Topic: Government and Politics

The Voting Rights Amendment Act Is a Bad Idea

One of the responses to the Supreme Court’s eminently sensible ruling last year that deactivated part of the Voting Rights Act was to call for a new, updated law to subject particularly bad actors to enhanced federal oversight. We now see the product of that motivation, introduced by the motley bipartisan crew of Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT). As I write in my new Forbes.com column:

Last week, a group of lawmakers introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. The timing was no coincidence: The bill was announced on Martin Luther King’s birthday, right before the holiday designated to commemorate the civil rights giant (for which Congress took the week off). This is the long-expected legislation responding to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder last June that disabled one part of the Voting Rights Act. But it’s both unnecessary to protect the right to vote and goes far beyond the provision it replaces to rework the machinery of American democracy on racial lines.

Based on the reaction of certain elected officials to Shelby County you could be forgiven for thinking that a congressional fix is badly needed to prevent racial minorities from being disenfranchised. But all the Supreme Court did was strike down the “coverage formula” used to apply Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain jurisdictions to “preclear” with the federal government any changes in election regulations—even those as small as moving a polling station from a schoolhouse to a firehouse. The Court found the formula to be unconstitutional because it was based on 40-year-old data, such that the states and localities subject to preclearance no longer corresponded to the incidence of racial discrimination in voting. Indeed, black voter registration and turnout is consistently higher in the formerly covered jurisdictions than in the rest of the country.

Nevertheless, the proposed legislation draws a new coverage formula, resurrecting Section 5’s requirements for states with five violations of federal voting law over a rolling 15-year period. (That formula would currently apply to four states: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.) It also sweeps in sub-state jurisdictions that have had one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout”—which can mean simply an average racial-minority turnout rate lower than that nationwide for either minorities or non-minorities.

All that sounds reasonable—Congress is finally updating its coverage formula—until you realize that this reimposition of Section 5 comes without any proof that other laws are inadequate to address existing problems (which is what the Constitution demands to justify the suspension of the normal federalism in this area). After all, Section 5 was an emergency provision enacted in 1965 to provide temporary federal receivership of morally bankrupt state elections, not to enable a constitutional revolution based on arbitrary statistical triggers.

Read the whole thing, and download this longer piece on why the Shelby County ruling actually vindicates Martin Luther King’s dream.

Appropriate Appropriations? Transparency and Spending Control

Luke Rosiak at the Washington Examiner is not just a journalist who rolls his sleeves up to root out corruption. He’s also a capable computer programmer. Rosiak has produced a new feature on the Examiner web site called “Appropriate Appropriations?” that is worth checking out.

The page lists the many bills in Congress that spend taxpayer money—bills that either authorize appropriations or appropriate your money. You can sort spending bills by size, by date of last activity, and by state—look and see if your member of Congress or senator is a spender.

Rather than complaining about spending in the aggregate—“waste, fraud, and abuse” are horses that have escaped the barn—people who want spending control can now rein it in by contacting their members of Congress and senators to talk about specific spending bills.

The “Appropriate Appropriations?” page is powered by data that we produce at Cato. Cato’s “Deepbills” data is in use a lot of other ways, too. We use it to build informative infoboxes for Wikipedia articles about bills in Congress. The New York Times’ “Inside Congress” web pages use Cato data to show what executive branch agencies are topics of the bills in Congress. (See the “Mentions” section of the page for H.R. 1104, for example.) My own WashingtonWatch.com uses the data to show relationships among agencies, bills, and representatives. You’ll also find Cato data used by GovTrack.us, the largest private government transparency web site, to make searches out of references to existing law in the bills in Congress.

There are many more things that can be done with this data. Luke’s code is available to help others get started.

It’s a long game, trying to undo federal government growth that has been underway for at least 80 years. I started talking about how transparency could undercut rational ignorance and rational inaction more than seven years ago here on the blog. The serious work began with the election of President Obama, who promised transparent government. We’ve written about how the government should publish data to make itself transparent, and we’ve graded the quality of the government’s data publication. Now we’re putting out data that the government should, and it’s bearing fruit.

You can now investigate what Congress is doing in terms of spending and ask yourself: Are these “Appropriate Appropriations?

Constitutional Legerdemain – Recess Appointments Branch

Constitutional restoration this far down the road will almost certainly come in small steps, one decision at a time, as in a case the Supreme Court heard last week, National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning. By most accounts, the justices were skeptical of the government’s claim that the president could make recess appointments when the Senate was arguably not in recess. That’s got friends of the modern executive state worried. Witness an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times by AEI’s Norman Ornstein, than whom modern expansive government has few greater friends. Ordinarily a strong congressionalist, Ornstein here, in “Disarming the White House,” is alarmed that the case “represents the biggest threat to presidential power in decades.”

