Topic: Government and Politics

The Authoritarian Giuliani

Surprising as it is to me, I’ve run into a number of libertarians and libertarian-leaning Republicans recently who think the tax-cutting, pro-choice Rudy Giuliani would make a good president. To those people I recommend my recent op-ed in the New York Daily News:

Throughout his career, Giuliani has displayed an authoritarian streak that would be all the more problematic in a man who would assume executive powers vastly expanded by President Bush.

As a U.S. attorney in the 1980s, Giuliani conducted what University of Chicago Law Prof. Daniel Fischel called a “reign of terror” against Wall Street. He pioneered the use of the midday, televised “perp walk” for white-collar defendants who posed no threat to the community….

As a presidential hopeful, Giuliani’s authoritarian streak is as strong as ever. He defends the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance program. He endorses the President’s power to arrest American citizens, declare them enemy combatants and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge. He thinks the President has “the inherent authority to support the troops” even if Congress were to cut off war funding, a claim of presidential authority so sweeping that even Bush and his supporters have not tried to make it.

Giuliani’s view of power would be dangerous at any time, but especially after two terms of relentless Bush efforts to weaken the constitutional checks and balances that safeguard our liberty.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater declared it “the cause of Republicanism to resist concentrations of power.” George W. Bush has forgotten that; Rudy Giuliani rejects it.

Is Fred Thompson a Small-Government Conservative?

With former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson creeping ever closer to a formal announcement that he will run for president, it is worth asking whether he is the genuine small-government conservative that has been missing from the top tier of the Republican field (with all due apologies to Ron Paul). A preliminary look at his record suggests that while he is not quite the second coming of Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan, he may be much better on most issues than the alternatives.

During his eight years in the Senate, Thompson had a solid record as a fiscal conservative. The National Taxpayers Union gives him the third highest marks of any candidate (trailing only Paul and Rep. Tom Tancredo). While he sponsored or cosponsored legislation over the course of his career that would have resulted in a net increase in federal spending of $3.1 billion, that is the smallest increase among the contenders. (By comparison, John McCain would have increased spending by $36.9 billion). He generally shared McCain’s opposition to pork barrel spending and earmarks, and voted against the 2002 farm bill. He voted for the Bush tax cuts and has generally been solid in support of tax reduction.

He has been a consistent supporter of entitlement reform, voting to means-test Medicare and supporting personal accounts for Social Security.

His record on free trade is solid. In the past he has been supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, but has been critical of the current bill, shifting toward a “control the borders first” position. Still, he has not been Tancredo-like in his anti-immigration statements.

On federalism, there may be no better candidate. His Senate record is replete with examples of his being the lone opponent of legislation that he thought undercut federalist principles. He took this position even on legislation that was otherwise supported by conservatives. He opposes federal action to prohibit gay marriage on federalist grounds, although he supports state bans. One blight on this record is his vote in favor of No Child Left Behind.

On the other hand, he supported McCain-Feingold, although he has now backed away from that position, suggesting the law has been overtaken by events. He told John Fund that he was now willing to consider scrapping campaign finance in favor of full disclosure. And his position on civil liberties generally is troubling. He supported the anti-flag burning constitutional amendment and expansion of federal police powers generally. So far he has given no suggestion that he breaks with the Bush administration on important issues like habeas corpus, torture, and surveillance.

On foreign policy he has been a hawk, and supports continuing the war in Iraq. Alas, that seems standard for the GOP these days, but Thompson appears to also take the neoconservative line on Iran, North Korea, and China. It’s hard to be a small-government conservative while favoring widespread military intervention. War is a big-government program.

Of course, spending the last several years in Hollywood has enabled Thompson to avoid taking positions on many current issues. Once he gets in the race, Thompson will have to be much more specific about his positions. But, given the fact that McCain, Romney, and Giuliani are clearly big-government conservatives, Thompson has an opportunity to seize the small-government mantle.

Tony Soprano Earmarks

A commentary from Jeff Birnbaum of the Washington Post aired on American Public Media’s Marketplace yesterday.  The topic was the evolving alternative to earmarks, what Birnbaum calls “phonemarks.” 

Here’s the basic idea (from the transcript available at the Marketplace website):

Eager to avoid the bad publicity of legislative earmarking, lawmakers are secretly calling or writing bureaucrats and demanding that they fund their pet projects by fiat. These projects-via-telephone, or “phonemarks,” are the hottest new gimmick on the Washington scene.

Executive branch officials can dole out millions of dollars with impunity. And they avoid the scrutiny of the public, since they are done quietly and without any disclosure.

Earmarks actually have to be written down in a public law. Phonemarks, on the other hand, are accomplished through bureaucratic sleight-of-hand and nobody but the lawmaker and the bureaucrat need to know for sure.

My preferred descriptor is “Tony Soprano earmarks.”  As I wrote in a January 22 column for Business Week:

Even if transparency leads to fewer earmarks, there are no promises these projects won’t reappear in other ways and other places. The congressional budget process is nothing if not a game of reinvention. You could call spending items Happy Funtime Projects instead and sock them away in another part of the budget, but they will remain the coin of the realm on K Street.

Of course, Congress could simply give a bucket of money to an agency with no strings attached. But then a member of the Appropriations Committee would write a letter to the department head suggesting something like: “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if Project X got some of this pot of money?”

Can you really blame a government department head who reads a letter like that—from a member of Congress who controls his budget and oversees his agency—and obliges? It would strike anyone in that position as similar to Tony Soprano saying to the corner grocery store owner: “Nice little place you got here. Damn shame if anything were to happen to it.”

Now for a secret.  The big problem in Washington isn’t earmarks.  They’re just a symptom of the real problem: policymakers who believe the federal government should be all things to all people.  Pork projects – disclosed or not – are inevitable in such an environment no matter what you call ‘em.      

The Search for the Libertarian Vote

An NPR report on independent voters in Nebraska included this comment from a hospital diversity director: “There’s a large group of people in this country that believe in smaller government, that believe in balanced budget. I think that’s a pretty popular concept. Where [the Republicans] run into trouble is strict adherence to a couple of social issues.” As we’ve been saying.

What does a diversity director do in Nebraska, anyway? I’m thinking he tries to persuade people that “the farmer and the cowman should be friends.”

Hot Stock Tip

“For the past four years, the Clintons have jetted around on Vinod Gupta’s corporate plane, to Switzerland, Hawaii, Jamaica, Mexico — $900,000 worth of travel. The former president secured a $3.3 million consulting deal with Gupta’s technology firm,” according to the Washington Post.

The hot tip? Short the stock of any technology firm that values Bill Clinton’s advice at $3.3 million.