Archives: 03/2011

ObamaCare Implementation: What Rivkin Said, and Why

A couple of people have asked me about a comment David Rivkin made at Cato’s recent conference on the first anniversary of ObamaCare.

Rivkin is representing the 26 states suing to overturn ObamaCare in Florida v. HHS, the case in which a federal judge declared ObamaCare unconstitutional and void. In his most recent ruling in that case, Judge Roger Vinson allowed the Obama administration to keep implementing and enforcing the law, in part because the fact that most of the plaintiff states are also implementing the law “undercut” their request that he stop the Obama administration from doing so.  I (and others) have been urging states to follow the lead of Republican governors Rick Scott (FL), Sean Parnell (AK), and Bobby Jindal (LA) by refusing and returning all Obama funds and refusing to implement any type of health insurance “Exchange.”

According to Politico, when asked about the impact of states implementing the law, Rivkin said:

The decision to take money or not take money is a quintessentially political decision that does not impede legal claims… If a given state wants to continue complying with Obamacare and receiving money, that’s not impairing our ability to challenge the law.

Consider that answer in context.  Rivkin is representing 26 states, and as their attorney he has a duty to them.  Asking him if plaintiff states implementing ObamaCare are undermining the lawsuit is basically to ask, “Aren’t 23 of your clients making your job harder?”  What should he have said?  Yes?  Of course not.  As a good lawyer should, he responded that those states are doing nothing to inhibit his ability to litigate the case.  He said nothing about whether those states’ actions could affect the outcome of his case (which they might), nor the likelihood that the law will be repealed (which they obviously do).  On those questions, he’s the wrong guy to ask.

Civil Forfeiture vs. Truth and Justice

Civil asset forfeiture strikes at the heart of property rights. Authorities simply seize private property without all the messiness of convicting someone of a crime. It’s blatantly unconstitutional and it shouldn’t happen, but it does. What’s worse, many state governments offer little to no information to the public about what they’re doing with those ill-gotten gains.

A new report and video from the Institute for Justice illustrates the case of Georgia quite well. The video was produced by IJ’s multitalented Isaac Reese.

IJ’s Scott Bullock participated in a lively discussion of their “Policing for Profit” (PDF) report last April here at Cato.

Wednesday Links

  • Please join us on Thursday, April 7 at 2:00 p.m. ET for “The Economic Impact of Government Spending,” featuring Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), former Sen. Phil Gramm, former IMF director of fiscal affairs department Vito Tanzi, and Ohio University economist and AEI adjunct scholar Richard Vedder. We encourage you to attend in person, but if you cannot, you can tune in online at our new live events hub.
  • The last time we saw a green energy economy was in the 13th century.
  • This isn’t quite what we meant by “defense spending.” For a refresher, see this itemized list of proposed cuts that could save taxpayers $150 billion annually.
  • Prosperity reigns where taxes are low and right to work prevails.”
  • In case you missed it last Friday, check out Cato director of financial regulation studies Mark A. Calabria discussing the Federal Reserve on FOX News’s Glenn Beck show:


Obama’s Little Evidence Problem

Last month I wrote a post on President Obama’s selective citation of evidence when debating which education programs to kill and which to keep. Well yesterday the administration struck again, issuing the following statement opposing a bill that would revive DC’s bleeding-out voucher program:

STATEMENT OF ADMINISTRATION POLICY

H.R. 471 – Scholarships for Opportunity and Results Act

(Rep. Boehner, R-Ohio, and 50 cosponsors)

While the Administration appreciates that H.R. 471 would provide Federal support for improving public schools in the District of Columbia (D.C.), including expanding and improving high-quality D.C. public charter schools, the Administration opposes the creation or expansion of private school voucher programs that are authorized by this bill.  The Federal Government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students.  Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement. The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students. Rigorous evaluation over several years demonstrates that the D.C. program has not yielded improved student achievement by its scholarship recipients compared to other students in D.C.  While the President’s FY 2012 Budget requests funding to improve D.C. public schools and expand high-quality public charter schools, the Administration opposes targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools rather than creating access to great public schools for every child.

