Tuesday, September 13, 2011

private pay for public work

As a retired federal employee, I resent the ill-informed criticism of federal workers and the recurring efforts to punish them with across-the-board pay freezes. I am also concerned about the mushrooming growth of contracting out when it involves basic functions of government. About 1/4 of the intelligence community personnel are contractors, for example.

Much of this outsourcing has been done under the false impression that private contractors are cheaper than government personnel because the agencies don't have to pay federal health and retirement benefits. Now comes a solid study by the Project on Government Oversight showing that, in fact, contract personnel get about twice as much per person as federal employees doing the same work.  I hope the fed-bashers take notice.

much greener pastures

Lobbyists, like lawyers and taxi drivers, belong to an honorable profession. They all take their clients where they want to go. It's bad only when they break the rules getting there.

A new study shows that several thousand former members of Congress and their staff have moved from their high-pressure, moderately paid Hill jobs to richly rewarding K Street lobbying firms in recent years. That's actually a common career path for senior Hill staffers, especially on the committees that deal with taxes and business regulation. I was somewhat reassured to note [be sure to check the table] that defense and foreign policy staffers don't make the top ten list.

Friday, September 9, 2011

tattered SOFA

The policy pundits and media are politicizing U.S. policy in Iraq. That's unfortunate, since the situation is bad enough without turning the issue into Obama vs. the U.S. military.

The Obama administration has indicated a desire to keep about 3-4,000 American troops in Iraq after 2011. American military commanders reportedly prefer a much higher figure, like 14-18,000.  Even fair-minded critics like Peter Feaver are calling the policy reckless, and others are suggesting a renewed civil-military crisis.

Wait a minute. Yes, there are domestic American political pressures on the decision, not least the President's promise to end the U.S. combat role this year. And yes, the military has good arguments for having more American soldiers around for security than fewer.

But the real problem is in Baghdad, not Washington. The status of forces agreement [SOFA] signed by George W. Bush set the December 31, 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, despite the Bush administration's earlier criticism of any use of withdrawal timetables. The Iraqi government has failed to propose any alternatives to that deadline because of internal disputes among the ruling coalition. So the U.S. military is properly planning troop drawdowns to be compliant, even as it wishes for both certainty and specifics regarding any residual U.S. force. I say "Iraqi government," but the sad fact is that no successor government has been formed since the March 2010 elections. Iraq has a caretaker government that isn't taking care of the chief security issue that nation faces.  The Americans int he White House and Pentagon are just trying to cope with the dysfunctional government in Baghdad.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

toxic politics

Jim Fallows has drawn attention to a piece by a recently retired Republican Hill staffer who complains that his party is weakening public trust in government by the GOP's take-no-prisoners approach to public policy.I find much of the analysis persuasive. Congressional Republicans are denouncing proposals they once strongly supported and seem to enjoy the turmoil their obstructionist tactics create in their wake. The answer isn't a third party, since our system is structured in favor of two, but a return to civility and mutual respect even during disagreements.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Title 60, now more than ever

Washington has been recycling for decades. Government officials and think tank analysts readily recycle their favored but ignored proposals whenever some new development provides a "hook" for publicizing them. The practice usually involves saying that whatever just happened shows we need to adopt their ideas "now more than ever."

Since I am not immune to this disease myself, let me cite the Dana Priest-Bill Arkin article on the Joint Special Operations Command [JSOC] to argue that we need new "Title 60" legislation now more than ever. The article, based on a chapter in the authors' new book form of a Post series last year, points out the government's strong reliance on JSOC for major, risky national security activities -- some of which are like the "covert operations" by the CIA, which are subject to longstanding procedures for presidential approval and congressional notification. But, as the authors point out,

"Under President George W. Bush, JSOC’s operations were rarely briefed to Congress in advance — and usually not afterward, either — because government lawyers considered them to be “traditional military activities” not requiring such notification. President Obama has taken the same legal view, but he has insisted that JSOC’s sensitive missions be briefed to select congressional leaders. "
The absence of a legal regime including Congress for these activities looks like a risky loophole to me, one that has an easy fix.Some members of Congress have talked about "Title 60" legislation extending the current law to include Pentagon-run operations like those of JSOC. None of the committees that might look into this have acted yet. I hope they'll use this latest article to get busy.

budgets and priorities, California edition

Government budgets are mostly developed with tunnel vision: each agency gets more money or less as the chief executive and the legislature react to how well the agency has been doing and what else it might need to do. Rarely are tradeoffs made with other agencies, except for symbolic or political purposes (e.g., "there are more people in military bands than in the U.S. Foreign Service.")

Yet in fact, budgets reflect governmental priorities, whether or not they are consciously chosen. The United States Government does spend 19 times more on the Pentagon than on international affairs programs including diplomacy and foreign aid. Every now and then, somebody points out a comparison that grabs attention and maybe even shocks us a little. That's how I felt today reading that, for several recent years, California has been spending more on its prisons than on its universities.  As an educator today who is the son of a policeman, I see the value of both public universities and correctional facilities. But aren't things out of balance, at least in California?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

tax expenditures

In writing the original 1974 Budget Control and Impoundment Act, some liberals inserted a requirement that each year's presidential budget submission include a list of "tax expenditures" -- the estimated revenue lost because of particular tax provisions. Each year, that list sits as a menu of options for Congress to raise revenues without raising percentage tax rates.

In the past year, more and more think tanks and commissions have seized upon items on the list for revenues to reduce future deficits. And even some Republicans have occasionally acknowledged that eliminating a tax break or "loophole" might be acceptable to those who have signed the "no new taxes" pledge.

I want to keep that hope alive,so I'm happy to draw attention to this new study by some tax policy analysts that explains how the tax expenditures work and why Congress is addicted to them. The authors also argue that using the tax expenditure approach rather than straightforward grants of federal money, makes it harder to achieve policy goals and creates an administrative burden on IRS that isn't well fulfilled.

Of course, as a homeowner [correction: as the owner of the right/obligation to pay a mortgage every month], I do very much like the home mortgage interest deduction. But if that's part of the price for sensible revenue increases, I won't bring out my pitchfork.


I've long been proud of the fact that my home state of Colorado was one of the earliest states granting women the right to vote -- in the early 1890s, three decades before the 19th amendment was added to the Constitution. [I learned only recently, however, that a major motivation for that reform was to strengthen the voting power of established families and reduce that of unmarried miners.]

I also strongly believe in encouraging maximum voter turnout, such as by early voting procedures, so that people do not miss the chance to vote because of the vagaries of weather or personal schedules on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  And I know the long history of efforts by the powerful then in control to prevent blacks from voting in the South and newer citizens in other places.

Accordingly, I have been appalled to learn of the widespread efforts to disenfranchise legal citizens who wish to vote by the enactment of various measures to raise obstacles to registration and voting. The supporters of these measures claim they are combating "widespread voter fraud," despite the absence of indictments or convictions for such offenses. Anecdotes are trumpeted to obscure the facts.

This appears to be a concerted Republican effort to prevent likely Democrats from getting registered and voting, but I hope even solid Republicans would oppose or condemn such challenges to liberty.

it's all about ME!

Senior officials in both the legislative and executive branches have a regrettable tendency to view external events as a response to whatever they are doing or care about. In fact, that is rarely the case. Foreign governments make policies with highest regard to their own polity and their own goals. Politicians are so self-centered they treat almost every action by allies and adversaries as a response to themselves rather than in pursuit of individualistic goals.

As a result, these officials assume conspiracies when -- as is usual in human events -- inadvertence or incompetence is a more accurate explanation. I think that's what happened yesterday between the President and the Speaker of the House. I'll bet a middle-ranking White House aide who often deals with the Speaker's office called and said, "The President would like to make his jobs speech Wednesday evening,the first full day after the August recess." And the House official, on his own or after checking with someone else, said, "No problem." The Republican operatives chimed in, noting the competition with the candidates' debate in California, and the Speaker decided to say no. He then wrote a letter with logistical excuses making Thursday a better night.

Now maybe somebody in the White House thought, how clever of us to preclude coverage of the GOP debate. And maybe somebody in the Speaker's office thought, how cool to pit Obama against the first NFL game on Thursday and angry football fans. I suspect those were quite secondary considerations. This is a staff screwup that never should have happened, and never should have been escalated into "Obama vs Boehner!"

What's also regrettable is the media's tendency to see things in the same way. Those covering presidential politics assume the GOP debate was foremost in the White House calculations. Those covering Congress automatically view it through the Obama-Boehner lens. And the political commentators weigh in assuming politics was the only consideration and the only way to view the events.

As I look over the coverage of the incident -- here and here and here -- I see nothing that disproves my hypothesis and a lot that reinforces it.

doin' what comes natcherly

Members of Congress offering legislation that benefits their districts and key contributors. Hello! I guess this is newsworthy because the particular members mentioned are Tea Party types, who supposedly don't believe in political pork. Hypocrisy is a chronic disease among politicians, so we shouldn't expect much different. On the other hand, many candidates run not only on Big Issues like the size of government or involvement in foreign wars but also on other issues, like local folks who feel unfairly treated by government regulations or the tax code or some foreign competitors. That can justify a lot of legislation with parochial benefits.

collapse of confidence

The whole debt ceiling fight undermined public trust and confidence in government, according to a noted pollster. As Dan Balz reports, Bill McInturff says: “The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse in confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.”

The American system of government was designed to allow gridlock, and the default assumption has usually been that doing anything big requires big consensus, not just 51% of the votes. But now both ends of the political spectrum are calling for major policy changes and each side can block the other. President Obama is boxed in both by the partisanship of his opponents and by his own political persona, which during and since 2008 has been to portray himself above the fray, unwilling to fight purely partisan battles.

Sadly, when people lose trust in their political institutions, it takes a long time and a lot of effort to restore it.