Topic: Government and Politics

Scandal in Public Broadcasting

The big scandal in public (or actually government) broadcasting is that the taxpayers are forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the propagation of unremittingly liberal views on politics and policy. As I said in my testimony to the Senate last year, I agree with some of the liberal attitudes of NPR and PBS, but I don’t think taxpayers should be forced to subsidize my views or those of anyone else.

The second biggest scandal is that when Republicans get control of the federal government, they don’t relieve the taxpayers of that burden. Maybe it’s because they know the old advice, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Or who have their own nationwide broadcast networks. But it’s unbelievable to me that Republicans appropriate money every year for two networks that could be called ARN, the Anti-Republican Network.

The third biggest scandal is that instead of just privatizing PBS and NPR, Republicans appoint public broadcasting officials who go in like a bull in a china shop and try to force a bunch of liberal journalists to include conservative shows and perspectives. The government shouldn’t be telling journalists how and what to report. Instead, it should just free them to report as they choose, with money from investors and customers rather than taxpayers.

And I guess the fourth biggest scandal is the one making headlines today: that the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (which oversees the federal government’s international broadcasting), who used to be chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is alleged to have improperly used his office. In a State Department report made public by three Democratic members of Congress, Tomlinson is accused of putting a friend on the BBG payroll – something that never happens elsewhere in the federal government – and using office resources to support his personal horse-racing operation, which I suppose goes beyond the March Madness pools conducted in every federal office.

Maybe when conservatives get tired of being hit over the head by tax-funded broadcast networks, and liberals get tired of conservatives trying to meddle in the networks’ reporting, they could both agree to privatize PBS and NPR, freeing them from political intervention and freeing the taxpayers from being coerced to support what Thomas Jefferson called “the propagation of opinions which [they] disbelieve.”

In Defense of Gridlock

Over at National Review’s blog, Ramesh Ponnuru wonders why it seems that divided government – aka, gridlock – tends to lead to slower growth in the federal budget.

I mount a defense of gridlock in my new book, Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and Became the Party of Big Government. In chapter 8, to be precise. The numbers that Ramesh cites in his post come from a review of my book by Phil Kerpen on the NR website.

By way of jumping into the discussion Ramesh has started, let me clarify a few things first.

In my book I only analyze the real per capita growth rates of government spending in the years 1965 through 2005. I think this is a more useful timeframe for comparison than Ramesh’s seventy-six-year timeframe simply because the post-Great Society welfare state looks vastly different than what existed before. I was mainly curious to see if the correlation holds up within a timeframe that yields more consistency in terms of the entitlement programs being funded in the federal budget.

The methodology I used was modeled after that of Cato chairman William Niskanen and Cato senior fellow Peter VanDoren in the paper they presented to the Public Choice Society meeting in May of 2004. My data falls into the same realm of statistical significance, too. (Incidentally, their analysis goes back to 1949.)

Now on to the fun.

Divided government – gridlock – is the norm, not the exception, in American politics over the past 40 years. The only completely united government scenarios existed during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. It is obviously true that Democratic united government is more common than Republican united government.

So why might divided government be more conducive to restrained spending? For starters, defense spending varies widely over the past 40 years, but the correlation between wars and united government is quite consistent. American participation in every war involving more than a few days of ground combat was initiated by a united government. You could argue that this is mere coincidence. Or you could argue that united government creates an environment where there is less resistance from Congress when a president wants to exercise his powers as commander-in-chief. The burden of proof is on those who suggest this is simply happenstance.

A president and Congress could certainly offset defense budget increases with cuts in the non-defense budget. Indeed, you often see this in periods of gridlock. The converse is also true: Decreases in defense spending tend to coincide with increases in non-defense budgets under gridlock.

In the periods of united government, however, those sorts of trade-offs disappear. Instead, united government spawns large increases in across-the-board spending on everything. That’s exactly what we saw during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush.

Why this occurs might best be described by the nature of Washington politics. The one thing you can usually count on in DC is partisanship. When Republicans are the beleaguered minority—or a congressional majority fighting a big-spending White House—they are in their element. Big Government is the clear enemy. But once they find themselves in control of it, they are less willing to rein it in.

