Another myth is that policymakers cannot make budget cuts without a backlash from voters. Yet reform efforts in the 1990s did not lead to a voter rebuke. In 1996, the Republicans were denounced viciously when they were reforming welfare. But they stuck together and succeeded, and today the achievement is widely hailed. Also in the 1990s, the Republicans proposed reductions to many sensitive programs including Medicare, Medicaid, education, housing, and farm subsidies. In their budget plan for 1996, House Republicans voted to abolish more than 200 programs including whole departments and agencies.
The Republicans who led on these reforms were not thrown out of office, despite many of them being specifically targeted for defeat in 1996. The most hardcore budget cutters in the 104th Congress were freshmen who were reelected with larger vote margins than they had received in 1994. They included John Shadegg and Matt Salmon of Arizona, Joe Scarborough of Florida, David McIntosh and Mark Souder of Indiana, Steve Largent and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Van Hilleary of Tennessee, and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin. Indeed, many budget‐cutting Republican freshman got reelected in districts that went for Bill Clinton on the presidential ticket in 1996. The high‐profile leader of the House budget cutters, John Kasich (R‑Ohio), consistently won reelection throughout the 1990s with two‐to‐one margins. In sum, cutting the budget can be good politics when done in a serious and up‐front manner.
It’s my job to advocate for spending cuts. It’s a job I’ve been doing in one form or another for over a decade. If I’ve ever experienced a victory, it must have been a pretty small one, because I can’t recall any.
So why do I persist?
For one, I’m a naturally optimistic person. And fueling that optimism is the press. I’m constantly reading about the possibility of spending cuts, and those articles usually say that the cuts would be major … or massive … or severe … or even draconian! The possibility sends a thrill up my leg.
Alas, the “draconian” spending cuts invariably turn out to be not‐so‐draconian after all. In fact, it’s often the case that reporters are talking about smaller spending increases rather than real spending cuts. Other times, the cuts are likely to only be temporary or come after years and years of increases.
In today’s example, a National Journal article reports that the “unthinkable” could happen: the fiscal 2013 sequestration cuts–just reduced and postponed by the fiscal cliff deal–might actually go into effect March 1st as scheduled:
Republicans and Democrats in the Senate appear to be coming to the same conclusion on spending, namely that once unthinkable, draconian cuts designed to force a more reasonable compromise may be much harder to undo than anyone ever imagined.
How “draconian” would these “unthinkable” cuts be? About $85 billion. To put that in context, the federal government will spend around $3,500 billion ($3.5 trillion) this year. The deficit alone is likely to approach or exceed $1 trillion (the federal government has run a deficit in excess of $1 trillion for four straight years).
If that’s draconian, what would the press call cutting enough spending just to balance the budget?
As we’ve been trying to demonstrate at DownsizingGovernment.org, spending cuts would be good for the country. I encourage journalists who cover federal policy to check out the site to see what real spending cuts are all about. It might cause you to have to find new adjectives to use to describe what Republicans and Democrats are really doing, but your readers would be better served–especially the wild‐eyed optimists like me.
All eyes are on Wisconsin today to see whether Governor Scott Walker’s budget and public‐sector union reforms will be validated by the voting public. I applaud Walker’s reforms. But his reforms should be just the first step. Virginia took the next step two decades ago and completely repealed collective bargaining in the public sector.
I happened to hear conservative radio talker Chris Plante this morning discussing his support of Walker, but saying something like “But I’m not against collective bargaining rights in either the private sector or the public sector.”
Too many conservatives, and maybe even some libertarians, seem to buy the labor union line that collective bargaining is somehow a fundamental “right,” like the freedom of speech. It isn’t. Collective bargaining in both the private and government sectors is monopoly unionism. It represents a violation of the freedom of association.
Here’s what Charles Baird says on www.DownsizingGovernment.org:
The ideas embodied in the federal union laws of the 1930s make no sense in today’s dynamic economy. Luckily, constant change and innovation in the private sector has relegated compulsory unionism to a fairly small area of U.S. industry. But the damage done by federal union legislation is still substantial. Many businesses and industries have likely failed or gone offshore because of the higher costs and inefficiencies created by federal union laws, while other businesses may not have expanded or opened in the first place. So the damage of today’s union laws is substantial, but often unseen, in terms of the domestic jobs and investment that the laws have discouraged.
