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Will Sandy Haunt Current Governors Long After the Storm?

David Rothkopf grapples with the question Jonathan asked yesterday: Will Hurricane Sandy have a discernible impact on politics in the home stretch of the presidential campaign? Rothkopf’s answer is an emphatic Yes. He outlines three main areas the political conversation is susceptible to Sandy’s disruption, avoiding the topic of turnout on Election Day in favor of looking a bit farther into the future.

The most interesting of these, and where I think Rothkopf may hit the nail on the head, is in the way attitudes may change toward making preparations for such storms, especially if Sandy does the damage many fear. But I would make a slight adjustment to the winners and losers, politically speaking, of a population seeking to cast blame on political leadership deemed to have its priorities terribly askew. Rothkopf writes:

Next, Sandy will also remind Americans and the world of the foolishness of some recent U.S. fetishes. I live in Washington, D.C., ostensibly the nerve center of the U.S. national security apparatus and target No. 1 for anyone interested in attacking America. The city is surrounded by military facilities and is home to a Department of Homeland Security that spends billions of dollars seeking to protect America against disruption. Yet this storm, like virtually all others of any size, will almost certainly knock out power to many of our nation’s leaders and the infrastructure on which our government depends for days. The city has already been brought to a standstill. Could burying power lines and strengthening critical infrastructure prevent all that? Of course. But is it as sexy as buying more drones, water boards, and stealth helicopters? Nope.

But what if the federal government were responsible for national security and state and local governments responsible for some of those infrastructure improvements, especially ones that would make a noticeable dent in the public’s frustration? In fact, that is the case already. Contra Rothkopf, improvements in storm-related public infrastructure are not being sacrificed on the altar of “sexy” drones and water boards (an odd choice of words, to be sure).

For example, the notoriously unresponsive power company Pepco, scourge of Montgomery County, Maryland, could plausibly be reined in. Recently, after a storm knocked out power for days there, Gregg Easterbrook, a MoCo resident, took to the pages of the Atlantic to warn Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a comically inept governor who is marching straight at a run for the White House, that his inability to get Pepco under control could, and should, follow him on his quest for more power. Easterbrook wrote:

You’ve already guessed that your correspondent lives in a Pepco-served neighborhood of Montgomery County. I will recount just the recent outrages in my neighborhood: In 2010, three extended power failures of at least three days’ duration, plus four hour-long failures. In 2011, a three-day outage, plus five failures of at least two hours. In 2012, two multiple-hour failures before the current outage. At noon Monday, on the fourth day of the latest failure, I checked the Pepco website for my neighborhood. It said, “No crew assigned.”

How does Pepco get away with this? Maryland’s Public Service Commission is a notorious lapdog, in part because although Maryland local government traditionally is clean, the Maryland statehouse traditionally is corrupt….

Pepco faces a simple reliability equation: The more it spends on improving service, the less is available for dividends and executive bonuses. CEO Rigby is a major shareholder, so in effect awards himself a commission when he keeps infrastructure spending low and dividends high. After the mega-thunderstorm, Dominion Power took 14 hours to restore all its transformers and main feeder lines — this is the first step in any utility’s storm recovery — while Pepco took 36 hours. That’s because Pepco transformers were in poor repair when the storm hit, despite an advertising campaign promising improvements. Within 48 hours of the storm, Dominion had 2,000 out-of-state workers present to assist in restoration; Pepco had just 300. If Pepco drags its feet on recovery, the utility avoids paying doubletime or tripletime, plus expenses, to out-of-state crews. And Pepco knows it can drag its feet without any risk of action by Maryland regulators.

Given how bad Pepco is, O’Malley would seem to have a tremendous opportunity to make his mark as a reformer, bringing a tainted regulatory hierarchy to heel. This is especially true because Maryland law assigns all authority over power utilities to the state level — there’s nothing the Montgomery County Council can do. If O’Malley runs for the presidency, his performance in Annapolis would be expected to be his strongest credential.

If Rothkopf is right, and the strengthening of infrastructure in anticipation of more wind storms suddenly becomes a major national political issue, O’Malley will just as suddenly have among the country’s worst resumes for higher political office. If the public gets tired of blaming Mother Nature and decides it is being ill-served by its politicians, O’Malley—considered by everyone to be among the high-profile candidates for president in 2016 and whose campaign, at the expense of Marylanders, has effectively already started—will be the poster-boy for malfeasance and ineffective leadership. Even worse, that reputation will be on an issue that—again, if Rothkopf is right—may soon be elevated to the level of national security, always considered the first duty of the commander-in-chief.

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