Topic: Government and Politics

Republicans Remember Some of Their Principles

Great headline in the Washington Post today –

Dozens in GOP Turn Against Bush’s Prized ‘No Child’ Act

The good news is that

More than 50 GOP members of the House and Senate – including the House’s second-ranking Republican – will introduce legislation today that could severely undercut President Bush’s signature domestic achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act, by allowing states to opt out of its testing mandates.

The bad news is that even

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said that advocates do not intend to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, they want to give states more flexibility to meet the president’s goals of education achievement, he said.

So even a small-government federalist like Jim DeMint isn’t willing to say that education is a family, community, or state responsibility, but not a federal responsibility. Still, weakening the mandates would be a real victory for decentralization and competition.

I particularly liked the comment from Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), author of the proposed House bill:

“President Bush and I just see education fundamentally differently,” said Hoekstra, a longtime opponent of the law. “The president believes in empowering bureaucrats in Washington, and I believe in local and parental control.”

Hoekstra, who spoke at last week’s Cato conference on reauthorization of the No Child act (at the end of the panel 1 video), sounds like he’s read Cato’s 2005 paper on the topic. Now he and DeMint should reread the paper and commit themselves to getting the federal government out of our local schools.

An Extra $15 Billion for Farm Programs

Further to David’s post yesterday, some telling details about the Senate Budget Committee’s ideas for “fiscally responsible” farm policy. Starting on page 54 of this document, section 306 the “Deficit-Neutral Reserve Fund for the Farm Bill” (which is a cute name – what chances do you give of this staying a “reserve fund”?) states that:

The Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Budget may revise the allocations, aggregates, and other appropriate levels and limits in this resolution for a bill, joint resolution, amendment, motion, or conference report that- 

  1. reauthorizes the Food Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002;
  2. strengthens our agriculture and rural economies;  
  3. provides agriculture-related tax relief; 
  4. improves our environment by reducing our Nation’s dependence on foreign sources of energy through expanded production and use of alternative fuels; or 
  5. combines any of the purposes provided in paragraphs (1) through (4); 

by the amounts provided in that legislation for those purposes up to $15,000,000,000 over the total of fiscal years 2007 through 2012, provided that such legislation would not increase the deficit over the total of the period of fiscal years 2007 through 2012.

Farm lobby groups were relatively happy with the 2002 Farm Bill, and would be still were it not for the inconvenient fact that market prices of some commodities are so high, and projected to remain high, that government spending on price-linked subsidies will probably be relatively low over the next few years (falling from about $15 billion annually to about $8 billion). Apparently, high market prices are not sufficient to please some farm groups, hence the extra $15 billion of your money that the Senate has seen fit to allocate to “any of the purposes provided in paragraphs (1) through (4).”

On today’s agenda, a group of congressmen are introducing a bill regarding the reauthorization of the farm bill. From the press release (via Ken Cook):

The bill reforms the Farm Bill to make a major new investment in the development of renewable energy on American farms, promote resource conservation, provide consumers with healthier food choices, and boost farm profitability. The Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act of 2007 also includes provisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on farms and fight global warming, and to expand programs to bring healthier foods to school cafeterias.

That’s quite a wish list.

Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies is on the case, though. Stay tuned for our alternative ideas for the farm policy, released shortly.

Bureaucrats Drunk with Power?

Last month, Justin Logan blogged about the socialist alcohol controls in Montgomery County, Maryland. For those of you not in the DC area, Montgomery County is a very wealthy, very liberal Washington suburb with our nation’s only completely government-run alcohol distribution system.

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran an excellent article that describes how this system is an absolute nightmare for the county’s restaurants.

Here’s an overview of the wine distribution process:

Let’s say the restaurant orders the wine from a private distributor on Thursday. The distributor then faxes or hand-delivers the order to the Department of Liquor Control. A county employee writes up a purchase order and faxes it back to the distributor. On Monday or Tuesday, the distributor delivers the wine to the county warehouse. On Wednesday, a white or navy blue box truck bearing Montgomery’s “Gardez Bien” county seal delivers it to the restaurant.

Now contrast that with the privately-run distribution system for restaurants in neighboring jurisdictions:

Restaurants in the District and Virginia buy wine from private distributors at wholesale prices, which includes the distributors’ markup. Placing an order is as easy as making a phone call. If an order comes up short or a large party unexpectedly drinks all the Diamond Creek cabernet, the distributor can make a delivery by the next day.

The system results in major headaches for restaurants, limited wine options for oenophiles, and, of course, greater costs for consumers:

A bottle that wholesales for $100 in the District costs Montgomery restaurants $125. If a restaurant tries to double or triple the purchase price – a standard practice – a bottle priced at $200 or $300 in a District restaurant ends up on a Montgomery wine list at $250 or $375.

You might ask why a county would subject itself to such an inefficient and expensive scheme. Well…

“We benefit financially from it,” [Montgomery County Executive Isiah] Leggett Leggett said. “But more importantly, you don’t see liquor stores all over Montgomery County like you might see in other jurisdictions, and I think citizens like that.”

Call me crazy, but I’d prefer a few liquor stores in my neighborhood over outrageously priced, government-controlled wine.

Government Hall of Shame

The Washington Post reported the other day that there are more delays and cost overruns at the new Capitol Hill Visitor Center.

In my letter in the Post today, I suggest a display case be installed in the visitor center for the most outstanding federal cost overruns: scale models of the Big Dig, the International Space Station, the Denver airport, and much more could be included (see ships, fighters, much more).

Even better would be an independent “Government Hall of Shame” built somewhere near Capitol Hill. That way visitors to Washington could find out how the government really works after they have listened to the bedtime stories about grand federal achievements heard at the usual D.C. tourist stops.

