Topic: Government and Politics

Voting Themselves Bigger Budgets

An implicit principle in a democracy is that the officials who decide how your taxes are spent represent you, the taxpayers, and not the bureaucracies that receive your taxes. But Congress violated this principle when it wrote MAP-21, the 2012 transportation law. As detailed in a proposed rule earlier this month, the law gives transit agencies in major urban areas a vote on how much of each region’s transportation dollars are spent on transit.

State legislatures are made up of people elected by various voting districts, not representatives selected by the state departments of transportation, justice, welfare, fish & wildlife, parks, and other bureaucracies. Similarly, city councils are made up of people elected by the voters in that city, not by representatives selected by the various water, transportation, fire, and other bureaus.

In 1962, Congress mandated that urban areas of 50,000 people or more create metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that would decide how to spend federal transportation and housing funds. At that time, it recognized this principle, specifying that the governing board of each MPO consist of elected officials from the various cities and counties in that urban area. While this was one step removed from the voters, it at least insured that the voters had an indirect say over how their money is spent.

However, MAP-21, the 2012 law reauthorizing federal transportation funding (including funding for MPOs), departed from this principle by requiring that transit agencies in all urban areas with 200,000 or more people be given representation on the MPO boards. In other words, the bureaucrats themselves will get to vote on their own budgets.

Some might think that it is unfair that transit agencies get a vote on MPO boards but highway and street agencies don’t. In fact, it is unfair for any agency to have votes on the boards that help determine their own budgets.

Others might argue that transit agencies are a part of the community and deserve to have a say on the future of that community. But they already have a say through the city councilors and county commissioners elected by the people of the urban area, which includes most transit agency staff and employees (except those who commute from outside the region). Giving transit agencies their own seat on the MPO board violates the one-person, one-vote rule established by the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

We wouldn’t be happy if the NSA got to have a seat on a Congressional committee investigating NSA spying on American citizens or one determining NSA budgets. We wouldn’t be happy with oil companies having a seat on Congressional energy committees, or if university athletic departments got an automatic seat on a state higher education committees, or if a pavement company got an automatic seat on a city council’s transportation committee. Why should transit agencies get an automatic seat on the board determining transit’s share of federal and regional funding?

MAP-21 specified that the requirement that transit agencies have a seat on MPO boards go into effect by October 1, 2014. But MAP-21 itself expires on September 30, 2014. So Congress has the opportunity to redress this problem when it writes a new law to replace the current one.

Given a divided Congress, observers expect Congress will simply extend the current law with a few minor changes. But MAP-21 itself was simply an extension with, supposedly, a few minor changes.

If those who believe in the principles of representative government demand it, Congress could easily remove this provision from the law and specify that any transit (or other) agency officials already on MPO boards be taken off those boards immediately. Removing this conflict of interest is a small change compared with what fiscal conservatives might like to see done with federal transportation law, but it needs to be done to maintain the integrity of public decision making.

Paul Martin: The Bill Clinton of Canada, Only Much Better

Imagine how weird it would be if the Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform praised Barack Obama for fiscal responsibility. And think how inconceivable it would be for the Heritage Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union to applaud Tim Geithner for economic stewardship.

The Canadian version of that happened while I was at the conference of the World Taxpayers Association in Vancouver two weeks ago.

The event was organized by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the main speaker was Paul Martin of the Liberal Party, who served as finance minister from 1993 to 2002, and then as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. I should add, for context, that the Liberal Party in Canada is not a classical liberal party with a track record of free markets and small government.

But Paul Martin was honored because he was responsible, while finance minister, for one of the best records of fiscal restraint of any policymaker in recent history (click here for international comparisons).

I’ve pointed out that the burden of spending fell under Bill Clinton, and I’ve even acknowledged that the federal budget hasn’t grown much under Obama, at least once you get past his first couple of years. But Paul Martin was far more frugal. And since Canada has a parliamentary system, there’s no ambiguity about who deserves credit. He restrained spending when his party had control.

