Archives: August, 2006

An Anonymous Affront to Transparency

As the Federal Times reports, a bill designed to promote transparency in the federal government is being held up by a very non-transparent Senate procedure.

An anonymous senator has placed a “hold” on a bill that would create a publicly accessible federal database to track all federal grants and contracts. As Chris Edwards explains, it’s a meritorious piece of legislation. However, this bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn is indefinitely stalled and might not reach the Senate floor this year.

The House has approved a similar, though slightly watered-down, version of this legislation that would monitor federal grants, but not contracts.

With 29 bipartisan senators co-sponsoring Coburn’s bill and roughly 100 diverse groups supporting it, you would think that this legislation would pass easily.  

Think again.

 

Bashing Wal-Mart (and Millions of Shoppers)

Can Democrats ride what they see as a populist wave of anger against Wal-Mart to success in the 2006 elections and beyond? According to a New York Times story this morning:

Across Iowa this week and across much of the country this month, Democratic leaders have found a new rallying cry that many of them say could prove powerful in the midterm elections and into 2008: denouncing Wal-Mart for what they say are substandard wages and health care benefits …

The focus on Wal-Mart is part of a broader strategy of addressing what Democrats say is general economic anxiety and a growing sense that economic gains of recent years have not benefited the middle class or the working poor.

This new strategy tells us much more about the lingering anti-business, anti-market and, yes, elitist mindset of the Democratic Party’s national leaders than it does about Wal-Mart itself.

Wal-Mart and other price-conscious discount retailers are really a working family’s best friend. They operate in the marketplace as representatives for millions of consumers, ensuring that they get the best and lowest prices possible from wholesalers and producers. Tens of millions of American shoppers vote with their feet every week by visiting their local Wal-Mart.

If Wal-Mart offers wages and benefits that are below the national average, it is not because of company policy but because of the realities of the marketplace. Retail jobs in general offer below-average compensation because the jobs tend to be lower-skilled and less productive than most other jobs. Even so, Wal-Mart’s wages within the retail sector are competitive. A worker at Wal-Mart is more likely to have health insurance and be paid more than a worker with similar skills at a small, “mom and pop” retailer.

The denunciation of Wal-Mart is largely driven by politics. Labor unions, a key Democratic Party constituency, see non-unionized Wal-Mart stores as a threat to their efforts to organize retail workers, especially those in the grocery sector.

Democrats will need to decide who they want to represent: Tens of millions of cost-conscious, lower- and middle-income shoppers, or noisy but far less numerous union members who do not like competition.

Judge Says NSA Wiretapping Program Unconstitutional

The ACLU brought a constitutional challenge to the NSA’s controversial wiretapping program several months ago and the judge has now ruled the NSA program to be unconstitutional (click on the 06-10204 pdf). This is just the initial round of what will likely be a long legal fight.  The government will appeal and the battle will move to an appeals court, and then possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For additional background, go here and here.

Last Hope for Fourth Amendment Hangs by a Thread; Weekly Standard Rejoices

Over at the Weekly Standard, William Tucker notes gleefully that the exclusionary rule is but one Bush Supreme Court appointment away from extinction.

Tim Lynch’s 1998 Policy Analysis is about all you’ll need to thoroughly refute Tucker’s general thesis. But two specific passages in Tucker’s broadside on the Fourth Amendment are worth addressing:

What makes the exclusionary rule so absurd is that it only protects people who are guilty of crimes. If the police come to your house, knock down your door, ransack your home, throw all your belongings in the street, and find no incriminating evidence, then the exclusionary rule offers you no compensation whatsoever. Only if evidence turns up that shows you to be guilty of something are you rewarded.

This argument – that the exclusionary rule “only protects the guilty” – is a common refrain on the right. Strictly speaking, Tucker’s right. Once the scenario he outlines has taken place, the exclusionary rule offers no remedy. But Tucker and critics like him ignore the rule’s deterrent value. The exclusionary rule helps ensure that fewer of those incidents happen in the first place.

If police know in advance that evidence gathered from ill-conisidered searches performed without adequate investigation won’t hold up in court, they’re more likely to take the necessary precautions to ensure that bad searches don’t happen. That means fewer scenarios like the one Tucker lays out, and fewer of the all-too-real incidents that clutter this map.

Tucker also bites on Justice Scalia’s canard about the new police professionalism, and the new mechanisms we supposedly have in place to deal with police excess:

In pointing out how dated the exclusionary rule has become, Justice Scalia noted both the “increasing professionalism of police forces” and the ease with which aggrieved citizens can now pursue other remedies against the police for the violation of their rights. “Citizens whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated by federal officers could not bring suit until 10 years after Mapp,” Scalia noted. Since then, “Congress has authorized attorney’s fees for civil-rights plaintiffs… . The number of public-interest law firms and lawyers who specialize in civil-rights grievances has greatly expanded… . [E]xtant deterrences against [Fourth amendment violations] are … incomparably greater than the factors deterring warrantless entries when Mapp was decided. Resort to the massive remedy of suppressing evidence of guilt is unjustified.”

As any civil rights attorney will attest, the barriers to bringing a federal lawsuit agianst a police officer, police department, or city are enormous. The qualified immunity we give individual officers and the sovereign immunity granted to government entities they work for – immunities Scalia has helped broaden – make such suits nearly impossible in all but the most egregious cases. Even then, it’s tough to find a lawyer willing to risk the time and energy to bring a suit that’s likely to be thrown out of court before ever reaching trial.

Throughout the 1990s, New Yorkers on the receiving end of “wrong door” raids like the one Tucker describes weren’t even compensated for the damage done to their homes, much less for the needless terror and fright they suffered. After the “wrong door” raid that ended in the death of innocent city worker Alberta Spruill in 2003, the city instituted some reforms, but has already begun to renege on its promises.

In many cities, the entire warrant process – from the shady informant’s tip to breaking down the suspect’s door – takes only a matter of hours. The judges we entrust with oversight have largely turned the warrant process into a rubber-stamp exercise. And when these lax procedures do result in tragedy, public officials clam up. Transparency and accountability give way to CYA and damage control.

There are some 40,000 paramilitary police raids conducted each year in America, and that number is rising. Given the high stakes and low margin for error associated with such tactics, we need more assurance that police are doing everything possible to ensure they have the right suspect, not less. The coming death of the exclusionary rule should be mourned, not celebrated.

Against Forcing Voters to be Free

Around election time pundits begin to fret about low voter turnout in the United States. Norman Ornstein has even called for mandatory voting, complete with sanctions. The voters should be, as it were, forced to be free.

Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy shows why such concerns are misplaced. We should be worrying, Ilya says, about the rational ignorance of voters who do go to the polls. His longer argument about voter ignorance may be found here.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Speaking of my claim yesterday that “people spend other people’s money far less efficiently than their own,” this just in from the Associated Press:

The federal program that provides legal help to poor Americans turns away half of its applicants for lack of resources. But that hasn’t stopped its executives from lavishing expensive meals, chauffeur-driven cars and foreign trips on themselves.

Agency documents obtained by The Associated Press detail the luxuries that executives of the Legal Services Corp. have given themselves with federal money – from $14 “Death by Chocolate” desserts to $400 chauffeured rides to locations within cab distance of their offices.

The government-funded corporation also has a spacious headquarters in Washington’s tony Georgetown district – with views of the Potomac River and a rent significantly higher than other tenants in the same building.

Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is upset. Maybe at last he can turn his attention from oversight of private charities and universities to his actual job, oversight of federal spending.