Topic: Government and Politics

The Czar Will Rule

President Obama’s real czar, “pay czar” Ken Feinberg, who has real power, brushes aside such claims even as he prepares to issue his Gosplan-style edicts on future and even past pay agreements:

The Obama administration’s pay czar says negotiations over executive compensation with the seven companies that received the biggest federal bailouts have been “a consensual process’’ - not a matter of forcing decisions on them.

“I’m hoping I won’t be required to simply make a determination over company objections,’’ veteran Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg told the Chicago Bar Association in a speech.

But note: he’s “hoping” he won’t have to impose his own view. He’s hoping the companies will accede to his power without complaining. But the fact remains, he doesn’t have to get their consent. He “has sole discretion to set compensation for the top 25 employees of each of those companies,” and his decisions “won’t be subject to appeal.” Or, as Feinberg himself puts it,

The statute provides these guideposts, but the statute ultimately says I have discretion to decide what it is that these people should make and that my determination will be final. The officials can’t run to the Secretary of Treasury. The officials can’t run to the court house or a local court. My decision is final on those individuals.

That’s power. So where is Doonesbury? We need him to update his classic 1970s “energy czar” strips.

Doonesbury

Carper: We Trust Our Staff So You Can Trust Us

A deep fissure between federal lawmaking practices and the Internet-fueled expectations of the people is just starting to open.

Here’s a fascinating interview with Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), in which he justifies not reading the legislation that he votes on.

He’s right that the bills Congress passes are almost incomprehensible, but he draws the wrong conclusion from it. It’s not OK to pass bills that you can’t read and literally don’t understand.

Congress and the bureaucracy will come to learn a lesson that other parts of our society have learned: The Internet changes things.

Because it is now possible to see legislation before Congress passes it, Americans now expect to see legislation before it passes. And they will come to expect that their representative understand it—in detail.

A machine has grown up in Washington over the past two hundred years where representatives rely on colleagues who rely on staff to write bills. This has not produced a desirable body of federal law, and it is not a process that the public will accept for much longer.

A New Court Term: Big Cases, Questions About the New Justice

Today is the first Monday in October, and so is First Monday, the traditional start of the Supreme Court term.  The Court already heard one argument – in the Citizens United campaign finance case – but it had been carried over from last year, so it doesn’t really count.

In any event, continuing its trend from last term, the Court has further front-loaded its caseload – with nearly 60 arguments on its docket already.  Fortunately, unlike last year, we’ll see many blockbuster cases, including:

  • the application of the Second Amendment to state gun regulations;
  • First Amendment challenges to national park monuments and a statute criminalizing the depiction of animal cruelty;
  • an Eighth Amendment challenge to life sentences for juveniles; a potential revisiting of Miranda rights;
  • federalism concerns over legislation regarding the civil commitment of “sexually dangerous” persons;
  • a separation-of-powers dispute concerning the agency enforcing Sarbanes-Oxley;
  • judicial takings of beachfront property; and
  • notably in these times of increasing government control over the economy, the “reasonableness” of mutual fund managers’ compensation.

Cato has filed amicus briefs in many of these cases, so I will be paying extra-close attention.

Perhaps more importantly, we also have a new justice – and, as Justice White often said, a new justice makes a new Court.  While Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation was never in any serious doubt, she faced strong criticism on issues ranging from property rights and the use of foreign law in constitutional interpretation to the Ricci firefighters case and the “wise Latina” speeches that led people to question her commitment to judicial objectivity.  Only time will tell what kind of justice Sotomayor will be now that she is unfettered from higher court precedent – and the first term is not necessarily indicative.

Key questions for the new Court’s dynamics are whether Sotomayor will challenge Justice Scalia intellectually and whether she will antagonize Justice Kennedy and thus push him to the right.  We’ve already seen her make waves at the Citizens United reargument – questioning the scope of corporations’ constitutional rights – so it could be that she will decline to follow Justice Alito’s example and jump right into the Court’s rhetorical battles.

In short, it’s the first day of school and I’m excited.

How Government Really Works

In a profile of Virginia Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Creigh Deeds, the Washington Post tells us about the grandfather from whom he got his unusual first name – and his interest in political power:

Creigh Tyree mattered. While serving as chairman of the Bath County Democrats, during the Depression, Tyree’s house was the first private home in the county to receive electricity from the federal Rural Electrification Act, proof of the power of government, he told his grandson.

Or at least proof of the practice of government. And that is in fact the lesson that young Creigh learned:

Watching the elderly man work the circuit of county shops and farms, the boy saw the power of political maneuvering, the influence it brought a man, the way it enabled the well-connected to pick up a phone and get something previously ungettable. Young Deeds started telling elementary school teachers that he wanted to be, would be, governor someday, and then president.

Using political connections to get things other people can’t get – that’s the lesson young Creigh Deeds learned from his granddad’s experience with the New Deal.

In a story earlier this week, the Post made it clear that that’s still the way politics works:

Sen. Thad Cochran’s most recent reelection campaign collected more than $10,000 from University of Southern Mississippi professors and staff members, including three who work at the school’s center for research on polymers. To a defense spending bill slated to be on the Senate floor Tuesday, the Mississippi Republican has added $10.8 million in military grants earmarked for the school’s polymer research.

Cochran, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, also added $12 million in earmarked spending for Raytheon Corp., whose officials have contributed $10,000 to his campaign since 2007. He earmarked nearly $6 million in military funding for Circadence Corp., whose officers – including a former Cochran campaign aide – contributed $10,000 in the same period.