Davis‐Bacon, the Norris‐LaGuardia Act, and the National Labor Relations Act serve the particular interests of unionized labor rather than the general interests of all labor. These laws abrogate one of the most important privileges and immunities of American citizens—the rights of individual workers to enter into hiring contracts with willing employers on terms that are mutually acceptable. …
The principle of exclusive representation [collective bargaining], as provided for in the NLRA, should be repealed. Workers should be free on an individual basis to hire a union to represent them or not represent them. They should not be forced to do so by majority vote. Unions are private associations, not governments. For government to tell workers that they must allow a union to represent them is for government to violate workers’ freedom of association. Restrictions on the freedom of workers to choose who represents them should be eliminated.
After the Republicans took back control of the House following the November 2010 elections, the GOP leadership went with Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers—a.k.a. “The Prince of Pork”—to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. I wrote at the time that “The support for Rogers from House Republican leaders is a slap in the face of voters who demanded change in Washington.”
I haven’t changed my mind.
A recent article in the New York Times offers up another reminder that the 30‐year House veteran’s priority is to funnel taxpayer money back to his district—not downsize the federal government:
In the 1980s, the military had its infamous $800 toilet seat. Today, it has a $17,000 drip pan. Thanks to a powerful Kentucky congressman who has steered tens of millions of federal dollars to his district, the Army has bought about $6.5 million worth of the “leakproof” drip pans in the last three years to catch transmission fluid on Black Hawk helicopters. And it might want more from the Kentucky company that makes the pans, even though a similar pan from another company costs a small fraction of the price: about $2,500…The Kentucky company, Phoenix Products, got the job to produce the pans after Representative Harold Rogers, a Republican who is now the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, added an earmark to a 2009 spending bill. While the earmark came before restrictions were placed on such provisions for for‐profit companies, its outlays have continued for the last three years.
According to the Times, Phoenix Products’ president and his wife have been “frequent contributors” to Rogers’s political committee and the company has spent at least $600k on a DC lobbying firm since 2005. Those efforts apparently haven’t gone unrewarded as Rogers “has directed more than $17 million in work orders for Phoenix Products since 2000.”
Readers should keep this story in mind the next time a Republican member of Congress calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment, complains about the growth in government under Obama, and then argues against “dangerous defense cuts.” The bedtime story that Americans often hear is that the federal government must spend gobs of money on defense in order to “keep us safe from our enemies.” I once believed that story—and then I spent some time in the U.S. Senate watching policymakers treat military spending like any other pot of taxpayer money.
[See here for more on downsizing the Department of Defense.]
The head of the General Services Administration, which is the federal government’s procurement and property manager, has resigned in the wake of a report from the agency’s inspector general that uncovered extravagant spending at a GSA “training conference” in Las Vegas.
Here’s the Washington Post’s summary of festivities:
Among the “excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissible” spending the inspector general documented: $5,600 for three semi‐private catered in‐room parties and $44 per person daily breakfasts; $75,000 for a “team‐building” exercise — the goal was to build a bicycle; $146,000 on catered food and drinks; and $6,325 on commemorative coins in velvet boxes to reward all participants for their work on stimulus projects. The $31,208 “networking” reception featured a $19‐per‐person artisanal cheese display and $7,000 of sushi. At the conference’s closing‐night dinner, employees received “yearbooks” with their pictures, at a cost of $8,130.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle have been quick to express their outrage. In particular, Republicans are anxious to paint the affair as emblematic of the Obama administration’s fiscal profligacy. Perhaps it is. However, the scandalous abuse of taxpayer money by the GSA isn’t a partisan issue. First, Martha Johnson is the second GSA chief to resign in the last four years. George W. Bush’s GSA chief Lurita Doan resigned in 2008 after a “tumultuous tenure in which she was accused of trying to award work to a friend and misusing her authority for political ends.” Second, bureaucrats have been wasting taxpayer money on conferences for years under the watch of both parties. For example, Sen. Tom Coburn (R‑OK) released a report in 2008 that found that federal agencies had spent over $2 billion on conferences from 2000–2006.