What happened to generate the good results? For all intents and purposes, he imposed a spending freeze. And I’m talking a nominal spending freeze, not the kind of fake fiscal discipline you get when politicians make “cuts” off an inflated baseline. Because the budget was successfully restrained, that addressed both the problem of too much spending and the symptom of red ink.

Department of Homeland Bureaucracy

The programs, regulations, and laws that define most federal activities are so numerous and complex that it strangles effective governance. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is no exception. During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, DHS officials were in a fog of confusion, overwhelmed by events and all the complicated emergency rules and procedures.

A key marker of excess bureaucracy is the generous use of acronyms. In government, acronyms are used to identify the building blocks of bureaucracies, such as agencies, committees, programs, job titles, procedures, rules, and systems.

Recently, I’ve looked at aid-to-state programs run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is part of DHS. Acronyms abound at FEMA. To get a sense of the bureaucracy, I looked for acronyms in this 84-page Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for one of FEMA’s many aid programs.

Below is a list of all the bureaucratic structures that were capitalized and had acronyms in this document for one program. Actually, I left out some common acronyms that many people already know, including OMB, FBI, CDC, CBP, EIN, DOT, EMS, IED, FTE, MSA, DOL, GIS, FCC, TDD, and NIST. So the list below mainly includes specialized acronyms that workers in this policy area would need to know. Many of the acronyms refer to government structures that have their own lengthy documents full of acronyms.

H.L. Mencken said “The true bureaucrat is a man of really remarkable talents. He writes a kind of English that is unknown elsewhere in the world, and he has an almost infinite capacity for forming complicated and unworkable rules.”

DHS must be full of “true bureaucrats” because by the time I read to the end of this document, I had counted 113 acronyms. That is an impressive achievement in True Bureaucratic Excellence (TBE).

Tea Party Discovers Eric Cantor’s Record on Federal Spending

I was as surprised as everybody else by David Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor yesterday. But I’m not really surprised that Tea Party-type voters were tired of Cantor’s voting record. In 2010, I noted that Cantor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Rep. Paul Ryan had published a book, Young Guns, which cast the Republican congressional leaders who preceded them as a group that “betrayed its principles” and was plagued by “failures from high-profile ethics lapses to the inability to rein in spending or even slow the growth of government.”

But, I wondered, how credible were the messengers? Once you ruin a brand, it can take a long time to restore it. And part of the solution is owning up to your own errors, not just pointing the finger.

Sadly, I discovered at the time that the authors didn’t have very clean hands when it came to the overspending and overregulation of the Bush years. Most relevantly for today, I found that Rep. Cantor voted for the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, expanding federal control over education. He voted for the costly Iraq war in 2002. He voted for the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act in 2003, which was projected to add more than $700 billion to Medicare costs over the following decade. He voted for the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which included the $700 billion TARP bailout. 

To be fair, he did get A’s and B’s in the annual ratings of Congress by the National Taxpayers Union, which means he had a better record on spending than most of his colleagues. But as the Tea Party’s been complaining, that’s not saying much.

David Brat, a professor of economics, promised in his campaign to “fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.” While I’m disappointed in his opposition to sensible immigration reform, I hope that if he does get to Washington he’ll bring a revitalized Tea Party message of fiscal responsibility and opposition to big business cronyism.

Eric Cantor’s Website

My Daily Caller op-ed today looks at the website of a typical modern politician, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY). His site is designed to impress voters and the media in his district with all the federal benefits he has brought home. Maloney is taking a pork and constituent service approach to gaining reelection.

There are other approaches to electoral success. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has a strategy of championing principles and specific issues that broadly resonate. The detail on Paul’s website is much better than most. Under “Issues,” he describes his general approach to each policy topic and discusses his stands on particular bills. Under “Budget” he provides a 106-page plan to cut spending.  

Looking at Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) website, you can see that he followed neither the pork nor the principled approach. If Cantor brought pork home to his district, he does not do a very good job telling people about it.

