The Power Of Porkbusters

Originally published at Beltway Blogroll

Instapundit Glenn Reynolds found a reason to boast in the State of the Union address that President Bush gave last night, and with good reason:

Okay, I have to gloat just a bit: Bush led off with earmarks. His actions aren’t as bold as I’d like, but still — back in 2005 when PorkBusters started, nobody in Washington cared and members of Congress were bragging about pork. Now the State of the Union leads of with an attack on earmarks, to thundering applause. Yeah, a lot of it’s a sham. But hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and this kind of hypocrisy indicates that the anti-earmark momentum is growing.

I’ve been tracking the power of the blog here at Beltway Blogroll since June 2005, and as my days at National Journal come to a close this week, I can say unequivocally that Porkbusters is the most successful demonstration I have seen of that influence. It is also the one with the greatest staying power.

It’s true that pork is still a problem and will remain one as long as Americans choose to elect panderers rather than statesmen. As I noted in November 2005, it’s next to impossible to catch the greased pig in Congress.

But you simply can’t deny that pork is a prominent policy issue now because of Porkbusters. Until bloggers across the political spectrum started ranting about pork after Hurricane Katrina, nobody outside of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, television broadcaster John Stossel and groups like Citizens Against Government Waste seemed to care — and all of their outrage went unheard by Washington’s powerbrokers.

Now the president is tackling the issue in the State of the Union. That is blog power, my friends.

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The Broken Band Of Brothers

Originally published at NationalJournal.com
By K. Daniel Glover

Every Tuesday, Daily Kos and The Majority Report at Air America Radio profile a new congressional candidate. They also steer readers and listeners to the ActBlue Web site to contribute to the upstart campaigns.

All of the chosen candidates have two traits in common: They are veterans, and they are Democrats. Some call them the “fighting Dems,” and these days the candidates rally under the Band of Brothers banner. Their ranks currently number 53 political soldiers from 51 districts in 23 states.

Every campaign has its engaging story lines, and the Band of Brothers is the first prominent one of 2006. In addition to Daily Kos, blogs like Blue Force and MyDD have helped push the story into major media outlets. At least one blogger is on the board of the Band of Brothers political action committee, and two other PACs — Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Vet PAC — also are behind the effort.

But weeks before the nation’s first primary (in Illinois on March 21), the band already has been broken: Three fighting Dems have laid down their arms. The only question now is how much staying power their comrades will have.

The most significant blow came this month when a bitter Paul Hackett withdrew from the Ohio Senate race. He blamed the Democratic establishment in Washington for undermining his candidacy in favor of fellow Democrat Sherrod Brown, currently a member of the House.

Also this month, David Ashe ended his congressional quest in Virginia’s 2nd District, opting instead for a job in the new administration of Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine. And Bryan Lentz halted his campaign in Pennsylvania’s 7th District when another veteran, Vice Adm. Joseph Sestak, decided to run.

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Banking On The Margins

Originally published at National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

The current congressional debate over bankruptcy reform encompasses a classic American tug-of-war between creditors and debtors.

During the Senate debate in March, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., spoke for creditors when he chastised debtors for using bankruptcy laws to avoid paying their bills. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., countered on behalf of “ordinary” Americans by blasting credit card companies for trying to “squeeze every last dollar out of decent, hardworking, play-by-the-rules people” who have been devastated by events like catastrophic illness, job loss, and divorce.

The pointed rhetoric no doubt sounds familiar to students of bankruptcy policy; such oratory is as old as the law itself. More precisely, the current debate harks back to the late 1800s, the era of the first long-term bankruptcy statute in U.S. history.

Bankruptcy is one of the few issues specifically mentioned in the Constitution, with Article I granting Congress the right to pass “uniform laws on the subject.” But lawmakers were reluctant to seize that power. Economic upheaval, such as that created by the Panic of 1837 or the Civil War, sometimes moved them to act, but only for limited purposes and for brief times. Congress wrote bankruptcy acts in 1800, 1841, and 1867, only to repeal them in 1803, 1843, and 1878.

