Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pork for Pay, Part 2

As noted here Sunday, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn have both been linked to the latest pork-for-pay scandal in Washington, appearing on a list of members who received campaign contributions from the powerhouse lobbying shop PMA Group, which shut down recently after being raided by the feds, and also backed earmarks for PMA clients.

Neither man ranks high on the list, which could serve as a Who’s Who of Congress’s most notorious pork-barrel practitioners: Udall is credited with securing $2 million in earmarks for PMA clients and receiving $6,533 in campaign contributions from PMA since 2001, while Lamborn is listed as having secured $1 million in earmarks for PMA clients and having received $1,000 in donations. But their presence there, and connection to the next big lobbying scandal in Washington, demonstrates how pervasive, and bipartisan, the earmarking racket has become.

How their involvement might be received by fiscally-conservative constituents back home is unknown, since the Colorado media has yet to report on the matter.

It’s not the first time the two have been linked to pork-for-pay, however. The Seattle Times, in some first-rate investigative reporting done last October, also attempted to connect the dots between earmarks members inserted into a Fiscal 2009 defense spending bill and donations they received from earmark beneficiaries. A searchable database compiled as part of the investigation includes this page for Lamborn and this page for Udall, which seem to bolster the case for pork-for-pay quid pro quos.

Lamborn is credited by the Times with getting $7 million in earmarks inserted into the bill, while receiving nearly $40,000 ($39,797) in campaign donations from beneficiaries. Udall is shown as backing $11.4 million in earmarks, while receiving more than $100,000 ($101,522) in donations from beneficiaries. The Times scrubbed only one major spending bill, but similar links between earmarks and campaign donations could undoubtedly be found in every major spending bill passed by Congress.

The Jack Abramoff scandal helped shine needed light on this scandal, and Democrats won a majority promising to clean up an ethics mess they laid at the feet of Republicans. The PMA scandal threatens to do to Democrats what the Abramoff affair did to Republicans.

The House is expected to decide today “whether to start an ethics investigation into the relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions,” reports CQ Politics: “The vote could put majority Democrats and at least a few Republicans in an uncomfortable spot. They will have to choose between authorizing the House ethics committee to investigate the most delicate of political relationships or publicly voting against such a probe.”

The member pushing the ethics inquiry is Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, who’s been fighting an often lonely, largely futile battle to curtail congressional earmarking. Flake had this to say on the subject in a New York Times op-ed appearing yesterday.

“But nothing has illustrated the insidious nature of Congressional pay-to-play better than the PMA Group, a powerhouse lobbying firm that imploded this month after word got out that it was being investigated over campaign contribution indiscretions. Over the past few days we’ve learned that PMA’s clients received nearly $300 million worth of earmarks in one defense appropriations bill. In what is best described as circular fund-raising, millions of those dollars made a return trip to Capitol Hill in the form of contributions to members of Congress.

The 2009 defense appropriations bill, approved last September, contained more than 1,000 House earmarks, dozens of which were for PMA clients. There was no full committee “markup” where such links could be examined, nor were challenges to the earmarks allowed on the House floor. Further, unless it’s been hurriedly scrubbed by an alert staff member, the omnibus appropriations bill scheduled for debate this week includes many earmarks for PMA clients.

Congress has managed to avoid connecting the pay-to-play dots by looking the other way. This has been easy to do. House rules require members submitting earmark requests to certify that they have no “financial interest” in doing so. But the House ethics manual states: “A contribution to a member’s principal campaign committee or leadership PAC generally would not constitute the type of ‘financial interest’ referred to in the rule.”

Now, thanks to Rod Blagojevich and the PMA Group, perhaps the days of whistling past the Justice Department are behind us. If we think we can rely on Ethics Committee guidelines written by our colleagues to shield us from corruption investigations, we are drinking our own bathwater. We have little choice but to decouple earmarks from campaign contributions. This can be most easily done by clarifying that campaign contributions do in fact constitute “financial interest.” I’ve introduced a House resolution to do just that.”

No matter whether the ethics investigation moves forward, or how it is resolved, constituents and voters will most likely serve as the final arbiters of whether this sort of activity is something they'll tolerate from their representatives in Washington. But that requires that they demand a full explanation from Lamborn, Udall and any others in the Colorado delegation that are linked to pork for pay.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Udall, Lamborn Linked to Pay-for-Pork Probe

The latest focus of investigators trying to untangle the pay-for-pork racket on Capitol Hill, and determine if any criminality is involved, is the lobbying shop PMA Group, which has strong ties to notorious Pennsylvania porker John Murtha but also spread around a lot of money to a bipartisan list of other members of Congress, including local Rep. Doug Lamborn and now-senator Mark Udall.

