Tag: Congress

American Education, From Camelot to Obamaville

The president has relentlessly called for a more extensive—and expensive—federal role in education. Here’s just one example:

The human mind is our fundamental resource. A balanced Federal program must go well beyond incentives for investment in plant and equipment. It must include equally determined measures to invest in human beings—both in their basic education and training and in their more advanced preparation…. Without such measures, the Federal Government will not be carrying out its responsibilities for expanding the base of our economic… strength.

And if we spend all those new federal dollars on k-12 education, the president promised that “it will pay rich dividends in the years ahead.”

But here’s the strange part: in that same speech, the president made this seemingly ridiculous claim:

Our progress in education over the last generation has been substantial. We are educating a greater proportion of our youth to a higher degree of competency than any other country on earth.

It’s actually not so ridiculous when you learn that the president who said it was John F. Kennedy, in February of 1961. Back then, we really had been making educational progress.

Aside from the ill-fated National Defense Education Act of 1958, the federal government had made no attempt to improve k-12 academic achievement or attainment in the four decades before JFK… and yet, as he noted, American education did in fact improve during that period.

But within a couple of years of JFK’s assassination, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act. And in the four plus decades since, the feds have spent roughly $2 trillion trying to improve outcomes and attainment. Over that course of years, both graduation rates and academic achievement at the end of high school have been flat or declining.

Perhaps it could be argued that JFK couldn’t have known better. There was no history showing him what an expensive failure U.S. federal education spending would turn out to be. But the same cannot be said of President Obama, or of those in Congress who continue to tell the public, and presumably themselves, that fed ed. spending is a useful “investment.”

Today, we can look back at a half-century of failed federal education programs. We can think about how much better off the U.S. economy and our children would be if we hadn’t thrown $2 trillion at a calcified school monopoly that cannot spend money efficiently.

And reflecting on that history, perhaps we’ll find the wisdom not to repeat it.


Whither Constitutional Authority Statements?

On its first day of business this past January, the Republican House majority adopted a new rule requiring every bill to include a so-called constitutional authority statement, listing the part(s) of the Constitution that give Congress the power to do what the bill says. 

At the time, I analyzed the requirement, as did Cato’s chairman emeritus Bill Niskanen, and what effect it might have on congressional action.  We noted that, while it was a good thing for people (and especially elected officials) to be paying attention to the Constitution, the practical effect may be negligible because legislators would overwhelmingly cite the General Welfare Clause, Commerce Clause, and Necessary and Proper Clause – all part of Article I, section 8.  To minimize this result, Cato ran an ad in Politico and other publications explaining what these clauses could and could not justify.  Here are the points we made:

  • Contrary to modern readings, the General Welfare Clause does not grant Congress an independent power to tax and spend for the “general welfare.” If it did, there would be no need to enumerate any other powers.  Rather, it authorizes Congress to enact the specified taxes for the specified purposes—headings more precisely defined by the 17 enumerated powers or ends that follow. And Congress’s power to tax for the “general welfare” precludes it from taxing to provide for special parties or interests.
  • The Commerce Clause too does not authorize Congress to regulate anything and everything, which again would put an end to the idea of a government of enumerated and thus limited powers.  Under the Articles of Confederation, states had erected tariffs and other protectionist measures that were impeding interstate commerce. To end that and ensure free interstate commerce, Congress was given the power to regulate, or “make regular,” such commerce—the main sense of “regulate” at the time. Were Congress thought to have the all but unbounded regulatory power it exercises today, the Constitution would never have been ratified.
  • The Necessary and Proper grants Congress the means to execute its enumerated powers or ends and those of the other branches. It adds no new ends. And the means must be “necessary and proper.”  That means they must respect the Constitution’s structure and spirit of limited government; they must respect federalism principles; and they must respect the rights retained by the people.

