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Waste & Government Reform Archive



January 2015



Celebrating Gridlock

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Liberty & Limited Government, Waste & Government Reform

There was, predictably, a lot of end-of-year handwringing about Congressional gridlock and a lack of legislative productivity. In my recent column at EveryJoe, I explain why we should be celebrating gridlock instead of whining about it.

Chastising a session of Congress as “unproductive” due to gridlock has become a sort of tradition for statist media. Whenever a new year roles around, columnists and editorial boards begin wagging their figurative fingers at Congress for failing to meet some arbitrary threshold of activity, before sagely calling on the next session to do better.

…These arguments are not new. The same stories were written last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. They are also fallacious, suffering from flaws both logical and methodological.

…The whole exercise comes off as little more than poorly disguised concern trolling, where those with ideological axes to grind seek to discredit opponents without having to engage in the messiness of debating what policies are right or wrong.

You can read it all here.



December 2014



Perhaps the Most Important Issue for the New Congress to Get Right

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Economics & the Economy, Liberty & Limited Government, Taxes, Waste & Government Reform

My column this week at EveryJoe argues the need for reform at CBO and JCT. It may seem like inside baseball type stuff, but it is critically important if we ever want to be able to shrink government.

Imagine you were participating for years in a high stakes contest that was consistently rigged in favor of your opponent. Specifically, the contest hinges heavily on the verdict of third-party judges that claim neutrality, but in fact choose to interpret the rules in a way that tilts the field in favor of the opposition.

Now, image you have the opportunity to replace those judges with new ones, as well as to make their deliberations more transparent and accountable. Would you take advantage and replace the judges, even if the opposition cried foul? The answer to this question may seem obvious, but for Congressional Republicans it’s not just a hypothetical, and they are pondering once again making the stupid choice to accept the status quo.

The organizations represented by the biased judges in this scenario are the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT), which score policy proposals and predict the impact of legislation on the economy. They’ve typically held tremendous power over what does and does not make it into law, and for years have been actively hostile to the limited government agenda.

With current CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf’s term about to expire, Republicans not only have the power to name a better replacement, but also the opportunity to make some much needed rule changes that will ensure a fairer, more accurate, and more accountable legislative scoring system.

You can read the rest here.

Since I wrote the piece, news has leaked that Republicans intend to replace Elmendorf. This is good news, but it’s only a start. As the article explains, much more needs to be changed than just the man at the top. This Washington Examiner editorial also makes the case for moving toward accurate scoring.



November 2014



Don’t Abolish Midterms Just Yet

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Election Time, Waste & Government Reform

A New York Times op-ed by a Duke professor and a student argues that midterm elections are passé. A cynic might conclude something about the timing of this realization – that it coincides with an election in which the party favored by academia (and the New York Times) is likely to receive an electoral shellacking. But the argument is worth taking at face value, so let’s consider it on the merits.

Schanzer and Sullivan say that midterms once made sense, but that times have changed. For one, they argue that the need for close electoral accountability has diminished thanks to modern technology:

Twitter, ubiquitous video cameras, 24-hour cable news and a host of other technologies provide a level of hyper-accountability the framers could not possibly have imagined. In the modern age, we do not need an election every two years to communicate voters’ desires to their elected officials.

Perhaps. Communicating with elected officials is certainly easier than ever before, as is taking the pulse of the electorate, but does greater access to public desires translate into legislative results? I find that politicians are most concerned about public views come election time. Longer terms for House members would thus reduce incentives for representatives to adhere to public desires.

Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that’s precisely what the authors want. They worry over the fact that “Americans’ confidence in the ability of their government to address pressing concerns is at a record low,” and grumble that the “main impact of the midterm election in the modern era has been to weaken the president.” Indeed, it appears to be any obstacle to an imperial presidency that most motivates the authors.

“The realities of the modern election cycle,” they complain, “are that we spend almost two years selecting a president with a well-developed agenda, but then, less than two years after the inauguration, the midterm election cripples that same president’s ability to advance that agenda.”

