Topic: Government and Politics

Oh, So That’s The Problem

David Brooks on the Chris Matthews show explaining

I’m willing to forgive a little corruption…I think the biggest problem in Washington is not that we have too many people taking money….The biggest problem is we don’t have–know–have enough people who know how to pass legislation.

Not enough legislation.  I knew there was a problem.  Now back to the $800 billion stimulus.

Come On! Get a Piece of the Stimulus!

The lobbying frenzy to get each interest group’s agenda into the kitchen-sink stimulus bill continues to accelerate. Veterans groups want subsidies for veterans. The Creative Coalition, an association of people who have made millions by producing profitable art, argues that taxpayer-funded subsidies to unprofitable arts will produce another Orson Welles, Saul Bellow, or Burt Lancaster. One prominent actor, Patrick Swayze, is understandably more concerned that the bill include “maximum funding” for cancer research. Energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens wants energy subsidies in the bill. “The Water & Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association is urging congressional leaders to dedicate funding for water and wastewater projects.” Religious liberals are pushing for hikes in welfare spending. Florida congressmen want more spending on space programs. I cited more examples a week ago:

“A Republican [in Ohio] called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” “Cities, towns ready to vie for stimulus funds.” “Road Builders Compete for Slice of Stimulus.” “West Michigan’s stimulus wish list.” “A State with a Wish List for Stimulus Spending.” “Steel industry lobbyists seem to have persuaded the House to insert a “Buy American” provision in the stimulus bill it passed last week.” “JetBlue Goes to Washington to Discuss Economic Stimulus Plan.”

As with the TARP bailout, the lobbying will only heat up if and when the bill is passed. At that point, instead of trying to get your favorite line item into the bill, the challenge will become finding a member of Congress to pressure the bureaucracy to agree that your project meets the criteria for funding laid out in the bill. Considering that the headline summary of the bill runs 13 pages, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a provision to cover just about anything. And then, instead of productive activity, yet more money and talent will be directed to seeking subsidies from government. That’s no way to stimulate actual economic growth, though it will certainly stimulate the economy of Washington, D.C., and its prosperous suburbs.

Obama Transparency Update

President Obama may yet mend his first broken campaign promise — to post the legislation Congress sends him online for five days before he signs it.

In a statement to Politifact, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “We will be implementing this policy in full soon; currently we are working through implementation procedures and some initial issues with the congressional calendar.”

(I don’t think the congressional calendar has much to do with it. More likely, White House staff and perhaps President Obama himself didn’t take the promise seriously in the months running up to his inauguration. They could have been ready, but evidently didn’t plan to post bills for five days before signing until they heard about it from the public.)

For a time, it appeared that the administration would weasel out of the promise with a half-measure — posting bills on Whitehouse.gov while they made their way through Congress. But the Sunlight Foundation’s Paul Blumenthal called that out as error. Vietor’s statement puts to rest the concern that the White House will break the promise with such half-measures.

An important question, of course, is “Why?” Aren’t bills sent to the president faits accomplis? No, they’re not. As I said in a post on Tech Liberation Front:

If the White House were to implement the promised practice of leaving bills sitting out there, unsigned, after they pass Congress, that would have significant effects. The practice would threaten to reveal excesses in parochial amendments and earmarks which could bring down otherwise good bills. President Obama’s promised five-day cooling off period would force the House and Senate to act with more circumspection.

Lawmakers’ political-risk sensors are well tuned, and none of them want to bring down a bill regarded as important because it contains something the public regards as foolish.

Blumenthal also points out (in the comments) that the White House practice of posting bills online could pressure Congress to follow a similar path, “which would have a much greater effect than the President posting bills.” Indeed, it would.

And sure enough, a campaign is on to get the Senate to wait five days before voting on the deficit spending bill (sometimes referred to as an “economic stimulus” bill). A 778-page compromise amendment was made available in the wee hours of Sunday morning with a vote planned for Monday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. — something like 40 hours later, most of them falling on a weekend.