So, nine months later, what happened?  The Republican Study Committee – essentially the GOP House Caucus’s conservative sub-caucus – has come up with the following analysis (analyzing 3042 bills through September 16, some of them counted more than once in the below statistics):

  • 3 bills cite only the Preamble to the Constitution.
  • 84 bills cite only Article 1, which creates the Legislative Branch.
  • 58 bills cite only Article 1, Section 1, which grants all legislative powers to Congress.
  • 470 bills cite only Article 1, Section 8, which is the list of specific powers of Congress, without citing any specific clause.
  • 539 bills cite [the General Welfare Clause].
  • 567 bills cite [the Commerce Clause].
  • 247 bills cite [the Necessary and Proper Clause], without citing a “foregoing power” as required by [Article I, section 8,] clause 18.
  • 309 bills cite two or more of the “general welfare” clause, commerce clause, or the “necessary and proper” clause.
  • 87 bills cite Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7, which provides that no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.
  • 210 bills cite Article 4, Section 3, which provides that Congress shall have the power to make rules and regulations respecting the territory or property of the United States.
  • 252 bills cite an amendment to the Constitution.  For example, 54 cite the 10th Amendment (powers not delegated to the federal government), 30 cite the 14th Amendment (“equal protection, etc.”), and 64 cite the 16th Amendment (income tax).

Pretty thin gruel and, as I noted above, not unexpected.  Then again, if the constitutional authority statement requirement has caused even one House member to waver over what he has the power to propose – let alone to refrain from offering a bill – this minor legislative rule will have been an improvement on the status quo ante.

Finally, a Vote on the Three Trade Agreements

Almost a thousand days into his term, President Obama has at last submitted the trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama for an up or down vote in Congress.

All three agreements appear to have majority support in both the House and the Senate. Organized labor is putting up its usual anti-free-trade fight against all three, with AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka coming out swinging in a Politico op-ed this week. He makes the standard union argument that Colombia is an unworthy free-trade partner because of ongoing violence against union members in that country.

In a Free Trade Bulletin earlier this year, my Cato colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo and I examined the commercial benefits of the agreement with Colombia as well as the hollowness of the union charge. In the past decade, Colombia has made tremendous progress against violence in general, and especially violence aimed at union members. In fact, as we write in the FTB:

The statistics on the number of killings against union members vary depending on the source, with the figure from the government’s Ministry of Social Protection being lower than that of the National Union School (ENS for its acronym in Spanish), a Colombian nongovernmental organization affiliated with the labor movement. However, both sources show a steep decline in the number of killings since 2001. Moreover, when compared with the total number of homicides in the country, killings of union members clearly have dropped at a faster rate than those of the general population (see Figure 1).

Critics of the FTA fail to recognize that violent crime affects all levels of Colombian society, not only trade unions. What is more, the statistics show that union members enjoy more security than the population at large.

Looking at the homicide rate as defined by the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the rate for the total population in 2010 was 33.9 per 100,000, whereas the rate for union killings was 5.3 per 100,000 unionists that same year (using the statistics of the ENS). That means that the homicide rate for the overall population is 6 times higher than that for union members.

Having just returned from a speaking trip last week to Medellín, Colombia, I can vouch that, after a difficult period of battling Marxist guerrillas and drug cartels, Colombia has once again become a normal country with a growing economy. Medellín is a bustling, business-oriented city with the usual challenges of traffic congestion. The students I spoke with at EAFIT University seemed eager for closer ties with the United States, and they do not understand why it has taken almost five years since the signing of the agreement for Congress to schedule a vote on it.

As I explained in an interview with the city’s leading newspaper (conducted in English, but translated here in Spanish), the politicians in Washington have run out of excuses for not establishing free trade between our two countries.

[Our Cato colleague Doug Bandow made the case for a trade agreement with South Korea in a study we released last year.]

Term Limits and Popular Government

Rasmussen Reports has a new poll indicating 71 percent of the public want term limits for members of Congress. This finding is nothing new. Strong majorities have supported congressional term limits for the past two decades. What about before that? I decided to take a look at the Gallup polling going back more than six decades. Here’s what I found.

