Opinion

Jack Shafer

Buzz off, Waxman — Congress can’t tell a newspaper how to do business

Jack Shafer
Jan 8, 2014 21:21 UTC

Oh to be a fly on the wall Jan. 15, when Tribune Co. executives meet with the staff of Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., in a command performance to explain the media conglomerate’s plans to spin off its newspapers — which include the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun — into a separate company named Tribune Publishing.

Waxman called for the meeting in mid-December after Tribune filed its blueprint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, arguing in a letter that the restructuring may not “be in the best interests” of his constituents, who live in the Pacific Coast-hugging congressional district that runs inland to include Beverly Hills. The spin-off will essentially defund the newspapers, Waxman argued, specifically the Los Angeles Times, which his district depends on for news. Under the terms of the restructuring, the Tribune Publishing newspapers will pay a cash dividend to Tribune Co. The newspapers will also lose their real estate holdings, forcing them to pay rent for their current facilities.

Waxman worries that the deal endangers the long-term survival of the Los Angeles Times, which like most other newspapers has shrunken its newsroom as advertising and circulation have fallen over the past decade. In a second letter to Tribune, which he also made public, Waxman wrote, “At a minimum, you appear to be putting the profits of the Tribune Co. ahead of the interests of the public in viable local newspapers.” In it, he asked Tribune to forward to his staff a raft of relevant spin-off documents before the Jan. 15 meeting.

Absent evidence of law-breaking by Tribune, how can the company’s restructuring be the business of Congress or Henry Waxman? So far, Waxman hasn’t deployed any bogus rhetoric about the “stakeholders” who read the Los Angeles Times having rights equal to those of the shareholders who actually own the property. But it’s early yet. Waxman may get there soon if Tribune’s executives don’t acquiesce to his charms.

So why doesn’t Tribune tell Waxman to go find a hot place and jump into it? Probably because after it sheds its newspapers, its primary assets will be in the highly-regulated business of broadcasting, where it owns 23 television stations. As a member of the House minority, Waxman can’t cause Tribune much in the way of regulatory trouble now, but what if the House flips? (Waxman was, after all, the chair of the Energy and Commerce committee.) Game theory encourages the Tribune to act the supplicant, perhaps giving Waxman some cheap token for his blessing, and then do basically what it was going to do in the first place.

The unbearable nostalgia for bipartisanship

Jack Shafer
Dec 21, 2012 21:25 UTC

Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) went out in a blaze of mush last week in her farewell speech from the Senate floor. Snowe, the last of Washington’s militant centrists, lamented the demise of bipartisanship in the Senate and the rise of divisiveness in the chamber. Although she didn’t blame anybody in particular for the erosion of comity — after all, naming names is uncivil — it wasn’t really necessary. Everybody knew she was talking about other, more doctrinaire Republicans.

Snowe sought to indemnify herself by saying she wasn’t looking back on “some kind of golden age of bipartisanship” and wasn’t “advocating bipartisanship as some kind of an end unto itself.” Then — like the Janus-faced centrist she is — Snowe looked back lovingly on the golden age of bipartisanship and compromise that passed Medicare and the Civil Rights Act and shook her pre-drenched hankie for the lost “art of legislating.”

In her misery, Snowe has ample company. Political scholars Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have written a whole book (excerpted here) documenting the “dysfunction” Republicans have visited upon Congress with their non-compromising, extremist, anti-bipartisanship, gridlocking ways. Acknowledging that the Democratic Party has abandoned the center, too, Mann and Ornstein offer that at least since Bill Clinton was in office, the party has “hewed to the center-left” on important issues.

Another president is reorganizing government. Again.

Jack Shafer
Jan 17, 2012 01:18 UTC

Newly elected presidents call for the reorganization of the federal government with such regularity that a federal Department of Reorganization should be established to assist them in their attempts to downsize the bureaucracy, eliminate redundant agencies, reduce red tape, cut costs, and tame the out-of-control agencies created and fed by the presidents elected before them. If you’re earnest enough to think that those moves will actually reduce the size or cost of federal government, I’ve got a monument I’d like to sell you.

President Barack Obama originally promised to streamline federal bureaucracy in his 2011 State of the Union speech but only got around to specifics last Friday, as he requested new powers to merge agencies subject to an up-or-down vote by Congress. Obama’s first target: the Commerce Department. He wants to meld the Small Business Administration and five additional trade and business agencies into one body that would replace the Department of Commerce. Obama promised savings of $3 billion over the next decade and to cut 1,000 to 2,000 jobs through attrition over the same period.

The presidential urge to reorganize goes back to Theodore Roosevelt, who established the Keep Commission in 1905 to bring efficiency and accountability to bureaucracy. Scholar Oscar Kraines admiringly called Roosevelt’s attempt to remake Washington in his image “a bold step … to break down the long-existing aim and the tendency of Congress to retain full legislative authority in the management of the public business.” According to political scientist Peri E. Arnold, 11 of 14 presidents elected in the 20th century attempted some sort of governmental reorganization. Congress rightly viewed the Keep Commission as a presidential power grab and has continued to contest similar presidential reorg plans by Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, the Bushes and Bill Clinton — who called his reorganization plan “reinventing government.”

  •