Given that President Obama, nearly every day, is making good on Nancy Pelosi’s counsel that we needed to pass Obamacare to find out what’s in it, we’ll be forgiven for thinking that the power of the president to make law as he goes along could use some threatening. But here it’s not some imagined presidential lawmaking power that’s at issue. It’s a real power, grounded in the Constitution, “to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”

The problem as Ornstein sees it is that the D.C. Circuit Court below, and the justices last week, actually read that constitutional language for what it says. Rather than focus on the narrow question of “whether a president or the Senate gets to decide when the legislative body is in recess,” about which the Constitution is also clear, the judges below “ruled that virtually all recess appointments violated the direct language of the Constitution: Only those vacancies occurring during the recess between the two sessions of Congress, and only those filled during that recess, would be allowed.”

Political Inequality: Residents of Washington are Different from the Rest of Us

America is a class-based society. Based on politics, not economics. An elite political class runs the state to their benefit. The rest of us pay the bill.

The differences between the assumptions and values of people within and without Washington’s 68 square miles of fantasy long have been on ostentatious display. The Democrats’ health care “reform” has become the latest example, offering tender treatment for those in the capital who approved the measure despite opposition from those outside the capital.

Critics of ObamaCare successfully pushed an amendment requiring congressmen and congressional staffers to purchase their health insurance through the new government exchanges. Being tossed from their special plans meant the end of federal subsidies, which run $5000 annually for individuals and $11,000 for families.

The new rule was meant to diffuse the anger of tens of millions of Americans who were forced to change plans and pay more for health care coverage. No surprise, residents of Capitol Hill were not happy. Alas, it wouldn’t look good to voters if Congress now enacted a special exemption. So without any legal authority, President Barack Obama maintained existing federal contributions.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) observed:  “There’s no question it was the right thing to do. Not just for me, but for my staff. Heavens, I have staff who don’t make much money. This would be a really big bite for them.”

Too bad the president didn’t similarly step in to ensure that the rest of us won’t have to suffer “a really big bite” from ObamaCare.

Mr. President, Increasing the Minimum Wage Is Wrong Medicine for Ailing Economy

When President Obama advocates a higher minimum wage in his State of the Union Address, he will no doubt argue that by increasing the minimum to $10.10, workers will have fatter pay checks and spend more, thus stimulating the economy and creating more jobs.  In fact, economic logic tells a different story. 

The law of demand is more powerful than the minimum wage law: when the price of anything, including labor, goes up, the quantity demanded goes down, other things constant.  No one has ever disproven this economic law—and neither the President nor Congress can overturn it.

The idea that raising the minimum wage will increase income confuses the price of labor (the wage rate) with labor income (wage rate x hours worked).  If a worker loses her job or can’t find a job at the higher minimum wage, her income is zero.  

Proponents of the minimum wage argue that those workers who do retain their jobs will consume more, which will increase aggregate demand and increase GDP.  But that line of argument is a case of upside-down economics.  Consumption is not a determinant of economic growth; it is the result of a prior increase in production.  Workers cannot be paid what they haven’t first produced.

A higher minimum wage—without a corresponding increase in the demand for labor caused by an increase in labor productivity (due to more capital per worker, better technology, or more education)—will mean fewer jobs, slower job growth, and higher unemployment for lower-skilled workers.  Higher-skilled workers and union workers will benefit, but only at the expense of lower-skilled workers, especially the young and minorities.  There is no free lunch.

Small business owners will see their profits cut, which will either drive them out of business or slow their expansion.  If prices are increased to offset the higher minimum wage—something that is difficult in globally competitive markets—consumers will have less money to spend on other things. Thus, there will be no net increase in employment. Moreover, an increase in the minimum wage cannot lead to an increase in aggregate demand unless the Federal Reserve accommodates the higher minimum by pumping up the money supply, which would lead to inflation and a loss of purchasing power. 

Mr. President, there is no magical way to stimulate the economy by increasing the minimum wage. The only sure way to increase jobs and wages for lower-skilled workers, and thus to increase their standard of living, is to increase economic growth.  The minimum wage is neither necessary nor sufficient for economic growth.  Hong Kong grew rich without a minimum wage because it undertook the reforms that fuel growth: free trade, low tax rates, limited government, a stable rule of law that safeguards private property, sound money, and low costs of doing business.  The United States should do likewise. 

Increasing the minimum wage is the wrong medicine for an ailing economy.  Further government intervention in free markets is the path toward socialism, not market liberalism.  Letting free markets determine wage rates is consistent with a free society and also with economic logic.  It is the surest path toward greater income mobility as younger, low-skilled workers get experience and move up the income ladder.  Cutting that ladder off by mandating a higher minimum wage is a recipe for poverty not progress.   

Scalia the Unlikely Swing Vote in Big Workers Rights Case

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Harris v. Quinn, the case regarding the forced unionization of home healthcare workers in Illinois (and by extension the 10 other states with similar laws). To me this is a pretty easy case: just because the state is paying these workers through its Medicaid program doesn’t mean it employs them – just like my doctor isn’t employed by my health-insurance company – which means that it can’t force them to pay dues to a union that negotiates Medicaid reimbursement rates. 

