Topic: General

Presidential Spending

President Obama has issued his final federal budget, which includes his proposed spending for 2017. With this data, we can compare spending growth over eight years under Obama to spending growth under past presidents.

Figures 1 and 2 show annual average real (inflation-adjusted) spending growth during presidential terms back to Eisenhower. The data comes from Table 6.1 here, but I made two adjustments, as discussed below.

Figure 1 shows total federal outlays. Ike is negative because defense spending fell at the end of the Korean War. LBJ is the big-spending champ. He increased spending enormously on both guns and butter, as did fellow Texan George W. Bush. Bush II was the biggest spender since LBJ. As for Obama, he comes out as the most frugal president since Ike, based on this metric.

Figure 2 shows total outlays other than defense. Recent presidents have presided over lower spending growth than past presidents. Nixon still stands as the biggest spender since FDR, and the mid-20th century was a horror show of big spenders in general. The Bush II and Obama years have been awful for limited government, but the LBJ-Nixon tag team was a nightmare—not just for rapid spending during their tenures, but also for the creation of many spending and regulatory programs that still haunt us today.

How to Dissuade Congressional Action

A recent Cato policy forum on European over-regulation took an unexpected turn when my friend and colleague Richard Rahn suggested that falling prices and increasing availability of writing paper may have been responsible for increasing the number and length of our laws and regulations. (Dodd-Frank is longer than the King James’ Bible, to give just one obvious example.)

Goodness knows what will happen when new legislation stops being printed on writing paper and starts appearing only on the internet. (I never read Apple’s “terms and conditions,” do you?)

Anyhow, Richard’s hypothesis will soon be put to the test in Great Britain, where the lawmakers have just decided to stop writing the Acts of Parliament on calfskin – a tradition dating back to the Magna Carta – and use paper instead. Will the length of British laws increase, as Rahn’s hypothesis predicts? We shall see.

In the meantime, Americans remain stuck with a Niagara Falls of laws and regulations that our lawmakers generate every year. Many distinguished scholars have wondered how to slow our Capitol Hill busybodies down a little. The great Jim Buchanan had some good ideas, but the most effective, if not harshest, means of preventing over-regulation was surely developed by the Locrians in the 7th century BC.

As Edward Gibbon narrates in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “A Locrian who proposed any new law, stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck, and if the law was rejected, the innovator was instantly strangled.” (Vol. IV, chapter XLI; V pp. 783–4 in volume 2 of the Penguin edition.)

Ours is, of course, an enlightened Republic, not an iron-age Greek settlement on the southern tip of Italy. The life and limb of our elected officials must, therefore, remain safe. But, what if instead of physical destruction, a failed legislative proposal resulted in, so to speak, “political death?” What if the Congressman or Senator, whose name appeared on a bill that failed to pass through Congress, were prevented from running for reelection after their term in office came to an end? 

Just a happy thought before the weekend.

John Kasich’s ObamaCare Duplicity

Ohio governor and GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich says he opposes ObamaCare. Yet somehow, he has managed to embrace the law in every possible way. He wanted to implement an Exchange, even if it was clearly unconstitutional under Ohio law. He denounced the Medicaid expansion’s “large and unsustainable costs,” which “will just rack up higher deficits…leaving future generations to pick up the tab.” Then he went ahead and implemented it anyway. Worse, he did so unilaterally, after the Ohio legislature passed legislation prohibiting him from doing so (which he vetoed). When Republican legislators and pro-life groups filed suit to stop him, Kasich defended his power-grab all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. 

Kasich’s defense of his record on ObamaCare has been…less than honest. Just one example: in a town hall meeting in South Carolina last night, Kasich railed against how ObamaCare increases the cost of health care at the same time he boasted he has constrained Medicaid spending in Ohio. In fact, Kasich’s unilateral Medicaid expansion not only increased the cost of Medicaid to taxpayers nationwide, but according to Jonathan Ingram of the Foundation for Government Accountability, it “has run $2.7 billion over budget so far [and] is set to run $8 billion over budget by 2017.” 

