Topic: Government and Politics

Get Yourself a Crate of Scalpels

On Marketplace Radio Will Wilkinson offers some advice to the president-elect:

Congratulations, Barack Obama! You’re the next President of the United States. Sadly, the government’s so broke that even new curtains for the Oval Office are beyond the bounds of fiscal responsibility. Thanks to the war, the Wall Street bailout, the lousy economy, and the drop in tax revenue, your big campaign plans just got a lot smaller.

Here’s my advice: First, you’ve got to get spending under control. Yes: Bring the troops home, and shrink the military. But there’s enormous waste in the non-defense budget, too, and you need to go after it. You said we need to cut spending with a scalpel, not a hatchet. Well, if you don’t want to leave your kids with a crushing tax burden, you better get yourself a crate of scalpels.

Second, drop the xenophobic claptrap. The stuff from the debates about “mortgaging our future” by “borrowing from the Chinese to pay the Saudis” has got to stop. We are not, and cannot be, a self-contained fortress city. It’s good that capital markets are international. It’s good that energy markets are international. It’s good for prosperity and it’s good for peace that we’re all in it together. Help save America’s economy by making it even more open to the goods and people of the world.

Third, get real on the “new energy economy.” You’ve been claiming that the government can simultaneously create millions of new jobs, spur growth-enhancing innovation, and save the Earth by politically picking winners among energy companies. It’s a beautiful dream. But in reality, it means nothing more than the greening of corporate welfare and an increase in energy prices. Our struggling economy can’t afford that.

You’ve got Congress on your side and the wind of public opinion at your back – which is exactly why you should take it slow. This election was exactly what you said it was: a referendum on the last eight years of George W. Bush and his coalition. The voters agreed it was time to throw the bums out. But if you overreach, you’ll be tomorrow’s bum. Remember how popular Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America was? Yeah. Me neither.

A Rebirth of Freedom?

Back in July Sen. Barack Obama promised to repeal any executive orders that “trample on liberty”:

Barack Obama told House Democrats on Tuesday that as president he would order his attorney general to scour White House executive orders and expunge any that “trample on liberty,” several lawmakers said… .

The Illinois senator “talked about how his attorney general is to review every executive order and immediately eliminate those that trample on liberty,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Good stuff! Perhaps that could include reviewing whether the federal government had any authority to partially nationalize banks, a sweeping intervention not authorized by Congress in the $700 billion bailout bill. Under what authority did the president and the secretary of the treasury start purchasing equity in major corporations?

Cato’s legal scholars would be happy to work with the new administration to review and rescind executive orders, signing statements, memos, and other documents that grant excessive power to the executive branch or otherwise “trample on liberty.” Some of the Bush administration’s excesses in this regard were reviewed by Gene Healy and Tim Lynch in Power Surge: The Constitutional Record of George W. Bush.

But I hope the new president realizes that Bush isn’t the first president to issue executive orders that “trample on liberty.” It was President Bill Clinton’s aide, Paul Begala, who drooled at the notion of using executive orders to do what Congress wouldn’t go along with: “Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool.” For a look at some pre-Bush executive orders that might warrant elimination, Obama’s attorney general might consult “Executive Orders and National Emergencies: How Presidents Have Come to ‘Run the Country’ by Usurping Legislative Power,” published by Cato in 1999. There he can find information about Clinton orders that nationalized land, sought to reverse Supreme Court rulings, rewrote the rules of federalism, and waged war in Yugoslavia.

As Obama himself has said in recent days, channeling Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a fight.” Many people are skeptical that a new president will make good on his pledge to constrain executive power. But if he’s committed to the rule of law and the separation of powers, we’re ready to help.

In Education, Dem Win Is a Win for Smaller Government

Nine years ago, only a crazy man would have written the headline above. The Democratic Party, a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions, brought us the money sinkhole known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the tuition-exploding Higher Education Act, and the crowned jewel of bureaucratic worthlessness and educational futility, the U.S. Department of Education.  In the meantime, the Republican Party fought to expel Washington from the classrooms where, like the out-of-control kid with the stink bombs who keeps everyone else from learning, it simply did not belong.

And then George W. Bush happened. Flinging around talk of “compassionate conservatism” and decrying the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” Bush, with the complicity of congressional Republicans more interested in legislative (read: political) victory than rational policy, gave us the No Child Left Behind Act. What did the law do? It forced all states to create math, reading, and science standards and tests, required detailed reporting, and then, to enable politicians to simultaneously claim both toughness and a love of local control, left it states to write their own standards, tests, and implement the law. Oh, and it authorized—and ultimately produced—big increases in federal education spending. In other words, it let politicians claim to be everything to all people, while massively increasing federal bureaucratic burdens and encouraging all states to set their standards as low as they could go. Not surprisingly, while we cannot with certainty attribute any specific results to NCLB, academic outcomes under it have been poor, with gains where there had previously been some slowing, and other scores just dropping.

So why the headline above? Because while president-elect Obama has been very clear that he wants to increase federal education spending yet again, he has also hinted that he would decrease NCLB’s rigidly bureaucratic requirements. In addition, while the teachers unions are a big threat if given federal power, they tend to like money without accountability, meaning that, yes, they’ll push the Dems to set the cash spigot on “deluge,” but they’ll also resist federal rules. Put simplistically, instead of Washington doing two terrible things, it will do only one.

Unfortunately, this will likely be just a short-term gain. In the long term, there is little doubt that Democratic control would lead to both profligate federal spending and more government meddling, though this time pushing progressive education ideas. But that is where the second and more critical component to resurrecting small government in education will hopefully come in: renewed Republican opposition to unconstitutional and educationally worthless federal education intrusion. If the GOP should have learned anything from its astonishing fall from grace and power during the Bush years, it’s that big government doesn’t work, and selling your soul to get it doesn’t get you re-elected. No prescription drug bill, $700 billion bailout, or No Child Left Behind Act, has kept the GOP in the Washington majority.