Udall and Lamborn appear on a list of members who received campaign donations from PMA, and also allegedly secured earmarks for PMA clients, which was compiled by Taxpayers for Common sense and published on Thursday in CQ Politics, accompanying a story about the unfolding scandal. Udall and Lamborn aren't prominently ranked among the members who seemed to have a cozy, symbiotic relationship with PMA: Udall is credited with securing $2 million in earmarks for PMA clients, and receiving $6,533 in campaign donations from PAM since 2001; Lamborn is listed as having secured $1 million in earmarks for PMA clients, and having received $1,000 in campaign contributions.

Neither man ranks highly on the list, as noted, but their being listed at all could spell political trouble, since PMA seems to be shaping up as the biggest lobbying scandal since the Jack Abramoff affair. And it may be particularly damaging to Lamborn, who purports to be a fiscal conservative and represents a politically-conservative district.

Investigators, lawyers and judges will ultimately determine whether improprieties or illegalities were involved. Simply having one's name appear on the list isn't proof of any wrongdoing. But it seems that Udall and Lamborn at the very least have some explaining to do. And the sooner, the better.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Cat's Paw

Not so long ago, if the manager of a federal forest in Colorado tried to halt expansion of a ski resort, or to put the kibosh on a timber thinning project, by arguing that these actions might damage lynx habitat, he or she would have been laughed out of the room. That's because there were no lynx in Colorado, not so long ago.

But the state made a terrible mistake seven if eight years back, by agreeing to play host to an experimental colony of lynx, as part of a reintroduction effort. It seemed a reasonable compromise at the time: We'll do something to see if lynx can be restored to the Southern Rockies (which is the edge of their historic range), if the feds won't use that against us later, by pounding us with the regulatory sledge hammer called the Endangered Species Act.

The experiment held out promise not just for the cats -- who have done reasonably well after a rough start -- but for the possibility of a more reasonable application of this notoriously rigid law. But it was probably destined to blow up in our face, since there can be no compromise with environmental extremists, and with some federal regulators, once they have the bludgeon of the ESA at their disposal.

So now we in Colorado, as a reward for our good deed, are being punished, by seeing lynx habitat used as a reason to block this or that use of public lands, in violation of the agreement we thought we had with the feds. Not only is lynx habitat being raised as a possible objection to ski resort expansion, but it's being used to obstruct forest restoration projects designed to remove diseased stands and reduce the wildfire threat.

Instead of celebrating the day these wonderful animals were returned to the state, and demonstrating that a little flexibility and reasonableness from Washington can encourage cooperation instead of conflict, many Coloradans are kicking themselves for being such schmucks. Instead of a blessing, the cats are becoming a curse.

But so it goes with the Endangered Species Act.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Chilling Report from The Great White North

I strongly believe not-in-my-backyard obstructionism has gotten out of hand -- in Nevada, they've even gone after ice cream trucks -- yet I also fear the coercive, totalitarian tendencies lurking just below the surface of the modern environmental movement. Which leaves me conflicted about this story out of Canada, where the Premier of Ontario recently announced that NIMBYism will no longer be permitted to stand in the way of "green energy" projects.

"The "not in my backyard" syndrome that has created roadblocks for new energy projects will no longer be tolerated by the Ontario government, Premier Dalton McGuinty warned Tuesday as he pitched his proposed Green Energy Act. McGuinty told the London Chamber of Commerce the legislation will include provisions to stop special interest groups or municipal governments from trying to block green energy projects for anything other than safety or environmental concerns.

"We're going to find a way through this new legislation to make it perfectly clear that NIMBYism will no longer prevail when it comes to putting up wind turbines, solar panels and bio-fuel plants," he told the business audience. "We need those jobs. We need clean electricity, and we need to assume our full responsibility in the face of climate change."

NIMBYism, when taken to extremes -- which it almost always is -- is making it increasingly difficult to build just about everything, from new power plants to new roads, to new schools and even new churches. You name it and NIMBYs will fight it. And I'm betting NIMBYism will become a major impediment to moving forward on all the "shovel-ready" construction projects funded by the federal "stimulus" bill.

But I'm even more wary of the "McGuinty mindset": That there's no room for dissent or democracy when it gets in the way of the green agenda. And I fully expect that this "our way or the highway" attitude will start to be heard in the United States as well -- including, perhaps, from President Obama -- if NIMBYism becomes an even greater impediment to the "green New Deal," or to "saving the planet," which is the banner under which eco-Stalinists march.

