Skip navigation

'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Read the transcript to the Thursday show

Guests: Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Mordecai Lee, Michael Bromwich

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Good evening, Lawrence.  Thank you.

And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.


OK.  Bill Clinton gets elected in 1992, right?  The first election after Bill Clinton gets elected is two years later, the 1994 mid-terms.  The first mid-term election after a new president is always essentially—essentially always guaranteed always goes to the other party.  And it was no exception in 1994.

This is the “Time” magazine cover on the results of that 1994 election, which was Bill Clinton‘s first midterm.  Hello?  There we are.

See, it‘s not just a stampeding Republican elephant.  It is a Republican elephant that is stampeding over a Democratic donkey to the point where the donkey‘s eye sockets are flying out of its head—see—constrained only by those eyeballs cartoon blood vessels.  It‘s very nice, right?

That was the “Time” magazine cover on the results of the 1994 election, the first mid-term election after Bill Clinton was elected president.  But after those midterm elections, the media was not just about Republican strength in the abstract.  Cartoons are not, right?

After that election, the media coverage was about a specific guy personifying Republican strength.  It was about the “King of the Hill,” right?  This was “Time‘s” cover, the week the class of 1994 got sworn in in Washington.

This was “Newsweek” in that same week of the swearing in, the week that “Time” did the elephant stomping on the donkey.  Here‘s what “Newsweek” ran.  They just went right for the giant face when “Time” was running the elephant stomping on the donkey, right?

So, it‘s pretty clear what‘s going on in the media at that point.  Even though it was the first term of a young Democratic, relatively interesting president, by 1995, President bill Clinton is essentially sharing a co-billing with another guy in Washington, with a Republican—who was just about as high profile as the president is.

It got to the point where by April of that year, April of 1995, President Clinton was reduced to making ornate, defensive arguments that the presidency is still a really important job, that being president meant something.



JUDY KEEN, USA TODAY:  President Clinton, Republicans have dominated political debate in this country since they took over Congress in January.  And even tonight, two of the major television networks declined to broadcast this event live.  Do you worry about making sure that your voice is heard in the coming months?

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT:  The Constitution gives me relevance.  The power of our ideas gives me relevance.  The record we have built up over the last two years and the things we‘re trying to do to implement is give it relevance.  The president is relevant here, especially an act of this president, and the fact that I willing to work with the Republicans.


MADDOW:  Republicans were so high profile, they so stole all of the political thunder in Washington in 1994 and 1995 that the president at the time had to fend off questions about why no one was paying attention to him.  They were only paying attention to Newt Gingrich.  I mean, awesome for Newt Gingrich and the Republicans, right?  For a while at least, I‘m sure they thought it was.

And that is probably what caused the great Republican overreach of 1995.  Republicans shut down the government.  Republicans threw up a budget that among other things cut the bejesus out of Medicare.  President Clinton said, no, and the government shut down for six days in November, and then again for three weeks over Christmas that year.

And when America got shook up and annoyed by a standoff in Congress shutting down the whole government, America, frankly, had someone to blame.  The shutdown came, you know, from the kind of standoff happening with Congress, even Americans who were not paying attention at that point didn‘t just know who the president was, they knew who the “King of the Hill” was, too.

So being really famous had a really big cost.  From “King of the Hill‘ to the great “Cry Baby.”  This was “The New York Daily News”” reporting at the time.  That‘s their cover, and yes, that is a diaper.

Conservatives now who want Republicans to force another government shutdown to do it all over again, they like to say that the whole idea that America blamed Newt Gingrich for that shutdown in 1995 -- they like to say that that is a liberal myth.  Conservatives like to say now that the facts show that after that shutdown, in fact “Time” magazine went so far as to name Newt Gingrich man of the year, and in fact “Time” magazine did do that.  Do you want to see what that cover looked like?

We did not edit this.  We did not accidentally up the magenta and down the cyan here.  This really is what they ran as their Newt Gingrich man of the year cover.  It was not Gingrich a la Gandhi, it was Gingrich a la Satan, with the devilish read cast over him and him looking like he might either be about to kill you or have just finished.  Man of the year in a bad way, as in dude caused the shutdown that we hated.

Last time a standoff of the Republican Congress led to the shutdown of the government, the country hated it.  They blamed Newt Gingrich for it, and in the next election, the Republican got 41 percent of the vote, and Bill Clinton did just fine, thank you very much.  The shutdown was a political disaster for Republicans.

And it‘s because there was a convenient repository of blame, a man of the year, a man as famous as the president but representing the Republican Congress.

This year—this time around, not so much.


KENT JONES, POP CULTURIST:  OK.  Real quick, who is the speaker of the House of Representatives?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You know, you got me.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m drawing a blank.

JONES:  Who is the speaker of the House of Representatives?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That I don‘t know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It used to be the guy who died, and now there‘s a new guy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I know the guy, he is a crier, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes, probably going to sound bad on this.  I‘m not really sure.

JONES:  Who is this guy?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Is that your mayor of New York?

JONES:  Who is this guy?


JONES:  This guy?  Blue eyes?  Who is this guy?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I don‘t know.  His eyes match his shirt, but I don‘t know.

JONES:  Who do you think is the most powerful Republican in Washington right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The most powerful Republican?  I couldn‘t name a single Republican.


MADDOW:  If the government shuts down, who‘s going to get blamed?  The man no one can name?  Or even recognize when shown a picture of him?

There is no identifiable face of the Republican Party in Washington right now.  And it‘s not meant to be a criticism of the Republicans, it is just true.  And frankly, strategically, I think it‘s to their advantage.  If the government gets shut down because of some fight in Washington and you‘re mad about it, who are you going to get mad at?  Who do you know is in Washington? Who are you aware of that works there?

Part of the reason you keep seeing all of this Beltway media coverage saying Republicans are trying to avoid a government shutdown is because in 1995, it really did hurt the Republicans when they did shut down the government, because they were really high profile.  They were the face of Washington.  And so, when Washington got annoying, when Congress did something tremendously annoying, everyone knew at whom they should be annoyed.

This year, who are you going to be annoyed at?  No, really, who will get the blame?  I mean, you are watching this show.  You pay attention to the news.  You know who the Republican Party leadership is in Washington and what they‘re doing.

But if the shutdown causes enough disruption that people who do not usually pay attention to this stuff start paying attention because they want to know who they should vote against in the next election for causing this big mess, who they should be annoyed at—well, who are they going to point at?  I mean, really, are you going to have to tell people not only who is wrong here, but who they are and how to spell their name?

The other reason the Beltway media is wrong when they say that both sides are trying to avoid a government shutdown is more direct.  And it‘s not about people who don‘t usually pay attention to the news.  It‘s about people who do pay attention to the news.

The new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll asks different groups of voters whether they intransigents, whether they want the two sides in Washington to compromise and come up with a deal, or whether they want no compromise, even if it means no deal—which, of course, would mean a shutdown.

Here is the other reason the Beltway media is not saying something true when they tell you that Republicans don‘t want a budget shutdown.  Democrats—do you want Democrats to compromise to get a deal and avoid a shutdown?  Yes.  Democratic voters want that.

How about you, independents?  Do you want Democrats to compromise to get a deal and avoid a shutdown?  Yes, independents want that.

Hey, same independents.  Do you want Republicans to compromise to get a deal and avoid a shutdown?  Yes.  Independents strongly want both sides to compromise and avoid a shutdown.

But Republicans, Republican voters, what do you guys want?  Republicans, do you want your own party to compromise to get a deal and avoid a shutdown?  No.  No, you do not want that.  No compromise.  Shut her down.

Put all of those four graphs together.  Can we have them together? 

There we go.

Republicans—look at that.  One of these things is not like the other.  Republicans know that anyone who does not really care about politics is not likely to blame them if they get mad about this government shutdown, because who even knows who they are anyway?

But the people who do know who they are and who like them and vote in primaries and donate money, the Republican voter base—those folks actively want a shutdown.  The Republicans‘ base will reward them for a shutdown.  Democrats, they hate what the Republicans are doing anyway, and anybody not paying attention, who are they going to blame?

I mean, honestly?  Are they going to blame this guy?  Really?  Do you know who he is?


JONES:  Who do you think is the most powerful Republican in Washington right now?

UNJIDENTIFIED MALE:  The most powerful Republican?  I couldn‘t name a single Republican.


MADDOW:  Joining us now is Congressman Chris Van Hollen from the great state of Maryland.  He is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Mr. Van Hollen, thank you very much for joining us tonight.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND:  Good to be with you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  Do Republicans in the House want to avoid a government shutdown, do you think?  Do you think they are negotiating in good faith here?

VAN HOLLEN:  I think John Boehner would like to get a deal, but he is not driving the train.  As you said, he‘s not really the new face of the Republican Party.  The new face of the Republican Party are the Tea Party wing in Congress.  They are uncompromising.

And the independent vote that you just talked about wants people who are going to be willing to come together for the good of the government.

So, when John Boehner is now at the White House negotiating, he‘s really not empowered by his caucus to reach any deal.  And that means he‘s very likely going through the motions until he has to come back and check with the guys who are running the show.  And that‘s what we have happening.

MADDOW:  Well, if the speaker can‘t really negotiate on behalf of his caucus, if he as you say is not empowered to do that, who should Democrats be talking to?

VAN HOLLEN:  Well, when it comes to the Republicans and in the Congress, that is—that‘s the situation.  We‘ve got to be talking to the country, and pointing out how extreme the Republicans have become in the House.