There is, unfortunately, no guarantee that Republicans will learn this lesson; a big fight is no doubt coming between small-government realists and those committed to the Dem-light days of Bob Michel and Richard Nixon. If they do get the message, however, education, where for so long the Republican Party was clear that the feds did not belong, would be the perfect place to start applying the painful lessons they have learned.

What Next for the Third Branch?

The new president will have a chance to significantly reshape the judiciary. President Bush managed to confirm only 321 judges—about 50 fewer than Presidents Reagan or Clinton—so there are plenty of vacancies to fill. Moreover, Congress has not created any new circuit court positions since 1991, while federal appellate filings increased by about 50 percent since that time; only four percent more district judges have been created during the same period, while filings to those courts increased by about 25 percent. We can expect, perhaps even in the “first 100 days,” a new judgeship bill that will add to the vacancies President-elect Obama will have to fill. 56 percent of federal judges are now Republican appointees, and the Ninth Circuit (based in San Francisco and sprawling across nine western states) is the only federal appeals court with a majority of judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Obama will be able to change the former statistic and swing control of all but three circuits (of the thirteen) to Democratic appointees. And then, of course, we have the two or three Supreme Court nominations the new president will probably have in the next four years: Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Souter are each likely to be off the Court by 2012. It is not for nothing that pundits consider judges to be one of the most undervalued policy areas in this long, strange campaign.

Someone Should Have Warned Them

Shortly after the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006, I wrote in my book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big Government Conservatives Brought Down the Republican Revolution, that unless the Republican Party rejected Bush-style big-government conservatism and returned to its limited government roots “the 2006 elections are likely to be just a taste of things to come.”

Apparently, Republicans didn’t heed that message.  By almost every measure, government grew bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive under President Bush and the Republican Congress. John McCain may have rhetorically criticized government spending, notably earmarks, but consistently backed bigger and more activist government, whether backing the Wall Street bail-out or calling for a $300 billion bailout of delinquent mortgages. By most measures he supported only slightly less government spending than did Sen. Obama.

Exit polls show that Republican losses were heaviest among upscale suburban voters who tend to be economically conservative but socially moderate. These formally reliable Republican voters did not suddenly decide that they wanted a bigger, more expensive, and more intrusive government. But, faced with the big-government status quo or big-government “change,” they opted for change.

Republicans now have two more years in the wilderness to decide whether or not they actually stand for limited government and individual liberty.  One wonders, whether this time they will hear the message.

To the Future: Good Advice from Jeff Flake

In Monday’s Washington Post Rep. Jeff Flake offers Republicans some good advice for the climb back:

I suggest that we return to first principles. At the top of that list has to be a recommitment to limited government. After eight years of profligate spending and soaring deficits, voters can be forgiven for not knowing that limited government has long been the first article of faith for Republicans….

Second, we need to recommit to our belief in economic freedom. Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” may be on the discount rack this year, but the free market is still the most efficient means to allocate capital and human resources in an economy, and Americans know it. Now that we’ve inserted government deeply into the private sector by bailing out banks and businesses, the temptation will be for government to overstay its welcome and force the distribution of resources to serve political ends. Substituting political for economic incentives is not the recipe for economic recovery….

In some respects, raising a new standard was made easier by yesterday’s rout. The Republican Party is not bound by election-year promises made by its presidential nominee. More important, the party is finally untethered from the ill-fitting and unworkable big-government conservatism that defined the Bush administration.

Smaller Government Is More Popular Than Obama

Pollsters occasionally ask respondents questions along the lines of “Would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with many services?” As might be expected, the economic crisis and the repeated claim that the Bush administration has been tight-fisted and deregulatory have moved voters to the left on that question. But not as far as you might think. Ramesh Ponnuru recently summarized some of the latest evidence:

CBS pollsters have often asked, “Would you say you favor smaller government with fewer services, or larger government with many services?” On this question there seems to be a pro-government trend over the last dozen years — but we certainly don’t seem to be more pro-government than we were during the Reagan ’80s. In April 1976 the larger-government side had a four-point lead and in May 1988 a one-point lead. Polls from 1996 through Jan. 2001 showed an average lead of 20 points for the smaller-government side. By November 2003, however, the smaller-government side led by only 3 points, and in the latest poll (March-April) the sides are tied.

The same pattern shows up in the results of a similar Washington Post/ABC poll question. People swung to a smaller-government view in the 1990s and then swung back, but the results from June 2008 (50-45 percent for smaller government) are roughly the same as those from July 1988 (49-45).

But other indicators do not even find a clear pro-government trend for the last decade. Gallup, as well as ABC and the Washington Post, has asked for many years whether Americans think that government “is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses” or “should do more to solve our country’s problems.” Almost always most people fall on the conservative side of that question: in September 1992 by an eight-point margin; in October 1998 by 12 points; in September 2002 by 7 points; and in September 2008 by 12 points.

As I’ve noted before,

I’ve always thought the “smaller government” question is incomplete. It offers respondents a benefit of larger government–”more services”–but it doesn’t mention that the cost of “larger government with more services” is higher taxes. The question ought to give both the cost and the benefit for each option. A few years ago a Rasmussen poll did ask the question that way. The results were that 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes.

The Rasmussen Poll continues to ask that question, and indeed it has shown a shift to the big-government side in the wake of the economic crisis. In late September respondents supported smaller government by only 57 to 31 percent – or about 20 points more than Obama’s margin over McCain. The victorious Democrats should take note.