The first polling on the topic in 1947 showed 46 percent supporting limits for the House (48 percent opposed) and 52 percent favoring them for the Senate. Eight years later Gallup found support had fallen to 38 percent for senatorial limits. In 1964-5, from 48 to 50 percent favored term limits for members of both chambers. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw weak results for term limits. In 1969, 43 percent favored House limits; two years later a survey showed support for Senate limits had fallen to 39 percent.

And then everything changed.

Surveys in 1977 and 1981 showed about 60 percent support for limits on the terms of members in both houses. Later in the 1980s, support went up toward 65 percent or so. By 1994, Gallup found its first 70 percent response in favor of congressional term limits. A year later, the number was 67 percent. Thereafter, Gallup apparently did not poll on the topic, perhaps because the Supreme Court took term limits off the political agenda.

Still, in 2003, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found 67 percent of the public thought term limits were a good idea. A year later a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found 78 percent supported the idea. Against this background, the Rasmussen poll makes perfect sense.

People sometimes argue that popular changes to the Constitution or the rules of the political game can reflect momentary passions that pass, leaving only unwise policies. This concern is not without merit. However, if the public indicates a strong and growing desire for change over more than three decades, shouldn’t a republican government follow that settled and presumably considered desire? I mean, republican government is government by the people, right?

Congress on Transparency: ‘Needs Improvement’

“Needs improvement” is the understated theme of a Capitol Hill briefing this morning entitled “Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Rating the Congress.” (Live-streamed starting at 9:00 am. If timely, check it out—the video will come up before too long also—and join the conversation on Twitter at the #RateCongress hashtag.)

Congress needs to improve its data publication practices if it’s going to be the transparent legislature that it should be.

How did we arrive at this conclusion? We’re doing more than stating the obvious.

A Cato Briefing Paper released today entitled “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” goes through some technically challenging but essential concepts in data publication: authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. Together, these practices will allow computers to automatically generate the myriad stories that the data Congress produces have to tell. Following these practices will allow many different users to put the data to hundreds of new uses in government oversight.

At the event, we’re releasing informal grades that rate how each of the major parts of the legislative process are published as data. To produce the grades, we constructed a “data model” of formal federal legislative processes (HTML version, Word version).

Data modeling is pretty arcane stuff, but in this model we reduced everything to “entities,” each having various “properties.” The entities and their properties describe the logical relationships of things in the real world, like members of Congress, votes, bills, and so on. We also loosely defined several “markup types” guiding how documents that come out of the legislative process should be structured and published.

Then we compared the publication practices in the briefing paper to the “entities” in the model. Are data about the key entities in the legislative process well published? That’s what we graded on, with a little commentary pointing toward what is good and bad in current publication practices. The grades are listed on this report card, which you can use to cut to the chase, but the real story is in the assessment below.

Are we stating the obvious? Yes. But a little humility and grace is in order. This stuff is tough sledding. The data model isn’t the last word, and there are things happening in varied places on and around Capitol Hill to improve matters. Several pieces of the legislative process nobody has ever talked about publishing as data before, so we forgive the fact that this isn’t already being done. If things haven’t improved in another year, then you might start to see a little more piquant commentary.

Without further ado, here is the full listing of Congress’ transparency grades. As far as data publication for transparency, Congress needs improvement.

Publication Practices for Transparent Government: Rating the Congress


How well can the Internet access data about Congress’ work? In consultation with transparency experts, the Cato Institute’s director of information policy studies, Jim Harper, rated how Congress publishes key legislative data in terms of authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability.
These criteria envision a world where there is one authoritative source for each category of information. Unfortunately, today’s congressional data are published by a lot of sources that have grown up haphazardly. There might even be some sources we don’t know about. Future grades will undoubtedly reflect improvements in what researchers, reporters, websites, and the public at large can see and use, aided by their computers.

House and Senate Membership: B+

How does the public find out about who holds office in the House of Representatives and Senate? A couple of ways.

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress is a compendium of information about all present and former members of the United States Congress (as well as the Continental Congress), including delegates and resident commissioners. The “Bioguide” website is a great resource for searching out historical information.