And last week, a group of leading House Republicans wrote to the Speaker asking that the omnibus spending bill be posted online. (With “TARP” and the deficit-spending/economic stimulus bill capturing all the attention, most funding decisions for the regular operations of the government haven’t been made. Congress kicked them over to March back in September, and hundreds of billions more in spending will be moving through Congress in the next couple of weeks.)

Another “Why?” is effectively asked by my colleague Tad Dehaven. Why the focus on transparency when we should be working simply to reduce the size and wastefulness of government? (Tad puts it more stirringly: “[W]hether you get incinerated by a bomb dropped from 50,000 feet in the air or go before a firing squad in which you know the name, rank, and serial number of the shooters, the result is the same.”)

The broad public and electorate don’t necessarily know that government is as large and wasteful as we libertarians believe it is. Transparency is a way of making this information available to them and putting the public in a position to object. When you know the name, rank, and serial numbers of your executioners, you at least have some chance of making the case for clemency.

At the December 2008 Cato policy forum on transparency entitled Just Give Us the Data!, I said (cleaned up for easy reading):

Transparency is a means to an end, and that is oversight… . I think libertarians believe in oversight because on balance it will diminish public demand for government. When they see where the money goes and what happens with it, they’ll realize perhaps that private solutions are better than government solutions. Liberals and progressives believe that transparency will validate and strengthen federal programs — clean up the political process… . Whatever the case, transparency is a win-win bet. If government programs are validated and work better, that’s better than just having government programs in place and failing.

There is wide agreement on the benefits of transparency, even if we don’t know precisely which benefits we will get the most of. The Sunlight Foundation is no libertarian group, but Nisha Thompson of Sunlight posted last week extolling the virtues of knowing where the money goes. Transparency is a good thing, and it will be good for the president to mend his promise to practice transparency in his office.

Does Bipartisanship = Bigger Government?

The Washington Post praises the “attempt to rise above the partisan squabbles that too often have paralyzed Washington” that led to agreement on a massive spending bill. Denouncing “the old ways” and “the customary blame-gamesmanship,” the Post editorializes:

The gang of 20 or so moderate Democrats and Republicans, led by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), heeded the president’s call for bipartisanship and hunkered down to produce the bill announced Friday night. Though the details of the package still need to be examined, the senators’ effort was an admirable one.

Being respectful and working together are very nice attributes. But the bottom line must be whether the country is better off with the product of the bipartisanship. And in this case the core of the controversy is whether a government running a $1 trillion deficit should spend another $820 billion (which willl almost certainly be more after it emerges from conference committee) that it doesn’t have. The Post asserts that the bill is “aimed at providing the quick and large injection of funds into the economy experts say is necessary.” But the Post knows very well that many economists disagree with that claim.

The Democratic and Republican senators who have made possible the passage of the largest spending bill in history have done the country no favors. The Post’s editors may disagree with that assessment. But the issue should be freedom, economic recovery, and the morality of piling more debt on our children, not process and politeness.

Japan’s Stimulus Model

As 200 economists said in the New York Times, ” More government spending did not solve Japan’s ‘lost decade’ in the 1990s.”

And it looks like Times reporters can confirm that:

Japan’s rural areas have been paved over and filled in with roads, dams and other big infrastructure projects, the legacy of trillions of dollars spent to lift the economy from a severe downturn caused by the bursting of a real estate bubble in the late 1980s. During those nearly two decades, Japan accumulated the largest public debt in the developed world — totaling 180 percent of its $5.5 trillion economy — while failing to generate a convincing recovery.

Congressional ‘Oversight’

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) about the new president’s outrageous spending proposal. 

RAY SUAREZ: Has the president been too optimistic in your view on the number of jobs that could be created by a package?

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: No, I don’t believe he’s been too optimistic. I’m prepared to accept his figures. I think the reality is that nobody knows with any relative degree of certainty.

We pick a figure, and it doesn’t have any scientific basis. I wouldn’t say that it’s picked out of the air, but that’s — that’s pretty close.

And some people believe we’d be in big trouble without career politicians.