Tag: fiscal responsibility

Clinton and Obama, Polar Opposites

Last night, Bill Clinton introduced President Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee. He went to great lengths to stress their similarities, but failed to mention their divergent views on the appropriate size of government.

When President Clinton took office in 1993, government expenditures were 22.1% of GDP, and when he departed in 2000, the federal government’s share of the economy had been squeezed to a low of 18.2%. As the accompanying table shows, during the Clinton years, federal government expenditures as a percent of GDP fell by 3.9 percentage points. No other modern president has come close.

 

And, that’s not all. During the final three years of the former President’s second term, the federal government was generating fiscal surpluses. Clinton was even confident enough to boldly claim, in his January 1996 State of the Union address, that “the era of big government is over.”

When it comes to the appropriate size of government, Clinton and Obama are polar opposites.

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Farm Subsidies)

The Washington Times says that the upcoming farm bill re-write could “sow division in the GOP.” While House Republican leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor, and Kevin McCarthy voted against the 2008 farm bill, the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), is a dedicated supporter of farm subsidies.

The Times recalls Boehner’s comments on the 2008 farm bill:

“The farm bill has often been abused by politicians as a slush fund for bizarre earmarks and wasteful spending projects, and the latest version … is no different,” Mr. Boehner, then the GOP minority leader, said at the time.

It’s too bad then that the Boehner-friendly Republican Steering Committee, which decided the committee chairs, didn’t appear to blink at handing the agriculture committee gavel to a key supporter of the “slush fund.” And it’s not as if Lucas has been circumspect in his intentions. Lucas’s agriculture issues section on his website, which hasn’t been updated since the Republicans took back the House, makes that perfectly clear:

As Ranking Member of the Agriculture Committee, I have long been a champion of voluntary agriculture conservation programs. During the drafting of the 2002 Farm Bill, I worked to secure the largest ever increase in programs such as Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, and many others. In the 2008 Farm Bill, I advocated for renewable energy provisions to be included in the farm bill which would allow rural areas to play a larger role in making the U.S. less dependent on foreign sources of energy. I am proud that the 2008 Farm Bill devotes a funding stream to renewable energy research, development, and production….

[I] will work closely with Chairman Peterson and other members of the committee to ensure that cuts are not made to agriculture producers – farmers and ranchers.

Lucas isn’t shy about touting his support from the myriad farm lobby groups either:

I have been proud to receive recognition from various agriculture groups for my work in support of their concerns. The American Farm Bureau Federation has presented me with its “Friend of Farm Bureau” award for supporting Farm Bureau issues in Congress in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006. In both 2002 and 2003, the National Farmers Union recognized me with the “Presidential Award for Leadership” for issues important to rural America. NFU also recognized me with the “Golden Triangle Award”, which is given to those who have demonstrated outstanding leadership on issues affecting family farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. In 2002 the Oklahoma Wheat Commission presented me with their “Staff of Life” award for voting in favor of wheat growers and farmers 100 percent of the time. And for two years running, the National Association of Wheat Growers named me one of only 11 “Wheat Champion” Members of Congress for superior action in Congress in support of the wheat industry.

Last year, Lucas criticized the Obama administration for proposing some minor agriculture program cuts, including a proposal to limit direct subsidy payments to farmers with more than $500,000 in annual sales.

Frank Lucas criticized the Obama administration for merely wanting to deny farmers with a half million dollars in sales from grabbing taxpayer money, but take a look what he has to say in a section on his website on “lower taxes and government spending:”

Spending in Congress has reached historic levels during the 111th Congress. The fiscally irresponsible behavior of former Speaker Pelosi and President Obama has driven our national debt level to the point that it is almost equal to the size of our entire economy. This is unacceptable and it must stop.

I have opposed – and will continue to oppose – spending initiatives that dramatically increase the size and scope of the federal government while adding to our already massive national debt. I have long been a supporter of tax reform and will continue to fight against increases in taxes and wasteful federal spending. Congress must get back to the business of fiscal responsibility and strive for a balanced budget without raising the taxes of hard-working Americans.

Lucas must know that “taxes of hard-working Americans” are pouring into the pockets of generally high-income farm businesses at the rate of $15 billion to $35 billion annually. While Lucas may be a “Wheat Champion” he sure isn’t a Taxpayer Champion, at least not on agricultural issues.

See this Cato essay for more on agriculture subsidies.

Still Not Serious About Cutting Spending

The howls of outrage that have greeted the report of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform shows two things:  1) most Democrats have no interest in reducing the size and cost of government; and 2) few Republicans are actually serious about it.

From the initial reaction, one would think that the Commission has slashed government to the bone, throwing the elderly, poor and sick into the street.  In reality, the Commission report is far from a radical document.  It proposes a reduction in government spending from 24.3 percent of GDP today to 21.8 percent over the next 15 years.  That’s a start.  But as recently as 2000 total federal spending was just 18.4 percent of GDP – and people were hardly dying in the streets during the Clinton years.  

