Topic: Government and Politics

Bush’s Chutzpah Institute

The president who launched our longest war, arrogated more power to the executive than ever before, increased federal spending by a trillion dollars, pushed for the biggest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson, further nationalized education, tried to nationalize marriage, and held Americans in jail without access to a lawyer or a judge has found a theme for his presidential library: freedom.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center will include a “Freedom Institute” focused on a broad portfolio of topics, including the expansion of democracy abroad and education reforms of the kind Bush implemented during his presidency, according to organizers.

Coming next: The Clinton Center for Honesty and the Paris Hilton Center for Modesty.

How to Break the Grip of Lobbyists

James Q. Wilson, reviewing Robert Kaiser’s new book So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, explains how we could – but won’t – break the power of lobbyists:

Or one could do what would make the greatest difference: reduce federal spending programs of the sort that create incentives for lobbyists to expand them. The central reason earmarks developed in the 1970s is that by then Washington was trying to solve so many problems that it appropriated money for virtually everything.

Kaiser acknowledges that this is the problem. He notes that politicians, both liberal and conservative, have produced “a more intrusive government, more important to the well-being of more Americans.” The more groups saw “their own fate at stake in Washington’s debates on public policy, the better the market for lobbyists,” he writes.

But reducing the extent of government activity is only slightly more likely than amending the Constitution. It may be better to step back and ask, “Do American voters dislike Washington because it is corrupt, or do they dislike it because it is ineffective in solving the problems (some real, some only imagined) that it has embraced?”

When the federal agenda did not include agriculture, the environment, drug abuse, gun control, academic research, mortgages, homelessness and school quality – and that was during Kaiser’s lifetime and mine – it was hard to have an earmark because there were few programs to which they could be attached. And that was also the time when the great majority of Americans thought national officials were doing a good job.

President Obama and the D.C. Schools

For the third time in 30 years, a president has to decide where to send his school-age children after moving to Washington, D.C. And having school-age children naturally gives any new president a particular interest in the D.C. public schools. A big headline in today’s Washington Post (actual paper copy) proclaims, “Obama Interested in D.C. Schools.” In an interview with the Post, President-elect Obama said he was determined to be part of the local community and that

he and his wife had specifically discussed working with the D.C. public schools, using their own celebrity and success “as leverage to get kids and parents and teachers excited about the possibilities of an education.” He said he was “trying to think about regular visits to local schools to meet with kids and meet with teachers and principals” and reiterated his desire to open up the White House “in ways that haven’t been done before.”

At a policy level, he said that he had met D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee but had not spent much time with her and that he expects his incoming Education Department secretary, Arne Duncan, to be “interested in how the school experiment here goes.”

But the next sentence acknowledges that

Obama’s two daughters are attending the private Sidwell Friends School.

So he’d like to make regular visits to the D.C. public schools, but he ain’t sending his own kids there. Which is perfectly understandable. Neither did Bill and Hillary Clinton. Or Al Gore. Or Vice President-elect Biden’s son. Indeed all their children attend or did attend Sidwell friends. The Carters sent Amy to D.C. public schools, but that was the last time a president did so. The Obamas don’t seem to have considered public schools. They’re sending Malia and Sasha to Sidwell, a school of choice for the Washington elite.

Of course, the Obamas also sent their daughters to private school in Chicago. What’s most striking to me in all of this is that Obama has named Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan to oversee the nation’s schools, even though in seven years he wasn’t able to produce a school in Chicago that Barack and Michelle Obama would send their own children to. “What he did for Chicago, he can do for America”?

Perhaps Obama and Tim Geithner believe that taxes and public schools are for the little people. And it would be nice if they’d give the little people a break on their taxes and a choice of schools.

Tips for Blocking Socialized Medicine

Prominent health economist Victor Fuchs has an article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine that all who care about freedom and health care reform should read.  He discusses the array of forces that could be — and in my view, should be — employed to stop health care reform this year:

First, many organizations and individuals prefer the status quo. This category includes health insurance companies; manufacturers of drugs, medical devices, and medical equipment; companies that employ mostly young, healthy workers and therefore have lower health care costs than they would if required to help subsidize care for the poor and the sick; high-income employees, whose health insurance is heavily subsidized through a tax exemption for the portion of their compensation spent on health insurance; business leaders and others who are ideologically opposed to a larger role of government; highly paid physicians in some surgical and medical specialties; and workers who mistakenly believe that their employment-based insurance is a gift from their employer rather than an offset to their potential take-home pay. These individuals and organizations do not account for a majority of voters, but they probably have disproportionate influence on public policy, especially when their task is simply to block change.

Second, as Niccoló Machiavelli presciently wrote in 1513, “There is nothing more difficult to manage, more dubious to accomplish, nor more doubtful of success … than to initiate a new order of things. The reformer has enemies in all those who profit from the old order and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit from the new order.” This keenly observed dynamic, known as the “Law of Reform,” suggests that a determined and concentrated minority fighting to preserve the status quo has a considerable advantage over a more diffuse majority who favor reform but have varying degrees of willingness to fight for a promised but uncertain benefit.

Third, our country’s political system renders Machiavelli’s Law of Reform particularly relevant in the United States, where many potential “choke points” offer opportunities to stifle change. The problem starts in the primary elections in so-called safe congressional districts, where special-interest money can exert a great deal of influence because of low voter turnout. The fact that Congress has two houses increases the difficulty of passing complex legislation, especially when several committees may claim jurisdiction over portions of a bill. Also, a supermajority of 60% may be needed to force a vote in the filibuster-prone Senate.