We can see this by comparing how a GOP Congress treated the proposed non-defense budgets of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Remember that once the president’s budget reaches Capitol Hill every year, Congress either increases or cuts the spending request. During the years of divided government under Clinton, the Republican Congress managed to cut Clinton’s domestic spending requests by an average of $9 billion each year between fiscal 1996 and 2001.

Contrast that with the budget outcomes under President Bush—specifically the years in which Congress was held entirely by Republicans. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2006, Congress passed, and Bush refused to veto, non-defense budgets that were an average of $16 billion more than the president proposed each year.

The rules of partisanship imply that a Big Government scheme proposed by a Republican president is more likely to be accepted by a Republican Congress than if it were proposed by a Democrat. That’s exactly what happened with the Medicare drug benefit. It seems quite likely such a drug benefit would not have passed if it were proposed by, say, President Al Gore or President Hillary Clinton. And if the Medicare expansion did get traction in Congress, Republican leaders would probably have been more interested in slowing it down or tacking on substantial reforms instead of abandoning the reform elements in the hope of speeding its passage as they did in 2003.

All the gridlock combinations that have persisted for longer than two years produce average (real per capita) budget growth rates that are half that of the united government average. This includes Republican presidents facing Democratic congresses – like Reagan, Nixon, and Ford – as well as a Democratic president like Clinton combined with a GOP congressional majority in both houses.

It seems to me the main question now becomes this: Even if someone doesn’t believe we would be better off with gridlock, is it still reasonable to believe – based on the historical evidence – that we’d be worse off?

Rants vs. Reason

I have received hundreds of incoming emails in response to my articles suggesting that federal civilian workers are overcompensated (see here and here).

Many emails have been rants claiming that I’m an idiot or don’t know what I’m talking about. Very few of those opposed to my arguments expressed any interest or curiosity in the actual underlying government data.

Some emails have been supportive. Here are two that suggest reasons why federal pay has been growing much more quickly than private pay.

This one came from a federal worker in Maryland:

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your 13 August opinion piece in the Washington Post–thanks!! As a senior military officer in a command that employs a large number of civilians, I have become increasingly frustrated at the excesses of the civil service system. Not only have the salaries gone up through the cost of living increases, we’re also paying more because of little control on promotions which has resulted in significant “grade creep.” Until your article, however, I continued to hear the confusing mantra that our civil servants were underpaid. I am grateful because you have provided me with some ammunition for my next command personnel discussion.

Here’s another from a retired federal worker in Virginia:

I would like to offer what I think are contributing explanations for the problem of excessive pay and benefits among the members of the Federal workforce.

First, the most salient explanation for overgrading in the Federal civil service is the conflict of interest posed by having the personnel function embedded within each Federal agency. Directors of personnel of Federal agencies report directly to their respective agency heads, all of whom have a vested interest in having as high a graded workforce as possible. Reporting to the directors of personnel are specialists called position classifiers. To be cynical about it, the responsibility of the classifiers is to write job descriptions that justify whatever grade levels that their respective managements want the jobs under them to have. In short, classifiers are wordsmiths who rationalize with contrived language raising position grades, almost never lowering grades. The result is that, over time, Federal job grades (and often titles) bear little relation to the real duties and responsibilities of the jobs to which they are applied. (Classifiers are a kind of inside joke among Federal employees.)

The remedy, it is obvious, is to take the personnel function out of the agencies and place it solely in an independent agency responsible to the White House, at least indirectly. Once that is accomplished, all the jobs in the Federal workforce should be reclassified and given realistic and appropriate grade/pay levels.

Read more public comments on my arguments here, here, and here.

Role Reversal?

Remember when the Republicans would advocate smaller government and less federal spending?  

Freshmen members were typically the most vocal proponents of limited government, as they often brought optimism and a strong ideology to Capitol Hill.  After time, some of these GOP ideologues tended to succumb to the culture of Washington and lose their moorings. But this process usually took years.

