Tag: limited government

Rep. Kingston’s Spending Cut Plan

An indicator of the incoming House Republican majority’s seriousness about cutting spending will be which members the party selects to head the various committees.

Many of the members in line to chair committees leave a lot to be desired from a limited government perspective (see here and here). In particular, the top candidates in line to chair the critical House Appropriations Committee, Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), are about as inspiring as re-heated meatloaf when it comes to their potential for pushing serious spending reforms.

According to the Wall Street Journal, appropriator Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), is eyeing the chairman’s gavel even though he’s only fifth in line in terms of seniority. Kingston has put together a spending restraint plan in PowerPoint for consideration by the 26 member Republican Steering Committee, which will decide on committee chairs.

Although the Journal notes that Kingston is “no spending virgin,” there is a lot to like about his plan, which is promisingly entitled “Changing the Culture: A New Vision for the House Appropriations Committee.”

Here are my thoughts on the plan’s contents:

  • One slide shows a list of “Big Stuff” and places at the top “State Addiction to the Federal Government.” The language is perfect and indicates that Kingston recognizes that federal aid to the states is a significant issue that needs to be addressed. Reinstituting “fiscal federalism” is one of the chief principles of reform addressed on the Downsizing Government website.
  • The same slide acknowledges the trillion dollar cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This inclusion perhaps signals that Kingston is prepared to get serious about reining in defense spending, unlike many Republicans.
  • Kingston proposes new spending caps that would work to eventually reduce total federal spending to 18 percent of GDP. He notes that “This approach would require Congress to focus on the actual problem of spending, as opposed to deficits, which are a symptom.” Only interest on the debt would be off limits from sequestration should Congress fail to adhere to the spending caps.
  • Kingston calls federal grants “the new earmarks” and singles out the $7.2 billion broadband grant program for criticism, noting that it “pay[s] companies to do what they would do on their own.” As I recently explained, eliminating earmarks but keeping the federal grant programs that fund the same activities would amount to a Pyrrhic victory.
  • Kingston calls for more “budget hawks” on the appropriations committee, and singles out spending reformer Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for inclusion on the committee. He also calls for getting “members off subcommittees in which they are unable to take hard votes.” Amen. If Republicans want to cut spending, then they need to put members on the committees who will actually vote to do it.

The Journal explains that the GOP leadership, in particular incoming House Speaker John Boehner, had better take Kingston’s candidacy seriously:

Officially, committee chairs are selected by the 26 or so person GOP Steering Committee, but Mr. Boehner has five votes on the panel and he can block anyone from getting the nod. A Steering Committee decision can be overturned by a vote of the full GOP House conference, and the leadership should worry that selecting someone like Mr. Rogers could lead to a rank-and-file revolt.

Republicans claim to be the party of fiscal probity and that they’ve learned from their demise in 2006. Mr. Kingston’s proposals are the kind of creative thinking that Republicans are going to need to carry out the principles and agenda they say they believe in.

When tea party voters helped give the Republicans a second chance at reining in government spending, they didn’t have in mind re-heated meatloaf – they want steak. Boehner and the House GOP leadership would be wise to oblige, or else these voters might dine elsewhere in 2012.

Earmarks and the Constitution

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s announcement yesterday that he will support a moratorium on earmarks a sign that establishment Republicans are caving in to the tea party faction of their party?

My response:

Far from a sign that ”establishment” Republicans are “caving in” to the Tea Party faction soon to arrive here, Senate Minority Leader McConnell’s announcement yesterday that he “will join the Republican Leadership in the House in support of a moratorium on earmarks in the 112th Congress” suggests that Republicans may be rediscovering their roots in limited government, however reluctantly for some. At the same time, McConnell’s unusually long press release brings out two main difficulties surrounding the subject: first, and most important, the overall growth of spending; and second, the question of who decides where that spending goes.

On the second question, McConnell is clearly right: It’s hardly an improvement if ending earmarks amounts simply to giving the president the discretion to determine where spending goes. And on that point he contrasts earmarks he himself has made toward projects that properly were federal – e.g., cleaning up a dangerous chemical weapons site in his state, which presidents in both parties had ignored – with the Stimulus Bill, “which Congress passed without any earmarks only to have the current administration load it up with earmarks for everything from turtle tunnels to tennis courts.”

To be sure, there’s enough mischief at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to go around, but it’s the growth of spending, most on matters unauthorized by the Constitution, that is far and away the larger problem. McConnell calls for congressional oversight “to monitor how the money taxpayers send to the administration is actually spent.” Far more important will be hearings to determine whether Congress has constitutional authority to appropriate money on any particular matter in the first place.