So, as I wrote last month, while the Prez. has no problem calling for heaps of dollars for such proven failures as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – $1.27 billion, to be exact – he won’t support $20 million for something that rigorous research actually works, quoting Andrew Coulson’s recent congressional testimony:

that students attending private schools thanks to this program have equal or better academic performance than their peers in the local public schools, and have significantly higher graduation rates. This, and very high levels of parental satisfaction, com[ing] at an average per pupil cost of around $7,000. By contrast, per pupil spending on k-12 public education in the nation’s capital was roughly $28,000 during the 2008-09 school year.

And such positive results, again in contrast to the President’s statement, are not an aberration for school choice. The highest-calibre research on choice has almost always found clear benefits stemming from it, and has never found negative outcomes.

Obviously I can’t read the President’s mind – he might oppose the voucher program but otherwise love big education spending for philosophical reasons, or he might just be appeasing teachers’ unions – but one thing I do know is that a fair examination of the evidence simply cannot support killing DC vouchers while spending lavishly everywhere else.

A New Low for GOP’s ‘YouCut’

Last year the House Republican leadership created the GOP’s “YouCut” website, which offers several possible spending cuts for citizens to vote on. The cut with the most votes goes to the House floor for an up-or-down vote. It’s a decent idea, but unfortunately, most of the cuts the GOP have offered thus far only amount to chump change.

This week the House Republican leadership finally put the Pentagon on the YouCut chopping block. However, the possible cuts suggested by the GOP are pathetic:

1. Reduce the Department of Defense’s printing and reproduction budget by 10 percent ($36 million in savings in fiscal 2012).

2. Reduce spending for Defense studies, analysis and evaluations by 10 percent ($24 million in savings in fiscal 2012).

3. Restrict payout of annual nationwide adjustment and locality pay for “below satisfactory” civilian Defense employees ($21 million in first-year savings).

To put the potential “savings” in perspective, the United States’ latest act of military adventurism (Libya) has already cost taxpayers $550 million. Take that military-industrial complex!

The Washington Times recently reported that Sen. Rand Paul’s balanced budget plan drew “several fairly vocal objections to it” from his GOP colleagues because he dared to include defense cuts. Indeed, House Republicans left the Pentagon alone when coming up with $61 billion in cuts to discretionary programs for the remainder of the fiscal year.

As my colleague Chris Preble told the Times, playing GloboCop isn’t cheap:

“At the end of the day, even when you take out the cost of the wars, military spending in the base budget has grown close to $1 trillion since 2000,” said Christopher A. Preble, director of foreign-policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. “So, I think there is kind of a growing realization that the cost that we have incurred on behalf of a lot of other places around the world are growing increasingly burdensome, and the military has not exactly been starved of funds.”

The YouCut website says that it “is designed to defeat the permissive culture of runaway spending in Congress.” Nice line, but when it comes to the Pentagon, it appears that the Republican leadership continues to be a-okay with runaway spending. That mentality will hopefully be forced to change due to the government’s sorry fiscal state of affairs. If it does, a Cato essay has plenty of good suggestions for military spending cuts.

Food Vigilantes On Patrol in Philly

Kids represent special cases in the libertarian commitment to individual liberty, and for a good reason. They are, it is generally thought, not necessarily able to know what is best for them. The solution is to leave child-rearing to the parents, but what do we do about parents who are abusive or negligent? Lots of room for discussion there. But a recent story about one “solution” to the problem of childhood obesity made my skin crawl. Apparently some adults have taken to standing guard outside corner stores, harrassing kids when they exit. From the New York Times:

PHILADELPHIA — Tatyana Gray bolted from her house and headed toward her elementary school. But when she reached the corner store where she usually gets her morning snack of chips or a sweet drink, she encountered a protective phalanx of parents with bright-colored safety vests and walkie-talkies.

