Archives: January, 2010

Does This Mean I’m On a Watch-List?

From the DCCC comes this little beauty:

While making today’s announcement that he will once again run for Congress in New York’s 24th district, [Candidate for New York’s 24th Congressional Disctrict Richard] Hanna also launched a new campaign website where he shamelessly touts his ties to the CATO [sic] Institute, a right wing extremist group that has long been a vocal advocate for extremist, unfair trade policies that would allow companies to ship American jobs overseas [emphasis mine].

The fact that Hanna is touting his leadership role in a group that prides its commitment to unfair trade policies that send American jobs overseas is downright shameful,” said Shripal Shah, Northeast Regional Press Secretary at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

To clarify, the press release quotes Hanna’s campaign website, which makes clear that Hanna is “a sustaining member of the CATO Institute, having traveled to Russia as part of an international study group. ” That means he gives Cato between $500 and $999 per year  and went on a Cato-organized trip to Russia.

 The DCCC’s release goes on:

The CATO Institute is a right wing extremist group that has long advocated for unfair trade policies regardless of their impact on American jobs.  [emphasis theirs] CATO has been one of the leading advocates for unfair trade deals and believes that increases in unemployment should not prevent enacting new trade deals. The CATO Policy Handbook specifically says Congress should “avoid using trade deficits and concerns about employment levels as excuses for imposing trade restrictions” as it calls for the US to move away from “reciprocity’’ and “level playing fields.” [CATO Policy Handbook, 6th ed, Chapter 64.

 Should I thank them for linking to our handbook?

On a personal note, I am due to renew my visa in March. Can anyone advise me on whether this characterization of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies will jeapordize its renewal?

HT: Jonathan Blanks

Update: for a broader look at the inanity of the DCCC’s characterization of Cato as a “right-wing extremist” group, see this excellent blog post by Cato Media Fellow Radley Balko.

The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama

Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts seems to reflect some of the trends David Kirby and I note in our new study, “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” released today. We wrote, “Libertarians seem to be a lead indicator of trends in centrist, independent-minded voters. If libertarians continue to lead the independents away from Obama, Democrats will lose 2010 midterm elections they would otherwise win.” That seems to have happened in Virginia, New Jersey, and now Massachusetts. Young voters, whom we examine in the study, also seem to have moved sharply in Massachusetts from heavy support for Obama in 2008 to slightly less strong support for Brown this week.

Using our strict screen based on American National Election Studies data, we find that 14 percent of voters were libertarian in 2008. Other analysts using broader criteria find larger numbers. Gallup calculates the distribution of ideology every year and found that libertarians made up 23 percent of respondents in their 2009 survey. Our analysis of data from a 2007 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that people with libertarian views were 26 percent of respondents. And a Zogby poll found that 59 percent of Americans would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” while 44 percent would accept the description “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian.”

Libertarian voters swung away from Bush and the GOP in 2004 and 2006, but in 2008 they swung back, voting for McCain by 71 to 27 percent, presumably because the prospect of a Democratic president with a Democratic Congress in the midst of a financial crisis was frightening to small-government voters. Also, while many libertarian intellectuals had a real antipathy to McCain, the typical libertarian voter saw McCain as an independent, straight-talking maverick who was a strong opponent of earmarks and pork-barrel spending and never talked about social issues.

One encouraging point in the study: libertarians may be becoming more organized. In our 2006 study we wrote, “Social conservatives have evangelical churches, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family… . Liberals have unions… . Libertarians have think tanks.” In the past three years, however, libertarians have become a more visible, organized force in politics, particularly as campaigns move online. Note the Ron Paul campaign and the heavy libertarian involvement in the widespread and decentralized “Tea Party” movement.

The new study also includes new data on young libertarian voters, Ron Paul voters, libertarians and abortion, “secular centrist” voters, and how libertarians voted for Congress in the past five elections.

Federal Transportation Follies

The 2009 stimulus bill gave the U.S. Department of Transportation $50 billion to distribute to the states for highways, roads, and bridges. A House bill passed in December would add another $28 billion. According to Washington folklore, spending on infrastructure is always good because it’ll create jobs and spur economic growth. However, three recent examples are a reminder that the government often does a poor job of allocating resources.

First, an Alaska legislative audit concluded that the state should not have spent federal transportation money building a road to the site of the proposed “Bridge to Nowhere,” which was canceled after a national outcry. Alaska kept the federal money originally earmarked for the bridge, and then-Governor Sarah Palin agreed to spend $26 million of it on the road despite the fact there was no bridge.