The Hall of Shame could focus not just on outstanding cost overruns, but could also include scale models of infamous pork projects such as the Alaska Bridge to Nowhere. Another display could highlight grand-scale federal failures such as high-rise public housing and the Army Corps of Engineer’s New Orleans levees. 

Madame Tussauds has announced plans to open a D.C. museum. Perhaps they could donate wax figures of Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Dan Rostenkowski, and other scoundrels to the Hall of Shame. 

Bush’s Failure: More than Incompetence

Writing on opinionjournal.com, Joseph Bottum offers a conservative case against President Bush—sort of.  But in doing so, he actually reveals the larger problem with much of the conservative movement these days.

Bottum argues that the problem with the Bush administration is not the lack of a conservative ideology, but a lack of competence.  Bush has tried to do the right thing, but messed up the execution.  It’s hard to argue with any critique of the Bush administration’s competence.  Yet look at the list of “good things” that Bottum says the Bush administration has tried to do: reform education, fix Social Security, restore religion to the public square, assert American greatness, appoint good judges.  Bush has generally appointed good judges (the Harriet Miers fiasco aside).  But the other items on Bottum’s list, except for Social Security reform, are all hallmarks of big government conservatism. 

As I point out in my new book, Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought down the Republican Revolution, conservatives once opposed things like a federal takeover of education or giving tax dollars to private charity.  Now a new brand of conservatism has no problem with big government as long as it can be used to achieve conservative ends.  Just look at some of what President Bush has done:

  • Enacted the largest new entitlement program since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, an unfunded Medicare prescription drug benefit that could add as much as $11.2 trillion to the program’s unfunded liabilities;
  • Dramatically increased federal control over local schools while increasing federal education spending by nearly 61 percent;
  • Signed a campaign finance bill that greatly restricts freedom of speech, despite saying he believed it was unconstitutional;
  • Authorized warrantless wiretapping and given vast new powers to law enforcement;
  • Federalized airport security and created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security;
  • Added roughly 7,000 pages of new federal regulations, bringing the cost of federal regulations to the economy to more than $1.1 trillion;
  • Enacted a $1.5 billion program to promote marriage;
  • Proposed a $1.7 billion initiative to develop a hydrogen-powered car;
  • Abandoned traditional conservative support for free trade by imposing tariffs and other import restrictions on steel and lumber;
  • Expanded President Clinton’s national service program;
  • Increased farm subsidies;
  • Launched an array of new regulations on corporate governance and accounting; and
  • Generally done more to centralize government power in the executive branch than any administration since Richard Nixon.

Yet, Bottum offers no criticism of this agenda.  Instead he is upset that Bush “fumbled” the faith-based initiative. What Bottum and others need to understand is that the biggest failure of the Bush administration (and its allies in Congress), is not incompetence but an abandonment of conservatives’ traditional belief in limited government.

Al Qaeda in Perspective

Multiplicitous federal policies and programs threaten privacy - data mining, the REAL ID Act, National Security Letters, etc. - and they threaten trade and commerce too.  The link among them, of course, is the threat of terrorist attacks. 

An essential part of any security discussion is to get a handle on the threat.  Cato Unbound devoted some energy to that problem last September with exquisitely rational analysis from the Ohio State University’s John Mueller, while former Inspector General of the United States Department of Homeland Security Clark Kent Ervin argued, “I’d Rather Err on the Side of the Believers.” 

Now the RAND Corporation has released a report called “Exploring Terrorist Targeting Preferences.”  According to the press release announcing the report, it finds “little evidence of a coherent al Qaeda strategy for U.S. attack.”  The report explores four different theories of al Qaeda’s motivation, toward the end of determining its likely future actions.

I don’t have the capacity to critique the report and I don’t think it ends the inquiry, of course.  Al Qaeda’s motivation should be a matter of continuous study, along with all other threatening entities.  The capacity of threats to follow through on their intentions should be the subject of equally searching, continuous study.

But I think it is essential to have reports like this issued and discussed.  They are part of getting the threat of terrorism in perspective and solving the security dilemmas created by terrorism. These problems are not easy, but they are fully susceptible to solution consistent with our Constitution and our tradition of liberty.

When Governments Lobby Government, Taxpayers Lose

John Fund has a rather depressing article at the Wall Street Journal’s opinionjounal.com. He explains how governments - including universities and Indian tribes - are exempt from restrictions on lobbying. Yet these are some of the groups that specialize in feeding at the public trough. The real problem, of course, is that government is too big. So long as politicians are confiscating and redistributing about $3 trillion, interest groups will figure out ways of steering other people’s money in their direction:

….lobbyists visiting Capitol Hill are bound by House and Senate ethics rules that cap most individual gifts at $50 per elected official or staffer, with an annual limit of $100 per recipient from any single source. But local governments, public universities and Indian tribes are exempt from the limit, so they are able to shower members and their staffs with such goodies as luxury skybox tickets to basketball games and front-row concert tickets. Having members or their key aides attend such free events in the company of glad-handing university presidents and local government officials winds up costing taxpayers a pretty penny. Much of the explosive growth in earmarks has been directed to local governments and universities. …Universities and colleges spent at least $75 million in 2005 on lobbying according to a study by USA Today. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that $2 billion in grants flowed into higher education in 2003. …The same lobbying rules that apply to private-sector lobbyists should also apply to taxpayer-funded government lobbyists. …Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once told me that he built his lobbying business in such a way that all his major clients were Indian tribes and local governments, in part because he knew he could wine and dine power brokers on Capitol Hill without breaking any laws.