In fact, the Commission doesn’t actually “cut” federal spending.  Under the Commission’s proposal, it would rise from roughly $3.5 trillion today to more than $5 trillion by 2020.  So, under the terrible “cuts” that the Commission is recommending, federal spending would still increase faster than inflation.  This is the old Washington game of calling a slower increase than previously projected a “cut.”

But Democrats appear unwilling to support even this modest slowing in the growth of government.  Instead they call for simply raising taxes to support a virtually unlimited amount of federal spending.  Republicans, meanwhile, talk about reducing government, but fall back on bromides about reducing waste, fraud, and abuse when faced with the need to make specific cuts.

If we were serious about reducing the size, cost and intrusiveness of government, we should roll back spending to Clinton-era levels.  (My colleague Chris Edwards has shown how that can be done.)  That would eliminate the need for the tax increases that the commission proposes. 

Alas, we still await political leadership with that amount of courage.

Can You Name the Greatest President of the Past 100 Years?

It’s tempting to say that Ronald Reagan was the best U.S. president of the past century, and I’ve certainly demonstrated my man-crush on the Gipper. But there is some real competition. I had the pleasure yesterday of hearing Amity Shlaes of the Council on Foreign Relations make the case for Calvin Coolidge at the Mont Pelerin Society Meeting in Australia.

I dug around online and found an article Amity wrote for Forbes that highlights some of the attributes of “Silent Cal” that she mentioned in her speech. As you can see, she makes a persuasive case.

… the Coolidge style of government, which included much refraining, took great strength and yielded superior results. …Coolidge and Mellon tightened and pulled [income tax rates] multiple times, eventually getting the top rate down to 25%, a level that hasn’t been seen since. Mellon argued that lower rates could actually bring in greater revenues because they removed disincentives to work. Government, he said, should operate like a railroad, charging a price for freight that “the traffic will bear.” Coolidge’s commitment to low taxes came from his concept of property rights. He viewed heavy taxation as the legalization of expropriation. “I want taxes to be less, that the people may have more,” he once said. In fact, Coolidge disapproved of any government intervention that eroded the bond of the contract. …More than once Coolidge vetoed what would later be called farm allotment–the government purchase of commodities to reduce supply and drive up prices. …Today our government has moved so far from Coolidge’s tenets that it’s difficult to imagine such policies being emulated.

But if you don’t want to believe Amity, here’s Coolidge in his own words. This video is historically significant since it is the first film (with sound) of an American President. The real value, however, is in the words that are being said.

A Novel Way of Keeping Fiscal Deficits Under Control?

Having inherited an 8 percent budget deficit from the previous socialist government, the new conservative-liberal government of Slovakia has come up with a novel way of keeping budget deficits under control in the future. Starting in 2011, salaries of government ministers will rise and fall depending on the evolution of the fiscus. Thus, a budget deficit of 5 percent will translate to a 10 percent decrease in salaries, while an (unlikely) budget surplus of 5 percent will translate into a 10 percent rise in salaries, etc. It will be interesting to see if this new measure will truly result in a more responsible fiscal policy in the years to come.

Incidentally, had the United States adopted a similar measure, President Obama’s reported salary of $400,000 in 2009 would have fallen to $320,000 in 2010.

Let’s Regulate Barney Frank’s Pay

“Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said Tuesday that he will hold a hearing this fall to examine whether regulators are being tough enough in curbing pay practices at Wall Street firms that can lead to excessively risky practices,” writes Zachary Goldfarb in the Washington Post.

Hmmm. “Pay practices that can lead to excessively risky practices.” Since Barney Frank entered Congress, federal spending has risen from $590 billion in 1980 to $3.7 trillion this year. (U.S. Budget, Historical Tables, Table 1.1) The annual deficit has risen from $74 billion to $1.5 trillion.  Gross federal debt rose from $909 billion to $13.8 trillion – and to over $15 trillion next year. (Table 7.1) And all this without a major war or depression during those 30 years.

Maybe we should adjust pay practices for members of Congress to give them an incentive to avoid risky, unaffordable, out-of-control borrowing and spending.

Unserious Cost Cutters Only

In a new Governing column entitled “Serious Cost Cutters Only, Please,” William Eggers and John O’Leary offer advice “for those public leaders who are looking to make structural changes that will bend the cost curve of government down.”

The target audiences are state officials who presently find themselves in the politically unrewarding position of not being able to spend as much as they’d like to because the recession has constrained revenues. Eggers and O’Leary correctly warn that policymakers shouldn’t “kick the can” down the road by pursuing short-term strategies that could prove costly in the long-run.

Unfortunately, their recommendations are of the pie-in-the-sky “good government” variety.

