The following is a transcript of my radar from Wednesday’s edition of “Rising” on HillTV.
It’s impossible for Washington to pass “comprehensive” reform without, at best, throwing a few bones to special interests. At worst, comprehensive legislation throws big sums of money at big problems, often by funding gradual, inoffensive expansions of federal power. Those expansions, predictably, have snowballed.
This week, Democrats may pass a piece of trillion-dollar legislation that will free them up to pass a $3.5 trillion bill under the false pretense of infrastructure reform. The net effect will be to grow the snowball, even if it’s true that our widespread reliance on federal funding means much of the first bill is necessary.
We’re in dire straits. We live materially better lives than any society ever has, but the trajectory of our families, schools, healthcare, and literal infrastructure is negative. That is made all the more unacceptable and painful by our relative wealth. The impulse to throw money at these problems is completely understandable. To us, stopgaps feel like progress and progress feels like relief. To politicians, they look like progress and make for easy talking points.
As Rachel Bovard would tell you, a lot of this is downstream of congressional dysfunction. Congressional dysfunction, of course, is a symptom of deeper cultural problems, which brings the whole problem full circle. But the vast majority of federal power expansions are permanent, and when they build on top of one another, they roll into the snowball. It always gets bigger. It never shrinks.
Case in point: Congress is still conflicted over the 20-year-old AUMF.
When OSHA was created in 1970 under Richard Nixon, Congress described its purpose as “assur[ing] safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.” When President Biden this month mandated vaccine requirements for businesses bigger than 100 employees, he cited the emergency authority of OSHA.
The agency, which is itself under the Labor Department, is authorized to take steps “reasonably necessary or appropriate to provide safe or healthful employment and places of employment.” The problem is hardly that Biden cited OSHA’s authority, it’s that OSHA may well be within its authorities to implement the mandates because those authorities are unbelievably broad.
The latent power of our bureaucracy is ridiculous. When it’s exercised tangibly, as with the OSHA mandate or Obama-era Title IX decrees, we rarely pause to see the problem in the context of government growth. But it is. We lose track of all the broad authority Congress has delegated to the bureaucracy. And it’s not just Democrats’ fault at all — Republicans’ 2017 tax cut was followed up with spending increases.
After Biden announced the OSHA mandate, I noted that “Two of the political establishment’s most powerful publications, Politico Playbook and Axios AM, gave telling treatment to Biden’s decision”:
Playbook decided the neutral take on Biden’s mandate was to treat it objectively as ‘federal authority,’ and refer to the position that it’s not in his authority as ‘stubborn’ and deadly.
Presuming, similarly, that Biden had done something relatively uncontroversial, Axios AM wrote a classic ‘Republicans pounce,’ deciding the primary news value was the GOP reaction to Biden’s policy, not the policy itself.
Of course the federal government should use emergency authority vested in a cabinet agency to tell businesses they must force millions of their employees to take a new vaccine our experts have failed to present with credibility for many people! Of course. As it was put by a journalist Ron Klain retweeted, “OSHA doing this vaxx mandate as an emergency safety rule is the ultimate work around for the Federal govt to require vaccinations.”
When Sen. Cynthia Lummis pressed Janet Yellen yesterday on new requirements that banks report every transaction over $600, her response was illuminating. Here’s what Fox Business reported:
Yellen pointed out that the IRS already has ‘a wealth of information about individuals,’ citing examples such as the W-2 form filed for a person’s job, but said the IRS needs more information on ‘higher-income individuals who have opaque sources of income … not low-income people.’
‘Well, $600 threshold is not usually where you’re going to find the massive amount of tax revenue you think Americans are cheating you out of,’ Lummis replied.
Yellen conceded, ‘That’s correct, but it’s important to have comprehensive information so that individuals can’t game the system and have multiple accounts.’
In other words, the agency is already invasive so get over it. The reconciliation bill would add $79 million to the IRS.
From bitcoin to car design to childcare, Democrats are working hard to expand our broken government in the interest of reforming it. Those two concepts are often conflated but they can be very different. That isn’t to say every new piece of spending in the infrastructure package is bad or expands government. But we’re expanding the government at a time when its stewards have proven to be more incompetent and less in touch with local needs. That’s a recipe for more problems, not less.
Last week, Freedom House released its annual report on internet freedom. Noticing an uptick in global demand for government regulation of Big Tech, the study cautioned:
The current drive for greater regulation raises the risk that instead of curbing and decentralizing the power of tech companies, governments will attempt to wield it for their own purposes and further infringe on users’ rights. … the danger posed by the worst initiatives is immense: if placed in the hands of the state, the ability to censor, surveil, and manipulate people en masse can facilitate large-scale political corruption, subversion of the democratic process, and repression of political opponents and marginalized populations.
We’ve seen that happen in other countries, but the concentration of power in the hands of a few businesses married with government power is a dangerous prospect, here and abroad. Reform should not be confused with expansion.
If you’re worried about climate or the social safety net, the Democrats’ infrastructure package might be tempting to celebrate. Indeed, it may achieve your goals in the short term. But Congress’s need to pass genuine reform in larded up bills that throw money at problems without reforming the bureaucracy means those gains will come at a cost. As Justice Democrats may find out shortly, the political establishment’s can-kicking never, ever stops.