Senator Rand Paul, hoping to become president, says he is a tight-fisted libertarian working on behalf of beleaguered Americans to cut spending and stop waste.
But if you look at what he has done, rather than what he says, a completely different story emerges.
In just one deal, Paul wasted a quarter-billion dollars. The terms resemble the old Soviet central planning model, which Paul claims he abhors.
Paul’s role in the deal, which propped up two big Kentucky enterprises at the expense of millions of Americans living in the Pacific Northwest, has gotten no attention from the political reporters covering his campaign. Instead of scrutinizing his actions, they just quote what he says, while serving up frivolous stories that are as cheap as they are easy to throw together.
Just based on what Paul says, there is plenty to examine. He has a habit of getting facts completely wrong. You seldom hear about fabrications and errors, however, unless an opponent points them out. Political reporters tend to just quote candidates without checking facts or challenging assumptions.
While Paul boasts that he underspent his Senate office budget by $1.8 million since 2011, many members of Congress do the same. Just ahead of his presidential campaign announcement, he spent tax dollars on a makeover of his Senate website to make it look less focused on rural Kentucky and more on Paul as a supposedly visionary leader. That got little coverage.
Grover Norquist calls Paul “a taxpayer advocate,” and many news reports cast him as a friend of taxpayers.
What you probably have not read is that the junior Kentucky senator wants to fully tax wages, while letting plutocrats enjoy tax-free dividends, interest, and capital gains.
But the quote that invites serious examination of Paul’s record is this one from his presidential campaign announcement: “Too often when Republicans have won, we’ve squandered our victory by becoming part of the Washington machine. That’s not who I am.”
Oh yes, he is, as we shall see.
The supposed champion of all things libertarian and sponsor of a bill to eviscerate unions by imposing so-called right-to-work laws nationally got in bed with the most progressive industrial union in America, the United Steelworkers. Political necessity won out over libertarian principles.
Paul’s actions preserved several hundred jobs at a bankrupt government-enabled corporation until after the 2012 elections. Had those workers and others whose jobs were tied to the deal been laid off before the elections, it would have hurt Republicans facing voters in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.
Paul did not act alone. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Boehner, the House Speaker, joined in. So did Senator Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat.
The deal involved converting uranium from old Soviet nuclear bombs into fuel for a West Coast nuclear power plant. The bomb material had already been downgraded to power plant fuel, but piles of very low-grade leftovers remained.
Reprocessing the leftovers kept inefficient coal-fired electric power plants burning Kentucky coal, which in turn eased the troubled finances of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the New Deal era project that brought electricity to Appalachia.
Paul says that he opposes government-sponsored utilities like the TVA, yet here he was helping it avoid losing 5 percent of its output until after the 2012 elections.
A government-sponsored private company in Paducah, Kentucky, the United States Enrichment Corporation, purchased the electricity from TVA. The company was bankrupt but continued operating, thanks to Paul and other lawmakers making the deal and slipping a $62 million subsidy into a spending bill. (The firm has since been reborn as Centrus).
Paul claims to oppose special-interest subsidies and anything that even looks like an earmark, making the subsidy especially worthy of scrutiny by campaign reporters. Don’t hold your breath.
The leftover uranium was 2,499 parts nonradioactive material to one part uranium. Reprocessing raised the ratio to 249 parts to one, the level needed in electric generating plants.
This fuel was reworked using antiquated technology developed in the 1940s.
Generating electricity to run the outdated equipment burned 20 times more coal than modern technology requires. That was awful for the environment, but good for keeping Kentucky coal miners employed, mine owners prosperous, and the TVA paying its bills.
The plant also leaked Freon, a coolant that the U.S. started phasing out decades earlier. When Freon escapes into the atmosphere, it rises to the ozone layer. The ozone layer protects humans and other life from ultraviolet solar radiation. Freon eats ozone, endangering everyone.
Paducah plant leakage in 2012 accounted for 68 percent of all the Freon released into the atmosphere, federal records show.
“I’m against pollution and think we should minimize pollution,” Paul says. I cannot find any record of a journalist pressing him to square that statement with the Freon fiasco.
The reprocessed uranium was sold to the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) in the Pacific Northwest. BPA is a federal utility similar to TVA. Paul described the deal as a bargain that would save money all around, a position his spokesman confirmed to me last year.
BPA operates the only nuclear power plant in the Pacific Northwest, which in some months has so much hydropower from the Columbia River that every fossil-fuel plant must shut down lest the overabundance of juice melt transmission cables.
The uranium can run the BPA nuke for many years. However, BPA did not need the fuel. The power plant is nearing the end of its life.
A new report this month analyzed the costs of the uranium deal. Rather than saving money, BPA wasted $250 million buying fuel years in advance and storing it.
Utility economist Robert McCullough made the calculations after filing requests for BPA’s internal records. “I used their data, their economic modeling,” said McCullough, whose work I have found consistently reliable over many years.
You might think $250 million being wasted would have made every newspaper and broadcast news program in Oregon and Washington, where the burden comes to about $90 for every family of four.
The group that sponsored the report, Oregon and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, contacted news outlets big and small, said Chuck Johnson, who runs its nuclear power task force.
Total coverage: this National Memo column.
Paul’s deal worked like a hidden tax on people and businesses in the Pacific Northwest. Their pockets were drained to subsidize Kentuckians and help Republicans in the 2012 elections. That is precisely the kind of economic activity that Paul claims he opposes, asserting such transfers both morally wrong and economically inefficient.
Also not covered in Kentucky or anywhere else, except for my reporting, is the anti-market nature of the deal Rand Paul championed. As Christopher Paine of the National Resources Defense Council told me: “This was not a business deal, it was exactly like the old Soviet deals in the days of Soviet central planning.”
If journalists accurately quote politicians like Paul on what they say they will do, yet pay almost no attention to what they do, how can voters possibly make informed choices? Our democracy is already under assault by plutocrats writing huge checks to trick us into believing what’s good for them is good for America
We need news that is more than recirculating the hot air coming from the mouths of politicians. Without it, our democracy will have as much substance as, well, recirculated hot air.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr