Why I’m Not a Conservative

The Washington Post notes the following quote from Rep. Paul Ryan in his CPAC speech:

“We don’t see the debt as an excuse to cut with abandon, to shirk our obligations,” Ryan said. “We see it as an opportunity to reform government, to make it cleaner and more effective. That’s what conservatives stand for.”

That’s interesting because more effective (or efficient) government is also what liberals stand for.

As I wrote upon the release of Ryan’s latest budget proposal, more efficient government isn’t the same as limited government. I appreciate the argument being made by some limited-government advocates that Ryan’s budget is a “step in the right direction” because it would slow the growth in federal spending versus the Congressional Budget Office’s baseline. That’s a good thing—especially when compared to the bloated alternative put out by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). But I think that proponents of limited government should consider a “step in the right direction” to be a budget that actually attempts to extricate the federal government from involvement in every facet of our lives. In that regard, Ryan’s budget only represents a step toward a slightly cheaper big government.

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It’s Plane Pork

The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has identified another budget zombie. This time it’s an obscure grant program administered by the Federal Aviation Administration that dumps money on tiny airports with scant activity.

From the article:

Along a country road in southern Oklahoma, there is a place that doesn’t make sense. It is an airport without passengers.

Or, for that matter, planes.

This is Lake Murray State Park Airport, one of the least busy of the nation’s 3,300-plus public airfields. In an entire week here, there might be one landing and one takeoff — often so pilots can use the bathroom. Or none at all. Visiting pilots are warned to watch out for deer on the runway.

So why is it still open? Mostly, because the U.S. government insists on sending it money.

Every year, Oklahoma is allotted $150,000 in federal funding because of this place, the result of a grant program established 13 years ago, in Congress’s golden age of pork. The same amount goes to hundreds of other tiny airfields across the country — including more than 80 like this one, with no paying customers and no planes based at the field.

And why does the federal government insist on sending Lake Murray—and other seldom used airports—money? 

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Local Media Fuels Anti-Sequestration Cuts Hysteria

The media’s harboring of a pro-government spending bias isn’t exactly news. But an article in Politico is notable because it illustrates the tendency for local newsrooms to push human interest stories that emphasize the pain of spending cuts.

According to the article, it’s pervasive:

Journalists from Florida to Washington state told POLITICO that their editors are hungry for stories that turn bureaucratic doublespeak about automatic cuts into a human story of real-world pain—from layoffs to cutbacks in treasured hometown programs.

Ask Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who got hit with a question about the Blue Angels during a Jacksonville TV station segment of locals upset that the famed flying aerobatic team may be grounded and 30 air shows canceled if sequester takes effect. The Democrat insisted the cuts won’t happen as long as “reasonable people” figure out a solution. “It’s a Navy town,” he later told POLITICO. “I knew a question was coming up, so I didn’t wait for it.”

The appetite in local newsrooms for that kind of story is widespread, local reporters say.

Not surprisingly, special interests have been more than willing to assist reporters in spreading the doom and gloom:

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Those Phantom Spending ‘Cuts’ from 2011

The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold recently took a look at the $38 billion in spending cuts that Republicans and Democrats agreed to in 2011 in order to avoid a government shutdown. Fahrenthold estimates that $17 billion of those “cuts” were little more than budgetary gimmicks. For instance, $6 billion in authorized spending for the previous year’s decennial census were merely wiped off the books and counted as a “cut.”

Fahrenthold’s piece is a good reminder of how unserious politicians from both parties are about cutting spending. But I want to make two additional points.

First, real or not, let’s not forget that the $38 billion in “cuts” were a drop in the bucket that year compared to total spending, the deficit, and even interest on the debt: 

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Defense Spending Has Not Been Cut by $600 Billion

Beltway politicians like to pretend that smaller spending increases amount to spending “cuts.” As Dan Mitchell has pointed out numerous times (see here for one example), that’s baseline budgeting baloney. Now that the 2011 Budget Control Act’s spending caps are in place, politicians are making an even more ridiculous claim: the so-called “cuts” have alreadyoccurred.

The caps apply to spending over ten fiscal years – the last year being 2021. We are obviously not in the year 2021, so it’s impossible for the so-called “cuts” to have already been implemented. Yet here are two examples from a recent Politico article where politicians suggest that to be the case:

“There are people that think we need to cut more,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) acknowledged in an interview. McKeon said he’s been pushing back against budget hawks in the GOP conference by pointing to the nearly $600 billion in spending cuts that the Pentagon has already absorbed in recent years — and that’s before sequestration would even begin.

“I think there’s spending that can be taken out of all departments,” said freshman Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). “And I’ve talked to people from the Pentagon. There’s just areas that, yeah, we can pull back a little more, even though they did their $470 billion already. They said it hurt, but we possibly could.”

I’ll cut Rep. Yoho a little slack because the article indicates that he’s open to cutting defense. Rep. McKeon, on the other hand, deserves no such leniency. (Why McKeon said $600 billion and Yoho $470 billion I have no idea.)

The following chart illustrates why it is ridiculous to act as if smaller future increases in projected spending amount to realized spending cuts. The chart shows the Congressional Budget Office’s August 2001 baseline estimate of defense spending from 2002 to 2011 versus the actual outlays:

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Federal Money to the States Isn’t ‘Free’

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist A. Barton Hinkle recently made what should be a simple point to understand, but it’s unfortunately one that few people seem to appreciate. Writing about the supposed win-win situation whereby states expand Medicaid coverage and the federal government foots most of the bill, Hinkle reminds readers that the “free” federal money isn’t really free:

In Virginia, officials estimate expanding Medicaid would cost the state $137.5 million over nine years, while the state would receive $23 billion from Washington.

Other states report similar figures. California expects to enroll up to 910,000 residents for a cost beginning at only $46 million a year, while collecting $44 billion in federal funds over a six-year period. An Illinois study estimates that state would spend about $2 billion on expanded Medicaid over the next decade, while reaping $22 billion in federal funds. According to Danielle Holohan, who is in charge of New York’s insurance exchange, Medicaid expansion “actually works out to be an enormous savings” for the Empire State. And so on.

This all sounds great—if you are a state official. But if you are a lowly taxpayer, it leaves out one rather significant point: Where is all that federal money coming from?

No great mystery: Most of that money would come from taxpayers who live in the very states that are looking forward to these supposed windfalls. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, if every state signed up for Medicaid expansion, then the federal government would spend nearly $1 trillion over the next nine years—paid for by you.

So you don’t have to wait for Medicaid expansion to reap this sort of “windfall.” Just take 5 bucks out of your left pocket and put it in your right. As far as your right pocket is concerned, you’re 5 bucks richer. It’s free money!

In addition to not being free, federal subsidization of state spending makes it harder for taxpayers to understand and appreciate where their money is going and how it’s being spent. A Cato essay on fiscal federalism explains:

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Obama’s Stimulus: A Bit of Pork, a Lot of Opportunism

via the CATO Institute

study [$] published in the winter edition of Political Science Quarterly considers two possible reasons for why the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) failed to sprinkle Uncle Sam’s magic dust onto those areas of the country that were being hardest hit by the recession.

Was it because well-positioned politicians were successful in delivering the pork?

Or was it because the recession created a “window of opportunity” for politicians to quickly spend a bunch of additional money on pet causes, which had the effect of benefitting certain areas of the country?

I’m going to skip right to the answer: the uneven geographic distribution of stimulus funds had only a little to do with traditional pork barreling and much to do with Obama’s then chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s famous quip that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

On the possibility of traditional pork-barreling, the authors found no statistically significant relationship between the distribution of funds and whether a county was represented by a politician serving on a congressional committee relevant to stimulus funding. Nor was a relationship found between funding and counties that were represented by a Democrat in the House or Senate. However, a relationship was found between funding and those counties that overwhelmingly voted for the president: 

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Promises to Restrict Future Spending Are Worthless

It appears likely that congressional Republicans are eventually going to accept a tax increase in exchange forreal spending cuts smaller spending increases in the future. If and when that happens, Speaker Boehner should surround himself with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy at the press conference on the deal.

I could spend days explaining my pessimism, but I’ll just point to two pertinent examples of Congress being unable to control itself. First, we have the so-called Medicare “doc fix,” which was adeptly explained by Reason’sPeter Suderman earlier this week. In 1997, Congress created a formula (“sustainable growth rate”) to constrain physician reimbursements. But shortly after the formula started to do what it was intended to, Congress got cold feet:

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With Purge, House GOP Leadership Reaches New Low

In December 2010, I wrote that “An indicator of the incoming House Republican majority’s seriousness about cutting spending will be which members the party selects to head the various committees.” The final roster ended up leaving a lot to be desired from a limited government perspective. For example, the House Republican leadership and its allies went with “The Prince of Pork” to head up the Appropriations Committee.

Two years later, the committee situation is about to get even worse now that the House Republican leadership has decided to send a message that casting a vote according to one’s beliefs instead of one’s instructions is a punishable offense. On Monday, four congressmen were booted from “plum” committee assignments for failing to sufficiently tow the leadership line. I suspect that the purge was motivated, at least in part, by Team Boehner’s desire to have the rest of the rank and file think twice before casting a “no” vote on whatever lousy deal is struckwith the White House to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”

Three of the purged Republicans are returning members of the 2010 freshmen “Tea Party Class”: Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ), Justin Amash (R-MI), and Tim Huelskamp (R-KS). Over the past year, I have been keeping a loose record of how the freshmen voted on opportunities to eliminate programs and prevent spending increases. On seven particularly telling votes*, Schweikert and Amash voted in favor of limited government every time.

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