Thursday, October 27, 2005

R.I.P. Miers Nomination

I have said that I think that any presidential nominee that is qualified for a position should be confirmed. I still believe this to be sound policy. Elections mean something. We implicitly give those we elect as chief executive the privilege of nominating people to various positions. As long as the nominee is qualified and is clean, he/she should be confirmed even if we don’t agree with the nominee’s philosophy.

This morning Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination to serve as an associate Supreme Court justice, much to the relief of many conservatives. I have to admit that I feel strangely relieved as well. I have watched this whole process with the same kind of interested horror with which people view the aftermath of a nasty automobile collision.

On one hand, I sympathized with conservatives that felt sick inside about the Miers nomination. On the other hand, I felt that the right thing to do was to let the nomination run its course. The Senate should discover whether she was qualified or not (something that was not immediately apparent), and then vote based on their findings. I thought the nomination was most likely a mistake, but I also thought that the President deserved to have the nominee he wanted as long as she was deemed qualified via the normal process.

The Miers nomination was problematic from the outset. While some people were concerned about John Roberts’ personal philosophy, there was never any doubt that he was imminently qualified for the position. All we had with Harriet Miers was a huge question mark. Sure she had been a lawyer and had managed lawyers, but was she qualified to rule on matters of constitutional law? Nobody could really say yes or no on that.

The administration circumvented its vetting process to nominate Ms. Miers. Regardless of how good the President felt about her, that was not the right thing to do. Our system of government strives for transparency to prevent corruption. Many questioned whether the nomination of someone so close to President Bush violated what auditors call separation of duties. It doesn’t mean that something fishy is going on, but it allows the opportunity for such.

While I had a sinking feeling about the Miers nomination, I was shocked at how vociferously many conservatives attacked it. Apparently the Bush administration was even more shocked. Ed Morrissey says here that the conservative backlash was merely the release of pent up frustrations. Miers was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Morrissey aptly notes what I have said before, that Bush is really not that conservative. But because Bush was the best option for the war against radical Islam, tax cuts, and the general quality of judicial nominees, conservatives stuck with him. They kept mum on (or even supported) many very anti-conservative policies such as the huge expansion of Medicare, the federal oversight of education, and discretionary spending; McCain-Feingold; and ignoring illegal immigration.

But the Miers nomination was simply too much for many conservatives. They vented their pent up fury for all of Bush’s anti-conservative actions on this one nomination. After three and a half weeks of withering criticism, the nomination was finally withdrawn. Despite Senator Harry Reid’s (D-NV) protestations, few are actually sad to see the nomination die. The administration has been so battered that some observers wonder whether the President will be able to achieve any of his goals over the next three years. I think they underestimate this president’s resilience.

I said here that conservatives have set too high a standard for President Bush. They want him to be something that he is not. Morrissey thinks that flare ups like the reaction to the Miers nomination can be avoided if conservatives deal with issues as they go along, rather than sweeping them under the rug. Maybe if the administration and conservatives have a regular dialog about issues, even if it’s quite lively, it will be healthier for people on all sides and for the nation as a whole. At any rate, I hope the President and his administration get it right on the next SCOTUS nominee.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Networked Computing As a Model for Government

LaVarr Webb has a marvelous essay here that should be required reading for everyone involved in politics at any level. Webb postulates that the job of President of the United States has become too big for one person. He then artfully explains why this is so.
“We’ve come to demand and expect so much out of the federal government that the reality is it will never meet our needs and wants. We want government to take care of us from cradle to grave, handle every disaster and emergency, feed us, house us, educate us, provide us health care, make sure our caps cover our ears, button our jackets, tie up our little booties and wipe our noses. And do all of these things without ballooning the federal debt or taxing us too much. With those expectations, the job of leading this country is simply not doable.”
As a computer professional, I can relate to the solution Webb proposes because he uses the metaphor of networked computing. He likens the federal government to an old overloaded mainframe computer that has all of the power and performs all of the functions, albeit, poorly. That would make local governments equivalent to dumb terminals sending requests and waiting for responses.

The computing world has moved away from the old mainframe architecture because it was unwieldy, expensive, and extremely limiting. “The age of the mainframe computer, with all control and power at the center, has long been replaced with intelligent networks of PCs with intelligence and capacity dispersed out on the periphery, but networked together for plenty of interaction and collaboration.”

Webb says that this is how our governmental entities throughout the nation should work. “Just as in a computer network, states would have to agree on standards and protocols to deal with complex interstate issues. But the motto ought to be ‘national standards, local control,’ not top-down, bureaucratic dictates from a one-size-fits-all central government.”

What Webb is suggesting is actually the government envisioned and implemented by our founders, where the national government is limited to only the powers enumerated in the Constitution while state and local governments have indefinite powers.

Webb admits that our world is incredibly more complex than it was when the Constitution was written, and that it would be nearly impossible to implement his vision. However, he provides the success of moving welfare back to the states as an example of how we might go about doing this. Perhaps it needs to be done one piece at a time. Webb calls on our political leaders to start discussing how to accomplish this.

I agree with Webb. We need to start devolving power away from the wasteful central government. Not only would this make the federal government more manageable, it would make state and local governments more manageable and responsive to their citizens. It’s time to give our bureaucracy in D.C. a break and start shouldering the responsibility for our governmental needs closer to home.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Limit Federal Spending Now!

Recently while at the store, my 8-year-old son was miffed when I told him I didn’t have money to buy something he wanted. He looked at the items in the cart and asked how I could have money for all of that stuff, but not for the thing he wanted. For the umpteenth time, I tried to give him a 30-second course in family economics. He seemed to understand mentally, but he obviously still couldn’t grasp the concept emotionally.

Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association, recently wrote an article calling for better financial education for our youth. He noted that despite the increasing sophistication of American youth, most “high school graduates are totally unprepared to manage their personal finances responsibly.” They don’t understand that paying the minimum credit card payment could leave them paying for a pizza or a CD months or even years later.

Years ago I received a bracing education in real world finances when I worked in the loan department of a bank. I was assigned to work with people that were delinquent on their credit payments. From working with these people and working with youth over the years, I believe that the main source of money problems is a failure to mentally and emotionally understand two concepts: the limited size of the pot of available funds, and priority of potential expenditures. It is amazing how fast financial problems evaporate when people properly understand these issues.

This principle extends to government as well. Former Congressman Dick Armey (R-TX) once said, “Three groups spend other people’s money: children, thieves, politicians. All three need supervision.” Over the past five years our Congress has been spending like they have no adult supervision. There seems to be a lack of understanding of the limited amount of available funds and how to prioritize expenditures. If politicians run out of revenue, they simply mandate more debt. Everything people (and politicians) want becomes a top priority.

I have discussed this problem in these previous posts: 1, 2, 3, 4. Pete du Pont, former governor of Delaware and chairman of the National Center for Policy Analysis notes here that, “The real annual growth rate of federal government outlays is nearly at its highest modern percentage.” Higher than during the Reagan years. Much higher than during the Clinton years. Even higher than during the Johnson years. And only a small portion of that is for homeland security. It’s mainly due to growth in social programs and pork barrel projects.

Interestingly, it is the Bush tax cuts that have kept this increased spending from swamping the economy. These tax cuts have made for a robust economy that has resulted in a 14% increase in tax revenue. But there is a limit to how much profligate spending the economy can handle.

Brendan Miniter says here that while cutting congressional pork is important and necessary, what we really need is “a coherent and broad-based plan to shrink the size of government by controlling spending.” Du Pont thinks that the problem has reached the point that we need “a constitutional amendment to hold the growth of federal spending to specific percentages of revenue unless there is a supermajority override by both houses of Congress.” Such a constitutional requirement would force the plan Mr. Miniter desires.

Du Pont notes the success experienced by Delaware, which passed such an amendment to its state constitution 25 years ago limiting government spending to 98% of revenue, with the remaining 2% going into a rainy day fund to cover things like disaster recovery. The result has been 25 years of healthy government and balanced budgets. In 1992 Colorado amended its constitution to limit the growth in government spending to inflation plus population growth. The result has been one of the highest rates of growth in GDP and personal income in the nation. These amendments have effectively controlled government spending and forced politicians and constituents to prioritize needs and wants.

I am leaning toward agreeing with Mr. du Pont. It looks like our federal government spending system needs additional checks and balances. But it’s incredibly difficult to pass a constitutional amendment. Our founders intended this to be the case. Federal politicians would have to vote to tie their own hands: “Stop me before I spend again!” State politicians have to vote to possibly cut their own states’ access to the federal trough. They also might be justifiably leery that Congress would simply mandate that the states cover desired programs, thus indirectly increasing states’ budgetary needs without impacting the federal budget.

Mr. du Pont suggests that even if the amendment failed, it would engender an important national discussion about “How big, how expensive and how fiscally generous to industries and local communities [and I would add, to individuals] should America's national government be?” I believe that it is essential that as a nation we engage in this discussion – and the sooner, the better.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Laws Come At a Cost

Do we adequately study the economic impacts of the laws we pass? Some states now require economic impact statements on each legislative bill. Such statements are now routine parts of federal bills. But sometimes these statements are little better than optimistic narratives by the bill’s sponsors.

We need to wake up and realize that every new law has some kind of economic impact. Unfortunately we sometimes ignore the long-term effects of proposed laws in the passion of the moment. Let’s look at one example. Wait times in emergency rooms have increased exponentially over the past decade. Why?

This article explains that multiple factors have driven up ER wait times and costs. A big reason is that some people go to the ER instead of to their family physician for routine or chronic issues. Why? It’s sometimes difficult to see your doctor. I contend that this is partially the result of a payment system that obfuscates the customer-provider relationship. But well-meant legislation is also a major basis for the problem.

In 1986, indignant politicians passed an anti-dumping law that prevents ERs from transferring stabilized (often disadvantaged) patients to other facilities. The result has played out to be an annual loss of $4.2 billion revenue for hospitals. We pass the compassion test with flying colors, but the revenue loss has caused ERs to shut down in record numbers, especially in economically disadvantaged areas. Today there are 14% fewer ERs than 12 years ago. Fewer facilities means overcrowding at remaining ones, resulting in increased wait times.

Another well-meant piece of legislation imposes patient privacy rules that we all want. However, as one administrator notes, “people may be unaware of the resources that educating on and complying with federal regulations consumes nationally, and these valuable dollars become consumed by generating required paperwork instead of taking care of patients.”

The point is that we often pass legislation that most people think is important without understanding the long-term impact. Sure, there were egregious examples of patient dumping. Yes, we all want our medical records secure. But would we have passed the laws the way they are written had we understood how much they would contribute to higher costs and reduced availability?

Proponents of legislative bills are usually not the best people to look critically at all sides of the issue. We need elected representatives that are willing to flush out future effects of consumer adverse proposals so that decisions can be reached with more complete information. In effect, we need a better cost-benefit study system in our political process. At least we should understand the true cost of proposed legislation before we buy it.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Why Are Conservatives Unhappy About Miers?

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a lot of division (and perhaps confusion) in the conservative community over the President’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

While some conservatives have stood staunchly by the President on this choice, far more are not excited about it, but are willing to see it through. Still others are quite upset about the whole thing. I’ve tried to show some of the various schools of thought in my previous posts here and here.

Famed author (and former Reagan speech writer) Peggy Noonan is among the group that is not happy. Her article here is representative of the feelings of many conservatives, where she openly calls the Miers nomination a mistake. She includes a long list of “maybes” that describe conservative disillusionment with the President that I sense (from a wide variety of blogs, articles, and radio shows) is somewhat prevalent among strong conservatives that consider themselves Bush’s base. She conjectures that maybe the President:
  • Doesn’t care about his base since he’s not standing for any future election.

  • Is showing his base who’s really boss.

  • Thinks his base will stick by him no matter what.

  • “Has decided the era of hoping for small government is over.”

  • “Sees the right not as a thing he is of but a thing he must appease, defy, please or manipulate.”

  • “After five years … is fully revealing himself.”
Noonan makes a point of why all of this is important. “Whatever the answer, history is being revealed here by the administration every day, and it's big history, not small.”

When it comes down to the Miers nomination, Noonan seems mostly upset that Miers is such an unknown quantity. She feels this is a bad thing that will further mystify the great, almighty, Supreme Court. She postulates that many big-time law types hide their personal philosophies, not only from others, but also from themselves. Then they reveal those hidden philosophies to the world and to themselves as they rule from the bench (as judges or justices). Thus, as the court (and the whole judiciary) becomes more powerful it also becomes more mysterious.

Noonan says, “We have a two part problem. The first is that no one knows what [justices] think until they’re there. The other is that they're there forever.” She then calls for a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of justices, (which may not be a bad idea). Her reasoning: “Why not? We'd amend it to ban flag-burning, even though a fool burning a flag can't possibly harm our country. But a Kelo decision and a court unrebuked for it can really tear the fabric of a nation.”

While relatively conservative myself, I feel that many conservatives have set too high a standard for President Bush. Because he’s a practicing Evangelical Christian, they expect him to be one of them. Though Bush is a man of faith, I have never been so easily persuaded that he is a staunch conservative. He certainly has never acted fiscally conservative either as Governor of Texas or as President. Despite his folksy and endearing demeanor, he is a shrewd politician that does well the things that successful politicians do – many of which aren’t terribly endearing to regular folks.

Also, I think conservatives, especially religious ones, sometimes think they are the only ones that voted for Bush or that vote Republican. Perhaps we conservatives need to open our eyes and realize that the Republican Party is a big party filled with people of many different stripes. I don’t think conservatives intend to be arrogant, but since many of us are quite strong in our views, we sometimes tend to think our way of thinking is the only “right” way of thinking. (note double meaning)

Many of the disillusioned conservatives seem to be going through phase 3 of a committed relationship with Bush. They’ve been through the honeymoon and have been upset by the power struggle. Maybe after disillusionment they will reach phase 4, where they learn to accept the man, warts and all. Maybe they will realize that the President can’t realistically toe the line they set for him all of the time or even most of the time.

Then again, maybe they will turn on him and his party and either not vote or support fringe candidates. Either would be bad for the Republicans in 2006. Maybe it would be a wake-up call. But for whom?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

More On Miers

Ronald Cass makes a good argument in favor of Harriet Miers and against the arguments hurled against her here. He makes a good argument for trusting the President on this nomination. Fred Barnes makes a similar, but lukewarm argument here. National Review Bench Memos disagrees here with law professor Randy Barnett's cronyism take in the WSJ OpinionJournal here. Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg explains the real reasons conservatives are unhappy with the Miers nomination here.

I maintain that as long as the President's nominee for an appointment is qualified to serve, he/she should be confirmed, regardless of my opinions about his/her personal philosophy. Many conservatives used this argument in favor of Roberts, and they can't very well say it doesn't apply to Miers.

Monday, October 03, 2005

We Need a Balanced Tug-of-War

Although some of my conservative friends think I’m nuts, I am convinced that given our two-party system, it is best for the country when both parties are strong. We need checks and balances. We need strong competitors in the tug-of-war political system established by our Founders.

I know that some argue for a multi-party system like Germany’s – like that works so great (ha, ha) – but that is a topic for another time. I see little chance of discarding the two-party system in the foreseeable future, so let’s think about what is needed to make it work well.

I have to agree with Mark Steyn’s analysis of our current situation here. “American politics seems to have dwindled down to a choice between a big government party and a big permanently-out-of-government party.” “These days one party raises a ton of money from George Soros and the other raises a ton of money from you.” Steyn laments, “The Democrats' approach to government has been Sorosized, the GOP's has been supersized. Some choice.”

The reason for this is that the Democrats have weakened themselves with their decades-long obsession with ideologies reprehensible to middle America. With the President’s poll numbers in the dumps, Democrats have been licking their chops in hopes of a Congressional takeover in ’06. But due to widespread gerrymandering, the cards are stacked against them. Nor do voters seem at all thrilled about turning the reigns over to them, as the idea-free-hate-Bush party polls out as bad as or worse than Republicans.

The experience of American politics over the last six decades shows that when one party is weak, the other party goes nuts on government spending, regardless of which party is which. It is like watching a tug-of-war between 20 brawny and 10 scrawny guys. One side gets trounced regardless of its efforts. We need well matched strength on both sides.

During the eight Clinton years Republicans became strong and forced discretional spending to be held to an overall increase of 8%. During the five W years Democrats have been weak, allowing Republicans to increase discretional spending at a whopping 37% rate, only a small portion of which is related to homeland security. Surely these excesses could eventually prove the Republican’s undoing.

