Topic: Government and Politics

Support for Federal Reserve Audit Increasing

Last week Cato hosted a policy forum on “Bringing Transparency to the Federal Reserve,” featuring Congressman Ron Paul. As mentioned in CQ Politics, Rep. Paul’s bill, HR 1207, has been gaining considerable momentum in the House, with currently 244 co-sponsors, ranging from John Boehner to John Conyers Jr. In fact, the Senate companion bill was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke discussed the very topic of Federal Reserve Transparency at Cato’s annual monetary conference in the Fall of 2007.

After praising moves toward greater transparency at the Fed, Bernanke argued that “monetary policy makers are public servants whose decisions affect the life of every citizen; consequently, in a democratic society, they have a responsibility to give the people and their elected representatives a full and compelling rationale for the decisions they make.”

Chairman Bernanke also goes on to argue that “improving the public’s understanding of the central bank’s objectives and policy strategies reduces economic and financial uncertainty and thereby allows businesses and households to make more-informed decisions.” Bernanke’s full remarks can be found in the Spring 2008 issue of the Cato Journal.

Over the last two years, we have seen an almost tripling of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet to $2.3 trillion, resulting from the bailouts of AIG and Bear Stearns and the creation of 14 new lending programs.

Our recent forum, and Rep. Paul’s bill, bring much needed debate and focus to the issue of Fed’s inner-workings.

The Roberts Revolution to Come

As I mentioned yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many people by ordering a reargument in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Specifically, the Court called for the parties to the case to address the question of overruling Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The Court decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in 1989.  The state of Michigan had prohibited corporations from spending money on electoral speech. In the case in question, the Chamber of Commerce wished to pay for an advertisement backing a candidate for the House of Representatives. The Chamber took this action on its own and not in tandem with the candidate or his party.  Paying for the ad was a felony under Michigan law.

A majority of the Court in 1989 said the Michigan law did not violate the First Amendment. However, the majority had a problem. Previous cases permitted limits on funding electoral speech only in pursuit of a compelling state interest: the prevention of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance. The Court had also ruled that independent spending by groups could not corrupt candidates.

So the majority needed a novel rationale for approving Michigan’s suppression of speech. The majority concluded that speech funded by corporations would distort the democratic process and that the state could prohibits such outlays to prevent harms done by “immense wealth.” In other words, the Austin majority tried to redefine “corruption” as “inequality of influence.” That revision had its own set of problems. Buckely v. Valeo, the Ur-decision in campaign finance, had excluded equality as a compelling state interest justifying regulation of campaign finance.

It is easy to see why the Buckley Court had rejected equality of influence as a reason for restricting political speech. Imagine Congress could prohibit speech that had “too much influence.” But how could that be determined? A majority in Congress would be tempted to suppress speech that threatened the power of that majority.  Paradoxically, the equality rationale would strengthen those who already held power while vitiating representative government. The First Amendment tries to prevent that outcome.

In last year’s decision in Davis v. FEC, the Court again rejected the equality rationale for campaign finance laws.  More and more the Austin decision is looking like bad law.

Justices Kennedy and Scalia, both current members of the Court, wrote dissents in Austin. Justice Thomas has called for Austin to be overruled in other contexts.  Neither Justices Roberts nor Alito is likely to vote to uphold Austin (or the relevant parts of McConnell v. FEC for that matter). But it would seem that either or both of them were unwilling to strike down a precedent without a formal hearing. That hearing will come on September 9 with a decision expected by Thanksgiving.

Almost six years after the Court utterly refused to defend free speech in McConnell v. FEC, the Roberts Court may be ready to vindicate the First Amendment against its accusers in Congress and elsewhere.

The Importance of Just Saying No

George Will:

Conservatives are accused of being a party of “no.” Fine. That is an indispensable word in politics because most new ideas are false and mischievous. Furthermore, the First Amendment’s lovely first five words (“Congress shall make no law”) set the negative tone of the Bill of Rights, which is a list of government behaviors, from establishing religion to conducting unreasonable searches, to which the Constitution says: No.

Institutional Crisis Unfolds in Honduras

A serious institutional crisis is taking place in Honduras as a result of President Manuel Zelaya’s call for a new constitution that would allow for his reelection. Zelaya, a close ally of Hugo Chávez, is barred from pursuing a second term in the general elections in November.

Unfortunately for Zelaya, he doesn’t have the backing of his own party, much less any other major political group. So he has moved unilaterally to call for a referendum on the need for a new constitution. The vote, which is scheduled for this Sunday, has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and the Electoral Tribunal, and condemned by the Honduran Congress and attorney general (whose office is not part of the cabinet in Honduras).

Despite the widespread institutional opposition to his plans, Zelaya is pushing for the vote. On Wednesday he ordered the Honduran armed forces to start distributing the ballots and other electoral materials throughout the country. The army chief, complying with the Supreme Court ruling, refused to obey the order. Zelaya sacked him, which prompted the resignation of all other leading army officers and the defense minister.

The attorney general is asking Congress to impeach Zelaya for violating the institutional order and abusing his powers. Last night, the Congress discussed removing Zelaya from his office. The president is defiant and has accused the Congress of attempting a coup.