In total, the spending bill for 2010 includes $132 million for Cochran’s campaign donors, helping to make him the sponsor of more earmarked military spending than any other senator this year, according to an analysis by the nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Cochran says his proposals are based only on “national security interests,” not campaign cash. But in providing money for projects that the Defense Department says it did not request and does not want, he has joined a host of other senators on both sides of the aisle. The proposed $636 billion Senate bill includes $2.65 billion in earmarks….

The bill, however, would add $1.7 billion for an extra destroyer the Defense Department did not request and $2.5 billion for 10 C-17 cargo planes it did not want, at the behest of lawmakers representing the states where those items would be built. Although the White House said the administration “strongly objects” to the extra C-17s and to the Senate’s proposed shift of more than $3 billion from operations and maintenance accounts to projects the Pentagon did not request, no veto was threatened over those provisions….

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ran a close second to Cochran’s $212 million in earmarks this year, having added 37 earmarks of his own worth $208 million, according to the tally by Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Almost all of Inouye’s earmarks are for programs in his home state, and 18 of the provisions – totaling $68 million – are for entities that have donated $340,000 to his campaign since 2007. His earmarks included $24 million for a Hawaiian health-care network, $20 million for Boeing’s operation of the Maui Space Surveillance System and $20 million for a civic education center named after the late senator Edward M. Kennedy….

In Cochran’s case, the proposed earmarks would benefit at least two entities that hired his former aides.

Folks, this is the way government works. If you think the programs of the New Deal or the stimulus bill or federal highway programs are necessary, fine – and certainly a defense bill is necessary – but understand that all such government programs involve taking money by force from people who didn’t offer it up voluntarily and then distributing it to others, in many cases to people with more political clout. People in the reality-based community should recognize this reality.

For more on this, see chapter 9 of Libertarianism: A Primer, “What Big Government Is All About.”

The Misuse of “Reform”

When Samuel Johnson said that ”patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he overlooked the value of the word “reform.” (I didn’t say this first, but I can’t discover who did.) Webster’s says that “reform” means “to put or change into an improved form or condition [or] to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.” So in political terms, a reform is a change for the better. But whether a particular policy change would actually improve things is often controversial. Unfortunately, the mainstream media typically use the word “reform” to mean “change in a liberal direction.”

It’s bad enough that they constantly use the phrase “campaign finance reform” to refer to laws that restrict individuals’ ability to spend their money to advance their political ideas. And of course every day we hear and read the term “health care reform” used to mean new subsidies, mandates, regulations, taxes, and restrictions on how health care is provided. Needless to say, there’s heated debate in the country as to whether such laws would constitute reform.

And now the Washington Post gives us this prominent headline (page 3, upper right):

450 Mayors Petition Obama
To Adopt Broad Gun Reform

The story makes clear that what the mayors want is what used to be called “gun control” – more power for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the creation of an “Interstate Firearms Trafficking Unit,” more restrictions on gun shows, more data collection on individuals.  No doubt anti-gun strategists have discovered that “gun control” is an unpopular term, so they advise advocates to use terms like “gun reform”; and reporters, headline writers, and editors at the Post go along with it.

Now try to imagine this story in the Washington Post:

450 Mayors Petition Obama
To Adopt Broad Media Reform

A new report from a national coalition of mayors urges President Obama to adopt dozens of reforms to help curb media excesses, including steps to crack down on problems with unauthorized leaks, the creation of a federal interstate media monitoring unit, new rules on media concentration, a federal database of people who use hateful language in letters to the editor and online comments.

Hard to imagine the Post would blithely accept the term “reform” in that case, isn’t it? And I don’t think the Post and other mainstream media called President Reagan’s tax cuts “tax reform.” (They did use the term “tax reform” when the proposed policy involved eliminating loopholes and thus taxing more activities, along with a reduction of rates.) Nor, I think, did they call President Bush’s proposed Social Security private accounts “Social Security reform.” They should be equally careful when liberal activists dub their proposals “reform.”

Meanwhile, kudos to Mara Liasson of NPR, who in this story from Friday uses the terms “health care legislation” and “health care overhaul,” but never “health care reform.” I hope that was a conscious choice, in recognition of the fact that about half of Americans don’t think the current subsidy-regulation-mandate legislation is in fact reform.

Pawlenty

I am very fearful that the Republicans will nominate another Bush-style candidate for 2012. With the government running trillion-dollar deficits, the country needs a hard-line budget-cutter as the next president.

Politico reports: “Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been quietly assembling the blueprint of a presidential campaign and will announce Thursday the support of a group of high-level political strategists and donors, complemented by a handful of top new media consultants.”

I gave Pawlenty a “B” in my fiscal report card on the governors last year. Here’s what I said about him:

Tim Pawlenty pledged not to raise taxes when he ran for governor, but his tax record in office is more mixed than that. He backed a $200 million tax increase on cigarette consumers in 2005 and a $109 million corporate tax increase in 2008. He has also supported substantial increases in fees and charges. Pawlenty has provided some targeted tax relief and imposed temporary limits on local property tax increases, but he has not focused on pro-growth tax rate reductions. Nonetheless, Pawlenty’s veto record is impressive, including rejecting a gasoline tax increase, a hike in the top personal income tax rate, and various bloated spending bills. Pawlenty has delivered fairly restrained budgets over the years and kept spending growth to modest increases.

This year, Pawlenty has proposed spending restraint and he has vetoed tax increases. He has also called for cutting the state corporate income tax rate. Still, I’m uneasy about him, so I sure hope the party’s fiscal conservatives thoroughly vet the fellow before he advances too far.