Sequester Sequester Oh My!

I could have saved a lot of time and gotten up later if I had this George Will column before my radio show this morning. It eloquently lays waste to the sequester hysteria about  people dying in the streets and life on this earth as we know it ending because the federal budget will be cut by $85 billion out of $3.6 trillion this year and $1.2 trillion out of $46 trillion over the next ten years, an amount of spending that is as unfathomable as it is unsustainable.

The Washington Post has some interactive graphs and charts showing dollar impacts across the states and the Pew Center has some nice visualizations if you want real data, but what’s coming out of the White House takes the cake. It’s report, Impact of March 1st Cuts on Middle Class Families, Jobs, and Economic Security looks like something out of the old Soviet Union, a pure propaganda piece using cherry-picked facts and worst-case scenarios to present an agenda-driven scare piece.

I won’t go line by line because I’ve got better things to do than dissect a fictional frog, but here’s the bottom line: If the cuts will really result in fewer teachers, less spending on police and security, fewer vaccinations, increased violence against women, and all of the other catastrophic outcomes despite spending levels that are still well above even those of just a few years ago, then the administration has pretty messed up priorities.

They prefer to spend hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing solar panels and windmills while children go hungry, untaught and unvaccinated? The President spends nearly $1 million dollars to go golfing with Tiger Woods but he’s going to put our lives in jeopardy over local police funding? It seems that they’re taking the most important, and in many cases even constitutionally valid, federal programs and making them the last priority by cutting them first. Couldn’t they at least cancel a couple of GSA Las Vegas conventions and provide a few more student loans? Oh the humanity!

Of course this isn’t the case and in fact is a time-worn method called the Washington Monument strategy. They hide and protect the waste and abuse while putting out the hew and cry that even a dollar less than what they currently spend will cause plagues, locusts, and, dare I say, global warming.

Cities do it all the time by saying they’ll cut police and pothole repairs while they attend conferences out of state and keep the local pool open. It’s a scare tactic and nothing more than blatant political pandering. It doesn’t give you much credit for common sense, either. Across the board cuts are the worst possible way to cut spending. But if it’s the only way then it’s better than nothing.

Rob Natelson: MT Supreme Court’s “History” in Campaign Finance Case Was Really Bad

The Montana Supreme Court won praise for its use of history in the corporate finance case, Western Tradition Partnership v. Attorney General, a decision subsequently reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the Montana court’s “history” was weak, to say the least. One writer called it “junk history” here.

Last year, I did an extensive library fact-check of the Montana court’s claims. I summarized some (although not all) of my conclusions in a published paper.

Here’s a quick summary of my principal findings:

First, while claiming that corporate campaign corruption was once widespread in Montana, the justices cited only two events, both over 100 years old. Both were irrelevant to the claim that Montana has a “unique” history of corporate electoral corruption. One was the alleged bribery of a pair of district court judges, which had absolutely nothing to do with campaigns or elections. The incident was never proved, and it’s not even clear that corporate money was involved.

The other was a candidate’s bribery of state legislators in a 1899 U.S. Senate election. The U.S. Senate committee report on the incident described only bribery by individuals, not by corporations. The episode did not involve independent expenditures and was not unique to Montana, since similar episodes throughout the country soon led to adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment.

Second: The Montana Supreme Court failed to cite a single dispassionate historian for its conclusions. In investigating the backgrounds of the writers it did cite, I found that all but one were personally involved in state government as employees, politicians, family members of politicians, political activists, lobbyists, or several of the above. All of those had personal interests in the subject and apparent reasons to dislike the perceived conservatism of business corporations. All wrote either from either a “progressive” or (in one case, from a socialist) point of view. The one writer who had not been involved personally was a “progressive” journalist, not a historian, and had no pretense of objectivity.

Third: The court relied on books that failed to follow normal historical practice in citing sources. Their footnotes ranged from few to almost non-existent. The writer relied on most heavily was K. Ross Toole, whose relevant chapters were largely based (often word-for-word) on his Ph.D. thesis. That Ph.D. thesis was essentially a youthful assault on the Anaconda Company—a company Toole was convinced was an institution of conservative evil.

I compared the relevant footnotes in Toole’s thesis with the actual newspaper articles he cited. I found that nearly two thirds of Toole’s notes were defective. The articles he cited often did not support the claims in the text.