And, you know, you talked about 1995 and made a very important point about how Newt Gingrich and the Republicans went after Medicare.  Well, this time around, they are going to be going after Medicare on steroids.  I mean, they are talking about ending the Medicare guarantee.

What we‘re seeing right now is just the preview of what we‘re going to see on the main event that‘s coming with the 2012 budget.  That‘s going to be the big showdown.  And the Tea Party driving the train is going to demand a very radical agenda.  It‘s really a beefed up agenda of the Republican Party from the past.  But they‘re going to be calling for even bigger tax cuts, for millionaires, continued tax breaks for the special interest and oil companies.

And what are they going to do?  They‘re going to end the Medicare guarantee for seniors, force them out of the Medicare system, into the private insurance market, and force those seniors to eat the costs of rising health care.

So, I think as we go on, that Tea Party element is going to become the face of the Republican Party.  And, you know, come next election, the voters will have to decide whether they made a mistake or not.

MADDOW:  In terms of this current standoff, though, do I understand correctly that the best-case scenario at this point in terms of avoiding a shutdown would still put us right back here roughly this time next week?

VAN HOLLEN:  Well, that‘s right.  Because, right now—well, what the Republicans proposed in the House today was, of course, to try and once again use the shutdown as a vehicle to impose their social agenda and very cynically decided to use our troops as a hook to try and pass that social agenda, including the abortion issue, including the Planned Parenthood issue.  Really, a sickening display on the one hand trying to say, you‘ve got to support this to vote for the troops, and at the same time, putting on the social agenda, which just demonstrated once again that the main goal they‘ve got is not to reduce the deficit, but use this as a vehicle to impose their social agenda on the country.

MADDOW:  What you‘re talking about, though, in terms of the social agenda being looped into the shutdown issue, the bigger and perhaps even more radical fight coming over the full year budget—there remains the issue of Democratic strategy.  On the Republican side, their base will reward them for taking the most extreme possible position and for being as intransigent as possible in defense of that.  Their base will reward them for a government shutdown.

Now, independents may not like it and Democrats certainly may not like it.  But when those are the incentives on the other side, how do you plan to beat them?

VAN HOLLEN:  Well, I mean, you put your finger on the problem with respect to the government shutdown.  I mean, that‘s why we‘ve not been able to resolve this today, even though the president actually put on the table a level of cuts that was larger than Speaker Boehner had asked for to begin with.  Speaker Boehner asked for $32 billion more than we had already done.  President Obama said, OK, let‘s do $33 billion.  And, all of a sudden, Speaker Boehner found his caucus wasn‘t behind him.  So, this is exactly the problem.

But I think in the process, what the American people are seeing is a Republican Party in the House that is out of control in the sense that they want to go after Medicare.  This is round two, Medicare for seniors.

They want a block grant Medicaid, which means seniors in nursing homes, seniors in assisted living facilities, poor kids, disabled people—they‘re going to have a lot of their support cut off in the states, and all for what?  All to give a bigger tax break to the folks on top by taking the top tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent—that $100,000 for millionaires.  And they‘re going to shift a lot of that cost onto middle income Americans.

So, we‘re just beginning to get a taste in this first round of what we‘re going to see when we get to the main event.  I mean, if we can get an extension to the end of September, the end of the fiscal year, we‘re going to have a hell of a fight when it comes to the next fiscal year, because all of these other issues are on the table.

And, again, Medicare is going to be their number one goal in terms of terminating the guarantee and turning it into a voucher program.  And that‘s just the tip of the iceberg of the agenda that we‘re going to be seeing.  So, this has been bad.  But I think, unfortunately, things are going to become even worse.

MADDOW:  Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, putting a dark cloud—an even darker cloud inside an already dark cloud that has a very, very, very invisible silver lining at this point.

Thanks for joining us tonight, and good luck.

VAN HOLLEN:  Good to be with you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  Dramatic and strange political news out of Wisconsin tonight

dramatic enough and strange enough to make it the only political news that could compete for top billing with a pending federal government shutdown.  But compete it does.  That‘s next.



MADDOW:  A dramatic turn in the ongoing political rhubarb (ph) in Wisconsin tonight.  You hear the words “Nobody saw that coming” way more than events actually warrant.  But in this case, really, nobody saw this coming.  That‘s next.


MADDOW:  There is breaking news out of Wisconsin tonight where what had been an extremely close race for Supreme Court between conservative incumbent Justice David Prosser and the challenger, JoAnne Kloppenburg, is now less close after an entire town‘s votes were reportedly not included in the initial tally, but then they were mysteriously found today.  It happened in Waukesha County, the most conservative large county in Wisconsin by a mile.

