When is budget hawk not a budget hawk

I’m just going to borrow this lock, stock, and barrel from Kevin Drum:

Paul Ryan is a budget hawk’s budget hawk, never one to believe a government bureaucrat who self-servingly claims that a spending cut will cause real damage to his program and the people it benefits. But there are exceptions:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed skepticism Thursday that U.S. military leaders were being honest in their budget requests to Congress. “We don’t think the generals are giving us their true advice,” Ryan said during a forum on the budget sponsored by the National Journal. “We don’t think the generals believe their budget is really the right budget.”

“You don’t believe the generals?” [managing editor Kristin] Roberts asked.

“What I believe is this budget does hollow out defense,” Ryan responded….”I think there’s a lot of budget smoke and mirrors in the Pentagon’s budget,” Ryan added, saying his proposal was an “honest Pentagon budget.”

Just to be absolutely clear here: if we’re talking about a program that helps the poor or the elderly or the sick, Ryan is eager to cut spending. In fact, he’s usually eager to be the biggest budget cutter in the room. But if it’s a program for the military, he won’t accept spending cutseven if the military brass supports them. In fact, he insists on raising their budget.

For some reason, this is known in mainstream circles as being a “deficit hawk.”

The fact that he is treated as such a serious and reasonable thinker by pretty much all the mainstream media just rubs salt into the wound.

On Judicial Activism

I found it especially ironic that the Pope foundation’s Biology major chose to critique my readings on Judicial restraint/activism as this is an area many conservatives seem to especially misunderstand.  The key tenet of judicial restraint is that judges should be restrained in making law and should defer, whenever possible, to the duly elected representatives of the people.  Now, in general, that’s a solid doctrine.  Of course, if those duly elected representatives of the people are using their majority power to systematically deny Constitutional rights to citizens based on their race, sex, etc., well, then, that’s where you obviously need “activist” judges to step in and remedy this (e.g., Brown v. Board of Ed, etc.)  But to be clear, using judicial power to overturn laws based on the judgement of the judges is activism (and again, there’s many a time I’m all in favor of that).  I think it is safe to say, though, if one is in favor of “judicial restraint” you most definitely do not want SC Justices overturning the signal piece of legislation of the current president.  It’s honestly hard to imagine an act of judicial activism more breathtaking (or threatening to the legitimacy of the court as a theoretically non-political body) than that.  Of course, that seems to be exactly what the conservatives on the Court are at least contemplating.  EJ Dionne:

Three days of Supreme Court arguments over the health-care law demonstrated for all to see that conservative justices are prepared to act as an alternative legislature, diving deeply into policy details as if they were members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Senator, excuse me, Justice Samuel Alito quoted Congressional Budget Office figures on Tuesday to talk about the insurance costs of the young. On Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts sounded like the House whip in discussing whether parts of the law could stand if other parts fell. He noted that without various provisions, Congress “wouldn’t have been able to put together, cobble together, the votes to get it through.” Tell me again, was this a courtroom or a lobbyist’s office?

It fell to the court’s liberals — the so-called “judicial activists,” remember? — to remind their conservative brethren that legislative power is supposed to rest in our government’s elected branches.

Justice Stephen Breyer noted that some of the issues raised by opponents of the law were about “the merits of the bill,” a proper concern of Congress, not the courts. And in arguing for restraint, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked what was wrong with leaving as much discretion as possible “in the hands of the people who should be fixing this, not us.” It was nice to be reminded that we’re a democracy, not a judicial dictatorship.

And Chait:

What made Rosen’s piece so shocking was that, for decades, judicial activism had been primarily associated with the left — liberal judges handed down broad readings of laws to expand rights, enraging conservatives who believed they were taking upon themselves decisions better left to democratic channels. Their complaints were not wholly unfounded — even if you support, say, abortion rights, as I do, the notion that the Constitution requires the right to an abortion is quite a stretch of judicial activism. The whole conservative legal and political movement had come to orient itself around opposition to judicial activism, which actually remains the term Republican politicians use to disparage liberal judges.

The only thing Rosen truly failed to anticipate in his piece was how quickly Republican judges would pivot from impassioned defenses of judicial restraint to judicial activism when the opportunity arose to deploy it in their party’s behalf. In the piece, he described Antonin Scalia as a fierce opponent of this movement. Scalia, wrote Rosen, “was not in favor of striking down laws in the name of ambiguous and contestable economic rights.” At one point Scalia attacked the movement to read economic rights into the Constitution as a “threat to constitutional democracy.”

The spectacle before the Supreme Court this week is Republican justices seizing the chance to overturn the decisions of democratically-elected bodies. At times the deliberations of the Republican justices are impossible to distinguish from the deliberations of Republican senators. They are litigating the problem of adverse selection, and doing it very poorly. (Here are health economists Henry Aaron and Kevin Outterson tearing their hair out over the justices’ bungled attempts to describe the economic dynamics at work.)

Scalia himself offers the most blatant case. His famed thunderings against meddlesome judges are nowhere to be found. He is gleefully reversing his previous interpretation of the Commerce Clause, now that it is being deployed against big government liberals rather than pot smokers. He is railing against Obamacare like an angry Fox News-watching grandfather…

Just remember this next time you hear any conservative rail against “activist judges.”

Photo of the day

From Reuters:

U.S. servicemen sit after boarding a transport plane before leaving for Afghanistan at the U.S. transit center at Manas airport near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, March 27, 2012. REUTERS-Vladimir Pirogov

U.S. servicemen sit after boarding a transport plane before leaving for Afghanistan at the U.S. transit center at Manas airport near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, March 27, 2012. 
REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

The limit on Congressional power: Democracy

Well, I highlighted this point in a post yesterday, so it’s nice to see the same thing from a Yale Con Law Professor.  The conservatives on the Supreme Court keep insisting on a “limiting principle.”  I.e., if the government can force you to buy health insurance, what’s to stop them from forcing you to buy broccoli, a cell phone, etc.  From Akhil Amar’s interview with Ezra Klein (then again, he’s probably just a terrorist with a name like that):

EK: In terms of liberty, I think what Barnett and other opponents of the mandate are arguing is that this is a slippery slope. First you’re saying I have to buy health insurance. Then you’re saying I have to eat broccoli.

ARA: The most important limit, the one we fought the Revolutionary War for, is that the people doing this to you are the people you elect. [emphasis mine]  That’s the main check. The broccoli argument is like something they said when we were debating the income tax: If they can tax me, they can tax me at 100 percent! And yes, they can. But they won’t. Because you could vote them out of office. They have the power to do all sorts of ridiculous things that they won’t do because you’d vote them out of office. If they can prevent me from growing pot, can they prevent me from buying broccoli? Perhaps, but why would they if they want to be reelected? So if you ask me what the limits are, I’d say read McCulloch vs. Maryland. And reread it. And keep reading it till you understand it. The Constitution is a practical document,. it’s designed to work. And the powers are designed to be flexible in order to achieve the aims of the document.

Take that “limiting principle” unelected conservative Justices!

Liberal Bias 101

A few weeks ago a graduate student whom I oversee (I supervise the Public Administration PhD students who get undergraduate teaching experience in our Political Science courses) wrote me that somebody at the Pope Center for Higher Education (if you are not familiar, try this) had received a copy of his syllabus and wanted to discuss the apparent liberal bias.  John chose to simply not respond.  Well, the emailer has now written up the conservative deconstruction of John’s syllabus on the Pope website.  I really got quite the kick reading this as I soon realized that every single article the writer was complaining about was from my very own syllabus (John had served as my PS 201 TA and I’m happy for them to use the same readings I do when they teach their own section).  A sampling:

Overwhelmingly, the readings blamed Republicans and the Constitution for the country’s problems.

The first article assigned for Strange’s class is “Our Godless Constitution” by essayist Brooke Allen. It opens with a swipe at George W. Bush’s intelligence and character. “It is hard to believe that George Bush has ever read the works of George Orwell,” Allen writes, “but he seems, somehow, to have grasped a few Orwellian precepts.”

Allen goes on to discuss the Constitution, minimizing the influence of religion in the creation of the Constitution by taking a close look at the non-Christian pronouncements of four of our Founding Fathers: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. She seems to be unaware that only one of the four (Franklin) was actually in attendance at the Constitutional Convention. Nevertheless, the point in assigning the essay to students is clear: the Constitution isn’t what you thought it was, having been devised by people whose religion stemmed from a political agenda rather than genuine conviction.

There is no rebuttal in the assigned readings to demonstrate the profound effect religion had on early Americans…

Conservative jurisprudence also takes a rhetorical beating in Strange’s class. For instance, Stuart Taylor’s essay in the National Journal, “Is Judicial Review Obsolete?” complains that conservative jurists who argue for judicial restraint are hypocritical. Although conservatives say they want judicial restraint, Taylor says, “they have used highly debatable interpretations of original meaning to sweep aside a raft of democratically adopted laws.” In a 2006 article for Slate magazine, Seth Rosenthal makes a similar point. He claims that conservative jurists’ restrictions on government involvement in people’s lives are, in themselves, examples of intrusion in people’s lives.

So, I’m not actually going to waste my time getting into a debate on these points with someone who holds a 2010 B.S. in Biology.  I haven’t seen John’s complete syllabus, but to the degree it matches mine, it’s pretty clear that Cheston is cherry-picking and substantially mis-characterizing the basic nature of the class and the main point of these readings.  But, whatever.  I did try to honestly ask myself, though, if I am doing my students a disservice by not having more “balanced” readings in this area.

My answer?  Absolutely not.  And here’s why… it all comes back to the asymmetry.   I have conservative students all the time who are literally 180 degrees wrong on what judicial activism is really all about.  I’ve never had a liberal student make a misguided and uninformed argument about judicial restraint.  I definitely have students all the time who come into class seemingly thinking that Jesus basically wrote our Constitution.  Again, I’ve never had a liberal student try and tell me that the Constitution was written by radical atheists.  Similarly, I’m not sure what would “balance” George Packer’s fabulous article on obstructionism in the modern Senate and somehow deny that it has reached new procedural heights with Republican use of the filibuster, etc.

One of the major things I try and do in PS 201 is disabuse students of ideas they have about government that are simply wrong.  Whether you want to blame Fox News, Rush, or whatever, the simple fact is that my students are way more likely to hold false views that represent a conservative political perspective and I don’t apologize for one second for trying to change that.  There is the occasional very liberal student who might hold very uninformed views on the nature of capitalism, etc., and I’m quite happy to correct them as well.   There’s not, however, a corresponding left-wing noise machine (don’t even try MSNBC) filling them with false information.  Short version: if one of my goals is to correct widespread misunderstanding and misinformation about our government it’s going to look like liberal bias, but that’ s not actually what it is.

I’m thinking maybe I need a new sub-heading for my blog: “It’s the asymmetry, stupid.”

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