Tag: obama

Lobbying: A Booming Business in a Politicized Economy

Lobbying expenditures are up in the second quarter of the Obama administration, reports the Center for Responsive Politics. Well-connected Democratic lobbyists like former House majority leader Richard Gephardt and Tony Podesta, the brother of Obama transition director John Podesta, did especially well. Given the administration’s focus on nationalizing health care and energy, it’s no surprise that health care and energy companies were the biggest spenders. Businesses don’t have unified interests, of course; some health care companies and industry sectors lobby against a government-run insurance plan while they support a federal mandate that every American purchase health insurance. Other firms may just work to get their own members onto the gravy train.

As Craig Holman of the Nader-founded Public Citizen told Marketplace Radio the last time such a report was issued, “the amount spent on lobbying … is related entirely to how much the federal government intervenes in the private economy.”

Marketplace’s Ronni Radbill noted then, “In other words, the more active the government, the more the private sector will spend to have its say…. With the White House injecting billions of dollars into the economy, lobbyists say interest groups are paying a lot more attention to Washington than they have in a very long time.”

Of course, this is not a new story. I pointed out in the Wall Street Journal in 1983 that Hayek had told us what to expect back in 1944:

If more money can be made by investing in Washington than by drilling another oil well, money will be spent there.

Nobel laureate F.A. Hayek explained the process 40 years ago in his prophetic book The Road to Serfdom: “As the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”

In a graphic on page A6 of the February 13 edition, not available online, the Washington Post reported that “A Washington Post analysis found that more than 90 organizations hired lobbyists to specifically influence provisions of the massive stimulus bill.” The graphic showed that the number of newly registered lobbying clients had peaked on the day after Obama’s inauguration and continued to grow as the bill worked its way through both houses of Congress. More on the frenzied efforts to get a piece of the taxpayers’ money in the spending bill here and here.

And the beat goes on: The congressional newspaper The Hill reports, “Lobbyists lining up for shot at climate bill.”

And that of course is why Patrick Appel reports at the Andrew Sullivan blog that Washington is the hottest city for job-seekers these days.

If you want money flowing to the companies with good lobbyists and powerful congressmen, then all these spending and regulatory bills may accomplish something. But we should all recognize that we’re taking money out of the competitive, individually directed part of society and turning it over to the politically controlled sector. Politicians rather than consumers will pick winners and losers.

Just as important, businesses will devote their time, money, and brainpower to influencing decisions made in Washington rather than to developing better products and delivering them to consumers. The tragedy is that the most important factor in America’s economic future – in raising everyone’s standard of living – is not land, or money, or computers; it’s human talent. And an increasing part of the human talent at America’s companies is being diverted from productive activity to protecting the company from political predation. With every spending program and every new regulation, the parasite economy sucks in another productive enterprise. Do we really want the best brains at companies from General Motors and General Electric (this quarter’s biggest lobbyist) to Google and Goldman Sachs focused on working Washington rather than serving consumers?

Transparency: Obama’s Waterloo?

“When congressmen scoff at the notion of reading legislation because they aren’t qualified or they aren’t competent to understand it, how can we be confident that those congressman are competent to reengineer the entire health care system?”

So asked a citizen at a town hall meeting where Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) held forth before a cantankerous crowd.

It’s a fair question. And President Obama offered an answer during his campaign. He promised that he would post bills coming to him from Congress online for five days before signing them. Rather than relying on Congress, the public should have more oversight of it.

(Alas, it’s a promise he has violated thirty-nine forty-one times. He signed two more bills into law last week within a day of receiving them.)

Under President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” pledge or the 72-hour-hold in Congress preferred by the Sunlight Foundation, members of Congress and senators would be more reticent to introduce potentially controversial amendments, and they would be more obliged to know and defend what is in the bills they vote on.

President Obama set the standard—if not the precedent—by which lawmaking practice will be judged. He will have to rise to that standard as the public has more leisure to take the measure of his presidency. Congress will too.

(It’s not the president’s Waterloo, of course. I just put that in the title to attract your attention.)

Using ‘Cash For Clunkers’ Money to Buy a Muscle Car

chevelleABC News reports that the “Cash for Clunkers” scheme, a government program that offers a rebate to people who trade in vehicles with low gas mileage for more fuel efficient cars, is  gaining popularity:

The program is off to a fast start. In less than a week, 8,000 cars have been traded in for new ones – deals that might not have happened if Washington were not offering people $3,500 to $4,500 to get their aging gas guzzlers off the road.

In June, Cato senior fellow Alan Reynolds explained  how you can use that money to buy the muscle car or truck you always wanted:

Consider how easy it would be to game this giveaway program by using that $4,500 voucher to buy a big SUV or V-8 muscle car.

