Ohio Farmer II

This is the second installment of the Ohio Famer series. The form and voice of this post is to pay homage to a group of citizens who early in our country’s life engaged in passionate yet civil debates about the best form of government for our new country. They argued their case for the best form of government via letters to the local newspapers. These letters came to be known as the Anti- Federalist papers.

In my last letter, Ohio Farmer I, I discussed the inevitability of austerity measures at the local, state, and federal levels. In this letter I will document what I believe are the underpinnings of this crisis and how we might go back and embrace some of the concepts of our Anti-Federalists as way to move forward to sustainable government.

In the Anti-Federalist paper, Federal Farmer I, the author included a quote from Alexander Pope that underlines the pragmatic nature that even Anti-Federalist people viewed their government.

For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best.

So although an Anti-Federalist like the Federal Farmer would naturally like to see limited federal powers, he also wanted to see a more effective government than the Articles of Confederation was allowing. The grand compromise was to create a federal government with limited powers and all other powers were to remain with the people. It took almost no time for Congress and the judicial system to start chipping away at the concept of limited Federal powers. Initially the efforts by Congress to expand their legislative power were hampered because they had to show to the courts that a restriction of liberty was reasonable.  Finally in the 1930s, the Supreme Court forever changed the concept of liberties residing with the people and began limiting when it was necessary for the government  to justify to a court its restrictions on the liberties of the people. In 1955 the Warren Court made the presumption of constitutionality of laws duly enacted by Congress effectively irrebuttable. Although Randy Barnett argues in his paper, Scrutiny Land, for an alternative approach that is more case specific, the present situation is that our liberties have been transferred to Congress to do as they see fit with almost no opportunity to contest the constitutionality of the law. The big problem with the transfer of liberties is the transfer of power that goes with it. With the transfer of power from the citizen to the federal branch complete, it is not surprising that we find ourselves in a financial mess. The balance of power has shifted to the federal branch. If there was an Anti-Federalist alive today, they would immediately recognize our failures at fiscal prudence with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and our national debt as the same problems they saw with the British government. They would undoubtedly remind us that the need for the citizen to keep their liberties is to save Congress from itself. The issue of liberty is not so much about possessing freedom as it is about reducing the opportunities for bad government. All of our entitlement programs are duly enacted laws and complete failures at fiscal responsibility. With this type of power Congress is born to fail. The only question is when is it going to happen. A Congress with more restrictions and less power has less opportunities for major social achievements.  However if Congress plays by the rules, social achievements and good government are still a likely outcome and sustainable through recessions. That is a lot better than what we have right now.

As Eileen Norcross explains in her paper, Fiscal Evasion in State Budgeting, there is a wide range of “gimmicks” that loosely describes a range of
choices including school aid cuts, sales tax holidays, increased borrowing, delayed tax refunds, delayed payments to vendors, and pension deferrals. These same “gimmicks” are also used at city, county, and federal levels. Although she argues for more research we will undoubtedly need to stop using these “gimmicks” long before the research is completed. All of our governments have a desperate need for simplicity in financing so the executive branch and legislative branch can make good decisions.

As a path forward we should:

  1. Start banning many of the budget “gimmicks” as part of our austerity programs.
  2. Although it will be difficult for Congress to stomach, we need to set our entitlement programs apart from the political process. As an example Medicare should be reformed outside of health care reform and Medicaid. Social Security funds should not be an excuse to spend more money from our operating budget.
  3. Legislators should be prevented from attaching earmarks to these entitlement programs financing.
  4. Public service pension fund benefits should be voted on by referendum.