Topic: Government and Politics

It’s My Way or No Highway

Congressional earmarks have received a lot of media attention lately, despite the fact that they make up only a small percentage of the overall budget.

Even advocates of limited government sometimes bemoan the disproportionate focus on earmarks and the relative lack of attention paid to larger spending items, like entitlement programs.

But the full story on earmarks isn’t simply their direct impact on the budget. Earmarks are also used by Congressional leadership to raise the public profile of incumbents in tough reelection fights, entice members to vote for controversial bills, and enforce party discipline.

The latter was on display yesterday when, as The Hill notes, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey (D-WI), “canceled meetings with a New Orleans delegation because a Louisiana lawmaker had defied party leadership on a procedural vote the night before.”

In canceling the meeting, Obey was “punishing” Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) by refusing to allow his constituents to make a pitch for their earmark wish list to the House’s chief appropriator. More broadly, Obey sent a clear message to other lawmakers: recalcitrance will jeopardize your earmarks.

Using taxpayer funds to enforce party discipline is a blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars. Further, this practice undercuts a chief argument of earmark defenders who claim that the process is an essential means to fast-track funds to critical local projects, like roads and infrastructure. Unless, of course, truly critical projects exist only in the districts of loyal partisans.

In other earmark news, yesterday the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a one-year moratorium on earmarks. Hardly a surprise.

Obama Finds Juche ‘Intriguing’

Another (fictitious) dispatch from my anonymous correspondent on the campaign trail:

LANCASTER, Pa. — Sen. Barack Obama told a crowd of enthusiastic supporters here that the North Korean concept of “Juche,” its stated policy of complete economic and social independence and isolation, is “intriguing” and worthy of further study as a possible antidote to the economic malaise of the state in recent years.

The comment on Juche (pronounced “joo-CHEH”) came as a response to a question from a voter who expressed doubt that a repeal of NAFTA would help the region’s economy. Obama’s remark took the campaign’s message of economic nationalism and support for the weakened manufacturing sectors of the upper Midwest well beyond the rhetoric espoused by his Democratic primary opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

“Trade is not helping the Pennsylvania economy get back its jobs,” Obama told the questioner. “And it may be time to quit tinkering with a system that stopped working a long time ago and get back to the basics.”

“Now we’re talking!” enthused Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a D.C. think tank. “Someone finally had the guts to go all the way. Hallelujah!”

A spokesperson for the Obama campaign stressed that the senator was not articulating an official policy position but merely discussing aloud an idea that the campaign’s economic advisers have been contemplating for some time.

Obama said that his one reservation with such an economic system is that North Korea’s economy has struggled a bit in recent years. He attributed those struggles more to execution than policy, along with a rash of bad weather. Autarkic economic self-reliance, he averred, would provide a needed tonic to the U.S. economy and work especially well in the recession-plagued Midwest.

CNN broadcaster Lou Dobbs, a noted critic of U.S. trade policy in recent years, extended cautious praise for Obama’s words. “American economic woes are far more severe than North Korea’s, and we need a stronger dose of Juche than what Pyongyang employs. Pennsylvania would benefit little from a system that merely closes off imports from other countries. To truly help, we need to allow the state to ban imports from other states as well. Obama’s comments were a little timorous for me and revealed how out of touch he and the rest of the D.C. elites really are.”

Obama’s audience seemed quite receptive to the idea. “I’ve never heard of Juche before, but when he explained it a bit I thought it made perfect sense,” said Thaddeus Verhoff, an unemployed sheet welder from nearby Mt. Joy.

Other analysts hailed the proposal as a deft political move. “Rather than continuing to take baby steps around each other, Obama has jumped ahead to the inevitable end point of the debate without giving Senator Clinton any room to get to his left,” said John Cavanaugh, a columnist at Roll Call. “All she can do now is criticize him for being too protectionist, which doesn’t fly in Democratic circles.”

The Clinton team has yet to formally respond to Obama’s comments. A campaign spokesperson did indicate to reporters that Clinton would “stoop to no one” in her defense of state economic sovereignty.

Obama Appeals for Libertarian Voters

Sen. Barack Obama resumed his winning streak by beating Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Wyoming caucuses after a brief full-court press by both sides. The Wall Street Journal noted one of Obama’s themes in the rugged-individualist Cowboy State:

Tailoring his message to the state’s antigovernment streak, Sen. Obama put new emphasis on his criticisms of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps and other heightened law-enforcement activities implemented as antiterror measures. “You can be liberal and a libertarian, or a conservative libertarian,” Sen. Obama told a crowd of about 1,200 at a recreation center here. But “there’s nothing conservative” about President Bush’s antiterror policies. “There’s nothing Republican about that. Everybody should be outraged by that,” he added. 

He may have been reading some of the articles David Kirby and I wrote about the libertarian vote and the Mountain West:

In the Goldwateresque, “leave us alone” Mountain West, Republicans not only lost the Montana Senate seat; they also lost the governorship of Colorado, two House seats in Arizona, and one in Colorado. They had close calls in the Arizona Senate race and House races in Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Dick Cheney’s Wyoming. In libertarian Nevada, the Republican candidate for governor won less than a majority against a Democrat who promised to keep the government out of guns, abortion, and gay marriage. Arizona also became the first state to vote down a state constitutional amendment to define marriage as between one man and one woman….

If Republicans can’t win New Hampshire and the Mountain West, they can’t win a national majority. And they can’t win those states without libertarian votes.

Jeffrey Rosen has praised Obama’s civil libertarian record. Lest we get too excited about Obama’s new libertarian appeal, though, we should note that in his speech he also said he would undermine trade agreements and promised enough goodies from the Treasury to make Ted Kennedy happy.

Happy Birthday, Homeland Security!