"Our new law will uphold rigorous safety and environmental standards, but once those standards have been met, we intend to assert the greater public interest in clean, green electricity and the jobs that come with it," McGuinty said. "Municipalities will no longer be able to reject wind turbines, solar panels or bio-fuel plants because they don't like them. We can't allow interests to oppose these simply because they don't like them . . .As a society, as an economy, either we're committed to clean, green jobs or we're not. I say we are, and we'll take the necessary steps to ensure we move in that direction."

What those "necessary steps" might be, the premier wouldn't say. But his statements seem more like those of a despot -- like something one might hear from leaders in Venezuela or Russia -- than someone in a Western democracy.

"That's Canada," you might say. "Can't happen here."

But just look what happened with hockey.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Land of the Freeloader, Home of the Knave

A nation of supplicants. We've become a nation of supplicants.

I'm sure every newspaper in the country carries a story like this one today -- "The Stimulus Bill: What's in it for Us?" -- as Americans line up, hands outstretched and palms up, waiting to see what Washington-sent goodies -- what manna from Heaven -- fall into their hands.

Depression averted, perhaps. But I find the fact that we've become a nation of supplicants bone deep depressing. It reminds me of those old black and white photos from the 1930s, of men in hats stoically waiting in line for something -- a job perhaps? -- only it's in Technicolor now and we're all wearing designer clothes.

There is more dignity in what I see in those old photos. Americans today have the look of hustlers, looking for a way to angle in on the action.

We've been walking Hayek's "road to serfdom" for decades, despite a few detours which gave one hope that the ultimate destination might be avoided. But we've arrived, courtesy of Barack Obama's presidency and a "stimulus bill" that has every community in the country lining up, hat in hand, waiting for Uncle Sam to drop a little something into it (which he picks from our pockets with the other hand).

Land of the free? Home of the brave? Once perhaps. Today we're the land of the freeloader and the home of the knave.

I'm reminded of a letter I received at The Gazette a few years ago. "America's over," the writer concluded. "They just haven't sent out the memo yet."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Green Smoke and Mirrors

Part of what President Barack Obama will be touting today, when he signs the stimulus bill in Denver, are all the “green energy jobs” that will be created, and the “new energy economy” that will materialize, when this blizzard of federal greenbacks hits the fan. Gov. Bill Ritter will be there, too, to make his own overblown claims about how the “new energy economy” is working in Colorado.

But take it all with a grain of salt.

We’re likely to hear, again, how Ritter’s support for higher renewable energy mandates and more “investment” in alternative energy helped create more than 91,000 jobs in Colorado – a claim Ritter made last fall, citing a then-unpublished report by the American Solar Energy Society in Boulder. That this statistic was generated by an advocacy group, in a study underwritten by the state, might have raised red flags, though all except a few in the media reported it as fact. But now the complete report is available and the truth can be told.

The claim is a fabrication, which falls apart under closer scrutiny.

The 91,000 jobs Ritter takes credit for can only be concocted by defining the “new energy economy” so broadly that the term loses meaning, and by lumping renewable energy jobs in with “energy efficiency” jobs. The first group is more easily identified and quantified than the second, which ASES determines by casting its net widely, like a fisherman desperate for a big catch. Caught up in the net are any jobs even remotely linked to energy efficiency. It could be the gal who cuts the hair of the guy who drives the truck that delivers the energy-efficient refrigerator to the department store. Or maybe you work as a security guard at a recycling center – voila! You’re part of Ritter’s “new energy economy.” Or perhaps you’re an accountant at a utility company that offers an energy efficiency program (as almost every utility does): That means you’re a part of the new energy economy too.

Maybe I should be counted as part of Ritter’s economic miracle, since I’m typing this on a PC with an energy-efficient screen saver.

The study exaggerates the importance of the NEE by inflating the numbers, counting not only the assembler of the energy efficient furnace, but the person who services it; not just the builder of the hybrid vehicle, but the hybrid vehicle salesman. Also lumped in are accountants, cashiers, “management analysts,” roofers, truck drivers, welders, janitors, security guards, and stock clerks.

Roughly 80,000 of the 91,000 jobs counted as part of the NEE in 2007 were of this kind -- though these jobs could just as easily be credited to market forces or consumer choice, since government action isn’t the only thing that encourages efficiency.

That left about 10,000 jobs directly related to renewable energy in 2007. But more than half those jobs – 5,100 – were at a federal government facility, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and predated Ritter’s tenure. That means less than 5,000 private sector jobs could be directly linked to renewable energy in 2007 -- a paltry number, considering that 600,000 new jobs are created in the state each year.

Brad Collins, the executive director of the ASES, concedes that Ritter and his administration have no legitimate claim to having created these jobs when, in a Rocky Mountain News opinion piece published last week, he notes, almost in passing, that “these are not newly created jobs in 2007, but the total number of jobs at the end of 2007, including many jobs created in 2006 and earlier.”