Thus, the new Congress needs to see through the false alternative the earmarks debate has engendered. At bottom, it’s not a question of whether Congress or the president shall decide. Rather, after administration input, all but ministerial spending decisions belong to Congress – as constrained by the Constitution. Thus, if the voice of the electorate is to be respected, new and old members alike need to attend first to their oath of office.

Conservative Rift Widening over Military Spending

More and more figures on the right – especially some darlings of the all-important tea party movement – are coming forward to utter a conservative heresy: that the Pentagon budget cow perhaps should not be so sacred after all.

Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky was the latest, declaring on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that military spending should not be exempt from the electorate’s clear
desire to reduce the massive federal deficit.

His comments follow similar musings by leading fiscal hawks Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a presumptive contender for the GOP nomination in 2012.  Others who agree that military spending shouldn’t get a free pass as we search for savings include Sen. Johnny Isakson, Sen. Bob Corker, Sen.-elect Pat Toomey—the list goes on.

Will tea partiers extend their limited government principles to foreign policyI certainly hope so, although I caution that any move to bring down Pentagon spending must include a change in our foreign policy that currently commits our military to far too many missions abroad.  To cut spending without reducing overseas commitments merely places additional strains on the men and women serving in our military, which is no one’s desired outcome.

If tea partiers need the specifics they have been criticized for lacking in their drive for fiscal discipline, they need look no further than the Cato Institute’s DownSizingGovernment.org project.  As of today, that web site includes recommendations for over a trillion dollars in targeted cuts to the Pentagon budget over ten years.

Meanwhile, the hawkish elements of the right have been at pains to declare military spending off-limits in any moves toward fiscal austerity.  That perspective is best epitomized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation, Arthur Brooks of AEI and Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard published on Oct. 4—a month before the tea party fueled a GOP landslide.  (Ed Crane and I penned a letter responding to that piece.)  Thankfully, it looks like neoconservative attempts to forestall a debate over military spending have failed. That debate is already well along.

A New Day? Obama Faces Reality

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

The president will address this new political reality at a 1 p.m. news conference. What should President Obama say to reckon with the reality of the Democratic debacle?

My response:

What the president should say and what he will say at his press conference this afternoon are likely to be two different things. He should say that he and his party seriously misread the 2008 election results: Americans were rejecting the Bush administration’s eight years of expansive government. But he can hardly say that without repudiating the last two years: After all, he doubled down on Bush’s policies. Yesterday the vast majority of Americans said, in effect, “And we mean it!”

Not everywhere, to be sure, but look at the House map this morning: It’s almost all red, with scattered pockets of blue. Obama should recognize that reality, but to do so would be to abandon the dream, and he is nothing if not a dreamer. Throughout this campaign administration apologists kept saying that the problem was not in the product but in the packaging – in the delivery. No. It was the product. Americans didn’t want it.

So Obama will doubtless give lip service to yesterday’s results and talk about the need for all to work together “to solve America’s problems” – as though we were all on some grand collective mission. But in his subsequent actions he will likely turn to the elites in those isolated urban and academic blue pockets on the map to try to fashion a comeback consistent with his dream, because a Bill Clinton pivot would be wholly out of character with a man who branded opponents as “the enemy.” We’re probably in for two years of gridlock before we can return to fundamental principles of limited government, and that’s good.

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.

Government’s Unwelcome Economic Distortions

A couple of weeks ago, David Boaz discussed the Old Testament story in which the people of Israel ask Samuel for a king to rule over them. God’s instructions to Samuel can be summed up as “tell them to be careful of what you wish for.” David brought up the passage in the context of civil liberties, but the story’s lesson also applies to economic liberties.

Over the past eighty years, the public has become conditioned in times of crisis to turn to their rulers and demand that they “do something.” That the rulers had a hand in the crisis is all too often either unrecognized or it’s a secondary concern. As Robert Higgs demonstrated in his seminal book, Crisis and Leviathan, the rulers will willingly oblige the public and, in the process, come away with more power and control than they had prior to the crisis. Unfortunately, the rulers’ enhanced authority begets more crises in the future.

The latest chapter in this story is the economic downturn. Many of the “seeds” for the recession were planted by government. Regardless, the average citizen reflexively looked toward Washington to quickly fix the economy. The public’s limited patience meshes well with policymakers who are naturally inclined to operate on a short-term horizon (i.e., the next election). Therefore, policymakers responded with quick-fix measures with almost no regard to the long-term consequences.

The long-term economic problems caused by massive deficit spending and mounting debt are the most obvious. But as two stories in the news show, short-term measures implemented by policymakers to “fix” the economy have also introduced unwelcome economic distortions.