The piece caught my eye because I have first-hand state government experience with some of their suggestions:

The first lesson is that it is virtually impossible for the secretaries and department heads charged with running operations to come up with sufficient savings themselves to deliver the necessary cost savings. The best approach by far is to establish a dedicated team, located physically and philosophically close to the chief executive, and charge them with developing a set of recommendations that the mayor or governor can then direct her lieutenants to execute.

I spent two years working for such a dedicated team within Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ Office of Management and Budget. The group, “Government Efficiency and Financial Planning,” was originally tasked with conducting a “long-overdue inventory of the state’s operations.” We produced two reports with hundreds of recommendations for making state government more “efficient” and “effective.”

The governor never directed his “lieutenants to execute” very many – if any – of the recommendations. In fact, the lieutenants were so worried about the potential political fallout from the issue of the second report that it was intentionally released when nobody was looking. They needn’t have worried because those interests who might have had cause for concern already saw that the first report was basically inconsequential.

Eggers and O’Leary continue:

There is likely to be some internal friction between the cost reduction team and the various department leaders. That is by design. The cost reduction team is supposed to be disruptive.

GEFP was somewhat disruptive, but not very effective. The governor’s lieutenants typically either sided with the department leaders or did little to support GEFP. The reason was simple. The perceived political costs of GEFP’s efforts usually exceeded the perceived political benefits. Department heads, on the other hand, can create favorable (and unfavorable headlines) and thus possess greater pull.

The sorry story of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation is instructive. A recent series of investigations by an Indianapolis reporter found that the IEDC had long been taking undeserved credit for job creation. When the reporter tried to visit some of the companies celebrated in IEDC news releases, he found empty fields, vacant lots and deserted factories. When he asked the head IEDC official to provide the public with evidence to support the agency’s claims, the IEDC head refused.

The IEDC, which was created by Gov. Daniels, was portrayed quite differently in the first GEFP report released in late 2006:

The previous Department of Commerce was responsible for a wide range of programs that included economic development, energy, community development and revitalization, agriculture, and tourism. The priorities of these programs were difficult to discern while mired within the former structure. The dismantling of the previous department into the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, Office of Energy and Defense Development, Office of Community and Rural Affairs, Office of Tourism Development, and Department of Agriculture has enhanced the profile of their respective programs and allowed for greater focus and accountability. Each of these areas now has a strategic plan that identifies its mission and long-term goals.

Adding insult to taxpayer injury is this gem of a quote that’s contained in the report’s introductory section on transparency:

Information on government performance mainly comes from agency heads and program managers. Human nature will incline agency heads and program managers to report results that show their programs in the best possible light. Naturally, agencies have little incentive to report information that would demonstrate inefficient or ineffective performance.

The last I heard, GEFP is now in charge of overseeing how Indiana spends its share of Obama’s stimulus money. The 2006 report, now a distant memory, stated in bold font that “outcomes and results matter.” Unfortunately for Indiana taxpayers, the outcome certainly hasn’t been a smaller state government or lower state taxes.

Eggers and O’Leary rightly acknowledge that politics make government cost cutting efforts difficult. But at the end of the day, politics almost always trumps policy. Government is not a business, and attempts to make it operate like one are a fool’s errand.

More importantly, when Eggers and O’Leary talk about cutting government costs, they’re not really talking about net cuts. Taxpayers bear the cost of government. Therefore, a net cut in government costs would mean a reduced burden on taxpayers. Making government “more efficient” is all well and good, but if the “savings” just get plowed into other programs – as has been the case in Indiana – then taxpayers aren’t any better off.

What structural changes can be made to avoid the long-term fiscal problems that concern Eggers and O’Leary?

I’ve concluded that a strong statutory limit on state spending and/or revenues is the best option. That such limits, like Colorado’s TABOR, are effective is proven by the vociferous opposition they generate from interests that depend on state largess.

Another sign is that it’s rare for an authoritative state policymaker to pursue such a measure for the obvious reason that it would inhibit the  ability to spend other people’s money. Once again, my time in state government was instructive.

When I suggested to Gov. Daniels that he consider pushing a measure like Colorado’s TABOR, he replied that he “guess he didn’t see the need for that.” A Daniels lieutenant would later instruct me, at the governor’s behest, to create a taxpayer rebate mechanism (a component of TABOR). However, I was told that the mechanism couldn’t “cost” much because the governor didn’t want his second-term spending “priorities” to be jeopardized. I was also told it had to “look good” to voters for purposes of boosting Daniels’ reelection prospects.

The bottom line is that policymakers of all stripes say they want taxpayer money spent more efficiently and effectively. If I had a dime for every time I heard a politician promise to root out “waste, fraud, and abuse” I’d be snorkeling in the Caribbean instead of writing this blog post. Therefore, if taxpayers want structural changes that will limit the burden of government, they’re going to have to demand that policymakers offer more than just platitudes.