Like most of the labor cases in recent years, however, this one is likely to go 5-4. The so-called “liberal” justices were all openly hostile to the workers’ position, so the challengers will have to sweep the rest of the bench of to win. Fortunately, such an outcome is more than possible – though much will depend on the thinking of Justice Scalia, who was hostile to everyone.

The argument began in a frustrating manner, with a focus on the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and whether a union asking for a pay increase was different from an individual public-sector employee (a policeman, say) asking for the same raise. Justice Scalia correctly pointed out that this wasn’t really the right at issue here, but he further confused the matter in distinguishing the right to petition from the First Amendment (when in fact that right is found in that amendment). He meant to invoke the First Amendment right to the freedoms of speech and association, but also indicated that he was prepared to give the government plenty of leeway when it was acting as an employer.

Justice Alito was the most skeptical of the union/government position, pointing out that unions don’t necessarily act in all workers’ interest, even when they succeed in negotiating certain “gains.” For example, a productive young worker might prefer merit pay to tenure provisions or a defined-benefit pension plan. Chief Justice Roberts was similarly concerned about administering the line between those union expenses that could be “charged” even to nonmembers (because related to collective bargaining) versus those that can’t because they involve political activity. Justice Kennedy, meanwhile, noted that in this era of growing government, increasing the size and cost of the public workforce is more than simple bargaining over wages and benefits; it’s “a fundamental issue of political belief.” In no other context could a government seek to compel its citizens to subsidize such speech. A worker who disagrees with the union view on these political questions is still made to subsidize it. 

It was also heartening to see that the continuing vitality of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) was in play. That case established that, in the interest of “labor peace,” a state could mandate its employees’ association with a union, forcing them to subsidize that union’s speech and submit to it as their exclusive representative for negotiating with the government regarding their employment. (Abood simply assumed, without further analysis, that the Supreme Court had recognized labor peace as a compelling interest.)

Justices Breyer and Kagan were particularly concerned that so many employers and unions had relied on the Abood doctrine over the years, so touching it would implicate significant reliance interests. But overruling or severely limiting Abood would only be one more step in the Court’s trend of protecting individual workers from having to support political activities. More workers could thus opt out of supporting a labor union – but if unions truly provide valuable services for their members, few workers would do so.

Of course, the Court could shy away from touching Abood and simply rule that being paid by state funds alone isn’t sufficient to make someone a state employee. Such a position might more easily attract Justice Scalia’s vote – and that of Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to rule narrowly – even if it leaves unresolved some of the contradictions at the heart of the jurisprudence in this area, such as the duty of courts to police the murky line between “chargeable” and “nonchargeable” union expenses.

For more on the case, see George Will’s recent op-ed and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial.

Flooding: Do Governments Make It Worse?

Both the economy and the environment are complex ecosystems. Governments often upset the natural balance and cause damage because they combine limited understanding with an excessive zeal to mandate and subsidize.

In Washington , we have snow and cold, but I can’t blame that on the government. However, Britain has been suffering from river flooding, and a Daily Mail article explains how subsidies are a key culprit: “Thought ‘extreme weather’ was to blame for the floods? Wrong. The real culprit is the European subsidies that pay UK farmers to destroy the very trees that soak up the storm.”

The author is a liberal environmentalist, but his piece illustrates how liberals and libertarians can share common ground on the issue of government subsidies.

The article describes how forests in the upstream areas of watersheds can mitigate floods. However, there “is an unbreakable rule laid down by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. If you want to receive your single farm payment … that land has to be free from what it calls ‘unwanted vegetation.’ Land covered by trees is not eligible. The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills.”

In the United States, we’ve got our own environment-damaging farm subsidies. We’ve also got the Army Corps of Engineers, which the Daily Mail could be describing when it refers to British policy: “Flood defence, or so we are told almost everywhere, is about how much concrete you can pour.

The long-time bias of the Army Corps has been to spend a lot of taxpayer money on reengineering nature. Apparently, it’s been a similar story in Britain:

Many years ago, river managers believed that the best way to prevent floods was to straighten, canalise and dredge rivers along much of their length, to enhance their capacity for carrying water. They soon discovered that this was not just wrong but also counter-productive. By building ever higher banks around the rivers, reducing their length through taking out the bends and scooping out the snags and obstructions along the way, engineers unintentionally did two things: they increased the rate of flow, meaning that flood waters poured down the rivers and into the nearest towns much faster; and, by separating the rivers from the rural land through which they passed, they greatly decreased the area of functional flood plains. The result, as authorities all over the world now recognise, was catastrophic.

You don’t have to be an environmental expert to conclude that governments should at least “do no harm,” and not worsen the damage done by adverse weather. That means they should end subsidies for farming, deforestation, and building in flood-prone areas.