Saturday, April 28, 2012

Federal Government: Arrogance at Work

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U.S. in death spiral, spending like the socialist European nations

The United States national debt is $15.6 trillion ($15,600,000,000,000), as calculated on April 14, which works out to nearly $50,000 for each of the more than 313,400,000 men, women and children who are citizens of the country.

Looking through historical data, running a deficit isn’t new or unusual. It is a testament to the failure of our elected representatives to run the government within its means, like we mere citizens are expected to with our personal finances. Back in 1857 the national debt was “only” $28,699,831.85, and from there on it has gotten worse. It crossed the one trillion dollar mark in 1982.

In recent years, annual operating deficits have increased the debt roughly 500 billion dollars each year from 2002 until 2008 when the deficit jumped to a full trillion dollars. In 2009, the deficit jumped to two trillion dollars and was 1.3 trillion dollars in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The big spenders are so out of control these days that they routinely spend 40 percent more than the nation collects in tax revenue.

What on Earth are they spending so much money on?

That list runs the gamut from constitutionally required government activities to expenditures on questionable and even unconstitutional activities. It includes using appropriate methods to dispense the money, and using methods that are politically advantageous, but often questionable or improper. And, it includes fraud, waste and abuse, aptly illustrated by the 2010 GSA boondoggle costing taxpayers more than $800,000 dollars.

One controversial method of determining who gets taxpayer money, but one that is very popular among lawmakers, is the earmarking process. The Federal Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as “funds provided by the Congress for projects, programs, or grants where the purported congressional direction circumvents otherwise applicable merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the executive branch to manage its statutory and constitutional responsibilities pertaining to the funds allocation process.”

Some defend it as a more efficient way to get budgeted federal money where it is most needed than leaving it to administrative agencies to distribute; others say it is a way for congresspersons to reward friends and buy votes. As the 112th Congress cranked up in January of 2011 there was a bipartisan agreement to do away with earmarks. However, Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) recommended that lawmakers bring back earmarks in a closed-door Republican Caucus meeting on March 30, 2012. “There was a lot of applause when I made my comments,” he said. “By and large it was very well embraced.” For this suggestion, Mr. Rogers won the April “Porker of the Month” award from Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).

CAGW is at war with pork-barrel spending, which the organization identifies using seven criteria, any one of which qualifies spending as pork. They are: spending requested by only one chamber of Congress; not specifically authorized; not competitively awarded; not requested by the President; greatly exceeds the President's budget request or the previous year's funding; not the subject of congressional hearings; or, serves only a local or special interest. 

Evaluating the 111th Congress, the last Congress to have completed both sessions, CAGW said: “In a time of runaway spending and sky-high debt, lawmakers should have supported every opportunity to cut wasteful and unnecessary expenditures. The House and Senate each had 11 opportunities to strike pork, prohibit earmarking, rescind superfluous funds, and reduce overall spending levels. A majority voted against each and every one of these 22 measures, a stunning 100 percent rate of failure to trim the fat and protect taxpayer interests.”

The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste analyzed legislators’ voting to support the interests of taxpayers by reducing spending based on party affiliation and House membership in the Republican Study Committee and Blue Dog Democrats. “The averages were: Senate Republicans – 90 percent, up nine percentage points from their 81 percent score in 2009; Senate Democrats – 8 percent, down two percentage points from their grade of 10 percent in 2009; House Republicans – 86 percent, up 15 percentage points from their 71 percent score in 2009; House Democrats – 8 percent, up four percentage points from their 4 percent score in 2009; House Republican Study Committee – 91 percent, up 11 percentage points from their 80 percent score in 2009; and House Blue Dog Democrats – 18 percent, up seven percentage points from their 11 percent score in 2009.”

There are also foolish levels of duplication of government programs. Here are some examples from the Government Accountability Office: Twenty agencies operate 56 programs dedicated to financial literacy; there are 80 economic development programs at four agencies costing $6.5 billion; the Department of Transportation spends $58 billion on 100 programs run by five agencies with 6,000 employees that haven’t changed since 1956; at least five departments, eight agencies and more than two dozen presidential appointees oversee $6.48 billion related to bioterrorism.

