Thursday, June 16, 2011

When politicians won't govern

From politicians like our president who ignore problems such as the financial instability of our entitlement programs to members of Congress who have abdicated their responsibility to administrative agencies or unelected commissions we are more and more experiencing the abdication of responsibility from our political leaders. Because a vote might be politically unpopular or there is a chance for failure, they choose not to act.

Jonah Goldberg writes about this bipartisan abandonment of responsibility.
Congress selectively outsourced its unique constitutional obligation to levy taxes to the Federal Communications Commission and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (created by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002). The FCC taxes long distance phone calls and then spends the money on school computers, Internet upgrades for rural hospitals and the like. That's nifty, but it's a job for Congress.

The Environmental Protection Agency -- with Obama's apparent approval -- is champing at the bit to take over vast swaths of the economy by declaring carbon emissions a pollutant subject to its capricious regulation. "ObamaCare" is cut from the same cloth, creating the Independent Payment Advisory Board -- that independent commission aforementioned designed to catch the can Obama wants to kick down the road. It also creates countless other opportunities for bureaucrats to "fill in" policies as they see fit, without popular or congressional approval.
All these independent agencies have been established because politicians don't want to have the responsibility of writing the regulations that they prefer to outsource to agencies such as the FCC or FEC or FTC or whatever other alphabetic independent commission that they can establish to do the tough work of actually governing.

And when it comes to cutting spending, Congress would prefer to either outsource the decision to some debt commission or set up some mechanism that would automatically kick in and cut spending when they lack the will to do so themselves. We've seen the same sort of logic with the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. Politicians can't stop themselves from logrolling support for the bases in each other's districts that they've had to find a way to close the bases without having to actually do it. And note the sneaky way that they've arranged for their own salary increases to kick in automatically without their having to vote for them. These are our great brave leaders.
More and more, it seems as if our politicians want to be the divorced parent who only visits on weekends to do the fun stuff: Give out goodies, go to the movies, enjoy pony rides and ice cream cake, while expecting somebody else to be the tough parent who has to deal with the costs and the consequences. That is a natural human desire, particularly for politicians, a breed of professionals who have an unhealthy need to be liked. The problem is, that's not what they're being paid to do.

The Ohio Farmer, modeled on John Dickinson's 1767 Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, has been issuing a similar warning of what happens when agencies such as the NLRB or the EPA or IPAB are established to take the responsibility from off of Congress's shoulders for governing the country.
It may be necessary for Congress to delegate the working out of many details to administrative agencies. But this practice has come with the high cost of degrading the deliberative function of Congress’s lawmaking power. The easy delegation of the details is why many large laws are rushed to passage in a less than transparent manner. True debate and deliberation has atrophied. This slow abdication of legislative responsibility on the part of Congress started many decades ago, and is no simple matter to fix. As a general principle members of Congress ought to refuse to vote for statutes that delegate large amounts of the real lawmaking to another branch. If the health care law’s perverse consequences (such as the possibility that, without a waiver, McDonald’s would have had to drop health insurance for all its employees) were laid at the feet of Congress, then Congress would write laws more carefully, or move more quickly to amend them as they should. In one word, is this not a good occasion for Congress to assume more responsibility for its actions?
But the problem goes beyond this abdication of responsibility. The end result of setting up these independent groups that run themselves is that, eventually, they will start making dangerously bad decisions. Walter Russell Mead details the stages of what happens in an essay, "When Government Jumps the Shark." As he details the progression we go from acknowledging that there is some terrible problem that people decide must be solved and government must be the one to offer the solution. Government creates a problem and things seem to be going well and government reaps the benefits of people's satisfaction in getting Social Security checks or low mortgages or high-speed rail. But it never stops there. Government keeps on going even beyond the need for the program.
In the third stage, the law of diminishing returns sets in. The Army Corps of Engineers has built all the really useful flood control dams, but there is a large bureaucracy committed to building more — and there is a large private sector lobby of dam construction firms that want new business. Perversely, as the value of new projects diminishes, the political forces pushing new projects grow stronger. Bureaucrats rewrite the guidelines, cost-benefit analysts start fudging the numbers to make bad projects look good, and the dam lobby pressures Congress to keep that money flowing regardless of those whiners and complainers mewling about environmental problems and other drawbacks.

At this point the program enters the third stage of life: it is now a Great White Elephant. It is a large and expensive program that does less and less good at a higher and higher cost. Fannie Mae stops helping creditworthy borrowers get affordable mortgages through simple and straightforward processes. Federal housing policy becomes increasingly complex as new layers and levels of subsidy and promotion are tacked on. As the incentives become increasingly misaligned, the country begins to over invest in housing; consumers start buying more house than they need because government support makes housing an attractive investment.
Whatever seemed a good idea at the time keeps growing and growing.
Health care programs become inflated with bells and whistles; programs originally intended to provide basic medical care gradually swell into huge and expensive monstrosities. Shouldn’t chiropractic care be covered? Psychiatric care? Acupuncture? And since government is paying for the care shouldn’t it regulate who provides the care through licensing procedures? Costs go up, procedures become more complex; efforts to control costs lead to more red tape.

As life expectancy exploded in the last sixty years, Social Security has morphed from a modest little program aimed at helping people get through the last few years of life with a little bit of dignity into the idea that twenty years of healthy ease should be a social entitlement. Medicare covers more and more treatments for more and more people over longer and longer stretches of time.
In Mead's paradigm we now move into a fourth stage where the huge program, the Great White Elephant, becomes a Great White Shark. It is not just wasteful but it is unsustainable.
But even as these programs become unsustainable, they have become so powerful — there are so many interests and industries that grow rich on these programs, and so many families for whom these programs have become the cornerstone of what little financial security they have — that they cannot be touched. One way to tell when an elephant has morphed into a shark: when pundits and politicians start describing a government program as a ‘third rail’: you touch it, you die.

The Great White Shark is a menace that cannot be controlled. The program has gone rogue: the Army Corps of Engineers isn’t just building pointless dams. It is building bad dams. The agricultural subsidies aren’t just encouraging farmers to plant wasteful crops; by subsidizing corn ethanol they are contributing to food price inflation that threatens political stability in countries like Egypt. But just as the programs are most in need of reform, reform becomes impossible. If you try to stop Fannie Mae from tempting poor urbanites into ruinous mortgages that will leave them worse off than before while bringing the global economy to the edge of ruin, the race lobby (aided and abetted by the real estate lobby) will attack you as a racist and an enemy of the American Dream.
The list of programs that fit into this description keeps growing. We have too many programs that are both unsustainable and untouchable. Anyone who suggests a reform must be attacked, as Paul Ryan has, because the shark seeks to kill anyone who would limit its power.

So we've reached the point when we most need courageous politicians who are willing to make unpopular decisions to cut back on all these programs that people have come to believe are absolutely necessary. And sadly, the courage of politicians has atrophied away so that people marvel when one stands up and takes the brave step of proposing an actual reform of the beast that has become our unsustainable and untouchable government.