Topic: Government and Politics

Trump and Federal Workers

The incoming Trump administration has indicated that it will make reforms to the federal workforce. Here are a few places where the administration may focus its efforts:

  • Freezing Hiring: Trump’s Contract with the American Voter promised “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health).” As a goodwill gesture, Trump should also shrink the army of almost 4,000 political appointees in his administration in order to speed agency decisionmaking.
  • Increasing Firing: Trump is famous for firing people on his TV show, and he will likely support reforms to increase federal firing. On the campaign trail, Trump talked about firing VA executives, and his advisors Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich talked about the importance of civil service reforms to increase firing. Reforms are needed: federal civilian workers are fired at just one-sixth the rate that private-sector workers are. Members of the federal senior executive service are fired at just one-twentieth the rate that corporate CEOs are.
  • Reducing Retirement Benefits. Federal wages and benefits are higher, on average, than in the private sector, but it is on benefits that federal compensation really stands out. The WaPo has discussed various GOP proposals to reduce federal benefits. My favored reform is to repeal the old-fashioned defined-benefit pension plan. That would leave federal workers with a generous defined-contribution plan, which is the standard in the private sector.  
  • Reforming Federal Unions. One reform was mentioned in the Republican platform: “union representatives should not be allowed to engage in union-related activities while on the public’s time.” Republicans on the Hill have been investigating the use and abuse of such “official time” in federal agencies.

My essays “Bureaucratic Failure in the Federal Government” and “Reducing the Costs of Federal Worker Pay and Benefits” should provide useful information to the Trump team in assembling its workforce reform agenda.

Is For-Profit Higher Ed Horrible? Can We Talk, Please?

Obviously, numerous Obama administration policies hang in the balance with the coming of a new president and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Among them is an administration campaign that has been waged against for-profit colleges, a sector of higher education seen by many as uniquely predatory and, it is probably fair to say, uniquely awful. But is the sector so horrible? And horrible or not, does the election mean a reprieve is coming?

To answer these questions—and in the interest of having a real exchange of views—this Wednesday Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom will be hosting a Q & A-intensive forum on for-profit colleges featuring several of the sector’s most prominent critics and defenders, including former Obama administration member Robert Shireman and Center for College Affordability and Productivity director Richard Vedder. We’ll also be fielding questions through Twitter using #CatoHigherEd.

One lesson from the just-completed election seems to be that different parts of America have been talking about and past each other, but rarely to each other. At least when it comes to for-profit higher ed, at least for one morning, we plan to do something different. Register today to join us in-person, or watch online—and join us via Twitter—at 10:00 am ET, on Wednesday, November 16.

Talk with you then!

Chris Christie Bets on Federalism

While he may be in the news for being on the outs from the Trump transition, as well as for legal troubles regarding Bridgegate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is also leading a challenge to federal law that could have a quite beneficial effect in rebalancing federal-state relations.

First, some background. Why do we even have states? While a fairly common question now in light of the federal Leviathan, it likely would have seemed quite foreign to the Constitution’s authors. The Framers saw federalism’s decentralization of government authority as a central bulwark of ordered liberty, preventing any one entity or bloc from gaining too much power over the nation while encouraging innovative competition among the several “laboratories of democracy.”

Unfortunately, federalism’s safeguards against centralized authority have slowly eroded, particularly since the New Deal Supreme Court’s expansive reinterpretation of the Commerce Clause paved the way for aggressive federal expansion under Presidents Roosevelt, Johnson, and beyond. One firewall that has survived, however, is the anti-commandeering doctrine: the idea that the federal government may not compel states or state officials to implement federal policies. In other words, states cannot be made into mere “puppets of a ventriloquist Congress.” Printz v. United States (1997).

It is this anti-commandeering doctrine that is under threat in Christie v. NCAA. The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) is a federal statute that does not allow states to “authorize” sports gambling “by law.” So when New Jersey wanted to repeal some of its old gambling laws, it was stopped from doing so by PASPA, prompting Gov. Christie to sue on the grounds that the law infringes on New Jersey’s sovereignty and further undermines the United States’ federalist structure.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit interpreted this prohibition to bar states not just from affirmatively licensing sports gambling, but also from repealing or modifying preexisting state prohibitions. It held that PASPA did not violate the anti-commandeering doctrine because New Jersey wasn’t being compelled to pass new legislation, just forbidden from repealing existing laws. In doing so, it accepted an argument based almost entirely on semantics. Regardless of whether the federal government compels or forbids particular action, the result—a state’s being forced to regulate behavior that its duly elected representatives prefer to leave unregulated—is the same.

If allowed to stand, this absurd loophole may have wide-ranging implications across many policy areas and poses a serious threat to what remains of state sovereignty. Cato has joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute on a brief supporting New Jersey’s petition for Supreme Court review.

We urge the court to take up the case so that it can clarify the proper scope of the anti-commandeering doctrine and ensure that the sovereignty of the individual states—so critical to the republic’s constitutional system of checks and balances—is not further eroded by an overreaching national government.

