Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Temptress of Arbitrary Power

By David G. Young

Washington DC, December 30, 2008 --  

The temptations that brought down the governor of Illinois nothing compared to those that face the new administration in Washington.

When fate handed Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich the chance to appoint a successor to Senator Barack Obama, the politician realized he had something, as he put it, "fucking golden." The governor's unusual frankness on tape earned him the chance to live in federal prison, and as an added bonus, the revile of most Americans.

Regardless of what people think about the governor, he was right about one thing. He truly was handed something golden -- something called arbitrary power.

Unlike many decisions made by politicians, the appointment of a replacement senator is almost completely arbitrary. Other than meeting the scant constitutional qualifications for the office, (a senator must be at least 30 years old, an American citizen for at least 9 years, and a resident of the represented state) Blagojevich had the power to appoint absolutely anybody he wanted. And for the next two years remaining in Obama's term, there'd be absolutely nothing anybody else could do about it.

What makes arbitrary powers like Senate appointments so special is the extreme latitude given to the decision maker, as well as the total lack of checks and balances in the process. Ordinary political powers are much more limited. Appointments of federal cabinet secretaries and judges, for example require Senate confirmation. Executive branch spending usually requires legislative authorization, which at the federal level tends to micromanage every last detail. Governors' Senate appointments are different. They're completely arbitrary. And as can be clearly seen in the Blagojevich case, arbitrary power creates a nearly irresistible temptation for corruption.

But even bigger, juicier, and more tempting arbitrary powers are facing the new Obama administration. First among them will be the leftover money from the $700 billion Wall Street Bailout. The bailout, rammed through Congress by the same fear tactics honed during the passage of the Patriot Act, succeeded in giving President Bush incredible spending latitude over an even more incredible sum of money. $700 billion is more than five times greater than the combined fortunes of both Warren Buffet and Bill Gates.1 It is also nearly as big as Federal Government's annual $1.15 trillion2 in discretionary budget -- the total spending of the U.S. military and every other federal agency combined.

As a measure of just how arbitrary this spending power is, the Bush Administration plans this very day to divert $4 billion of the bailout fund not to shore up the financial system, as the fund's purpose was described to voters, but to prop up the decrepit rust belt auto industry.3 An additional $5.4 billion will be diverted next month. And while Bush and his cronies will soon leave office to collect their wink and a nod return favors from big business, the incoming Obama administration will be inheriting the exact same arbitrary powers.

The starry-eyed dreamers who believe the Obama administration will be different should think again. If the old saw is true that power corrupts, then imagine the corrupting influence of a tsunami of arbitrary power about to fall into the hands of the inexperienced folks moving into the White House.

Only half of the $700 billion of the Wall Street Bailout has been spent by the Bush Administration.4 Much of the rest will likely remain for the incoming Obama administration to spend on virtually whatever it wants. On top of that, add a staggering $675 billion to $775 billion of the Obama team's planned "economic stimulus" spending5, which in absence of any big idea is predicted to go into hundreds of smaller projects that are beyond the attention span of the public to monitor, but that are certain to make plenty of well-connected folks obscenely rich.

President-elect Obama's promise to take the "muddy water" of Washington lobbying and "clean it up,"6 has already become the first casualty of this arbitrary spending power. As his cronies make up insanely huge dollar figures representing what they say will be needed to stimulate the economy, it's mainly lobbyists who are getting stimulated. They're flooding into Washington, becoming ever-more aroused at the thought of their cut of the biggest spending package in the history of America. Even if Barack Obama somehow manages to rebuff the corrupting temptress of arbitrary power, what are the chances that every single one of his hundreds of aids and appointees will manage to do the same?

Whatever value this spending may have at helping prod America's economy, the costs will be enormous in two ways. First, and most directly, will be the crushing debt thrown on to the backs of American taxpayers, already and incredible $10 trillion in the hock. (What's another trillion more?) More importantly, perhaps, will be the corrupting influence created by over a trillion dollars in new arbitrary spending -- arbitrary power that makes Governor Blagojevich's "golden thing" look like an utter pittance by comparison.


1. Forbes, The World's Billionaires, March 5, 2008 Warren Buffet: $62 billion; Bill Gates: $58 billion

2. Government Accountability Office, Bugdget of the United States Government Fiscal Year 2009. 2008

3. CNN, Loans to U.S. Automakers Delayed, December 29, 2008

4. Bloomberg News, Paulson Urges Release of Next $350 Billion From TARP, December 19, 2008

5. The New York Times, Axelrod Puts Stimulus Plan at $675 Billion to $775 Billion, December 28, 2008

6. USA Today, Obama Pledges to Clean up Washington, August 17, 2007