Paul Jacob

It’s not exactly new, but using the word “emergency” to justify political action — particularly new spending or new taxation — has emerged as the default rhetorical (and legal) trick of the modern politician.

Back on the campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama promised transparency in the legislative process. President Obama, on the other hand, now says that he will sign his new super-duper Keynesian “stimulus” bill on Monday, without benefit of transparency. He has pushed it through Congress without first publishing it online for the promised five days of citizen review. (Of course, not a single congressman has read the 11,000-page bill, either.)

Why must we not look before we leap? We are in a crisis, that’s why, an “emergency.”

But of course, it would take bigger brains than the president has in his trust — or we have on tap on this spheroid we call Earth — to demonstrate why the spending is needed a mere five days earlier than his transparency promise would allow. Five days won’t add an appreciable kick to any alleged stimulus.

And hey: Five days late could mean a workweek’s delay in paying the bill for all the “stimulus” . . . three centuries from now.

Economic historian Robert Higgs, in his brilliant book Crisis and Leviathan, developed what he calls “the ratchet theory of government growth.” He notes that government spending tends to spike upwards in times of crisis, when people panic, or when spending may actually be necessary (such as after Pearl Harbor), but once the crisis is over, spending rarely subsides back to the pre-crisis levels. Spending does not fall below the last click of the political ratchet.

Thus we know how Big Government emerges: Through emergencies, real or perceived.

Or, as it often the case, trumped up.

Too cynical?

No, of course not. There’s so much evidence for this theory of government growth that really, I could just stop right here and be done with it.

But let’s briefly consider the evidence not at the national level, but closer to home, in the states.

Politicians in the state of Maine provide today’s most instructive example. To tell the story, though, I’ll start with the citizenry.

Not too long ago a Maine citizens group with a hard-to-forget name, “Fed Up With Taxes,” petitioned to put a legislated tax, the Dirigo Drink Tax, to a referendum vote. The tax was earmarked to fund the state’s “Dirigo Health Program” by targeting a consumer group — drinkers of malt liquor, wine, and soft drinks — whose habits “have a negative influence on health.” Last November, Maine voters went to the polls and repealed the tax.

Now, such rebelliousness really enrages some politicians. Forgetting that the United States began as a tax revolt, they hate it when the people get involved in politics and actually cut taxes. It upsets their spending plans.

So, what to do?

Hobble the citizen petitioning process, of course. In Maine’s case, they are “blessed” with the presence of Representative Mark Bryant, who came to the establishment’s rescue with a bill requiring all people who gather petitions to be registered to vote.

We’ve heard this story before. A number of states have set up regulations, putting up higher and higher hurdles to the petitioning process. My own recent scuffle with the state of Oklahoma (though not its citizens) comes to mind.

Mr. Bryant may or may not be aware how tricky this all is. The United States Constitution mentions a right of the people to petition the government, and judges have been striking down state legislative attempts to make petitioning harder.

What makes Bryant’s little foray into unconstitutional liberticide interesting is the way he formulated it.

He calls his bill “an emergency.”

I’ve mocked this elsewhere. There’s no emergency in Maine . . . just citizens going about doing their business as citizens. There’s certainly no crisis, except in the confidence citizens place (less and less each day) in their so-called representatives.

And Bryant’s bill exacerbates that crisis. So why this talk of “emergency”?

Well, look elsewhere. In cities, states, and counties around the country, politicians use the word “emergency” to avoid subjecting their laws to citizen oversight, input, and possible repeal.

In Lewis and Clark County, Montana, county bigwigs used the cover of “emergency” to ignore established rules for public comment on proposed zoning changes.

In Oregon, another “zoning emergency” was invoked to prohibit any development within spitting distance of the old Oregon Trail. It turns out that most Oregon legislation receives the imprimatur of “emergency,” just to avoid giving citizens even the slightest opportunity to challenge the law by citizen referendum.

Washington State’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s legislature may suspend citizen-voted law whenever it wants, so long as it is specified on grounds of “the immediate preservation of the public peace . . . and its existing public institutions.”

These examples are from but one corner of the country. The problem is pervasive nationwide. Look at legislation in your state. Or city, or county. You will find regular abuse of the term “emergency.”

American government today plays the part of the Great and Powerful Oz, an old man hidden behind a curtain trying to scare a little girl. If he booms out the word “emergency” often enough, he hopes we won’t look behind the curtain.

It’s the job of the citizen to yap like Toto. And tear the curtain to shreds.  


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.