Why a Government Spending Freeze is Incomprehensible to Bureaucrats

In today’s Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius takes Congress to task for its failure to pass the appropriations bills – and not just this year but almost every year since 1977.

“The talk among some of my government buddies this week was an obscure term of federal budgeting known as a “continuing resolution.” This is what Congress passes when it hasn’t gotten its act together to pass a real appropriations bill before the start of a new fiscal year. The ‘CR,’ as it’s known, allows agencies to continue operating at the same spending level as the previous year. But it plays havoc with normal management functions such as planning and contracting.”

“[University of Maryland political scientist Roy T. Meyers] summarized the inefficiencies that result from having to run an agency without knowing your budget. ‘When regular appropriations are delayed, uncertainty about final appropriations leads many managers to hoard funds; in some cases, hiring and purchasing stops.’” [Emphasis mine.]

I don’t really have a problem with Congress getting very little done.  And I kinda like CRs, especially if they last all year.  Those sorts of CRs dramatically limit spending, as evidenced by the just-lapsed fiscal year. The budget won’t grow until Congress passes all the appropriations bills.  That’s probably what Ignatius and his “government buddies” don’t like.

When Congress passes a CR, it’s wrong to say that an agency head won’t know what his likely budget will be.  He knows exactly what it will be: last year’s spending level.  This simply means managers have to live within the constraint of a budget that isn’t higher than last year’s.

Of course, businesses have to deal with this sort of thing all the time when their profits dry up.  Perhaps it should be no surprise to the cynical that government bureaucrats – who have a guaranteed “customer base” (read: taxpayers) because anyone who doesn’t “buy” their product (read: tax evaders) can be arrested – don’t like to deal with it.

Price Gougers Pack It In

Third quarter profit statements are rolling out, and - what do you know - the Big Oil lions appear to be lying down with the consumer lambs. ExxonMobil’s profits are down 10% from a year ago. British Petroleum’s are down 29%. ConocoPhilips’ is down 5%. Only Royal Dutch Shell is reporting an increase in profits over the 3rd quarter last year (up 16%), but the company cautions that those figures are not as impressive as they might appear.

This is all the more remarkable because all during the 3rd quarter, crude oil prices were going up, not down. Those of you who are card-carrying members of the Big Oil Conspiracy Society have some explaining to do.

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Freedom for Kareem November 9

November 9 will mark 1 year in jail for an innocent young man, sentenced to four years in prison for expressing his opinions on his blog.

Raja Kamal of the University of Chicago and I told the story in “Freedom for an Egyptian Blogger and Freethinker” last February in the Washington Post. You can get more details, including how you can help take part in a dignified protest for human rights, write letters to Egyptian officials, and more, at www.freekareem.org.

Anti-Immigrant Opinions are Weakly Held

I didn’t watch Tuesday’s Democratic debate – watching politicians from either party outbid each other on faux outrage and how much of my money they would spend is too annoying – but I did get the after-action report on the Newshour. And it seems Senator Clinton was drawn into the vortex New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (D) created with his recent flip-flop on driver licensing and public safety.

His original decision to de-link driver licensing and immigration status for public safety reasons was right, but it was pounced on and demagogued by anti-immigrant groups. Spitzer backed down, and pledged his state to implement the REAL ID Act, pleasing nobody. (When the costs of this national ID law to New York are discovered, he’ll flip-flop again, earning quiet, broad-based appreciation.)

Watching the excerpts of the candidates bumbling around this issue, it appeared to me that they knew giving licenses to illegal immigrants is the right and practical thing to do, but also that they would get demagogued if they said so.

Well, here’s my advice: Go ahead and say it.

Having watched this issue, and having heard from lots of angry people, I know that anti-immigrant views are a classic weakly held opinion. Angry as people are about the rule of law and “coming to this country the right way,” that anger melts when they learn more. Stuff like this:

“We haven’t permitted anywhere near enough legal immigration for decades. You can sit back and talk about legal channels, but the law has only allowed a smidgen of workers into the country compared to our huge demand. Getting people through legal channels at the INS has been hell.

“America, you’re going to have to get over what amounts to paperwork violations by otherwise law-abiding, honest, hard-working people. And that’s what we’re talking about - 98% honest, hard-working people who want to follow the same path our forefathers did, and who would be a credit to this country if we made it legal for them to come. Our current immigration policies are a greater threat to the rule of law than any of the people crossing the border to come here and work.”

This kind of argumentation will be met with vicious demagoguery, which will weaken, and weaken, and fade and fade and fade. The people I hear from – and I regularly do because of the educating I’ve been doing nationwide on the REAL ID Act – immediately soften when I pull them from their echo chambers. The “rule of law” hand is a low pair compared to this full house: “honest, hard-worker from impoverished circumstances, denied legal channels other than a narrow chance of navigating an incompetent bureaucracy.”

There’s one Democratic candidate who is well suited to make this kind of argument. It’s a way to draw attention, look principled, do the right thing, and vanquish a loud but weak pressure group. New Mexico’s uninsured driver rate dropped by two-thirds – from 33% to 11% – when that state delinked immigration status and driving in 2003.

Meltdown at the State Department

I had been wondering how long until members of the foreign service started voicing their concerns about possibly being drafted to go to Iraq. Answer: Less than a week.

In a contentious hour-long “town hall meeting” called to explain the step, these workers peppered the official who signed the order with often hostile complaints about the largest diplomatic call-up since Vietnam….

[…]

Employees directly confronted Foreign Service Director General Harry Thomas, who approved the move to so-called “directed assignments” late last Friday to make up for a lack of volunteers to go to Iraq.

“It’s one thing if someone believes in what’s going on over there and volunteers, but it’s another thing to send someone over there on a forced assignment,” [Senior FSO Jack] Crotty said. “I’m sorry, but basically that’s a potential death sentence and you know it. Who will raise our children if we are dead or seriously wounded?”

“You know that at any other (country) in the world, the embassy would be closed at this point,” Crotty said to loud and sustained applause from the about 300 diplomats who attended the meeting in a large State Department auditorium.

Sounds like they’d have a hell of a time trying to develop some kind of standing nation-building office at State.

White House ‘Orders’ on the Way

Today’s Washington Post reports that the White House is increasingly frustrated with the Congress because the president and congressional leaders just can’t agree on a legislative agenda. To get around this “problem,” White House officials say the president is going to step up the issuance of “administrative orders,” which is probably a euphemism for Clintonian executive orders.

When a Republican Congress put the brakes on Bill Clinton’s ambitions, Clinton’s people came up with the idea of executive orders. It wasn’t a new idea, but they were going to take it to whole new level. Conservatives were rightly fuming when a boastful Paul Begala said, “Stroke of the pen, law of the land. Kinda cool.” If Dick Cheney or Karl Rove repeated those words tomorrow, one wonders how it would be received in political circles. What would Rudy Giuliani say? Would Hillary try to feign outrage?

For Cato scholarship on executive orders, go here.