Archives: 04/2009

Taxpayer Financing of Campaigns Returns

Taxpayer financing of congressional campaigns has returned.

Yesterday Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced a modified version of their public financing bill first proposed in 2007, now as then called the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA).  The older version included “free media vouchers” and discounted ad rates for television; the new model focuses more on small contributions and matching funds from the federal treasury.

These bills to finance campaigns with government revenue are often introduced in Congress and rarely make any headway, much less pass either chamber.  Their perennial failure is not difficult to understand. Members are interested in campaign finance regulations that make it more difficult for challengers to raise money.  They are not interested in giving candidates federal revenue to run against incumbents. Members are especially unwilling to fund campaigns because the public takes a dim view of  using taxes in this way.

FENA tries to avoid public opposition by creating the appearance that taxpayers do not actually fund this scheme.

As Politico reports:

In the Senate version, the public money would come from assessing the country’s largest government contractors with a small surcharge… In the House, the money would come from the sale of broadcast spectrum.

But the question should be asked: if public financing of campaigns will actually achieve all the great things claimed by its proponents, shouldn’t the public be asked to pay the bill? After all, the public can expect to receive the promised benefits. Why should the bill be financed by government contractors and the sale of public assets?

We know the answer to these questions. Durbin and Specter have to obscure the role of taxes in these schemes because the public would oppose the bill if taxpayers were on the hook for the funding. Yet the senators obscure rather than eliminate the role of the taxpayer who will have to pay higher levies to fund more expensive government contracts or to replace the money that might have been obtained from the sale of the spectrum.  Once the FENA lunch turns out not to be free, will voters feel like paying the tab?

The rationale for the new program also merits attention. In the past, advocates of taxpayer financing argued that private financing of campaigns corrupted representation, policymaking, and the general political culture.  Replacing private contributions with public financing would, it was claimed, remove private interests and end corruption.  That rationale appealed to most of the supporters of  public financing; they tend toward the left politically and had little trouble believing the Republicans running Congress – all of them – were corrupt.  But 2006 brought the Democrats back to power, and general claims of corruption no longer fit the background assumptions of both powerful legislators and supporters of public financing. So we now hear little about corruption and a lot about how FENA will free up legislators to “tend to the people’s business.”

Will “tending to the people’s business” be enough to convince Americans to spend tax dollars funding congressional campaigns at a time of record public sector deficits brought about by reckless spending on bailouts and much else?

The question answers itself.

Wednesday Podcast: ‘Turning a Corner on the War Metaphor’

Since President Bush’s “War on Terror” began in 2001, the use of a war metaphor has come with assertions of broader powers by the president. But the U.S. may be turning a corner on how terms like “war” are used, says Cato scholar David Rittgers.

In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast,  Rittgers argues that President Obama’s choice to do away with the war metaphor is a step in the right direction.

When the Government Takes Your Money, It Takes Your Property

When Daniel and Andrea McClung applied for a permit to build a small business on their property in Sumner, Washington, the city charged them nearly $50,000 to pay for improvements to the city’s entire storm drainage system.

The McClungs sued the city under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, whose Takings Clause prohibits the government from “taking” private property for public use without just compensation.  They argue that the city cannot force them to pay fees for off-site pipes absent proof that their development would have a specific detrimental effect on the existing drainage system–and without any evidence that the impact was worth $50,000.

The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the city, reasoning that money is not property (so there could be no unconstitutional taking) and that because the fees were imposed by ordinance (so the city’s determination that the pipes needed upgrading was justification enough for the fees).  The McClungs have now asked the Supreme Court to review their case.

Cato, joined by the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Building Industry Association of Washington, argues that this case is a perfect vehicle for the Court to revisit the scope of Fifth Amendment protections.

Our brief highlights the deep divisions among state and federal courts over several important issues, such as whether the Takings Clause applies to legislative (as opposed to bureaucratic) exactions and whether it applies to monetary exactions (not just burdens on land use).  The Court should take this case to ensure that the standard for reviewing development conditions is uniform across the country and make clear that property right protections do not depend on ill-defined distinctions such as the form of property demanded by the government or the manner in which a condition is imposed.

