April 2011

April 29, 2011 4:57PM

This Week in Government Failure

Over at Downsizing the Federal Government, we focused on the following issues this week:

  • A lot of Americans are aware that their tax dollars subsidize cotton farmers. However, it’s unlikely that many Americans are aware that their tax dollars are now supporting cotton farmers in Brazil.
  • Chris Edwards released an updated version of his Plan to Cut Spending and Balance the Federal Budget. No sacred cows are spared. Defense, domestic, and so‐​called entitlement programs are all cut.
  • The good news in a new Deloitte survey of members of the U.S. business community is that optimism is on the rise. The bad news is that the heavy hand of government is still a dark cloud hovering over the recovery.
  • In her budgets, in her speeches, and in her strategic plans, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis says that her “vision” for federal action is “Good Jobs for Everyone!”
  • Some good news for once: President Obama’s dream of connecting 80 percent of Americans to a high‐​speed rail line appears to be dead.

Follow Downsizing the Federal Government on Twitter (@DownsizeTheFeds) and connect with us on Facebook.

April 29, 2011 3:41PM

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good: Congressional investigators are in Arizona to gather information on the ATF’s ill‐​conceived “Gunwalker” operation that supplied Mexican drug cartels with weapons. As I wrote at National Review, street agents objected from the beginning, but were told in no uncertain terms to pipe down:

Agents raised warnings to their superiors about the quantity of sales and the rising violence across the border, but were told that the operation had been approved at ATF headquarters. They were also told that if they didn’t like it, they were welcome to seek employment at the Maricopa County jail as detention officers making $30,000 a year.

I’d like to think that investigators will find that managerial incompetence was the culprit and not intentional facilitation of cross‐​border violence in order to hype gun control for the sake of Mexico. We’ll see.

The Bad: Philadelphia TSA screener Thomas Gordon has been arrested on child pornography charges.

The Ugly: Unions worked (for unrelated reasons) to keep said TSA screener in his job a few months before his arrest.

Thanks to AFGE’s legal assistance, a TSO at Philadelphia International Airport will remain employed at TSA after being proposed for removal. TSO Thomas Gordon had difficulty maintaining his work schedule because he had to take care of a family member…

“It means a great deal to me to know that my union — AFGE — has my back in situations like this,” Gordon said.

Now that the TSA screener workforce has voted to unionize, the only question is which union will represent them. Expect a stout union defense against any allegations of TSA excesses in patting down children or attractive women. If a union doesn’t defend the bad apples, it isn’t doing its job. Just ask the families of Sal Culosi and Erik Scott.

April 29, 2011 3:20PM

Debt Ceiling: Political Games

Back in January I noted that some analysts believe that the statutory debt ceiling should be eliminated. They view the potential for political brinksmanship as creating an unnecessary risk that financial markets will get rattled if there’s a chance the government won’t make good on its debt obligations in a timely manner. I argued that “forcing policymakers to spar publicly over fiscal policy is healthy, especially at a time when analysts generally agree that the country is headed toward an economic catastrophe if Washington’s mounting debt isn’t brought under control.”

I maintain that view four months later, but an article in Politico illustrates the absurd political shenanigans that accompany debt ceiling deliberations.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) is building bipartisan support for a plan that would cap federal spending at a declining percentage of GDP over ten years. Spending as a percentage of GDP would eventually be reduced to 20.6 percent, which is equal to the average from 1970 to 2008. No tax increases.

Corker has been touring his state pitching the plan as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling. Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) have endorsed it, as has Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) who caucuses with the Democrats. Good news, right? Not according to Republican apparatchiks.

From the article:

“Corker’s heart may be in the right place on this legislatively, but it would help if he was more focused on winning back a Senate Republican majority, than hurting the feelings of vulnerable Democrats who recognize the political cover this affords them,” said one senior GOP aide. “McCaskill, Manchin and others can vote for it, and campaign on it, knowing full well that Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer have enough votes to kill it.”

On Tuesday, Corker got into a squabble with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which ridiculed Manchin for backing the plan by saying it had “zero chance” of passing because it was opposed by Reid. An angry Corker believed the NRSC was squashing the plan’s growing momentum, and had a series of phone calls with NRSC officials expressing his frustration. A spokesman for the NRSC later said that the political committee shouldn’t have “underestimated Sen. Corker’s legislative skills and certainly hope he is successful in this effort.”

Sad as it is, that’s the way it works in Washington, folks. Hey, nevermind that Corker is at the very least planting on Democratic soil the idea that a debt ceiling deal should be focused on reducing spending and not tax hikes. Nope, what’s really important is making sure that Democrats do the wrong thing in order to bolster Mitch McConnell’s Senate Majority Leader prospects. After all, spending and debt didn’t go through the roof when Republicans controlled the House, Senate, and White House, right?