The scourge the parents were combating was neither the drugs nor the violence that plagues this North Philadelphia neighborhood. It was bad eating habits.

“Candy!” said one of the parents, McKinley Harris, peering into a small bag one child carried out of the store. “That’s not food.”

The parents standing guard outside the Oxford Food Shop are foot soldiers in a national battle over the diets of children that has taken on new fervor.

This started because a Philadelphia school principal was fustrated and concerned about the diets of her pupils.  She was worried about the effect it was having on their health and ability to learn. Ok. She banned soda and sweet snacks from the school, but still kids were eating…well, the stuff kids will eat and, after pressuring local store owners to stop serving the kids yielded unsatisfactory results, she called in the heavies:

Frustrated that her pressure on stores had not worked, Ms. Brown called on parents and Operation Town Watch Integrated Services, which typically helps neighborhoods fight crime and drugs.

“I need you to go to those stores and say, ‘Look, can you not sell to our kids between 8:15 and 8:30?’ ”Ms. Brown said, kicking off the effort in January. “ ‘We don’t want them to eat sugary items. There is a breakfast program right here. And if you don’t do this, we’re going to have to boycott for a while.’ ”

The kids are putting up quite the show of resistance, though:

Mr. Harris… and three other parents took the first corner store watch, with mixed results. Tatyana continued past the store without stopping, but others bought the usual fare.

“Ha, ha, ha,” one young girl said, scoffing at Mr. Harris.

“I bought everything!” another bragged.

(The kids apparently stopped going to the corner stores after a while, but the article didn’t say whether they had acually stopped eating the bad foods, or if they just went elsewhere for their fix).

Clearly there is some room for debate about what to do when kids are not being looked after. But vigilante groups, checking on what other people’s children are eating? Too far, IMHO.

Budget Battle Update: It’s About Preparing for the Inevitable Fight, not Forcing a Shutdown

According to news reports, Democrats and Republicans are unlikely to reach any sort of budget agreement before April 8, when a short-term spending bill for the current fiscal year expires.

Barring some new development, this could mean a shutdown of the non-essential parts of the government.

This makes both sides very nervous. Democrats don’t want the spending spigot turned off and are worried that voters might conclude that there’s no reason to ever re-open departments such as Housing and Urban Development. Republicans, meanwhile, mostly worry that they might look unreasonable and get blamed if certain parts of the government are mothballed and voters can’t get passports or visit national parks.

Given this state of play, what’s the best strategy for fiscal conservatives, libertarians, and other advocates of smaller government?

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard thinks Republicans should continue with short-term spending bills.

…the incremental strategy is working. Republicans have passed two short-term measures to keep the government in operation since early March while slashing $10 billion in spending. At this rate, they would achieve the target of GOP congressional leaders of lopping off $61 billion from President Obama’s proposed budget in the final seven months of the 2011 fiscal year. There’s every reason to believe the incremental strategy would continue to succeed.

He’s worried that a more confrontational approach, where the GOP passes a take-it-or-leave-it spending bill, might backfire - even though any shutdown would exist solely because Senator Reid and/or President Obama refused to act.

Would a shutdown give Republicans more muscle in negotiating for cuts? …Maybe it would. But it might not. …So long as they control the Senate and White House, Democrats will reject massive cuts. Republicans also want to bar spending for Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Mr. Obama’s health-care program. Attach any of these prohibitions to a spending measure and Democratic opposition is certain. Should Republicans insist, we’ll get a government shutdown. This is a big gamble. …Indeed it might discredit Republicans and boost Mr. Obama in the same way the shutdown in 1995 hurt Republicans and lifted President Bill Clinton out of the doldrums. It could alienate independent voters so critical to the Republican triumph in 2010. True enough, the political atmosphere is more favorable to serious spending reductions than it was 16 years ago. …But why take a chance?

