Archives: 03/2010

Senator Bunning Exposes Washington’s Fiscal Frauds

President Obama and many other politicians in Washington are big fans of pay-as-you-go budgeting, which means they want any new spending or tax relief offset (or “paid for”) with tax increases or spending cuts from other parts of the budget. Or at least that’s what they claim. But when Senator Bunning took them at their word and blocked a $10 billion spending bill because his colleagues were unwilling to make some tiny changes elsewhere, he was treated like a leper. Even his Republicans colleagues largely disapproved of his actions (so much for having learned any lessons from the drubbings they took at the polls in 2006 and 2008). Attacked from all sides, Bunning eventually relented in exchange for an offset vote (which was defeated, of course). What makes this episode interesting is not the specific policies that were being considered. As I posted earlier this week, Bunning was not even trying to shrink the size of government. Indeed, his “offset” was actually a tax increase (getting rid of a special tax break for paper manufacturing).

But this incident does expose the gross hypocrisy of the supposed deficit hawks in Washington. President Obama and the Democrats (and many Republicans) pretend they care about deficits, but their concerns magically disappear whenever there is a chance to buy votes by spending other people’s money. When tax cuts or tax increases are being debated, however, many of these same politicians piously declare their unwavering opposition to red ink (unless, of course, it’s a special tax break for a contributor). But perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that politicians think higher taxes are the solution to the over-spending problem in Washington.

What about the organizations that supposedly exist to fight deficits, such as the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (they should be fighting spending instead, but let’s set that issue aside). Folks from these groups often ask politicians to be courageous and make “tough choices.” So I went to the Concord Coalition’s homepage and was shocked, shocked to find nothing about Bunning’s effort. I checked the blog and the press releases and found lots of tough rhetoric, but not one word of praise (or one word of any sort) for a Senator who tried to put the Concord Coalition’s words into action. And what about the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget? Same song, second verse. Not a mention of Bunning on the homepage, blog, or in the press releases. (See update below)

Anybody care to make any predictions whether these groups will be similarly silent when President Obama’s “Fiscal Responsibility Commission” unveils a big tax hike?

Mea Culpa: On another matter, I have to confess an error. I did an interview for NBC affiliate stations on the financial mess at the Postal Service. I haven’t spent any time on that issue, so I quickly scanned some material from my Cato colleagues Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven and saw that Congress had given an indirect bailout to the Postal Service by suspending $4 billion of required pre-funding for retiree health benefits. I then went on the air and said that this was a taxpayer subsidy for the Postal Service’s lavish pay and benefits. The Postal Service does have lavish pay and benefits, and the indirect bailout may lead to a direct infusion of taxpayer money at some point in the near future, but what I said I was wrong because no taxpayer money is currently being allocated (and I would have avoided the mistake if I paid closer attention to what Chris and Tad wrote). So, please, postal workers, don’t go…um…postal on me.

Mea Culpa, Part II: I am getting sloppy in my old age. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget nailed me fair and square. CFRB did say something nice about Bunning on its blog back on February 26. I should have scrolled down farther. I did just check the Concord Coalition blog, all the way back to the beginning of the year, and was relieved (from a personal perspective, not on policy grounds) to find no mention of Bunning’s effort.

Obama’s HSA Gambit a Net Minus?

President Obama evidently thinks that if he promises not to kill health savings accounts (HSAs), opponents will swoon for his government takeover of health care.  If that doesn’t do the trick, he should make clear that his health plan would not eliminate other things too, like the Defense Department and puppies.

Of course, that hollow gesture didn’t win the president any Republican support.  But it may have cost him some Democratic support – or at least frayed the nerves of a few House Democrats.  According to CongressDaily:

Liberals, meanwhile, are fuming over an addition Obama made to his proposal to make the effort appear bipartisan and possibly switch the votes of moderate Democrats who opposed the House bill last year.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said Wednesday he is disturbed and bitter about an addition he said goes against Democratic principles.

“I’ve been leaning ‘no’ for a long time. That hasn’t changed,” Grijalva said about voting for the healthcare overhaul the Senate passed in December and a package of changes that would move through a separate bill through reconciliation.

Obama indicated he might be open to a provision that would encourage the use of health savings accounts, a tax-exempt savings account that typically is used in conjunction with a high-deductible plan. The provision would allow the exchanges to offer high-deductible plans.