Pardon my sarcasm and obvious contempt, but this is the sort of nonsense that I repeatedly experienced during my days as a Senate staffer. Americans tend to get all hot and bothered over this or that politician, but much of what “gets done” in Washington is actually carried out by party operatives, sycophantic staffers, and lobbyists. All of this leads to a refrain I increasingly end media appearances with: Why do we give these people so much control over our lives?

April 29, 2011 2:49PM

Gays and the Law

Dale Carpenter of the University of Minnesota Law School, who wrote a Cato Policy Analysis on the Federal Marriage Amendment, has an op‐​ed today in the New York Times about changing attitudes among lawyers and judges about sexual orientation:

The prestigious law firm King & Spalding has not fully explained its decision this week to stop assisting Congress in defending the law that forbids federal recognition of same‐​sex marriage. But its reversal suggests the extent to which gay men and lesbians have persuaded much of the legal profession to accept the basic proposition that sexual orientation is irrelevant to a person’s worth and that the law should reflect this judgment.

And speaking of sexual orientation and the legal profession, don’t miss our upcoming Policy Forum with superlawyers and co‐​counsels Ted Olson and David Boies, “The Case for Marriage Equality: Perry v. Schwarzenegger,” on May 18.

April 29, 2011 2:48PM

Donald Trump as Litigation Bully

Do you need another reason — besides the tariff talk, the eminent domain trail, the inane birtherism, and, well, the hundred other reasons — to hope the presidential campaign of Donald Trump goes nowhere? Well, here’s another reason: he’s an aggressive, some might say abusive, user of lawsuits and threats of lawsuits against those who apply unwanted scrutiny to his business operations.

Twenty years ago, analyst Marvin Roffman of the Philadelphia investment firm of Janney Montgomery Scott predicted that Trump’s then‐​new Taj Mahal casino would have difficulty recouping its huge investment, in part because of its troubled Atlantic City location. As financial predictions go, Roffman’s was a very shrewd one, borne out by the later restructuring of the casino’s finances, which was costly for bondholders. At the time, however, Trump threatened the Janney firm in no uncertain terms: “I am now planning to institute a major lawsuit against your firm unless Mr. Roffman makes a public apology or is dismissed.” No profile in courage, the Janney firm proceeded to fire Mr. Roffman.

More recently, Trump pursued New York Times reporter Tim O’Brien and Warner Books through extensive defamation litigation (eventually dismissed) over O’Brien’s 2005 book TrumpNation, which placed a much lower valuation on the net worth of Trump’s empire than Trump thought proper or accurate.

There are words that come to mind to describe wealthy people who repeatedly use lawsuits or the threat of lawsuits to shut up or extract apologies from people they think have criticized them, and one of those words is “bully.” Why one would seek out that sort of character trait in a candidate for higher office is anything but clear.

April 29, 2011 1:35PM

Police Didn’t Know Using Taser 18 Times on Man Was Illegal

It is not that easy to win a lawsuit against the police. 

Just ask Thomas Olson. He sued the police for excessive force after they used a Taser on him 15–18 times after he had been handcuffed. This month a court concluded that there was no controlling legal authority. That is, the officers had no notice from the caselaw or regulations that they might be using excessive force. One wonders how specific the regulations have to be and how many times the officers involved may have used Tasers inappropriately but no lawsuit was ever filed.

And what sort of government would have policies so lenient toward its agents and yet tell the rest of us that we can be punished for things we “should have” done something about — even in instances where we had no notice?

April 29, 2011 11:30AM

Will Americans Bite the Bullet — and Vote for Individual Choice?

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Rep. Paul Ryan, architect of House Republicans’ budget plan, has faced a series of angry questions at town hall meetings, thanks in part to groups like the Democratic National Committee and the progressive activist group Americans United for Change. Can they use town halls to turn public opinion against the budget plan, as happened with Democrats’ health care proposals in summer 2009? And is the fury organic or mostly manufactured?

My response:

Unlike the fierce Tea Party reaction to Obama’s health care scheme in the summer of 2009, which came spontaneously from the bottom up and continued through November 2010, the angry reaction at the moment to the House Republicans’ budget plan is largely manufactured by the Democratic left and is not likely to last — or, if it does, we’re in more trouble than we imagine. What the 2010 elections demonstrated was the ability of the American people to discern change they could not believe in, and to do something about it. One hopes they’ll see enough change in the Ryan plan that they can believe in.

Take, for example, Ryan’s proposal to change Medicare from a “defined benefit” to a “defined contribution” plan, which has generated the most early opposition. The bottom line here is really quite simple. The CBO projects that Congress would have to double all federal income‐​tax rates to keep Medicare and other entitlements on their current path. That would cripple the economy — and itself end Medicare as we know it, and much else besides — so Congress must reduce Medicare spending growth.

The basic question, therefore, is whether bureaucrats decide what health care seniors receive (the Democratic method) or seniors themselves decide which benefits are most valuable to them (the Ryan plan). Will more Americans prefer to have their health care rationed by others, or by themselves? We shall see.