Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Disturbing Tendency

by Andrew Gillen

I have praised some of the Obama administration’s proposals and criticized others, but I have not said much about the Obama administration per se until now. Leaving aside any discussion of the ends aimed for, I’ve noticed a very disturbing tendency in the means used by the administration to achieve their ends.

First there was health care, where Tyler Cowen notes that
the Obama administration had promised deals to doctors and to pharmaceutical companies under the condition that they publicly support health care reform.
Next came the National Endowment for the Arts, where a conference call with artists of all stripes included representatives of the government stating
we can really work together to move the needle and to get ... stuff done… I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment.... Then my task would be to apply your artistic, creativity community's utilities. Bring them to the table.
Next came the environment.
The EPA has now formally made an "endangerment finding" on CO2… The idea is to get Exelon and other utilities to lobby Congress to pass a cap-and-trade bill that gives them compensating emissions allowances that they can sell to offset the cost of the new regulations…

White House green czar Carol Browner was explicit on the coercion point last week, telling a forum hosted by the Atlantic Monthly that the EPA move would "obviously encourage the business community to raise their voices in Congress."
Finally, there was higher ed. As reported by Doug Lederman,
At several points in the call, administration officials let the two-year college presidents know that priorities they favor are dependent on Congress passing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (and the community college focused American Graduation Initiative that is part of it) this fall…

a department spokesman… concluded it by saying that "the department is committed to working with you," but that the administration "will need your voices" in the months ahead…

That will depend on when Congress acts on the legislation, Shireman said -- another hint, if the presidents hadn't gotten the message already, that they might want to consider telephoning their Congressional representatives as soon as the department's call ended.
These are four examples of a very disturbing tendency by the Obama administration to use explicit or implicit payoffs to buy political support for other policy proposals. To be clear, any proposed legislation will create winners and losers, and we should not be surprised that the winners can be quite vocal in their support of the legislation. But what we are talking about here is different, and much more insidious. The administration is deliberately creating winners in one area on the condition that they support the administration in a different area.

In the most blatant instance of this, people whose specialty is art were encouraged to support the administration’s position on health care, education, and the environment. The other examples are less clear cut, because they at least are related to the broad field in question. But the tying of payoffs/threats to broader legislation in this manner is troubling. In health care, huge amounts of money were promised to doctors and pharmaceutical companies for their support of a bill that would do much more than just influence doctor and drug pay. In environmental policy, utilities are being offered huge sums of money in the form of pollution credits, so long as they support a system that makes those credits valuable.

In the education example, community colleges were told that “priorities they favor are dependent on Congress passing” SAFRA, whose impacts would primarily be felt outside of community colleges. If SAFRA doesn’t pass, there is no reason that the proposals affecting community colleges couldn’t be considered on their own. But the administration is trying to buy support for one set of policies by tying it together with relatively unrelated policies.

The argument that this is standard operating procedure for Washington doesn't hold much weight - we elected Obama to change the way things are done in Washington, not to make it worse. Moreover, such Frankenstein bills are understandable when the result of horse-trading among legislators, but this appears to be the modus operandi of the administration at the beginning of a policy debate. It is hard to distinguish the add-ons whose only purpose is to buy support for other policies on the one hand, from a form of bribery on the other.

As Tyler Cowen points out,
We should stop using political favors as a means of managing an economic sector. Unfortunately, though, recent experience with health care reform [AG: I would add art, environmental, and higher education policy as well] shows we are moving in the opposite direction…

1 comment:

Cowboy said...

Did you hear that Barack Obama watched the Florida vs LSU football game this past weekend?

Afterward they awarded him the Heisman.