For more examples of Kasich’s ObamaCare duplicity, see my new four-part (yet highly readable!) series at


Tax Reform Revenues Wrongly Contrasted with Soaring CBO estimates

CBO Baseline Projected Revenue

When the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute claim any tax reform will “lose trillions” they are comparing their static estimates of revenues from those plans (which assume tax rates could double or be cut in half with no effect on growth or tax avoidance) to totally unrealistic “baseline” projections from the Congresional Budget Office.  Those CBO projections assume that rapid 2.4% annual increases in real hourly compensation over the next decade will push more people into higher tax brackets every year.  As a result, the average tax burden supposedly rises forever – from 17.7% of GDP in 2015 to 19.9% in 2045 and 23.8% by 2090.  And, typical of static estimates, this ever-increasing tax burden is imagined to have no bad effects on the economy.

Such a high level of federal taxation never happened in the past (20% was a record set in the tech stock boom of 2000) and it will never happen in the future.  In short, this is an entirely bogus basis by which to judge tax reform plans.

A far more sensible question would be this:

Will the Cruz or Rubio tax reforms raise just as much money as the Obama “tax increase” has – namely, 17.5% of GDP from 2013 to 2015. If so, then real tax revenues will grow faster after reform because real GDP growth will surely be at least 1.2% faster – or a middling 3.5% a year, which is all the cautious Tax Foundation estimates suggest.

Opium Prohibition in Afghanistan

The ongoing U.S. presence in Afghanistan is plenty misguided on its own: our efforts likely increase rather than decrease Muslim antipathy toward the United States, and our track record of fostering democracy, capitalism, peace, or freedom via invasion and occupation is, to say the least, poor.

To make matters worse, we are complicating the mission by also trying to suppress opium production:

The United States spent more than $7 billion in the past 14 years to fight the runaway poppy production that has made Afghan opium the world’s biggest brand.

Beyond the usual arguments, American-inspired drug prohibition is especially problematic in Afghanistan.  The inevitable evasion and corruption undermine the rule of law, and anti-opium actions such as crop eradication generate hostility from local farmers rather than winning their hearts and minds.

Not to mention that all our efforts appear to have no meaningful impact on the opium trade:

More opium was cultivated in 2014, the last year of the NATO combat mission, than in any other year since the United Nations began keeping records in 2002.

The good news is that, despite U.S. efforts, the opium trade is normalizing:

But here in one of the few corners of Helmand Province that is peaceful and in firm government control, the green stalks and swollen bulbs of opium were growing thick and high within eyeshot of official buildings during the past poppy season — signs of a local narco-state administered directly by government officials.

In the district of Garmsir, poppy cultivation not only is tolerated, but is a source of money that the local government depends on. Officials have imposed a tax on farmers practically identical to the one the Taliban use in places they control.

Some of the revenue is kicked up the chain, all the way to officials in Kabul, the capital, ensuring that the local authorities maintain support from higher-ups and keeping the opium growing. And Garmsir is just one example of official involvement in the drug trade.

Multiple visits to Afghan opium country over the past year, and extensive interviews with opium farmers, local elders, and Afghan and Western officials, laid bare the reality that even if the Western-backed government succeeds, the opium seems here to stay.

To be sure, official prohibition combined with de facto legalization is far from the libertarian ideal.

But de facto tolerance for the opium trade allows farmers to earn a living in peace and saves the resources now wasted on attempts at opium suppression.  Permitting the market to move above ground also shrinks the violence associated with underground markets.

Profits from opium trafficking are, of course, a source of revenue for terrorists.  That, however, is also an artifact of prohibition: if opium were legal, the profit rate would be no different than for any other crop, and terrorists would have one less source of revenue.

Justice Scalia: Underappreciated Fourth Amendment Defender

In addition to his many judicial bona fides, Justice Antonin Scalia was an underappreciated defender of the Fourth Amendment. With his typical thoroughness and deep textualism that reshaped American judging, the late conservative icon threw out convictions of individuals who were arrested as a result of unconstitutional violations. In Kyllo v. United States (2001), police illegally took thermal images of a man’s home to find a marijuana grow operation. In United States v. Jones (2012), a man had his Jeep tracked with GPS devices without a warrant, leading to a drug trafficking conviction. And in Florida v. Jardines (2013), police brought a drug dog onto a man’s porch to indicate drug activity inside, again, a marijuana grow operation. To Justice Scalia, the sanctity of a person’s home and property—beyond the “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard that dominates Fourth Amendment jurisprudence—was to be held above the governmental interests in fighting crime.

