Topic: Government and Politics

VA Scandal: Crisis of Big Government

Peggy Noonan’s op-ed on the weekend was titled “The VA Scandal Is a Crisis of Leadership.” Noonan discusses how President Obama “doesn’t do the plodding, unshowy, unromantic work of making government work.” Obama is not a good manager, and so scandals like the current one are to be expected.

I enjoy Noonan’s articles and her observations on Obama’s style are right on target, but her view about why the VA scandal happened is off the mark. The president does seem to spend his time giving speeches, strategizing politics, and playing golf rather than rolling up his shirt sleeves and fixing programs. He does seem to be “a show horse, not a workhorse,” as Noonan says. But that’s not why the VA scandal happened.

The VA situation is appalling, but it has common elements with scandals that happen under every president. Those elements include bureaucrats behaving selfishly, politicians promising reforms and not following through, federal workforce dysfunction, and the failed central planning of a complex industry. The VA scandal happened because the government is a giant monopoly with none of the built-in checks of the marketplace. Federal politicians themselves are not a check because they are too distracted and the government is far too large for them to keep track of.

Noonan says, “the president is an executive, and executives manage.” Really? He could efficiently manage the entire $3.5 trillion government and its 2.1 million workers and 2,200 programs? I doubt it. I think we could vote in the head of PWC as the next president, and we would still have scandal after scandal in Washington.

Noonan worked in the Reagan administration, and so she remembers the 1980’s HUD scandal. The shenanigans, waste, and bad behavior under Reagan’s HUD secretary Sam Pierce over eight years were jaw-dropping. HUD under Pierce was a cronyism factory for the secretary’s buddies and Republican donors. Tad DeHaven discusses the abuses in this essay.

Perhaps Ronald Reagan should have been a better manager. But he understood that the problem in Washington is far deeper than just a need to run things better, as many of his famous comments reveal:

Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So governments’ programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Chief Justice Roberts Again Rewrites Law, Avoids Duty to Hold Government’s Feet to the Constitutional Fire

In today’s ruling in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court was obviously right to reverse as federal overreaching the conviction of a woman who used certain chemicals to attack her husband’s paramour. This was a “purely local crime,” and the decision to prosecute Carol Anne Bond for it under a law that implements the international Chemical Weapons Convention was an abuse of federal power.

But in deciding the case so narrowly, creatively reinterpreting an expansive federal statute instead of reaching the constitutional issue at the heart of this bizarre case, the Court’s majority abdicated its duty to check the other branches of government. Bond was a case about the scope of the treaty power—can Congress do something pursuant to a treaty that it can’t otherwise do?—and yet the majority opinion avoided that discussion altogether in the name of a faux judicial minimalism. That’s not surprising given that its author is Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to avoid hard calls whenever possible. (Sometimes the practical result is still the right one, as here, sometimes it’s disastrously not, as in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case, and sometimes even Roberts finds it impossible to avoid the Court’s constitutional duty, as in Citizens United and Shelby County.)

It was thus left to Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito (in part), to do the hard work—to make those balls-and-strikes calls that Roberts promised at his confirmation hearing—and repudiate Missouri v. Holland, the 1920 case that’s been understood to mean that the federal government can indeed expand its own power by agreeing to do so with a foreign treaty partner. (Scalia’s opinion tracks Cato’s amicus brief closely, and cites my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s groundbreaking work in this area.)

One other takeaway here is that the Obama administration has yet again lost unanimously at the Supreme Court, adding to its record number of goose eggs—particularly in cases involving preposterous assertions of federal power. Here Chief Justice Roberts provides the apt langiappe: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”

Walking to School? Yeah, There’s a Federal Program for That

The Associated Press reports:

For a growing number of children in Rhode Island, Iowa and other states, the school day starts and ends in the same way — they walk with their classmates and an adult volunteer to and from school. Walking school buses are catching on in school districts nationwide because they are seen as a way to fight childhood obesity, improve attendance rates and ensure that kids get to school safely….

Many programs across the country are funded by the federal Safe Routes to School program, which pays for infrastructure improvements and initiatives to enable children to walk and bike to school.

 

Number of VA Employees

After my blogpost yesterday about Department of Veterans Affairs spending, my research assistant Nick created the chart below on the number of VA employees. Wow, you don’t often see bureaucracies expand that rapidly! A 56 percent increase in just 13 years, from 219,000 to 341,000 employees. The VA has 100,000 new employees just since 2006.

The data is from this OPM website, which also provides a breakdown for agencies within departments. About 90 percent of VA employees are in the Veterans Health Administration, which is currently in the news for its horrendous mismanagement.   

Exploiting China’s Growing Frustration with North Korea

South Korean officials insist that China now agrees that North Korea’s nuclear program poses a serious security threat to the region.  If that interpretation is accurate, it is a strong indicator that Beijing’s patience with its troublesome ally is wearing very thin.  But as I point out in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, the United States and its East Asian allies have a long-standing tendency to overestimate China’s willingness, even its ability, to restrain Pyongyang without incurring excessive risks to its own national interests.

