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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Transparency and State Finance

A report from the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group:
Every year, state governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars through contracts for goods and services, subsidies to encourage economic development, and other expenditures. Accountability and public scrutiny are necessary to ensure that the public can trust that state funds are spent as well as possible.
In recent years, state governments across the country have created transparency websites that provide checkbook-level information on government spending – meaning that users can view the payments made to individual companies as well as details about the goods or services purchased or other public benefits obtained. These websites allow residents and watchdog groups to ensure that taxpayers can see how public dollars are spent.
In 2015, all 50 states operated websites to make information on state expenditures accessible to the public and these web portals continue to improve. For instance, in 2015, all but two states allow users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword and/or vendor, and 44 states provide checkbook-level data for one or more economic development subsidy programs. Many states are also disclosing new information and are making it easier for outside researchers to download and analyze large datasets about government spending.
This report, our sixth annual evaluation of state transparency websites, finds that states continue to make progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click transparency and accountability for state government spending. Over the past year, many states have launched new and improved websites to better open the books on public spending, or have adopted new practices to further expand citizens’ access to critical spending information. Some states, however, still have a long way to go.
California ranks dead last.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Restrictions on Religion

Peter Henne writes at Pew:
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids laws establishing religion or impeding the free exercise of religion. But that doesn’t mean governments in the U.S. – whether federal, state or local – do not place any restrictions on religious activity.
Indeed, according to a recent Pew Research Center study – the sixth annual report in a series – the U.S. has moderate levels of both restrictions on religion and social hostilities toward religious groups, ranking somewhere in the middle range of the nearly 200 countries analyzed in the report.
Many government restrictions in the United States that were taken into account in our analysis originated with state or local governments and were later reversed by courts or by federal agencies.
For example, there were a number of U.S. cases involving local governments denying permission to a religious group to build or expand a house of worship on the basis of land use or zoning laws, only to have those decisions later reversed. In one case, a town in Southern California refused permission to an Islamic center to build a new mosque on its property. A judge later declared the action a violation of federal law. Nevertheless, Pew Research still counts this as an instance of a religious restriction because the decision was implemented before being overturned.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Legislative Process

At The New York Times, Derek Willis writes that a bill on sex trafficking stalled in the Senate when Democrats discovered antiabortion language.  Actually a Democratic staffer spotted the language but got the blame for not alerting members (who failed to read the bill). Willis proposes avoiding such problems by treating bills as if they were web pages, with links to relevant laws and rules.
Sound far-fetched? It isn’t. The way most congressional legislation is drafted (using computers) makes it possible to add markup — like citations to laws — to the text of bills. That ability has been in place since 2001. What happened to the sex-trafficking bill, which would create a fund for victims, is an example of how marking up legislation like web pages (and then publishing them) would be useful.
The sex-trafficking bill’s offending language isn’t exactly transparent; it doesn’t mention abortion at all. It says, if you can parse the legalese: “Amounts in the [Domestic Trafficking Victims’] Fund, or otherwise transferred from the Fund, shall be subject to the limitations on the use or expending of amounts described in sections 506 and 507 of division H of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (Public Law 113-76; 128 Stat. 409) to the same extent as if amounts in the Fund were funds appropriated under division H of such Act.”
The “limitations” referred to in the bill say that money can’t be spent “for any abortion” except in cases of incest or rape or “for health benefits coverage that includes coverage of abortion.” But in order to know that, a reader of the bill would have to know what was in part of the law passed in January 2014 or know what search keywords to use in those sections. The abortion restrictions, which are commonly known as the “Hyde amendment” after Henry Hyde, a former Illinois Republican congressman who opposed abortion, are a regular feature in Republican-authored spending bills.
There’s already an effort to modernize most congressional legislation drafting, but it isn’t coming from inside government. The Cato Institute, the libertarian-leaning research and policy organization, created the Deepbills Project, which takes legislation published by Congress and adds references, including to existing laws and government organizations like federal agencies and congressional committees.
Matt Fuller reports at Roll Call:
Republicans are breaking out their procedural rulebooks for the House budget resolution, with leadership getting creative to appease defense hawks who want additional spending and conservatives who are apt to reject more military dollars that aren’t offset.

The House Rules Committee Monday set up a series of votes this week on six budget proposals: The one reported out of committee, the version reported out of committee with an additional $2 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations, a leaner Republican Study Committee budget, a House Democratic Caucus budget, a proposal from the Progressive Caucus, and one from the Congressional Black Caucus.

The budget with the $2 billion additional defense dollars is the one House leadership ultimately wants to see adopted. That proposal will be the final vote in the series.

Here’s how the process works: the budget that gets the most votes is the one that wins. In congressional parlance, it’s called “Queen of the Hill.”

GOP leaders had to get funky with the rule after the Budget Committee reported out a bill without the additional $2 billion that Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee said was critical to their support. It seemed like the Rules Committee would just include self-executing language — making a bill with the amendment to the base text — but conservatives balked. They threatened to vote down any rule that simply added money without an offset for that expense and without a real vote.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cruz Channels JFK

Ted  Cruz announcement: "What is the promise of America? The idea that — the revolutionary idea that this country was founded upon, which is that our rights don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty."

