Topic: Government and Politics

Going Bankrupt Double-Quick

George W. Bush and the Republicans worked hard to ruin the U.S. government’s finances.  The Obama administration and the Democrats are doing an even better job of wrecking the Treasury.

Reports Bloomberg:

Treasuries headed for their second monthly loss, pushing 10-year yields up the most in almost six years, as President Barack Obama’s record borrowing spree overwhelmed Federal Reserve efforts to cap interest rates.

Notes, little changed today, also tumbled this week on speculation the worst of the economic recession is over. A private report today will show confidence among U.S. consumers gained in May for a third month, economists said. South Korea’s National Pension Service, the nation’s largest investor, plans to reduce the weighting of U.S. bonds in its holdings, the government said in a statement.

“It’s a disastrous market,” said Hideo Shimomura, who oversees $4 billion in non-yen bonds as chief fund investor at Mitsubishi UFJ Asset Management Co. in Tokyo, a unit of Japan’s largest bank. “I expected yields to rise but not this fast. We will see new highs in yields.”

The benchmark 10-year note yielded 3.61 percent at 6:29 a.m. in London, according to BGCantor Market Data. The 3.125 percent security due in May 2019 traded at a price of 95 30/32.

Ten-year rates rose about half a percentage point in May, extending an increase of 46 basis points in April. The two-month climb was the most since July and August of 2003. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

As borrowing costs rise, so will future deficits, requiring more borrowing, which will push up interest rates, hiking future deficits, requiring…

Just how are we going to finance trillions of dollars for health care reform while wrecking the economy with cap and trade?  And then there’s the $107 trillion in unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare.

“It’s a Lot Easier to Promise to Change Washington Than It Is to Actually Change It”

The New York Times has an interesting story on President Obama’s continuing failure to follow through on his “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. On the campaign trail, he said he would post bills online for five days before signing them. Two dozen bills now have his signature, and only one has been posted for five days before signing.

The article (and accompanying video) fixes on a couple of reasons why the president might be excused from carrying out the promise. One is the technical difficulty of managing potentially hundreds of thousands of comments. The promise did not include a promise to publish comments, though – much less to read them (though it would be politically astute to appear to do so). In my view, the difficulty of administering a public comment system – which was not part of the promise – does not excuse the failure to post the bills Congress presents to the president for five days before he signs them.

A second excuse is that posting bills online would be ineffectual. Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation is quoted saying, “There isn’t anybody in this town who doesn’t know that commenting after a bill has been passed is meaningless.”

I have done my level-best to illustrate how a five-day hold at the White House would have good effects on reducing earmarks, parochial amendments, and other shenanigans – such as congressional approval of bonuses to AIG executives.

Miller’s preferred approach – placing a similar hold on bills before they leave Congress – would have a similar effect – but nothing dramatically more open. Just as under a presidential hold, members of Congress and Senators would be more reticent to introduce potentially controversial amendments. Just as under a presidential hold, they would carefully avoid a blossoming of debate about their pet projects at the end of the legislative process. A congressional hold would change the upstream behavior of the politicians – just like a presidential hold would.

A presidential hold and a congressional hold are both good ideas, and they are not mutually exclusive. The presidential hold has a key advantage: The president has already promised it – to the cheers of American voters.

The New York Times story reports a small step toward meeting the actual terms of President Obama’s pledge:

“In order to continue providing the American people more transparency in government, once it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online,” said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman. “This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law.”

If this means posting links to bills on the Thomas legislative system from Whitehouse.gov, this is something the White House has done sporadically, and it would increase transparency by a small margin if it were regularized. The administration should establish a uniform URL where bills are posted so that every American can easily find every bill the president signs. But, in terms of fulfilling President Obama’s promise, “posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it.”

I think this is grudging progress toward implementation of President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. In the video, the author of the Times article has the best line illustrating why the White House deserves modest congratulations for taking this step: “It’s a lot easier to promise to change Washington than it is to actually change it.”

Uncle Sam a Generous Boss

Federal unions, government officials, and the Washington Post’s “Federal Diary” column frequently suggest that federal civilian workers are underpaid. They suffer from a large “pay gap” compared to private sector workers, or so the story goes.

But in the Post’s “Jobs” section yesterday, human resources specialist Lily Garcia argues that “Uncle Sam Is a Boss You Can Rely On.” For job seekers, Garcia points to the many advantages of federal work:

  • “Generous benefits, solid pay, and relative job security – a combination that is challenging to find in the private sector, even in the best of times.”
  • The “widest selection of health-care plans of any U.S. employer.”
  • “Liberal amounts of paid time off.”
  • Very lucrative retirement benefits.
  • Family-friendly policies such as “first priority and subsidies at a number of top-notch day-care facilities.”
  • “Federal employees are paid relatively well … [and] practically guaranteed periodic within-grade pay raises.”
  • Finally, “federal employees cannot be unceremoniously fired.” I’ve found that only about 1 in 5,000 federal civilian workers are fired each year due to poor performance. 

Is the lack of firing a result of the superb quality of the federal workforce and superior management practices? Hardly. Garcia notes that the downside of working for Uncle Sam is that the government “has its fair share of bullies, sycophants and incompetents who pick on employees, display favoritism, mismanage operations and find creative ways to manipulate the rules to their advantage.” I’d guess more than its fair share. Since federal workers are rarely fired, the ranks of non-performing managers and workers grows over time, contributing to the bureaucratic ineptitude we are all familiar with in the federal government.

