February winners (2014)

Best in Governance

Speaker of the House John Boehner

In February, the sweetest sound heard in Washington D.C. was a sigh of relief after Congress came to an unusually speedy agreement on the federal borrowing limit and averted a possible default. The surprising avoidance of expected partisan bickering was accomplished thanks to the leadership of House Speaker John Boehner, our choice for February’s Best in Governance award.

After several months of intense brinksmanship between Congressional Democrats and Republicans over the debt-limit ceiling, Boehner stood in front of a private gathering of Republicans colleagues on February 11 and announced that he would allow a debt-ceiling increase to proceed without further additions, thereby preventing a default more than two weeks ahead of the Treasury Department’s deadline. This decision brought surprise and anger from some members of Boehner’s party, but the bold decision had clear benefits for the future of cooperative governing and the country’s economy.

Wrangling over the debt-limit ceiling by politicians on both sides of the political aisle had resulted in a nontrivial drain on the economy; fiscal uncertainty from last year’s sequester embarrassment reduced the nation’s real GDP by about $150 billion a year, and increased unemployment by 0.5 percent, or 750,000 people, according to a report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Maybe more importantly, the agreement has increased optimism that greater bipartisanship and shared governance may be on the horizon. Boehner’s decision to reverse course on his strident no-negotiation stance highlights a shift in recent months, from firing back at hardliners in his own party to returning to his roots as a dealmaker. Boehner’s new approach may have led to a rare coffee klatsch with President Barack Obama last week, and while issues like immigration and federal spending seem like unlikely to make much progress at the federal level this year, increased interaction with leaders from both parties seems like a step in the right direction.

Worst in Governance

Former Mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin

For a city still struggling to overcome a welter of problems after Hurricane Katrina, the conviction of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on corruption charges in mid-February brought little relief.

Nagin was found guilty of 20 counts that included accepting more than $160,000 in bribes, trips to Hawaii and Jamaica, free granite for the Nagin family Stone Age countertop business, and other favors in exchange for advancing the interests of businessman Frank Fradella and national retailer Home Depot after the hurricane in 2005. Though he was elected to the mayor’s office as a tech-savvy impresario before the storm, the one-time head of Cox Communications in New Orleans made few lasting efforts at reform. His closest confederates were chums drawn from the private sector, many of them also later convicted as crooks, or largely incompetent.

While he once vowed to overturn entrenched corruption and described himself as a “change agent,” Nagin soon found himself ensnared in a similar web of shady kickbacks and payoffs, part of the state’s pernicious reputation for corruption, which has marked the city’s police department and local government as well as other sectors in recent years.

The devastating effects of the hurricane were an undoubtedly difficult challenge for an inexperienced mayor, but sluggish recovery efforts and mismanagement continued to plague the beleaguered city for years after the storm, making Nagin’s sordid attempts to line his own pockets at the same time all the more contemptible. Nagin left a mess to mayoral successor Mitch Landrieu in 2010—a budget shortfall of $30 million plus the nation’s highest murder rate — not to mention of a legacy of wince-worthy speaking gaffes. It’s worth noting that public reaction to the first conviction of a mayor on bribery charges in the long and colorful history of New Orleans has been mostly positive, with many residents expressing hope that the rule of law in the Big Easy may be more than just lagniappe.

 

March 4, 2014
by Jeremy Loudenback