Fourth, reformers have failed to unite behind a single approach. Disagreement among reformers has been a major obstacle to substantial reform since early in the last century. According to historian Daniel Hirshfield, “Some saw health insurance primarily as an educational and public health measure, while others argued that it was an economic device to precipitate a needed reorganization of medical practice… . Some saw it as a device to save money for all concerned, while others felt sure that it would increase expenditures significantly.” These differences in objectives persist to this day.

That last item speaks to a divide among left-leaning health care reformers that was discussed by Drew Altman in a column at the Kaiser Family Foundation web site:

We could be headed for a new schism in the debate about health reform. Not the familiar gulf between advocates of the market and government, or the predictable one between deficit hawks and spenders, but a new one that crosses traditional partisan and ideological lines between advocates of long-term reform of the health care delivery system, and immediate help for the uninsured and insured struggling with health care costs.  This new rift is most likely to develop if tight money and a crowded agenda force the focus to shift from comprehensive to incremental reform and choices need to be made about what goes into a smaller, cheaper legislative package. It’s a rift that could stand in the way of progress on health reform if care is not taken to avoid it.

For one group, I will call them the “Delivery System Reformers,” true health reform lies in making the actual delivery of care more cost effective over the long term. Delivery System Reformers champion health IT, comparative effectiveness research, practice guidelines, and payment incentives to encourage more cost-effective care such as pay for performance … . Indeed some delivery reformers believe it would be a mistake to put more money into the current system through expanded coverage until more fundamental changes in the system are made.

The other group, I will call them the “Financing Reformers,” is focused on an entirely different set of problems. Its major concern is the problem of the 46 million Americans without health insurance coverage and the serious problems all Americans are having today paying for health care and health insurance … .

The health reform field is like a Venn diagram with circles that intersect (though not by a lot).

As an example of those conflicting priorities, Fuchs himself writes, “If the current health care reform initiative is limited to questions of coverage, without serious attention to cost control and coordination of care, the ‘crisis’ in health care will continue to plague us for years to come.”  (Almost sounds like something a member of the Anti-Universal Coverage Club would say.)  I would add that conflicts between delivery-system reforms and financing reforms (e.g., covering the uninsured) only arise when dealing with command-and-control approaches to reform.

Neither Fuchs nor Altman intended their articles to be used as a guide to block health care reform.  But since Messrs. Obama, Baucus, Daschle, and Wyden have already given us a fairly clear picture of the shape their proposed reforms will take, free-market advocates should scour both articles in their entirety for useful tips on how to beat back the next great leap toward socialized medicine.

Dear Leader

Two recent items in the “Cultwatch” category:

NPR has audio of an Atlanta student chorus that will be singing at the inaugural festivities. “Dear Obama hear us sing/we’re ready for the change that you will bring…” (hat tip: David Boaz)

And here’s video of some 800 Chicago elementary school students whose teachers had them form a 150-foot human portrait of the president-elect’s face:

(hat tip: Matt Welch)

Please Do Our Job, Congress Begs Executive Branch

At the Senate hearing on the nomination of Lisa Jackson to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Sen. Barbara Boxer pressed Jackson to regulate coal ash in the wake of two spills in Alabama and Tennessee. “You have the authority to regulate this,” Boxer told Jackson.

And, Boxer warned, if the unelected bureaucracy at EPA doesn’t issue a regulation soon, Congress just might have to legislate: “If we are not satisfied with action, we may move legislatively.”

As it happens, Article I, section 1, of the U.S. Constitution stipulates, ‘‘All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in the Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.’’ And as David Schoenbrod and Jerry Taylor wrote in the Cato Handbook for Congress:

For the first 150 years of the American Republic, the Supreme Court largely upheld the original constitutional design, requiring that Congress rather than administrators make the law. The suggestion that Congress could broadly delegate its lawmaking powers to others— particularly the executive branch— was generally rejected by the courts.

Today the chair of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee tells a nominee for a position in the executive branch that if the bureaucracy won’t exercise Congress’s powers, Congress just may have to. (I’m not addressing here whether regulation of coal ash is a good idea, just the question of who should issue important and costly regulations.)

Of course, this comes a couple of weeks after President Bush said that if Congress wouldn’t give taxpayers’ money to General Motors and Chrysler, he would. In effect, his last grab for executive power was the power to appropriate money from the public fisc. But as Gene Healy pointed out, even here Congress was as much at fault as the president: it had effectively given him carte blanche in the TARP legislation, just as it did in the authorization for the Iraq war.

Congressional spinelessness is at least as big a factor as presidential arrogance in the rise of executive power.

Our Latest Salvo in the Battle Over Campaign Finance ‘Reform’

Today we filed an amicus brief in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, an election regulation/campaign finance case that will be argued before the Supreme Court in March or April.  Testing the bounds of the Court’s landmark decision in Wisconsin Right to Life II (WRTL II), the Federal Election Commission recently sought to apply certain prohibitions and disclosure requirements of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 to advocacy group Citizens United’s political documentary, Hillary: The Movie, and to the group’s broadcast advertisements for the film.  Though the FEC conceded that the ads, at least, are not the functional equivalent of express campaign advocacy, as defined in WRTL II, it nevertheless determined that Citizens United must disclose the identities of its contributors. 

Cato’s brief argues that BCRA violates the First Amendment freedom of association belonging to those contributors, which freedom includes the right to associate anonymously and to control the group’s character and message free from government intervention.  For groups engaging in political speech, compelled disclosure of contributors’ identities infringes their freedom of private expressive association, a burden often no less severe than direct restraint of the group’s speech.  This type of government action must be subject to strict constitutional scrutiny—a level of scrutiny that in practice is almost always fatal.  The district court failed to afford sufficient value to associational rights and so failed to scrutinize appropriately BCRA’s unjustified infringement on those rights.