In other words, this appears to boil down to the standard statist complaint over “gridlock.” Though they also throw in some identity politics for good measure:

Another quirk is that, during midterm elections, the electorate has been whiter, wealthier, older and more educated than during presidential elections. Biennial elections require our representatives to take this into account, appealing to one set of voters for two years, then a very different electorate two years later.

Again, a cynic might note that the kind of voters the authors would prefer politicians stop appealing to tend to favor an ideology and party that academia (and the media) loathes. But not to worry, they have a solution:

There’s an obvious, simple fix, though. The government should, through a constitutional amendment, extend the term of House members to four years and adjust the term of senators to either four or eight years, so that all elected federal officials would be chosen during presidential election years. Doing so would relieve some (though, of course, not all) of the systemic gridlock afflicting the federal government and provide members of Congress with the ability to focus more time and energy on governance instead of electioneering.

For many, anything that limits the energy politicians spend on governance – that is, the time spent imposing their whims on the rest of us – is likely to be a good thing. Gridlock, in other words, is a feature rather than a bug.

Political tools tend to be blunt instruments, and attempts to solve societal problems through the political process are often hamfisted and counterproductive. Certainly some problems need political solutions, but there is good reason for the process to be arduous and time consuming. The impulse of individual politicians in the face of any problem is to preen and overreact in order to demonstrate that they are “doing something.” It is up to institutions, then, to slow things down and force deliberation into the process. If midterm elections contribute to that process, then they are a net positive.



July 2013



I’m From the Government’s IT Department, and I’m Here to Help

Written by , Posted in Waste & Government Reform

Ronald Reagan said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” For those of us who care about things like sound fiscal stewardship of taxpayer dollars, a close second may be “I’m from the government’s IT Department, and I’m here to help.”

Let’s back up a moment before we get to that. You’re on a computer right now. At some point in time, it’s probably been infected with malware. Heck, it probably is right now. But at some point you probably actually did something about. What did you do, may I ask? Did you take a sledge hammer to it? Chuck it out a 3rd story window? I imagine not, as that’s an expensive and unnecessary solution when you can just run a bit of free (or cheap) software and be rid of the problem.

But government bureaucrats don’t do things the easy way, nor do they care about wasting money. After all, it’s not their money. Here’s what they did when faced with the same problem according to the Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General (Hat-tip: Gizmodo):

EDA’s CIO concluded that the risk, or potential risk, of extremely persistent malware and nation-state activity (which did not exist) was great enough to necessitate the physical destruction of all of EDA’s IT components. EDA’s management agreed with this risk assessment and EDA initially destroyed more than $170,000 worth of its IT components,21 including desktops, printers, TVs, cameras, computer mice, and keyboards. By August 1, 2012, EDA had exhausted funds for this effort and therefore halted the destruction of its remaining IT components, valued at over $3 million. EDA intended to resume this activity once funds were available. However, the destruction of IT components was clearly unnecessary because only common malware was present on EDA’s IT systems.

This is astonishing even by government standards. They literally had to run out of money in order to stop destroying their own equipment over a little bit of malware. That’s like trying to amputate all your limbs over a few mosquito bites, but stopping at just taking off one only because you ran out of saws.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re told that spending can’t possibly be cut by 2% without ending life on this planet as we know it.



April 2013



Shocking New Study: Lack of Legal Accountability Breeds Corruption

Written by , Posted in The Courts, Criminal Justice & Tort, Waste & Government Reform

Not that I intend to demean the folks who conducted this study, as there is utility in confirming with evidence things that seem obvious or intuitive, but I can’t help but laugh at the headline, “Corruption soars when politicians are placed above the law, study finds:”

In a new study, Stern School of Business assistant professor of economics Vasiliki Skreta and co-authors, Karthik Reddy of Harvard Law School and Moritz Schularick of the University of Bonn, examine statutory immunity provisions that obstruct or limit the criminal liability of politicians, and which exist throughout much of the modern democratic world.

…The researchers quantified the strength of immunity protection in 74 democracies and verified that immunity is strongly associated with corruption on an aggregate level. They also developed a theoretical model that demonstrated how stronger immunity protection can lead to higher corruption. The model suggested that unaccountable politicians under immunity protection can enhance their chance of re-election by using illegal means, namely supporting interest groups through lax law enforcement, non-collection of taxes, and other forms of favoritism that will go unpunished.

Certainly how a system constrains those in power is an important and worthy area of study in the social sciences. Most, however, probably already accept that politicians should not be above the law. In that sense the study may have limited impact. However, if we generalize its findings a bit and begin to question the accountability of other government officials, it could theoretically have broader implications.

Consider prosecutors, who were once described by Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson as having “more control over life, liberty and reputation than any other person in America.” Their charging power, he said, is an “immense power to strike at citizens, not with mere individual strength, but with all the force of government itself.” And yet, they have absolute immunity, which renders them impervious to any legal repercussions for such decisions. Making matters worse is that the Supreme Court has given them a slightly less comprehensive standard of qualified immunity in situations where they actually investigate evidence. In other words, prosecutors are given a comparative disincentive from investigating the strength of the evidence they will use to try and convict someone, and then given complete immunity for how those decisions turn out.

Sadly, as Radley Balko reports, “prosecutors are rarely disciplined even for serious misconduct.” For every Mike Nifong of Duke Lacrosse fame who actually gets disciplined, there are orders of magnitude more who get off scot-free. They are held to essentially no legal standard at all. It is a system ripe for corruption, and corruption is precisely what frequently occurs.



November 2012



Harry Reid's Dishonest Filibuster Reform Argument

Written by , Posted in Waste & Government Reform

I try on this blog to criticize the ideas and policies of my adversaries, instead of the people themselves. I don’t always succeed, but that is one of my goals. But for Harry Reid I make an exception and don’t even try. He continues to demonstrate that he is one of the most loathsome people in the DC cesspool, and cares about nothing other than the accumulation of his own power. He runs the Senate like a dictatorship, abusing his authority in ways that do direct harm to political process and the American people. He is a cancer desperately in need of removal from the body politic.

His latest assault on good government is taking place as a crusade against the filibuster. He claims that the problem is his adversaries, who are abusing it to block his agenda. As usual he has twisted reality on its head, as it is Harry Reid who has long abused Senate rules to prevent votes on issues he considers politically dangerous to himself or his party, and who is seeking to solidify his ability to do so going forward. Mark Calabria of Cato explains:

First, let’s remember that the objective of every majority leader is to stay majority leader. To do so means members of his party must win re-election. One of the important ways a majority leader can facilitate such is to protect his members from tough votes. For instance, witness Reid’s current attempts to stop a vote on Rand Paul’s (R-KY) amendment to limit indefinite detention. You’d think that since many liberal voters and groups oppose indefinite detention, Reid would welcome such a vote. But such a vote would put Democrats and President Obama at odds. So Reid’s favored course of action is to avoid such a vote.

How does this relate to the filibuster? Well after cloture is invoked (see Senate Rule XXII), the only amendments that can be voted on are those that are both pending and germane. And an amendment only gets pending if there’s no objection. All Reid needs to do is oppose amendments for 30 hours, then the curtain comes down and he can force a vote, and this assumes he hasn’t already filled the amendment tree (I’ve witnessed such a process too many times to count). So when Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) claims, “[w]e’ve had over 300 filibusters in the last six years,” he fails to mention that few of these were actual filibusters. The vast majority were attempts by the Majority to limit amendments by pre-emptively filing cloture.

He goes on to look at the ratio of roll call votes to measures passed as a proxy for how frequently a Majority Leader uses this obstructionist practice, and lo-and-behold, Harry Reid is worse than the average. Harry Reid does not want filibuster reform to enhance the workers of the Senate, he wants filibuster reform to enhance his iron grip on the legislative agenda and further constrain the ability of anyone not named Harry Reid to have a say.



June 2012



Uninformed Government

Written by , Posted in Health Care, Welfare & Entitlements, Waste & Government Reform

How people imagine government works and how it actually works are often two very different pictures. Many people like to believe, for instance, that government is run by deliberative lawmakers and interested technocrats who careful consider policies before implementing them, and then later consider the data to evaluate their progress.