Yet no such footnote came attached to Ritter’s boast of last fall, which was reported as fact by many media outlets and has yet to be corrected. Where standard political spin crosses over the line into dishonesty is hard to pinpoint with precision. But Gov. Ritter was certainly pushing the boundary when he made these claims.

As of two years ago -- the most recent year for which actual data exists -- Ritter’s “new energy economy” was insignificant, in terms of its economic importance and contribution to the state's overall energy portfolio. And while it’s undoubtedly more significant today – given the massive benefits the industry enjoys as a result of government mandates, taxpayer subsidies and political allies – it’s still far less consequential than the governor claims.

Here, in passages pulled directly from the report, is the reality behind the rhetoric.
From Pg. 110:

“... the (renewable energy) industry in the state is small and, except for the federal sector – primarily NREL -- does not currently play a major role in the state economy or job market. For example, in 2007:
* (Renewable energy) RE accounted for less than 0.6 percent of Colorado gross state product
* Excluding NREL, RE accounted for less than 0.4 percent of Colorado GSP.
* The total jobs created by RE accounted for only about 0.4 percent of total Colorado employment
* Excluding NREL, direct employment in the RE industry represents only about 0.2 percent of total state employment”

The report also throws cold water on the idea that the NEE is an equal opportunity jobs creator:

“. . . Despite various proposals that have been made in recent years to use RE as a job creation program for the disadvantaged, the chronically unemployed, or for other target populations, this is simply not feasible at present in Colorado.

Total employment in Colorado is over 2.6 million and unemployment totals over 100,000. The total number of jobs generated by RE (excluding NREL) is only about 4,600, and direct RE employment (excluding NREL) is only about 2,000. Excluding jobs that are not realistic targets for retraining the unemployed or those lacking adequate skills or training – such as jobs in R&D, hydropower, biomass power, DOE laboratories, financial institutions, etc. – leaves direct RE employment in the state at about 1,500 jobs. Even if RE jobs grew 10 percent annually, this would create only about 150 new jobs each year. And, if most of these were somehow allocated to the unemployed – which is not a realistic assumption, the impact on state unemployment would still be negligible.”

The report predicts the future job-creating prowess of the NEE under scenarios of increasingly-remote plausibility. The sunniest scenarios, not surprisingly, all depend on more mandates, more “investment” (read: subsidies) and more government interventions on behalf of the industry. And here’s where the report actually does enhance our understanding of the situation. Clearly, without leaning on a government crutch, and taxpayer support, the New Energy Economy would fold up like a Bedouin camp and vanish into the night.

My definition of a true economy is something that operates largely independent of government meddling and management, responding to private initiative, voluntary exchange, market forces, entrepreneurial creativity and consumer choice. The new energy economy flunks most if not all these tests, and more strongly resembles the "economies” socialists attempt to fashion through command and control methods. It’s a creature of government, which will continue to rely on government intervention, support and subsidies for decades to come, and may never stand on its own.

A few statehouse skeptics chided Ritter for using such a flimsy piece of research in such a self-serving way. State Sen. Scott Renfroe, a Greeley Republican, said he hasn’t seen many of these 91,000 jobs in Weld County, and wondered where they all are. "It doesn't pass the laugh test," said Assistant Republican Leader Greg Brophy, who supports the green energy industry but says he thinks “we ought to tell the truth about the size of it." Noting that the report was done with state support, Brophy joked: “I guess if you can't use tax dollars to effectively promote green energy, you always can use them to promote the promotion of it."

I don’t expect that Ritter will correct the record, or temper the hyperbole today, when he and President Obama sing the praises of the NEE at the stimulus bill signing ceremony. But a little more truth in advertising as we move forward would be a breath of fresh air.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Will Obama "spendathon" kill welfare reform?

Watching events unfold in a refreshingly detached fashion, from "across the pond," yesterday's Sunday Times had a story angle on Barack Obama's stimulus bill I haven't yet seen -- explaining that the massive infusion of money to the states will obliterate, and probably reverse, gains made in the area of welfare reform since the mid-1990s.

The story goes beyond the bill's possible implications for welfare reform, however, pointing out that, despite having successfully muscling the bill through Congress, Obama is making the sort of missteps a relative novice might be expected to, and that even backers of the president's plan seem to be harboring doubts about whether it's the right medicine for an ailing economy.

It's the sort of reporting one isn't yet getting from the American media, which still seems too bedazzled by Obama's star power.