Regarding big ideas or describing his positions on issues, Cantor’s congressional website is nearly empty. Unlike most members, he does not even have an “Issues” section to explain his approach to tax reform, the budget, economic growth, civil liberties, energy, or other policies. His website is fluff.

Cantor’s primary defeat seems partly due to a lack of trust, meaning that voters in his district did not really know where he stood on issues or how he would vote. His website seems to have reflected his strategy of not taking hard stands and having few guiding principles. In his district, that ended up being a losing strategy.

(As majority leader, Cantor also runs this website. But for all the resources that office must have, this site is also very fluffy).

 

Los Angeles’ Confused Suit against Mortgage Lenders

Recently the City of Los Angeles filed suit against JP Morgan Chase.  The suit alleges “the bank engaged in discriminatory lending, which the City contends led to a wave of foreclosures that continues to diminish the City’s property tax revenues and increase the need for costly City services.”  So the City’s logic basically goes like this:  the housing market was humming along just fine, kicking off lots of property tax revenue allowing the City to spend like there’s no tomorrow, then evil JP Morgan comes in and lends to borrowers with the intention of pushing those borrowers into default, which pushed down housing prices, reducing property taxes and causing the city to cut “essential services”. 

So let’s start with the facts upon which I assume everyone can agree on.  Los Angeles experienced a massive boom in housing prices starting in the late 1990s (see chart below).  Rather than see this boom as temporary, the City increased property tax revenues as prices soared.  it spent those property tax revenues (have these people never heard of a rainy day fund?).  As the boom was building in 2002, according to the Census Bureau Los Angeles collected about $850 million in property tax revenue.  At the peak of the market in 2006 Los Angeles was collecting over $1 billion in property tax revenue, an increase of around 17% over four years.

Then the market begins to slow in 2006, prices decline and surprise property revenues decline as well.  A central flaw in Los Angeles’ logic is that the inflection point in prices came before that in delinquencies.  Put simply, Los Angeles has their causality wrong.  Price declines drove foreclosures.  Yes, I suspect there was a feedback from foreclosures to prices, but the temporal order of events strongly suggests price declines was the driver here.

Now one could argue that loose lending drove up prices in the first place.  But then that would mean that LA owes mortgages lenders for all that extra property tax revenue it collected during the boom.  Somehow I suspect they aren’t interested in sharing the up-side of boom/busts, just the downside.  And if LA believes that foreclosures drove down prices and hence revenues, why isn’t the city suing all the borrowers who walked away from their homes?  After all, under the City’s theory these delinquent borrowers cost the City tax revenues.  But since some of these borrowers are voters, I doubt we’ll see any consistency from the City there.

At the end of the day this suit appears little more than cheap pandering meant to distract from the dysfunctional governance of Los Angeles.  If mortgage lenders had any sense they’d just cut off lending to LA altogether, but then they’d probably get suited by DOJ for discriminating.  Can’t win either way.

Progressivism Is Bad for Your Health

The American citizenry is already used to our progressive friends taxing the hell out of everything they don’t like: smoking, drinking, fatty foods, etc. But now, apparently, the hyper-progressive and very cash-strapped D.C. Council is seriously considering slapping a 5.75 percent tax on health club memberships. That is riveting stuff, considering how many progressives out there are urging the unwashed masses rest of us to eat our broccoli and get on that treadmill.

The nation’s capital is, of course, a temporary home to that most progressive and fittest of couples: POTUS and FLOTUS. There is a government website with a catchy name “Let’s move.” It features many a picture of our First Lady in a variety of physical activities. What fun!

Not to be outdone, the Exerciser in Chief can take pride in “The President’s Challenge,” which is “the premier program of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.” The President’s Challenge, its website tells us, “helps people of all ages and abilities increase their physical activity and improve their fitness through research-based information, easy-to-use tools, and friendly motivation.”

The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to say that “the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” And so it is with the D.C. council, which in its perpetual quest for more revenue might very well end up discouraging behavior that progressives claim to want to encourage.

Welcome to Absurdistan on the Potomac!