to do in 1981?
(2) November 5, 1988, Reagan pocket-vetoed legislation that passed Congress overwhelmingly in a bi-partisan drive to limit the amount of advertising on children’s television and require in a general way that television stations “serve the educational and information needs of children” in overall programming.
A number of studies persuaded Congress that advertising to get children to nag their parents into buying junk food, violent toys and sweet drinks were consuming a greater portion of each hour. (European television is prohibited from pitching products to small children.)
Also, reports from groups such as Action for Children’s Television showed a deteriorating quality in children’s programs dominated by animated characters zapping each other and the growing use of commercial brands in the program itself.
Mr. Reagan said that while he was all for improving the quality of children’s television programming, the bill “cannot be reconciled with the freedom of expression secured by our Constitution.” Really, now!
The Supreme Court has ruled that such regulation of the public airwaves by the Federal Communications Commission is very constitutional. About twenty years ago, in the famous Red Lion case, the Court ruled that the free speech rights of the television audience were superior to that of the television company. Apparently, Reagan is playing Supreme Court out of the oval office.
(3) Reagan’s U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would continue inspecting suspected meat processing plants while letting others with better records be on the honor system. For over seventy years, there has been a system of daily continual federal inspection of meat plants to assure consumers that they are not eating the product of dirty, diseased or contaminated meat. All meat carcasses had to pass and be stamped by a federal inspector.
Reagan wants to change that daily inspection of all plants. He has reduced the number of meat inspectors. Other inspectors deemed too conscientious in exercising their duties have been reassigned, harassed or let go. At the same time, reports of plant sanitation problems and chemical residues in meat products increase. Furthermore, Washington spends very little effort in testing meat and poultry for harmful residues from antibiotics, hormones and other drugs.
Last week was the fever pitch of presidential and vice-presidential campaigning. Did you hear any mention of these decisions by Reagan? Did any reporters, assuming they were not blocked out, ask President Reagan, on his campaign trail before selective adoring crowds, about these displays of contempt for good government and consumer health protection?
The answers are no, and they tell us something both about politicians, media, and citizens. That is, politics is very little about matters of importance in particular or philosophies of power in general. It is about image and smear, slogan and hoopla, evasion and insulation from accountability.
The longer this erosion of the potential of democracy continues, the more pain and revulsion and deterioration will prevail in the nation. Election periods cannot be true to a vibrant democracy without the nourishment of engaged citizens before election day. That surely means going behind the smiles and slogans and observing what a President does with his pen.