Topic: Government and Politics

Intervention Begets Intervention, Which Begets…

The logic in Washington is ineluctable.  If government provides money, then it needs to impose regulations.  If the government takes ownership, then it must provide management.

Bail out the banks.  Set bankers’ salaries.  Bail out the insurers.  Decide on corporate bonuses.

And if the government takes over the automakers, then it should run the automakers.  That, of course, means deciding who can be dealers. 

Reports the Washington Post:

Now that the Obama administration has spent billions of dollars on the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, Congress is considering making its first major management decision at the automakers.

Under legislation that has rapidly gained support, GM and Chrysler would have to reinstate more than 2,000 dealerships that the companies had slated for closure.

The automakers say the ranks of their dealers must be thinned in order to match the fallen demand for cars. But some of the rejected dealers and their Capitol Hill supporters argue that the process of selecting dealerships for closure was arbitrary and went too far.

Since federal money has been used to sustain the automakers, they say Congress has an obligation to intervene.

At a gathering of dozens of dealers who came to Capitol Hill yesterday to lobby their representatives, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and several other congressmen spoke in support of the dealers. More than 240 House members have signed onto the bill, supporters said.

“We are going to stand with them for as long as it takes,” Hoyer told an approving crowd.

What is next?  Congress deciding the prices that should be charged for autos?  The accessories to be offered?  The colors cars should be painted?

I have no idea who should or should not be an auto dealer.  But I do know that it is a decision which should not be made in Washington, D.C.

The “Washington Monument Syndrome” Backfires in Massachusetts

While politicians and bureaucrats generally are on the same side, there are occasional conflicts. For instance, if politicians want to limit the growth of an agency’s budget (an infrequent impulse, to be sure), the bureaucrats get upset and sometimes they fight back. A common tactic is to try and generate public opposition by leaking to the press that they will have to curtail something that taxpayers actually value. This is known as the Washington Monument Syndrome, which is a reference to the National Park Service’s petulant decision about 40 years ago to close national monuments two days per week because of a very small budget reduction. A very perverse example of the Washington Monument Syndrome just took place in Massachusetts, where officials at the New England Zoo threatened to kill some of the animals if their subsidy was reduced. This was so over the top that even the state’s collectivist governor felt compelled to condemn the bureaucrats for using dishonest scare tactics. The Boston Globe reports:

Governor Deval Patrick yesterday accused Zoo New England officials of creating a false and inflammatory scare with their warning that state budget cuts may force them to close two Greater Boston zoos and euthanize some animals. “As a supporter of the zoo and a parent who has visited often, the governor is disappointed to learn that Zoo New England has responded to this difficult but unavoidable budget cut by spreading inaccurate and incendiary information,’’ Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement. And a second Patrick aide emphatically ruled out the killing of any animals. …Zoo officials declined to comment on Patrick’s remarks yesterday. They also canceled a public event to welcome two French Poitou donkeys to the Franklin Park facility in honor of Bastille Day tomorrow. John Linehan, Zoo New England chief executive, was scheduled to attend the event. …On Friday zoo officials released a statement saying the funding reduction might require them to shutter both zoos. Then on Saturday, they issued a statement that said state bureaucrats - and not animal-care professionals - would be responsible for deciding whether some animals would have to be killed if the zoos closed. …At least one visitor to the Franklin Park Zoo yesterday suggested the operator solve the budget crisis on its own. “I wonder why the Franklin Park Zoo doesn’t raise their prices so they can support themselves,’’ said Emanuel Achidiev, 28. “They shouldn’t have to rely on the state.’’

Good News: Health Care Express Slows

Health care “reformers” (meaning those who want to effectively nationalize America’s medical system) have long understood that their best hope in the new political environment is to ram through legislation with the claim that it is an emergency and won’t wait.  The longer the American people think about the increased cost, decreased choice, and other negative impacts of a a government takeover, the less likely they are to support it.

Thankfully, the government health express has slowed noticeably in recent weeks.  Even supporters are coming to doubt that legislation can be approved before Congress goes home in August.  Reports Politico:

Health care reform proponents are growing pessimistic that they can meet President Barack Obama’s August target for passing a bill — saying the next four weeks must fall together perfectly, without a hitch or a hiccup.

The number of weeks that’s happened recently? Zero.

A series of setbacks has made the task of completing floor votes in both chambers virtually insurmountable, given the plodding pace of the Senate. The official line from the White House and the congressional leadership is it’s possible, but privately, there are a dwindling number of aides who would put money on it.

And without a deal by August, the ripple effects could start to endanger the prospect of health care reform this year altogether — chief among them, the closer it gets to the 2010 midterm elections, the harder it will be to get members to make the toughpolitical decisions needed to vote on a bill.

This is good news.  The U.S. health system needs fixing.  But the more rushed they are, the less likely policymakers are to do the right thing.  We need a medical system that is more responsive to consumers and market forces rather than to political forces and government dictates.

Turning Tide?

Mark Krikorian of National Review reminds us that Gene Healy had complained about the “Obama Shop” at Washington’s Union Station, featuring lots of “Obama-related tchotchkes and talismans.” Every shop I’ve been into lately – from Macy’s to 7-11 to the airport souvenir shops – has offered Obamastuff. It’s been oppressive.

But I just passed through Dulles Airport, and guess what the America! store on Concourse C was offering? Sure, they had Obama t-shirts, along with the usual White House shot glasses and Washington Monument paperweights. But as you walked past the store, you saw these t-shirts out front:

  • “I Love My Country; It’s the Government I’m Afraid Of” (an oldie but goodie that I first saw a few years ago)
  • “Don’t Blame Me; I Voted for McCain and Palin” (that one might need a bit of editing)
  • “Where’s My Bailout?” (see it here)

The store is probably a leading indicator of what’s selling. So I’ll be keeping an eye on it on my next trip.

Opening Day at Judiciary Park: Sotomayor On Deck

The first day of the Sotomayor hearings yielded many baseball references but little in the way of home runs and strikeouts—or surprises. Democrats lauded Sotomayor’s rags-to-riches story and career achievements. Republicans questioned the “wise Latina’s” commitment to objectivity, whether she would be a “judicial activist” and—most interesting to me—whether she planned to use foreign law in helping her to interpret the Constitution. These would clearly be the lines of attack and counterattack.

It was all “set pieces”—prepared statements that often said more about the senators themselves than about the nominee. The stars of the show were unquestionably Senators Sessions (R-AL), Graham (R-SC), and Franken (D-SNLMN). Sessions, the ranking member, is armed for bear and has clearly been reading the memos my colleagues around town have been writing. Graham marches to his own (very candid) drummer, pronouncing that Sotomayor would be confirmed unless she had a “complete meltdown.” Franken… well he’s just happy to be on the big stage on his sixth day in office.

Assuming Sotomayor is confirmed, however, this will not be that big a political victory for President Obama. With Democrats holding a 60-40 margin in the Senate, confirmation has long been expected, and the political markets have already discounted for it.  The president will likely see a temporary blip of support, particularly among Hispanics, but not as much as one might think—because those who are high on Sotomayor already support Obama.  Moreover, most people will soon forget the Supreme Court and go back to worrying about their personal economic situation—which the president’s policies are certainly not helping.

In a way, this week’s hearings and the confirmation process generally have more downside potential for the administration than upside.  Not because of the small chance Sotomayor won’t get confirmed—which would be a real blow—but because issues such as affirmative action, property rights, gun rights, and the use of foreign law are all being thrust to the forefront of the news cycle.  These issues, and the debate over judicial philosophy generally, are all winners for the Republicans—if they play their cards right.

In any event, tomorrow the real fun begins—with the blue team tossing softballs at the nominee and the red team sending the high heat.

Mandate for Taxes?

The New York Times reports that House Democrats want to raise money for health care with a $550 billion tax hike on people who produce the most wealth. The Times says,

the proposal is perhaps the clearest expression yet of the mandate that Democrats believe they won last November, when voters expanded Democratic majorities in Congress and sent Barack Obama to the White House.

If Democrats think they won a mandate for huge tax increases – without talking about them – then 2010 ought to be fun.

Making Airline Travel as Unpleasant as Possible

The Transportation Safety Administration long has made air travel as unpleasant as possible without obvious regard to the impact on safety.  Thankfully, the TSA recently dropped the inane procedure of asking to see your boarding pass as you passed through the checkpoint – a few feet away from where you entered the security line, at which point you had shown both your boarding pass and ID. 

However, there are proposals afoot in Congress to set new carry-on luggage restrictions, to be enforced by the TSA, even though they would do nothing to enhance security.  An inch either way on the heighth or width of a bag wouldn’t help any terrorists intent on taking over an airplane.  But the proposed restrictions would inconvenience travelers and allow the airlines to fob off on government what should be their own responsibility for setting luggage standards. 

TSA also has restarted ad hoc inspections of boarding passengers.  At least flights as well as passengers are targeted randomly.  After 9/11 the TSA conducted secondary inspections for every flight.  The process suggested that the initial inspections were unreliable, delayed passengers, and led experienced flyers to game the process.  It was critical to try to hit the front of the line while the inspectors were busy bothering someone else.  There was no full-proof system, but I learned that being first or second in line was particularly dangerous.

Finally TSA dropped the practice.  And, as far as I am aware, no planes were hijacked or terrorist acts committed as a result.  But TSA recently restarted the inspections, though on a random basis.

I had to remember my old lessons last week, when I ran into the routine on my return home from a trip during which I addressed students about liberty.  Luckily I was able to get on board, rather than get stuck as TSA personnel pawed through bags already screened at the security check point.

There’s no fool-proof way to ensure security for air travel.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to inconvenience passengers while only looking like one is ensuring airline security.