March 30, 2009 8:53AM

How Progressive Are You?

I'm two weeks late coming to this, but the "Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party" Obama Administration Farm Team Center for American Progress has developed a quiz aiming to answer the question, "How Progressive Are You?"  The quiz asks you to rank, on a 10-point scale, how much you agree with 40 different statements.  Now, I won't quibble here with the misuse of the word "progressive" -- having debased the term "liberal" (which in any other country pretty much means what Cato supports), the Left moves on to its next target -- but the quiz highlights the false dichotomy between "progressive" and "conservative." 

The fallacy of this linear political spectrum forces people to wring their hands and call themselves "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" -- does anyone call themselves "fiscally liberal" even if they are? -- or "moderate" (no firm views on anything, huh?) or anything else that adds no descriptive meaning to a political discussion.  Where do you put a Jim Webb?  A Reagan Democrat?  A Ross Perot voter?  A gay Republican?  A deficit hawk versus a supply-sider?  Let alone Crunchy Cons, Purple Americans, Wal-Mart Republicans, South Park Conservatives, NASCAR dads, soccer moms, and, oh yes, libertarians. 

And the statements the quiz asks you to evaluate are just weird.  I mean, yes, "Lower taxes are generally a good thing" (I paraphrase) gets you somewhere, but what does "Talking with rogue nations such as Iran or with state-sponsored terrorist groups is naive and only gives them legitimacy" get you?  Or "America has taken too large a role in solving the world's problems and should focus more at home"?  What is the "progressive" response to these statements?  The "conservative" one?  I think I know what the Bush response and the Obama response would be to the first one, but how does either fit into any particular ideology? 

The Institute for Humane Studies at least gives you a two-dimensional quiz, so you can see how much government intervention you want in economic and social affairs (the "progressive" view presumably being lots of intervention in the economy, none on social issues).  And IHS poses classical debates in political philosophy rather than thinly veiled leading questions relating to current affairs.  

In any event, when you finish the quiz, it tells you your score and that the average score for Americans is 209.5.  How do they get this number?  A selectively biased survey of people who frequent the CAP website would surely score much higher on the progressive scale.  No, it's based on a "National Study of Values and Beliefs."  Well, ok, but, again, if those are the types of questions you ask people -- or, even worse, the quiz designers code the survey responses -- I'm not sure how much I care about the result.   (Incidentally, the survey reveals that "the potential for true progressive governance is greater than at any point in decades."  Great, that's either a banal formulation of the fact that Democrats have retaken the political branches or a self-serving conclusion.  Or both.)

In case anyone cares, I scored 100 out of 400, which makes me "very conservative."  I suppose that won't come as a surprise to my "progressive" friends, but then I'm always talking to them about how bad the bailouts/stimuli are for the economy, how we should actually follow the Constitution, etc.  All the folks who over the years have called me a libertine or hedonist, however, will not be amused to learn that I'm actually one of them...

March 20, 2009 10:11AM

Republicans Rediscover Their Big‐​Government Principles

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who can always be counted on to stick the federal government's nose where it doesn't belong, is criticizing Attorney General Eric Holder's teeny-tiny steps toward a less oppressive enforcement of drug prohibition. Holder said on Wednesday "that federal agents will target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state law. This is a departure from policy under the Bush administration, which targeted dispensaries under federal law even if they complied with the state's law allowing sales of medical marijuana."

Grassley says that marijuana is a "gateway" drug to the use of harder drugs and that Holder "is not doing health care reform any good."

As Tim Lynch and I wrote in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers:

President Bush . . . has spoken of the importance of the constitutional principle of federalism. Shortly after his inauguration, Bush said, "I’m going to make respect for federalism a priority in this administration." Unfortunately, the president’s actions have not matched his words. Federal police agents and prosecutors continue to raid medical marijuana clubs in California and Arizona.

And as Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissenting from the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the power of the federal government to regulate medical marijuana:

If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything — and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.

That's the principle that Chuck Grassley defends. Republicans claim to be the small-government party — and President Obama's policies on taxes, spending, and regulation certainly justify a view that the GOP is, if not a small-government party, at least the smaller-government party — but they forget those principles when it comes to imposing their social values through federal force.