In the meantime, thousands of Zelaya’s supporters are taking to the streets. Yesterday, a mob personally led by Zelaya stormed a Honduran air force base in order to retrieve the electoral materials that the generals refused to distribute. The army is reportedly deploying troops in the capital Tegucigalpa to prevent possible riots.

Zelaya’s mentor, Hugo Chávez, is not staying out of the row. Last night he warned that Venezuela and its allies won’t sit idle while the Honduran “elites” launch a coup d’etat against Zeleya. He threatened to do “whatever it takes” to defend him. It might be more hot air coming from Venezuela’s strongman, but it certainly raises the spectrum of foreign involvement in what constitutes a domestic Honduran crisis.

In an interesting twist, Zelaya has asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to intervene and defend Honduras’ democratic institutions. Most countries in the OAS are client-states of Chávez’s oil largesse. This is why the organization has repeatedly failed to condemn the abuses that Chávez and his Bolivarian friends in Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have committed against democratic institutions, independent media, the opposition, and so on. More recently, the general assembly of the OAS has lifted the membership suspension imposed on Cuba, despite the country’s blatant violation of the democratic charter of the organization.

So it wouldn’t be surprising for the OAS to come to Zelaya’s rescue with a statement in his favor, despite his efforts to subvert Honduras’ democratic institutions. Mimicking Chávez’s words, the OAS envoy to Honduras has already said that the organization won’t recognize any government that comes out of “a coup.” José Miguel Insulza, the OAS secretary general, gave a confusing and ambiguous statement regarding the sacking of the army chief, saying that “the Armed Forces should obey the constitutional mandate and the constituted authority.” It sounds more like an endorsement of Zelaya’s position. The OAS general assembly is meeting today to discuss the crisis.

It’s clear that Zelaya is deliberately generating an institutional crisis. He can rely on the support of Chávez and his regional allies in the OAS. And he knows that if the armed forces try to remove him, it would look like a “coup d’etat” that would probably be widely condemned all throughout Latin America.

This is a real test for the OAS and its supposed (and tarnished) commitment to democratic republican principles.

Buy American, Destroy American Jobs

The “buy America” provision in the misnamed stimulus bill was supposed to protect jobs in the U.S.  Alas, by encouraging foreign protectionism, the measure is likely to end up destroying American jobs.

Indeed, the provision has all the earmarks of a grand political fiasco.  Reports the Financial Times:

Confusion reins. For fear of missing out on contracts, many companies are demanding that all their suppliers are Buy American-compliant regardless of any exemptions.

“Those companies that can comply are of course thrilled and are trumpeting that in their marketing. Those that cannot are in agony and are losing business and cutting workers,” says David Ralston, a government procurement lawyer at Foley & Lardner. “The many companies that find themselves in the gray areas are calling their lawyers.”

Canada’s government has been an early and vocal lobbyist against the measures, sending officials to Washington to warn that a trade war is brewing. Canadian municipalities threatened to attach “do not Buy American” provisions to their own public projects after manufacturers were cut out of US stimulus projects, but have agreed to hold off while the national government tries to resolve the problem.

Canada wants to broker a bilateral trade agreement on government contracts which would extend all the way down to the level of local authority. The US trade representative says it is open to the idea.

While this would quieten the Canadians, it could spark cries of protest from the US’s other trading partners. The British ambassador has given several speeches in recent weeks chastising the US over Buy American and the way it is being implemented. The Europeans are watching closely. But could the US write bilateral deals with them all? Buy American’s supporters in Congress would surely kick back.

The Chamber of Commerce is proposing a compromise. It has called on the administration to tell municipalities to act as if they were signatories to the federal government’s agreements. “I think there is enough flexibility for OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] to make that change. I don’t have a crystal ball but for multiple reasons it would make sense for them to do it,” says Chris Braddock, the Chamber’s procurement expert.

On Monday all groups with a stake in the debate submitted their written comments to the OMB, the White House department handling the stimulus. The administration must now write the final rules on how to implement Buy American.

The U.S. has gained enormously from the expansion of trade in recent years.  We all will lose if Washington now encourages a global retreat from free markets.

Press Release Economics in Michigan Picked Apart

This morning I blogged on the wave of state governments giving away taxpayer money to businesses in the name of “creating jobs.”  One of the examples I mentioned is the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a state program that exists to generate press releases to provide cover for the state’s lamentable fiscal policies.

Michael LaFaive at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan was kind enough to send me a recent report he wrote on the folly of state subsidies to businesses.  State officials like to solicit studies from local universities that just happen to conclude that such-and-such government program is creating X number of jobs.  (Of course, in the rare occurrence that a study doesn’t come back with what the bureaucrats were expecting, such study will likely disappear into thin air.  I’ve seen that happen first hand.)  Michael’s paper deconstructs a study on the purported benefits of Michigan’s film maker subsidies, which was prepared by Michigan State University at the behest of the MEDC.  A quote he cites from a 2006 study on tourism-related economic development programs nails it:

“Most economic impact studies are commissioned to legitimize a political position rather than to search for economic truth. Often the result is mischievous procedures that produce large numbers that study sponsors seek to support a predetermined position.”

If you read nothing else, read the section on page 4 entitled “Why Government Subsidies Won’t Save Michigan’s Economy.”  The reasons apply to all fifty states, not just Michigan.