The county clerk in Waukesha County says she did not put the vote totals from one whole city in that county into the final total she reported to the media.  The town is called Brookfield, Wisconsin, population 39,000.  Its votes reportedly went quite dramatically for the conservative David Prosser.  And that means that even though “The Associated Press” had JoAnne Kloppenburg in the lead in this race by a couple of hundred votes last night, right now, she appears to be unexpectedly over 7,000 votes behind.  Yes, that is still an unofficial count.

How did such a massive mistake happen and how should we understand it?  Well, according to the county clerk, she says she forgot to hit the save button on the relevant file.  Here‘s her explanation tonight.


KATHY NICKOLAUS, WAUKESHA COUNTY CLERK:  I discovered that the data that was sent to me from the city of Brookfield was not transferred to the final report that was given to the media on Tuesday night.  The city of Brookfield cast 14,315 votes on April 5th, 10,859 votes went for Justice David Prosser.  And 3,456 went for JoAnne Kloppenburg.  These numbers will be reflected in my official results.

It is important to stress that this is not a case of extra votes or extra ballots being found.  This is human error which I apologize for.  This was an access database file that was on our regular system, and it was just a matter of the save.  It was just a matter of human error.  Again, I apologize.

REPORTER:  Has there been any error like this, this large ever before in Waukesha County?

NICKOLAUS:  Not that I know of.


MADDOW:  Not that I‘m aware of.

Joining us now is Mordecai Lee, professor of government affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  Professor Lee is a former member of the Wisconsin state assembly and the state Senate.

Professor, thanks very much for your time tonight.


MADDOW:  What do you make of the explanation for these missing votes reappearing today?  Does this seem to make sense to you?

LEE:  Not really.  It‘s awfully bizarre.  In a clip that wasn‘t part of what you showed, she claimed that they didn‘t use the form she sent them, that they amended her template.  I don‘t understand how she can hand out a template that other people can play with.  This really raises basic questions about the professionalism there.  It just struck me as amateur hour.

MADDOW:  Is Waukesha County in particular or Wisconsin broadly speaking, does it have a history of shenanigans about voting or incompetence about voting or other things that should help the national audience understand whether or not this late announcement today is something to worry about or just something to wonder about?

LEE:  This is something to wonder and worry about.  I mean, we‘re not Chicago in 1960 or Texas in 1948 when they stole elections.  But 7,500 votes, that‘s a ton.  I have been involved in Wisconsin politics since the late 1960s, and I have never seen an election that had such a major mistake.

You know, she was questioned by an audit about her I.T. system last year by the county government, and she claimed that she could just have a free standing P.C.  I think this is an indication of incompetence.  And I don‘t even understand why we elect partisan county clerks.  Isn‘t it time for civil service and public administration to run our elections?

MADDOW:  The county clerk in this case, you can see on the screen here right now, is both elected and it is a partisan position?

LEE:  Unbelievably.  I mean, how can there be a supposedly Republican way to run elections or Democratic way?  That‘s such 19th century America.  We really need to professionalize those offices.

And elections are the basis of democracy.  And here in Wisconsin, we like to think of ourselves as dull and staid and straightforward.  And for the last 60 days, every day, we have woken up to another jaw dropping story.  But this takes the cake.  I just can‘t believe it.

MADDOW:  There has been a lot of national attention on this local election.  I mean, here we are in prime time national cable news talking about a dramatic turn in the state Supreme Court election in Wisconsin.  But that‘s because this has been seen as essentially a proxy vote on the union-stripping measures and the tactics of the Republican Party in Wisconsin, which have been so dramatic this year, substantively.

Does the winner of this race have a substantive effect on the fate of Governor Walker‘s union-stripping law?

LEE:  The answer is yes.  This was not a symbolic election.  This was an election for the swing vote on our seven-member state Supreme Court.  Right now, with Justice Prosser there, there‘s an ideological majority of four conservatives.  If he were to be replaced, there will be an ideological majority of I guess you‘d say left of center progressives.

So, this was really a vote about whether the collective bargaining bill, if it reaches the state Supreme Court, is going to be upheld or rejected.

MADDOW:  Former Wisconsin State Senator Mordecai Lee, who is now professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, thank you very much for helping us sort through this.  We know it‘s not over.  We may be talking to you again, sir.

LEE:  Thank you.

MADDOW:  President Obama‘s meeting with Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Harry Reid has just ended.  We‘ll have the latest on that coming up.  We will be right back.


MADDOW:  In the effort to avert or at least talk a lot about a potential government shutdown, President Obama has been meeting tonight again with the top Democrat in the Senate, Harry Reid, and with the top Republican in the House, Speaker John Boehner.  We are told that that meeting has just ended.

Last night, that meeting ended considerably later than it did tonight, and the president came out and addressed reporters as did Speaker Boehner and Mr. Reid after that meeting to say that there was no deal.  The president essentially last night sounding hopeful, Harry Reid sounding very hopeful, and Speaker Boehner speaking last saying, there‘s no agreement whatsoever.