“For some of us, the bitterness about HSAs in and the public option completely out, I don’t know how long that’s going to linger,” Grijalva said.

Which tends to confirm what HSA supporters have long feared: killing HSAs is the Left’s game plan.

A Government Man

This afternoon Politico Arena asks:

Will the president’s health care remarks today sway enough votes to pass ObamaCare through “reconciliation”?

My response:

Who knows? What they show beyond all doubt, however, is the mind-set of the president and the bill’s proponents. Consider just a few of his opening words: “Everything there is to say about health care has been said and just about everyone has said it. So now is the time to make a decision about how to finally reform health care so that it works, not just for the insurance companies, but for America’s families and businesses.”

Notice first the insinuation that health care works today for the insurance companies, but not for the rest of us. Obama has to have his foil, this man with no experience in the private sector and little understanding of how that sector works. But notice, more importantly, that we need “to finally reform health care so that it works” – the implication being that this is a collective undertaking, the only question being how to do it. “We’re all in this together.” In the private sector, if we can’t reach an agreement about some proposed undertaking, we walk away. That seems inconceivable to Obama. He’s a government man: conceiving public solutions to private problems is what his life is all about.

I suppose you could say that government is so enmeshed in health care today that there are only public solutions to the problems government is largely responsible for having created – starting with the favorable tax treatment employer-provided health care affords. But the direction of reform needn’t be toward even greater government. It might be toward less government, as with health savings accounts. But that approach has been rejected from the start by Obama and his Democratic supporters. They move in only one direction.

Six Reasons to Downsize the Federal Government

1. Additional federal spending transfers resources from the more productive private sector to the less productive public sector of the economy. The bulk of federal spending goes toward subsidies and benefit payments, which generally do not enhance economic productivity. With lower productivity, average American incomes will fall.

2. As federal spending rises, it creates pressure to raise taxes now and in the future. Higher taxes reduce incentives for productive activities such as working, saving, investing, and starting businesses. Higher taxes also increase incentives to engage in unproductive activities such as tax avoidance.

3. Much federal spending is wasteful and many federal programs are mismanaged. Cost overruns, fraud and abuse, and other bureaucratic failures are endemic in many agencies. It’s true that failures also occur in the private sector, but they are weeded out by competition, bankruptcy, and other market forces. We need to similarly weed out government failures.

4. Federal programs often benefit special interest groups while harming the broader interests of the general public. How is that possible in a democracy? The answer is that logrolling or horse-trading in Congress allows programs to be enacted even though they are only favored by minorities of legislators and voters. One solution is to impose a legal or constitutional cap on the overall federal budget to force politicians to make spending trade-offs.

5. Many federal programs cause active damage to society, in addition to the damage caused by the higher taxes needed to fund them. Programs usually distort markets and they sometimes cause social and environmental damage. Some examples are housing subsidies that helped to cause the financial crises, welfare programs that have created dependency, and farm subsidies that have harmed the environment.

6. The expansion of the federal government in recent decades runs counter to the American tradition of federalism. Federal functions should be “few and defined” in James Madison’s words, with most government activities left to the states. The explosion in federal aid to the states since the 1960s has strangled diversity and innovation in state governments because aid has been accompanied by a mass of one-size-fits-all regulations.

For more, see DownsizingGovernment.org.

Lessons from the Greek Budget Debacle

Fiscal crises have a predictable pattern.

Step 1 occurs when the economy is prospering and tax revenues are growing faster than forecast.

Step 2 is when politicians use the additional money to increase government spending.

Step 3 is that politicians do not treat the extra tax revenue like a temporary windfall and budget accordingly.Instead, they adopt policies - more entitlements, more bureaucrats - that permanently expand the burden of the public sector.

Step 4 occurs when the economy stumbles (in part because more resources are being diverted from the productive sector to the government) and tax revenues stagnate. If the resulting fiscal gap is large enough, as it is in places such as Greece and California, a crisis atmosphere is created.

Step 5 takes place when politicians solemnly proclaim that “tough measures” are necessary, but very rarely does that mean a reversal of the policies that caused the mess. Instead, the result in higher taxes.