Second, the Department of Transportation is supposed to exclude “unethical, dishonest, or otherwise irresponsible” parties from receiving federal funds. But according to a report from DOT’s inspector general, the average case took DOT officials “300 days to reach a suspension decision and over 400 days to reach a debarment decision.” For example, Kentucky awarded $24 million in transportation stimulus money to companies with officials under review by the Federal Highway Administration for bribery, theft, and obstruction of justice. The FHA took 10 months to review the companies before ultimately suspending them, but Kentucky had already given the companies the money.

Third, a Tennessee television station analyzed the state’s use of federal transportation stimulus money and found that it “spent an average of $161,500 per job created and that some paving jobs, which were temporary, cost taxpayers more than $1 million each.” The station interviewed a construction company that had been busy during the summer when it had federal money. Now its trucks are idle and the workers it hired have all been laid off.

Randal O’Toole says that “The best test of infrastructure value is whether users are willing to pay for it.” There’s almost no connection between infrastructure projects funded by federal taxpayers and the typically local users. Leaving infrastructure projects to state and local governments to fund would make more of a connection. Privatization, which would utilize tolling and other user fees, would be even better.

Statism Update from Brussels

America may have dodged the bullet of Obamacare thanks to voters in Massachusetts, but even if the left ultimately succeeds in expanding government’s control of health care, the United States will still have more freedom than Europe. It seems that the European Union’s governing entities, the European Commission and the semi-ceremonial European Parliament, combine the worst features of statism and collectivism from the entire continent. The Euro-crats make lots of noises about subsidiarity and other policies to leave decision making in the hands of national and local governments, but virtually every policy coming from Brussels is a new power grab for unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats. The latest example is possible EU-wide driving laws for the purposes of imposing absurdly low speed limits and to requiring foolish rules against more comfortable and safer large cars. Here’s what the UK-based Express wrote about the topic:

Brussels bureaucrats want to slap draconian European Union driving laws on Britain’s roads in a new “green” campaign on motorists, it emerged last night. Measures being considered include a barrage of new maximum speed limits in town and city areas. British motorists could also be forced to undertake exams in “environmentally-friendly” road skills as part of an EU-wide overhaul of driving tests. And many large cars and other so-called gas-guzzling vehicles face being banned from newly-declared “green zones” in urban centres. The latest threat of meddling from Brussels comes in an Action Plan on Urban Mobility drawn up by European Commission transport chiefs. …Mats Persson, of the Euro-sceptic think tank Open Europe, commented: “This illustrates that the EU simply can’t stop interfering in every aspect of people’s lives.”

Meanwhile, a different tentacle of the European octopus is proposing that the European Union be given the power to audit budget numbers from member nations. Given the fiscal fiasco in Greece, this seems like it might be a reasonable step - until one remembers that the EU’s auditors every year give a failing grade to the EU’s own budget practices. The EU Observer reports on the issue, but the phrase “blind leading the blind” somehow did not get included:

…the European Commission has indicated it will seek audit powers for the EU’s statistics office, Eurostat, in order to verify elements of national government accounts. …Speaking to journalists after a meeting of EU finance ministers on Tuesday (19 January), outgoing EU economy commissioner Joaquin Almunia said greater Eurostat auditing powers could have avoided the mistakes that led to the Greek revision. He said the commission will propose “a new regulation in order to obtain powers, which we’ve already requested, to give Eurostat the possibility of carrying out audits.”

Last but not least, that same EU Observer story has a tiny bit of good news, or at least a dark cloud with a silver lining. Some of Europe’s governments want to impose an EU-wide tax on banks. This certainly fits the theme of ever-growing levels of bureaucracy and interference from Brussels, but the good news is that there is still (even under the statist Lisbon Treaty) a national veto on tax matters. So even though some of the big nations in Europe want to demagogue against the financial sector, the EU’s taxation commissioner (and former communist apparatchik from Hungary) indicated with sadness that such a tax probably would not make it through the process:

While discussion on Greece took up considerable time, EU finance ministers did have an opportunity to discuss a Swedish proposal for an EU-wide bank levy to mitigate the effects of future financial crises. …British, Belgian and German ministers were amongst those who showed moderate support for the idea. However, outgoing EU taxation commissioner Laszlo Kovacs said it was unlikely to fly because of EU unanimity voting in the area of taxation.

