Topic: Government and Politics

9/11 Memorial? Good. Eminent Domain Abuse? Bad.

The power of eminent domain, embodied in the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, is so great that it nearly invites abuse, even when the government uses its power for constitutional, and even honorable, reasons.

Case in point: The U.S. Park Service has designed a memorial for Flight 93, the one that crashed in rural Pennsylvania on 9/11.  The plans have been in the works for some time, with the government and representatives of Flight 93’s victims working with the property owners—even explicitly assuring them in 2002 that eminent domain would not be used.

As time passed, however, and the self-imposed deadline to have a memorial in place for the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy grows nearer, the government has become impatient and now plans to condemn the land of the seven owners (representing about 500 of the planned 2,200 acre memorial and national park) who have not yet worked out a deal with the Park Service.

While there are two sides to every story, it seems that the property owners have been flexible and open to negotiation—a far cry from the extorting hold-outs against whom eminent domain is supposed to be invoked:

“It’s absolutely a surprise. I’m shocked by it. I’m disappointed by it,” said Tim Lambert, who owns nearly 164 acres that his grandfather bought in the 1930s. The park service plans to condemn two parcels totaling about five acres — land, he said, he had always intended to donate for the memorial.

“To the best of my knowledge and my lawyer, absolutely no negotiations have taken place with the park service where we’ve sat down and discussed this,” Lambert said.
Lambert said he had mainly dealt with the Families of Flight 93 and said he’s provided the group all the information it’s asked for, including an appraisal.

Even if some takings of property are warranted—a 9/11 memorial certainly fits the “public use” requirement—look at the abuse of power we have here.  Setting aside the question of why Lambert’s five acres are so crucial to a 2,200-acre project (and whether the memorial needs to be that large in the first place), why the strong-arm tactics?

Instead of letting an otherwise legitimate contract negotiation—the very foundation of our private property system—run its course, the government is resorting to robbing people because they had the misfortune to own the land near the place a historic tragedy occurred. This type of abuse is why eminent domain must be used sparingly, and why courts must be vigilant in enforcing the Fifth Amendment’s protection of property rights.

H/T: Nicki Kurokawa.

More Property Rights Shenanigans on the West Coast

Cato recently filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review a Ninth Circuit decision that tramples on property rights.  (See also this oped I co-authored with co-counsel.)

Well, tomorrow the Ninth Circuit hears another case involving property rights violations, and this time the plaintiffs, in exchange for a building permit, were forced to give up their right to vote. Arguing for the beleaguered property-owners will be none other than Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur.  You can read more about the case in Tim’s own blogpost on PLF’s site.

Here’s the basic principle with these cases: just as the government can’t take your property (for public use) without just compensation, it can’t attach arbitrary regulations and fees.  After all, if you own an acre of land and the government tells you you can’t do anything on it – be it run around or drain puddles or build – it might as well have “taken” it by eminent domain.  And if it says you can do these things only if you give up some other entitlement you have – not necessarily money, but, say, the right to put up signs criticizing the local government – it has imposed an unconstitutional condition on your enjoyment of your property.

Amazing Coincidences

The coincidences that occur in Washington, D.C. are truly extraordinary.  According to the Washington Post:

The headquarters of Murtech, in a low-slung, bland building in a Glen Burnie business park, has its blinds drawn tight and few signs of life. On several days of visits, a handful of cars sit in the parking lot, and no trucks arrive at the 10 loading bays at the back of the building.

Yet last year, Murtech received $4 million in Pentagon work, all of it without competition, for a variety of warehousing and engineering services. With its long corridor of sparsely occupied offices and an unmanned reception area, Murtech’s most striking feature is its owner – Robert C. Murtha Jr., 49. He is the nephew of Rep. John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has significant sway over the Defense Department’s spending as chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

Robert Murtha said he is not at liberty to discuss in detail what his company does, but for four years it has subsisted on defense contracts, according to records and interviews. He said Murtech’s 17 employees “provide necessary logistical support” to Pentagon testing programs that focus on detecting chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, “and that’s about as far as I feel comfortable going.” Giving more details could provide important clues to terrorist plotters, he said.

