How much does Congress spend on Veterans Affairs, the IRS, or Customs and Border Protection? How much has spending increased over time?
You can answer those questions quickly and easily with Cato’s updated charting tool for the federal budget.
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This chart shows spending on the three largest federal agencies. The data is in constant 2014 dollars.
If you were judging only from the outraged reaction online, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Supreme Court's ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby had just mandated the adoption of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as the blueprint for American society. Yet as my colleague Ilya Shapiro notes, there's a profound disconnect between all the rhetoric about "denial of access" to contraception and the substance of the ruling.
At the heart of the majority's opinion is this: The Department of Health and Human Services has already developed a way to exempt religious non-profit corporations—such as churches, charities, and hospitals—from the legal mandate to pay for employees' contraception coverage. In what amounts to an accounting trick, they permit those corporations to purchase plans without such coverage, and then require that insurance companies themselves independently provide it to the uncovered employees. Because pregnancy is quite a bit more expensive than contraception, this apparently ends up not imposing any additional net cost on the insurers. The result is that employees of religious non-profits end up with no-copay contraception coverage, exactly as if the employer were required to provide it directly, but the employers are satisfied by this ledger shuffling that they aren't being compelled to violate their most deeply held moral convictions. Which, one would think, is a win-win.
Against this background, the Court simply held that since HHS has already found a way to achieve the government's aim of ensuring employees have access to free contraception without compelling non-profit employers to act against their profound religious convictions, they must do the same in the case of for-profit employers, at least where the for-profit corporation is "closely held." The majority quite explicitly denied this ruling has any implications for cases where there might not be such a happy win-win means of achieving the government's ends, at no additional cost, without forcing employers to violate their convictions. As Justice Alito's opinion emphasizes:
The effect of the HHS-created accommodation on the women employed by Hobby Lobby and the other companies involved in these cases would be precisely zero. Under that accommodation, these women would still be entitled to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost sharing.
In light of this, the outraged reaction to the ruling ought to seem a bit puzzling. If what you are fundamentally concerned about is whether women have access to no-copay contraception, then there's no obvious reason to invest such deep significance in the precise accounting details of the mechanism by which it is provided. You might even be heartened by a ruling that so centrally turns on the premise that accommodation for religious objectors is required when no women will lack such coverage who would have enjoyed it under a mandate.
The outrage does make sense, of course, if what one fundamentally cares about—or at least, additionally cares about—is the symbolic speech act embedded in the compulsion itself. In other words, if the purpose of the mandate is not merely to achieve a certain practical result, but to declare the qualms of believers with religious objections so utterly underserving of respect that they may be forced to act against their convictions regardless of whether this makes any real difference to the outcome. And something like that does indeed seem to be lurking just beneath—if not at—the surface of many reactions. The ruling seems to provoke anger, not because it will result in women having to pay more for birth control (as it won't), but at least in part because it fails to send the appropriate cultural signal. Or, at any rate, because it allows religious employers to continue sending the wrong cultural signal—disapproval of certain forms of contraception—when sending that signal does not impede the achievement of the government's ends in any way.
Personally, I have no sympathy whatever with the substantive moral views of Hobby Lobby's owners. But I'm dismayed at how many friends who style themselves "liberals," even recognizing the ruling will make no immediate difference in employee access to contraception, seem to regard it as an appalling betrayal that the Court refused to license what amounts to purely symbolic compulsion of people with retrograde ideas. If we accept that the exemption here makes no functional difference to whether people are covered, however, that's the only rationale left for insisting on direct purchase of coverage by employers—and not, I had thought, a legitimate rationale for government coercion in a liberal democracy.
Legal issues have a way of changing form over the years in such a way that the liberal and conservative teams, such as they are, each periodically migrate over to occupy the positions the other formerly held. Examples from today's two big cases:
- In 1990, when the Court decided Employment Division v. Smith, the Indian peyote case, it seemed clear that the liberal stand was to sympathize with religious believers seeking exemption from otherwise applicable general laws, while the conservative position -- expressed by Justice Scalia in a majority opinion over a dissent by Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall -- was that sorry, but asserting religious scruples doesn't place you above the law. Congress then proceeded to adopt by way of RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a mechanism using statutory means to achieve much the same ends as the liberals had sought to locate in constitutional law. Two decades later, where are we? The analogy with Hobby Lobby is by no means exact -- one might decline to constitutionalize religious conscience rights yet still favor their vigorous statutory application, and the Smith case involved individuals rather than family corporations. But still: by prevailing back then, Scalia and the conservatives shaped a more favorable terrain for what to become the liberal position in Hobby Lobby, while the position embraced by Brennan and Marshall back then, had it prevailed, would have given the religious objectors in Hobby Lobby stronger ground to stand on.
- Protection for the speech and expression rights of public-sector employees is a specialized area of constitutional law and, under existing Supreme Court precedent, a bit of a balancing act in which the interests of the government-as-employer in maintaining an orderly and efficient workplace often outweigh the expression rights of individual public employees. Not that long ago, it would have been a plausible generalization that liberals on the Court were enthusiastic about guarding and expanding the individual expression rights of public-sector workers, while conservatives tended more to stress management prerogatives. But in today's Harris v. Quinn, it was the conservative majority that demanded respect for individual employees' expression rights even where doing so might tend to destabilize an overall public policy, while the dissenting liberals led by Justice Kagan deprecated those same individual expression rights as all very nice in their way but needing to yield to the rights of management.
Has anyone tried to compile a list of all the various issues in which liberal and conservative blocs have traded positions with each other over living memory? I suspect it would be a long one.
As someone observed, the pundit world showed deep interest in Harris v. Quinn for about twenty minutes, after which Hobby Lobby was announced and it seemed everyone wanted to talk about that and nothing else.
My own opinion is that Harris was the more important decision today and Hobby Lobby the less, because constitutional law endures. When Congress sooner or later gets around to amending RFRA, Obamacare, or both, Hobby Lobby, a case of statutory interpretation, will become a footnote of purely historical interest. That doesn't happen with a First Amendment case, unless of course it is overruled, overturned by Constitutional amendment, etc.
It's surprising how many commentators are referring to today as a double win for the First Amendment. But Hobby Lobby, while an important case in its way, never reached the First Amendment. Harris did.
As noted in this previous post, the Supreme Court’s decision today in Harris v. Quinn does not remake private-sector labor law but does put an end to one of the labor movement’s greatest hopes for expansion: commandeering dues payments by recipients of state subsidies. While the decision may be narrow—the Court, after all, did not rule that no public workers may be forced to support a labor union—its impact will be anything but that.
The Illinois law at issue here in Harris was at the leading edge of a nationwide movement over the past decade to organize home-based care workers, including medical assistants and even family child-care providers, and thereby to “reinvigorate organized labor.”
Though a recent phenomenon, the use of sham employment relationships to support mandatory union representation has spread rapidly across the nation. In just the decade since SEIU waged a “massive campaign to pressure  policymakers” in Los Angeles to authorize union bargaining for homecare workers, home-based care workers “have become the darlings of the labor movement” and “helped to reinvigorate organized labor.” From around zero a decade ago, now several hundred thousand home workers are covered by collective-bargaining agreements.
This quick growth is the result of a concerted campaign by national unions, particularly SEIU, to boost sagging labor-union membership through the organization of individuals who provide home-based services to Medicaid recipients. Since SEIU’s Los Angeles victory in 1999, labor unions have undertaken successful campaigns to establish nominal employers for homecare workers in Oregon (2000), Washington (2001), Illinois (2003), Michigan (2004), Wisconsin (2005), Iowa (2005), Massachusetts (2006), Missouri (2008), Ohio (2009), Pennsylvania (2010), Connecticut (2011), Maryland (2011). (Three states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—subsequently repealed this authority.) As labor law expert Peggie Smith puts it, those campaigns have “been hailed as labor’s biggest victory in over sixty years.”
