Topic: General

Yet More Government Waste

Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Finance Committee, is asking Medicare/Medicaid administrator Mark McClellan why two senior Medicare investigators spend up to two months each year “on travel to popular vacation destinations.” Grassley wants to know, “What did American taxpayers and Medicare beneficiaries get for the travels of Rollow and Jencks?”

Good for him. As I suggested in another recent item, it’s better for Grassley and the Finance Committee to be exercising their oversight of federal programs than to run amok through American society, investigating the Red Cross, American University, the Nature Conservancy, and other charities and nonprofits. A top Grassley aide has met 500 times with nonprofit officials as part of his investigations and hearing preparations.

So better to remember that the role of the United States Senate Committee on Finance is not to regulate American society, but to oversee the finances of the federal government. In that light, the investigations into wasteful spending at Medicare and the Legal Services Corporation are to be welcomed.

Still, you have to consider: The budget for Legal Services is about $326 million, and the allegedly wasteful spending probably amounts to a few million dollars. In the case of Medicare, Grassley is complaining about $75,000 in travel expenses. Total spending on Medicare will rise by $52 billion this year, to $382 billion. Medicaid will cost taxpayers another $200 billion in FY2007. The federal deficit is projected to total $1.76 trillion over the coming decade. And the government’s total fiscal imbalance, as calculated by Kent Smetters and Cato’s Jagadeesh Gokhale, is now $63 trillion.

When the Senate Finance Committee investigates $75,000 in suspicious travel at Medicare or doubled meal expenses at Legal Services, it is engaging in sleight of hand. Like a magician who draws your attention to his right hand while he moves things around with his left, the committee is trying to divert our attention from the fact that it is ignoring these massive problems while it gets favorable headlines for penny-ante stunts.

Republicans for the Big-Government Guy

Do Republicans still support limited government? Don’t laugh–there are still people around who would answer “yes.” On this site we’ve spent plenty of time on Republicans spending like drunken Democrats, nationalizing education, expanding entitlements, declaring the president an absolute monarch, embracing Wilsonian foreign policy, and so on. The latest just adds insult to injury.

A lead story in the New York Times is headlined, “G.O.P. Deserts One of Its Own for Lieberman.” Yes, Republicans are actually supporting the Sore Loserman for reelection rather than their own nominee. More specifically, Lieberman is being officially supported by Connecticut’s three Republican congressmen, Newt Gingrich, and William Kristol. The White House and the Republican National Committee are “staying out of this one.” Gov. Jodi Rell and Sen. John McCain are endorsing “the Republican nominee” but not campaigning for him. (His name is Alan Schlesinger, by the way.) Sen. Norm Coleman says, “From America’s perspective, it would be a good thing for Joe Lieberman to be back in the Senate.”

And that’s because Lieberman supports the good old Republican principles of low taxes, less regulation, limited government, and a strong national defense, right?

Well, not quite. He does support President Bush’s floundering war in Iraq. But as Robert Novak pointed out last week:

Lieberman followed the liberal line in opposing oil drilling in ANWR, Bush tax cuts, overtime pay reform, the energy bill, and bans on partial-birth abortion and same-sex marriage. Similarly, he voted in support of Roe vs. Wade and for banning assault weapons and bunker buster bombs. His only two pro-Bush votes were to fund the Iraq war and support missile defense (duplicating Sen. Hillary Clinton’s course on both).

Lieberman’s most recent ratings by the American Conservative Union were 7 percent in 2003, zero in 2004 and 8 percent in 2005.

I actually agree with him on a couple of those votes, though I wouldn’t expect that conservatives would. The National Taxpayers Union says that he votes with taxpayers 9 percent of the time, worse than Chris Dodd or Barbara Boxer.

Only if you believe that continuing to support the war in Iraq outweighs all other issues combined can a conservative reasonably support Joe Lieberman. And apparently a lot of Republicans and conservatives are willing to toss aside his commitment to high taxes, higher spending, more regulation, and entitlement expansion in order to get that vote for Bush’s war.

From Your Blog to God’s Ears

Have blogs become part of the mainstream? Consider the evidence of a front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which reports on reaction to the federal court ruling that the NSA wiretapping program is illegal. The first three legal experts quoted are bloggers; two of the quotes are from the blogs, one appears to be from an interview with a lawyer-blogger. Stop writing those law review articles, legal scholars, and get thee to Blogger.

Labeling Dictators

The Wall Street Journal’s “Remembrances” column notes the death this week of Alfredo Stroessner this way:

Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the military strongman who ruled Paraguay from 1954 until 1989. Among 20th century Latin American leaders, only Cuban President Fidel Castro has served longer.

Why is Stroessner a “military strongman” while Castro is “Cuban President”? Both came to power through bullets, not ballots, and ruled with an iron hand. Stroessner actually held elections every five years, sometimes with opposition candidates, though of course there was no doubt of the outcome. Castro dispensed with even the pretense of elections. Both ruled with the support of the army. In Cuba’s case the armed forces were headed by Castro’s brother, and indeed he has just turned over power to his brother who heads the military. So why does the Journal not give Stroessner his formal title of “president,” and why does it not describe Castro accurately as a “military strongman”?