Sacrificing Liberties in the Name of Security

The new Justice Department Inspector General report finds that the FBI broke the law in seeking phone records.  Reports Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine:

In a report (PDF) issued today, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine shows that the FBI routinely broke the law for several years by demanding telephone records through informal methods that were not authorized by statute. The abuses, which involved thousands of records, are especially striking because it is not very hard for the FBI to obtain this information legally. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) allows the bureau to demand records from phone companies through a “national security letter” (NSL) signed by the director or an official he designates. Under FBI policy, any special agent in charge can sign an NSL, which simply states that the records sought are “relevant to an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”

In 2003 FBI officials began dodging this minimal requirement by asking telecommunications carriers to suppy records without the legally required NSL “due to exigent circumstances” and promising to provide an NSL after the fact. These so-called exigent letters, which were often used when no emergency actually existed, were an extralegal contrivance that violated ECPA, bureau policy, and guidelines issued by the attorney general. The retroactive NSLs promised by the exigent letters often failed to appear because there was no authorized investigation to which they could be linked. To fix that problem, FBI officials resorted to another illegal procedure, issuing “blanket” NSLs tied to no particular investigation.

Even these pseudolegalities look downright upright next to the FBI’s other informal methods of obtaining records, which included requests by email, phone, post-it note, and in-person oral communication as well as “sneak peeks,” which were about as legitimate as they sound. The failure to follow the established NSL process is legally significant because ECPA prohibits telecom companies from disclosing customer records to the government except in specified circumstances. One of them is not when an FBI agent shows up at your office and says, “Mind if I take a look at that?”

The targets of the FBI’s illegal record grabs are unknown, with one major exception. “Some of the most troubling improper requests for telephone records,” the inspector general’s report notes, “occurred in media leak cases, where the FBI sought and acquired reporters’ telephone toll billing records and calling activity information without following federal regulation or obtaining the required Attorney General approval.” In 2008 FBI Director Robert Mueller apologized for the bureau’s improper snooping on foreign correspondents for The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Obviously, federal agencies require investigative authority to combat terrorism and other crimes.  But those investigations need to be conducted in accordance with the law and Constitution.  We must never forget that it is a free society which we are defending.

Lessons from the Brown Victory in Massachusetts

In this new video, Cato’s David Boaz and John Samples evaluate what Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts means for Democrats and Republicans in the near and far term. Samples and Boaz contend that Tuesday’s election sent a message to Democrats that they have clearly overreached, but Republicans need to be careful and realize that they’re still not very popular either.

Watch:

John Samples is the author of the forthcoming book, The Struggle to Limit Government, available soon at the Cato store.

Are We Mad about SAFRA?

This morning I mused about whether yesterday’s Massachusetts miracle would curb the drive to have the feds take over K-12 education. In particular, I wondered if the president’s new proposal to extend the “Race to the Top” – and as part of that directly connect local districts to the feds –will meet an almost immediate demise as legislators dive frantically to avoid the backlash against ever-expanding federal power.

My hope is that it will, but I’m not especially sanguine. The prospects for stemming the centralization tide are probably better today than they were yesterday, but federal education initiatives tend to have a fair amount of bipartisan support, especially if they throw money at public schools – which liberals like – as well as things like charter schools, merit pay, and “standards” that conservatives support. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if President Obama, facing hopeless prospects on health care, cap and trade, and other anger-igniters, were to propose reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act as one big Race to the Top. Incorporating both big bucks and things conservatives endorse, it would stand a pretty good chance of garnering some Republican support. And that would allow Obama to say he has learned his lesson about working with both parties while letting legislators head back home declaring that they’d done something “for the children.”

In sum, I’m not sure whether Scott Brown’s election is actually a good or bad thing at the K-12 level. I am much more optimistic about higher education, specifically the effect Brown’s victory will have on the odious Student Aid and Fiscal Responsbility Act, a piece of legislation that supporters say will save taxpayers money but that will almost certainly cost them dearly. The House passed SAFRA in September, but Senate action has been in a holding pattern while that body has been paralyzed by health care.

Why the optimism on SAFRA and not in K-12? Because Race to the Top is stealthy, involving relatively small amounts of money and ostensibly letting states and districts freely choose if they want to participate. Not so SAFRA, which if anything has been overly demonized as a federal takeover of the student-lending industry because it would cut “private” lenders out of massively subsidized federal-loan programs.

Of course, if the lenders are hugely subsidized they are hardly private, at least in any meaningful sense. Nonetheless, the loudest argument against SAFRA – which would consolidate some additional power at the federal level and spend like a drunken sailor – is that it’s a federal takeover. From a political standpoint that’s huge. With Brown having successfully run on a platform primarily opposing big and ever-growing government, many one-time congressional supporters of SAFRA will no doubt have to think long and hard if they really, really want to bear the label of “federalizer.”

My suspicion is that, given the new political environment, a great many will decide that they don’t.