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Anger over economic, political setbacks roils Middle East 10 years after Arab Spring

By Liz Sly
Anger over economic, political setbacks roils Middle East 10 years after Arab Spring
King Abdullah Financial District is a new development in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Tasneem Alsultan

Biden may not have the same chance Obama did for early legislative wins

By Paul Kane
Biden may not have the same chance Obama did for early legislative wins
President Biden, with Vice President Harris by his side, signs executive orders at the White House on Jan. 22. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

New River Gorge: America's newest national park is one of West Virginia's hidden gems

By Kate Morgan
New River Gorge: America's newest national park is one of West Virginia's hidden gems
The New River Gorge Bridge spans the canyon 876 feet above the river. Hiking and mountain biking trails and railroad tracks cross the rugged Appalachian forest surrounding the gorge. MUST CREDIT: Jay Young/Adventures on the Gorge

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Haunting Putin from prison

By david ignatius
Haunting Putin from prison

DAVID IGNATIUS COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, and thereafter

(For Ignatius clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- Alexei Navalny combines two qualities that Russians admire: a mordant sarcasm toward the country's leaders and great personal bravery. Together, they make him the most potent political threat that President Vladimir Putin has ever faced.

Navalny's latest riposte is a wickedly funny video posted Jan. 19 on YouTube, documenting the corruption that surrounds what he calls "Putin's Palace," a billion-dollar project on the Black Sea that includes mansions, vineyards, a private casino, even an underground hockey rink. The video alleges a network of payoffs for Putin's friends and family, as well as for two girlfriends and their relatives.

The mocking video had been seen by more than 90 million people as of Tuesday. And its message of defiance helped bring thousands of protesters onto the streets last weekend in 100 Russian cities to protest Putin's corrupt and authoritarian regime. Russian security forces arrested more than 3,000 protesters Saturday, and Putin on Monday denied that he owned the "palace." But his aura of invulnerability has been cracked.

Navalny showed his courage by traveling back to Russia on Jan. 17 from Germany, where he had been recuperating from an assassination attempt that he says was organized by Putin's security service, the FSB. Navalny decided to release the video only after he had come home. When he arrived at the Moscow airport, he was immediately arrested and taken to prison. Two days later, the video appeared on YouTube.

"We came up with this investigation [of the palace] while I was in intensive care, but we immediately agreed that we would release it when I returned home to Russia, to Moscow, because we do not want the main character of this film [Putin] to think we are afraid of him and that I will tell about his worst secret while I am abroad," Navalny says in a haunting introduction to the video.

Leonid Volkov, the manager of Navalny's 2018 presidential campaign and his chief of staff, spoke with me Tuesday in a telephone interview from Lithuania. He said the goal of Navalny's movement is to make Russia "a normal European country with rule of law and independent courts and free media." Navalny should be released, and Putin, who extended his term as president through a special constitutional amendment, should "talk about transition of power," Volkov demanded.

Navalny's battle with Putin presents an early test for President Joe Biden and his foreign policy team. The new administration immediately called for Navalny's release. But Volkov argued that the United States should do more, working with European countries to identify and freeze assets held outside Russia for Putin's benefit. Biden's press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Biden discussed Navalny and other issues with Putin in a phone call Tuesday, but she didn't provide details.

Putin's opulent Black Sea retreat was first exposed by a whistleblower named Sergey Kolesnikov, in an open letter to then-President Dmitry Medvedev, which I revealed in a Dec. 23, 2010, column. Kolesnikov explained that the palatial estate had been paid for by contributions from Russian oligarchs gathered by a St. Petersburg business crony of Putin's. The money was channeled through a medical supply business that Kolesnikov ran. He told me that, for eight years, he provided regular summaries for Putin about his investments, through the St. Petersburg businessman.

In the new video, Navalny interviews Kolesnikov, who confirms on camera the story that he told me 10 years ago. What's amazing is that even after the Black Sea estate was revealed back then, Putin's pals allegedly continued to shovel money into the complex. Navalny said the value of the complex was more than $1 billion and called it "the world's biggest bribe."