First, following the expiration of the federal homebuyer tax credit, home sales have fallen off the cliff. The Christian Science Monitor asks: was the homebuyer tax credit the “scam of the century?” The program was riddled with fraud, some folks who were induced to purchase a house are already underwater or are headed in that direction, and the billions of dollars spent on the program did zilch for the long-term health of the housing market.

When one looks at ultimate beneficiaries of the tax credit, it’s easy to see why the CSM calls it a “scam:”

[I]n trying to fully understand why the government undertook such a useless and poorly calculated program, it’s important to recognize those who truly walk away from this policy in better standing.

Realtors, home builders and mortgage bankers… some of the most notable culprits of the housing bubble years… all walk away cleanly skimming the proceeds coming from the transactions of an estimated 2 million temporarily stimulated home purchases.

It should come as no surprise that these were the very same industry groups that worked tirelessly lobbying to enact this failed policy… it was a simple exchange… your tax dollars to their wallets.

Second, we go from “scam of the century” to the “the dumbest program ever.” The latter refers to the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which Chris Edwards submitted for nomination in August 2009. Chris cited numerous problems with the program, including that “Low-income families, who tend to buy used cars, were harmed because the clunkers program will push up used car prices.”

A senior editor at Edmunds.com tells a reporter from WIOD news radio in Miami that used-car prices are way up (h/t Radley Balko):

If buying a used car is among your cost-cutting measures… be prepared to pay up to 30-percent more than you did last year.

It is a simple case of supply and demand.

Trouble is … there are fewer used cars.

The cash-for-clunkers program took a bunch off the market.

Plus, Edmunds Senior Editor Bill Visnick says 5-million fewer new cars were sold last year…which pares down the used car supply even more.

As Radley sarcastically notes, you can’t blame those supposedly selfish limited government types for this one:

[W]e have a government program whose stated aim was to shore up huge, failed corporations by giving public money to mostly upper-income people that in the end will penalize low and middle-income people. But remember folks, it’s the libertarians—who opposed C4C—who are greedy corporatists who hate the poor.

There could be a silver lining in the cloud if more Americans start to realize that asking policymakers to quickly fix problems that government policies helped foster isn’t much different than asking the arsonist to put out the fire.

Libertarian Politics in the Media

Peter Wallsten of the Wall Street Journal writes, “Libertarianism is enjoying a recent renaissance in the Republican Party.” He cites Ron Paul’s winning the presidential straw poll earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rand Paul’s upset victory in the Kentucky senatorial primary, and former governor Gary Johnson’s evident interest in a libertarian-leaning presidential campaign. Johnson tells Wallsten in an interview that he’ll campaign on spending cuts – including military spending, on entitlements reform, and on a rational approach to drug policy.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Rand Paul had a major op-ed in USA Today discussing whether he’s a libertarian. Not quite, he says. But sort of:

In my mind, the word “libertarian” has become an emotionally charged, and often misunderstood, word in our current political climate. But, I would argue very strongly that the vast coalition of Americans — including independents, moderates, Republicans, conservatives and “Tea Party” activists — share many libertarian points of view, as do I.

I choose to use a different phrase to describe my beliefs — I consider myself a constitutional conservative, which I take to mean a conservative who actually believes in smaller government and more individual freedom. The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism, and in the views of countless Americans from across the political spectrum.

Our Founding Fathers were clearly libertarians, and constructed a Republic with strict limits on government power designed to protect the rights and freedom of the citizens above all else.

And he appeals to the authority of Ronald Reagan:

Liberty is our heritage; it’s the thing constitutional conservatives like myself wish to preserve, which is why Ronald Reagan declared in 1975, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

Reagan said that several times, including in a Reason magazine interview and in a 1975 speech at Vanderbilt University that I attended. A lot of libertarians complained that he should stop confusing libertarianism and conservatism. And once he began his presidential campaign that fall, he doesn’t seem to have used the term any more.

You can see in both the Paul op-ed and the Johnson interview that major-party politicians are nervous about being tagged with a label that seems to imply a rigorous and radical platform covering a wide range of issues. But if you can call yourself a conservative without necessarily endorsing everything that William F. Buckley Jr. and the Heritage Foundation – or Jerry Falwell and Mike Huckabee – believe, then a politician should be able to be a moderate libertarian or a libertarian-leaning candidate. I wrote a book outlining the full libertarian perspective. But I’ve also coauthored studies on libertarian voters, in which I assume that you’re a libertarian voter if you favor free enterprise and social tolerance, even if you don’t embrace the full libertarian philosophy. At any rate, it’s good to see major officials, candidates, and newspapers talking about libertarian ideas and their relevance to our current problems.