Tonight, this meeting is ending earlier as I said than it was last night.  We have been advised not to necessarily expect the same address from speaker—from Mr. Reid and Mr. Boehner that we did last night.

But it is possible that we will be hearing from the president himself.  You see there parts of the press corps set up in the White House briefing room, hoping or at least hoping if not expecting remarks from the president himself tonight on the efforts to avert or at least talk a lot about a government shutdown.

We will bring you this live if and when it happens.  Stick with us.


MADDOW:  Breaking news: We are advised by an aide to Speaker John Boehner tonight that no deal again has been reached in efforts to avert a government shutdown in Washington, D.C. We are awaiting remarks by President Obama.  He met tonight with Speaker Boehner and with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

They met as well last night.  That meeting went later last night than it did tonight.  Last night we heard from the president and from Mr. Reid and Mr. Boehner.  Tonight, we will at least hear from the president.  Here he is.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I just completed another meeting with Speaker Boehner and Leader Reid.  And I want to report again to the American people that we made some additional progress this evening.

I think the staffs of both the House and the Senate as well as the White House staff have been working very hard to try to narrow the differences.  We made some progress today.  Those differences have been narrowed.  And so, once again, the staff is going to be working tonight around the clock in order to see if we can finally close a deal.

But there are still a few issues that are outstanding.  They are difficult issues.  They are important to both sides.  And so, I am not yet prepared to express wild optimism.  But I think we are further along today than we were yesterday.

I want to reiterate to people why this is so important.  We‘re now less than 30 hours away from the government shutting down.  That means, first of all, 800,000 families—our neighbors, our friends—who are working hard all across the country in a whole variety of functions, they suddenly are not allowed to come to work.  It also means that they‘re not getting a paycheck.  That obviously has a tremendous impact.

You then have millions more people who end up being impacted because they‘re not getting the services from the federal government that are important to them.  So, small businesses aren‘t seeing their loans processed.  Folks who want to get a mortgage through the FHA may not be able to get it.  And, obviously, that‘s not good, as weak as the housing market is.

You‘ve got people who are trying to get a passport for a trip that they have been planning for a long time.  They may not be able to do that.

So, millions more people will be significantly inconvenienced in some ways.  They may end up actually seeing money lost or opportunities lost because of the government shutdown.

And then, finally, there‘s going to be an effect on the economy overall.  Earlier today, one of our nation‘s top economists said—and I‘m quoting here—“The economic damage from a government shutdown would mount very quickly.  And the longer it dragged on, the greater the odds of a renewed recession.”

We have been working very hard over the last two years to get this economy back on its feet.  We have now seen 13 months of job growth, 1.8 million new jobs.  We had the best report—jobs report that we‘ve seen in a very long time just this past Friday.  For us to go backwards because Washington couldn‘t get its act together is unacceptable.

So, again, 800,000 federal workers and their families impacted.  Millions of people who are reliant on government services not getting those services, businesses, farmers, veterans.  And, finally, overall impact on the economy that they could end up severely hampering our recovery and our ability to put people back to work.

That‘s what‘s at stake.  That‘s why it‘s important to the American people.  That‘s why I‘m expecting that as a consequence of the good work that‘s done by our staffs tonight, that we can reach an agreement tomorrow.

But let me just point out one last thing.  What I have said to the speaker and what I have said to Harry Reid, is because the machinery of the shutdown is necessarily starting to move, I expect an answer in the morning.

And my hope is, is that I‘ll be able to announce to the American people sometime relatively early in the day that a shutdown has been averted, that a deal has been completed, that has very meaningful cuts in a wide variety of categories that helps us move in the direction of living within our means, but preserves our investments in things like education and innovation, research, that are going to be important for our long-term competitiveness.

That‘s what I hope to be able to announce tomorrow.  There‘s no certainty yet.  But I expect an answer sometime early in the day, all right?

Thank you very much, everybody.

MADDOW:  President Obama speaking tonight, taking no questions despite the many shouted at him as he walks away from the podium.

The headline here: no deal.  No deal again.

As he said last night when he also met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Majority Leader John Boehner, the president said, again, that he is seeing the areas of disagreement between the two sides as narrowed.  He did describe the negotiations as further along today than yesterday, but the president also said he is not prepared to express wild optimism.

The president is making a case without using explicit partisan terms, not talking about Democrats and Republicans but rather talking about Washington needing to get its act together, and then in essence making his case to the American people for his side of the argument.  Mostly highlighting the effects of a shutdown, talking about hundreds of thousands of people who would be directly affected by a shutdown in the sense that it would affect their direct job and where they have to go for work every day.  But then millions of Americans who rely on the government for important services, namely people, including U.S. veterans.

