Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

You could see this trap being set a year ago, and yet the Republicans in Congress (displaying their usual ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory) willingly walked into it. Republicans have been attacked all month for the possibility that the lack of agreement between the House and Senate might cause the “temporary” payroll tax cut to expire.

First, the idea of a “temporary” payroll tax cut is stupid. Everyone knew when this agreement was reached that it would not last for only one year, because no politician is going to be responsible for raising taxes on everyone, especially lower and middle class workers. Congress was never going to allow this to expire at the beginning of an election year.

Second, the payroll tax is the funding mechanism for Social Security. I am all in favor of cutting taxes, but unless you are going to reform the entitlement it is simply irresponsible to slash the revenue for the program – especially when no one believed this tax cut would only last one year. All this policy does is endanger the future of Social Security, and add even more irresponsible debt to the mountain of debt that has been accumulated over the last three years.

But the way this is being spun in the mainstream media, Congress is never going to move the payroll tax back to where it was before the “temporary” tax cut was implemented, for fear of being attacked for “raising taxes” on the poor and middle class – despite the fact that everyone technically agreed to this tax increase when it was signed a year ago!

So now we have the perfect storm of bad policy and stupid politics. Everyone in Washington wants to see the payroll tax cut extended, if only for craven political reasons. But someone has to be the adult in the room make the point that if we are going to have these social programs we cannot simply put them on the credit card forever. It’s not going to get any easier in the future because the next Congressional election is always right around the corner.

Four proposals for reforming county government

The Evansville Courier reported on four proposals by Governor Mitch Daniels for reforming county government. The proposals and my reaction are below. (All text in the bullet points is quoted from the Courier.)

  • Allowing counties to switch their executive structure from three-member groups of commissioners to a single county commissioner.

At first, this did not seem to make sense, because the legislative authority in county government is very unusual. The county council is the fiscal body, while the commissioners are the legislative body. You cannot very well have only one person deciding legislation by himself. There would not even be a need for any votes.

But Daniels mentioned in his speech (download here) making county government more like other forms of government and strengthening the county council, so this would almost certainly involve moving legislative authority from the commissioners to the council. The Courier did a poor job of explaining the proposal.

  • Abolishing three-member township advisory boards that oversee township trustees’ budgets and bumping their fiscal oversight duties up to county councils.

I disagree with this proposal. It is fine to give the county council more oversight but the township boards are in a better position to decide the township budget than the county council. This is an anti-democratic proposal that will actually reduce oversight by taking eyes off the township budget.

It also takes away local control by having it more centralized. Here in Monroe County, I am sure folks in conservative Washington Township would much rather have their township board deciding their budget than having the folks in the much more liberal Bloomington and Perry Townships having authority over them through the representatives they elect to the county council. (See township board duties here.)

  • Eliminating nepotism – that is, the ability for local elected officials to hire their relatives to do the area’s work.

This is a good idea that is long overdue. It is long past time to professionalize local government and this is a step in the right direction. But it does not go far enough. The next step should be restrictions on patronage employment. The taxpayers are best served when people are hired on merit instead of politics and family relations.

  • Restricting “conflicts of interest,” or situations where those who are paid by local government, such as police, firefighters, park employees and more, also serve on the councils that set their budgets.

While I see the reasoning for this proposal, I am not sure this is necessarily something that needs to be codified into state law. I am distrustful of any proposal that seeks to limit the choice of voters to elect whomever they please. Government employment is public record in the state of Indiana, and the voters are free to not elect someone who they believe has an unacceptable conflict of interest. Furthermore, it is often local government employees who are most knowledgeable about the operations of local government and are in the best position to make informed choices.

A more modest reform would be better. Instead of banning people from being elected completely, pass a law that legally requires any government employee to recuse himself on votes regarding the policy or budget of his department.

These proposals represent an ambitious agenda, especially for a short session during a year where we will elect a new governor. Even with the Republicans holding big majorities in both chambers, it will not be easy to get this done. Everyone should think about these proposals and express your opinion to your legislators.

The Community Reinvestment Act, revisited

I have blogged about the Community Reinvestment Act before. Here’s another good article on the CRA’s role in the 2008 housing crisis:

As Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times and Joshua Rosner wrote in “Reckless Endangerment,” the Fannie-and-Freddie debacle shows what happens “when Washington decides, in its infinite wisdom, that every living breathing citizen should own a home.”

Beginning in 1992, the government began pushing for more allocation of credit to lower-income borrowers. To meet affordable-housing goals set by Congress, the two mortgage giants steadily lowered their credit standards and began buying subprime loans or no-document mortgages — those for which verification of key data like income was absent. Subprime originators seized the opportunity to reap profits with dubious mortgages while shifting the risk to Fannie and Freddie — and the Treasury.

Whenever concern was raised about the increased risk, reforms would be blocked by powerful Fannie-and-Freddie backers in Congress, like Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank.

Source: The Kansas City Star.

Credit card mess is a reason for change in 2012

The pathetic record keeping for county government’s credit cards demonstrates why Monroe County voters need to vote for local offices on local issues instead of national or international issues. Local Democrats took advantage of tides against George W. Bush in 2004, 2006 and 2008, and we have seen the results of that.

Last month, Monroe County Auditor Amy Gerstman wrote a personal check for $2,592.75 to reimburse county government after she was unable to locate a credit card statement from January. But that’s just the beginning of the mess. It was later discovered that personal expenses have been charged to county cards and reimbursed, leading to a request for public records by the local newspaper.

It is not unheard of for personal expenses to be accidentally charged to a company card and then repaid – or for a company expense to be accidentally charged to a personal card and then reimbursed. Sometimes people use the wrong card. That is certainly not an ideal situation by any means, but it’s not necessarily a crisis. County employees who have authorization to use credit cards need to be very careful about proper use.

The big question in this controversy is context, and only a thorough audit of the credit card statements can determine if people were simply careless with county credit cards or whether there were isolated incidents. Which county departments had incidents of personal expenses reimbursed by the county?

Clearly, reform is needed. Here is one thing the county should do, if they do not do it already: Scan in all of the receipts along with the credit card statement to PDF. Then any time someone wants to see the statements, they can get them via CD, or (if the file size of a specific statement is small enough, say no more than 2 MB) have it sent via an e-mail attachment. Not only would it allow rapid access to the statements for county employees auditing them, it would allow a turnaround of less than a day for public records requests.

The hard paper records also need to be saved, obviously.

But the credit card mess gets worse. On December 17, the Herald-Times reported that after two weeks, county government was still not able to provide the number of credit cards the county has.

This is simply unacceptable. Losing the January credit card statement in the move from the courthouse to Showers is obviously bad and indicates poor internal controls on documents. But how could the county not know how many credit cards it has? If nothing else there should be a spreadsheet – or even a text file – with a list of all the cards. Not knowing how many cards there are makes the situation a prime target for abuse.

The real scandal is not that inappropriate expenses are made and then reimbursed. As I said above, sometimes people use the wrong card and it’s not a crisis as long as these mistakes are very rare and there are procedures in place to safeguard against it. The real scandal is that record keeping in county government is so shoddy that we now have a situation where county government does not even know how many credit cards it has.

After the county Auditor’s Office had been controlled by Republicans for twenty years, a Democrat was elected in the anti-Bush wave of 2004. The incumbent Auditor did such a poor job that she was defeated in her own party’s primary by a margin of 11,722 to 7,762. The winner went on to victory in the general election over a Republican who had worked in the Auditor’s Office for more than twenty years and was far more qualified than her Democratic opponent. No human resources manager would have hired the Democrat, but she won thanks to Barack Obama.

I have said before that we need to reform county government. But that would require a change to Indiana’s constitution that would take a while to get on the ballot, even if the legislature made it a priority in 2012. (And we know that will not happen.) But one thing we can do in Monroe County is stop voting for local races based only on who we support for President. Republicans have a great opportunity to win local races in 2012.

Splitting the vote is a sure path to defeat

Imagine this scenario: Voters go to the polls in 2012, and 55% of them vote for a conservative candidate, while 45% vote for a liberal candidate. The liberal candidate wins because the conservative votes are split between two conservatives, with the next highest vote total at 40%. We now have four more years of Barack Obama and his destructive policies.

This is an unacceptable scenario, but it is possible. Ron Paul has said he has no intention of running as a third party candidate, but has not ruled it out in absolute terms. He needs to do so immediately. If he makes any noise about running as a third party candidate, his supporters should abandon him.

There is a lot to like about Paul, who is arguably the most consistent limited government candidate in the race. But no matter who you support, any of the Republican contenders would be vastly superior to Barack Obama. Paul simply cannot win as a third party candidate. The best he can hope for is to be a spoiler by pulling enough conservative votes to cause Obama to win with a plurality.

I have voted for third party candidates before and I almost certainly will do so again. There are times when a Republican candidate’s positions are so offensive that I cannot in good conscience support him. But that is not the case with anyone in the 2012 Republican field. There are some I support more than others, but I could enthusiastically vote for any of them as the Republican nominee.

Paul was not always a Republican. He was the Libertarian Party’s candidate for President in 1988. Later, he left the Libertarian Party to run for Congress, and has represented his district in Texas for 15 years. Had Paul remained a Libertarian, he would not have been able to capture that seat. Because he ran as a Republican, he has had a platform to advocate (small “L”) libertarian ideas popular with much of the Republican base.

Paul could have pursued the Libertarian Party’s nomination from the beginning, but he decided to run as a Republican – knowing that he is a long shot to win the GOP nomination. Since he is running as a Republican, he needs to respect the nomination process and not run as a “sore loser” candidate. He will not be on Indiana’s ballot if he chooses that route, because IC 3-8-1-5.5 prevents a defeated candidate from appearing on the general election ballot for the same office.

It is not only at the national level where conservatives could defeat themselves by splitting the vote. There has been a lot of chatter about a second conservative challenging Richard Lugar in the 2012 Republican primary. As I pointed out in August, this is a sure path to defeat. Not everyone is thrilled with Richard Mourdock as the alternative to Lugar, but he has been in the race for nearly a year and he is a proven 60% general election winner. For anyone to get in the race now would be nothing more than an ego trip and an in-kind donation to Lugar’s campaign.

We have the chance to be rid of a President who has wrecked the economy and a U.S. Senator who has far too often sided with Democrats against conservative principles. Now is not the time to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and allow Obama and Lugar to win with a plurality. We need a single conservative alternative to both, and we can win.

Joe Biden’s shameful lies about Iraq

Read the following two quotes and see if you spot something unusual:

“(Saddam Hussein is) a long term threat and a short term threat to our national security… We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. This is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world.” – U.S. Senator Joe Biden on Meet the Press in 2002

“When that original debate took place, what is easy to forget, I don’t expect people to remember, those of us like Dick Lugar and myself and others who voted to authorize the President to use force were based on the President’s commitment that not to use force, that he had no intention of using force.” – Vice President Joe Biden, December 13, 2011 on MSNBC.

People can change their position on issues in one of three ways.

First, they can have a legitimate change of opinion. There are some people who were formerly for the war in Iraq who honestly examined their position and decided they had made a mistake. Those people owned up to their position.

Second, they can change their position for craven political expediency.

Third, they can pretend they never actually held the opposing position at all, and have always held their new position.

Unfortunately, Biden has taken the third route, which is by far the least honorable.

Biden used to be in favor of the war, and now he is not. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. What is unacceptable is for the Vice President of the United States to lie about his former position. He has demeaned the office and shamed himself. He needs to apologize to the American people.

The reality of at-large races

Last month, Indiana Daily Student columnist Kelly Fritz bitterly complained about a Republican city council candidate encouraging supporters to vote for him only, not any of the other candidates. While her zeal for democracy and voter participation is laudable, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the way at-large races work.

Voters can pick up to three candidates, but can also vote for two, one or none at all. If there is a candidate you enthusiastically support, it is counterproductive to vote for the candidates of the opposing party. For example, voting for a Republican and a Democrat would negate the vote for the Democrat by elevating his Republican opponent. Voting only for the Democrat elevates him while not elevating the Republican.

Republicans only had two candidates, because the former Monroe County GOP chairman failed to file the paperwork to get the third candidate on the ballot. A Republican who uses all three votes in the 2011 city council race would negate one of his votes. (This is why it is important to fill the ticket, because a lot of people automatically use all three votes.) One can debate the wisdom of only voting for one Republican instead of both, but it was certainly not advisable for Republicans to use all three votes.

I ran for delegate to the Republican state convention several times in the primary. I have encouraged friends to vote for me only, because that elevates me without elevating my opponents. When I ran for Bloomington Township Board in 2006, the primary was irrelevant because there were two of us running for three seats, but had there been more than three I would have encouraged supporters to vote only for me. In the general election, after the GOP filled the final spot on the ballot in a caucus, I voted for all three Republicans and encouraged others to do the same. We were all annihilated anyway.

It is not anti-democratic to not use all your votes in an at-large race. Instead, it is smart political strategery.

The GOP will need to pick up two seats on the county council in order to win a majority, which is highly unlikely. The last time Republicans won two at-large seats was 2000, and the party has self destructed since then. It would not surprise me if the Republicans fail to fill all three spots on the ballot for county council at-large. If that happens, Republicans would be wise to educate Republican voters and conservative independents about why voting for only the one or two Republicans best advances the cause of getting Republicans elected.

Why not exempt everyone from the smoking ban?

A December 4 editorial in the Journal Gazette asks whether a limited statewide smoking ban is acceptable or whether legislators should push for a much more comprehensive ban. But while legislators haggle over who should be exempted, the obvious question lingers: Why not just exempt everyone?

The fundamental question is not whether this or that class of business should be exempt from a statewide smoking ban. The fundamental question is whether the proper role of government is to forbid the use of a legal product by consenting adults on private property. Unfortunately, the vast majority of both Republicans and Democrats in the legislature have ceded a power to government that would have been unthinkable only 25 years ago.

But the nanny state is relentless. Once the nannies have their sights set on something, they will keep coming back. Smoking bans have been passed in a number of Indiana cities as anti-smoking activists have built their case over ten years. Reasonable limits on smoking in places like hospitals and government buildings morphed into restrictions on private property rights, even when the only people allowed in are consenting adults.

In Monroe County, you cannot even smoke in your own vehicle if a child 13 years old or younger is with you. If you think that will remain confined to Bloomington, or the nanny state will be satisfied with smoking bans in private vehicles and will not push for ever more restrictive bans, you are deluding yourself. If nothing else, smoking opponents have demonstrated that the slope is indeed slippery.

We don’t need government policing our lives.

Let me be clear: I despise smoking. If you smoke, you should quit. I do not want you smoking in my home and I will try to convince you to stop smoking elsewhere. But it is not my place to use the power of government to force you to live your life the way you please, including consumption of legal products.

The most discouraging thing about the latest nanny-state intrusion into personal choice, business and private property rights is the fact that both chambers are dominated by Republicans swept in by the 2010 Tea Party wave. Despite the revival of constitutional conservatism federally and serious efforts at conservative reform in the states, it appears that we have lost this battle. And that is sad.

Social programs, tax cuts and the deficit

You know, I hear Leftists like Rachel Maddow talk about how soldiers have made sacrifices while people at home get tax cuts, so we put the war on the deficit. What I never hear about is how social programs are not only never cut, but expanded while we are at war. Somehow, all of this social spending does not cause the deficits (because it takes place in an alternate universe apparently) but allowing people to keep more of what they earn does lead to higher deficits. How does that work?