March 13, 2009 11:46AM

Week in Review: A School Choice Victory, Earmark Reform, and Drug Violence in Mexico

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Obama Dips a Toe in the Educational Choice Pool

After Congress voted to let the Washington D.C. voucher program expire, stripping 1,700 low-income children of the opportunity to attend private schools, President Obama said he will keep the program afloat in subsequent legislation.

"It wouldn't make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. "And I think we'll work with Congress to ensure that a disruption like that doesn't take place."

Andrew J. Coulson, director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom, commented on Obama's decision to continue to extend school choice benefits to underprivileged children in the nation's capital:

This is a crucial milestone. There is finally a major national Democratic leader who is beginning to catch up to his state-level peers. Democrats all around the country have been supporting and signing small education tax credit programs because they realize that these programs are win-win: good for their constituents and good for their long-term political futures.

In an op-ed that ran the day Gibbs made the announcement, Coulson explained why those who oppose school choice will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

In 2006, Susan Aud and Leon Michos published a report on the fiscal impact of the D.C. voucher program, which documented the success of the District's school choice pilot, the first federally funded voucher program in the United States.

Obama Signs Earmark-Heavy $410 Billion Omnibus Bill

After signing a bill that had nearly $8 billion in earmarks, President Obama declared that from then on, his administration would work toward earmark reform.

Sounds a bit like St. Augustine's famous prayer, "Lord, make me chaste but not just yet," said Daniel Griswold, director of Cato's Center for Trade Policy Studies:

Recall that as a candidate, Obama said he and Democratic leaders in Congress would change the "business as usual" practice of stuffing spending bills with pet projects. Those earmarks, submitted by individual members to fund obscure projects in their own districts and states, typically become law without any debate or transparency.

Saying he would sign the "imperfect bill," President Obama offered guidelines to curb earmarks ... in the future. "The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past," he said. "So let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability."

Lord, make us fiscally responsible, but not just yet.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders are condemning the president's expansion of the federal government. But do they have any standing to judge? Senior Fellow Michael D. Tanner said no:

The Bush administration's brand of big-government conservatism was, at the very least, the greatest expansion of government from Lyndon Johnson to, well, Barack Obama.

For Cato's policy recommendations on earmarked spending, see the "Corporate Welfare and Earmark Reform" chapter in the 2009 Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

Violence Spills into the U.S. from Mexico's Drug War

With daily reports of increased violence coming from Mexico, Cato Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Ted Galen Carpenter said the brutality is an indicator of power and arrogance, not desperation, and asserts that gun restrictions in the U.S. will not subdue violence:

The notion that the violence in Mexico would subside if the United States had more restrictive laws on firearms is devoid of logic and evidence. Mexican drug gangs would have little trouble obtaining all the guns they desire from black market sources in Mexico and elsewhere...

... Even assuming that the Mexican government's estimate that 97 percent of the weapons used by the cartels come from stores and gun shows in the United States-and Mexican officials are not exactly objective sources for such statistics-the traffickers rely on those outlets simply because they are easier and more convenient, not because there are no other options.

Carpenter spoke at a Cato policy forum last month, and explained why the war on drugs sparks such intense levels of violence.

In a Policy Analysis published in early February, Carpenter warned of the need to change our policy on the Mexican drug conflict, so as to prevent the violence from spreading across the border.

March 12, 2009 8:34AM

No Wonder the GOP Has No Credibility on Spending

You would think Barack Obama's tsunami of federal spending would provide an easy target for Republicans.  But they apparently haven't learned the right lessons after two successive electoral debacles.

Earmarks don't account for a lot of money in Washington terms.  You know, just a few billion dollars out of trillions or quadrillions or whatever we are now up to -- it's so easy to lose track!

Nevertheless, earmarks are a powerful symbol.  So trust the "stupid party" to muff its chance.  Reports Politico:

Bashing Democrats on the day President Obama signed the $410 billion omnibus spending bill was the easy part for Republican leaders Wednesday.

But getting Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell on the same page on earmarks will be a lot tougher.

At a joint press conference designed to present a united Republican front against Democratic spending habits, McConnell (R-Ky.) and Boehner (R-Ohio) appeared to diverge on earmark reform.

“I think the president missed a golden opportunity to really fulfill his campaign commitment to not sign bills that have a lot of wasteful spending and are overburdened with earmarks,” Boehner said. “If you look at the earmark reforms that he proposed, the question I have is, ‘Where’s the beef?”