The president specifically taking time tonight to discuss what he sees

and he started this last night, but I think really stressing it now—the potential economic risk to the entire nation of a government shutdown, saying tonight that it is an economic impact that if it went on for a while could actually threaten a renewed recession.


Joining us now—do we have Chuck able to join us now?  We are hopefully going to be joined by Chuck Todd, who‘s at the White House now in terms of responding to this and understanding what this means.  The president did say that the machinery of the shutdown is necessarily starting to move, and then with some firmness in his jaw said he will therefore expect an answer in the morning.  I think he wanted an answer this morning too—but there you have it.

We‘ll be right back.


MADDOW:  In May of last year, in the middle of the worst oil spill in U.S. history, President Obama addressed the nation from the East Room of the White House.  He announced an immediate freeze on all deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for six months.


OBAMA:  If the laws on our books are inadequate to prevent such a spill, or if we did not enforce those laws, then I want to know.  We can‘t do this stuff if we don‘t have confidence that we can prevent crises like this from happening again.  And it‘s going to take some time for the experts to make those determinations.


MADDOW:  The oil industry had just proven itself in dramatic and deadly fashion to be incapable of drilling for oil safely in the Gulf of Mexico.  The oil industry had assured regulators that this would never happen, that a blowout like this was impossible, that they had failsafe measures to prevent this.  They were wrong, and they were woefully unprepared for it when it did happen.

So, the president said, let‘s hit the pause button and figure out what went wrong here.  No new permits to drill until we figure this out.  That was in May of last year.

And then, a few weeks ago, moratorium is over.  The federal agency that is in charge of handing out drilling permits started handing them out one after another.  The first one went to Noble Energy at the end of February.  Then two weeks later, to BHP Billiton.

Then six days after that, to ATP Oil and Gas; four days after that, to ExxonMobil; two days after that, to Chevron; the very next day to State Oil; five days later, to Shell Oil; then two days after that, this past Friday, to ENI Oil.

Eight new drilling permits in 33 days.  It‘s like a black gold rush.

And then again tonight, when I was finishing righting this up, boing, permit number nine gets approved, Murphy Oil.

We are not yet a year out from the worst oil spill in U.S. history. 

Officially, we still do not know for sure why the BP oil disaster happened. 

But the Gulf of Mexico is officially open for drilling again.

The government assures us that the reason the Gulf of Mexico is open for drilling again is because even though the oil industry was wrong before when they assured us they could drill safely, even though they were wrong before when they assured us they could handle anything that went wrong, we are assured now that things are better now, that things will be safe now.


OBAMA:  And what we learned from that disaster helped us put in place smarter standards of safety and responsibility.  For example, if you‘re going to drill in deep water, you‘ve got to prove before you start drilling that you can actually contain an underwater spill.


MADDOW:  The president assuring the country in his major address on energy a few weeks ago that the mess will be smaller, that it will be contained better, the next time there‘s a spill.

But, you know, the promise from the president after the BP thing was not about better containment of the next disaster, it was about preventing the next disaster, about not letting it happen in the first place.


OBAMA:  We can‘t do that stuff if we don‘t have confidence that we can prevent crises like this from happening again.


MADDOW:  The threshold to start drilling again was not to contain a spill once it had already happened, but to prevent it from happening in the first place.  Luckily there is something on an oil rig that is designed to do just that, it‘s called a blowout preventer.  The way a blowout preventer works is that it essentially closes off a well if a blowout happens.  If a rush of pressure surging up the drilling column.

The blowout preventer is the last line of defense for everyone who works on top of an oil rig, because if it fails—well, we know what happens if it fails.  In the case of the BP disaster, 11 men killed in the worst oil spill in our history.

If you are an oil company that would like the privilege of drilling in American waters, you cannot do that unless your rig is equipped with a blowout preventer.  Sorry, the federal government will not allow it.

But in the midst of the new permitting spree, we got the results of the forensic examination that the government ordered.  And what happened to that blowout preventer from the BP disaster?  The short answer is that it did not work.  It‘s not that it was broken.  It doesn‘t appear to have been broken.  It seems to have been used as directed, but it still didn‘t work.  Meaning, there‘s a big design flaw, specifically, the big surge of pressure that causes you to need this equipment in the first place seems to also be able to break this equipment, to render it useless.

This thing that is supposed to keep oil drilling safe may not work.  The company that makes the blowout preventer has challenged the report‘s findings.  Hearings on the report are now underway, but the federal government has gone on handing out new permits anyway, bragging on their press releases and on their Web site about how they are making sure those companies keep their blowout preventers in good working order, well maintained, inspected.

It‘s like finding out that your best friend thinks he can fly by flapping his arms really fast.  If he tells you he‘s going to jump off a tall building because he can fly away, is your due diligence just making sure that he does a lot of bicep curls and his arms are in great shape?