Rumors continue to swirl that North Korea plans to conduct yet another nuclear test.  China is apparently trying to dissuade its volatile ally from taking such a provocative step.  According to Reuters, Beijing has used various “diplomatic channels” to convey its wishes to Kim Jong-un’s regime.  But China adopted a similar stance with regard to Pyongyang’s last nuclear test, as well as the test of a long-range ballistic missile.  Unfortunately, Beijing’s latest expression of opposition is not likely to fare better than previous efforts. Both Kim and his father, Kim Jong-il, defied China’s wishes and conducted such tests.  If that weren’t enough, North Korea also attacked the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelled a South Korean island.  Although Beijing was clearly unhappy about such incidents, it did not prevent Pyongyang’s dangerous, destabilizing conduct.

Because China provides North Korea with a majority of its food and energy supplies, Pyongyang would seem to be highly vulnerable to pressure from Beijing.  But a decision by China to employ maximum economic power to impose its will on the North Korean regime would also require a willingness to incur grave risks. Bringing such pressure to bear could cause the North Korean state to unravel. Not only would that development produce a massive refugee crisis (and possibly a civil war) on China’s border, but North Korea’s demise would obliterate a crucial geographic buffer between the Chinese homeland and the U.S. sphere of influence throughout the rest of Northeast Asia.  Few Chinese leaders want to risk that outcome.

Talking Taxes with Rep. Ralph Hall

Rep. Ralph Hall is in the news for losing to a primary challenger in his Texas district. I first met 91-year-old Hall just last week as we were on a Capitol Hill panel together organized by the Texas Association of Business (TAB). In the photo, that’s Hall to my right and Rep. Kevin Brady and TAB head Bill Hammond on my left. (Photo credit: Office of Rep. Hall).

One thing we discussed was how tax reform has stalled because the two parties see “reform” so differently. Rep. Brady noted that the Democrats keep insisting on tax increases as part of any tax reform. I noted that the Democrats have moved so far to left on economics in recent years that it makes 1986-style tax reform very difficult to achieve.

The 1986 Tax Reform Act was a major bipartisan success, with Democratic leaders such as Dick Gephardt and Bill Bradley playing key roles. This 1985 article in Cato Journal by Gephardt reads almost like it could have been written by a Cato scholar, so you can see how the tax deal was possible.

The gulf between that article by a leading Democrat in the 1980s and the relentless drive today by the Obama administration to raise taxes in the most anti-growth of ways is huge. I discussed Democratic tax policy then and now in this op-ed.

Rep. Hall himself reflects the changing party ideologies. He had been a Democrat for decades and always considered himself to be a conservative. But a decade ago he finally switched parties to better line up his beliefs with his affiliation. His loss to a Republican challenger apparently stemmed from the desire to see a fresh face in the district. And yet, when it comes to fresh faces, I sure hope I look as good as Hall does at 91.

Obama Administration Abuses Executive Power to Pursue Race-Based Government

The administration has apparently decided to combine the alarming developments I chronicled in my last two blogposts, which dealt with racial discrimination in Hawaii and President Obama’s abuse of executive power. In a classic Friday-afternoon news dump – and on the eve of a holiday weekend, no less – the Interior Department issued an advance notice of proposed rule-making (ANPR) to “solicit public comments on whether and how the Department of the Interior should facilitate the reestablishment of a government-to-government relationship with the Native Hawaiian community.” (Our friends at the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii broke the news; it helps that their weekend starts six hours after Washington’s!)

This would be an end-run around both Congress and the Constitution, marking the first step toward the creation of a race-based government in Hawaii. That is, with variations of the Akaka Bill stalled in Congress for over a decade – and Daniel Akaka no longer in the Senate, and congressional Democrats on their heels more generally – the administration has decided that this is yet another area where it can’t wait for the legislative branch. Even setting aside the Fourteenth/Fifteenth Amendment and policy problems with any proposed racial governing body, this brazen executive action raises serious separation-of-powers concerns.

As recently as September 2013, four members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission wrote a letter to President Obama, urging him not to unilaterally push for a Native Hawaiian government. After extensive historic and legal analysis, the letter noted that “conferring tribal status on a racial group is itself a violation of the equal protection guarantees of the Constitution.” Moreover, “as beyond the scope of Congress’s powers as it would be for Congress to attempt to organize Native Hawaiians as a tribe, we believe it would be doubly so for you to attempt to do so by executive action.”

Quite so. I just wish that the next time the executive branch wanted to piggyback off my ideas, it would pick some reform proposals rather than mixing two blatantly illegal policies I’ve criticizing.

For more, see Roger Clegg at NRO and Grassroot’s continuing investigation