Should Immigration Agents Target Businesses Knowingly Hiring Illegal Immigrants?

The Obama Administration plans to shift immigration enforcement from workers to employers, but the whole policy of “internal enforcement” of immigration law is the problem, says Cato scholar Jim Harper.

According to Harper, aligning legal immigration rates with the demand for new workers in the country is the only solution to the problem of illegal immigration.

He appeared on Fox News this week to debate this issue.

For more videos, subscribe to Cato’s YouTube channel.

Democrats Agree on Health Plan Outline: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

The New York Times reports that key congressional Democrats have agreed on the basic provisions for a health care reform bill.  And while many details remain to be negotiated, the broad outline provides a dog’s breakfast of bad ideas that will lead to higher taxes, fewer choices, and poorer quality care.

Among the items that are expected to be included in the final bill:

  • An Individual Mandate. Every American will be required to buy an insurance policy that meets certain government requirements.  Even individuals who are currently insured – and happy with their insurance – will have to switch to insurance that meets the government’s definition of acceptable insurance, even if that insurance is more expensive or contains benefits that they do not want or need.  Get ready for the lobbying frenzy as every special interest group in Washington, both providers and disease constituencies, demand to be included.
  • An Employer Mandate. At a time of rising unemployment, the government will raise the cost of hiring workers by requiring all employers to provide health insurance to their workers or pay a fee (tax) to subsidize government coverage.
  • A Government-Run Plan, competing with private insurance.  Because such a plan is subsidized by taxpayers, it will have an unfair advantage, allowing it to squeeze out private insurance.  In addition, because government insurance plans traditionally under-reimburse providers, such costs are shifted to private insurance plans, driving up their premiums and making them even less competitive. The actuarial firm Lewin Associates estimates that, depending on how premiums, benefits, reimbursement rates, and subsidies were structured, as many as 118.5 million would shift from private to public coverage.   That would mean a nearly 60 percent reduction in the number of Americans with private insurance.  It is unlikely that any significant private insurance market could continue to exist under such circumstances, putting us on the road to a single-payer system.
  • Massive New Subsidies. This includes not just subsidies to help low-income people buy insurance, but expansions of government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.
  • Government Playing Doctor.   Democrats agree that one goal of their reform plan is to push for “less use of aggressive treatments that raise costs but do not result in better outcomes.”  While no mechanism has yet been spelled out, it seems likely that the plan will use government-sponsored comparative effectiveness research to impose cost-effectiveness guidelines on medical care, initially in government programs, but eventually extending such restrictions to private insurance.

Given the problems facing our health care system-high costs, uneven quality, millions of Americans without health insurance–it seems that things couldn’t get any worse.   But a bill based on these ideas, will almost certainly make things much, much worse.

Or maybe it’s all just a massive April Fool’s joke.

Social Security Is Running a Surplus…Oops

For years, opponents of Social Security reform have told us that there is no need to rush into changing the program because, after all, Social Security is running a surplus today. Well, according to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, not so much.

CBO reports that the Social Security surplus, originally expected to be $80-90 billion this year and next will shrink to $16 billion this year and just $3 billion next year (essentially a rounding error) as a result of the recession and rising unemployment. And those estimates may be far too optimistic. In February of this year, for example, Social Security actually ran a deficit—spending more than it took in through taxes and interest combined.

And, while CBO expects a return to modest surpluses after 2010, as the recession ends and unemployment falls, that is betting on the success of the unproven Obama economic program. If unemployment stays at current levels, Social Security will begin running permanent cash flow deficits in 2011 (eight years earlier than previously predicted).

Opponents of personal accounts have pointed out recent declines in the stock market as a reason why private investment should no longer be considered an option for Social Security reform. The evidence suggests that, even with recent market declines, private investment would still produce higher returns than Social Security. The new surplus numbers provide yet another lesson: if the economy is in such a mess that it hurts private investment, traditional Social Security isn’t going to be in any better shape.

The case for personal accounts remains as strong as ever.

Topics: