Topic: Government and Politics

A Flagging Obama Transparency Effort

President Obama made some very firm commitments about transparency as a campaigner. Among other things, he promised to post bills online for five days before he signs them. This promise has been fulfilled just once - and in that case, only arguably.

The Obama campaign Web site promised “Sunlight Before Signing:

Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.”

To a roar of approval, President Obama pledged on the campaign trail: “[W]hen there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a president, you the public will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.”

Here’s a look at the White House’s uneven efforts to fulfill that promise:

Of the eleven bills President Obama has signed, only six have been posted on Whitehouse.gov. None have been posted for a full five days after presentment from Congress.

One bill, the DTV Delay Act, was posted after it was cleared for presentment by Congress February 4th, with the President signing it February 11th. This arguably satisfies the five-day promise, though presentment - a constitutional step in the legislative process - would be a better time to start the five-day clock. (Congress presented it February 9th.)

Several times the White House has posted a bill while it remains in Congress, attempting to satisfy the five-day rule. But this doesn’t give the public an opportunity to review the final legislation - especially any last minute amendments. Versions of the children’s health insurance legislation, the omnibus spending bill, and the omnibus public land management bill were linked to from Whitehouse.gov while making their ways through Congress, but not posted in final form.

(The page linking to the omnibus spending bill was not highlighted in the White House blog or anywhere else on Whitehouse.gov I could find. The only evidence I found of when it was posted comes from Web commentary.)

Is five days too much to ask? The President did allow for an emergency exception, and it would not be appropriate to hold off signing a bill if life and health were immediately threatened.

The President signed a couple of bills with deadlines pressing. These were the continuing resolution, the omnibus spending bill, and the extensions of immigration and small business programs. Congress produced the crush, though, with its timing in passing the bills; the deadlines were not a product of extrinsic forces or emergencies. (A firmly enforced five-day rule would cause Congress to pass bills five days earlier when programs were expiring - after much tribulation about who is responsible when a program lapses for failure to timely reauthorize it, of course.)

Despite the economic conditions, the Recovery Act was not treated as emergency legislation by Congress or the President. Congress waited three days after its Friday passage to present it to the President, and he enjoyed a weekend visit to Chicago before signing the bill four days after it passed (one day after presentment) in Denver.

The President has signed most bills within a day or two of their presentment from Congress, violating his campaign promise. He has signed two bills more than five days after presentment, but - ironically, because it preserves the broken promise - not posted them on Whitehouse.gov.

 

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 1/28/2009 1/29/2009 1/29/2009 No
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 2/4/2009 2/4/2009 2/1/2009 No
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act 2/9/2009 2/11/2009 2/5/2009 Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 2/16/2009 2/17/2009 2/13/2009 No
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes 3/6/2009 3/6/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building” 2/26/09 3/9/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 3/11/2009 3/11/2009 3/6/2009 No
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs 3/18/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes 3/19/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 No
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009 3/24/2009 3/30/2009 No n/a

Can Arne Duncan Fix All the Schools?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, responding to a new study showing that District of Columbia students using vouchers to attend private schools outperformed their peers in public schools – a study that he has been accused of keeping under wraps until after Congress voted to end the D.C. voucher program – told the Washington Post of his concerns:

“Big picture, I don’t see vouchers as being the answer,” Duncan said in a recent meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. “You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you’re leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.”

But why would vouchers only serve two or three percent of the kids? Only because Congress limited the size of the voucher program. Thousands more families have applied for public or private vouchers than there were vouchers available. If the District of Columbia took its mammoth school budget and divided it into equal vouchers or scholarships for each child in the city, Arne Duncan could bet his bottom dollar that a lot more than two percent of the families would head for private or parochial schools. His fear is not that vouchers only serve two percent of the kids, it’s that a full-scale choice program would reveal just how much demand for alternatives there is.

But note also: Duncan says that he wants to “help all those kids … by … coming back with dramatically better schools.” But he ran the Chicago schools for seven years, and he was not able to make a single school good enough for Barack and Michelle Obama to send their own children there.

Wouldn’t the 97 or 98 percent of the kids in Chicago whose parents couldn’t afford the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools have benefited from having a choice?

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here

  • The new edition of Regulation examines the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the legal drinking age and climate change policies.
  • In The Week, Will Wilkinson argues that the Obama administration should rethink its drug policy and that prominent marijuana users should “come out of the closet.”
  • Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner why the Serve America Act (SAA) is no friend to freedom.
  • The Cato Weekly Video features Rep. Paul Ryan discussing the Obama administration’s budget.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Patri Friedman discusses seasteading and the prospects for liberty on the high seas.

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

National Defense, Keynesianism, or Just Pure Rent-Seeking?

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) is fighting hard to maintain production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, which happens to be made by Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga. But Isakson insists that he’s not fighting for the plane just because it’s made in Georgia. No, he tells NPR, it’s important to recognize that it’s actually made by 90,000 workers in 49 states, and you don’t want to lose those jobs at a time of high unemployment.

In a letter to President Obama, he spelled out his argument, albeit with slightly different numbers:

Over 25,000 Americans work for the 1,000+ suppliers in 44 states that manufacture the F-22. Moreover, it is estimated that another 70,000 additional Americans indirectly owe their jobs to this program. As we face one of the most trying economic times in recent history it is critical to preserve existing high paying, specialized jobs that are critical to our nation’s defense.

To be sure, Isakson does insist that the plane is vital to national security, an argument that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Cato’s Chris Preble challenge. But it doesn’t say much for Republican arguments against President Obama’s wasteful spending when Republican senators argue that we should build a hugely expensive airplane as a jobs program.