Friday, May 2, 2008

Congressional Letters

I have a couple of posts I'm working on for this weekend, but in the meantime, Kyle recommended that I repost a comment I left at CFLF.

Anyways, the context of this is as follows: Kyle, justifiably outraged at the collective yawn that occured in the wake of the revelations that President Bush personally approved torture, sent his local (Republican) congresswoman a letter in connection with an ACLU letter-writing campaign. He was shocked when he received a response back, apparently bearing the signature of the congresswoman herself. Then he read the letter, which not surprisingly amounted to a non-responsive response. Then he fact-checked some of the claims in the letter. Somewhat surprisingly, he found that the underlying facts for the claims in the Congresswoman's letter were, uhh, inconsistent at best.

My reply to Kyle's post was as follows:

It’s been about 10 years since I was “working” on Capitol Hill, though I did some stuff on the lobbying side of things during and just after law school. But I can pretty much explain step by step what happened here to provide some context for you (in some ways, this makes this story even worse, in other ways less bad because it’s pretty standard procedure…of course, the fact that it’s standard procedure on both sides of the aisle ought to tell you something about the futility of ever achieving good governance):
1. Sometime in the two years since the watered-down Military Commissions Act passed, and almost certainly well before you sent your letter, some other constituent from your district sent a letter to the Congresswoman about the torture issue. Based on the language of the response you received, I’m guessing that the letter from the prior constituent was written in anger about Bush’s cynical signing statement to circumvent that Act, though I could well be wrong about this.
2. An intern in the Congresswoman’s office opened the prior constituent’s letter, reviewed it, and determined the Legislative Assistant (”LA”) in the office most likely to be responsible for correspondence on the torture issue.
3. This LA (most likely in his/her mid-20’s since Republicans aren’t too concerned about torture and would thus likely assign this issue to a junior LA rather than a senior LA or the Legislative Coordinator) then reviewed his/her file of form letters and determined that none of the existing form letters would even remotely apply to this constituent’s letter.
4. The LA (who was, again, almost certainly in his/her mid-20’s, with no legal background whatsoever) then tried to research the official GOP talking points on this issue; they may have also pulled the Congressional Research Services file on torture and cherry-picked, out of context, the bullet points seemingly most favorable to their boss’ position.
5. Most likely using a template for constituent correspondence where the constituent disagrees with the Congresswoman, the LA then attempted to draft a letter that was both an inoffensive-sounding non-response response to the original constituent letter and generic enough to be used as a reply to future related constituent correspondence. The LA then gave the draft to the LC and maybe the Chief of Staff for a quick once-over, and the letter was then sent out to the constituent, with a staffer signing on behalf of the Congresswoman.
6. The LA saved a copy of the “Congresswoman’s” response on the office hard-drive, probably with a file name along the lines of “Torture- Anti” (ok, maybe not that blatant) or “Presidential Position on Geneva - anti”
7. Several months, and probably over a year later, the Congresswoman’s office received your letter and step 2 was repeated, as was most of step 3.8. This time, though, the LA decided that a relevant form letter did exist as a possible response to your letter. Although the existing letter was not 100% on point to your concerns, it was deemed close enough, especially since the ABC report received so little play and was thus unlikely to generate enough constituent letters to warrant a significant redraft of the existing form letter. This is the letter you received.

This isn’t to say in anyway that the Congresswoman is off the hook for the poorly researched statement of her position on Geneva. Actually, it’s worse: it goes to show the way in which politicians (and believe me, the Dems are just as bad on this stuff) figure out their positions first, and the facts later. In this case, the Congresswoman, like many Republicans, takes the position of “my country and my President, right or wrong.” This position then becomes the position to which the staffers need to reconcile the facts.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Ideal Government

For a long while, I've been meaning to post about my conception of an ideal libertarian government based on my particular brand of libertarianism. The central issue with which I have been philosophically concerned has been the concept of centralization and competition between governments.

This post by Angelica at The Art of the Possible gave me the opportunity to delve into this concept a bit, although by no means completely. The conclusion I have arrived at is that a system that decentralizes almost all powers over the private sector is far preferable than one that places those powers entirely into the hands of one central government. However, it is also my contention that a strong centralized government is an absolute necessity - but almost entirely as a safeguard of individual rights against local governments. My full comment is below with some minor edits for grammar and comprehensibility:

One of the most important things - maybe even THE most important thing - about decentralization is that it creates something loosely resembling a free market of governments. Although costs of moving remain too high to make this a true free market, the costs are low enough that bad governance (e.g., excessive cronyism) results in fewer government “customers” (ie, taxpayers). (All this, by the way, is approximately what happened in many of the corrupt cities of the Northeast and old Rust Belt; a good comparison is between the area surrounding Buffalo, NY, which has suffered an exodus of mammoth proportions due to its corruption and incompetence, and the area surrounding the nearby City of Rochester, which, while not exactly avoiding suffering, has managed to stay on its feet in a way Buffalo could only dream about).

But since the costs of leaving a given town/locality remain relatively high as does the amount of goodies the local government can offer to cronies, there is a legitimate concern that people unable to pay those costs of leaving will get stuck in a cycle of competition between localities for cronies rather than for taxpayers. All of which is to say that [it is correct to assume] that decentralization can spread problems.

That said, I think there is an important caveat to these concerns. That caveat is that when problems arise from decentralization, they occur gradually over time as the rent-seeking* company bribes, blackmails, and extorts its way to ever-more concessions from ever-more localities. But when rent-seeking occurs on a centralized basis, it immediately effects all localities subject to the centralized government. So in the former case, the opposition has time to organize in order to reverse, stunt, or at least significantly slow the corrupt practices, while in the latter case, the rent-seekers are able to win on a mammoth, even national, scale in a matter of one or two legislative or administrative acts, possibly before opponents even have an opportunity to organize.

This isn’t to say decentralization is perfect, or even that there is no role for centralized powers. Local rent-seeking and corruption will obviously continue on a large, but mostly below-the-radar scale in a decentralized system. Because the rent-seeking and corruption are at a lower level unlikely to be exposed on a politically significant level, it is far easier to get away with corruption (and other invidious government actions) on that lower level.

Luckily, there is a ready and obvious fix to significantly mitigate these problems, which would be unavailable in a fully centralized system (in which there is no higher authority than the authority making all the decisions). That fix is to make oversight of local governments one of -if not the - primary power of the central government. In essence, the fix is to apply the broadest possible reading of the 14th Amendment as a means for the federal government to intervene to stop clearly invidious local government actions. This would mean overturning the Slaughterhouse cases and reviving Lochner, but as a libertarian, this requirement is a feature rather than a flaw. A nearly-ideal conception of government from my perspective is one in which the centralized government’s primary responsibility beyond national defense is to ensure that subsidiary governments are respecting the rights of their citizens.