Topic: Government and Politics

Democratic Deficit Hawks?

In a hagiographic profile of Obama budget director Peter Orszag, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker writes of the “pressure” he might get from congressional deficit hawks:

The respective heads of the House and Senate Budget Committees, John Spratt, Jr., of South Carolina, and Kent Conrad, of North Dakota, have spent years trying to control the deficit…

Kent Conrad, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has made eradicating the federal budget deficit his life’s work.

Now, you’d think that if the ranking Democrats on the congressional budget committees had made deficit reduction their life’s work, the budget wouldn’t have, you know, skyrocketed over the past decade and more. So let’s go to the tape.

The National Taxpayers Union has given Spratt an F for his votes on federal spending every year for more than a decade. (He had a couple of D’s earlier in his career.) In the past two years, he voted with the taxpayers 5 and 6 percent of the time. He voted for spending bills more often than the average member of the House, and more often than the average Democrat. Some deficit hawk!

Conrad has an almost identical record — almost all F’s, with ratings of 5 and 6 in the past two years.

By another measurement, in the 109th Congress (the most recent for which these calculations are available), Spratt voted for $184 billion in additional spending and voted to cut — drum roll, please — $4.8 billion in spending. Conrad voted to cut $8 billion, but he also voted to hike spending by $362 billion. In what world are these guys “trying to control the deficit”?

NTU does have one analysis that makes Conrad and Spratt look a little better: the bills they have sponsored or cosponsored. Spratt introduced 32 bills that would increase spending and 2 that would cut spending. While that may not sound very thrifty, it compares favorably to, say, Hilda Solis’s 110 bills to increase spending or Barney Frank’s 112. And the total new spending in Spratt’s bills — $7 billion — is positively Randian. Conrad’s record is similar — 36 bills to increase spending by $8 billion, which compares very favorably to, for instance, Hillary Clinton and Thad Cochran.

Apparently Conrad and Spratt don’t introduce too many spending bills, but they vote for all the ones that get to the floor. Not exactly a strategy that holds the budget down. The search for a fiscally conservative Democrat continues.

Cato Scholar Brings Administration to Heel

Last week, I complained loudly that the “Speeches” section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site had only four speeches on it, the most recent coming at the end of February.

And, voila, today the site is transformed. A new “speeches and remarks” page at that location has a 28-page list of official utterances from President Obama since he took office.

Does it matter a lot that people can now more easily find what President Obama has said? It kinda does. Americans will go a little more often right to the source rather than relying on media interpretations of what the president is saying. In the aggregate, we’ll have a better informed, slightly more skeptical, and more empowered populace.

Kudos to the folks at the White House for making the change. In retrospect, it appears that some arcane difference between “speeches” and “remarks” kept many important things the president says off the “Speeches” page. For my part, a 6,500-hundred word oration on national security delivered from behind a lectern is a speech, but the White House calls such a thing “remarks.”

Taxpayers and the Federal Diary

The Federal Diary column in the Washington Post is a curious piece of newspaper real estate. Most newspaper columns are aimed at the broad general public, but this column is aimed directly at the few hundred thousand government workers in the DC region. The result is that it takes a very government- and union-centric view of the world. The fact that the federal civilian workforce costs taxpayers an enormous $300 billion or so every year is beside the point for the column.

In a briefing with reporters yesterday, the head of the Office of Personnel Management complained about a Lou Dobbs television bit that featured this data that I assembled from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Federal Diary columnist called me yesterday about the data, and I explained to him the shortcomings of the OPM claims that federal workers are underpaid.

Unfortunately, the Federal Diary today simply parrots the OPM’s claims, calling the Dobbs/Edwards/BEA data “misleading.” Yet this data clearly shows that federal compensation has taken off like a rocket this decade.

Today’s column, like many of the Federal Diary columns, is about how to improve the pay, benefits, and working conditions of federal workers. What about the taxpayers who foot the bill? To provide some balance, the Post ought to at least have a side-by-side column entitled “Federal Taxpayers’ Diary.”

You’ve Just Got to Love the Way the European Union Operates

Daniel Hannan, the British Member of the European Parliament who gained fame with his devastating critique of Gordan Brown, has been equally trenchant in criticizing the excesses of the European Union.  On his blog he explains the latest self-serving intricacies of voting in the upcoming election for the European Parliament:

How many MEPs will be elected a week on Thursday? Wait! Come back! I’m going somewhere with this! I realise the issue might not sound intrinsically sexy but, believe me, it demonstrates everything that’s wrong with the Brussels system. Bear with me and you will see how flagrant is the EU’s contempt for the ballot box – and for its own rule book.

Had the European Constitution Lisbon Treaty been ratified, there would have been 754 MEPs in the next Parliament. But under the existing scheme – that provided for by the Nice Treaty – there are meant to be 736. Three countries have rejected the European Constitution in referendums, and it is not legally in force. So how many MEPs will be elected a week on Thursday?

You don’t need me to tell you, do you? The EU’s primary purpose is to look after its own. Eighteen unconstitutional or “phantom” Euro-MPs will be elected anyway (hat-tip, Bruno), and will draw their full salaries and allowances. The only concession to the letter of law is that they won’t be allowed to vote. In other words – in an almost perfect metaphor for the entire Euro-system – they will be paid without having any function. (Incidentally, a couple of BNP trolls keep posting here to asking when I’m going to publish my expenses. I did so ages ago – see here – and all Conservative MEPs have done the same: our Right to Know forms are available online here.)

The number of Euro-MPs in the chamber might seem a recondite issue, but it goes to the heart of how the EU behaves. Other, more important, parts of the European Constitution have also been implemented, without the tedious process of formal ratification: a European foreign policy, the harmonisation of justice and home affairs, justiciability for the Charter of Fundamental Rights.  These things would have been regularised by the European Constitution, but have been enacted despite its rejection.

It’s almost as good as unconstitutionally giving Washington, D.C. a congressman!

In fact, the attempt to consolidate continental government without giving the European people much say over the political system they live under is even more bizarre than electing MEPs who might never be able to vote.  If implemented, the Lisbon Treaty will reduce the ability of the European people to hold their government accountable, but that’s just the point to the Eurocratic elite actively pushing further centralization of power.  About the only barriers left to the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty are the Irish people and Czech President Vaclav Klaus, as I detail in a recent article on American Spectator online.

Wal-Mart: Health Food Store?

As someone who believes in liberty, my natural inclination is to defend a company like Wal-Mart from the usual attacks.  You know, the company should pay its employees more (sure, just like all other companies, including libertarian think tanks!).  Wal-Mart destroys local businesses (that is, enterprises which offer fewer choices but at higher prices, and whose customers cheerfully flee when given an alternative).  The people most likely to attack Wal-Mart are those who would never shop there and don’t know anyone who does shop there.

It’s always nice to find evidence to back my inclinations.  It turns out that Wal-Mart not only lowers prices for poor people, but improves their health.  Reporting on this improbable result is Radley Balko, formerly at Cato and now at Reason:

In the popular imagination, a big-box store such as Wal-Mart is more often seen as part of the problem than part of the solution: We associate Wal-Mart with large women in stretch pants, fat kids sucking down tubs of soda, and morbidly obese men inching down the snack-food aisle in motorized shopping carts. The store makes candy, chips, and soda ridiculously cheap—so wouldn’t Wal-Mart contribute to the obesity problem?

That’s what economists Art Carden of Rhodes College and Charles Courtemanche of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro suspected. So they conducted a study to find out. Carden and Courtemanche have done a number of studies on Wal-Mart. Carden insists they get no funding from the company, directly or indirectly. Rather, he says, the two free-market economists have been intrigued by the Wal-Mart debate and wanted to test some of the more common criticisms of the store. Generally, they’ve found that the worst fears about Wal-Mart are unfounded, and that the stores have a mostly positive impact on their communities.