Murtha said he does not advertise being the nephew of John Murtha and considers it “unfortunate” that some will unfairly assume Murtech received its federal contracts because of his uncle’s influence at the Pentagon.

“If we’re not doing our job well, we wouldn’t be doing our job,” he said. “I’m successful at the work I do because of the skill sets I have… . You don’t know how good someone is unless you work with them.”

A spokesman at Murtha’s office did not return calls seeking comment. The lawmaker, a former Marine, has said in the past that he is proud of his family’s service to the military and the government.

Over the years, John Murtha has proudly claimed credit for using his Appropriations Committee seat to steer hundreds of millions in Pentagon work to companies in his district, many of them fledgling enterprises run by campaign contributors. His influence also may be seen in the military improvements at the Johnstown airport that bears his name. The little-used commuter airport doubles as a wartime preparedness facility for the Pentagon after $30 million in improvements.

Murtha’s power has had beneficial effects within his family. His brother, Robert C. “Kit” Murtha, built a longtime lobbying practice around clients seeking defense funds through the Appropriations Committee and became one of the top members of KSA, a lobbying firm whose contractor clients often received multimillion-dollar earmarks directed through the committee chairman.

Of course there is no relationship between Rep. John Murtha’s position and the taxpayer money collected by his relatives.  Still, it is amazing how things like this just seem to happen when Capitol Hill gets involved.

Brother, Can You Spare A Trillion?

With the economy in a deep recession and policymakers turning to massive government intervention in an attempt to create jobs and bolster the financial system—it feels like the 1930s all over again.  Today’s new New Deal is rapidly unfolding, with the Obama administration and many lawmakers making it clear that any question of the success of FDR’s New Deal policies was resolved long ago: government intervention worked, and history bears repeating.  

However, there are deep disagreements about the New Deal, and whether Roosevelt’s policies deepened the depression and delayed recovery. 

Join us at the Cato Institute on June 1 to be a part of a highly informative half-day conference. Recognized national experts will discuss the economic and legal impact of the New Deal, and how its legacy is being used and misused to shape policy responses to current economic hardships.

Name That Company: Fiasco

NPR asks listeners what the new company created by President Obama out of the remains of the Chrysler corporation, to be controlled by the United Auto Workers, funded by the American taxpayers, and managed by Fiat, should be called.

One listener suggested AutomObama, with the slogan ”You’ll Be Paying on It for Years.” Another offered “FIAT: Fix It Again, Barack.”

Of course, the name Fiat works pretty well for this new company. After all, “fiat” means, according to Webster’s, ” a command or act of will that creates something without or as if without further effort” or ”an authoritative or arbitrary order.” (And note that when you look up “fiat” in Webster’s, you get an ad for the new company.)

But it’s hard to beat the name suggested by most listeners: Fiasco.

Bank ‘Stress Tests’ Need Transparency

As the bank stress tests are released, it is vital that the public receive specific and detailed information on each financial institution.  The Administration’s and the Federal Reserve’s continued policy of attempting to disguise the differing health of each bank has been a failure.  What is best for the taxpayer and the investing public is sufficient information to separate the good banks from the bad.

For those institutions which lack sufficient capital to remain solvent, they should seek private capital or else be closed and resolved.  Too many taxpayer dollars have already been wasted keeping alive failed institutions.  The Administration’s policy of keeping failed institutions on taxpayer-financed life-support only serves to retard the market’s ability to move assets away from those who do not, or cannot, make productive use of them toward those who can.  It is time to remember that the unparalleled wealth-creating engine of the market depends as much on allowing failure as it does in encouraging success.

Banks passing the stress tests should be allowed and encouraged to re-pay their TARP funds as soon as possible, and with no additional strings attached.  More importantly, the Administration should use any returned TARP funds to pay-down the increasing government debt, rather than be diverted to bailing-out other failed companies.

Free Speech v. The Federal Election Commission

The so-called Citizens United case offers the Supreme Court a chance to severely curtail the free speech abuses of the Federal Election Commission. John Samples, Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Steve Simpson and George Mason University law professor Allison Hayward weigh in. You can subscribe to Cato’s YouTube videos here and our Weekly Video podcast here.