Topic: Government and Politics

$1.2 Trillion Deficit

Before 1987, Americans only needed to understand the word “billion” to get a handle on federal budget numbers. Today, the word “trillion” is the needed metric in budget discussions.

The Congressional Budget Office released an update to its budget projections today, and the figures show that the federal deficit for fiscal 2009 will be $1.2 trillion. That deficit represents 8.3 percent of GDP, the highest share of the economy since World War II. Thus, a burden the size of 8 percent of all income earned in the United States this year is being thrust onto tomorrow’s taxpayers.

Here are some other observations on the data:

- If Congress passes a so-called stimulus package in coming weeks of say $800 billion, the 2009 deficit will top $2 trillion. Even the biggest critics of Washington’s spendthrift ways never thought they would see a number like that.

- The CBO shows federal spending in 2009 will be about $3.54 trillion. This number includes the spending effect of TARP and the federal takeover of Fannie and Freddie. But let’s consider those to be extraordinary items and take them out for a minute. And let’s add in $24 billion more for Iraq this year, as CBO indicates. The result is that – even aside the financial bailouts – federal spending would be about $3.165 trillion this year. That figure is up 6.3 percent over 2008, and up 70 percent over 2001, Bush’s first year in office.

- The CBO puts the deficit in fiscal 2010 at $703 billion. But that low-balls Iraq costs again, and doesn’t include extension of the AMT and other minor expiring tax provisions. Add those in, and the deficit in 2010 will be at least $829 billion.

Keynesian economists believe that government budget deficits “stimulate” the economy during a recession. But we’ve got $1.2 trillion this year and $800 billion next year of deficit “stimulus” without any special “stimulus” package.

Isn’t that enough? If I get up in the morning and drink five cups of coffee and that doesn’t stimulate me, I don’t go and drink another five. I’d recognize my addiction problem and start reforming my bad habits. Federal policymakers should do the same.

Senator Hatch Gets Less than a Mess of Pottage

With an expanded Democratic majority in Congress, Democrats are pushing to get the District of Columbia a vote in the House of Representatives, instead of the nonvoting delegate that the District has, like Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. They have one powerful Republican ally, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He’s introducing the bill in the Senate along with Joe Lieberman.

Now Senator Hatch is a great constitutionalist. On his official website he writes

Adhering strictly to the Constitution and the system of government our Founders outlined is the best guarantee of the freedoms we cherish as Americans. We need legislators, judges, and citizens who understand the view of the Constitution envisioned by our Founding Fathers… .

Our Constitution is an inspired document that has preserved the unity of our nation, protected the rights of its citizens, and made America a beacon of freedom and prosperity for the world. I consider my pledge to defend the Constitution, and all that it stands for, to be among my most sacred duties.

But that poses a bit of a problem for his position on D.C. voting rights in Congress. Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution begins, “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states.” The District of Columbia is not a state, and so it is not eligible to elect a member of the House of Representatives. Some constitutional issues are complicated. This one is not. States are represented in the House, and the District is not a state.

So why is Sen. Hatch (R-Utah) willing to ignore the clear language of the Constitution in order to give the District of Columbia a vote in the House of Representatives? Because he’s made a political deal that would also give Utah another seat in Congress. That way, you see, the Democrats get another vote from the District, and the Republicans would likely pick up a new Utah seat. The excuse for this deal is that Utah narrowly lost a fourth seat in the 2000 redistricting, arguably because the Census Bureau excludes overseas missionaries from a state’s apportionment count. Utah produces lots of Mormon missionaries. So Congress would increase the number of seats in the House to 437, with the additional seats temporarily assigned to D.C. and Utah.

So this bill is blatantly unconstitutional. And what is Senator Hatch (along with Sen. Robert Bennett and the rest of the Utah delegation, except for new Rep. Jason Chaffetz) getting for this corrupt bargain? Another vote in the House of Representatives for two years. The bill would allow Utah and D.C. to elect representatives to the 112th Congress in November 2010. But Utah’s population growth almost certainly will result in its getting a fourth seat in the 2010 census anyway, so in the regular order of things it would have four seats in the 113th Congress elected in 2012. That means that all this whistling past the Constitution on the part of Utah’s members of Congress is to get one more vote for two years. Meanwhile, of course, the unconstitutional vote for the District of Columbia would be permanent.

It reminds me of the wonderful line from A Man for All Seasons when Sir Thomas More, thinking his friend Richard Rich has sold out his honor for very little, asks him (alluding to Matthew 16:26): “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?”

Senator Hatch and the state of Utah would trade the Constitution for one vote out of 437 for two years.

A New Surgeon General, Why?

It appears that Barack Obama will name CNN health reporter Sanjay Gupta as the next US Surgeon General. Although I strongly disagree with Dr. Gupta on many issues, such as his support for national health care, he is probably as good a choice as any. But the bigger question is why do we need a surgeon general in the first place? After all, can anyone name our current (acting) surgeon general?

In reality, the surgeon general is little more than the “national nanny,” hectoring us to stop smoking, lose weight, exercise more, and never ever go out without a condom. I’ve been flipping through my copy of the Constitution, and I can’t find the authorization for the federal government to take taxpayers’ money to establish an office to tell us how we should live our lives. There are plenty of private groups that are fully capable of instructing us on how to be healthy, wealthy and wise without the government’s getting involved. The American Lung Association can tell us not to smoke. Alcoholics Anonymous can preach sobriety. The American Medical Association can lecture couch potatoes on the benefits of losing weight and exercising more. Planned Parenthood and the Family Research Council can fight it out over when and how we should have sex.

The surgeon general does oversee the Public Health Service. But we have a Department of Health and Human Services that is supposed to be running the government’s health care programs. Why not let HHS take over any useful functions of the Public Health Service and dump the rest, including the surgeon general?