Using architectural designs, invoices, drone footage and 3-D visualizations, Navalny offers a hilariously scathing account of the palace built for Putin's pleasure: In addition to the gambling den and hockey rink, it has a hookah bar, a stage with a stripper's pole and an ornate toilet-paper holder that cost more than $1,200.

Navalny also describes payments made to the families of two women he says were romantically involved with Putin, who is divorced from his wife, Lyudmila. He quotes a well-known Russian folk song that he says applies to Putin: "Three wives are wonderful, what can you say, but on the other hand -- I've got three mothers in law."

This combination of sarcasm and political outrage is what drives Navalny's movement and seems to give it resonance with Russians. In the video, he quotes the novelist Leo Tolstoy: "The villains who robbed the people gathered together, recruited soldiers and judges to guard their orgy, and are feasting."

Navalny now sits in prison. But his words at the end of the video echo across Russia: "The future is in our hands. Do not be silent. Don't agree to obey the feasting villains."

- - -

Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost

Biden must aim higher

By megan mcardle
Biden must aim higher

MEGAN MCARDLE COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, and thereafter

(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- I had a pretty low bar for any Democratic presidential candidate last year. Would the party nominate some sort of land-based mammal, preferably a biped? Could it be relied upon to put a fabric covering over the holes through which it breathed? Would it be likely to concede any election it lost, rather than assembling a mob of angry partisans and pointing them toward Congress?

Joe Biden easily met my requirements, which is why I voted for him. But now he needs to exceed my hopes, especially when it comes to the most important issue facing his administration -- the pandemic.

Unfortunately, early on, Team Biden has not mustered truly presidential ambitions.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing really wrong with Biden's covid-19 plan. I'm all for using the Defense Production Act to ensure that we have adequate supplies not just of the vaccines, but also of all the syringes, vials and other ancillary goods we'll need to get those shots into arms. Vaccination centers and more testing are also great ideas. But without more ambitious targets and an aggressive implementation schedule, Biden's plan is still basically replacement-level.

The administration began by touting its bold plan to get 100 million doses injected in its first 100 days. Which sounds magnificent, except that this broke down to 1 million shots a day, and America was already basically doing that. In the past week, Biden said he'd like to get to 1.5 million daily vaccinations (though White House press secretary Jen Psaki clarified that the official goal has not changed) while U.S. vaccinations already averaged 1.25 million shots a day,according to Bloomberg. No, the administration did not do anything meaningful to accelerate the pace during its first five days in office.

It did, however, spend quite a bit of time complaining about how hard it all was. Jeff Zients, the new coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters, "What we're inheriting is so much worse than we could have imagined." CNN quoted an unnamed source from the administration saying, "There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch."

Surely the system established under the Trump administration couldn't be that bad if it was exceeding the Biden administration's own initial targets. The United States has administered about one out of every three vaccine doses given in the whole world, according to Bloomberg's tally, hardly a shabby record.

OK, Biden's defenders might say, his administration is trying to work the refs and laying the groundwork to blame his predecessor for anything that goes wrong. But hey, the reason that's so easy to do is President Donald Trump's denialism and mismanagement, and isn't it nice to finally hear nothing more worrying than normal political spin?

That might even be a defensible position, if it weren't for the more contagious -- and possibly more deadly -- variants that have emerged in Britain, South Africa, Brazil and maybe even California.

As Noah Millman pointed out in the Week, our reason for worrying about these exercises in reputation management is the same as the administration's reason for undertaking them: It takes pressure off them to do better.

If more contagious variants hadn't emerged, maybe we could have afforded a Biden administration that was comfortably sure it was going to come out of this looking good.

But the new strains are here, and because they're more contagious, the precautions we've been taking, which are currently pushing caseloads in the right direction, won't necessarily be enough to keep them from seeding massive new outbreaks. That's why Britain basically had to lock down the whole country to keep hospitals from collapsing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the variant from Britain may be dominant here by March. The variant from South Africa could be even more problematic, given that recent research shows it might be able to reinfect people who have already had covid-19 but developed only low levels of antibodies. That could be a lot of people; almost half the samples the researchers tested didn't neutralize the virus in their tests.

No need to panic: The vaccines we have are probably still effective enough to keep even the South African strain at bay. But they make vaccination even more urgent than it seemed during the election. And until we have a shot in a high-enough percentage of Americans' arms, we must get serious about testing and quarantining every inbound international traveler - by putting them in a supervised facility, not by asking them to pretty please stay inside.

And so we have to demand that the Biden administration aim stronger, higher, faster. Now.

Understandably, the administration is reluctant to embrace the financial and political costs of setting more ambitious goals for pandemic control, and doing what it would take to meet them. But understanding is not the same as acceptance. We need the president to do more than not be Trump. We need him to lead.

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Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

Many people may not get promised stimulus payments in hand if they owe back taxes

By michelle singletary
Many people may not get promised stimulus payments in hand if they owe back taxes

MICHELLE SINGLETARY COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, and thereafter

(For Singletary clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

WRITETHRU: In 5th graf from the end, fixes spelling of second reference of Heemann

By MICHELLE SINGLETARY

(c) 2021, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Alabama couple Cheryl and Kevin Barton were counting on the second stimulus payment of $1,800 to catch up on some bills and help take care of their 16-year-old daughter.

The family has had a rough year financially. The pandemic's devastating toll on the economy has led to less work for Kevin Barton, an independent truck driver who transports building materials. They are two months behind on their mortgage, and they struggle to pay their utility bills.

"We thought, oh, wow, we're going to be able to get some help, because my husband's a self-employed truck driver, and trucking has been hit hard just as much as everybody else, because a lot of manufacturing companies aren't pushing out what they usually do," Cheryl Barton said in an interview. "So it's hard for him to come across loads."

The Bartons received $2,900 during the first round of stimulus payments that Congress approved in March, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act. But because of a backlog at the IRS and bad timing, they might never get the second payment in hand to help with their monthly expenses as Congress had intended.

The Cares Act provided economic impact payments of up to $1,200 per adult ($2,400 for couples filing jointly) and $500 per child under 17. The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021, authorized at the end of December, called for additional payments of up to $600 per adult ($1,200 for couples) and up to $600 for each qualifying child also under 17.

Typically, the IRS may reduce a taxpayer's refund to offset past-due tax debt, child support, and other federal liabilities, such as student loans. A refund can also be garnished for state debts, such as overdue state taxes.

However, under the Cares Act, the IRS could only offset the stimulus payment for back child support. In the second round of payments, even that offset was removed, allowing people to get the full payment regardless of any money they might owe.

Here's the problem that many people may not realize until they file their tax returns starting Feb. 12.

The stimulus payments are actually an advance tax credit referred to on the 2020 1040 form as a "Recovery Rebate Credit." The credit was eligible to be paid in two rounds of advance payments during 2020 and early 2021.

The IRS has pointed out that the rebate is "a tax credit against your 2020 income tax. Generally, this credit will increase the amount of your tax refund or decrease the amount of the tax you owe."

Therein lies the problem. It's possible the Bartons' stimulus payment is still in the pipeline and may be delivered after all. But if they have to wait to claim the credit when they file their 2020 return, the money may be snatched to satisfy their tax bill.

The Bartons, who said they are on a payment plan with the IRS, owe $4,000 in back taxes. They were able to get the first stimulus payment of $2,900 ($2,400 plus the $500 for their child). But they filed their 2019 return in December, and it has not yet been processed. The IRS has a huge backlog of returns from last year. The IRS used the 2019 tax year to issue the second stimulus payments automatically.

Like so many others, the Bartons still need assistance and qualify for the second payment.

"I know we have to pay our taxes, but I was under the assumption that Congress wanted to get the help to the American people right now," Barton said. "We would be able to catch up on the house payment and our electric bill and possibly start the year off at a little bit better spot than we did going out at the end of the year."

President Joe Biden signed an executive order last week urging government agencies, including the Treasury Department, to "promptly identify actions they can take within existing authorities to address the current economic crisis resulting from the pandemic."

Treasury said there are 8 million Americans who may be eligible but still have not received the financial assistance from the Cares Act. In response to the president's order, Treasury said it's working with the IRS to "create in the coming weeks simple options for people who have not filed an income tax return to do so."

But there are others like the Bartons who may fall through the cracks.

Scott Heemann is concerned that he and his spouse won't get the second stimulus payment either.

The Maryland couple filed their 2019 return in October. It still hasn't been processed and, as a result, their eligibility for the second stimulus payment could not be determined, said Heemann, who said they would qualify for some of the relief funds. They have about $10,000 in past-due tax debt.

"We are paying past years' taxes owed under the terms of an existing payment arrangement with the IRS," he said. "So typically any refund we are due is applied to our outstanding-tax owed balance."

There is no specific carve-out right now to allow those who claim the credit on their returns to get a direct stimulus payment if they owe the IRS, other government entities, or past-due student loans. Under normal circumstances, it makes sense to offset a refund to reduce the debts people owe. But these are not normal times.

"I'm hoping with the president's executive order, perhaps they are going to say, OK, we've got to do this differently," Barton said.

I hope so, too.

- - -

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Biden's push to "buy American" has a Trumpian ring to it

By ruben navarrette jr.
Biden's push to "buy American" has a Trumpian ring to it

RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR. COLUMN

FOR IMMEDIATE PRINT AND WEB RELEASE

(For Navarrette clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.

c) 2021, The Washington Post Writers Group

SAN DIEGO -- What's next? Will President Joe Biden make hats emblazoned with the words: "Make America Great Again - Again"? And the hats wouldn't be red - but blue? Of course, the hot little items would be made in America.

That line - "made in America" - speaks loudly in the Rust Belt. Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania help pick presidents. In November, Biden beat Donald Trump by winning three out of four (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania), while Trump only won Ohio.

That means Biden owes a debt to voters in that region. This week, he started to pay it off. In what is likely just the first accommodation for U.S. manufacturers and blue-collar workers by the new administration, Biden signed an executive order to push the federal government to buy goods produced in the United States. The order increases the amount of U.S. content that a product must have to be considered "made in America" under government requirements to "buy American." It also creates a website where U.S. business owners can track what contracts are awarded to foreign vendors. The order includes a new position at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and whoever fills it will take the lead in implementing the Biden policy.

"We're going to make sure that they buy American and are made in America," Biden said in signing the executive order.

Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the New Deal. John F. Kennedy chartered the New Frontier. By contrast, what Biden came up to take care of the folks in the Rust Belt who took care of him isn't really new.

In April 2017, then-President Trump likewise kicked off his new administration by - stop me if this sounds familiar - signing an executive order that directed federal agencies to "buy American, hire American" and act in ways that "aggressively promote and use American-made goods and to ensure that American labor is hired to do the job."

The ceremony was held in front of a gathering of employees at the Wisconsin-based headquarters of the Snap-On tool manufacturer, where Trump pitched himself as a guardian angel for American companies and U.S. workers.

"The buy and hire American order I'm about to sign will protect workers and students like you," he said. "It's America first, you better believe it. It's time. It's time, right?"

Trump praised American "grit" and "craftsmanship," but he missed the irony. If U.S. manufacturing really lived up to that billing, it wouldn't need protection. It could compete in the global marketplace and win.

At the time, I wrote a column blasting Trump's executive order as "affirmative action for working-class Whites in the industrial Midwest."

The fact that Biden has now morphed into Trump is a good story. I hope it doesn't get past my colleagues in the media, many of whom may be having trouble walking because of - to borrow a line that former MSNBC host Chris Matthews used about his admiration of Barack Obama - the collective thrill running up their legs at the thought of a Democrat in the White House.

Of course, the pledge to bring back manufacturing and re-open factories that have been abandoned for 30 years is pure snake oil, and shame on the charlatans who peddle it. While these con men can be found across the political spectrum, they have an ideological home in the Democratic Party. That's where organized labor - which represents a lot of former factory workers who think they're too old to learn new tricks - likes to flash its cash and buy up politicians.

Trump, who was a Manhattan liberal most of his life, pilfered protectionism from Democrats and rebranded it: "America First."

Now Biden is stealing back protectionism, and repackaging it yet again as a Democratic policy. Not because it's a good idea. It's not. It's cheap pandering to working-class Whites in a part of the country that is politically valuable. This "America First" nonsense - no matter who is pushing it - eliminates competition, breeds complacency and kills innovation.

