Saturday, June 25, 2011
Friday, June 24, 2011
This is the second article in the State of America's Finances series. The first article, "How Much Should We Cut", is available here.
The Federal Government is setting itself up for a financial crisis. Deficits and debt are rapidly spiraling out of control, and the economy continues to show negative signs despite the numerous programs which were promised to help. Government spending is at an all-time high, even as tax revenues continue to shrink, and despite all the talk on reducing fraud and waste in the government, we continue to read stories showing exactly how our tax dollars are being misspent. At the heart of the issue is the sentiment expressed on a recent ad for the Postal Service, “It ain't my money. I seriously do not care.” (If you haven't seen the ad, you can view it here.)
It's great to save money when the money saved goes into your pocket. However, when the money is coming in from the pockets of every American, it seems as if the government feels that it is not necessary to be concerned about savings. Americans have enough problems staying away from the credit cards when they know the bill will eventually come, so imagine the problems that have resulted from giving thousands of government employees access to money that they know they will never be responsible for repaying. Furthermore, departments and programs that spend more money will have an easier time lobbying Congress for additional funding in the next budget. This sets up a system where increased and even wasteful spending is rewarded, not discouraged.
Trying to keep track of every dollar spent can also be a problem given the size of budgets today. The smallest budget for any executive department in 2009 was for the Department of Commerce ($15.77 billion). With over 43,000 employees, it is difficult to track down the spending of each employee. Increase this to the Department of Health and Human Services, with 67,000 employees, and an $879 billion dollar budget, and the problems only become magnified.
These problems are not just limited to the executive department. Congressional appropriations also waste money. We hear regular reports of ridiculous appropriations that are stuck into bills at the last minute. Usually, the more popular a bill is—meaning that its passage is almost assured—the more “pork” is attached. Monies spent on unnecessary building and transportation projects usually go this route. These monies are paid out above the federal budget that Congress approves every year.
How can we fix these problems? First, we can restore the Presidential power of impoundment. Impoundment is a power that is given to an executive branch officer to refuse to spend money that is allocated by the legislature. Currently, forty-three of the fifty governors have this power. Thomas Jefferson was the first President to make use of this power, and all Presidents up to Richard Nixon had this power. However, in 1974, Congress became frustrated by what they viewed as excessive use of this power and passed a law that basically ended its practice. Presidents can still attempt to impound funds, but that impoundment must be approved by Congress within 45 days. Since Congress is not even required to vote on the matter, most attempts have gone unrecognized by Congress.
Second, we can give the President the power to strike down individual appropriation measures contained within bills. Unlike impoundment, which would only require passage of a bill in Congress, this would require a Constitutional amendment to implement, since a line item veto law passed by Congress was declared unconstitutional in 1998. However, this would force Congress to vote on individual appropriations vetoed by the President in an override vote, rather than forcing the President to sign a bill full of waste or suffer the criticism for vetoing a popular bill.
Third, we must expect all leaders to be responsible for controlling spending. Instead of being able to spend at will and bill the government, each department manager must be responsible for keeping the department within its budget. The annual budget passed by Congress should not be regarded as a suggestion that can be changed with another appropriation from Congress; it must be treated as a firm cap on spending.
Unlike the CEO of a company, the President has very little control over the majority of the budget. The President may submit a budget each year, but the final budget that makes it out of Congress rarely looks anything like the original budget. Giving the President these powers will make the President more like a CEO and less like an observer in the budget process. This will still require the President to want to reduce spending, but given the current state of our economy and finances, a reduction in spending is quickly becoming necessary.
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
As debate over whether to ratify the new constitution raged across the thirteen states, one criticism voiced by many people was the lack of a bill of rights. In many states, ratification was secured upon the promise that a bill of rights would be added as soon as the new government was put in place. After taking office, the First Congress then proposed twelve amendments, and ten of them were ratified by the states to become the Bill of Rights. (In 1992, one of the two amendments that had not been previously ratified passed the three-quarters threshold and became the twenty-seventh amendment, but it is still not usually considered as part of the Bill of Rights. The other proposed amendment remains unratified.)
The wording of the Bill of Rights is very specific as to the Rights that are protected. It is not protecting the rights of government; it is protecting the rights of the people. As it grants right to the people (and some to the states), it becomes a bill of restrictions to the government. The first amendment bars Congress from infringing on rights of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petitioning. The second amendment stops Congress from taking away the right to bear arms. The third keeps the military from forcing people to allow soldiers to live in their homes. Through all ten amendments, we see freedom given to the people and restrictions given to the government.
Over time, however, Congress and the courts have turned the Bill of Rights into a bill of restrictions on the people. The first amendment is the one this has happened to most often. The first amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” This simple phrase has been used multiple times to prohibit mention of religion in any form. Mentioning how God changed your life in your graduation speech does not involve Congress in any way, but this amendment is used to restrict the speech of students. Instead of giving people the right to exercise their religion free from government interference, this phrase of the first amendment is now being used to restrict both free exercise of religion and free speech.
Freedom of speech is also being threatened today. Throughout America's history, the freedom of speech has been protected by the government except in cases where it created actual harm. Defamation and the commonly cited example of “yelling fire in a crowded theater” qualify as cases where actual harm can be inflicted by speech. However, some people are now asking the government to outlaw “hate speech.” This type of speech, while it may be offensive and incorrect, does not cause actual harm. Should this type of speech be tolerated? Yes and no. Attempts by the government to restrict freedom of speech should not be allowed; however, just because someone has the right to say something does not mean that they should say it. However, if they do engage in that type of speech, individuals still have some recourse. If the person is a business owner, we can refuse to patronize their business. If the person has a radio or television show, we can refuse to watch the show. Even if it is just someone who lives down the street from you, we can use our right to free speech to oppose their speech.
There are plenty of other examples of other rights that are being violated by our government. Freedom of the press was threatened recently when the White House wanted to allow an interview with the “press pool” (a collection of news agencies that share costs of covering political events), but refused to allow one member network to be a part of it. The White House did back down under pressure from all the media outlets. The freedom to assemble is threatened by an endless permit process just to hold a public meeting. Certainly, permits should be necessary for some types of assemblies, such as those that need large amounts of space or that will close streets. However, I believe that in general, groups should be allowed to hold meetings free of public restrictions. The freedom from unwarranted search and seizure is violated every time we go to an airport and have to be searched by federal agents before boarding a plane.
The authors of the constitution gave us a Bill of Rights, but the government today is turning it into a bill of restrictions. The only limitations on these rights were placed upon the federal government, not upon the people. However, the government is now using these rights to restrict these rights. Freedom is threatened, and it is up to us to make sure that “the land of the free” does not become “the land of the restricted.”
Monday, June 20, 2011
RCP article here.