One searches diligently for some evidence that President Barack Obama and his party take seriously their obligation to be good stewards of the public’s finances, but finds none. Their solution is to raise taxes on the most productive Americans, not to be thrifty with spending.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What’s wrong with this picture? America through the looking glass

Summoning forth recollections of “Monty Python's Flying Circus” and other farces, the following true-life examples of what’s going on in America ought to wake you up.

1. A Massachusetts school principal wanted to rename "St. Patrick's Day" in an effort to be "inclusive and diverse," and to ease discomfort that some students might have in celebrating St. Patrick's Day or Valentine's Day. Lisa Curtin, principal of the Soule Road School in Wilbraham, Mass., decided to change the names, and in February renamed “Valentine’s Day” to "Caring and Kindness Day,” according to parents with children in the school. Some parents criticized the decision to change the name St.Paddy’s Day to "O'Green Day" as stupid and illogical.

That’s an apt description.


2. A North Carolina grandmother became upset when her 5-year-old granddaughter's home-made lunch was taken away at school because school officials said it wasn't nutritious enough. The lunch, which consisted of a turkey and cheese sandwich on white-wheat bread, potato chips, a banana and apple juice, was taken away and she was forced to eat cafeteria chicken nuggets.

The assistant superintendent of the school system agreed that the lunch was healthy, but it was missing milk, a key part of what is considered to be a healthy meal under state guidelines. The grandmother says the state should not be inspecting lunches and should instead focus solely on academics.

Don’t you admire her restraint?


3. As reported by a Washington newspaper, First Solar, a heavily government-subsidized solar company, received a U.S. taxpayer loan guarantee to sell solar panels in other countries. Last September, $455.7 million in guarantees to subsidize the sale of solar panels to two solar farms in Canada were approved. The owner of the solar farms is First Solar.

Your government at work.


4. A Burnsville, Minn. man was arrested and thrown in jail because city officials said he had not properly put up siding on his house. Mitch Faber was cited with “having an unfinished exterior” when, nearly four years after he started it, his home’s stucco project was not complete.

Faber told a Minneapolis TV station he always intended to finish the project, but that he ran into financial trouble when the economy took a turn.

His first encounter with the city happened in 2007 when he got a letter saying the siding needed to be finished. “We were in the process of finishing,” Faber told the station. “This wasn’t something that we were trying to avoid doing.”

There were two more letters in 2009 and another in 2010, which required Faber to appear in court. That’s when he was told to finish the siding, or go to jail.

In order to comply, Faber and his wife spent $12,000 to put a stucco facade over their house’s plywood exterior. It wasn’t enough: Last November, Faber was arrested after city inspectors concluded the work wasn’t up to code.

What happens in Burnsville if you actually commit a crime?


5. In what is being portrayed as a preview of fully implemented Obamacare, government officials in Michigan are demanding that a 9-year-old child follow standard procedure and take a dangerous course of cancer medications that can cause additional cancer – even though the boy has had three scans indicating an absence of the disease.

The Home School Legal Defense Association is an organization that concerns itself with home school rights, responsibilities and restrictions but also intercedes in cases that could have a significant impact on child and parental rights.

The HSLDA’s chairman, Michael P. Farris, confirmed that the Michigan Department of Human Services has filed suit to force the parents to administer the chemicals to their son even though he’s been clean of cancer on scans over the past year.

Well, at least it’s not a death panel.


6. The District of Columbia Board of Elections opened an investigation after an undercover video posted online showed an activist against voter fraud going into a Washington polling station and beginning the process to vote under the name of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. When he said he didn’t have his ID, the poll worker said it really didn’t matter, and was prepared to give the activist a ballot.

Rather than find out why poll workers did not ascertain the real identity of the “voter,” who did not accept the ballot, the Elections Board has decided to investigate the activist.

Vote early and often in DC.


7. The New York City Department of Education created a plan to ban the use of 50 words on standardized school tests, thinking the terms might be offensive to some people.

Among the words on the forbidden list were: birthdays, celebrities, cigarettes, crime, divorce, evolution, politics, sex, religion, rap music, Halloween, terrorism, rock-and-roll music, and violence.

Fortunately, and contrary to the previous examples, common sense prevailed and the school system decided against going forward with its plan.

These examples reflect government at all levels run amok, and they paint a dismal picture of America’s future, unless we wise up.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Which is worse?

Please select from the following choices:

A. People who use idiotic demagoguery like the "Buffett Rule" to dupe the public?

B. People who believe the idiotic demagoguery that the "Buffett Rule" will actually make any noticeable difference?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The law professor and his difficulties with the legal system

President Obama’s comments last Monday about the Supreme Court has fired up a storm of criticism that won’t go away.
"I'm confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress," he said. "And I'd just remind conservative commentators that for years what we've heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I'm pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take that step."
It is a real challenge to get so much wrong in less than a hundred words.
As every middle school student ought to know, the Judicial Branch, of which the U.S. Supreme Court is the top level, is a co-equal branch of government with the Executive and Legislative Branches; it is certainly not unprecedented for the Supreme Court to overturn an unconstitutional law, and in fact, one of its primary duties is to protect the nation from unconstitutional behavior by the Legislative and Executive branches. 
Second, while the 2,700 page health care reform bill was indeed passed by a democratically elected Congress, it was not passed by a “strong majority.” The bill that was created without Republican input was passed without Republican support in either house. On the final vote it passed in the House by a thin 220-207 margin, and by 56-43 margin in the Senate, a combined margin of just 5 percent. That’s less than the modest margin Barack Obama won the presidency by, and is certainly not a mandate by any objective measure. Furthermore, it should be noted that every unconstitutional law struck down by the Supreme Court also was passed by a majority of the Congress.
Next, he slighted the Supreme Court, calling it an “unelected group of people.” That’s a pretty wild statement for someone who may or may not have been a constitutional law professor at a major American university. At the University of Chicago Law School Mr. Obama’s title was not “Professor,” but “Senior Lecturer,” though the difference could be a matter of semantics.
And then he turned the term “judicial activism” on its head, asserting that by adhering to the Constitution and overturning Obamacare, the Court’s ruling would be “activist.”
Professor/Lecturer Obama is confused about “judicial activism,” which is making law from the bench, and that involves ignoring the intent of the Constitution that the Founders took such pains to express, and instead yielding to political influences and personal preferences. Essentially, the Court either supports the tenets and concepts contained in the Constitution, or it doesn’t. The former position is judicial conservatism; the latter is judicial activism, or judicial liberalism.
In response to the firestorm that ensued, Mr. Obama clarified what he really meant the next day, which was that the Supreme Court hadn’t overturned a law involving the Commerce Clause, which Obamacare stretches to its breaking point, in the last 80 years, not that only by being an “activist” court could it overturn a law passed by Congress.
That wasn’t good enough for the president’s critics, some of whom read the comments as an attempt to intimidate the Court. Nor was it good enough for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which was interested enough in the comment to issue an order giving the Justice Department just two days to state whether the administration truly believes courts lack the authority to strike down mandates that are unconstitutional.
Attorney General Eric Holder sent the judges what has been described as “a law student-level brief on the propriety of judicial review,” that intentionally ignored the main question. Instead, Mr. Holder instructed the 5th Circuit panel on the deference courts must pay to acts of Congress. 
Trying desperately to make lemonade from the lemon the president gave to him, White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that as someone who used to be a law professor, Mr. Obama was talking in “shorthand.” Which apparently means that Obama can say something opposite to what he actually meant, and he understands what he meant, but the rest of us who weren’t/aren’t law professors unfortunately listen to him and think he meant what he said instead of what he now says he actually meant. Everybody following that?
And isn’t it fair for people to expect a constitutional law professor to understand that the purpose of the Constitution is to relieve the mere mortals who hold elective office of the temptation to substitute political motives for Constitutional protections of our unalienable rights.
And White House press secretary Carney further clarified that comment by saying, “He did not suggest, did not mean and did not suggest that it would be unprecedented for the court to rule that a law was unconstitutional. That’s what the Supreme Court is there to do. But it has under the Commerce Clause deferred to Congress’s authority on matters of national economic importance.”
Well, maybe so, or maybe not, and maybe that was appropriate, or maybe it wasn’t. However, one might reasonably expect the President of the United States, who is a lawyer and also a former constitutional law professor/lecturer, speaking on a legal matter to more unambiguously state his case.
There may be some political advantage hidden deep in this colossal screw-up, but it plainly did the president a good bit of harm, initially, helping to cement the idea that many hold of Barack Obama as a lightweight who is completely in over his head.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sometimes, like it did last week, bad news comes down in buckets

Last week was full of bad news. President Barack Obama created a firestorm with controversial comments about the role of the Supreme Court, interpreted by some as an attempt to intimidate the Court into allowing the health care reform law to stand. At the end of the week March job numbers and unemployment numbers were released showing only bad news. Job creation was an anemic 120,000, and so many people became discouraged over the poor job climate and dropped out of the job market that it caused the unemployment rate to drop by one-tenth of a percent to 8.2 percent. Normally, it is a good sign when unemployment drops, but not this time.

And, a huge scandal erupted following the news that an office of the General Services Administration (GSA), the Public Buildings Service, which is known as the "landlord" for the federal government, is now being investigated for a 2010 Las Vegas conference that cost taxpayers a cool $820,000 to $840,000.

The details of the outing reveal an orgy of spending for the benefit of the public servants who attended. The conference provided such lavish niceties as clown and mind-reader entertainment, and more than $146,000 worth of food and drinks, including $44-a-person breakfasts; $19-a-person "artisanal cheese" displays; $16-per-person pasta stations; and shrimp costing $4 each. Attendees also received $3,700 worth of shirts, $6,300 worth of commemorative coins and $1,800 worth of special vests. As you might imagine, such an extravagant affair took a lot of planning, more than $130,000 worth.

A couple of videos from the event have surfaced, showing a Buildings Service employee performing in a music video in which the employee raps: "Donate my vacation, love to the nation, I'll never be under OIG investigation." Other highlights show public employees arrogantly flaunting the wasting of the public’s money.

No doubt President Barack Obama was terribly embarrassed by this revelation, having only a year before this outrageous misuse of public funds made strong statements against corporations who received federal bailouts living it up at taxpayer expense. “You can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime," he scolded. So, it had to hurt to find his own Executive Branch employees acting with the same disregard for taxpayer funds as the corporations that got bailouts.

However, the administration hastened to correctly point out that the start of this problem predates Mr. Obama’s presidency. In 2004 the Buildings Service spent $93,000 on the conference, about 11 percent of the 2010 total. From that point on, the bill got bigger and bigger as the conference moved around the country, totaling $323,855 in 2006, $655,025 in 2008, and then the 2010 near-million-dollar Vegas lollapalooza.

Obviously, the Bush and Obama administrations weren’t paying much attention to how the public’s money was being handled. And the Inspector General Office’s report last week indicates the Obama administration knew about the trip at least in May of 2010, five months before the conference took place, and did nothing about it.

The gross misuse of public funds by the Buildings Service at its biennial conference isn’t the end of the story for this agency, however. The commissioner’s budget has been rising since 2009, the year Commissioner Robert Peck was appointed. In fiscal 2009, his budget was $3.25 million, only slightly higher than two years earlier. But in 2010 the budget jumped to $6.94 million, and jumped again in 2011 to $9.16 million. 

The man at the center of the scandal is Jeffrey E. Neely, the person who made sure that the conference was “over the top,” compared to previous bashes. He initially approved a $300,000 budget for the 2010 conference, but later nearly tripled the budget to about $823,000. Mr. Neely attended five of the eight agency “dry run” meetings held in advance of the conference to be sure the proposed venue would be able to deliver a show to end all shows for government workers, according to information from the GSA Office of Inspector General.

Commissioner Peck was fired in the wake of the scandal, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned, and several employees have been placed on leave pending investigation, following the IG report. Apparently, none of those involved has tried to pay the taxpayers back for their outrageous spending abuses.

The evidence that our federal government is overgrown, arrogant and abusive of the citizenry continues to mount up. And yet even the suggestion that spending needs to be cut and government needs to be downsized and brought under control elicits howls of protest from liberals, statists and those on the receiving end of taxpayer money being freely doled out for all manner of inappropriate things.