Of course, this theory somewhat presupposes that the right game is being played – that we’re kept within bounds established by the rule sheet of the Constitution. And that only happens when Congress properly exercises its authority to provide constitutionally mandated checks and balances on the judicial branch, something that has been in short supply.

The Founders dreamed of a system that would make for good government. Due to Democratic weakness and legislative dereliction of judicial oversight, we are lopsided right now. The possible solutions are for the Democrats to wake up and make changes as the Republicans did after being out of power for three decades (thanks to strong leadership by the likes of Reagan), or to die off and morph into something new as the Whigs did. Either way, the sooner we get there, the better.

Miers Is No Roberts (updated 10/4/05)

While conservatives appear to be reservedly content with new Chief Justice Roberts (we’ve yet to see the guy perform his job), they are decidedly less so with Harriet Miers, the President’s nominee to replace Sandra Day O’Conner. Ken Bingham’s blog has a post dated today that is a good representation of conservative thought on the matter.

WSJ OpinionJournal editor James Taranto’s Best of the Web Today says:

Bush: I'm Just Wild About HarrietAnd Harry's wild about her! "Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid was complimentary, issuing a statement that said he likes [White House counsel and Justice-designate Harriet] Miers and adding 'the Supreme Court would benefit from the addition of a justice who has real experience as a practicing lawyer,' " the Associated Press reports. "Reid had personally recommended that Bush consider Miers for nomination, according to several sources familiar with the president's consultations with individual senators."

“Last Thursday Reid put out a press release titled "Democrats Demand End to Culture of Cronyism and Corruption." This week the cry of "cronyism" is being heard from conservatives unhappy that the president passed over such distinguished jurists as Edith Jones, Janice Rogers Brown, Michael McConnell and Michael Luttig to elevate his longtime colleague to the high court. Here's National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru:

It's an inspiring testament to the diversity of the president's cronies. Wearing heels is not an impediment to being a presidential crony in this administration!
David Frum calls the nomination "an unforced error" (ellipsis in original):
I worked with Harriet Miers. She's a lovely person: intelligent, honest, capable, loyal, discreet, dedicated . . . I could pile on the praise all morning. But there is no reason at all to believe either that she is a legal conservative or--and more importantly--that she has the spine and steel necessary to resist the pressures that constantly bend the American legal system toward the left.
Glenn Reynolds declares himself "underwhelmed," and that pretty well captures our feeling too. We hope we're proved wrong--but we hate it when we have to say that.”

Conservatives are right to have hoped for something better. Of course, Ms. Miers may surprise us and turn out to be a strict constructionist, as Bush says she will. At this juncture, we need to do two things.

  1. Ask whether Ms. Miers is qualified to serve. If the answer is yes, she should be confirmed (even if done without enthusiasm). Many conservatives used this same argument in support of Roberts. They cannot very well change their minds when they are unimpressed with a nominee’s ideology.

  2. Work to make sure that the President and the administration clearly understand the consequences of choices such as this one. While this may sound diabolical, it is simply application of the rules of politics. Only by exacting a political price can conservatives hope to engender more attention to their concerns by this and future Republican administrations.

Update: 10/4/05 7:15 AM:
Professor of Law Randy E. Barnett (Boston University) writing in the WSJ OpinionJournal offers a differing point of view on confirming Harriet Miers. He notes Alexander Hamilton’s strong opposition to presidential cronyism in federal appointments discussed in Federalist No. 76. Barnett says, “Apart from nominating his brother or former business partner, it is hard to see how the president could have selected someone who fit Hamilton's description any more closely.” Barnett says regardless of how otherwise qualified Ms. Miers might be, she should be disqualified because her close association with the President smacks of what Hamilton calls “the spirit of favoritism.”

Although Barnett calls for Senatorial Republicans to reject Ms. Miers on the basis of cronyism, I doubt they will even think in that direction. Perma-Hatch was on Bill Bennett’s radio show this morning touting Miers’ nomination, and does so in text on his website. Barnett tries to put this into perspective for Republicans. “Imagine the reaction of Republicans if President Clinton had nominated Deputy White House Counsel Cheryl Mills, who had ably represented him during his impeachment proceedings, to the Supreme Court. How about Bernie Nussbaum?” That’s pretty strong medicine.