The tide began to shift in the 1880s. In his 2001 book, “Debt’s Dominion: A History of Bankruptcy Law in America,” University of Pennsylvania law professor David Skeel attributed the change in part to the rise of trade associations. The National Convention of Boards of Trade and the National Convention of Representatives of Commercial Bodies were formed to lobby for bankruptcy legislation, and Jay Torrey, a St. Louis lawyer and the president of the latter group, became a driving force.

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When Congress Killed Private Accounts

Originally published at National Journal
By K. Daniel Glover

Republicans who see personal retirement accounts as the salvation for Social Security have a new hero these days: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the father of the program himself. Back in 1935, the Democratic president proposed that a government-run retirement system should include “voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age.” Republicans tout that statement as an early endorsement of personal retirement investments, like the kind President Bush now advocates.

But Republicans don’t mention what happened to FDR’s idea: The plan died quietly in Congress 70 years ago because few lawmakers in either party supported it, the insurance industry opposed it, and Roosevelt didn’t fight for it.

Roosevelt advocated old-age insurance as part of a broader effort to ensure economic security. His proposal was three-pronged: welfare pensions for the elderly; mandatory payroll deductions and retirement payouts for workers (the linchpin of Social Security today); and a voluntary program to let people buy government certificates and convert them into annuities upon retirement.

FDR’s voluntary annuities program was not designed for everyone. It was aimed at farmers, the self-employed, housewives, and others — an estimated 22 million Americans — who fell outside the other two parts of his plan. Although workers who paid payroll taxes could have boosted their retirement income by buying extra annuities, they were not the targets of the voluntary program.

“The primary purpose of the plan is to offer persons not included within the compulsory system a systematic and safe method of providing for their old age,” Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security wrote in a 1935 report that served as the genesis of debate.

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A Nation Of Debtors And Tightwads

Originally published at IntellectualCapital.com
By K. Daniel Glover

The scene is a metaphor for life in the 1990s: Each weeknight, three debt-laden consumers compete for the right to have the Lifetime cable television network pay their credit-card bills, college or car loans, mortgages, or any other financial commitments that put a drag on the family budget. Contestants, who must prove that they are in debt, answer questions about pop culture to gain “credit,” and in the final round, the person who answers the last question correctly gets his or her bills paid.

The program, hosted by game-show veteran Wink Martindale, is appropriately named “Debt,” and it demonstrates two truisms about our generation of Americans: We love stupid television — and we love to spend money.

Living beyond our means
Unfortunately, many consumers also have no qualms about spending more money than they earn, hence the market for a game show that is “designed with the ’90s consumer in mind” and that promises to rid its contestants of “endless monthly finance charges and minimum payments.” Even in an economy that is booming by most standards, Americans still manage to overextend themselves financially.

The results: a dismal national savings rate and a record number of personal bankruptcies. Personal savings as a percentage of disposable income has changed little since a peak of 25 percent in 1944, according to Commerce Department figures. That rate has hovered between 3 percent and 9.3 percent since then and was at 4.9 percent in 1996.

The number of bankruptcies, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. The bankruptcy rate in the 1990s, according to an October 1997 story in the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, is about eight times greater than it was during the Great Depression years of the 1930s. For the first time in the nation’s history, the number of personal bankruptcies topped the 1 million mark in 1996, and even more consumers were expected to seek bankruptcy protection in 1997.

The voice of generations past that cautioned against “living beyond your means” seems to be lost on Americans who have compiled huge debts. Installment credit exceeds $1 trillion. Mortgage debt has increased more than 50 percent since 1990, according to recent Federal Reserve figures. And the statistics on credit cards, the fastest-growing sector of consumer debt, are even more alarming — some $450 billion in debt and double-digit increases in the percentage of use in recent years.
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