Congress

Beware the Devil You Don't Know

Will the Democrats actually be worse?

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I'm sure Democrats will manage to do a couple of things right in the next two years.  I'm just not sure what.  Sometimes, the devil we know seems so awful the old adage loses its power, and we throw in our lot with the devils we don't. Thing is—they're just as devilish.

Of course, there are those who direct their prayers for safe passage to the minor libertarian deity of divided government. I hope the gods of gridlock will spare us some of the indignities below, but I'm not particularly confident it will halt them all. Say we wind up with just 4 out of 10. Would things really have been so much worse with a lame duck Republican majority?

Since misery loves company, I offer, in no particular order, 10 things to expect from the Democratic Congress to keep you awake nights:

1) Americans favor raising the minimum wage to $7.15 per hour, 83 percent to 14 percent, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. Democrats are talking about an increase to $7.25 an hour, and they're promising to push it through in the first 100 hours of the Democratic majority rule. Bush has said he supports an increase, but won't haggle about the numbers in public. Other evils of Republican governance aside—the closed-door negotiations about the new minimum wage would have gone better with a few more Republicans inside (if they'd happened at all).

Bush has said that he also wants to be sure that the increase is done in ways that won't hurt small businesses. Which is, of course, impossible. Regardless of where you stand in the intense debate over whether increases in the minimum wage reduce the number of jobs available to low wage workers, an increase in the minimum wage will hurt small businesses. Do the math: Suppose you employ ten people, full time, at minimum wage. A two dollar increase will cost you about $40,000 a year. How would we react to a tax of the same size imposed on the same scrappy entrepreneurial grocer or clothing store owner?

2) Remember the flap about "fully funding" No Child Left Behind? The poster boy was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was an original sponsor of the bill. For political reasons, and perhaps legitimate substantive one as well, when public support for the legislation disappeared, so did Kennedy's. His concern, he said, was that the legislation was not fully funded. The act is up for reauthorization next year, and Kennedy is slated chair the committee overseeing the bill, so watch for a big rush of Democratic cash on federal education spending—something few libertarians will be thrilled about.

3) "Fixing" the prescription drug benefit. When the Republicans passed Medicare part D, I—like many libertarians—despaired of the GOP. The only thing worse than a massive new entitlement ushered in by Republicans? A passel of aggressive Democrats promising to "fix it." By allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and permitting more importation of pre-price controlled drugs from Canada, Democrats will add another command-and-control component to our already monstrosity of a health care system.

There's the old familiar song and dance about how if you decrease Big Pharma's prospective profits on new drugs, they will (reasonably) retaliate with less spending on research and development. According to the author of a new study from the Manhattan Institute: "Prices would be driven down by over 35 percent by 2025. The cumulative decline in drug R&D for 2007-2025 would be about $196 billion in year 2005 dollars, or $10.3 billion per year. Because R&D costs for new medicines are about $1 billion, the loss would be about 196 new drugs."

But to really understand the havoc a Democratic "fix" could wreak, warily eyeball the Department of Veterans Affairs, which already negotiates for its drugs and has been cited by Democrats as a model for Medicare. At the VA, prices for drugs are very low. But one way that the VA keeps overall prices down is by making it tough to get new, expensive drugs. Their formulary includes about 1400 drugs, and they refuse to consider a drug for inclusion until it has been on the market for three years. Compare that with the 4,300 drugs currently listed at (the privately negotiated) Part D formularies. Right now, a third of VA seniors say they would rather be on Part D. If Dems have their way, at least these vets won't have to bother with the paperwork for switching.

4) Don't expect any more progress on free trade. If Congress had remained in Republican hands, they probably wouldn't have done much to make libertarians happy, but doing a little bit more to free up trade is one thing that an unpopular, lame duck Congress and its president might have managed to pull off. Instead, Permanent Normal Trade relations with Vietnam have stalled and bilateral trade agreements with Peru and Colombia are in trouble.

The anti-trade TomPaine.com is taking victory laps already: "Even before being hit by electoral losses, Bush administration allies had intended to sneak several trade agreements through Congress during the lame duck session. This hasn't gone as smoothly as they had planned. When President Bush visited Vietnam the week before Thanksgiving, he hoped to bring with him news of Congressional approval of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with that country—a measure that would have served as a stepping stone to a free trade deal and an endorsement of Vietnam's entry into the WTO. It didn't happen. The bill failed to secure the two-thirds majority it needed to pass, with many emboldened Democrats rallying to defeat it. The New York Times declared that the vote, which was supposed to be an easy victory, instead signaled 'a deep disappointment and embarrassment for the White House.'"

5) Reinstituting the draft. Obviously, this is not actually going to happen, but it was one of the first concrete policy proposals tossed out after Democrats declared victory. American libertarians made their bones fighting the draft, and the mere mention sends some into a card-burning frenzy. Still, Rangel is crazy like a fox: He proposed the draft reinstatement once before—two years ago. But when it finally came to the floor right before the last election, he voted against it, along with 401 other congressmen.

6) My beloved Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla), will no longer chair the subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, and International Security. I don't know what the committee does (and yes, Coburn's record on social issues is decidedly unlibertarian), but on federal financial management he kicks ass. Whoever replaces him is going to be worse, and you know it. Plenty of other decent committee chairs will be booted, too. Check out the list here.

7) It's always hard to know who is worse on judges, Democrats or Republicans. The next chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) railed against both the president's Supreme Court picks, John Roberts and Samuel Alito (though he grudgingly voted for Roberts in the end), judges about whom reasonable libertarians can disagree. But it's safe to say that Leahy's staff probably won't be working overtime to dig up dirt on potential nominees' failure to support economic liberty, nor will they rush to confirm judges with a history scaling back expansionist interpretations of the commerce clause. And "Federalist Society" probably just became dirty words.

8) Libertarians can fight amongst themselves about the merits of hybrid cars, reducing dependence on foreign oil, and other energy conservation/national security measures. But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently declared that the new Democratic Congress will mandate that a quarter of new vehicles sold in the use flexible fuel technology by 2010. Said Schumer: "These are things that will help the middle class and those who aspire to be in the middle class," Schumer said. Because nothing helps the "aspiring middle class" more than tacking on a few hundred (or thousand) bucks to the price of their Ford minivan.

9) Then there are also the things Democrats won't do. They won't do much of anything in Iraq: "Now he's the commander in chief, and we're not going to do anything to limit funding or cut off funds, even though there are some on the outside who suggest that," House leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said. "I think we want to make sure that the troops have everything that they need."

And they won't make any headway on federal funding for stem cell research. Bush finally broke his no-veto rule to kill the damn bill the first time around—after many consultations with "researchers and religious leaders." He won't agonize nearly as much the next time. And, as Harry Reid has pointed out, 51 seats isn't exactly a veto proof majority.

10) Finally, hate Republicans if you want, but there's no one worse for libertarians than Hillary Clinton. She is anti-flag burning, (historically) pro-war, anti-tax cut, and pro-PATRIOT Act. And, of course, there's always HillaryCare. Whatever Hillary thinks she needs to do to position herself for a successful '08 run, she can do it much more easily in a Senate where her gang is in charge.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason.

UPDATE: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) voted for John Roberts for Supreme Court, not against him, as indicated in the original text. The error has been corrected.