Lately this phenomenon appears to be happening much more rapidly. Speaking about the recent explosion of pork-barrel spending, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) noted, “We’ve developed a culture, unfortunately, over a number of years where incoming freshmen are conditioned to believe that this is the only way to get reelected.”

Now, it seems even candidates for Congress are talking like inside-the-Beltway porkers.  In a hotly contested race for an open congressional seat in Illinois, a “fiscally conservative” Republican is pledging to bring home the bacon if elected. 

The Daily Herald said of Pete Roskam, “The 6th Congressional District GOP nominee said he’d support continuing the so-called practice of “earmarks” if elected to Congress to make sure projects like fixing the dangerous railroad crossing at Irving Park and Wood Dale roads continue to get funded.”

Meanwhile, Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic nominee for the Illinois congressional seat, has taken a strong anti-pork stance. She notes, “One of the easiest steps Congress can take to reduce the deficit and reform ethics is to immediately end the practice of earmarking.” Duckworth has even created an “Outrageous Earmark of the Week” section on her campaign website.

It sounds a lot like Congressman Flake’s “Egregious Earmark of the Week.” That is to say, she sounds a lot more like a fiscal conservative than the Republican candidate.

Native Illinoisan Ronald Reagan, who once vetoed a highway bill because it contained too many earmarks, must be spinning in his grave.

Welfare for Wineries?

In researching government budgets, I come across dubious spending projects all the time, but one recent example struck me as particularly idiotic and unjust.

The title of a recent press release from New York governor George Pataki says it all: “GOVERNOR ANNOUNCES $500,000 IN GRANTS AVAILABLE FOR NEW YORK WINERIES TO IMPROVE THEIR WEBSITES.”

So, New York is taxing the hard-earned wages of truck drivers and retail clerks and giving it to well-heeled winery owners and web services companies?

Come on Americans, wake up. Far too much of what our federal, state, and local governments do these days is just pure theft.

Presidential Public Financing Failure

The push is on to revamp and re-fund the public financing of presidential campaigns. 

Brad Smith and Robert Bauer have raised a number of doubts about the presidential system. A while ago, I wrote a policy analysis examining the effects of the presidential system. My new book, The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, extends that argument.

Here I focus on one question:

The 1976 campaign finance law provided generous subsidies to presidential candidates pursuing party nominations and running in the general election. You would think that the availability of public money would increase the absolute number of candidates for the presidency compared to elections prior to 1976. Has the presidential system led to more candidates for the presidency, more choices for voters, and more competition for the highest office?

Apart from the major party candidates, nine presidential candidates in the general elections since 1948 have received more than 1 percent of the total vote in an election. Five of those candidates ran after the presidential system was created in 1976. Not all five accepted public financing. Ross Perot did not accept taxpayer financing in 1992, preferring to spend $65 million of his own money on his candidacy. Ed Clark, the Libertarian candidate in 1980, also did not take taxpayer financing. 

In all, six of the nine non-major party candidates who have made a mark in presidential elections since 1948 ran their campaigns without the help of the taxpayer. Moreover, the two top vote-getters during the period — George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992 — made do without subsidies.

The presidential system might be credited with three additional presidential campaigns in seven general elections (Ralph Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1996, and John Anderson in 1980). Nader received 2.7 percent of the vote, Perot got 8.4 percent, and Anderson obtained 6.6 percent. None of those candidates received a single electoral vote.

I wrote that the system “might be credited.” We should not conclude that because those candidates did use public money, they would not have made their races if the presidential system had not given them money. The private system in place in the seven general elections prior to 1976 produced four serious candidates apart from the major party candidates. Had the system not been enacted, Nader, Perot, and Anderson might also have raised enough money to challenge the major party candidates.

What about the party nominations? Most of the money paid out by the presidential system has gone to fund the conventions of the two major political parties (10 percent of all funding) and the major parties’ candidates in the general election (61 percent of all funding).

Candidates running in the primaries have received a little over $506 million, or about 29 percent of all outlays by the presidential system. That money has funded 83 candidates in the primaries. Of those, 71 were candidates for the nominations of the two major political parties. Of those 71, 55 candidates received over 1 percent of the total number of votes cast in a party’s presidential primaries for a given year, an average of 7.8 candidates each presidential election.