Bashing Wal-Mart (and Millions of Shoppers)

Can Democrats ride what they see as a populist wave of anger against Wal-Mart to success in the 2006 elections and beyond? According to a New York Times story this morning:

Across Iowa this week and across much of the country this month, Democratic leaders have found a new rallying cry that many of them say could prove powerful in the midterm elections and into 2008: denouncing Wal-Mart for what they say are substandard wages and health care benefits …

The focus on Wal-Mart is part of a broader strategy of addressing what Democrats say is general economic anxiety and a growing sense that economic gains of recent years have not benefited the middle class or the working poor.

This new strategy tells us much more about the lingering anti-business, anti-market and, yes, elitist mindset of the Democratic Party’s national leaders than it does about Wal-Mart itself.

Wal-Mart and other price-conscious discount retailers are really a working family’s best friend. They operate in the marketplace as representatives for millions of consumers, ensuring that they get the best and lowest prices possible from wholesalers and producers. Tens of millions of American shoppers vote with their feet every week by visiting their local Wal-Mart.

If Wal-Mart offers wages and benefits that are below the national average, it is not because of company policy but because of the realities of the marketplace. Retail jobs in general offer below-average compensation because the jobs tend to be lower-skilled and less productive than most other jobs. Even so, Wal-Mart’s wages within the retail sector are competitive. A worker at Wal-Mart is more likely to have health insurance and be paid more than a worker with similar skills at a small, “mom and pop” retailer.

The denunciation of Wal-Mart is largely driven by politics. Labor unions, a key Democratic Party constituency, see non-unionized Wal-Mart stores as a threat to their efforts to organize retail workers, especially those in the grocery sector.

Democrats will need to decide who they want to represent: Tens of millions of cost-conscious, lower- and middle-income shoppers, or noisy but far less numerous union members who do not like competition.

Judge Says NSA Wiretapping Program Unconstitutional

The ACLU brought a constitutional challenge to the NSA’s controversial wiretapping program several months ago and the judge has now ruled the NSA program to be unconstitutional (click on the 06-10204 pdf). This is just the initial round of what will likely be a long legal fight.  The government will appeal and the battle will move to an appeals court, and then possibly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For additional background, go here and here.

Last Hope for Fourth Amendment Hangs by a Thread; Weekly Standard Rejoices

Over at the Weekly Standard, William Tucker notes gleefully that the exclusionary rule is but one Bush Supreme Court appointment away from extinction.

Tim Lynch’s 1998 Policy Analysis is about all you’ll need to thoroughly refute Tucker’s general thesis. But two specific passages in Tucker’s broadside on the Fourth Amendment are worth addressing:

What makes the exclusionary rule so absurd is that it only protects people who are guilty of crimes. If the police come to your house, knock down your door, ransack your home, throw all your belongings in the street, and find no incriminating evidence, then the exclusionary rule offers you no compensation whatsoever. Only if evidence turns up that shows you to be guilty of something are you rewarded.

This argument – that the exclusionary rule “only protects the guilty” – is a common refrain on the right. Strictly speaking, Tucker’s right. Once the scenario he outlines has taken place, the exclusionary rule offers no remedy. But Tucker and critics like him ignore the rule’s deterrent value. The exclusionary rule helps ensure that fewer of those incidents happen in the first place.

If police know in advance that evidence gathered from ill-conisidered searches performed without adequate investigation won’t hold up in court, they’re more likely to take the necessary precautions to ensure that bad searches don’t happen. That means fewer scenarios like the one Tucker lays out, and fewer of the all-too-real incidents that clutter this map.

Tucker also bites on Justice Scalia’s canard about the new police professionalism, and the new mechanisms we supposedly have in place to deal with police excess:

In pointing out how dated the exclusionary rule has become, Justice Scalia noted both the “increasing professionalism of police forces” and the ease with which aggrieved citizens can now pursue other remedies against the police for the violation of their rights. “Citizens whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated by federal officers could not bring suit until 10 years after Mapp,” Scalia noted. Since then, “Congress has authorized attorney’s fees for civil-rights plaintiffs… . The number of public-interest law firms and lawyers who specialize in civil-rights grievances has greatly expanded… . [E]xtant deterrences against [Fourth amendment violations] are … incomparably greater than the factors deterring warrantless entries when Mapp was decided. Resort to the massive remedy of suppressing evidence of guilt is unjustified.”

As any civil rights attorney will attest, the barriers to bringing a federal lawsuit agianst a police officer, police department, or city are enormous. The qualified immunity we give individual officers and the sovereign immunity granted to government entities they work for – immunities Scalia has helped broaden – make such suits nearly impossible in all but the most egregious cases. Even then, it’s tough to find a lawyer willing to risk the time and energy to bring a suit that’s likely to be thrown out of court before ever reaching trial.

Throughout the 1990s, New Yorkers on the receiving end of “wrong door” raids like the one Tucker describes weren’t even compensated for the damage done to their homes, much less for the needless terror and fright they suffered. After the “wrong door” raid that ended in the death of innocent city worker Alberta Spruill in 2003, the city instituted some reforms, but has already begun to renege on its promises.

In many cities, the entire warrant process – from the shady informant’s tip to breaking down the suspect’s door – takes only a matter of hours. The judges we entrust with oversight have largely turned the warrant process into a rubber-stamp exercise. And when these lax procedures do result in tragedy, public officials clam up. Transparency and accountability give way to CYA and damage control.

There are some 40,000 paramilitary police raids conducted each year in America, and that number is rising. Given the high stakes and low margin for error associated with such tactics, we need more assurance that police are doing everything possible to ensure they have the right suspect, not less. The coming death of the exclusionary rule should be mourned, not celebrated.