John F. Kennedy inaugural address: "And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe--the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God."

Impact of Mandatory Voting? Meh!

President Obama has suggested that voting be mandatory.  At The Washington Post, John Sides gives two reasons why this change might not be transformative.
First, non-voters are — on average — only a bit more Democratic than voters, and a bit more supportive of liberal policies. For evidence, see mywork with Jack Citrin and Eric Schickler, this paper by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler (now part of their book), the chapter by Eitan Hersh and Steve Ansolabehere in this book, and this paper by Ben Highton and the late Ray Wolfinger (helpfully cited by Dylan Matthews).
Now, note the fine print. “On average” means that Citrin, Schickler and I found that in some states in some election years, non-voters were actually a bit more Republican. That wasn’t the norm, but we should not assume that higher turnout or compulsory voting would always and everywhere benefit Democrats. (See also this piece by James DeNardo.)
And “a bit” means that the observed differences are not always large — usually a single-digit number of percentage points, and quite often in the low single digits. Any larger differences — as in this 2012 Pew preelection survey of self-reported likely voters and likely non-voters — are the exception, not the rule.
Here’s the second important finding: simulations suggest that compulsory voting would change the outcome of very few elections. This is not only because non-voters often aren’t that different than voters, but also because lots of elections — such as at the House and Senate levels — aren’t that close.
For example, when Citrin, Schickler, and I studied 246 Senate elections from 1990-2006, only eight outcomes changed when we simulated the impact of universal turnout. (See our chapter in this book.) In a very close presidential election, as in 2000, universal turnout could have made a difference. But such elections aren’t common.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Elite Education

At Quartz, Jonathan Wai writes:
The following data in the graph below are taken from another research paper which can be found here (pdf). I looked at the educational backgrounds of US Fortune 500 CEOs, federal judges, senators, House members, attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos (which included CEOs, journalists, academics, and people in government and policy), and the most powerful men and women according to Forbes. The blue bars indicate the elite school percentage (undergraduate or graduate school). The red bars indicate the graduate school percentage not included in the elite category. The green bars indicate those who graduated from college independent of the other two categories. And the NR/NC category indicates people who did not report or had no college.

elites and school

One might argue that the Fortune 500 CEO elite school percentage of roughly 38% is not very high. But this value should be taken in the broader context. Note the purple bars, which show that nearly everyone in the US elite graduated from college. This flatly contradicts the stories glamorizing college dropouts—such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg—who both were accepted by and attended Harvard. Next, it’s interesting to note that 44.8% of billionaires, 55.9% of powerful women, 63.7% of Davos attendees, and 85.2% of powerful men attended elite schools. Finally, 55.6% of the journalists who attended Davos went to elite schools. I conducted my own analysis of the data on The New Republic masthead, suggesting that roughly 64.2% attended elite schools. Data on the New York Times was not systematically available, but it is unlikely to be much different, and may even be more select given its reputation.

Based on census and college data, I estimate that only about 2% to 5% of all US undergraduates went to one of these elite schools. That makes all these US elite groups well above what you would expect in the general population. And this doesn’t even include the percentage who went to a “non-elite” graduate school.

"Hands Up -- Don't Shoot" Did Not Happen in Ferguson

Michelle Ye Hee Lee writes at The Washington Post Fact Checker:
Hands Up. Don’t Shoot!
–Protesters in the aftermath of the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
This phrase became a rallying cry for Ferguson residents, who took to the streets to protest the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Witness accounts spread after the shooting that Brown had his hands raised in surrender, mouthing the words “Don’t shoot” as his last words before being shot execution-style.
The gesture of raised hands became a symbol of outrage over mistreatment of unarmed black youth by police.
That narrative was called into question when a St. Louis County grand jury could not confirm those testimonies. And a recently released Department of Justice investigative report concluded the same.

We care about facts, how they’re used and the context in which the facts are portrayed. In this case, it is important for us to note that the initial “Hands up, don’t shoot” chant after Brown’s shooting has evolved into a message that is no longer connected solely to the Ferguson event. A series of other fatal shootings by police occurred following Brown’s death, and the “Hands up, don’t shoot” came to symbolize the need to hold law enforcement accountable. And the DOJ report on Ferguson Police Department confirmed the agency systemically profiled black residents.
But we also care about setting the record straight. Investigators have overwhelmingly rejected witness accounts that Brown had his hands up in a surrender before being shot execution-style. The DOJ has concluded Wilson did not know whether Brown was armed, acted out of self-defense and was justified in killing Brown. The majority of witnesses told federal investigators that the initial claims that Brown’s hands were up were not accurate. “Hands up, don’t shoot” did not happen in Brown’s killing, and it is a characterization that deserves Four Pinocchios. Politicians should step carefully if they try to highlight this expression in the future.