Tag: federalism

Finding Victims for Trump Budget Cuts

A Washington Post story today about one of President Trump’s budget cuts reflects what can be called victim journalism. The story focuses on the proposed ending of federal funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which provides subsidies for economic development in selected states. The reporter presents an interesting narrative about some ARC beneficiaries, but does not provide the balance needed to judge the overall value of the program.

The story presents individuals in Appalachia as victims, and federal money as the only savior. It does not focus on personal responsibility, local government policies, or federal program failures. The reporter does not mention any studies examining the ARC’s overall effectiveness, or whether auditors have done a benefit-cost analysis to see whether the program’s benefits outweigh the costs.

However, the main problem with the Post story is a lack of appreciation for the federal structure of American government. Statements like this bewilder me: “The federal funding [for ARC] often goes toward repairing essential services rural towns cannot afford on their own, such as fixing broken sewer systems…”

Sewer systems are indeed an essential local service. As such, they should receive a high priority in state and local budgets. If sewers in Appalachia are not being fixed, then state and local governments are failing at a core responsibility. Reporters should ask why that is.

The ARC sprinkles about $150 million a year across 13 states, from New York to Mississippi. Combined state and local spending in those states (excluding federally funded spending) is more than $800 billion a year. So the supposedly crucial ARC spending represents less than 0.02 percent of the region’s own government spending. If the ARC were eliminated, those governments could easily fill the small void with their own money.


Addendum

Let’s drill down on Kentucky, which was the focus of the Post story and is in the center of the ARC region. If all the ARC money were spent just in Kentucky, it would still be only 0.5 percent of the roughly $30 billion in state/local spending in that state.

The Post story claims “so much of the Appalachian commission’s budget — $146 million in 2016 — goes toward infrastructure projects…” Assuming that is true, why doesn’t Kentucky have room in its own budget for infrastructure such as sewers? Looking at Census data for state and local governments in Kentucky suggests why. Total capital spending on sewers and solid waste was $234 million in 2014, but spending on “public welfare” was $8 billion and spending on government worker salaries was $10 billion.

The States Have No Business Creating Their Own Retirement Accounts

People have lots of ways to save for retirement. Most employers offer some sort of retirement plan, of course, and people whose employers don’t can set up their own retirement account and get the same tax benefits, albeit without any employer contribution.  Low-income workers at a job without a benefit plan can now participate in Treasury’s new MyRA program, which creates a retirement account for the worker and provides a match for their contributions.

And Social Security, which totals to 15.3% of the first $118,500 of a worker’s income, constitutes a big chunk of most people’s retirement income.

Kasich Aims to Revive Federalism

The Republican congressional leadership has failed to articulate strong themes to counter the big-government policies of President Obama and the Democrats. People don’t know what the Republican Party stands for, partly because they rarely, if ever, see leaders such as John Boehner and Mitch McConnell on television presenting a coherent vision or a specific program of cuts.

Republicans have particularly dropped the ball on federalism, or the devolving of power back to the states and the people. Reviving federalism was a central theme of the Reagan administration, and it was also a focus of Republican reform efforts in the 1990s.

So I was pleased to see Ohio governor and presidential candidate John Kasich focus on federalism in his new fiscal reform plan. In the Washington Post today, he said:

Let’s start with infrastructure. The interstate system is long finished, and states already oversee their own highway design and construction. Americans don’t need a costly federal highway bureaucracy. I will return the federal gas taxes to the states, leaving only a sliver with the federal government for truly national needs. Then, I will downsize the Transportation Department and reassign it a smaller role, supporting states with research and safety standards. Federal spending would go down, resources available for highways and transit could go up, and states could work faster.

The Education Department will receive a similar approach. Washington isn’t America’s principal or its teacher. Education is a local issue, and decisions should be made by parents, our communities and our local educators. We need high standards, but they are not Washington’s business. I will bundle the department’s funds and send them back to the states with fewer strings attached. The department will be a research center and a local school booster, not a micromanager.

