Monday, March 28, 2005

The GOP Becomes the Washington-Knows-Best Party

I had this Phil Gramm anecdote pulled on me during the 1994 campaign--but the other guy spoke last, so I didn't get the chance to say, "But what about the kids whose names you don’t know?" But the great thing about writing a column is that you get to recycle your material, even if it takes 11 years.

I submitted my column the same day as The Tribune published its magisterial, 1,000-word sidestep of the Schiavo issue, which you can read here. At the end, all they could say was "Boy, what a difficult issue" without disclosing what they actually thought about the case. Also, you'll notice the slippery sentence about "courts and legislatures" deciding what rules should apply. Legislatures--on a case-by-case basis? Wouldn't that normally be anathema to libertarians? Well, the editor said, normally it would, but "this isn't a normal case." Huh--like there are "normal" PVS/end of life cases? And what does it mean that there are fundamental principles apparently not as fundamental as a dispute between a woman's husband and her family, which the Florida courts have sorted out nearly 2 dozen times?

Yes, these are tough issues, but it's a huge mistake to go back to what we had prior to Cruzan--where doctors made the call and families were involved only at the periphery. We've actually got a pretty workable system in this country now, one where the law respects people's differing beliefs and values. But this particular circus could ruin life for every other elephant.

Newspaper format of my column is here.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 27, 2005

Conservatives just love to tell a story where former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, is debating some unsuspecting liberal. The setup is that the liberal arguing for some new government program ostentatiously claims that he either knows or loves Gramm’s children just as much as Gramm does. To which Gramm replies, “Then what are their names?”

It’s a great story, but one with a whiff of “urban legend” about it, because the tale mutates slightly in each retelling. The sex and type of the advocate changes, from “an official of Jimmy Carter’s Education Department” (Toward Tradition, 2000), to “a child-care bureaucrat” (National Review Online, 2004), to “a left-wing advocate of some sort” (Dick Armey, 1999), to “a liberal academic type” debating healthcare (National Review, 1999), to a “Lady Who Represents the Education Establishment” (National Review, 2001), to Princeton Prof. Paul Starr (National Center for Policy Analysis, 1997), to “an advocate” for education (Goldwater Institute, 2005).

But according to Gramm himself, in a 1994 speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the debate was about education, and it’s a female Department of Education bureaucrat who somehow claims that Gramm doesn’t love his kids any more than she does. (Who would be as stupid as that? Well, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.)

I bring up this oft-used (and oft-embellished) tale because this past week, thanks to the Terri Schiavo case, Republicans are now firmly and proudly in the “Washington-knows-best” camp. They now claim to know better than her husband. Sorry, Phil.

The Schiavo case also shows the flip-side of Gramm’s little anecdote. The clumsy liberal wanted to help kids, even kids whose names she didn’t know. But Republicans have no desire to help people unless they know them personally -- and once they know their names, there’s nothing (not law, not reason, not science, and certainly not ideology) putting any brakes on what they would have government do.

Virtually every one of the Republicans who voted to get the federal government involved in an intensely private matter -- all those “small government conservatives” who feel qualified to opine as to the fitness of Michael Schiavo as a husband, who consider themselves elected to office so they could play judge and doctor simultaneously -- also just voted to slash healthcare funding for the poor and elderly.

This so-called “culture of life” theory has no problem with capital punishment, with wars of choice, or with thousands of people facing illness and premature death, so long as those affected remains anonymous. But Republicans know Terri Schiavo’s name, so we get unprecedented instant laws and Medicaid can keep paying her care.

Mark Schmitt calls it “Miss America compassion,” where a Republican grabs hold of one (and only one) problem, either something they faced personally (a child’s autism) or which may be politically useful (breast cancer research). But this “compassion” only extends to the one specific problem, without any deeper understanding that other problems may exist worth enlisting government in helping to assuage. And, as Schmitt notes, it certainly doesn’t extend to recognizing that to help those facing such misfortunes, government requires adequate institutions and revenues.

These Republicans don’t recognize that people they don’t know personally often suffer from misfortunes these Republicans haven’t faced personally. Conservatives have no problem ignoring crowds of people facing acute illness, or autism, or brain death, or foster care so long as they don’t know them personally. Teach them a name, and suddenly there’s no limit to what (and how far) government should intrude, spend, or control.

Only helping people you know -- and not recognizing a proper, practical, and just role for government in helping people deal with misfortune -- is also a recipe for corruption. As Ed Kilgore noted, if you don’t think government can do good, and your only goal is to benefit your friends, then graft and favoritism become almost inevitable.

Stalin reportedly said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Too bad that the unprecedented, unthinking, and thoroughly cynical response by the GOP Congress to Terri Schiavo’s tragedy only proves that Stalin was, apparently and unfortunately, right.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Vouchers: Alt-Fuels for Schools

While the governor vetoed the budget bills today, I suspect the voucher bill will be vetoed separately. For those of you not from Arizona, I hope the column sufficiently explains the whole alt-fuels mess, which was the Arizona Legislature's answer to the Diamondbacks trading Curt Schilling for Casey Fossum.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 20, 2005

What did the Arizona Legislature learn from the alternative-fuels tax credit debacle five years ago? Apparently nothing, because now they want to create “alt-fuels for schools.”

Yes, that’s what vouchers are -- an alt-fuels-style tax credit, without the tax credit. Now instead of people buying expensive new SUVs with state tax money, the Legislature wants to give parents $4,000 private school tuition subsidy checks.

The voucher people claim the state will save money, under the kind of spending-money-to-save-money theories that these same people ignore and ridicule when it comes to public health or after-school programs. Theoretically, vouchers will attract students from public to private schools, “saving” the state the money needed to educate them. Cheap at half the price!

It’s essentially the same theory that the same people claimed would help reduce air pollution. The state would give a tax credit for purchasing SUVs that could operate on an “alternative” fuel, like propane. The proponents claimed that subsidizing alt-fuels vehicles would reduce pollution and we’d all benefit.

Well, it certainly didn’t work that way. First, the geniuses at the Legislature didn’t specify just how much alternative fuel a tax credit vehicle must use. An industry sprang up to install little bitty propane tanks in otherwise standard gas-guzzling SUVs, because the purchaser got the credit no matter how much (or how little) the vehicle used propane rather than dirty old regular gas.

Second, the tax credit applied not just to the alt-fuel conversion costs, but for the entire purchase price. People soon learned that buying a regular SUV was very expensive, but paying a bit extra for a propane tank (that they never need use) meant the State of Arizona would refund 75 or 80 or 90 percent of the cost of a brand new vehicle.

That’s really what vouchers are. The law’s proponents claim that the subsidy checks will go to parents who now are sending their kids to public schools, but there’s no way to check or enforce that. There’s no income test and the voucher isn’t nearly enough to send a poor deserving student in a failing public school to private school.

So just like how Jeff Groscost rigged the state tax code so his friends and neighbors could get a state subsidy for purchase of a new truck, today his successors are rigging the law to help pay for their friends’ and neighbors’ private school tuitions. Families who are now managing to pay private school tuition will get a check. Private schools can increase tuition, knowing that four grand more is free for paying parents.

Hustlers -- excuse me, entrepreneurs -- can start fly-by-night schools, provide $3,000 worth of education while charging $4,000, pocket the difference, and close the school before anyone complains. If a parent gets upset, the only remedy is a different school. It’s not like there’s any sort of accountability in the voucher program. The money goes out, and that’s it (except for one percent for administration, which also isn’t capped even though in real life, the bigger the program, the lower the percentage for overhead should be.)

The “vouchers save money” argument depends on a big increase in the number of kids going to private schools in Arizona, but of course there’s no good baseline figure of that number today or what those schools charge now. Instead, we’re going to throw money at a problem -- the problem of government not doing enough for the well-to-do.

That’s what links alt-fuels and vouchers. With alt-fuels, the state gave our tax money to rich people so they could do what they were going to do anyway. With vouchers, the state will give our tax money to the well-to-do so they can do what they were going to do anyway. Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice? Shame on me.

We now know the “conservative” Republican theory of government: Subsidizing rich people. Oh, they’ll trot out a poor family or two who can take advantage of vouchers. But it’s a fake. Those people will be as rare, and as representative, as the handful of alt-fuel SUVs that actually used propane.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Anything You Can Do, We Can Do Worse

I'm a week behind in posting my column, having been out of town last week. For those of you who want some background on this column, you can read the report on which it is based, called "Broken Promises: The Death of Deliberative Democracy" compiled by the House Rules Committee Minority Office, Hon. Louise M. Slaughter, Ranking Member. I've even got a chart, showing the decline of open rules under the Republicans, from page 13 of the report. I'll see if I can post it later today.

Next week: How to file a copy of your living will with Tom DeLay's office.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 13, 2005

The principle guiding the current leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives is that if the Democrats did it a few times, the Republicans can do it all the time.