But there’s no sign that it’s Congress’ repository of record, and it’s little known by users, giving it low authority marks. Bioguide scores highly on availability—we know of no problems with up-time or completeness (though it could use quicker updating when new members are elected).

Bioguide isn’t structured for discoverability. Most people haven’t seen it, because search engines aren’t finding it. Bioguide does a good thing in terms of machine-readability, though. It assigns a unique ID to each of the people in its database. This is the first, basic step in machine-readability, and the Bioguide ID should probably be the standard for machine-identification of elected officials wherever they are referred to in data. Unfortunately, the biographical content in Bioguide is not machine-readable.

The other ways of learning about House and Senate membership are nothing if not ad hoc. The lists of members that appear on the House and Senate websites are adequate for some purposes. They’re authoritative, available, and discoverable due to their prime location on the top-level House and Senate domains. But the HTML presentation on the House side does not break out key information in ways useful for computers. The Senate includes a link to an XML representation that is machine readable. Good job, Senate.

The rest of the information flows to the public via congressmembers’ individual websites. These are non-authoritative websites that search engine spidering combines to use as a record of the Congress’s membership. They are available and discoverable, again because of that prime house.gov and senate.gov real estate. But they only reveal data about the membership of Congress incidentally to communicating the press releases, photos, and announcements that representatives want to have online.

So far there is no authoritative, really well-published source of information about House and Senate membership, but the variety of sources that exist combine to give Congress a pretty good grade on publishing information about who represents Americans in Washington, D.C.

Committees and Subcommittees: C

If you want to find out about the committees to which Congress delegates much of its work, and the subcommittees to which the work gets further distributed, you might have to form a commit— … a search party.

The Senate has committee names and URLs prominently available on its main website, and the House does too. But that would just be the starting point for researching what all these committees do and who serves on them. For that, you’d go to individual committee websites, each one different from the others.

With the data scattered about this way, the Internet can’t really see it. The Senate has a little known machine-readable listing of its membership and their assignments. More prominence, data such as subcommittees and jurisdiction, and use of a recognized set of standard identifiers would take this resource a long way.

Without a recognized place to go to get data about committees, this area suffers from lacking authority. To the extent there are data, availability is not a problem, but machine-discoverability suffers for having each committee publish distinctly, in formats like HTML, who their members are, who their leaders are, and what their jurisdiction is.

Until committee data are centrally published using standard identifiers (for both committees and their members), machine-readability will be very low. The Internet makes sense of congressional committees as best it can, but a whole lot of organizing and centralizing—with a definitive, always-current, and machine-readable record of committees, their memberships, and their jurisdictions—would create a lot of clarity in this area with a minimum of effort.

Meetings of House, Senate, and Committees—Senate: B+ / House: D+

When the House, the Senate, committees, and subcommittees have their meetings, the business of Congress is being done. Can the public learn easily about what meetings are happening, when, and what they are about? It depends on which side of the Capitol you’re on.

The Senate is pretty good about publishing notices of committee meetings. In addition to a webpage with meeting notices on it, it publishes an XML page with lots of good features, like distinct codes for each committee. (If only we knew whose codes they were, and if only they could be used consistently throughout legislative data….) If a particular bill is under consideration in a Senate committee meeting, this is a way for the public to learn about it. This is authoritative, it’s available, it’s machine-discoverable, and it’s got some machine-readable features. That means any website, researcher, or reporter can quickly use these data to generate more—and more useful—information about Congress.

The House doesn’t have anything similar. To learn about meetings of its committees, you might have to scroll through page after page of committee announcements or calendars. The House can catch up with the Senate in this area, and we are aware that they are working on it. This area is ripe for rapid improvement.

Meeting Records: C-

There is lots of work to do before meeting records can be called transparent. We have one thing, the Congressional Record. It is the authoritative record of what transpires on the House and Senate floors, but nothing similar reveals the content of committee meetings. Those meeting records are produced after much delay—sometimes an incredibly long delay—by the committees themselves. These records are obscure, not being published in ways that make things easy for computers to find and to comprehend.