Nor has this model been limited to homecare providers. Over the past five years, organized labor has directed its efforts to organizing home-based childcare providers, including childcare provided by family members who receive public support or subsidies. By February 2007, seven states had recognized unions as the exclusive representative of home-based child care providers; over the next three years, an additional seven states followed suit.
All this has added up to big money for big labor. Just one of the Illinois programs at issue in Harris involved approximately 20,000 personal assistants who pay SEIU over $3.6 million per year.
Today’s decision will slow, and perhaps eventually end, that flow of funds, as workers decide they can represent their own interests and would prefer to keep their earnings for themselves and their families. So while the Court did not go all the way to striking down compulsory support of public-sector unions—as union supporters feared it would—it does deal a major blow to organized labor where it hurts the most: members and money.
Hobby Lobby is a much simpler and less important case than it's been made out to be, for reasons the Court clearly spelled out today. Obamacare's contraceptive mandate had to fall under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (without even getting to the First Amendment) because it didn't show -- couldn't show -- that there's no other way of achieving its goal without violating religious beliefs. Moreover, the fact that a for-profit corporation is asserting the statute's protections is of no moment because neither the corporate form nor the profit motive undermines RFRA's solicitude for the rights of humans -- including owners, officers, and shareholders. In short, the mandate fell because it was a rights-busting government compulsion that lacked sufficient justification. Nobody has been denied access to contraceptives and there's now more freedom for all Americans to live their lives how they want, without checking their freedom at the office door.
For more on how the "corporate rights" issue in the case was really a misnomer -- because the free exercise of individual humans is at issue regardless of how you style the legalese -- see Cato's amicus brief.
Enough is enough, the Supreme Court ruled today in Harris v. Quinn regarding the power of government to force public employees to associate with a labor union and pay for its speech. Although the Court did not overturn its 1977 precedent, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, allowing states to make their workers contribute to labor unions, it declined to extend that principle to reach recipients of state subsidies—in this case, home-care workers who receive modest stipends from the state of Illinois’ Medicaid program but are not properly considered “employees” of the state.
The Court is right that Abood is “something of an anomaly” because it sacrifices public workers’ First Amendment rights of speech and association to avoid their “free-riding” on the dues of workers who’ve chosen to join a union, the kind of thing that rarely if ever is sufficient to overcome First Amendment objections. But Abood treated that issue as already decided by prior cases, which the Harris Court recognizes it was not--a point discussed at length in Cato's amicus brief. Abood was a serious mistake, the Harris Court concludes, because public-sector union speech on “core issues such as wages, pensions, and benefits are important political issues” and cannot be distinguished from other political speech, which is due the First Amendment’s strongest protection. A ruling along those lines would spell the end of compulsory support of public-sector unions, a major source of funds and their clout.
It was enough, however, in Harris for the Court to decline Illinois’ invitation “to approve a very substantial expansion of Abood’s reach.” Illinois claimed that home-care workers were public employees for one purpose only: collective bargaining. But these workers were not hired or fired by the state, supervised by the state, given benefits by the state, or otherwise treated as state workers. And for that reason, Abood’s purposes, which relate only to actual “public employees,” simply do not apply. Were the law otherwise, the Court observed, “a host of workers who receive payments from a governmental entity for some sort of service would be candidates for inclusion within Abood’s reach.”
While Harris is not a watershed opinion that remakes labor law consistent with First Amendment principles, it does put an end to the forced unionization of home-based workers, a practice that has spread to nearly a dozen states and had provided a substantial number of new workers to the labor movement in recent years. Harris also lays the groundwork for a challenge to what it calls “Abood’s questionable foundations.” If recent Roberts Court precedents like Shelby County and Citizens United are any guide, Harris is a warning shot that the Abood regime is not long for this world and that the next case will be the one to vindicate all public workers’ First Amendment rights.