Topic: Government and Politics

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.

The Emperor’s Green Clothes

According to Thursday’s New York Times, “the Obama administration announced on Wednesday that it was moving forward on new rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from hundreds of power plants and large industrial facilities.”

President Obama has said that he prefers a comprehensive legislative approach to regulating emissions and stemming global warming, not a piecemeal application of rules, and that he is deeply committed to passage of a climate bill this year.

But he has authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to begin moving toward regulation, which could goad lawmakers into reaching an agreement.

In the book that popularized the phrase “the Imperial Presidency,” historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. focused overwhelmingly on the vast growth of presidential power in foreign affairs. But as an inveterate New Dealer, Schlesinger had a blind spot where it came to the Emperor’s burgeoning powers at home.

The Supreme Court’s virtual abandonment of the nondelegation doctrine after 1935 paved the way for the modern administrative state, in which Congress all too eagerly cedes legislative power to the executive branch. As the Obama administration’s latest actions on global warming show, the Imperial Presidency comes in green, too. From my column in the Washington Examiner this week:

James Madison believed that there could be “no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person.” And yet, here we are, with those powers united in the person of a president who has pledged to heal the planet and stop the oceans’ rise.

The Times article makes clear that Obama won’t push his authority under the Clean Air Act (or the Supreme Court’s interpretation thereof in Mass. v. EPA) as far as he might, yet: “By raising the standard to 25,000 tons, the new rule exempts millions of smaller sources of carbon dioxide emissions like bakeries, soft drink bottlers, dry cleaners and hospitals.” Instead, the administration plans to use its power under the CAA as a hammer to hold over Congress’s head, pushing it to act on cap and trade.

But eventually, Obama could push that authority even further. According to a comprehensive legal analysis issued by NYU Law School’s Center for Policy Integrity“if Congress fails to act, President Obama has the power under the Clean Air Act to adopt a cap-and-trade system.” (Emphasis mine). (Note in the link above that Matt Yglesias, dedicated opponent of Bush’s war-on-terror executive power grabs, doesn’t seem exactly upset at the prospect of cap-and-trade via executive fiat.)

True, such a move would be litigated to death, and the forests of paperwork it would generate might result in a carbon footprint larger than whatever it abated. Nonetheless, we ought to be disturbed by the notion that in a democratic country the president could make such a move without an up or down vote from Congress. And, as I suggest in the Examiner piece, it ought to make conservatives question their longtime conviction that presidential control over administrative agencies is a reliable method for decreasing the country’s regulatory burden:

After 9/11, the phrase “unitary executive theory” (UET) came to stand for the idea that the president can do whatever he pleases in the national security arena. But it originally stood for a humbler proposition: UET’s architects in the Reagan administration argued that the Constitution’s grant of executive power to the president meant that he controlled the executive branch, and could therefore rein in aggressive regulatory agencies.

In an era when Republicans held a virtual lock on the Electoral College, that idea had some appeal. But as Elena Kagan, now President Obama’s Solicitor General, pointed out in a 2001 Harvard Law Review article, there’s little reason to think that “presidential supervision of administration inherently cuts in a deregulatory direction.”

… [A]s Kagan notes, after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, President Clinton used his regulatory authority unilaterally to show progress, pushing “a distinctly activist and pro-regulatory agenda.” As Obama’s popularity erodes, he may come to like the idea of being the “decider.”

Congress Boosts Its Budget

Politico reports: ” Congress is on the verge of giving itself a bump in its annual budget — even as local governments, families and businesses across the country are tightening their belts in the worst recession in decades.”

Spending on the legislative branch of the federal government is set to rise 5.8 percent in fiscal 2010, and Politico details some of the dubious activities that will receive increased funding.

One statement in the story particularly caught my eye:

” ‘We have not seen a significant increase in overall legislative branch expenditures since nearly 2001,’ said Jonathan Beeton, a spokesman for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).”

Who is he trying to fool? The bill under consideration will provide $4.7 billion in funding for Congress in 2010, which is way up from the $2.7 billion spent in 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service (page 3). 

That’s a 74 percent increase in nine years, representing a very robust 6.4 percent annual average growth rate.

And consider that the “customer base” for this spending has not increased–the number of members of Congress has remained fixed at 535. So while supporters of, say, an education program may say that spending needs to rise because the number of students is rising, much of the increased spending on the legislative branch would seem to go directly into fattening the paychecks of politicians and their staffers.

Nanny State Doesn’t Like Competition - the English Version

A previous post by David Boaz poked fun at bureaucrats in Michigan for threatening a woman for the ostensible crime of keeping an eye on her neighbors’ kids without a government permit. English bureaucrats are equally clueless, badgering two women who take turns caring for each other’s kids. The common theme, of course, is that bureaucrats lack common sense – but the real lesson is that this is the inevitable consequence of government intervention (especially when politicians say they are “doing it for the children). The BBC reports:

England’s Children’s Minister wants a review of the case of two police officers told they were breaking the law, caring for each other’s children.

Ofsted said the arrangement contravened the Childcare Act because it lasted for longer than two hours a day, and constituted receiving “a reward”.

It said the women would have to be registered as childminders.

…Ms Shepherd, who serves with Thames Valley Police, recalled: “A lady came to the front door and she identified herself as being from Ofsted. She said a complaint had been made that I was illegally childminding.

“I was just shocked - I thought they were a bit confused about the arrangement between us. So I invited her in and told her situation - the arrangement between Lucy and I - and I was shocked when she told me I was breaking the law.”

…Minister for Children, Schools and Families Vernon Coaker insisted the Childcare Act 2006 was in place “to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children”.

Debt Aggravates Spending Disease

USA Today’s Dennis Cauchon reports that ”state governments are rushing to borrow money to take advantage of cheap and plentiful credit at a time when tax collections are tumbling.” That will allow them to “avoid some painful spending cuts,” Cauchon notes, but it will sadly impose more pain on taxpayers down the road.

When politicians have the chance to act irresponsibly, they will act irresponsibly. Give them low interest rates and they go on a borrowing binge. The result is that they are in over their heads with massive piles of bond debt on top of the huge unfunded obligations they have built up for state pension and health care plans.

The chart shows that total state and local government debt soared 93 percent this decade. It jumped from $1.2 trillion in 2000 to $2.3 trillion by the second quarter of 2009, according to Federal Reserve data (Table D.3).

Government debt has soared during good times and bad. During recessions, politicians say that they need to borrow to avoid spending cuts. But during boomtimes, such as from 2003 to 2008, they say that borrowing makes sense because an expanding economy can handle a higher debt load. I’ve argued that there is little reason for allowing state and local government politicians to issue bond debt at all.

Unfortunately, the political urge to spend has resulted in the states shoving a massive pile of debt onto future taxpayers at the same time that they have built up huge unfunded obligations for worker retirement plans.

We’ve seen how uncontrolled debt issuance has encouraged spending sprees at the federal level. Sadly, it appears that the same debt-fueled spending disease has spread to the states and the cities.