To improve workforce efficiency, I’ve suggested privatizing as many federal activities as possible, include postal services, air traffic control, and passenger rail. To cut costs, I’ve suggested a federal wage freeze and a cut in federal benefits as part of a plan to reduce federal budget deficits.  

For more from Lily Garcia, see here. For more from me, see here.

The White House as Animal Farm

As George Orwell’s Animal Farm closes, the revolutionary pigs have been transformed into oppressive humans.  It took some time to occur on the Animal Farm.  It’s taken just a few months in the Obama White House.

Reports McClatchy Newspapers:

President Barack Obama is morphing into George W. Bush, as administration attorneys repeatedly adopt the executive-authority and national-security rationales that their Republican predecessors preferred.

In courtroom battles and freedom-of-information fights from Washington, D.C., to California, Obama’s legal arguments repeatedly mirror Bush’s: White House turf is to be protected, secrets must be retained and dire warnings are wielded as weapons.

“It’s putting up a veritable wall around the White House, and it’s so at odds with Obama’s campaign commitment to more open government,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a legal watchdog group.

Certainly, some differences exist.

The Obama administration, for instance, has released documents on global warming from the Council on Environmental Quality that the Bush administration sought to suppress. Some questions, such as access to White House visitor logs, remain a work in progress.

On policies that are at the heart of presidential power and prerogatives, however, this administration’s legal arguments have blended into the other. The persistence can reflect everything from institutional momentum and a quest for continuity to the clout of career employees.

“There is no question that there are (durable) cultures and mindsets in agencies,” Weismann acknowledged.

Conservatives once opposed executive aggrandizement.  Then with George W. Bush in office, they embraced the idea of the presidency as a kind of elective monarchy.  With President Barack Obama now pushing the executive power grab, will conservatives rediscover their inner-Constitution and again join the barricades for liberty?

The Biggest Leeches Always Live

By proposing to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program, President Obama has raised a pretty big ruckus in the relatively staid world of higher education policy. For the uninitiated, FFELP uses taxpayer dollars to essentially guarantee profits to participating financial institutions, and to keep student loans cheap and abundant. 

Since neither corporate welfare nor rampant tuition inflation are really good things, getting rid of this beast would be a welcome move. Unfortunately, the president wants to replace FFELP with direct-from-Washington lending and to plow the savings into Pell Grants, so there’ll be no savings for taxpayers and probably very little beneficial effect on college prices. 

As I wrote on NewMajority.com in May, no one should expect big lenders to get kicked off the federal gravy train:

[T]he Obama administration is saying they’d keep private companies as servicers of loans to maintain quality customer service. Of course, this could very well be worse than the status quo: It will likely keep at least the biggest current lenders (read: Sallie Mae) at the political trough, but Washington will be THE lender for all students.

Right I was! Or, at least, signs of my prescience keep getting brighter:  Despite Obama promising to go to war against an ”army” of lenders’ lobbyists, the U.S. Department of Education just awarded Sallie Mae and three other big lenders lucrative contracts to service federal loans. So while smaller leeches could very well be removed from their supply of taxpayer blood, the biggest will keep on sucking!

Good Policy and Strategy in NJ

Chris Christie, the Republican candidate in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race this year, has some life in him. He’s going to hit incumbent Jon Corzine hard on the education issue and is making urban education reform and private school choice a central part of his platform.

Some highlights on Christie from the NYT:

He’s white, he’s conservative, and his support is strongest in New Jersey’s suburbs, where the public schools include some of the nation’s best.

Yet Christopher J. Christie, the Republican candidate for governor, is hunting for votes in cities like Newark, Camden and Trenton, where Democrats routinely pile up big margins, but where black and Hispanic parents are increasingly running out of patience with the public schools, among the nation’s worst…

But what could emerge as the sleeper issue is Mr. Christie’s push for education reform: merit pay for teachers, more charter schools, and above all, [education tax credits] as a way to give poor and minority children better educational choices and create competition that would improve the public schools…

Mr. Christie said that he did not expect to carry any heavily Democratic cities. But he is gambling that school choice has become popular enough among urban blacks and Latinos that he can cut into their support for Mr. Corzine, who opposes it.

Just a note: The article talks primarily about “vouchers,” but the private school choice plan being pushed there is a donation tax credit program. Reporters have difficulty with the distinction.

Cooperating against the Censors

One of the consequences of governments attempting to crack down on dissent is increasing cooperation among groups in different countries pushing for greater liberty and human rights.  For instance, some of the most important aid for Iranian protesters is coming from Chinese dissidents.

Reports Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

The unrest unfolding in Iran is the quintessential 21st-century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing “tweets.”

The protesters’ arsenal, such as those tweets on Twitter.com, depends on the Internet or other communications channels. So the Iranian government is blocking certain Web sites and evicting foreign reporters or keeping them away from the action.

The push to remove witnesses may be the prelude to a Tehran Tiananmen. Yet a secret Internet lifeline remains, and it’s a tribute to the crazy, globalized world we live in. The lifeline was designed by Chinese computer engineers in America to evade Communist Party censorship of a repressed Chinese spiritual group, the Falun Gong.

Today, it is these Chinese supporters of Falun Gong who are the best hope for Iranians trying to reach blocked sites.

“We don’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians,” said Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist and leader in the Chinese effort, called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “But if our servers overload too much, we may have to cut down the traffic.”

Unfortunately, the struggle against government repression remains a difficult one.  But the development of a global human rights community with members willing to help each other wherever they are is an extremely positive sign.