Archives: March, 2010

Moody’s Mulls Downgrading U.S. Debt

The U.S. isn’t Greece.  Yet.

Moody’s is no longer so sure about the quality of Uncle Sam’s debt.  Reports the Christian Science Monitor:

The US needs to make significant government spending cuts or else risk losing its gold-plated credit rating that has made extensive borrowing so affordable, Moody’s Investor Service said late Monday.

The announcement was a sobering warning that the country’s burgeoning debt has weakened the country’s economic standing, and that US Treasury Bonds, traditionally a bullet-proof investment, could lose their sterling Aaa-rating if Washington cannot control its federal debt.

If Moody’s were to downgrade the country’s rating, the impact could be severe. It would signal to lenders worldwide that the US is no longer one of the safest places to invest money.

That, in turn, would threaten the country’s ability to borrow freely and extensively from other countries on favorable terms. Investors would likely demand a higher interest rate to finance US debt, which would push federal debt higher still.

“There’s a profound effect in this announcement,” says Max Fraad Wolff, a professor of economics at New School University in New York. “The US has always been the gold standard … and this begins to signal a fall or weakness in US global economic position. That’s a bit like a sea change.”

Obviously we are long overdue for some fiscal responsibility in Washington.  And that means cutting spending across the board.  Lawmakers might start by considering what programs are authorized by the Constitution–and the far larger number which represent unconstitutional political power grabs.

Lies, Damned Lies, and CBO Estimates

Washington is buzzing with news that the Congressional Budget Office has a new cost estimate for the President’s proposal to further expand the federal government’s control over the health care system. The White House is doubtlessly pleased because the takeaway message, as blindly regurgitated by the Associated Press, is that a giant new entitlement program is going to “drive down red ink:”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the legislation would reduce the federal deficit by $138 billion over its first 10 years, and continue to drive down the red ink thereafter. Democratic leaders said the deficit would be cut $1.2 trillion in the second decade - and Obama called it the biggest reduction since the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton put the federal budget on a path to surplus.

Michael Cannon already has explained that the cost estimate is fraudulent because of what it leaves out, so let me explain why it is fraudulent because of what it includes. The CBO has a very dismal track record of getting the numbers wrong, in part because there is no attempt to measure how a bigger burden of government has negative macroeconomic effects, but also because the number crunchers do a poor job of measuring the degree to which people (recipients, health care providers, state and local politicians, etc.) will modify their behavior to become eligible for other people’s money. The problem is compounded by similar mistakes for revenue estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation, which (like CBO) makes no attempt to capture macroeconomic effects and has a less-than-stellar history of predicting behavioral responses.

If the legislation passes, we will get more spending, more taxes, and more debt. Equally troubling, we will get more dependency. That’s good for Washington and bad for the country.

Run Away from ‘Common’ Education Standards

A couple of days ago, Fordham Institute president Chester Finn declared on NRO that conservatives should embrace new, national education standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Today I respond to him on The Corner, and let’s just say it’s clear that neither conservatives, nor anybody else, should embrace national standards.

Oh, one more thing: I shouldn’t have to keep saying this to savvy Washington insiders like the folks at Fordham, but when the federal government bribes states with their own citizens’ tax money to do something, doing that thing is hardly voluntary, at least in any reasonable sense. 

For more wise thoughts on the national standards issue, check out this interview with Jay Greene, and this Sacramento Bee piece by Ben Boychuk.  Oh, and this interview with yours truly.

“Deem and Pass” and TARP

The leaders of the House of Representatives plan to address health care through a “deem and pass” strategy.  Professor Michael McConnell believes this strategy violates the Constitution.  But put that aside for now. Ms. Pelosi has chosen “deem and pass” because, as she said, “people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.” The “people” in question are House Democrats whose votes are essential to passing the bill.  These members fear voters would penalize them for voting for the Senate bill. As the Washington Post put it, “deem and pass” would “enable House Democrats not to be on record directly as supporting the Senate measure.”  A House Democrat running in a tough election will be able to deny voting for the Senate bill if it passes into law. We would then have an odd situation in which a bill became law even though only a minority of House members are willing to take responsibility for having supported it. It would be, as it were, a mystery how the bill became law.

This all reminds me of the TARP legislation. In my recent policy analysis of how Congress performed badly in the TARP case, I found that members of both of chambers were concerned mostly with avoiding responsibility for voting for the bailouts. In the tough cases, and probably many others, Congress does what it can to avoid being held accountable.

Many people inside DC will look at “deem and pass” through the lens of political hardball. If Pelosi can pull it off, she will be praised as tough and shrewd, a risk taker who gets her way by any means necessary.

But there is a larger problem here.  The willingness and capacity of Congress to shirk responsibility for its acts suggests deep institutional decline and corruption.  That decline implicates more than Congress itself. How can representative democracy work if voters cannot hold their representatives accountable?

Yet. Another. Fraudulent. Cost Estimate.

House Democrats claim that a not-yet-released Congressional Budget Office report puts the cost of their revised health care overhaul at $940 billion over the next 10 years.

Though I have yet to see the CBO score, I’ll bet anyone a fancy lunch that it does not claim the legislation would cost the federal government just $940 billion from 2010 through 2019.

As former Congressional Budget Office director Donald Marron has explained over and over, the figure that Democrats consistently cite for the cost of their bills is only the CBO’s estimate of the cost of federal spending related to the expansion of health insurance coverage.  It is not the full cost to the federal government, because each bill also spends taxpayer dollars on other items.

Marron examined the CBO’s March 11 score of the bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve, and found an additional $96 billion of spending over 10 years.  If the most recent iteration of ObamaCare is similar, then new federal spending in that bill would be approximately $1.036 trillion – pushing the total over the president’s spending target.

Anyone care to take me up on that fancy-lunch wager?

Moreover, the on-budget costs of the legislation probably account for only 40 percent of the total costs.  The other 60 percent come from the private-sector mandates.  But Democrats have systematically suppressed any estimates of those hidden taxes, probably because such an estimate would reveal the full cost of the legislation to be closer to $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

It has been 272 days since Democrats introduced the first complete version of the president’s health plan.  We still haven’t seen an honest cost estimate.

To Kill ACORN, Kill the Programs

Last year, when the issue of defunding ACORN was a hot-button issue, I told countless radio talk show audiences that the focus should be on eliminating the underlying fuel that created the organization—the flow of federal subsidies.

Chris Edwards pointed this out in September. If Congress simply stops subsidizing ACORN, its activists will reincorporate under new names and again become eligible for funds. Alas, that’s precisely what ACORN is currently doing.

From FoxNews.com:

One of the latest groups to adopt a new name is ACORN Housing, long one of the best-funded affiliates. Now, the group is calling itself the Affordable Housing Centers of America.

Others changing their names include what were among the largest affiliates: California ACORN is now Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and New York ACORN has become New York Communities for Change. More are expected to follow suit.

A comment from Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Republicans on the U.S. House oversight and government reform committee, doesn’t indicate that the GOP has quite received the message:

To credibly claim a clean break, argued Hill, the new groups should at least have hired directors from outside ACORN.

It appears that for many Republicans, attacking ACORN represented political opportunism, not a statement about the proper role of the federal government.

Further rendering the GOP’s ACORN agenda moot was last week’s ruling by a U.S. District judge that singling out ACORN for defunding is unconstitutional. It truly boggles the mind what passes for constitutional and unconstitutional in this country.

Tuesday was the birthday of James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution.” Reflecting upon Madison’s wise words, it’s hard to understand how the federal “community development” programs that have funded ACORN could pass constitutional muster:

“The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like state governments, whose powers are more general. Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”

“[T]he powers of the federal government are enumerated; it can only operate in certain cases; it has legislative powers on defined and limited objects, beyond which it cannot extend its jurisdiction.”

“With respect to the two words “general welfare,” I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.”

See this essay for reasons why these HUD community development programs should be abolished.