The IRS is under siege for investigating conservative political groups applying for tax-exempt status. But the real problem wasn’t that the IRS was too aggressive. It was that the agency focused on the wrong people—“none of those groups were big spenders on political advertising; most were local Tea Party organizations with shoestring budgets,” writes The New York Times—and wasn’t aggressive enough. The outrage that Washington should be talking about—what my colleague Chris Hayes calls “the scandal behind the scandal”—is how the Citizens United decision has unleashed a flood of secret spending in US elections that the IRS and other regulatory agencies in Washington, like the Federal Election Commission, have been unwilling or unable to stem.
501c4 “social welfare” groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform—which don’t have to disclose their donors—spent more than $250 million during the last election. “Of outside spending reported to the FEC, 31 percent was ‘secret spending,’ coming from organizations that are not required to disclose the original sources of their funds,” writes Demos. “Further analysis shows that dark money groups accounted for 58 percent of funds spent by outside groups on presidential television ads [$328 million in total].”
IRS guidelines for 501c4 groups state that “the promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office…a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” It’s ludicrous for groups like Crossroads GPS—which spent at least $70 million during the last election—to claim that its primary purpose is not political activity. Only the likes of Karl Rove would believe that running attack ads against President Obama qualifies as social welfare.
So what did the IRS do about this blatant abuse of the tax code by some of the country’s top corporations and richest individuals? Virtually nothing. “When it comes to political spending, the IRS is more like a toothless tiger,” wrote Ken Vogel and Tarini Parti last year in a story headlined, “The IRS’s ‘feeble’ grip on big political cash.”
It’s obvious that our Wild West campaign-finance system needs more, not less, scrutiny and much tighter, not looser, regulation. Yet conservative groups are exploiting the IRS scandal to further dilute regulatory agencies that are already on life support. Writes Andy Kroll of Mother Jones:
The IRS’s tea party scandal, however, could hinder the agency’s willingness to ensure politically active nonprofits obey the law. The IRS will likely operate on this front with even more caution, taking pains not to appear biased or too aggressive. That in turn could cause the agency to shy away from uncovering 501(c)(4) organizations that do in fact abuse their tax-exempt status by focusing primarily on politics.
The Rove’s of the world would like nothing more than for the public to believe that conservative groups had too few opportunities to influence the 2012 election and were wrongly persecuted by evil Washington bureaucrats. Yet the 2012 election should have taught us precisely the opposite lesson—that our patchwork regulatory system is far from equipped to deal with the new Gilded Age unleashed by Citizens United. As Rep. Keith Ellison told Hayes last night: “We need to redouble our efforts to bring real campaign-finance reform forward.”
By: Ari Berman, The Nation, May 14, 2013
Everyone knows that Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” But as Ramesh Ponnuru recently pointed out, there is a “less famous yet crucial beginning of that sentence”: “In our present crisis.”
Conservatives rightly hate nanny-state government and big-spending bureaucracy. But too often, the word “government” has become unfair shorthand for what is actually only bad or oppressive government.
Conservatives aren’t anarchists, after all. We don’t want Big Brother, but none of us should want to live in a Hobbesian state where every person is absolutely and entirely for himself, either. Instead, we believe in ordered liberty via limited government.
Certainly, the size and scope of government has increased over the years. But still, we shouldn’t conflate all government with bad government. We need a functioning state, and yes, there is such a thing as a government that is too weak.
This is a lesson that goes back to our founding. And it’s one conservatives should appreciate. Judging from their colonial garb and tri-cornered hats, Tea Party activists are fond of the Constitution and its Founders. So you might expect that they, of all people, would appreciate the importance of having a government that isn’t laughably weak.
As Baylor professor and Patrick Henry author Thomas Kidd tells me, “Most of the major Founders became convinced that Americans needed a stronger national government to coordinate trade policy and protect against domestic and foreign threats.”
Under the Articles of Confederation, the government was impotent. “Major decisions — declaring war and signing treaties — needed the approval of nine states,” writes Richard Brookhiser in his book James Madison. Congress couldn’t even tax, and “as a result, the United States was perpetually broke,” Brookhiser adds.
To be sure, some patriots, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, opposed the Constitution precisely because they feared big government. But as Kidd points out, “the majority of the best-known Founders believed that the new republic needed a bigger, stronger government for the United States to survive and compete on the world stage.”
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote Madison, who (in fairness) added, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
So, a natural question: What should a limited government do?
For starters, preserve law and order, ensure the rule of law, enforce contracts, provide for our defense — and yes, control the border. (I’m also partial to clean water, but that’s just me.)
Max Weber said the government has a “monopoly on legitimate violence in society.” This is needed to enforce law and order. Otherwise, whoever has the biggest gun — or the most brothers — takes your property.
“Government is the most common form of hierarchy,” Robert Kaplan recently noted. “It is a government that monopolizes the use of violence in a given geographical space, thereby preventing anarchy. To quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher, only where it is possible to punish the wicked can right and wrong have any practical meaning, and that requires ‘some coercive power.’”
But government functions don’t just keep us safe, they also make us prosperous. Sure, overregulation can be a job killer. But consider the extreme alternative. If you believe that someone could steal your business if he wants to, then you are much less likely to start one. If you believe that someone can break a contract with you — or steal your invention — without fear of punishment, that might make it less likely that you will go into business or to invest in research and development.
In their 2012 book Why Nations Fail, economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson provide a largely free market argument for why some nations succeed. For example, Acemoglu and Robinson fault protectionist policies instituted to avoid the process of creative destruction as a primary reason some nations fail.
But interestingly, they also frequently cite a lack of a strong central government as a prime reason nations fail. For example, the authors lament Somalia’s “lack of any kind of political centralization, or state centralization, and its inability to enforce even the minimal amount of law and order to support economic activity, trade, or even basic security of its citizens.”
I can’t imagine that any conservatives who decry government would prefer this sort of extreme chaos to our current, albeit imperfect, government.
So maybe the answer is to be more specific about our concerns with government. Attempting to do just that, Nobel Prize-winning economist James M. Buchanan distinguished between the productive state, the protective state, and the redistributive state.
Essentially, the productive state would constitute infrastructure like roads and bridges, the protective state would encompass the police, criminal justice, etc., and the redistributive state is obviously the entitlement state.
While most conservatives concede that we need some social safety net, they are mostly worried about the out-of-control growth of the redistributive state. And yet, too seldom is that distinction made. Instead, the criticism is usually directed at “government.”
When it comes to government, a lot of conservatives are probably too obsessed with size. Grover Norquist famously wants to shrink government to such a small size that you can drown it in a bathtub.
But I’m not sure most Americans want that. And trying to force it via draconian cuts doesn’t work, especially if they don’t address the specific problem, such as the need for entitlement reform. ”You can’t make a fat man skinny by tightening his belt,” observed John Maynard Keynes.
Whether you’re a conservative who cares about preserving law and order, or a free marketer who appreciates the importance the rule of law plays in providing confidence and incentives to entrepreneurs, you’re a fan of government. Stop pretending otherwise.
By: Matt K. Lewis, The Week, May 9, 2013
“Feeding The Paranoid Right”: Republican Politicians And Conservative Media Bear Direct Responsibility For Vile Thinking On The Right
In today’s edition of Republicans Think the Darndest Things, a poll from Farleigh Dickinson University that came out the other day found, as polls regularly do, that Americans in general and conservatives in particular believe some nutty stuff. That’s not news, but there are some reasons to be genuinely concerned, which I’ll explain. The headline finding is this: Respondents were asked whether they agree with the statement, “In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties.” Forty-four percent of Republicans—yes, almost half—said they agreed. We’ve been doing pretty well with this constitutional system for the last 224 years, but it’s just about time to junk it.
The right reaction to any shocking poll result is to say, “Let’s not make too much of this.” And I don’t think any but a tiny proportion of the people who would answer yes to that question would start in or participate in a revolution. Let’s take the gun owners who email me every time I write an article about guns, telling me I’m an ignorant unmanly Northeastern elitist liberty-hating girly-man wimp (yeah, they’re heavy on the accusations of insufficient manliness; this is what psychologists call “projection”). If their neighbor came over and said, “Enough is enough; I’m going down to the police station to kill some cops—you know, for liberty. Are you coming?”, how many of them would say yes? Not very many.
Nevertheless, the fact that so many people are willing to even entertain the idea is appalling, and we have to put the responsibility where it belongs. We don’t know for sure if you would have gotten a different result had you asked this question before, say, January of 2009 (to pick a random date), because no one was asking. But Ed Kilgore has the appropriate reaction:
But our main target ought to be the politicians and pundits and bloggers that walk the revolutionary rhetorical road because it’s “entertaining” or it makes them feel all macho (like Grover Norquist swaggering around Washington with a “I’d rather be killing commies” button after one of his trips to Angola in the 1980s), or it’s just useful to have an audience or a political base mobilized to a state of near-violence by images of fire and smoke and iron and blood.
As I’ve observed on many occasions, you can only imagine how these self-appointed guardians of liberty would feel if casual talk of “armed revolution” became widespread on the left or among those people. There should not, cannot, be a double standard on this issue.
So please join me in calling on conservatives to cut this crap out and separate themselves from those who believe in vindicating the “original constitution” or defending their property rights or exalting their God or protecting the unborn via armed revolution. If William F. Buckley could “excommunicate” Robert Welch and the John Birch Society from the conservative movement back in the 1960s, today’s leaders on the Right can certainly do the same to those who not only share many of that Society’s views, but are willing to talking about implementing them by killing cops and soldiers.
As a general matter, I don’t think it’s necessary to demand that politicians repudiate every crazy thing said by anyone who might agree with them on anything.1 But Ed is absolutely right: Republican politicians and conservative media figures bear direct responsibility for the rise of this vile strain of thinking on the right. They cultivate it, they encourage it, they give it aid and comfort every single day.
For instance, the NRA is having its annual convention in Houston as we speak. Yesterday, a man went into the Houston airport with an AR-15 and a handgun, fired into the air, was fired upon by law enforcement officials, and then shot himself. Glenn Beck then went on his program and told his viewers that there is “a very good chance” that the episode was engineered by the “uber left,” whatever that means, and compared it to the Reichstag fire. In other words, Beck is encouraging people to think that just like Hitler and the Nazis, Barack Obama is about to use an episode like that as a pretext for the imposition of some kind of horrifically oppressive regime. Beck is a featured speaker at the NRA convention, along with a passel of well-known Republican politicians like Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. How many of them will condemn him? None, of course.
They won’t, not only because most of the people at the convention probably agree with Beck, but because what Beck says is only a tiny step or two toward the fringe from what they say all the time. Is there a prominent Republican politician who hasn’t at some point in the last four years told people that Barack Obama is a tyrant, or that our liberties are being stripped away, that Obama wants to kill your grandma with his death panels, or that America is inches from ceasing to be what it has been for two centuries? Is there a prominent Republican politician who hasn’t done his or her part to feed the paranoid, violent fantasies of the extreme right? If confronted, they’d no doubt say, “Oh, well I never actually said people should forget about democracy and start killing cops and soldiers in an attempt to overthrow the government. That’s not what I meant at all when I talked about ‘tyranny’ and ‘oppression’ and that stuff.” But that’s exactly what their supporters heard, and they damn well know it. And they ought to be held to account.
1For some reason, not everyone gets asked to do this in equal measure. For instance, in Barack Obama’s first appearance on Meet the Press in 2006, Tim Russert confronted the Senate candidate with some inflammatory things Harry Belafonte had said about George W. Bush. Now what was the connection between Belafonte and Obama? I can’t think what it might have been.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 3, 2013
The framing of this question may well reveal more about the state of American politics and media commentary on dysfunctional government than the responses. The implicit assumption is that President Obama’s personal relationships with individual Republicans (or the presumed lack thereof) and his supposed reticence in tabling bold proposals for resolving the nation’s fiscal problems is a (if not the) major reason so little progress has been made in reaching a bipartisan consensus. I believe that assumption is greatly at odds with reality and distracts readers from the core governing problems confronting the country today.
Presidential leadership is contextual—shaped by our unique constitutional arrangements and the electoral, partisan, and institutional constraints that flow from them. Under present conditions of deep ideological polarization of the parties, rough parity between the parties that fuels a strategic hyperpartisanship, and divided party government, opportunities for cross-party coalitions on controversial policies are severely limited. Constraints on presidential leadership today are exacerbated by the relentlessly oppositional stand taken by the Republicans since Obama’s election, their continuing embrace of Grover Norquist’s “no new tax” pledge, and their willingness since gaining the House majority in 2011 to use a series of manufactured crises to impose their policy preferences on the Democrats with whom they share power.
Ironically, Obama tried harder and longer than the results merited to work cooperatively with Republicans in Congress. He has learned painfully that his public embrace of a policy virtually ensures Republican opposition and that intensive negotiations with Republican leaders are likely to lead to a dead end. No bourbon and branch-water laced meetings with Republicans in Congress or pre-emptive compromises with them will induce cooperative behavior.
Obama has now set out on the right course in his dealings with Republicans in Congress. No naiveté about the opposition he faces but a determination to make some cooperation in the electoral interests of enough Republicans to break the “taxes are off the table” logjam and move forward with an economic agenda that makes sense to most nonpartisan analysts and most Americans.
By: Thomas Mann, Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, U. S. News and World Report, March 6, 2013
Imagine a plot to undermine the government of the United States, to destroy much of its capacity to do the public’s business, and to sow distrust among the population.
Imagine further that the plotters infiltrate Congress and state governments, reshape their districts to give them disproportionate influence in Washington, and use the media to spread big lies about the government.
Finally, imagine they not only paralyze the government but are on the verge of dismantling pieces of it.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But take a look at what’s been happening in Washington and many state capitals since Tea Party fanatics gained effective control of the Republican Party, and you’d be forgiven if you see parallels.
Tea Party Republicans are crowing about the “sequestration” cuts beginning today (Friday). “This will be the first significant tea party victory in that we got what we set out to do in changing Washington,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), a Tea Partier who was first elected in 2010.
Sequestration is only the start. What they set out to do was not simply change Washington but eviscerate the U.S. government — “drown it in the bathtub,” in the words of their guru Grover Norquist – slashing Social Security and Medicare, ending worker protections we’ve had since the 1930s, eroding civil rights and voting rights, terminating programs that have helped the poor for generations, and making it impossible for the government to invest in our future.
Sequestration grew out of a strategy hatched soon after they took over the House in 2011, to achieve their goals by holding hostage the full faith and credit of the United States – notwithstanding the Constitution’s instruction that the public debt of the United States “not be questioned.”
To avoid default on the public debt, the White House and House Republicans agreed to harsh and arbitrary “sequestered” spending cuts if they couldn’t come up with a more reasonable deal in the interim. But the Tea Partiers had no intention of agreeing to anything more reasonable. They knew the only way to dismember the federal government was through large spending cuts without tax increases.
Nor do they seem to mind the higher unemployment their strategy will almost certainly bring about. Sequestration combined with January’s fiscal cliff deal is expected to slow economic growth by 1.5 percentage points this year – dangerous for an economy now crawling at about 2 percent. It will be even worse if the Tea Partiers refuse to extend the government’s spending authority, which expires March 27.
A conspiracy theorist might think they welcome more joblessness because they want Americans to be even more fearful and angry. Tea Partiers use fear and anger in their war against the government – blaming the anemic recovery on government deficits and the government’s size, and selling a poisonous snake-oil of austerity economics and trickle-down economics as the remedy.
They likewise use the disruption and paralysis they’ve sown in Washington to persuade Americans government is necessarily dysfunctional, and politics inherently bad. Their continuing showdowns and standoffs are, in this sense, part of the plot.
What is the President’s response? He still wants a so-called “grand bargain” of “balanced” spending cuts (including cuts in the projected growth of Social Security and Medicare) combined with tax increases on the wealthy. So far, though, he has agreed to a gross imbalance — $1.5 trillion in cuts to Republicans’ $600 billion in tax increases on the rich.
The President apparently believes Republicans are serious about deficit reduction, when in fact the Tea Partiers now running the GOP are serious only about dismembering the government.
And he seems to accept that the budget deficit is the largest economic problem facing the nation, when in reality the largest problem is continuing high unemployment (some 20 million Americans unemployed or under-employed), declining real wages, and widening inequality. Deficit reduction now or in the near-term will only make these worse.
Besides, the deficit is now down to about 5 percent of GDP – where it was when Bill Clinton took office. It is projected to mushroom in later years mainly because healthcare costs are expected to rise faster than the economy is expected to grow, and the American population is aging. These trends have little or nothing to do with government programs. In fact, Medicare is far more efficient than private health insurance.
I suggest the President forget about a “grand bargain.” In fact, he should stop talking about the budget deficit and start talking about jobs and wages, and widening inequality – as he did in the campaign. And he should give up all hope of making a deal with the Tea Partiers who now run the Republican Party.
Instead, the President should let the public see the Tea Partiers for who they are — a small, radical minority intent on dismantling the government of the United States. As long as they are allowed to dictate the terms of public debate they will continue to hold the rest of us hostage to their extremism.
By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, February 28, 2013