I doubt that anyone outside Joe Lieberman’s office is happy with the performance of the Department of Homeland Security, which observed its five-year anniversary this week. To mark the occasion, CQ Homeland Security (part of Congressional Quarterly) asked me and a bunch of more important people to comment on whether creating the department was wise.

The competition for most negative response turned out to be fierce (even Michael Chertoff sounds ambivalent) but I think my entry is a contender. Here’s the first part of what I wrote:

Congress made a large but typical mistake with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security five years ago. James Q. Wilson wrote in 1995 that government reorganizations are usually driven by a perception of crisis that produces a political need to do something quick and extensive. He notes that these circumstances make thoughtful planning for the change unlikely. Reorganizations, he says, are usually victims of a facile urge to clarify lines of authority and end duplication without understanding the incentives of the organizations involved. Congress and the Bush administration followed this model in creating DHS.

The collection of comments is here.

Welch on McCain

After his meeting yesterday with the Republican nominee, President Bush told the press that John McCain would be a “President who will bring determination to defeat an enemy, and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.” That sounds just swell, if your model for the president is Aslan, the mighty and compassionate lion king from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. But perhaps a more grown-up approach to presidential character assessment is needed. If so, you could hardly do better than Matt Welch’s new book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick

Welch’s book provides plenty of reasons to worry about a McCain presidency, often using McCain’s own words to raise questions about the Arizona senator’s ideology and temperament. On the latter, Welch devotes a whole chapter to the issue of the McCain temper, beginning the chapter with a quote from McCain’s 1999 book Faith of My Fathers: “During an otherwise tranquil early childhood, I had quite unexpectedly developed an outsized temper that I expressed in an unusual way. At the smallest provocation, I would go off in a mad frenzy, and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious.” In 1999 McCain told the LA Times: “I do everything I can to keep my anger under control. I wake up daily and tell myself, ‘You must do everything possible to stay cool, calm, and collected today.’” Arguably, a little temper is a good thing in a chief executive, but before handing over the keys to the world’s most powerful military, one would like to be sure that the CINC has his anger well in hand.     

As for the ideology that motivates McCain, in Welch’s telling, it’s 180-proof National Greatness Conservatism. After a McCain adviser handed the senator a stack of David Brooks essays in the late ’90s, Welch writes that “it became difficult to determine where the Weekly Standard’s imagination ended and McCain’s stump speech began.” Welch quotes a May 27, 1999 commencement address McCain gave at Johns Hopkins warning that America was threatened by a “pervasive public cynicism” toward government “as dangerous in its way as war and depression have been in the past.” In the same speech he mused, “With every new Dow Jones record, something gnaws at my conscience that we should not be lulled into unfeeling contentment.” No, God forbid. 

In the late 1990s, McCain looked out upon peace, prosperity, and American irreverence towards government, and he saw a country in crisis. We could only be saved with government activism — whether that took the form of speech-restricting campaign finance laws or “rogue state rollback.” After all, as Brooks put it in his 1997 “Manifesto” on National Greatness Conservatism: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness.” If you think the country needs more of that approach, then McCain may be the man for you.     

(D) All of the Above

As an advocate of free trade, I feel slightly vindicated by reports that the Obama campaign quietly assured the Canadian government that the Senator’s strident words about NAFTA in last week’s debate were merely political rhetoric. We’ve long been saying that opposition to trade is mostly an artifice of politics. But the story begs the question: Is Obama (a) economically illiterate; (b) dishonest, or; (c) naïve. The answer is (d), all of the above.

Obama blames faulty trade agreements, like NAFTA, for the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. But one can check that claim easily by turning to page 280 (Table B-46) of the Economic Report of the President, 2008 [.pdf]. There one will find that in the 14 years since NAFTA took effect, the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs declined by 2.7 million. In the 14 years prior to NAFTA (between 1979 and 1993) the number of manufacturing jobs declined by 2.7 million. No difference at all. In both periods, there was a decline of 193,000 net manufacturing jobs per year.

Although U.S. manufacturing employment peaked in 1979 and has been trending downward since, there was an uptick in employment in the first few years after NAFTA took effect. Between 1993 and 1998, 500,000 net jobs were created in manufacturing. Did NAFTA create those jobs? I wouldn’t make that claim, but it certainly has more empirical support than the opposite claim—that NAFTA cost jobs.

Three million jobs lost since 2000? Look again [.pdf]. During the pronounced manufacturing recession of 2000-2003, there was a precipitous drop of 2.8 million manufacturing jobs, but it’s hard to blame NAFTA for that. Manufactured imports from NAFTA countries were flat during that period: imports in 2000 were higher than the average for 2001 through 2003. Again, if you must blame NAFTA, look to the export side of the equation. U.S. exports dropped 11 percent from 2000 to 2003.

And for the record, since 2004, there has been a decline of 300,000 manufacturing jobs nationwide. That rate of 100,000 per year (vs. the rate of 193,000 per year during the entire post-peak period of 1979-2007) suggests that even the basis for the political rhetoric is about five years too stale.

That Obama asserted he would take a “sledgehammer” to NAFTA because it is broken and then say just kidding to the Canadians is dishonest. Some are cynical enough to excuse that as par-for-the-course pandering, but I don’t. The reason that there is a backlash against trade – that there is even a debate – in this country is that lies like those are uttered with such frequency that they are believed. Those myths are all the more reinforced when spoken by someone as apparently likeable and charismatic as Senator Obama.

Finally, the attempt to smooth things over with the Canadian government raises questions about the candidate’s naïvete. Did it not occur to him that a conservative Canadian government might favor a McCain presidency and might make political hay out of the “disregard-the-NAFTA-belligerence” comments?

At least Senator Clinton knows enough to wait until after Ohioans vote before winking at our NAFTA neighbors.