Biden's defenders will dismiss this story as no big deal. But if that's true, then the idea of a president using an executive order to push products that are "made in America" was never a big deal - even when the president in question was named Trump. Was I too hard on the poor guy? I think not.

Welcome to "America First, The Sequel." This version is brought to us by the Biden White House - which is, take it from the Biden-friendly media, totally different from the Trump White House. Except when it's the same.

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Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, "Navarrette Nation," is available through every podcast app.

Democrats have vigorously used the filibuster. It's pathetic they now won't pledge to protect it.

By marc a. thiessen
Democrats have vigorously used the filibuster. It's pathetic they now won't pledge to protect it.

MARC A. THIESSEN COLUMN

Advance for release Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, and thereafter

(For Thiessen clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Marc A. Thiessen

WASHINGTON -- The good news is: Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has secured what he says is an ironclad promise from two Democrats not to eliminate the legislative filibuster. The bad news is: The filibuster hangs by a fragile, two-vote thread.

In 2017, when Donald Trump was president and Democrats were in the minority, 61 senators - including 30 Democrats - signed a letter promising to preserve the right of the Senate minority to delay or block legislation. But now that Republicans are in the minority, just two Democrats -- Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) -- are willing to make that same pledge. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., not only refused, he warned he will not allow the GOP minority to "dictate to the Senate what we should do and how we should proceed."

When Schumer was minority leader, he vigorously used the filibuster to do just that. Under his leadership, Democrats used the filibuster to block funding for construction of Trump's border wall in 2019. They used it not once, but twice to impede passage of the Cares Act -- forcing Republicans to agree to changes including a $600 weekly federal unemployment supplement. They used it in September and October to stop Republicans from passing further coronavirus relief before the November election. They used it to halt South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott's police reform legislation so Republicans could not claim credit for forging a bipartisan response to the concerns of racial justice protesters. They used it to block legislation to force "sanctuary cities" to cooperate with federal officials, and to stop a prohibition on taxpayer funding of abortion, bans on abortions once the unborn child is capable of feeling pain, and protections for the lives of babies born alive after botched abortions.

And those are just the bills Democrats killed with actual filibuster votes. More often than not, the majority doesn't even bring up legislation that does not have 60 votes needed to cut off debate. Just the threat of a Democratic filibuster stopped Republicans from moving forward on a host of priorities, including entitlement reforms, immigration reforms, lawsuit reforms, health-care reforms, budget cuts, expanded gun rights and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. And Democrats have used the filibuster to force Republicans to reduce the scope of some of their biggest legislative achievements. Republicans could not make the Trump income tax cut permanent, because they had to use the arcane budget reconciliation process (which requires a simple majority vote, but limits what can be enacted) to avoid a Democratic filibuster.

Trump grew so frustrated by this that he repeatedly urged McConnell to eliminate the filibuster. But McConnell wisely insisted he would "not vandalize this core tradition for short-term gain." He refused to scrap this rule when it was protecting Democrats, because he knew that in politics there are no permanent victories. Yet now many of the same Democrats who defended the filibuster when Republicans had unified control of government want to abolish it when Democrats do. Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., one of the organizers of that 2017 bipartisan letter, now says that Democrats will "not stand idly by for four years and watch the Biden administration's initiatives blocked at every turn."

Democrats should take stock of everything they delayed and derailed under Trump because of the filibuster -- and then imagine all that and more being enacted by simple majority vote when Republicans regain control of Congress and the presidency, which they eventually will. The filibuster allowed Democrats to constrain Republicans from enacting what the Democrats consider a radical agenda under a populist right-wing president. If they eliminate that tool to enact their own radical agenda, they would rue that decision when they return to the minority - and hasten that return by provoking a populist backlash that could sweep them out of power.

In his inaugural address, Biden declared that "politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war." But if Democrats eliminate the one procedural safety valve that forces negotiation, moderation, compromise and consensus, they will pour gasoline on the fires Biden wants to tamp down, and turn every election into a matter of life or death for the other side.

Manchin and Sinema say they will not, under any circumstance, vote to abolish the filibuster. We'll see whether they back McConnell against Schumer and Biden when Republicans launch their first filibuster of a major Biden initiative. But it is pathetic that no other Democrats will pledge to preserve a tool they so liberally used in recent years -- and that one of our democracy's most important institutional guardrails is just two votes away from elimination.