Over-indulgences like this tawdry Las Vegas episode are clearly out of bounds, but apparently they are not all that unusual, and that sort of behavior didn’t originate under Barack Obama, or George Bush. But Barack Obama is the president now, and it will be instructive to see if he has the courage and the regard for the people of the United States to take quick steps to do something meaningful about government malfeasance like this.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Going Rogue, Part VII: the EPA has just doomed an entire industry

Back in 2008, when Barack Obama was pursuing the presidency, he said, “If someone wants to build a new coal-fired power plant they can, but it will bankrupt them because they will be charged a huge sum for all the greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” That was then; this is now, and one campaign promise Mr. Obama made is coming true.

“Power developers have scrapped plans for more than 100 coal-fired electricity plants over the past decade,” according to Reuters, “due to difficulty obtaining construction and pollution permits or because they were simply too expensive,” thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies, even though new plants are much more efficient and produce far less pollution than older plants. And last week’s unveiling of the EPA’s proposed emission rules for new coal-fired electric generation plants reveal standards so strict that they are impossible to meet using present technology.

The new standard for carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity is a little more than half of the previous threshold, guaranteeing no new coal plants will ever be built, as confirmed by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which reports that the most recent regulations announced by the EPA will likely increase the number of closures of existing plants in 19 states.

This prediction comes despite the assurances of Gina McCarthy, the EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, that the impossibly stringent new requirements are only for new plants. She told the House Energy and Commerce Committee the agency has “no plans” to curb greenhouse gas emissions for existing plants. But no one familiar with the EPA’s history of over-zealous regulation believes that.

There is an option, however, as the EPA allows coal-burners to continue using America’s most dependable fuel. All they have to do is employ the new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. But the EPA knows full well that CCS at this stage is just theory; it has not been proven to work. And – surprise, surprise, surprise – it is prohibitively expensive.

Once again Americans, including our elected representatives, have sat on their hands and allowed the unelected, unaccountable, ideologically obsessed regulators at the EPA to punish them. The EPA has sounded the death knell for an industry that has been the backbone of U.S. power production for decades, and which is a substantial part of the economy of several states, providing tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in annual tax revenue. The EPA has not yet won its war on this dependable and important American industry that today accounts for 40 percent of electricity production. But victory is in sight.

In West Virginia, where coal is a major economic engine, the coal industry pays approximately $70 million in property taxes annually, and the industry payroll is nearly $2 billion per year paid to thousands of employees. Coal is responsible for more than $3.5 billion annually in the gross state product, and all 55 West Virginia counties, even the non-coal producing counties, receive Coal Severance Tax funds, according to data furnished by the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. And coal is a major economic component in states where it is not necessarily the primary economic factor, like Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Coal is mined in 26 states, and 36 states produce at least some of their power with coal.

The EPA successfully developed a brilliant three-prong strategy to impose on the country during a pitifully weak economic recovery: a) put thousands more Americans out of work, b) damage the economies of a dozen states, and c) make continuing to use the most abundant fuel impossibly expensive, all at the same time!

English philosopher John Locke is regarded as one of the most influential figures in The Enlightenment. His contributions to social contract theory had a great impact upon the American revolutionaries, like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and particularly Thomas Jefferson, so great an influence that his ideas are reflected in the Declaration of Independence. He believed that legitimate government existed only with the consent of the governed.

Presented with a situation like the out-of-control, unelected bureaucrats of the EPA who issue rules and regulations with the force of law, Mr. Locke might respond thusly: “When anyone, or more, shall take upon them to make laws, who the people have not appointed so to do, they make laws without authority, which the people are not therefore bound to obey,” because such actions return the people once again to being subjects of their government.

Some will argue that EPA bureaucrats are “indirectly” appointed by the people through elected representative, and while that may be technically correct, I’m betting John Locke would rise up in protest of many of the current actions of the federal government.

Recent administrations and – more curiously – Congresses seem unconcerned that the servants of the people working in federal agencies have co-opted Congress’ authority as the sole maker of law in our government. One wonders just how much longer the American people will accept being made government subjects by unelected bureaucrats before they follow Locke’s advice to not obey these illegal edicts.

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