But they thought this one might be different. “We expected the study to show an increase in obesity in communities with a Wal-Mart,” Carden says. “We know that Wal-Mart lowers the cost of food, but we figured it’s not always the best food for you.”

To their surprise, they found the opposite—there was a small but statistically significant reduction in obesity rates in communities with a Wal-Mart, perhaps because the store also sells fresh produce of good quality at a good price.

Broadening the study to big-box stores in general, the effect was even more pronounced. “People actually bought more produce, more fruits and vegetables,” Carden says. “Instead of just eating more, they ate a higher-quality diet—a lower-fat diet than the rest of the population.”

It appears that people aren’t as stupid as paternalistic politicians believe.  And markets ain’t half bad either.

More Politicization of the Department of Justice

At the last election, Democrats complained mightily of George Bush’s having politicized the Department of Justice: firing prosecutors, suborning legal memos justifying an expansion of executive power, etc., etc.  Well, it now seems at best that the pot was calling the kettle an abuser of power.

Early in the administration, when the DC Voting Rights Act last made the news cycle, it came out that newly confirmed AG Eric Holder sought a second opinion from the acting solicitor general when the Office of Legal Counsel affirmed its 45-year position that giving DC residents representation in Congress could not be done without amending the Constitution.  The bill is now stuck because of an amendment that was added to it relaxing the District’s strict – even after Heller – gun regulations, but this issue will resurface.

Now, in the most recent development in the “Is Hillary Clinton Constitutional?” saga the OLC reversed its own position from 1987 just in time for federal prosecutors to file a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Clinton’s appointment that cites the new memo (see footnote 21).  Indeed, the motion was filed the same day Acting Assistant Attorney General David Barron – who had previously rebuffed Holder on the DC Voting Rights Act (though we still have to see what the next confirmed OLC head says, be that Dawn Johnsen or someone else) – signed the new OLC memo.

The issue is that Clinton’s appointment to the cabinet – as well as that of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – violates the Emoluments (sometimes called Ineligibility) Clause of Article I, section 6 because both she and Salazar were sitting Senators when cabinet salaries were increased.  Congress later passed short laws reversing these raises for the duration of both officials’ tenures but, as I’ve argued previously – and as OLC head Chuck Cooper spelled out in the 1987 memo – there is no “net accounting” proviso which somehow erases the constitutional defect.  While the new memo relies heavily on historical practice – several presidents going back to William Howard Taft (most recently Bill Clinton in appointing Lloyd Bentsen to be Treasury Secretary) have proceeded in this manner – the fact that political branches have acted in a certain way doesn’t speak to the constitutionality of that action.

In short, again the Obama Justice Department has found a politically expedient way of dealing with pesky constitutional issues.  In this case, that way involved issuing a memo to buttress a motion being filed that very same day in federal court.

H/T: Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, which is involved in the suit challenging Clinton’s appointment.

“They Don’t Have the Money to Pay Us Back”

When they let their guard down, politians can say the most revealing things.  In today’s Wall Street Journal, representatives of local governments in California attacked Governor Schwarnenegger’s plan to borrow $2 billion from local property tax revenues to cover some of the state’s budget shortfalls.  In response, Don Knabe, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisiors said, “They’re hijacking our dollars.  They don’t have the money to pay us back.  It’s a joke.” 

Given that California doesn’t have the money to pay back borrowing from its local government, it’s likely they might not be able to pay back borrowing from private investors either.  To solve this problem, we have the Municipal Bond Insurance Enhancement Act, on which the House Financial Services Committee held a hearing this week.  To encourage investors to buy California’s risky debt, the federal government would cover any losses to the investor.  We’re told that the federal government would charge bond-issuing governments insurance premiums to cover any losses, but the federal government’s history of setting rates based on politics rather than risk (have you looked at the health of the National Flood Insurance Program lately?) guarantees that the taxpayer would likely have to cover billions in losses on any guarantee of California’s debt.