Little could be further from the truth.

Government is better thought of as children. Politicians jump from issue to issue seemingly at random, showing at first the kind of intense interest similar to a youngster discovering a new hobby only then to see it abandoned a week later when something newer and shinier comes along.

Laws already on the books are yesterday’s news, of no more interest than the half-finished, abandoned tree fort in the backyard. Government, it turns out, doesn’t care enough to know any details about how its policies are doing:

Americans spend $80 billion each year financing food stamps for the poor, but the country has no idea where or how the money is spent.

…Coinciding with lobbying by convenience stores, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program in conjunction with states, contends that disclosing how much each store authorized to accept benefits, known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), receives in taxpayer funds would amount to revealing trade secrets.

As a result, fraud is hard to track and the efficacy of the massive program is impossible to evaluate.

This is no way to govern. And it’s not just lawmakers lacking information. As Gene Healy explains, this administration has taken keeping the public in the dark to a whole new level.

Government as it turns out is not a thoughtful, deliberative process, or a place where smart people get together to solve all our problems. It’s more like a dark, dank back-alley full of drunks stumbling around to find their footing.



May 2012



Common Cause Was For Filibusters Before They Were Against Them

Written by , Posted in The Courts, Criminal Justice & Tort, Waste & Government Reform

Common Cause, which is part of the left’s organized campaign to silence ALEC, recently filed a silly lawsuit seeking to have the Senate filibuster declared unconstitutional:

For years, critics of the filibuster have failed to convince senators to change the procedural delaying tactic. Now they’re taking their case to the courts.

The nonpartisan nonprofit Common Cause sued the U.S. Senate on Monday, challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster rules that require routine 60-vote thresholds for bills and nominations that often have majority support. Several House Democrats and three undocumented students who would be aided by the so-called DREAM Act also joined the suit.

Constitutionally the suit is easy to dismiss. Congress has the authority to set its own rules, and the Court neither has the authority nor the desire to say otherwise. There’s also the issue of standing, which these three undocumented illegal immigrant students don’t have just because they would have theoretically benefited from some bill that was not passed. That is just a mind boggling argument all the way around.

Common Cause would be on slightly stronger ground if they challenged the filibuster’s use to oppose appointments, rather than legislation, where the Senate has a constitutional duty to advise and consent. But even then the argument is flimsy, and the court would likely not intervene given the wide discretion it rightfully gives Congress on managing its own affairs (which contrasts with the unfortunately wide discretion it gives Congressional legislation, which should instead be closely examined for Constitutional fidelity).

But such debate assumes that Common Cause can be taken at face value as a good faith participant in the political process. The facts suggest, however, that they are merely partisan hacks staking out a position of convenience because they disagree with the ideology of the Senate’s current minority. To wit, consider Common Cause’s position when Senate roles were reversed (Hat-tip: Outside the Beltway):

In 2005, Common Cause vigorously defended the filibuster when some Republicans proposed invoking the “nuclear option” to end the filibuster of judicial nominees.  From a 2005 press release:

Common Cause strongly opposes any effort by Senate leaders to outlaw filibusters of judicial nominees to silence a vigorous debate about the qualifications of these nominees, short-circuiting the Senate’s historic role in the nomination approval process.

“The filibuster shouldn’t be jettisoned simply because it’s inconvenient to the majority party’s goals,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. “That’s abuse of power.”



April 2012



How Much of Your Money Does it Take to "Translocate" a Bush?

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Waste & Government Reform

I wrote recently about a situation that demonstrated how much more inefficient and wasteful is government compared to private action. Another story, this time out of big government mecca San Francisco, provides further evidence of government waste:

The government spent at least $205,075 in 2010 to “translocate” a single bush in San Francisco that stood in the path of a $1.045-billion highway-renovation project that was partially funded by the economic stimulus legislation President Barack Obama signed in 2009.

…“The translocation of the Arctostaphylos franciscana plant to an active native plant management area of the Presidio was accomplished, apparently successfully and according to plan, on January 23, 2010,” the Interior Department reported.

