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Archive for June, 2012

Americans tend to think of the presidential election as a direct vote of the people. Most are aware that there is a subtotal of votes by state, with that state’s total “electoral votes” going entirely to the highest vote getter in that state. This is why we know that there are “battleground states” which have a relatively even split of voters, and are therefore hotly contested by the candidates.

Such an understanding would be incomplete. America’s founding fathers had only recently completed a revolution against a distant power that imposed “taxation without representation”, and were acutely apprehensive about ceding too much power to a central authority. They created an entirely new form of government, a federal republic of independent states with many checks and balances upon the powers of a national government.  Congress was organized as a bicameral body, one with representation apportioned strictly by population (the House of Representatives), and another (the Senate) with equal votes for each state, regardless of its size or population. This format was intended to preserve the rights of the smaller states, and prevent them from being overwhelmed in government by the larger states.

The Electoral College (EC) today has 538 Electors. Each state is entitled to a number of electors equal to that state’s representation in Congress (Senate + House). Because each state has two Senators and at least one Representative, every state has at least three electors. Since the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961,  Washington, DC has also had 3 electoral votes.  Currently California has the largest number of electors: 55.

The electors meet in their respective state capitals about a month after the general election to cast their votes for president and vice president. These electors, who together form the EC, are the ones who actually elect the president. If no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives elects the president. This happened in 1800 and again in 1824. The choice in the House is made on a one-state/one-vote basis, which means, obviously, that the single representatives of Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, and North and South Dakota which combined represent about 1.4% of all Americans, have voting power equal to the combined delegations of California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, which represent about 40.3% of us. States rights are one thing, but does this sound remotely democratic to anyone?

States with many buffalo and few people, like Wyoming, derive disproportionate influence in national elections from the EC and are not keen on changing it. Since every state gets at least three electors, low-population states have far more political power than they would have in a direct election system. The number of voters per elector is about four times smaller in the three-elector states than in the more populous states. Direct election of the president would eliminate the current bias in favor of the Republicans, since there are five predominantly Republican three elector states and only two states and Washington, D.C. are mostly Democratic three elector entities. The Electoral Map below shows the current votes of each state and indicates whether their populations are overwhelmingly Democratic, Republican or mixed. It should be noted that the colors shown are for the states’ voting history in presidential elections. In practice, many of the states are “purple”, with the parties splitting the governorship and control of state legislatures.

Electoral Map of the US by 270towin.com

It is curious to note that every state elects it’s “president”, a/k/a Governor with a strictly popular vote? If one person, one vote is the right way to pick every governor, why not the country’s president?

Some might argue that the Electoral College hampers democracy because it prevents 3rd party candidates from prevailing unless their support is concentrated in fewer states rather than widespread thinly across the country. But broad distribution of support is also required in order to be able to govern, so perhaps that is a good thing?

Having an EC affects voter turnout in various ways. Differences in turnout between swing states and non-swing states under the current electoral college system suggest that replacing the EC with direct election by popular vote would likely increase turnout and participation significantly.The Electoral College depresses voter participation in much of the nation. If one knows their vote will be overwhelmed by the other party’s advantage in that state, their vote doesn’t “count” and we retard participation. Also, a state with low voter turnout gets precisely the same number of electoral votes as if it had a high turnout. By contrast, a well-designed (more) direct election system could spur states to get out the vote.

Of course, one might question the notion that higher voter participation in elections would be a social positive. Some might note that one of the reasons the founding fathers created the EC was that the general public could not be entrusted to wisely choose their president directly. Of course, this was a time when women were disenfranchised and slaves, who of course could not vote, we counted as 3/5ths of a human in determining the apportionment of the slave states’ electoral votes and congressional districts.

Another artifact of the EC is that our candidates mostly campaign in the battleground states that might go either way in a general election. In 2004, for example, a full 99% of all advertising expenditures by the two major-party candidates were concentrated in only seventeen of the states. Florida and Ohio alone accounted for more than 45% ($111 million) of the $235 million spent in all of these states.

Perhaps the most powerful argument for scrapping the EC is that it does not serve the nation well when we have a closely contested election. On four occasions, 1876, 1888, 1960, and 2000, the winner of a plurality of the popular vote was not elected president.

So with all these problems, why don’t Americans demand an end to the EC? Isn’t it merely a relic of a bygone age? Getting rid of the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment. Amending the constitution is (by design) an exceptionally difficult process requiring not only 2/3 majorities of both houses of Congress, but also by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states.

A major criticism of the EC is its winner-take-all character. If Florida’s 25 electoral votes had been split in 2000 13 for George Bush and 12 for Al Gore, then Gore would have been president. There is nothing in the constitution mandating winner-take-all. The manner for choosing electors is regulated by state, not federal law. In fact, two states, Maine and Nebraska, do not use winner-take-all. In those states, the winner of each congressional district gets one elector and the winner of the state as a whole gets an additional two.

Diogenes believes that the fastest, easiest, and best to be hoped for solution to the problems posed by the Electoral College would be for each state to have directly proportional allocation of its electoral votes to each candidate. This would preserve a large measure of the disproportionate influence of smaller states in presidential elections while forcing candidates to run more truly national campaigns that would engage much higher proportions of the electorate. Any state that wanted to adopt this system need only pass a state law to do so. No constitutional amendment would be required.

American government spending is remarkably consistent; it goes up every year. In an economy that mostly grows, but sometimes contracts, why is this so?

Mr. Obama and most Democrats are of the Keynesian persuasion, and think all government expenditures are positive for the economy. They believe that prosperity flows from government, which is why their policies promote more government. Republicans are supposed to be the party for limited government, but the historical record does not support this theory. The chart below shows that over the last 30 years, government spending has grown consistently regardless of which party has been in control of Congress or the White House.

Government programs that never die become political jobs programs. Look no further than the Post Office, which runs up multi billion dollar deficits every year. But try to cut the locations or unprofitable services, which are provided competitively by the private sector, and every congressman objects to any resulting job cuts in his district.  The same applies for hundreds of domestic and foreign military bases that are no longer needed. Reining in this spending is antithetical to elected officials because by doing so Washington would lose its powers to direct spending to political clients.

A 2011 report from the GAO identified 81 areas with unnecessary duplication in government spending. “Congress is wasting hundreds of billions of dollars every year because it has created duplicative and fragmented programs, many of which are producing little or no value for taxpayers,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), who pushed for the report. “Even worse, Congress has done almost nothing to address problem areas GAO has already identified,” he added. At his behest, the GAO updated their report for 2012. Mr. Coburn estimated the first report identified between $100 billion and $200 billion a year in duplicative spending, although the GAO didn’t put a specific figure on the spending overlap in either report.

Waste and duplication are not the only causes of the persistent growth in public expenditures. Government spending is (mostly) incremental, or base plus budgeting. Essentially, percentages are added on to whatever last year’s spending was. Efficacy reviews are rare and toothless; they can not cut anything. Compare this practice to the private sector which (mostly) utilizes zero based budgeting while typically requiring annual productivity increases also known as cost reductions.

Omnibus spending bills are beyond the reach of most individual members of Congress, other than to insert added spending items. Last December, the House voted on a 1,200-page bill containing more than $1 trillion in spending but members had only 15 hours to review it! Is it any wonder that congressional approval ratings are down to under 15%?

Presidents without a line item veto cannot much effect change either. Presidents from both parties have strongly endorsed the LIV as a method to control spending. The first law passed in 1996 granting President Clinton these powers by a Republican Congress, was struck down by the Supreme Court as an abdication of congressional authority over power of the purse. A new law proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WS) and  Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), gets around the prior ruling by requiring Congress to take an up-or-down vote without amendments on any cuts sought by the White House. Although the Ryan-Hollen Bill was passed the House with broad bipartisan support, a similar Senate version proposed by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MS), has failed to find any sponsors and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has opposed the LIV in the past, is unlikely to schedule it for a vote.

Let’s for a moment contrast government with the private sector. According to the American Bankruptcy Institute (reported in the Kansas City Business Journal on August 25, 2009), “more than 30,000 businesses filed for bankruptcy protection in the first half of 2009, up 64 percent from the nearly 18,500 in the same period last year”.  This means that even during a good year, over 35,000 American private businesses go under. Of course, sometimes they fail due to bad luck and market conditions. Not all bankruptcies are caused by incompetence, and not all incompetence leads to bankruptcy. What all this bankruptcy and failure means is that the private economy is in perpetual turmoil, with ongoing “creative destruction” winnowing out excesses. Some jobs are lost even as others are being created. There are no guarantees of economic survival. There is no such organic mechanism for self correction in government. Without the feedback loop of a profit incentive, failed government programs can continue forever.

So what should we do? If we are serious about cutting expenses, multiple changes must be implemented. Here are four that might do the job.

1. The President must be given the Line Item Veto by Congress.

2. The GAO Report on Duplicative Spending should be used as the basis for a bi-partisan Congressional Committee to recommend $100 billion in budget cuts for 2013. The Committee’s recommendations should be sent directly to the floor of both houses for a straight up or down vote. The same process should be repeated every two years.

3. The head of every government agency and department should be required to annually present a plan to increase efficiency/productivity by say at least 3% per year, and their funding should be reduced accordingly.

4. All federal programs should have sunset provisions. A shorter duration would be better, but perhaps ten years terms for all programs’ lives would be enough to allow for the continual reassessment of the need for and efficacy of federal spending programs.

These policy changes might not be sufficient to permanently change the trajectory of federal spending, but they would go a long way towards reforming a system that cannot be sustained. More importantly, these proposals would force our elected officials to focus on increasing the value of existing programs instead of only adding new ones.