President-Elect Obama says he wants to be a different type of president.  Fair enough.  Why not start by letting people live the way they want, without a surgeon general looking over our shoulder and nagging us.

The Timely Lesson of the “Bud Shuster Highway”

A bit over a week ago the New York Times ran a piece on the recent completion of the final 18-mile leg of Interstate 99 in central Pennsylvania.  I-99 is known as the “Bud Shuster Highway” in honor of the legendary pork-barreling congressman responsible for securing the federal largess to build it.  Federal budget hawks have more derisive labels for it such as “Bud Shuster’s Rollercoaster” and “The Road to Nowhere.”  The latter nickname stings me personally as I grew up in Bud Shuster’s “Nowhere” district.

Nonetheless, critics of the highway who question why taxpayers in the other 49 states should pay for the powerful former House Transportation Committee Chairman’s vanity plate are correct.  I recently traveled Bud Shuster’s highway for the umpteenth time over the holidays and often went a mile or two before seeing another vehicle. The fact of the matter is that had Bud Shuster not been the powerful chairman of said transportation committee, this road does not become interstate-anything.

It strikes me that I-99 is a perfect example of what happens when politicians and bureaucrats, rather than private enterprise, are tasked with economic development.  I’ll just point out three illuminating bites from the Times piece, but a google search on Bud Shuster or his highway will provide plenty more sordid details for those interested.

First, more evidence for Edwards’ Budget Law:

At $631 million, including $83 million to clean up toxic pyritic rock that was the result of a 35-million-year-old meteor impact, this section of I-99 was nearly twice as expensive as anticipated and took at least four years longer than expected to finish.

Second, a lesson in the arrogance and disregard for the rules so commonly displayed by politicians:

…[W]hen he [Shuster] was told that the highway would officially be considered a “spur” connecting I-76 and I-80 and would have to be named something like Interstate 876 or Interstate 280, he resisted because, he said, it was not “catchy.” So, reaching into his childhood memories of the old rickety street car, No. 99, that took people from his hometown of Glassport, Pa., to McKeesport, he wrote into law that it would be called I-99, believed to be the first time that was ever done. That violated the highway numbering protocol the federal government usually uses for Interstates, which requires north-south highway numbers to rise from lower in the west, like Interstate 5, to higher in the east, like Interstate 95.

Third, no need to worry about the details when taxpayers are footing the bill:

By deciding to go over the mountain, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation cut into an acidic pyrite rock formation. The department had anticipated that, but its studies had failed to accurately calculate how much pyrite there was, and how “hot,” or acidic, it was…so acidic that when exposed to air and water, the runoff had the pH level of battery acid. The state spent two years and $83 million digging up more than one million cubic yards of the pyrite-laden rock and created a lined landfill next to the highway, mixing a larger-than-normal amount of limestone in to neutralize it and then covering it over with more fill.

Not a day goes by now that politicians and their willing accomplices don’t cry out for billions of dollars in taxpayer-financed “stimulus” to deal, in part, with “our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”  Yet, the Bud Shuster Highway provides a timely lesson on how we can expect our legislators to “invest” our money on the nation’s infrastructure.  As Cato’s Chris Edwards and Peter Van Doren recently put it:

The main problem with current government infrastructure spending is not its magnitude but its lack of efficiency. More roads and transit capacity may or may not make sense depending on whether the benefits exceed the costs. One sure way to find out is to have private provision and user charges. If users are not willing to pay the costs of extra or newer capacity, then calls for taxpayer involvement probably imply subsidy of some at the expense of others rather than efficiency.

PBS in Action

I got a fundraising letter at home, an all-green envelope with a silhouetted tree and the stark message:

This is no time to fool with our planet… AN URGENT OFFER INSIDE

An environmentalist organization, of course.

But not exactly. In fact, it was a fundraising letter from MPT, which did not quite tell me anywhere that that stands for Maryland Public Television, a television network owned and operated by the State of Maryland. The letter continued in that vein: “no time to take our planet for granted … understand the stakes … cannot afford a community and nation ignorant of science.” Sounds like Maryland Government Television knows which side is right in the heated scientific, economic, and political debates over environmental issues.

True, they do promise to use their “unique ability” to “bring our community real science with no political agenda, news reporting with diverse perspectives, and programs that teach kids conservation values.” But has anybody ever seen a PBS/MPT documentary on the high costs of environmental regulation? Or the fact that the globe hasn’t warmed for the past 10 years? Or the way that markets lead to better environmental amenities? Not really a lot of diverse perspectives, as the general tenor of the letter would suggest.

MPT’s fundraising letter seems to acknowledge clearly its function: To raise money from liberals, to supplement the tax money raised from people of all political perspectives, to advance one side of controversial issues. In a world of 500 channels, why are we taxing people to support one side in a broad political debate?

No Vacancies on the Supreme Court, but a New “Tenth Justice”

The selection of Harvard Law School Dean Elana Kagan to be the next solicitor general (and the first woman nominated for a position known as the “Tenth Justice”) is not at all surprising.  While President-elect Obama is under great pressure to nominate more women for cabinet and judicial positions, in Kagan and former Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan he had two highly credentialed candidates who would have been front-runners regardless of their gender.  Two things we know about Kagan is that she is very smart – even before the Supreme Court clerkship and record of scholarship, she won a Sachs Scholarship, sometimes called a “Princeton Rhodes” – and has done a fabulous job as dean (including poaching star professors from law schools across the country).  While the White House and Attorney General will, of course, be setting the administration’s legal policy, we can expect Kagan to defend those policy positions ferociously and expertly.  Whether those efforts will coincide with a defense of the individual liberty and limited government encapsulated in the Constitution remains to be seen.