I’d go further than Kasich on many of his proposals, but the important thing is that he is articulating a clear approach to spending reform and reduction. By contrast, House Republicans just introduced a 543-page transportation bill that would increase federal highway and transit spending. The House GOP probably imagines they are being conservative because their spending on transportation would grow more slowly than Senate GOP spending. But the proper amount of federal spending on transit, for example, is not $9.6 billion or $10.6 billion, but zero.

Reviving federalism is a powerful idea for policy reform because it cuts across a vast swath of activities in just about every federal department. And it is a winning theme with the general public, as Emily Ekins and I discuss in this article.

Republican leaders ought to follow Kasich’s lead and explore federalism reforms. If they want to bone up on the advantages of decentralization, they can start with this essay at Downsizing Government. I’d also highly recommend A Less Perfect Union by Adam Freedman for an overview of the history, economics, and constitutional aspects of federal-state relations.

Colorado Pushes Back against Oklahoma and Nebraska Marijuana Suit

In 2012, the people of Colorado voted to legalize marijuana through a state constitutional amendment, which went into effect in January of 2014.  Two of Colorado’s neighbors, Nebraska and Oklahoma, subsequently filed a lawsuit urging the U.S. Supreme Court to prohibit the state of Colorado from constructing a regulatory regime for the marijuana industry.  Last Friday, Colorado filed its response.

The Nebraska/Oklahoma argument: because the federal government, through the Controlled Substances Act, has banned marijuana, states are not allowed to contradict that ban by creating a regulatory framework for legalization.  Further, Colorado’s official regulation of recreational marijuana imposes a nuisance burden on surrounding states due to an alleged increase in drug trafficking.  While Nebraska and Oklahoma disclaim any intent to force Colorado to “re-criminalize” marijuana, the suit argues that Colorado’s official efforts to regulate the legal marijuana industry bring the state into conflict with federal and international drug laws.

Colorado’s response: there is no conflict.  Federal marijuana prohibition is still in effect, and the decision not to prioritize enforcement in states that legalize marijuana came from the federal government, not Colorado.  If Nebraska and Oklahoma object to the manner in which the federal government is discharging its law enforcement duties in Colorado, they should be suing the federal government.  Colorado’s regulation of the marijuana industry is within its prerogatives under the CSA. As to the nuisance claim, Colorado argues that mere policy differences between states that don’t directly injure the sovereignty of other states are not actionable nuisances.

The legal basis for the lawsuit has been questionable from the beginning, with legal commentators both challenging its merits and pointing out the irony in two of America’s “reddest” states taking a legal posture that overruns state sovereignty in favor of federal power.

And, of course, if prohibition states are concerned with the costs, they could always legalize and regulate marijuana themselves and spare their justice systems the immense costs of prohibition.  

While some notable conservatives appear to be coming around in favor of a federalist experiment on drug legalization, it is a testament to the unfortunate power of the drug war that two state governments that routinely invoke the merits of federalism would abandon it in favor of federal prohibition.  As discussed previously, federalism would hardly be the only cherished principle to be left in the drug war’s wake.

King v. Burwell Doesn’t Present a ‘Coercion’ Question

I have a post over at National Review Online’s Bench Memos blog that explains why, contrary to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concerns, the King v. Burwell challengers’ interpretation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., PPACA, ACA, and ObamaCare) doesn’t coerce states. At least, not under the Court’s current tests for determining whether Congress is coercing states.

If you happen to be a busy Supreme Court justice, here’s a spoiler:

1. The ACA’s exchange provisions don’t penalize states. They let states make tradeoffs between taxes, jobs, and insurance coverage.

2. Roughly half of states appear to consider those costs tolerable. Prior to 2014, eight states voluntarily imposed this supposedly coercive penalty on themselves.

3. This “deal” is comparable to what the Court allowed in NFIB v. Sebelius. In NFIB, the Court allowed states collectively to turn down Medicaid subsidies for as many as 16 million poor people. The exchange provisions permit states to do the same for 16 million higher-income residents.