In Kyllo, Scalia wrote for a divided 5-4 majority that included Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer: “The Fourth Amendment’s protection of the home has never been tied to the measurement of the quality or quantity of information obtained….In the home, our cases show, all details are intimate details, because the entire area is held safe from prying government eyes.” In Jardines, another non-traditional 5-4 split in which he was joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, Scalia affirmed this dedication to the home, writing “[W]hen it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the home is first among equals.”

Jones was unanimous and, consequently, one of his dryer decisions lacking both colorful barbs and grand statements about the Fourth Amendment itself. However, it bore the Scalian hallmark of deep historical consideration of the government intrusion, and the Court ultimately rejected the warrantless tracking of Mr. Jones’ Jeep.

When unencumbered by a coalition for a majority or unanimous opinion, Scalia famously unleashed his contempt for specious arguments in his dissenting opinions. In Maryland v. King (2013), a case in which the state of Maryland prevailed on warrantless DNA collection from arrestees, Scalia set the tone at the beginning:

“The Fourth Amendment forbids searching a person for evidence of a crime when there is no basis for believing the person is guilty of the crime or is in possession of incriminating evidence. That prohibition is categorical and without exception; it lies at the very heart of the Fourth Amendment.”

Congress Can Deny Barack Obama the Power to Replace Justice Scalia

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) responded to the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with a press release saying, “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz (TX), and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) agree. Hillary Clinton spoke for many Democrats: “The Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail who are calling for Justice Scalia’s seat to remain vacant dishonor the Constitution. The Senate has a constitutional responsibly here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons.” Conor Friedersdorf says the no-vote stratagem is “illegitimate” because “the Senate does have an obligation to fulfill its ‘advice and consent’ obligation….A preemptive rejection of any possible Supreme Court appointment is self-evidently in conflict with that obligation.” Clinton and Friedersdorf are wrong. Senators have every right to advocate not holding a vote on an Obama appointment, and not to hold a vote.

Clinton and Friedersdorf are overlooking the “consent” part of “advice and consent.” Consent means the Senate is under no obligation whatsoever even to hold a vote on any presidential appointment. The Senate’s obligation is to do what the Senate wants, and only what the Senate wants. Those are the rules. To try to hold senators to a different rule is to try to change the rules on them–and people tend to resent that. Everyone is free to disagree with the positions individual senators or the Senate as a whole take on individual nominations or prospective nominations. But there is no question that senators individually or collectively can deny their consent to any actual or prospective nomination for any reason–just as the American people can vote for whomever they want, for whatever reason they want.

Indeed, President Obama isn’t even entitled to nominate a replacement for Justice Scalia–or at least, Congress can deny him that right. The Constitution gives Congress the power to decide how many seats there are on the Supreme Court. In 1789, there were only six. Given sufficient congressional support (i.e., veto-proof majorities in both chambers), Congress could reduce the number of Supreme Court justices from the current nine to eight. McConnell, Cruz, and Rubio could propose doing so right now. It seems strange to criticize senators who are merely expressing in what circumstances they will withhold their consent when Congress has the power to deny the president the ability to fill this vacancy entirely by itself eliminating this vacancy.

At the same time Democrats turn a blind eye to President Obama repeatedly ignoring constitutional limits on his power, they claim Republicans would dishonor the Constitution if they use powers the Constitution clearly grants them. That is unlikely to dissuade Senate Republicans from delaying a vote on Scalia’s successor until 2017. Nor should it. For more on this topic, please read this by my colleague Ilya Shapiro at Forbes.

Scalia’s untimely passing was a gut punch. I didn’t agree with him all the time. But I agree with Trevor Burrus about him. RIP.