Reality Will Curb Trump’s Protectionist Fantasies

I said there was no way Trump would last through the early primaries.  I belittled the prospect of Trump even attending the convention, much less accepting the Republican nomination.  And I was cavalier in my certainty that Trump would be making a concession speech early Tuesday night.  In other words, by Washington’s standards, I have established credibility on the subject. 

So you should feel reassured that I am less bearish about the direction of President Trump’s trade policy than I probably should be given candidate Trump’s bellicose campaign rhetoric.

The trade policies Trump outlined in broad strokes on the campaign trail would – to put it mildly – devastate the economy.  For example, Trump has said he would:

  • impose duties on 35 percent on imports from Mexico and 45 percent on imports from China;
  • impose special taxes on U.S. companies that incorporate foreign components or labor into their production or assembly operations;
  • tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement – or at least renegotiate what he calls “the worst trade deal ever negotiated,” and abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he calls a “rape of our country”; 
  • declare China a currency manipulator and impose countervailing duties to mitigate the export price advantages that practice allegedly bestows;
  • use tax policy, protectionism, and the threat of more protectionism to compel China, Mexico, and all of the other countries with whom the United States runs bilateral trade deficits to buy more from U.S. producers and sell less to U.S. consumers in order to achieve a state of balanced trade;
  • tax manufacturing companies that lay off workers.

The list of angry, knee-jerk, foolish ideas goes on and on. If you take candidate Trump at his word, U.S. trade policy is going to be an unmitigated disaster.

The American Promise

We hold these truths to be self-evident, 

that all men are created equal, 

that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, 

that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.

What Trump’s Win Means for the Supreme Court

Some thoughts, with thanks to Josh Blackman for getting the ball rolling:

  • The Garland nomination is dead. Does this mean that Trump will indeed pick someone from his list of 21 potential nominees? That list was perhaps most notable for including 9 state jurists; will we get one of those on the Supreme Court for the first time since Sandra Day O’Connor was picked in 1981?
  • Senate Republicans’ strategy of not even considering D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, of letting the American people decide who gets to fill Scalia’s seat, worked. Not only that, but it didn’t at all hurt vulnerable senators running for reelection.
  • Anthony Kennedy will almost certainly continue to be the “swing justice” on most controversial issues; he may have been the biggest winner last night.
  • I feel sorry for Garland, a respected jurist and honorable man who’s been in limbo for nearly eight months. That said, this wasn’t about him and I would’ve advised voting against him.
  • An open question is what happens when Trump realizes that the sorts of judges he’s been advised to appoint would rule against him on various matters.
  • If you live by executive action, you die by executive action—which means that many high-profile cases looming on the Supreme Court docket will simply go away. DAPA (executive action on immigration) and the Clean Power Plan will be rescinded, religious nonprofits will be exempt from Obamacare, Trump’s HHS won’t make the illegal payments that have led to House v. Burwell, and more. That may include the transgender-bathroom guidance, which if rescinded would remove the biggest controversy from the Court’s current term.
  • With the election of (my friend and University of Missouri law professor) Josh Hawley as Missouri’s new attorney general, the not-yet-scheduled Trinity Lutheran case will likely be settled.
  • The New York Times editorial board better include “It turns out that Ilya Shapiro was right” in its editorial urging senators to reject Trump’s judicial nominees. Also, I can’t wait for the Paul Krugman column making that point.

An Early Attempt to Explain What Happened Yesterday

As I write, the presidential race has just been called by the media: barring fantastical litigation, Donald Trump will be moving into the White House. But even if he had fallen just short, it’s no understatement to say that Trump shocked the nation and the world—or at least the elites (conservative, progressive, libertarian, and every other kind). Pollsters are eating crow, as are political campaign professionals. I’m not either of those, but here’s my first stab at sketching an explanation for what we just witnessed.

Here are five reasons behind the Trump phenomenon, in no particular order and using purely qualitative analysis:

  1. Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance’s book touched a nerve in the political culture by capturing the zeitgeist regarding the plight of the white working class, particularly in Appalachia. This phenomenon will be a source of many sociology dissertations in coming years.
  2. Shy Trump Voters – Just like the “shy Tories” who reelected David Cameron and the “shy Brexiteers” who voted the U.K. out of the E.U., many people didn’t want to tell pollsters that they planned to vote Trump, or simply declined to be polled.
  3. Hollywood and General Progressive Smugness – People don’t like being condescended to. I missed my chance to write an op-ed citing schadenfreude as the best reason to vote Trump, but maybe now I’ll get to do it as a silver-linings piece.
  4. Celebrity – Down-ballot GOP primary challengers tried to use Trump’s schtick and they failed. A majority/plurality of Republicans reject much of what specific policies Trump has offered. Yet The Donald has such name recognition, such a brand, that he pulled it off. We can expect many more celebrities entering the political arena in future.
  5. An Opponent Who Is a Truly Horrible Candidate – Hillary Clinton was no Democrat’s dream candidate (even the ultra-feminists would’ve preferred someone who hadn’t already been first lady) and she ran a campaign devoid of meaning—apart from the very identity politics that proved to be her undoing. She’s like Martha Coakley, the former Massachusetts attorney general who somehow managed to lose “Ted Kennedy’s” Senate seat.

As we all ponder the election, I welcome suggestions for refinement of and additions to these theories.