Saturday, February 21, 2009

Iowa Senate Studies "Tyranny of the Majority"

When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 there was almost immediate conflict between delegates from the large, heavily populated states and the smaller, less populous ones.

How should the national legislature be constituted? The big states proposed The Virginia Plan which assigned Congressional representation based upon population. The smaller states favored The New Jersey Plan, which assigned an equal number of representatives to each state. Ultimately, both sides accepted the “Connecticut Compromise,” wherein there would be two houses of Congress. In the Senate, each state would get an equal number of Senators and the House of Representatives would be allocated by a state’s population.

Another (somewhat cobbled together) compromise was the “Electoral College” for electing the president. Some delegates thought the president should be elected by Congress, others preferred a popular election. In the end, the Constitution allowed each state to assign a number of “electors” equal to that state’s Congressional delegation, to vote for the president.

Most people don’t really understand the electoral college (myself included). As it is now practiced, each state still gets one elector for each representative and Senator it has in Congress. All but two states instruct their electors to vote for whichever presidential candidate got the most votes in that state. These 48 states, Iowa included, are “winner-take-all,” giving all of their elector votes to the highest vote getter in that state.

It seems unduly complicated and a lot of people don’t like it. That may be why the Iowa State Senate is currently studying a bill that would alter Iowa’s participation in the electoral college.

Pushed by a national group called “National Popular Vote,” Senate Study Bill 1128 would change the instructions that Iowa would give to it’s electors. They would be instructed to vote for whichever candidate got the most votes NATION-WIDE. The new law would be an interstate compact, an agreement, with other states who pledge to do the same thing. It would go into effect as soon as enough states to collectively field 270 electoral votes have signed into the agreement. So far only Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii have signed into the pact.

Critics charge that such a system would create an “urban-centric” presidency. Candidates would focus their time and energy on areas where they could rack up the most popular votes quickly, places such as New York and California, rather than having to focus on winning in various sectors of the country. Once elected, the President would tailor all policies toward appeasing these areas, often at the expense of less populated states.

“National Popular Vote” (NPV) responds to allegations that their plan is an “end run” around the Constitution by correctly pointing out that the Constitution allows states to appoint electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct[.]” NPV might want to read the rest of the Constitution, however, particularly Article One, Section 10, Clause 3 which says, “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress […] enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power[.]”

Let’s look at NPV’s plan using Iowa as our model. Iowa has 7 electoral votes, one for each of our five Congressional districts and two Senators. Suppose Candidate A gets 60% of the popular vote here in Iowa. However, Candidate B sweeps LA, New York, Chicago, etc… and gets 51% of the popular vote nation-wide. All of Iowa’s electoral votes would go to Candidate B, who voters in Iowa soundly rejected. If we take this example to the extreme, it would be possible for all 7 of Iowa’s electoral votes to go to a candidate who did not get a single person in Iowa to vote for him.

It’s easy to see how less populous states like Iowa would quickly become mere spectators of presidential elections, allowing other, more populated states to vote FOR us. No thank you. If the electoral college needs reformed, perhaps, like our forefathers in 1787, we can find a mutually-equitable compromise.

I think a better plan would be to adopt the “Congressional District Method” currently used by Maine and Nebraska. Rather than award all of the state’s electors to one candidate, an electoral vote is given to the popular winner in each Congressional district. The two remaining electoral votes, representing the state’s two Senators, are given to whichever candidate had the most votes statewide.

It is a “winner-takes-most” system, rather than the current “winner-takes-all” system. This would ensure that voters in a conservative district of liberal California, for instance, would not be wasting their votes. Nor voters in a liberal district of conservative Texas. In 2008, John McCain carried conservative Nebraska, but Barack Obama still got one electoral vote from the state for winning in it’s 2nd Congressional District.

The “Maine-Nebraska Method” would be more democratic than the current system without completely relegating rural states to political irrelevance. Also, since it would be implemented individually by respective states, it would not run afoul of the Constitution’s “Compact Clause,” mentioned above. Perhaps history books will call the adoption of this plan “The Iowa Compromise.”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

How About A Little Separation Of Church And State?

Christian conservatives and the ACLU get along almost as famously as the Hatfields and McCoys. However, it appears the two may have to grit their teeth and work together to oppose a legislative bill here in Iowa.

The religion clause of the First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[...]." The ACLU focuses on the first part of the clause, the religious right focuses on the second part. (Libertarians like to focus on both parts.)

The ACLU often defends the First Amendment's supposed "wall of separation" between church and state. The Christian right likes to point out that the First Amendment mentions no such wall and concludes that the ACLU is merely trying to keep Christians from participating fully in the public realm. Now however, Christians may be willing to step into a breach in that wall of separation with the ACLU to fight House File 179.

HF 179, “An Act including members of the clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse, and making penalties applicable,” was introduced into the Iowa legislature by a Republican and a Democrat. The sponsors are supposedly an evangelical Christian and a Baptist, respectively. The bill would require members of the clergy to be mandatory reporters of child abuse, just like doctors, teachers and cops are now. There is an exception for information obtained during religious confession.

Nobody wants children in Iowa to be abused, so what can the problem be with this proposed law? The ACLU of Iowa lists several.

For one, ACLU-IA explains, the bill makes an exception for "penitential communication", which means "confession." Since the Catholic Church is the only one that has formal rules about seeking penitence through a clergy member, religious counseling in other religions would be open game. (This may be why the Catholic Conference is the only religious group to have endorsed the legislation so far.)

Since Iowa is always shorthanded on psychiatrists and family counselors, the minister is often a small town’s first responder for family crises. Do we really want to discourage people from talking to their minister for fear of immediate police involvement?

Another problem is, what is “a member of the clergy?” The bill defines it as “a person authorized by ordination, licensing, or other form of entitlement of the religious group or sect with which the person is affiliated to provide pastoral care and counseling to the group, sect, or others.” Huh?

Some churches have more formal training and accreditation procedures for their clergy than do others. In some churches all members are considered “ministers.” In the end, the state would have to issue some kind of standards on who is and who is not clergy, if the law is to be enforceable. See the wall crumbling?

All in all, the bill would open up a huge can of First Amendment worms regardless of what clause your group likes to focus on. Let’s hope that these two unlikely allies, conservative Christians and the ACLU, like Churchill and Stalin, can crush the common threat. Then they can get back to clobbering each other.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Federal Stimulus Package: Part Two

As debate continues on the federal “stimulus package” in Congress, I continue to discuss four possible objections to it: 1) It won’t work. 2) We can’t afford it. 3) It will be rife with waste, fraud and abuse. 4) It will drive up inflation. In Part One, we saw the poor track record of Keynesian "stimulus." Let us continue:

2. We can’t afford it.

The Treasury currently lists the total public debt as $10.7 trillion. To clarify how much a trillion dollars is, keep in mind that it took from the founding of our country to 1987 for our government to accumulate ONE trillion in debt. Since 1987 we’ve added another 9.7 trillion.

And the pace is accelerating. We added about a trillion dollars to that debt in 2008 alone, and we’ll probably add almost TWO TRILLION of additional debt in 2009. With levels of debt like this, it’s amazing that Congress should need convincing to NOT add on almost another trillion of debt in a single bill, especially with the coming tsunamis in Social Security and Medicare spending as baby boomers retire.

How much money is in this bill? Here are some factoids from the Heritage Foundation:

  • The $900 billion Senate bill is equal in size to the entire economy of Australia. It is twice the size of oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
  • That is enough money to provide every current high school Junior and Senior student a four-year education at a private university, and still have $150 billion to spare.
  • The House spending bill last week of $819 billion is equivalent to borrowing $10,520 from every family in America. This borrowed money equals what the average family spends on food, clothing, and health care in an entire year.
  • 2010 spending from this bill would more than double New Deal spending in 1936, in today’s dollars. Despite doubling federal spending, unemployment after the New Deal was enacted remained above 20 percent until World War II.

Whether you think the stimulus is a good idea or not, our children will be staggering under the weight of its debt into the foreseeable future.

3. It will be rife with waste, fraud and abuse.

Like most of the Senators and Representatives now voting on it, I have NOT read the stimulus bill. Nor do I need to in order to know that whatever version passes will be full of wasteful spending, dirty deals and political paybacks.

Wasteful spending? How about $88.6 million for new construction for Milwaukee Public Schools? Due to declining enrollment, MPS currently has 15 vacant schools and no plans to build more. I guess no one told Congress.

How about $650 million for the digital television converter box coupon program? Or $248 million for furniture at the new Homeland Security headquarters. Or $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. While American families and businesses are tightening their belts, Congress has taken theirs off. You can search the bill at

In this bill there will also be plenty of ways for Congress and President Obama to pay back those who helped them get elected. Some are speculating that, as the bill is currently written, groups that backed the Democrats, such as Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and could receive millions, if not billions of stimulus dollars. It’s easy to see that the Democrats are as concerned with “stimulating” their political fortunes as they are the economy.

4. It will drive up inflation.

Most of us don’t think much about inflation. It’s just kind of there, like gravity, death and taxes. We should think about it.

Inflation is not the yearly increase in prices. That is just the symptom. Inflation is the increase in the amount of money in circulation every year, causing the money itself to be worth less and less.

It’s not a hard idea to conceptualize. Imagine that you’re holding an authentic 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card. Worth some dough, right? Now imagine that you wave a magic wand and create 820 billion more. Guess what happened to the value of each one.

Now imagine that you’re holding a dollar bill. Congress is going to wave its magic wand and conjure up 780 billion to 900 billion more just like it. Guess what happens to the value of each one. (I borrowed and paraphrased this analogy from Ron Paul, by the way.)

As this wave of new money washes across the economy it will be worth less and less. This aspect of the “stimulus” bill will hurt everyone in the country, but especially the poor who already have a hard time stretching their dollars without having them shrink more than usual.

Those of us in our 30’s or younger have never had to deal with the ungodly inflation that America had in the 1970’s and 80’s. We might want to prepare ourselves.

So, there are four possible objections to the stimulus package. It won’t work. We can’t afford it. It will be rife with waste, fraud and abuse. It will drive up inflation.

I thought about adding a fifth objection, that the stimulus bill is unconstitutional, that Article I, Section 8 gives Congress no authority to do most of what the bill spells out. But 10th Amendment federalism is already a dead letter. I’ll honor it’s memory by not disturbing it now.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Federal Stimulus Package: Part One

Debate continues on the federal “stimulus package.” The House passed an $820 billion package last week that ballooned to over $900 billion in the Senate. Currently it appears that that might get trimmed to a “svelte” $780 billion. Regardless of what the grand total ends up being, as I see it, there are four reasons not to like the stimulus package: 1) It won’t work. 2) We can’t afford it. 3) It will be rife with waste, fraud and abuse. 4) It will drive up inflation. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
1. It won’t work.
The history of Keynesian “stimulus” is not promising. Daniel J. Mitchell, a Senior Fellow at Cato Institute, lists numerous examples of Keynesian failures. For instance Herbert Hoover, at whose feet the Great Depression is popularly laid, was no free-market libertarian. He increased taxes, imposed protectionism, and increased regulation of private markets. Most importantly to this debate, he increased federal spending by 47% in four years. None of these big government policies kept the Depression from knocking at the door.

Hoover’s replacement was the Keynesian poster child Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The New Deal wrapped federal tentacles around every aspect of private business. The top tax rate was hiked to 79%. FDR boosted government spending by 106% from 1933 to 1940. Still unemployment remained high and economic output didn’t recover until we ramped up during World War II. A recent study by Lee E. Ohanian and Harold Cole of UCLA suggests that New Deal policies prolonged the Depression by 7 years.

The Keynesian idea of tax rebates, wherein people are given money taken from other people, to stimulate the economy has been tried several times. President Ford tried it during the 1970’s and President George W. Bush tried it in 2001 and 2008, all with lackluster results. Bush was also the biggest spending president since LBJ, but his prolific spending apparently hasn’t helped the economy.

Mitchell also uses the experience of Japan to illustrate the folly of stimulus through government spending. He writes: “[T]hroughout the 1990s [Japan] tried to use so-called stimulus packages in an effort to jump-start a stagnant economy. But the only thing that went up was Japan’s national debt, which more than doubled during the decade and is now even far more than Italy’s when measured as a share of GDP. The Japanese economy never recovered, and the 1990s are now known as the 'lost decade' in Japan.”

I already wrote about the fallacy of job “creation” by public works projects in “Rebuild Iowa Wisely,” using a favorite passage from Henry Hazlitt, so I won’t rehash it here.

All these reasons and more led a group of 300 of the nations’ top economist (including 3 Nobel laureates) to sign on to a full page ad in national newspapers, denouncing Democrat’s bloated stimulus package. (See ad at the right.)

All signs point to this stimulus as being not only a failure, but a damned expensive one.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Iowa City Tea Party

I can see how cities effected by the 2008 floods may need additional funds, but still, you have to like these local tax-protesters' style.

From the Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 4, 2009:

"A local group has sent boxes of tea to Iowa City councilors to protest the possibility of a local option sales tax.

"The Iowa City Council is considering calling for a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax. Each city in Johnson County could accept or reject the tax.

"Mike Thayer of Coralville said a group of about 30 people met Monday night to discuss the measure. A statement from the group states that the tea 'kicks off an aggressive campaign of opposition to the tax.'

"In a play on the Boston Tea Party, Thayer said one box of loose-leaf tea was sent to each councilor with a tag including the names and addresses of those opposed to the sales tax.

"'Local government needs to spend the money they've already been given more responsibly,' he said.

"Thayer said examples of money poorly spent include $50,000 to support The Englert Theatre and $62,000 that was spent in 2007 to fund a downtown study. He said the city shouldn't be funding a 'failing theater' and said the downtown survey didn't 'tell us anything we didn't already know.'

"Thayer said that local government needs to cut back 'just like Johnson County families are.'"

To learn more about the tax protest, go to

Let's hope things don't go all "Concord Bridge" down there.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

3 Good Bills In Des Moines

The Iowa legislature is now in session and there is the usual assortment of bills that will raise taxes and increase regulations on hapless Iowans. But amidst this tidal wave of bad bills are at least three good ones.

House File 74, the “Iowa Taxpayer Transparency Act of 2009,” would mandate that the state establish a website with a “searchable budget database website for the public to access the details of the expenditure of state tax revenues and a searchable tax rate database for the public to access the details of each tax rate for all taxing districts in the state.” In other words, you would be able to look up where the state is spending all its money and also figure up how much all the various levels of government are bilking you on taxes.

Modeled after one of President Obama’s few signature pieces of legislation while in the U.S. Senate, this bill was introduced by Republicans in the Iowa legislature (probably in the hopes that some of Obama’s mojo will rub off on them). Currently nine other states have followed Obama’s lead and set up state government transparency sites of their own. Interestingly it’s only a few Democrats opposing it here in Iowa, presumably because their fingerprints will be all over the wasteful spending that will be discovered because of the website.

The estimated cost would be about $40,000 for the website. (That’s a government estimate, so it will be higher.) But if it helps taxpayers and watchdog groups keep Iowa government on the fiscally straight and narrow path, it will quickly pay for itself.

Ed Falier Jr., President of Iowans for Tax Relief, had this to say about the new bill: "Iowans for Tax Relief agrees with President Obama and we endorse his call for change. The people are the consumer of government, and all Iowans should be able to find out exactly how their tax dollars are being spent. I want to thank the bill sponsors who are here today and ask all other Legislators to honor the agenda of our new President and support swift passage of this bill."

House File 116 cleans up language in current law dealing with transporting firearms. Let’s say you’re one of the many new gun owners who went out and bought their first gun because you think the Obama Administration is going to ban them soon. You go to the local shooting range to practice. Knowing that it is illegal to transport a LOADED weapon in your vehicle, you pull the magazine of ammo out of the gun, put the gun in its case and into the trunk. You toss the magazine into your glove compartment and head home.

You just broke the law! According to the way it’s worded now, a loaded detachable-magazine is considered a loaded weapon, even if it’s not IN the weapon. HF 116 would change that, making it harder for recreational shooters to inadvertently become criminals.

Also dealing with firearms is House File 86, “An Act relating to the justifiable use of reasonable force.” Under current law, Iowans have a duty to flee from criminal attack before being “justified” to use deadly force outside their home. The proposed law would specify that “a person has no duty to retreat, and has the right to stand the person's ground, and meet force with force, if the person believes reasonable force, including deadly force, is necessary under the circumstances to prevent death or serious injury to oneself or a third party, or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

So good guys could legally stand their ground, and it would become the criminal’s “duty” to run like hell. Often called the “Castle Doctrine” (because “a man’s home is his castle”), it is an old concept based on English common law.

Despite cries from alarmists that such laws (which they cleverly call “Make My Day Laws”) will lead to constant bloodbaths, at least 19 other states have adopted Castle Doctrine laws of one sort or another without any problems.

Since these three bills only benefit taxpayers and common citizens, there is a risk that they will be pushed aside in favor of bills that are supported by powerful special interests. Please write your State Representative and ask him or her to support one or all of these bills. You can find your Rep here.

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