Here are the highlights:

Obama warned over ‘welfare spendathon

The new administration's economic stimulus plan may undo reforms that cut the dole queues, critics say

RONALD REAGAN started it, Bill Clinton finished it and last week Barack Obama was accused of engineering its destruction. One of the few undisputed triumphs of American government of the past 20 years – the sweeping welfare reform programme that sent millions of dole claimants back to work – has been plunged into jeopardy by billions of dollars in state handouts included in the president’s controversial economic stimulus package.

As Obama celebrated Valentine’s Day yesterday with a return to his Chicago home for a private weekend with family and friends, his success in piloting a $785 billion (£546 billion) stimulus package through Congress was being overshadowed by warnings that an unprecedented increase in welfare spending would undermine two decades of bipartisan attempts to reduce dependency on government handouts.

Robert Rector, a prominent welfare researcher who was one of the architects of Clinton's 1996 reform bill, warned last week that Obama’s stimulus plan was a “welfare spendathon” that would amount to the largest one-year increase in government handouts in American history.

Douglas Besharov, author of a big study on welfare reform, said the stimulus bill passed by Congress and the Senate in separate votes on Friday would “unravel” most of the 1996 reforms that led to a 65% reduction in welfare caseloads and prompted the British and several other governments to consider similar measures.

Though some researchers have questioned the true impact of Clinton’s “workfare” reforms, they were wildly popular with millions of US taxpayers tired of subsidising what many saw as a generation of slackers.

Despite dire warnings that reduced benefits for single mothers and deadlines on entitlement would create a social calamity – one liberal senator warned at the time that children would be “sleeping on grates” – the 1996 reforms cut welfare rolls from more than 5m families in 1995 to below 2m a decade later without a discernible increase in hardship . . .

. . . .Rector, a senior scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued that Obama’s spending proposals in effect encouraged individual states to add more families to their welfare rolls; the more Americans sign on to the dole, the more state budgets will benefit from US Treasury payouts. “They have completely overturned the fiscal and policy foundations of welfare reform,” Rector complained . . .

. . . While some scholars are beginning to suspect that Clinton’s welfare reforms were fatally flawed – or at least viable only during an economic boom – Republicans are not alone in fearing that Obama’s hastily concocted package is the first step towards the creation of a quasi-socialist welfare state.

Even Mickey Kaus, a prominent liberal blogger, has denounced what he describes as the “get more people on welfare” provisions of Obama’s bill. Writing at Slate, the political website, Kaus said: “Lack of jobs isn’t a reason to loosen work requirements . . . Have the Dems never heard of ‘workfare’?

“Give recipients useful community service work, and if they do the work, then they get the [welfare] cash.”

The paper notes that Obama's polling numbers remain strong, despite a series of gaffes, including those involving cabinet picks, which led the new president's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to deny that it was “amateur hour” at the White House. But "the dangers are beginning to pile up for the novice president and his struggling economic crew," according to the Times, as the unprecedented scope of the "rescue" plan clashes with America's latent skepticism about big-government solutions, which tend to be wasteful and ineffective.

"In Wisconsin, the state that forged a pioneering path in welfare reforms in the 1990s, residents were astonished by a newspaper investigation that disclosed that a $340m (£236m) programme offering taxpayer-financed child care to low-income working parents was riddled with fraud and expensive loopholes.

In one case, a family of four sisters who had 17 children between them put all of them together, took it in turns to babysit them and over the past three years claimed $540,000 (£374,000) in perfectly legal state childcare subsidies.

Examples like that fuel American suspicion that so-called “big government” invariably turns out to be inefficient, expensive and easily exploitable. And there has been no bigger government action in the US than the stimulus package presented by Obama."

Average Americans seem genuinely conflicted over the stimulus package, torn between their fear that even worse might occur without dramatic government action (a feeling nurtured, ironically, by a president who only weeks ago was preaching the virtue of "hope" over "fear") and their recognition that a government "rescue" also carries huge risks, in terms of wasted money and expanded government power. But now we'll never know whether doing much less, in terms of government intervention, would have been better in the long run.

The dye is cast, as they say. And it's the color of red ink.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How Will She Manage?

Barack Obama tapped former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to run the Department of Homeland Security because of her claimed expertise on border issues. But Napolitano's ability to manage one of the largest federal bureaucracies is being called into question, indirectly, by her successor in Arizona, Jan Brewer, who complains that accounting gimmickry and poor management during Napolitano's watch left her with a huge mess.

The Arizona Republic earlier this week:

"Calling herself "very angry" and "furious" about the fiscal condition she inherited last month, Gov. Jan Brewer lashed out Friday at the former gubernatorial administration and warned that bleak times await Arizona. "We have very deep valleys ahead of us," said Brewer, a Republican. "We are facing very, very critical times. I'm very angry, basically, that Arizona is in this shape that it's in."

Brewer went on to call the situation, which includes a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, a "product of mismanagement," and to liken the state's fiscal condition to "the Titanic."

"She pointed to what she called budget gimmicks and rampant borrowing in recent years that enabled the state to keep spending in the face of a slowing local and national economy. "It is the responsibility, I would assume, of a few legislators and the last administration," Brewer said, ostensibly referencing Napolitano and the handful of Republican lawmakers who sided with Democrats to pass recent state budgets."

Brewer, in a wide-ranging critique, also took aim at photo radar speed enforcement, a signature program of Napolitano's, saying it is "inherently wrong" to use law enforcement as a revenue raiser for government. "I hate it," Brewer said of the program, which state legislators currently are re-thinking.

Napolitano's people dismiss Brewer's critiques as partisan whining, since she's a Republican. But the statements can't help but sow doubts about whether Napolitano, whatever her experience with border control, has enough managerial moxie to handle day-to-day operations at the massive DHS. The department's budget now hovers at around $50 billion, while Arizona's budget is less than $10 billion.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Obama's "progressive federalism" a one-way road to more regulation

The New York Times attempted to coin a catchy new phrase recently, when, in a story about President Obama's laissez faire attitudes about states that regulate in excess of mandates Washington imposes, up popped the term "progressive federalism," which seems the very definition of an oxymoron. Here's the context in which it appeared:

"The Obama administration seems to be open to a movement known as “progressive federalism,” in which governors and activist state attorneys general have been trying to lead the way on environmental initiatives, consumer protection and other issues, several constitutional experts say.

A recent decision by President Obama that could open the way for California and other states to set their own limits on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks represents a shift in the delicate and often acrimonious relationship between the federal government and the states, legal experts say, possibly signaling a new view of federalism.

“I think it’s quite significant,” said Samuel Issacharoff, a professor of constitutional law at New York University law school. “It shows the Obama administration’s more benign view of government intervention,” Professor Issacharoff said, and “may indicate a spirit of cooperative federalism” in which Washington will look to the states for new ideas and even a measure of guidance.

Tom Miller, the attorney general of Iowa, who met with the transition team in December to discuss federalism and other issues, said he believed the Obama administration would “usher in a new era in federal-state relations.” Members of the new administration, Mr. Miller said, “are open to what we’re talking about, what we’re thinking.” They also appreciate, he said, the fact that state attorneys general often achieve a level of bipartisan cooperation when they band together to pursue lawsuits.

The general trend under previous administrations had favored federal pre-emption, the belief that the best law comes from Washington, a concept still favored by business leaders. William L. Kovacs, a vice president for environmental and regulatory issues at the United States Chamber of Commerce, said free-for-all federalism was bad for business and would lead to a “patchwork of laws impacting a troubled industry.” Detroit, Mr. Kovacs said, would have to produce different cars for different parts of the country, and the environmental protection agency would grow tremendously to meet the new regulatory burden.

Many liberal thinkers skeptical of states’ rights and state actions since the days of segregation have begun to see that the states, to use Justice Louis Brandeis’s words from the 1930s, can “serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

The phrase "progressive federalism" seems designed to have conservatives and libertarians pulling their hair out, since it is the right, by and large, which has owned federalism (or should I call it paleo-federalism?) as an issue in modern times. Although federalism since the founding has served as an ideological ping-pong ball, it is the right that would like to restore a more equitable balance of power between the central government and the states, allowing the latter (in the famous image evoked by Justice Louis Brandeis) to serve as laboratories for civic experimentation, where "novel social and economic experiments" can be tried "without risk to the rest of the country.”

Far from putting the rest of the country at “risk,” such experimentation can fall to the country’s overall benefit, since states, if freed to be creative, could serve as the incubators for true innovation, as happened with welfare reform in the 1990s.

Not only are states better equipped to tailor policies that meet their particular needs, but under this model, Americans can vote with their U-Hauls for the governing approaches that best conform with their beliefs and values. A bit of this goes on now, when, for instance, we read about fed-up people fleeing California for Colorado. But so great has the uniformity become, as Washington's hegemony had grown, that the latitude for real experimentation is gone and the choices open to Americans are becoming very limited.

The insidious thing about "progressive federalism" is that it is a one-way street, selectively employed in a manner designed to relentless increase, but never decrease, government power and control. Obama and other statists are more that happy to see command-and-control California set higher-than-federal auto emission standards, in a case of wag the dog regulating. But states that decide to go another way, and regulate below the federal standard -- who decide, for instance, to opt out of certain provisions of the Clean Air Act or Endangered Species Act -- are out of luck, and will find the federal hammer coming down on them.

The point is made explicit by William Marshall, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who was deputy White House counsel in the Clinton years, when he's quoted by The Times as saying that federal rules should serve "as a floor and not a ceiling,” meaning that states would be allowed to pile new regulations on, but never remove or renounce them.

So much for experimentation. So much for choice. This "laboratory" is designed to produce only one outcome -- more regulation. "Progressive federalism" is another Orwellian attempt to rob words of their meaning -- and might more accurately be described as "faux federalism."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

There go the Charter Schools

The absence of teacher unions has long been one of the defining characteristics of charter schools.

It's what leaves the teachers free to teach, without constant reference to what's in "the contract." It's what leaves school administrators free to manage, without butting heads with obstructionists within. Absent is the adversarial relationship between "management" and "workers" that unions feed on. These schools put the interest of students first, and teachers second. It's one of the secrets of their success.

Yet of late I've seen a number of stories about teacher unions infiltrating charter schools, including, in just the last few days, this story in the New York Times, about the tensions caused by one attempted takeover in New York City, and this article in the Los Angeles Times, with an eerily similar storyline.

The N.Y. Times:

"Perhaps the standoff should not be a surprise. Charter schools, which are publicly financed but operate independently, were founded in opposition to teachers’ unions; many of the movement’s supporters view union contracts as a fundamental flaw in public education that keeps ineffective teachers on the job. And KIPP, like many charters, has hired teachers without traditional training and requires long hours and weekend work, usually for extra pay.

Teachers’ unions initially ignored charter schools or viewed them as the enemy, but as the charters grew in size and influence, the unions’ feelings warmed somewhat. Green Dot, a Los Angeles-based charter network, has unions at each of its schools, including one that opened with the teachers’ union’s cooperation last fall in the Bronx.

In New York, 18 of the state’s 115 charter schools are unionized, including two in Brooklyn operated by the teachers’ union. What happens to the unionization effort at KIPP AMP is being closely watched nationally as a test of whether two powerful forces in education will cooperate, coexist or devolve into protracted battles."

Clearly, the unions, having failed to thwart the charter school movement, are adopting a new strategy, of trying to infiltrate the schools and destroy them from within, by turning them into conventional public schools, where unions, not administrators, call the shots. The unions portray these takeovers as signaling their willingness to be part of the solution, not the problem, and as proof they aren't the obstacles to innovation and excellence they obviously are. Thus the lead in the Times story (my italics added):

"With its stellar test scores and connection to a national network, the KIPP AMP charter school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, presented a ripe opportunity for the city’s teachers’ union to prove that it, too, could embrace innovation that fuels rapid improvement for students."

But a more practical, bottom-line motivation lurks behind the takeovers. The wild popularity of charters has the tide turning decisively against unions. It represents a steady drain on union membership, union dues and union power -- which is all most unions care about. Unless they find a way to co-opt charters, not only will unions experience a continuing decline in membership and money, but America will before long have two public school systems existing side my side.

One system, free from union influence, will be succeeding, while the other, anchored down by union dominance, will be failing. And that will be the most glaring evidence yet of the cancerous influence these organizations have had on American public education.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Obama's Flight of Fancy

Times are tough. The economy perches on a precipice. Everyone needs a bailout, but the fountain of hundies has been stopped-up at the source, as those rascal Republicans quibble about some of the lard padding the "stimulus" bill.

And so the CEO salary setter-in-chief, Barack Obama, felt compelled yesterday evening to join congressional Democrats at their lavish retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he harnessed all his rhetorical powers and moral suasion in an effort to turn a lemon into a Lamborghini.

CNN gave the episode breaking-news play, comparable to Reagan meeting Gorbachev in Reykjavik, but what stunned me the most was the background footage of that ungainly Goliath, Air Force One, lumbering across the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, as Obama returned from his jaunt to Williamsburg (emphasis on the word jaunt).

Did Obama really take a jumbo jet to nearby Williamsburg, in order to pose for a few photos and preach to the choir? That's a 3 hour round trip by motorcade, or less than an hour by helicopter -- and he could have delivered the message by teleconference right from the Oval Office. An array of smaller aircraft sits at his disposal. Yet he felt compelled to travel there in the most expensive and ostentatious fashion possible, indifferent, apparently, to the jarring incongruities.

What kind of hypocrisy does it bespeak when he's setting executive pay scales for bailout beneficiaries and warning of economic hardship for average Americans if his plan isn't enacted, yet puddle-jumping with Air Force One? It's as outlandish, in its way, as Detroit auto executives flying Gulfstreams to Washington to ask for a handout. Yet none of CNN's talking heads even noticed how the scene played on a symbolic level.

The AP this morning touches on the privileged and perk-filled life of the economic stimulators and job creators in Congress, but one piece, focused on party retreats, can't do the subject, or the hypocrisy, justice. But credit ABC News, which just did a segment on Obama's perks, with recognizing that self-righteous Washingtonians are almost as pampered as Wall Streeters, even if their salaries aren't as astronomical.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Everyone can use a little Stimulus now and then

Reason TV, in this clever parody, reminds us that there's no shame in resorting to a little "Stimulus" once in a while, as long as we're fully aware of the possible side effects -- or that it could all just be a placebo.

Funny stuff from the folks at Reason TV.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Gore May Be Ousted as Fearmonger-in-Chief

Al Gore can't be happy about this.

For years he held the spotlight (or spotlights), almost completely alone, as America's self-anointed high priest of climate change hype. It won him a Nobel Prize. It plastered his fat face across the front pages of magazines and newspapers. It made him a darling for the media, which hang on his every word. It placed him on a pedestal few contemporary Americans have enjoyed.

But now comes this relative nobody, plucked from obscurity to run the U.S. Department of Energy, to challenge Gore's preeminence as America's fearmonger-in-chief and master of disaster. Yes, I'm talking about that upstart Steven Chu, who's already showing that he's no slouch when it comes to amping up the anxiety level, in the interest of advancing a command-and-control regulatory agenda.

Most cabinet officials prudently hedge their public statements, understanding that there's a thin line between discussing "challenges" candidly and stampeding Americans into the lifeboats. But not Chu, who in his first media interview predicted that California agriculture was doomed and its cities would dry up unless Barack Obama's climate change agenda is adopted. He showed a little more discretion on how climate trends might impact surfing, so as not to really alarm people. But otherwise he hit all the right buttons.

Other players in the Chicken Little Lobby naturally embraced Chu's intemperate predictions as a "breath of fresh air," but Gore has to wonder what it will do to his book sales and speaking fees if Chu doesn't tone it down a bit.

Here's how the L.A. Times wrote it up:

California farms, vineyards in peril from warming, U.S. energy secretary warns

'We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California,' Steven Chu says. He sees education as a means to combat threat.

By Jim Tankersley

Reporting from Washington — California's farms and vineyards could vanish by the end of the century, and its major cities could be in jeopardy, if Americans do not act to slow the advance of global warming, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said Tuesday.

In his first interview since taking office last month, the Nobel-prize-winning physicist offered some of the starkest comments yet on how seriously President Obama's cabinet views the threat of climate change, along with a detailed assessment of the administration's plans to combat it. Chu warned of water shortages plaguing the West and Upper Midwest and particularly dire consequences for California, his home state, the nation's leading agricultural producer. In a worst case, Chu said, up to 90% of the Sierra snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture.

"I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen," he said. "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California." And, he added, "I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going" either.

A pair of recent studies raise similar warnings. One, published in January in the journal Science, raised the specter of worldwide crop shortages as temperatures rise. Another, penned by UC Berkeley researchers last year, estimated California has about $2.5 trillion in real estate assets -- including agriculture -- endangered by warming.

Chu is not a climate scientist. He won his Nobel for work trapping atoms with laser light. He taught at Stanford University and directed the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he reoriented researchers to pursue "clean energy" technologies to help reduce the use of greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels in the U.S., before Obama tapped him to head the Energy Department.

He stressed the threat of climate change in his Senate confirmation hearings and in a video clip posted on Obama's transition website, but not as bluntly, nor in as dire terms, as he did Tuesday.

In the course of a half-hour interview, Chu made clear that he sees public education as a key part of the administration's strategy to fight global warming -- along with billions of dollars for alternative energy research and infrastructure, a national standard for electricity from renewable sources and cap-and-trade legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions. He said the threat of warming is keeping policymakers focused on alternatives to fossil fuel, even though gasoline prices have fallen over the last six months from historic highs. But he said public awareness needs to catch up. He compared the situation to a family buying an old house and being told by an inspector that it must pay a hefty sum to rewire it or risk an electrical fire that could burn everything down.

"I'm hoping that the American people will wake up," Chu said, and pay the cost of rewiring.

Environmentalists welcomed the comments as a sharp break from the Bush administration, which often minimized research about global warming."To say the least, it's a breath of fresh air," said Bernadette Del Chiaro, who directs the clean air and global warming program for Environment California. "We've been worried about the impacts of global warming for years, even decades. He's absolutely right -- California stands to lose so much in our way of life."Global warming skeptics were not swayed.

"I am hopeful Secretary Chu will take note of the real-world data, new studies and the growing chorus of international scientists that question his climate claims," Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. "Computer model predictions of the year 2100 are simply not evidence of a looming climate catastrophe."