McConnell declined to answer the question about earmarks, and instead criticized the president's contention that the omnibus bill was simply last year's unfinished business.

“Let me tell what was not last year’s business was plussing the bill up 8 percent, which is twice the rate of inflation,” McConnell said. “This bill is not last year’s business. … It further illustrates my point that when you add up the stimulus and the omnibus, the spending in the first 50 days of the administration [comes] at a rate of $1 billion an hour.”

Republicans have tried to come up with a unified earmark reform plan, but have struggled as GOP appropriators are reluctant to sign on. McConnell is on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has called for earmark reforms, but he and many lawmakers defend Congress’ constitutional right to direct spending.

In the omnibus bill, McConnell secured some $75 million worth of earmarks, while Boehner, a long-time critic of earmarks, did not. Boehner says Congress should freeze earmarks for the rest of the year, saying it leads to wasteful and potentially corrupting Washington spending.

Of course, Democrats have taken not.  In signing the latest spending bill President Barack Obama landed a nice blow against GOP hypocrisy:

And I also find it ironic that some of those who rail most loudly against this bill because of earmarks actually inserted earmarks of their own and will tout them in their own states and their own districts.

If Congress can't take a vow of poverty on distributing pork when the nation faces a $1.3 trillion budget deficit and trillions more in deficits over the coming years, then it isn't likely ever to be more responsible with the public's money.

March 5, 2009 3:47PM

Republicans and Earmarks

This week, a handful of fiscally conservative Republican senators have been trying to cut earmarks out of the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill. According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, the legislation contains 8,570 earmarks worth $7.7 billion.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has sought to strike specific items, like the $200,000 earmark for Tattoo Removal Violence Prevention Outreach Program in Burbank, California and the $1.9 million earmark to the Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service in Connecticut.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has taken a broader approach by introducing an amendment to strike all earmarks from the bill and revert to last year’s spending levels.

Not surprisingly, they have been unsuccessful. And given recent events, one must wonder if these efforts by fiscal conservatives are even welcomed by members of their own party.

The amendments introduced by Coburn and McCain were defeated by opposition from not only by the majority of Democratic senators, but also many Republican appropriators, like Senators Thad Cochrane (R-MS) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

And despite his occasional anti-earmark rhetoric and support for the Coburn and McCain amendments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is one of the chief beneficiaries of the earmark-laden omnibus bill. Reports suggest he requested either $75 or $51 million for his home state of Kentucky. Either way, he will obtain far more than his Democratic counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), whose earmark requests total $26 million.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has been fairly consistent in her criticism of the earmarking process and, for the most part, has voted accordingly. Proving that Republican affection for earmarking is a bicameral phenomenon, her stance attracted ire from Representative Roy Blunt (R-MO), formerly one of the highest-ranking Republicans in House, who said he “would hope that Claire would change her mind on this,” as he praised Senator Kit Bond’s (R-MO) prowess at earmarking.

Now, earmarks make up a relatively small slice of the overall budget, but as Coburn has noted, the problem with earmarks is ‘‘the hidden cost of perpetuating a culture of fiscal irresponsibility. When politicians fund pork projects they sacrifice the authority to seek cuts in any other program.”

For more on earmarks, check out the “Corporate Welfare and Earmarks” chapter of the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

January 21, 2009 3:19PM

House GOP Insists Pelosi Hold States to Same Bailout Rules as the Big Three

Here's an excerpt from a letter that House Republicans sent today to Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

We applaud your recent decision to require the "Big Three" automakers to submit a restructuring plan to Congress before either chamber would consider legislation providing additional federal aid to the auto industry.  Unfortunately, the $87 billion allocated for more Medicaid money for states doesn't appear to hold them accountable for ensuring that the tax dollars are spent wisely.  Similar to what was requested of the automakers, we believe it is necessary to require our nation's Governors to submit formal budget plans for their respective Medicaid programs detailing how additional funds will be spent before Congress considers any legislation to provide a temporary increase in the federal Medicaid match.

Seems reasonable, especially since the states' irresponsible behavior is what got them into this mess in the first place.

The governors will probably squeal over such a requirement, which would indicate either that they have no plans for how to spend the money or that they would rather not share their plans publicly.