As the politicians trip over one another to make empty promises to end such abuses, keep in mind that Bureaucrats Gone Wild is what you’re going to get when you give human beings the ability to spend gobs of other people’s money. The only sure way to stop government employees from wasting money is to stop giving them money in the first place, which means getting rid of the agencies that employ them. For the GSA, that means downsizing the federal government and thus reducing the need for its procurement and property services.
Last week, I flayed the American Small Business League’s Lloyd Chapman for his absurd claim that legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) would close the Small Business Administration (see here). As I expected, Chapman's response is equally absurd.
In an ASBL press release, Chapman actually threatens to take me to court over my calling him a “conspiracy theorist”:
The next time you call me a conspiracy theorist, be ready to back it up with facts. You just might find yourself in court.
Good luck with that, Lloyd. In the meantime, let’s allow the court of public opinion to decide if the following claim you recently made is the stuff of a conspiracy theorist:
Clearly Republicans like Senator Burr, his supporters and groups such as the CATO Institute are directed like puppets by the defense and aerospace industry.
I can’t speak for Sen. Burr, but Chapman’s assertion that the Cato Institute is being “directed like puppets by the defense and aerospace industry” is ridiculous. Cato’s Downsizing Government website, which I co-edit, lays out the case for cutting the Department of Defense.
My Cato colleagues past and present have consistently advocated for a limited U.S. presence abroad:
Cato's foreign policy vision is guided by the idea of our national defense and security strategy being appropriate for a constitutional republic, not an empire. Cato's foreign policy scholars question the presumption that an interventionist foreign policy enhances the security of Americans in the post-Cold War world, and maintain instead that interventionism has consequences, including the formation of countervailing alliances, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and even terrorism. The use of U.S. military force should be limited to those occasions when the territorial integrity, national sovereignty, or liberty of the United States is at risk.
Does that strike the reader as anything the defense and aerospace industry would direct Cato to advocate? Clearly, Chapman is hopelessly lost in a fantasy world of his own creation.
President Obama’s former head of the Council of Economic Advisers has taken to the pages of the New York Times to warn us against pursuing “fiscal austerity just now,” particularly not spending cuts.
Christina Romer’s views are Keynesian. She doesn’t use that word, but she is focused on juicing “demand” with optimally‐targeted and well‐managed government “investments.”
Economics has numerous schools of thought, but Romer’s writing reflects nothing but the most simplistic Keynesian framework. The fact that the huge Keynesian stimulus of recent years that she supported has coincided with the slowest economic recovery since World War II seems to be of little concern to her.
She also doesn’t seem to be interested in how government spending actually works in the real world. She assures us that “government spending on things like basic scientific research, education and infrastructure … helps increase future productivity.”
That view has a veneer of economic authenticity, but it leaves many issues unaddressed:
- Most federal spending is on transfers and consumption, not investment. The debt crisis we face is driven mainly by entitlements, which is consumption spending. Romer’s talk of investment spending is a rhetorical bait‐and‐switch.
- Romer doesn’t distinguish between average and marginal spending. If some federal investment spending has created positive net returns, that doesn’t mean that additional spending would. Governments already spend massive amounts on education, for example, so the marginal return from added spending is probably very low.
- If the government investments that Romer touts are so valuable, then why hasn’t the government done them already? After all, federal, state, and local governments in this country already spend 41 percent of GDP.
- If science, education, and infrastructure investments have the high returns that Romer seems to think they do, then why does the government need to be involved? Private firms seeking higher profits would be all over such investments.
- Romer mentions that the “social returns” on some investments might be higher than purely private returns. However, that doesn’t mean that the government should automatically intervene. For one thing, the government suffers from all kinds of management failures and other pathologies.
- Romer also ignores that the government imposes substantial deadweight losses on the economy when it commandeers the resources it needs for its “investments.”
So my reading assignment for Romer is www.DownsizingGovernment.org so she can get a better understanding of how federal programs actually operate.
And readers interested in all the economics of government spending that Romer doesn’t tell you about can consult Edgar Browning’s excellent book, Stealing From Each Other.