No legislative body will be perfect. Occasionally, to run the place, the majority will restrict debate or limit amendments. At session’s end, the majority will declare “emergencies” and rush bills to the floor.

But eventually there’s a qualitative difference if the majority cuts corners a majority of the time.

While in the minority, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., fought procedures that limited debate and restricted the minority’s rights. Now, however, he’s in the majority, and deliberation and accountability don’t matter so much: Republicans “have had to do some of the things we criticized once…. I didn’t completely understand when I was in the minority.”

While those procedures that they found so terrible then are terribly useful now, Republicans aren’t just conveniently forgetting their prior criticisms of the Democrats. (Much less those brave 1994 promises about doing things better, like bringing 70 percent of bills to the floor under open rules.) By any fair standard, the GOP is far more oppressive than the Democrats ever were.

Whether it’s using “closed” and restrictive rules that bar amendments, or by spending increasingly more days on non-controversial “suspension” bills (naming post offices or congratulating sports teams -- 924 last session, a new modern-day record), or by reporting out most rules under “emergency” procedures or after late-night meetings, or by scheduling votes on major conference reports only hours after their release, the GOP majority has done its best to reduce the actual amount of deliberative democracy in the House to the barest minimum. And they’ve increased their abuse of power each year, to far higher levels than the beastly Democrats ever achieved.

According to statistics compiled by a former GOP staffer, during the 108th Congress (2003-04), the GOP used closed rules more than twice as often as did the Democrats during the 103rd (1993-94). For the 8 biggest pieces of legislation that session (such as Welfare Reform and Head Start reauthorization, the energy bill, and Medicare prescription drugs), the Rules Committee permitted only 7 Democratic amendments -- out of 162 proposed.

During 2003-04, the GOP adopted 60 percent of rules under “emergency” procedures avoiding the two days’ prior notice requirement. The Rules Committee reported 76 of those emergency rules after 8 pm at night, with 21 done at 7 am the next calendar day (under the fiction that it was still the previous “legislative” day). These “vampire Congress” hours only stifle participation, debate, and democracy.

But perhaps the most egregious abuse is the now-routine tactic of bringing House-Senate conference committee reports to a vote almost immediately. House rules normally require a three day “lay over” for conference reports to give people a chance to read the actual law. Instead, the Medicare drug benefit conference report -- 852 pages -- became available only 20 hours before the vote. The FY05 Omnibus Appropriation report (1,645 pages) came out 7 hours before the vote. Maybe you can read 235 pages of this stuff per hour, but most mortals can’t.

These procedural abuses have substantive results. The Medicare prescription drug report was filed at 1:17 am on Friday; the rule allowed for only 4 hours of debate; the 3-hour vote finally ended at 6:00 am Saturday. Naturally, this bill doesn’t do what it was supposed to do and won’t cost what it was supposed to cost. But these mistakes were foreordained by the undemocratic procedures GOP House leaders demanded.

Even Republicans like John Shadegg who voted against the bill went dutifully along with these procedures. They made these disasters inevitable, and they have to share the blame.

Like with term limits, which mattered only when Democrats held office, there’s no principle at work here, just power -- and as Lord Acton said, power corrupts.

If the Democrats actually had been this arrogant and undemocratic, The Tribune would be screaming loudly and constantly. But it’s not just about the hypocrisy of doing what the Democrats used to do; the GOP is doing far worse -- and worse procedures are yielding worse results.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Look! Over There! Thirteen Years from Now! It's a Crisis!

I worried that Social Security was becoming passé as an issue, but then the morning I filed we learned about Bush's 60-stops-in-60-days tour, and I'm relevant again! My column didn't run on Sunday but rather today so that the editor could pair it with a column by Rep. John Shadegg. You can read the newspaper version of me here, and of Shadegg here.

Note that Shadegg repeats the well, lie, that the opponents of Bush's attempt to phase out Social Security have no plan to propose. (There are plenty of Democratic plans, incidentally: Diamond-Orzag; Drum; lifting the wage ceiling and bringing state and local employees into the system; each pretty much fixes the worst-case (high-cost) shortfall and any of which would be far superior to whatever Bush will eventually actually propose.) But try calling up Shadegg's office and asking for a copy of Shadegg's actual, numbers-on-paper plan. He's not listed as a co-sponsor of any of the actual bills (of which there's just Kolbe-Boyd, apparently.) He's got positions and principles and beliefs, but there's no actual plan that you can check what you get under the current system and what you'd get if he had his way.