How can the government be handing out new permits to drill on at the rate of one every four days now on the basis that drilling is safer now when we don‘t still know what went wrong the last night?  When the piece of equipment specifically intended to prevent a blowout from happening in the first place we just found may not work even when used as directed?

For weeks now, we have been asking those questions on this show.  And for weeks, we have been trying to get a good answer to those questions from the Interior Department.  We were told that since it‘s an ongoing investigation, they would have no comment specifically on the blowout preventer matter.

We asked them about their whole “blowout preventers don‘t work” report seven different ways from Sunday, and still, they have had no comment.  And then this week, came some big and unexpected news.

Look at this.  Interior plans new roles on subsea blowout preventers. 


Plans them for when?  And if these changes are needed, and if you guys know that, and you‘re planning on it, and they‘re not ready yet, why did another permit just go out tonight?

Joining us now for the interview is Michael Bromwich, the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement—that is the federal agency that has been granting these new permits to drill.  Mr.  Bromwich joins us from San Diego tonight.  He‘s on a nine-campus tour to recruit environmental scientists.

Director Bromwich, thank you so much for being on the show tonight.


MADDOW:  First of all, I know and you know that I have said a lot about your agency and this permit issue over the past few weeks.  I want to start just by giving you the opportunity to tell me if you think I‘ve gotten any of the facts wrong.

BROMWICH:  I think you‘ve gotten a lot of the facts wrong.  I think you‘ve laid out a narrative about what we‘ve been focusing on that completely ignores the enhanced safety requirements that we‘ve imposed throughout the industry.  We‘ve not focused just on containment.  We haven‘t focused just on blowout preventers.

We put in place this past fall a set of new drilling safety rules that imposes the first—for the first time, a set of quite substantial requirements on operators who propose to drill both in the Gulf of Mexico and anywhere else.  It requires certifications by independent engineers of the drilling process.  And it requires them to address issues relating to well design, well casing, well cementing, which are all in the category of prevention which the president mentioned in some of the clips you played and that you mentioned.

I don‘t think any of your reports have talked about those prevention measures that we‘ve put in place, which are in fact very significant changes in what industry is required to do, and imposed significant burdens on industry.  They‘ve got to meet all those new requirements in each and every application to drill that they file with our agency.  And they‘ve got to comply with all of those requirements before we‘ll even consider granting their application to drill.

So, that‘s the big missing piece of the puzzle that I haven‘t heard you talk about, and that is extremely significant—far more significant than blowout preventers and far more significant than containment, although those issues are very important, too.

MADDOW:  Well, I agree with you that we have not been talking about

the changes to drilling process and well design and well casing and

cementing.  We‘ve been talking about the blowout preventers issue because

we were sort of horrified to see the new report come out and forensic

examination showing what went wrong with that blowout preventer -

BROMWICH:  But, Rachel, it didn‘t—it didn‘t—

MADDOW:  Wait, I‘ll talk, then you talk—suggesting design flaws in blowout preventers when we look at the way you‘re treating blowout preventers in your new heightened safety requirements you keep bragging out.  They are essentially that you want third party people to look at them.  You want them inspected them evaluated and maintained in a way that you can see better.  That does mat make me feel better on us continuing to rely on blowout preventers as the failsafe but people in the Gulf Coast still believe they are.

BROMWICH:  No one in our agency, certainly not me, has ever suggested these are failsafe devices.  We‘ve known since April 20th that this blowout preventer failed to operate as people hoped it would.  But it‘s not the first time that doubt has been cast on the reliability of blowout preventers.  And, in fact, my agency had had a couple of studies going back several years that suggested that there were problems with blowout preventers and that they were not 100 percent reliable.

So, it should not come as a great revelation that the forensic examination report laid out this specific mechanism by which this blowout preventer failed.  We‘ve known that the blowout preventer failed since last year.  So, it added some new information to the storehouse of knowledge we had had, but not a lot.  And it certainly didn‘t change the way we were thinking about whether things had changed sufficiently so that we could feel comfortable granting deepwater drilling permits.

MADDOW:  Well, it change—

BROMWICH:  In fact, there have been very significant changes, first and foremost in the drilling safety rules.  Second, in terms of spill response capabilities.  And third, in terms of the ability of operators to control subsea containments.

The reason there were no permit—deepwater drilling permits granted until late February is because until that time, industry had failed to demonstrate that it had the capabilities to contain a subsea blowout.  Now, they have those mechanisms, and in connection with every drilling permit that we approve, the operator has to designate the containment capabilities that it will rely on in the case of a spill.  That‘s an enormous advance.

Obviously, you want to prevent spills from happening to begin with.  But we watched with horror for 87 days when the Macondo spill could not be contained.  We now have a very different set of containment equipment and plans than we did then.

And so, that should make the American people, and you, feel much differently about deepwater drilling than we did before.

MADDOW:  I felt better when I read your reassurances about it and then I started looking into why—the basis in which you were issuing them.