The bush—a Franciscan manzanita—was a specimen of a commercially cultivated species of shrub that can be purchased from nurseries for as little as $15.98 per plant. The particular plant in question, however, was discovered in the midst of the City of San Francisco, in the median strip of a highway, and was deemed to be the last example of the species in the “wild.”

Prior to the discovery of this “wild” Franciscan manzanita, the plant had been considered extinct for as long as 62 years–extinct, that is, outside of people’s yards and botanical gardens.

Before that, the bush had grown in the “wild” in two cemeteries in San Francisco’s Richmond District as well as on Mount Davidson, a peak in the middle of San Francisco. The Department of Interior said that there had also been “unconfirmed sightings” of the shrub in the city’s Haight-Ashbury District—an area that became famous in the late 1960s as the epicenter of the psychedelic hippie movement.

I feel like the country has gone completely mad. Step back and think about this for a moment. Our government is running trillion dollars deficits, we are piling unsustainable debts upon future generations, and are barreling down a path that without a sharp correction will eventually see us turn into Greece. Yet we’re willing to spend $200,000 not just to move a freaking plant, but to move one that isn’t actually rare in any real sense of the word, and even if it was, so what? It’s a plant, people! Are we insane, or am I?

First of all, what in the world were they doing to move the plant that could possibly cost that much? Second, it is ludicrous to make a distinction between “wild” plants and…what, domesticated plants? Plants held in captivity?

A plant is a plant is a plant. Whether the initial seed wafted unobstructed on the wind until reaching its resting place and sprouting, or was consciously planted by a human being makes no material difference regarding the nature of the plant. The plant does not experience life differently depending on whether it is “wild” or not.

Finally, who says “translocate”? Such self-aggrandizing bureaucratese is an indication that the author understands what the government is doing is both shamefully unimportant and worth neither their time nor the taxpayers money. The bureaucrats involved are merely trying to obscure the issue and deceive the people and, perhaps even more so, themselves. Nobody likes to feel like what they do is unimportant, so just imagine how it must feel to write a report about spending boatloads of taxpayer dollars to move a shrub. Of course, that’s nothing like how the rest of us are forced to feel in paying for such nonsense.



April 2012



Private Does It Better

Written by , Posted in Big Government, Liberty & Limited Government, Waste & Government Reform

This is apparently an old story from a couple years ago, but I just came across it. First, the story:

Their livelihood was being threatened, and they were tired of waiting for government help, so business owners and residents on Hawaii’s Kauai island pulled together and completed a $4 million repair job to a state park — for free.

…Polihale State Park has been closed since severe flooding destroyed an access road to the park and damaged facilities in December.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources had estimated that the damage would cost $4 million to fix, money the agency doesn’t have, according to a news release from department Chairwoman Laura Thielen.

…And if the repairs weren’t made, some business owners faced the possibility of having to shut down.

…So Slack, other business owners and residents made the decision not to sit on their hands and wait for state money that many expected would never come. Instead, they pulled together machinery and manpower and hit the ground running March 23.

And after only eight days, all of the repairs were done, Pleas said. It was a shockingly quick fix to a problem that may have taken much longer if they waited for state money to funnel in.

It would be easy to take a story like this and generalize about the uselessness of government, but I don’t want to overstate the lesson here. This is a very particularly case that is not likely to be applicable in many other situations. Specifically, the residents had a very strong financial interest in restoring access to the park, enough to overcome the collective action and free-rider problems.

But what strikes me as really interesting is the stark contrast between the cost estimates by the government and the amount of work it actually took from the volunteers. The government needed $4 million dollars to do what a handful of volunteers got done in eight days. That is a shocking amount of waste and incompetence, and this sort of thing probably goes unnoticed every single day. Only this time, because folks got together to act, we were able to see clearly just how incompetent government is.

If ever there was proof for the inefficiency and waste inherent in government, this is it.  The lesson here is not that government is necessarily unneeded, but rather that anything which can be accomplished by some other means than government, should be.