The Congressional Record also doesn’t have the machine-discoverable publication or machine-readable structure that it could and should. Giving unique, consistent IDs in the Record to members of Congress, to bills, and other regular subjects of this publication would go a long way to improving it. The same would improve transcripts of committee meetings.

Another form of meeting record exists: videos. These have yet to be standardized, organized, and published in a reliable and uniform way, though the HouseLive site is a significant step in the right direction. Real-time flagging of members and key subjects of debate in the video stream would be a great improvement in transparency. Setting video and video meta-data standards for use by both Houses of Congress, by committees, and by subcommittees would improve things dramatically.

Committee Reports: D+

Committee reports are important parts of the legislative process, documenting the findings and recommendations that committees report to the full House and Senate. They do see publication on the most authoritative resource for committee reports, the Library of Congress’s THOMAS system. They are technically machine discoverable, but without good semantic information embedded in them, committee reports are barely visible to the Internet.

Rather than publication in HTML and PDF, committee reports should be published with the full array of signals that reveal what bills, statutes, and agencies they deal with, as well as authorizations and appropriations, so that the Internet can discover and make use of these documents.

Bills: A-

Bills are a “pretty-good-news” story in legislative transparency. Most are promptly published. It would be better, of course, if they were all immediately published at the moment they were introduced, and if both the House and Senate published last-minute, omnibus bills before debating and voting on them.

A small gap in authority exists around bills: people look to the Library of Congress rather than Congress or the Government Printing Office, which are better authorities for bill content, but this has not caused any problems. Once published, bill information remains available, which is good.

Publication of bills in HTML on the THOMAS site makes them reasonably machine-discoverable. Witness the fact that searching for a bill will often turn up the version at that source.

Where bills could improve some is machine-readability. Some information such as sponsorship and U.S. code references is present in the bills that are published in XML, and nearly all bills are now published in XML, which is great. Much more information should be published machine-readably in bills, though, such as references to agencies and programs, to states or localities, and so on, referred to using standard identifiers.

With the work that the THOMAS system does to gather information in one place, bill data are good. This is relative to other, less-well-published data, though. There is yet room for improvement.

Amendments—House and Senate: C / Committees: I

Amendments are not the good-news story that bills are. With a few exceptions, amendments are hard to track in any systematic way. When it comes to the House and Senate floors, amendment text is often available, but the authoritative source is different if you want to see the text (GPO) and the status (THOMAS) of an amendment. It is very hard to see how amendments affect the bills they would change.

In committees, the story is quite a bit worse. Committee amendments are almost completely opaque. There is almost no publication of amendments at all—certainly not amendments that have been withdrawn or defeated. Some major revisions in process are due if committee amendments are going to see the light of day as they should.

Motions: I

When the House, the Senate, or a committee is going to take some kind of action, it does so on the basis of a motion. If the public is going to have insight into the decisions Congress makes, it should have access to the motions on which Congress acts.

But motions are something of a black hole. Many of them can be found in the Congressional Record, but it really takes a human who understands procedure reading the Congressional Record to find them. That’s not modern transparency.

Motions can be articulated as data. There are distinct types of motions. Congress can publish which meeting a motion occurs in, when the motion occurs, what the proposition is, what the object of the motion is, and so on. Along with decisions, motions are key elements of the legislative process. They can and should be published as data.

Decisions: I

When a motion is pending, a body such as the House, the Senate, or a committee will make a decision on it, often using votes. These decisions are crucial moments in the legislative process, which should be published as data. Like motions, these are not yet published usefully. Decisions made in the House or Senate are published in text form as part of the Congressional Record, but they are not published as data, so they remain opaque to the Internet.

Votes: A-

Voting puts members of Congress on record about where they stand. And happily, vote information is in pretty good shape. Each chamber publishes data about votes, meaning authority is well handled. Vote data are available and timely.

Both sides could sorely use an index that lists all votes, though, along with an indication of the last time the vote was modified (i.e., if corrections to the original data have been posted). But both the House and Senate produce vote information in XML, which is useful for computers and the Internet. Both houses also use unique identifiers for their members, though they’re not so good at indicating who those unique IDs refer to. (The House does not have a list-of-people database, and the Senate uses lis_member_ids rather than Bioguide IDs.) Overall, though, voting data are pretty well handled.