I think Barnes is a bit off in his portrayal of what happened in 1995, as I’ve previously explained, but these are all fair points. A “shutdown” fight could be considered uncharted territory.

Keith Hennessey, a former Hill staffer and Bush Administration official, also is skeptical of a confrontational approach. Instead, he suggests that the GOP increase the pressure on Democrats by slowly increasing the amount of weekly spending cuts.

While negotiating with the President’s team and Senate Democrats, in this variant House Republicans continue to pass short-term Continuing Resolutions as long as there is not an acceptable full-year deal. In these repeated future CRs, they ratchet up the spending cuts by the paltry figure of only $100 million each week. …Under this new variant, as April 8th approaches House Republicans would pass another three week CR, one which cuts $2.1 B in its first week, $2.2 B in its second week, and $2.3 B in its third week. …Such a tiny weekly increment would be nearly impossible for Democrats to reject. And yet if continued through the end of this fiscal year, $4.5 B of discretionary spending would be cut in the final week, that of September 23rd. This strategy…poses zero additional risk for Congressional Republicans. They would maintain the high ground on spending cuts and remain on the offensive for the next six months.

There’s a lot to like about Keith’s approach. If successful, he explains, GOPers could wind up with $82 billion of cuts rather than just $61 billion.

But here’s my concern about an incremental strategy. What makes anyone think that the left will go along with short-term spending bills, regardless of whether they cut $2 billion per week, or even more?

Democrats already have agreed to $10 billion of cuts, and even though that’s very trivial when compared to total spending (akin to a couple of french fries out of a Big Mac meal), the pro-spending lobbies and their allies on Capitol Hill are balking at the thought of additional cuts. So while it might be possible to push through a couple of additional short-term spending bills, there will come a point when Democrats refuse to play ball. And when that happens, we’re back to a partial shutdown.

Here’s how constitutional lawyer James Bopp, Jr., explained the issue in a piece for the Washington Times.

A government shutdown is inevitable because President Obama will insist on it. Nothing the Republicans do, short of total capitulation, will prevent this from happening. …With a three-week extension of government funding (which included $6 billion in cuts) expiring April 8, now is the time to escalate one’s bid. Demand $12 billion in cuts the next time. And when the shutdown occurs because of an Obama veto or a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate, the House should keep passing bills to reopen the government, coupling it with more spending cuts. …There is a fundamental contradiction in the Democrats’ shutting down the government. The Democrats are the party of government. It is like a bank robber, caught in the act, who threatens to pull the trigger on himself if arrested; what would the cop say but, “Go ahead”? The government shutdown threat defeats the Democrats own objective and is thus ultimately self-defeating, while the Republicans protect the bank depositors - the taxpayers - from the bank robber.

I think this is largely correct, particularly in that there almost certainly will be a shutdown fight. The only question is when it will happen. And if a shutdown battle is inevitable, advocates of smaller government should decide whether it’s better to have that fight sooner rather than later.

My instinct is that it would be better to fight now. GOP resolve presumably will decrease over time, particularly since the “easy” spending cuts get used up first. Moreover, it is quite likely that a strategy of short-term spending bills will complicate GOP efforts to get budget process reform in a couple of months in exchange for an increase in the debt limit.

Democrats surely don’t want the GOP to have another opportunity to restrain the size of government, so they would insist on an increase in the federal government’s borrowing authority as the price for approving whatever short-term spending bill is being considered around that time. Republicans presumably will balk at that demand. But that brings us back, once again, to a shutdown fight. Only this time, it will be complicated by demagogic assertions of a default.

So long as the final result is a smaller burden of government, there is no right or wrong answer about the process. It’s simply a question of which approach is more likely to achieve the desired outcome. I think fighting now is better than fighting later, but if the GOP chooses a strategy of short-term spending bills, I hope I’m wrong.