I have no objection to the Court lowering the bar for demonstrating that cooperative federalism programs coerce states. But the Court will have to lower the bar quite a bit to find the ACA’s exchange provisions coercive.

If you aren’t a busy Supreme Court justice, or even if you are, read the whole thing.

Cato Scholars: Ahead of the Curve

Congratulations to former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, who has become concerned, as he writes in the Wall Street Journal, that

The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly one of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is five to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies, according to a groundbreaking, 464-page report released this year by the National Academy of Sciences. America puts people in prison for crimes that other nations don’t, mostly minor drug offenses, and keeps them in prison much longer.

Of course, if he’d been following the work of the Cato Institute, he could have read about the problems of drug prohibition and mass incarceration in this 2009 symposium at Cato Unbound, this 2013 paper on incarceration rates in the United States and other countries, this Washington Post article by Tim Lynch in 2000 when the U.S. prison population first exceeded 2 million, or indeed my 1988 New York Times article on the excessive arrests and intrusions on freedom in the drug war.

Meanwhile, on the same page of Friday’s Wall Street Journal, former senator James L. Buckley calls for ending federal aid to the states, an idea central to his new book Saving Congress from Itself and inspired by the work of Cato’s Chris Edwards.

The Constitutional Dimension of Your Morning Commute

Over the last few years, D.C.-area drivers may have noticed the continual increases in toll fares on the Dulles Toll Road, the highway going through the Northern Virginia suburbs past Dulles Airport.  Indeed, since 2005, the toll for the typical round-trip commuter has more than quadrupled from $1.50 to $7.00, with more increases coming. These extra toll dollars haven’t been going for upkeep or expansion of the highway, however, but instead have been funding the over-budget and under-performing construction of the Metro’s Silver Line extension.

While originally slated to fund only 25% of that cost, commuters are now looking at paying more than half of the $5.6 billion (and counting) total cost, with years of construction still to come. The entity in charge of the construction project (and of gouging the toll road’s commuters) is the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, a public body established to govern Dulles and Reagan National airports at the behest of the Department of Transportation. But who’s actually in charge of the MWAA, and to whom can beleaguered commuters turn for relief? Although created by an interstate compact between D.C. and Virginia, the MWAA was granted all of its authority by an act of Congress, and the highways and airports that it oversees are federal property.

In many ways, the MWAA acts like a federal agency—in nearly all ways, in fact, except one important aspect: oversight. If federal assets and lawmaking power are being delegated to the MWAA, then there must be a means for the executive branch to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The MWAA, however, is governed by a board of individuals whom the president has no meaningful ability to appoint, oversee, or control. This means that the MWAA has no political accountability for its decisions.

Having no other meaningful recourse, a group of Dulles Toll Road users sued the MWAA, arguing that its decrees violate the separation of powers. (Full disclosure: my wife and I just bought a house in Falls Church and will likely be using the road every now and again, though not on my commute to Cato.) The federal district and appeals courts—two of them, in an unusual development whereby the Federal Circuit transferred the case to the Fourth Circuit—decided that the MWAA’s nature as a state-created entity required the case to be dismissed. Moreover—get this—because the MWAA has no meaningful executive-branch control, there is no separation-of-powers issue. (This despite the federal government’s appearance as an amicus to argue that the MWAA exercises federal power and is subject to separation-of-powers scrutiny.)

Undeterred, the plaintiffs have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Cato has joined the American Highway Users Alliance and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association on a brief supporting their petition. We argue that the Court should take the case because (1) there is a critical violation of the separation of powers, (2) there are already manifest harms resulting precisely from that violation, and (3) the federal government sees and treats the MWAA as a federal agency—but one without any meaningful accountability whatsoever.

It isn’t every day that a separation-of-powers case is as squarely presented as it is here, where commuters are being railroaded, so to speak, by a runaway agency whose conductor is absent. The executive branch has to take the blame not only for the MWAA’s policies, but its corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take Corr v. Metro. Washington Airports Authority later this fall.

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