May 12, 2006


Nixon: The pretend Democrat

by Patrick Dobson

Spring means the Missouri River is on the rise, and along with it the level of boot-swallowing muck from the mouths of the wealthy and powerful. Most particularly, it’s a time when Democrat and Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon shows just how much like a Republican he looks.

Nixon has sued the U.S. Corps of Engineers to prevent a spring rise in the river. Arguing that the Corps has not conducted the appropriate environmental impact studies before allowing the river a deep gulp, he also says that the spring rise the Corps planned would be “bad for Missouri.”

Nothing the Corps can do on the river is good for Missouri (literally, but especially according to Nixon). Just over a year ago, the attorney general was complaining of the low level of the river, perpetuating a fight with the Dakotas over who benefits from river water — recreation or the nearly non-existent navigation industry.

At that time, Nixon joined a phalanx of business leaders and farmers under the Arch in St. Louis and called for consistent water levels in the river for navigation. Now the river’s too high, and Nixon sounds as if he just knows that a little extra water in the channel will devastate Show-me land. The “rise,” however, is no flood, just a few more feet of water than the Corps normally lets into the river channel this time of year to float all those imaginary barges just tearing up the river.

But neither Nixon’s plea for heavily subsidized commercial navigation and farm industries nor his groveling before corporate business interests can cover the fact that river manipulation has not worked in the over sixty years since the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944. The congressional act created the Missouri as it flows today, a heavily channeled and ecologically damaged watercourse that constantly creates conflict among the humans that think they control it.

What Nixon isn’t saying is that taxpayers are getting screwed from different directions with river alteration.

First, farmers received free land as a benefit of river alteration. As the channel narrowed in the 1940s and 1950s as a result of diking and dredging, the river dumped its silt behind manmade structures, accreting land. Farmers sometimes have problems in low spots in their fields as the water table adjacent to the river rises in the spring. But this problem affects only a tiny percentage of the total land river alteration created. Taxpayer money created the land and it funds farmers through tax breaks on everything from petroleum to farm income. Moreover, much of the land grows heavily subsidized corn.

Second, farmers hardly use the river to move their goods. No farmer or corporation has moved wheat on the river since 1981. The tonnage of corn and beans moved on the river consists of a few barges, mostly operating around the St. Louis area. An occasional shipment of asphalt comes up the river. The number of grain shipments limits the number of barges moving upstream with fertilizer. Since the number of barges that come up have to match the number moving down, the lack of any other freight limits the fertilizer moving on the river.

Ultimately, the federal government spends from $3.5 million to $7 million a year on river alteration maintenance, depending on what the river does to human river control structures, such as dams, dikes, channel and stabilized banks. The national treasury receives about $4.5 million from river shipments.

The loss comes from the fact that despite the rhetoric, river shipping is neither more efficient nor less costly than rail and truck. What rail-price benefits may have come at one time from the threat of competition from commercial navigation has evaporated as the road network and our reliance on short- and long-haul trucking has increased.

And with gas prices rising, commercial river navigation falls even farther behind. The Missouri runs fast, making riverboat transportation, particularly upstream, more costly in comparison to truck and rail.

Moreover, the market has changed. Grain moves in smaller pieces to its markets — grain processors, ethanol manufacturers and livestock operation, such as feedlots and pork and chicken factories. The major exports move by truck and rail to St. Louis, where some move downstream to the Gulf on the larger, slower, deeper Mississippi.

What is most bothersome is that Nixon has better things to do than to hobnob with people who can’t make a buck without socking it to taxpayers. He could be enforcing environmental laws that keep the most rapacious businesses from chewing up the Missouri landscape, and polluting the air and water.

From lead mining in the Missouri lead belt to chemical use on Missouri farms, Nixon could make sure our food, water, land and air are safe. He could challenge the legality of the new picture ID requirement for voting. Or the governor’s new-age cronyism involved in closing state fee agencies and giving the assets to his friends. Or Nixon could question the ability of the state government to sell the state’s student loan agency.

What’s so irritating about Nixon using state funds to sue the federal government is not the environmental degradation river alteration represents. It’s not the taxpayer money squandered to degrade the environment for make-believe benefits. Hell, it’s not even seeing Nixon hanging out with that smug bunch of rugged individualists who believe God gave capitalists two hands to take all they can from others.

What’s most irritating is that Nixon isn’t acting like a Democrat. He’s not looking out for the least able to defend themselves, the poor, working people, union members or those without power. He’s looking out for himself by helping those who have power maintain it.

And it’s a damn shame, particularly because Nixon could be our next governor. But if he’s to get more than what I call the “Vote of Desperate Democrats” — those who can’t vote Republican — then he better start acting like a Democrat.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at


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