So, OK, let‘s talk about this Helix Well Containment Group, OK?  Five of the eight new permits you had had given out before tonight went to companies that contracted with Helix Well Containment Group.  Helix operating something called the Helix fast response system which you‘ve been bragging about is the new containment technology that they have.

This week, Helix revealed themselves that by their own assessment, it could take them 17 days to contain a spill.  Seventeen days is the new fast response that we‘re supposed to feel better about in terms of containing a disaster that has already happened.  That to me that doesn‘t feel like a great advance that would justify the type of rash issuing of permits that you‘ve just done over the last 33 days.

BROMWICH:  Well, these haven‘t been the rash issuance of permits, as I said.  We issued none until the latter part of February.  We were strongly criticized for dragging our heels on not issuing any permits for several months after the lifting of the deepwater drilling moratorium which actually lifted in October, not in February.  And the reason we didn‘t was because the containment capabilities were not yet ready.

You‘re right, 17 days is not fabulous, but 17 days is a lot better than 87 days—


BROMWICH:  -- which is what it took to contain Macondo well.  And from dealing with the containment groups, both the Helix group and the other group that‘s developing containment capabilities, they are going to continue to enhance their capabilities and continue to shorten the response time to potential spills.

MADDOW:  When you said that changes in the blowout preventers that you

changes in what we know about blowout preventers in this recent report were no big deal and didn‘t really change your thinking in terms of whether or not we should be counting on blowout preventers and what the safety regulations about them should be, that does not square very easily for me with the fact that the secretary of the Interior Department, Ken Salazar, two days ago told reporters that there are now going to be additional rules for blowout preventers.  The rule making process for these new rules is going to start in the next few months which would seem to be an acknowledgement that the standards now are too lax and they need to get tougher.


If so, why give out permits now before the new rules are in place?

BROMWICH:  Well, you can always improve the equipment that‘s being used but you—that doesn‘t mean that you bring activities to a standstill until you can enhance those rules.  I understand you‘ve used the airbag metaphor in some of your program on this.

For a long time, air bags could not deal with side impacts.  Did that mean that we pulled off all the cars off the road?  Pending getting better airbags?  No, it didn‘t.

That would have been a silly way to proceed.  By the same token, we feel comfortable that with all the new safety regulations, the containment capabilities and the new testing and certification requirements for blowout preventers, we‘re in a much different and much better position now than we were back in April, even with respect to blowout preventers.

So, I think there is an insufficient basis for saying let‘s stop things in their tracks for the one or two years that it takes to develop better blowout preventer rules.  I think that that would be a huge mistake and would be contrary to the best interests of this country.

MADDOW:  The president stopped permits being issued because he said that we would need to be sure that this would never happen again before we started giving those permits out again.  The president‘s oil spill commission released its report on the BP disaster.  One the things they found was that an oil rig worker was four times more likely to be killed working in U.S. waters than in European waters, even though many of the same companies operate in both areas.

Do you have any explanation for that?

BROMWICH:  Do you have any explanation for what?  For the higher incidence of fatalities here?


BROMWICH:  No.  No, I don‘t.

MADDOW:  No?  And that hasn‘t been figured out.


MADDOW:  OK.  What do you say to anybody who thinks that the reason your agency is moving so quickly on this is because of political pressure over rising gas prices?

BROMWICH:  The simple answer to that is that we have not been influenced by political pressure.  If we had been, we would have started granting the permits in October, November, December, January, when the pressure every day was intense from politicians, particularly from the Gulf States, telling us about the massive unemployment effects of not allowing deepwater drilling to take place.  We waited—

MADDOW:  Some of the editorial boards for papers expressing a lot of worry about these blowout preventers even though they had pressured you before from the other side.  I‘m sorry to hear—I‘m sorry to hear your overall attitude towards those political pressures, but I‘m grateful that you took the time to talk to us after all the criticism that we‘ve laid.  I do appreciate your time, sir.

BROMWICH:  OK.  Thank you.

MADDOW:  Michael Bromwich is the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement at the Department of the Interior.

If you‘ve been wondering who gives out permits to drill off your coast, that guy.

Thanks very much for joining us tonight.  I had thought that we would be able to resolve this in a totally different direction by talking to the head of this agency.  I have never been more freaked out about this story and those permits than I have been—than I am now after talking to him.  Wow.

Now, it‘s time for “THE ED SHOW.”  Good night.



<Copy: Content and programming copyright 2011 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Copyright 2011 CQ-Roll Call, Inc.  All materials herein are protected by

United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed,

transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written

permission of CQ-Roll Call. You may not alter or remove any trademark,

copyright or other notice from copies of the content.>



Rachel Maddow Show Section Front
Add Rachel Maddow Show headlines to your news reader:

Sponsored links

Resource guide