First of  all, with Chrysler and GM dealerships folding, it should be easy to buy a mediocre Chevy Cobalt or Dodge Caliber for about $10,000 more than the voucher.

What you do next is sell that boring econobox, even if you end up with $1,000 less than you paid — that still leaves you with $3,500 of free money, courtesy of taxpayers.

As this  process unfolds, the flood of resold small cars will make it even  harder for GM, Chrysler and Ford dealers to get a decent price for small cars, because of added competition from new cars being resold as used.

That’s their problem, not yours.

So, take the $9,000 net from reselling the crummy little car plus the $4,500 from Uncle Sam.  Then use that $13,500 to make a big down payment on a used Cadillac Escalade,  Toyota Tundra pickup or Corvette.

File this under “unintended consequences” (my own file is running out of space).

More Evidence on the Turning Tide

america-store_2065_6501360I wrote recently about the anti-Obama T-shirts on display at Washington’s Dulles Airport. This week I can report that at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, there are big cut-outs of Barack and Michelle Obama. But they’re standing by a display of shirts reading “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for McCain and Palin” and another reading “NOPE (with the Obama campaign logo) – keep the change.” The times they are a-changin’.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that out in the real America, the airports of Albuquerque and San Diego, there are no T-shirts on display for or against any politician. It’s like they don’t think Americans care about politicians.

The Price of Universal Coverage Just Went Up

Since at least February, President Obama and other elders of the Church of Universal Coverage have labored to create the impression that universal coverage is inevitable, because a sense of inevitability reduces its cost.  If interest groups think this train is leaving the station, they are less likely to stand in its way.  Lobbyists are more likely to cut whatever deal they can if their clients believe, “It could have been much worse.”  That’s why Obama has demanded haste: the longer the process, the harder it is to maintain a sense of inevitability.

Here’s a sampling of today’s health care headlines from the non-partisan Bulletin News, which summarizes news media coverage:

  • Senate, Obama Back Off Healthcare Reform August Deadline.
  • Obama Rakes In Cash For DNC, Criticizes Media Coverage Of Healthcare Debate.
  • Obama’s Performance At Wednesday’s Press Conference Comes Under Fire.
  • President’s Media Strategy Raises Eyebrows.
  • House Democrats Consider Sidestepping Committee.
  • Democratic Caucus Holds “Contentious” Meeting.
  • Black Caucus Blasts Blue Dogs; AARP, Unions Also Criticize Group.
  • Freshmen Senators Ask Baucus To Hold Costs Down, Praise His Efforts.
  • More Criticism Of Obama.

Now that reform seems less inevitable, interest groups will be less likely to settle for a bad deal.  Instead, they will be more likely to demand higher payoffs than before, because their clients believe the expected cost of alienating Church elders has moved away from “getting punished” and toward “the status quo ante.”

So, good luck paying for this thing.

Education Reform’s Moon Shot Moonshine

In today’s Washington Post, education secretary Arne Duncan describes the administration’s $4.5 billion “Race to the Top” fund as “education reform’s moon shot” — a watershed undertaking that will transform the way children learn and dramatically improve outcomes. No doubt he believes that. But since he also seems to believe that he brought about dramatic academic gains in Chicago — something that I and others have shown is not the case — the secretary’s beliefs should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Race to the Top” funds will be used to reward states that pursue education policies favored by Duncan and President Obama, and, by extension, to punish states that don’t. It is obedience training writ large. States that Duncan felt were going in the wrong direction in recent weeks, like Rhode Island, were rapped on the nose: keep it up, and we’ll withhold millions in education funding kibbles, they were told. States like Colorado have already been brought to heel. “We all know Colorado needs this money,” Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien told the Washington Post, and she and other state officials have poured over Duncan’s every word to ensure that they follow his commands to the letter.

And what commands Duncan and Obama are giving! High on their agenda is bringing the nation’s schools into lock step when it comes to standards and testing. They promise, with little evidence, that this will drive educational excellence. Meanwhile, just this month, British schools secretary Ed Balls terminated that nation’s decade-long national math and reading strategies, saying that: “I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies.” If central planning were a panacea for education, why are the Brits — who have years of experience with it — turning away from it?

And if the president and his education secretary really cared about evidence-driven education reform, they would not have decided to kill the D.C. opportunity scholarships program that gives low income families in the nation’s capital access to private schools. Children in that program for three years read two grade levels ahead of their peers who remained in public schools. And that’s according to Duncan’s own Department of Education.

Obama and Duncan may well train state education leaders to follow their commands, but there’s no reason to believe those commands will improve American schools.