On a recent Friday afternoon, the Interior Department announced a change in rules for US mining companies. (They always announce the outrages on Friday afternoon, because few people read the Saturday papers or watch the Saturday TV news.) Reversing a Clinton-era decision, Interior now says that companies mining precious metals can appropriate as much federal land as they want to dump the waste from their operations—and modern mining techniques generate a great deal of waste. Environmentalists were appalled, not just because of the direct effect on the landscape, but because chemicals can leach out of the exposed waste, polluting a much wider area.
To understand why and how officials made that decision—and why we needn’t waste time parsing the administration’s claims that it was all about promoting economic growth—it helps to have read Chapter 9 of Bushwhacked, by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. That chapter, entitled “Dick, Dubya, and Wyoming Methane,” tells you all you need to know about the Bush Interior Department. We learn, in particular, that J. Steven Griles, the deputy secretary—and probably the real power in the department—has spent his career shuttling back and forth between being a government official and lobbying for the extractive industries. And he has never worried much about ethical niceties—little things like recusing himself from decisions that affect his former clients. Moreover, Griles isn’t likely to be disciplined, even when he brazenly supports industry interests over the judgments of government experts. After all, just about every other senior official at Interior, including Secretary Gale Norton, has a similar résumé.
So it’s a very good bet that the new rules on mining-waste disposal don’t reflect a careful economic analysis of the pros and cons. Nor, by the way, do they represent a general ideological bias in favor of free markets and private property, since this wasn’t a ruling about what companies can do on their own property. It was a major extension of their rights to make private use of public land. Or to put it another way, this decision was about extending corporate privilege, not protecting property rights. Needless to say, this particular extension of privilege was worth a lot of money to a select group of mining companies—a very nice return on their prior investment in the Bush administration, not just through campaign contributions, but through deals that enriched individual government officials.
The point about the mining-waste ruling is that it isn’t at all exceptional. Instead, it is typical of the Bush administration—in its callousness toward the general welfare, in the brazenness with which special interests were able to buy a decision to their liking, and in the contempt officials showed toward the public and the press. (Indeed, the ruling received only brief mention in the national press.) We’re living in a replay of the Gilded Age, in which robber barons openly bought and sold government officials and their policies. And just as the Gilded …