- - -

Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.

A government 'better than people' remains elusive

By george f. will
A government 'better than people' remains elusive

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

Advance for release Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, and thereafter

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Experience is often a brutal, and hence effective, tutor. The covid-19 tragedy teaches this: Government is more apt to achieve adequacy when it does not try to achieve purity.

Commenting on the widely varying results of the states' different approaches to getting vaccines into arms, a Wall Street Journal editorial notes two things. One is the benefits of federalism: Among 50 governors, at least a few are apt to be wiser and nimbler than the federal bureaucracy. The other is: "The most successful state rollouts have departed from overly prescriptive federal rules," and "The states with the highest per capita vaccination rates are all rule-breakers." Philip K. Howard is not surprised.

He is a lawyer who thinks there are too many lawyers and too much law, and that both surpluses are encouraged by misbegotten ideas about ideal governance. One such idea is that ideal governance is a sensible aspiration. In the Yale Law Journal ("From Progressivism to Paralysis"), he explains why "Covid-19 is the canary in the bureaucratic mine." Modern government "is structured to preempt the active intelligence of people on the ground. This is not an unavoidable side-effect of big government, but a deliberate precept of its operating philosophy. Law will not only set goals and governing principles, but it will also dictate exactly how to implement those goals correctly." Result: paralysis. Governance congeals because "The complex shapes of life rarely fit neatly into legal categories."

The proportion of lawyers in the workforce almost doubled between 1970 and 2000, and the nation now is, Howard has said, ludicrously dense with laws and dazed by "rule stupor." Constructing the Empire State Building took 410 days in the Depression. The Pentagon took 16 months in wartime. In this century, however, nine years were consumed just with permitting for a San Diego desalination plant. Five years and 20,000 pages of environmental and other compliance materials preceded a construction project (raising the roadway on New Jersey's Bayonne Bridge) with almost no environmental impact.

Then the pandemic arrived. Red tape prevented public health officials from using tests they possessed or buying tests overseas. To function, hospitals had to jettison myriad dictates about restrictions on telemedicine, ambulance equipment and many other matters. To get federal funding for school meals transferred to providing meals during summer months, 50 formal waivers were required from the states. And, Howard writes, "The bureaucratic instinct was relentless even when waiving rules. Each school district in Oregon was first required 'to develop a plan as to how they are going to target the most-needy students.'" Meanwhile, needy children were getting no meals.

Protesters take to the streets, Howard says, on the naive assumption that "someone is actually in charge and refusing to pull the right levers." If only. "From the schoolhouse to the White House," Howard says, "public officials are disempowered from making sensible choices by a bureaucratic and legal apparatus" that stipulates "the one correct way" to achieve goals.

Granularity of regulation is, Howard believes, the fruit of the Progressive Era's goal of neutral government, purified and professionalized and "untainted by the judgments of imperfect humans." To this chimera, add encyclopedic contracts with public employee unions that insulate their members from accountability. When California can dismiss for poor performance only two of about 300,000 public school teachers a year, even mere mediocrity is optional. The Minneapolis policeman who suffocated George Floyd had been the subject of 18 complaints, but his supervisors had no practical way to terminate him. The 2,600 complaints against Minneapolis officers since 2012 resulted in 12 officers disciplined.

The Progressive Era dream -- purging human judgment from public choices; eliminating human agency from the implementation of public decisions -- is today's nightmare. Government accountability now means, Howard writes, only court-enforced compliance with "the ever-thickening accretion of rules, rights, and restrictions." So, "Slowly but inevitably a sense of powerlessness" pervades public and private institutions.

The Progressive Era project that began 120 years ago got its second wind 60 years ago. But "No experts back in the 1960s," Howard writes, "dreamed of thousand-page rulebooks, ten-year permitting processes, doctors spending up to half of their workdays filling out forms, entrepreneurs faced with getting permits from a dozen different agencies, teachers scared to put an arm around a crying child." The quest for "a government better than people" advanced because bureaucracies became "preoccupied with avoiding error without pausing to consider the inability to achieve success." A virulent, fast-moving and mutating virus is teaching the cost of this.

- - -

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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