And that's purposeful. It's like the Toles cartoon: Bush won't tell you the details until he has your support. These guys want credit for bringing up tough issues, except they don't give anybody any bad news, and what they disclose of their plan is "if people invest in stocks, that magically takes care of any shortfall!" In other words, borrow our way to riches. The tooth fairy will give us more money and less taxes. So simple, anybody could do it. Sheesh. These guys make Fife Symington look honest.

Social Security
Current Debt Crisis is Bigger Concern

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 7, 2005

George Bush is very, very worried because beginning in about 2018, the federal government could spend more on benefits than it receives in Social Security taxes. But he presides over a government that’s running far bigger deficits right now, which bothers him not a whit.

Let’s use Congressional Budget Office numbers, which are rosily optimistic projections because, by law, they must assume (1) no spending for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and (2) expiration of tax breaks that the Bush administration wants to extend, and (3) tax revenues swelled by millions of middle-class taxpayers paying Alternative Minimum Tax, and (4) unrealistic cuts in popular programs, and (5) no other “supplemental” spending between now and 2009 that swamps any regular budget “savings.” Thus, Bush’s actual numbers will be worse.

According to CBO, under the budgets prepared during Bush’s presidency, the government will spend $2.3 trillion more than it takes in. That’s what’s happening right now. The Social Security “shortfall” for the 8 years beginning in 2018, some 13 years distant, is only a fraction of that total.

And $2.3 trillion actually understates the deficit, because during Bush’s 8 years, we’re paying $1.5 trillion more in Social Security taxes than required for current benefits. The actual “on-budget” deficit, reflecting spending fully approved by the GOP Congress and President Bush, will be $3.8 trillion.

In other words, Bush currently is drowning the nation in a swimming pool of red ink, Medicare and Medicaid are gushing money at rapidly increasing rates, but Bush instead worries that 13 years from now, actuaries project that under pessimistic assumptions, we’ll add a bathtub more to the water level.

If the country can survive 8 years of annual deficits averaging nearly $400 billion a year, why is a much smaller gap between Social Security revenues and benefits more than a dozen years from now -- when the economy will be that much larger -- a bigger deal?

Why, exactly, are Republicans (and The Tribune) so wrought up over the smaller problem down the road -- that’s the “crisis,” we’re constantly told -- but the much bigger chasm between what our leaders are spending and what money we give them to spend right now is merely a problem occasionally to be mildly deplored, but only in the most general and namby-pamby terms?

You true believers know you must never criticize any sitting GOP members of the Arizona congressional delegation, who apparently are innocent bystanders restrained at gunpoint from accomplishing anything constructive in Washington.

Also, when Bush uses the 2018 date, he’s saying something very interesting. Between when he took office and then, we’ll have paid about $3 trillion more in Social Security taxes than needed for benefits. Those extra funds were invested in special Treasury bonds -- those “IOUs” or “mere paper” you keep hearing about. The idea of the big Social Security tax hikes during the Reagan administration was that the boomers would pay more than needed during their working years, so that the trust funds could redeem those bonds when the demographic bulge retired and limit the benefit cuts (not politically likely) or tax hikes (not politically likely either) needed to handle the large boomer cohort’s retirements.

Bush (and other Republicans) may be talking about those Treasury bonds as if they weren’t real obligations of the government. But those trust fund bonds won’t be the only Treasury bonds coming due starting in 2018. There are trillions of dollars of other government bonds held by investors, domestic and foreign, maturing starting in 2018. Bush seems to be saying that we’ll repay the banks, the Saudis, and the Koreans, but not American workers who paid extra into the Social Security trust fund.

Somehow, our bonds (and only our bonds) are “mere IOUs.” Gee, thanks, Alan Greenspan!

Add it up, people. Why is a smaller, future, contingent problem a crisis, but worse numbers today aren’t? Why are your bonds “mere IOUs” but the Chinese Central Bank knows it’ll be repaid? Why are Social Security taxes on lower- and middle-class taxpayers helping fund tax breaks for the richest?

It’s a scam, folks. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Jim Slattery on Ukraine-U.S. Relations

Jim Slattery, former House member from Kansas (and the leader of my delegation to Kyiv in October and also part of the monitoring team I joined in December for the rerun of the runoff election) has an op-ed in The Hill on 10 things the U.S. should do for and with the new government in Ukraine. It's worth reading, even if I wasn't already on record as supporting more rapid tourist and student visa processing, greater student exchanges, graduation of Ukraine from Jackson-Vanik, and increased aid to assist with economic development (and ultimately EU integration).