Fourth: The Montana Supreme Court claimed that after the Copper Wars at the turn of the last century the Anaconda Company absolutely dominated the state. But the court’s own sources are contradictory on that point. For example, one of those sources (a book by Malone & Roeder) claims absolute Anaconda domination on one page and then celebrates numerous state “progressive” victories over Anaconda a few pages later. The book never explains how the “progressives” could have been so successful if Anaconda had such a lock on the state.

(A more balanced view is that while Anaconda influence was considerable in Montana for much of the 20th century, Anaconda lost many battles as well, as the election returns demonstrate.)

Finally: In upholding the state law censoring corporate speech, the Montana Supreme Court claimed that the law was enacted to end “This naked corporate manipulation of the very government. . .” But there is no way the court could have known this. The books it cited provided little information on the law or its reasons for passage. According to contemporaneous newspaper articles, the text as passed (possibly now lost) was quite different from the version at issue in the case. The court cited no campaign materials, and the newspaper reports (which the court didn’t cite either) are uninformative on the reasons for the measure.

The actual effect of the law may have been to increase Anaconda Company influence, since it curbed the campaigning of other corporations while leaving Anaconda-owned newspapers exempt.

It appears, in other words, that the Montana Supreme Court was guilty of what professional historians contemptuously call “law office legal history”— the selective use of isolated and questionable “facts” to promote a case.

Law-office history can make good reading, but never confuse it with real history.

Rob Natelson
* Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence,
Independence Institute & Montana Policy Institute
* Professor of Law (ret.), The University of Montana
* biography & bibliography:

Rob Natelson: Amendments Convention

Ed. Note: We welcome MPI Senior Fellow for Constitutional Jurisprudence and retired UM Professor Rob Natelson to our blog. Rob is a national expert on constitutional issues and will periodically post insights and information on a variety of topics. You can find his full bio here.

Senator Art Wittich has introduced SJ 5, by which the state legislature would formally apply for an interstate convention to draft and propose the National Debt Relief Amendment. That amendment, if ratified by 3/4 of the states, would require approval from a majority of state legislatures before Congress could add to the national debt.

At the legislative hearing, opponents trotted out the “runaway convention” scenario. This is the discredited claim that a convention to propose such an amendment would be a “constitutional convention” that could do anything it wanted.

I correct the record in an essay that discusses the claim here.

Rob Natelson

* Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence, Independence Institute
* Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence, Montana Policy Institute
* Senior Fellow, Goldwater Institute
* Professor of Law (ret.), The University of Montana
* biography & bibliography:


Montana’s New Transparency Site

The state has finally put a checkbook and employee salaries online. Good for them. And I mean that. It’s a great first step and Governor Bullock and his new administration deserve great credit for doing it.

So now let’s make it much more useful with just a little more effort.

How do we do that?

First, expand the dates of data available on the online checkbook. While a snapshot is nice for looking at who sold the state, for example, copy paper last December, what’s really nice  to know is how much the state – or a department – spends on copy paper over time and who supplies it. That would allow departments and agencies to make comparisons prior to going shopping themselves, vendors to tailor their bids based on going rates, and citizens to compare how they spend their money to how the state spends it. All of those actions will save dollars by creating a more competitive and transparent process and give taxpayers assurances that that process is both fair and effective.

Next, expand the dates and include total compensation for state employees. There are two issues here. First, expanding the dates is important so that taxpayers can see compensation trends rather than snapshots in time. Why is this important? The recent pay freeze provides a perfect example. By looking at trend data on MPI’s own transparency portal, it’s clear that virtually every state employee was being paid more at the end of the ‘freeze’ period than before it, and that the largest increases occurred at the higher pay bands. You can only get that kind of information from trends, which requires multiple years of pay data available.

But even more importantly, as far as I can tell the state’s pay data only has hourly rates and does not include things like overtime, bonuses, and any number of other forms of compensation that state employees receive. That’ just dishonest. The state wants to know everything that you make – what’s on your W-2 – when you calculate your taxes. You should see everything they make when you pay those taxes. Now of course I’m not talking about travel pay and other straight reimbursements of direct costs associated with doing their jobs; but if it’s considered compensation by the Department of Revenue, it should be available to taxpayers.

So…it’s a good start but let’s not be satisfied with it just yet. The state could add immeasurable benefit to their site by expanding the dates back at least five years and including all employee compensation, not just basic pay rates. They created this site out of available funds, which is very commendable considering former Governor Schweitzer killed previous efforts by saying it would cost millions. So let’s invest a little more to increase the efficiency of our state government and our taxpayers’ confidence in it.

Oh, by the way. Did I mention the Montana University System isn’t even included in the discussion much less the data. Let’s see if they’re willing to step up before being prodded into it.