Communications (Inter- and Intra-Branch): I

The messages sent among the House, Senate, and Executive Branch are essential parts of the legislative process, but they do not see publication. Putting these communications online—including unique identifiers, the sending and receiving body, any meeting that produced the communication, the text of the communication, and key subjects such as bills—would complete the picture that is available to the public.

Make-Believe Defense Cuts

Earlier this week, the House Armed Services Committee Republican staff released a video using the anniversary of September 11 to argue for higher military spending while pretending that lately we have cut the defense budget. Chris Preble and I rebutted these outlandish claims, and Evan Banks made our comments into a cool video:


Hawks like HASC Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA)—who thinks that “power in benevolent hands is a virtue, not a vice,”—pretend that we are about to slash military spending thanks to the Budget Control Act, the deficit deal legislated early last month. Reporters abet them by repeating the White House PR myth that the bill’s security budget cap will cut Pentagon spending by $350 billion over ten years, and writing that the sequestration provision will probably cut another $500 billion. But as I explained here, the BCA will likely produce either a miniscule defense cut in the near term or no cuts at all. That is because I consider a “cut” to mean spending less than we do now, not less than plans say, because agencies other than defense can absorb the cuts required by the security cap, and because the bill encourages lawmakers to move capped base defense funds into the uncapped war bill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s proposed funding levels (302b allocations in budget speak) released earlier this week bear out those concerns. Because they come after the BCA, the Senate spending levels are likely to guide those set by the House. Compared to 2011, the committee would cut just under $3 billion from the base defense budget, which is less than one percent. That cut comes entirely from the military construction and family housing account, which was recently bloated by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. The senators get another chunk of the $4.5 billion in security spending cuts required by the BCA from State, which would lose $3.5 billion, and Homeland Security, which loses a half billion. The National Nuclear Security Administration and the Veterans Administration get minor increases. For more on these allocations, see Stimson’s The Will and the Wallet blog, especially Matthew Leatherman and Russell Rumbaugh’s recent posts.

So that’s a minor defense cut, right? Maybe not. The Senate appropriators seem to have slipped a larger amount of base defense spending into the war bill (Overseas Contingency Operations funding). The committee’s markup press release brags that it fully funded the president’s war request of $117.8 billion, but then claims that they cut $6.6 billion from that request by trimming funding for U.S. and native forces in Afghanistan. What that most likely means is that the committee, probably in league with the Pentagon, cut the war bill by that amount and shifted the same amount over from the base, keeping the war bill flat and maintaining the fiction of a minor base defense cut. We won’t know for sure until the appropriations bills are published.

The longer term prospects for the BCA cutting defense spending are a story for another time. For now, suffice it to say that the prospects of the bill’s current spending limits staying in place for ten years are slim. Future Congresses easily free themselves from legislative bonds set by prior ones, and democracies with two-to-six-year election cycles can’t stick to ten-year plans.

Nearly Two-Thirds of ObamaCare’s Supposed Beneficiaries Think It Won’t Help Them

Here are a few takeaways from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent monthly poll.

1. Nearly Two Thirds of ObamaCare’s Supposed Beneficiaries Think It Won’t Help Them.

ObamaCare’s actual beneficiaries are politicians, government bureaucrats, insurance companies, drug manufacturers, etc.—but that’s another blog post for another time.

The law’s supposed beneficiaries are the uninsured. Yet 61 percent of them think the law will either not help them or will hurt them (see pie chart below). The main takeaway: Congress can repeal ObamaCare and its supposed beneficiaries won’t even care.


2. Some of the Uninsured Who Think ObamaCare Will Help Them Are Wrong.

One respondent said that under ObamaCare, you “can go to the doctor with no problems, unlike now you have to worry about insurance and bills.” Yeah. Good luck with that.

3. ObamaCare Is Less Popular than Ever.

In August 2011, support for ObamaCare hit an all-time low in the KFF poll: