January 11, 2005

January 11, 2005 | Commentary on Political Thought

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of January 10

Can pork kill? Pork-barrel spending, to be exact. Experts typically view the thousands of special earmarked projects in appropriations bills--which have exploded both in number and dollar amount since Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994--to be a nuisance, but relatively harmless. Sure, they illustrate the insatiable hunger among members of all ideological persuasions for big government. Naturally, they're wasteful and bloat the overall level of federal spending. But nobody incurs real, literal pain--or dies--when Congress sends taxpayer dollars to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio or horn-fly research in Alabama, right?

Maybe not. Until now, that is.

"Defense analysts," Congress Daily reported recently, "say members of Congress might have inadvertently robbed the Army and Marines of resources to build up their stock of up-armored Humvees and other equipment needed to fight an increasingly violent Iraqi insurgency" by insisting on $9 billion in targeted spending on such frivolous items as a biathlon jogging track, the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration, and the maintenance of a parade ground on a shuttered military base.

Congress offset this spending through an across-the-board cut that touched virtually every part of the DOD budget, including $300 million from the procurement accounts that fund body armor, armor kits, Humvees and other military vehicles used in Iraq, and $411 million from the operations and maintenance budget. Some nuisance.

Gunning for Gonzales: President Bush's nomination of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to become the next attorney general likely will encounter turbulence from Senate Democrats due to Gonzales's role in drafting the Bush Administration's legal memo on the treatment of terrorist detainees from al Qaeda and the Taliban. These terrorists should be denied the privileges and immunities that the Geneva Convention accords traditional prisoners of war, the memo concludes.

Gonzales reasoned that the convention applies only to uniformed soldiers from nations that have signed the Geneva Convention and who adhere to its protections and behaviors. Al Qaeda terrorists, by contrast, violate the convention in every conceivable way. They belong to no identifiable state, wear no military uniforms or insignias, launch deadly attacks from mosques, hospitals, and schools, feign surrender and then open fire against U.S. forces, and murder (often through gruesome beheadings) hostages.

Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee will attribute the Abu Ghraib abuses to Gonzales, arguing that his legal guidance created a climate that invited abuse. But expect some Republican senators on the panel to turn these attacks on their head and list the specific protections and guarantees the convention offers to prisoners and ask their Democratic brethren whether they really want these privileges to apply to al Qaeda murderers. Specifically, the convention guarantees that prisoners

  • Should be "entirely protected from dampness."
  • Must have access to commissaries and canteens.
  • Are entitled to "a monthly advance of pay" convertible into the currency of the nation holding them and set at pre-determined levels according to the prisoner's rank.
  • Must be allowed to receive "foodstuffs, clothing, medical supplies and articles of a religious, educational or recreational character which may meet their needs, including books, devotional articles, scientific equipment, examination papers, musical instruments, sports outfits and materials allowing prisoners of war to pursue their studies or their cultural activities."

One suspects that no politician would want to be associated with extending these sorts of privileges to the colleagues of those who committed the 9/11 atrocities--and that the attacks on Gonzales will fall flat.

Land of the Free?: The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal have just released the 11th edition of their annual "Index of Economic Freedom," an exhaustive assessment of 50 measures of economic freedom in 161 countries, all divided into 10 broad categories such as tax burden, trade policy, regulatory policy and property rights.

The big story emerging from this year's edition is that the heavy fiscal burden in the United States increasingly threatens our ability to compete internationally. The time is right for U.S. lawmakers to enact fundamental tax reform that eliminates the double taxation of income and reduces marginal tax rates, and to reduce the fiscal burden from entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, and limit the size and scope of our government.

The U.S. now ranks 12th among the world's freest economies, down from 5th as recently as 1998. Though the U.S. received the same overall score as in previous years, other nations have vaulted past the U.S. by taking aggressive steps to lower the top marginal tax rates on corporate and individual income and by shrinking the size of government relative to the economy.

Specifically, the top U.S. corporate tax rate of 35% places us 112th in the world. Our equally burdensome top rate of 35% on individual income leaves us at 82nd in that crucial category. The overall fiscal burden in the U.S. places us in a tie at 102nd behind such economic powerhouses as Haiti, Mexico, Swaziland, Bangladesh, and Albania.

The old class warfare battles are passé in this new international environment. After all, when the top corporate and individual tax rates in Albania are fully 10 points lower than the top rates here, we know we have a problem. 
 
Mr. Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Political Thought

First appeared in Human Events