How does that compare with the number of primary candidates prior to the presidential funding system? The seven elections prior to 1976 included an average of 10.7 candidates in the party primaries. If we measure competitiveness by entry into a race, the years prior to public subsidy of presidential campaigns seem somewhat more competitive than the years after 1974. 

What’s the verdict? U.S. taxpayers have given candidates almost $2 billion to campaign for the presidency. That money has not bought more choice in the party primaries or in general presidential elections.

Happy Birthday, Welfare Reform

Ten years ago today, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law. As we look back on the results of those 10 years, it’s worth reflecting on just how wrong the critics were.

At the time the bill was signed, the welfare rights lobby warned that “wages will go down, families will fracture, millions of children will be made more miserable than ever.” One frequently cited study predicted that more than a million children would be thrown into poverty. 

Rep. Jim McDermott wasn’t satisfied with that prediction — he raised the estimate to 2.5 million starving children. Welfare advocates painted vivid pictures of families sleeping on grates in our cities, widespread starvation, and worse.

The New York Times claimed “the effect on our cities will be devastating.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg  (D-NJ) predicted “Hungry and homeless children” would be walking our streets “begging for money, begging for food, even…engaging in prostitution.”  The Nation warned bluntly, “people will die, businesses will close, infant mortality will soar.”

If one listened to the welfare lobbies, you would have expected to be stepping over bodies in the streets every time you left your house.

Now, with 10 years of experience, we can see that those claims were about as correct as claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Welfare rolls are down. Roughly 2.5 million families have left the program, a 57 percent decline. Undoubtedly, some of this was due to a growing economy, especially in the late 1990s, but welfare rolls remain down despite the post-9/11 economic slowdown.

At the same time, poverty rates today are below the rates before welfare reform was enacted. Child poverty rates declined from more than 20 percent in 1996 to 17.8 percent today. Roughly 1.6 million children were lifted out of poverty. Perhaps even more impressively, the poverty rate among black children has fallen at the fastest rate since figures have been recorded. 

Dependent single mothers, the group most heavily affected by welfare reform, account heavily for this decline. Since the enactment of welfare reform, the poverty rate for female-headed families with children has fallen from 46 to 28.4 percent. The decline in poverty among female-headed households has been greater than for any other demographic group.

Most of those who left welfare found work, and the vast majority of them work full-time.  It is true that most first jobs found by those leaving welfare are entry-level positions — on average, they earn about $16,000 per year. That’s not much, but for many it leaves them better off than they were before. Moreover, studies show that as these former welfare recipients increase their work experience, their earnings and benefits increase. And, for better or worse, many continue to receive other forms of government assistance.

Surveys of former welfare recipients indicate that they believe their quality of life has improved since leaving welfare. And they are optimistic about the future. A majority of former welfare recipients believe that their lives will be even better in one to five years. Many of the former recipients actually praise welfare reform as a stimulus for their beginning to look for work and as an opportunity for a fresh start, and a chance to make things better for themselves and their children. Both the women and their children appear to benefit psychologically from the dignity of working.

Certainly, I’ve had my own criticisms of welfare reform. It didn’t go far enough toward making people truly independent of government. It is too prescriptive, setting too many detailed rules for states to follow. The recent reauthorization of the reform added a worthless $1.7 billion program to encourage marriage. And, Congress has failed to build on welfare reform to restructure other federal anti-poverty programs.

Still, by almost any measure you can think of, it is clear that the critics of welfare reform were quite simply wrong.

That’s worth keeping in mind when those same Chicken Littles raise similar scare stories about the proposed reform of other government programs, from Medicare and Medicaid to Social Security. Once again, we are hearing that any changes, reductions, or “privatization” of these programs will lead to widespread poverty, suffering, and other disasters. For example, they claim that allowing younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through personal accounts will leave seniors eating cat food. But given their track record, maybe we should be a little bit skeptical the next time they predict the sky is falling.