Greece is now at this stage. I’ve already argued that perhaps bankruptcy is the best option for Greece, and I showed the data proving that Greece has a too-much-spending crisis rather than a too-little-revenue crisis. I’ve also commented elsewhere about the feckless behavior of Greek politicians. Sadly, it looks like things are getting even worse. The government has announced a huge increase in the value-added tax, pushing this European version of a national sales tax up to 21 percent. On the spending side of the ledger, though, the government is only proposing to reduce bonuses that are automatically given to bureaucrats three times per year. Here’s an excerpt from the Associated Press report, including a typically hysterical responses from a Greek interest group:

Government officials said the measures would include cuts in civil servant’s annual pay through reducing their Easter, Christmas and vacation bonuses by 30 percent each, and a 2 percentage point increase in sales tax to bring it to 21 percent from the current 19 percent. …One government official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement, said…that “we have exhausted our limits.” …”It is a very difficult day for us … These cuts will take us to the brink,” said Panayiotis Vavouyious, the head of the retired civil servants’ association.

Now, time for some predictions. It is unlikely that higher taxes and cosmetic spending restraint will solve Greece’s fiscal problem. Strong global growth would make a difference, but that also seems doubtful. So Greece will probably move to Step 6, which is a bailout, though it is unclear whether the money will come from other European nations, the European Commission, and/or the European Central Bank.

Step 7 is when politicians in nations such as Spain and Italy decide that financing spending (i.e., buying votes) with money from German and Dutch taxpayers is a swell idea, so they continue their profligate fiscal policies in order to become eligible for bailouts. Step 8 is when there is no more bailout money in Europe and the IMF (i.e., American taxpayers) ride to the rescue. Step 9 occurs when the United States faces a fiscal criss because of too much spending.

For Step 10, read Atlas Shrugged.

Marriage, Private and Public

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just get the state out of the marriage business? Perhaps. Marriage is fundamentally private, after all. It’s a matter for families, churches, and couples to decide for themselves.

Yet state recognition of marriage often acts to keep the government out of private life, to ensure family stability, and to give regular, orderly rules for all those times when, despite our best efforts, family and state still collide. Here are just a few of the things that the civil side of marriage does:

  • If you’re happily married and you have children, you don’t have to worry for a moment about child custody law. Your children are yours to raise jointly, whether they are biological or adoptive.
  • If you’re married and you die without a will, your spouse typically gets at least a share of your estate. You don’t have to do anything special for this to happen. It’s automatic, and I think this probably strikes most people as fair.
  • If you’re married, you don’t need to do anything special to be able to make medical decisions for an incapacitated spouse. It’s presumed that you are competent to do this.
  • You can sponsor your foreign spouse for U.S. citizenship.
  • You can sue for wrongful death of a spouse.
  • You can collect a spouse’s Social Security benefits.
  • You can often keep joint personal finances without worrying that your spouse will bankrupt you.

Depending on where you live, some of these protections can be won outside of marriage, if you’re willing to go to a lawyer and spend a few hundred bucks. Others, like the last four, can’t be had without either a marriage or a blood relationship.

State recognition of marriage protects families, often from the state itself. If the state got out of the marriage business, the state would be a lot more in all of our private lives, judging, inspecting, regulating, forbidding, taxing, redistributing, and all the rest. Much of the state part of marriage is really a protection against the state.

All of this is a lead-up to saying congratulations to the same-sex couples who will now be able to marry in Washington, DC. Perhaps even more than other types of marriages, same-sex marriages need these protections. (Some, like sponsoring an immigrant or collecting Social Security, may have to wait for federal law to catch up.)

On the whole, same-sex marriage means that gays’ and lesbians’ private lives can stay private. It gives them a protection against the government, which has too often been used against them. It means that gays and lesbians can be treated the same as any other group of citizens. And it means that their basic right to be left alone is finally being honored.

Before Administering the Lethal Injection, Dr. Obama Offers to Sterilize the Needle

In a letter to congressional leaders, President Obama wrote of his openness to including Republican proposals in his health care legislation.

Dropping a few Republican ideas into a government takeover of health care is like sterilizing the needle before a lethal injection: a nice thought, but the ultimate outcome is the same.

This is not bipartisanship.  President Obama is creating the illusion of bipartisanship while taking the most partisan route possible: forcing his legislation through Congress via reconciliation.

(Cross-posted at National Journal’s Health Care Arena.)