Archive for October 11th, 2010

Another Unfunded Mandate that Should be Nullified

In 2003, the Bush Department of Transportation issued an unfunded mandate ordering all states and local governments to change their millions of street signs from all-capital letters to signs with a mix of capitals and lower case lettering.  So for instance, PERRY ST. would have to become Perry St.  It seems the know-it-all bureaucrats at the Federal Highway Administration conducted a study that indicated it takes drivers a few extra milliseconds to read all-cap words.  Thus, those signs have been determined to be a safety hazard since the extra time it takes to read street signs means drivers spend less time with their eyes on the road .  According to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, “Safety is this department’s top priority.  These new and updated standards will help make our nation’s roads and bridges safer for drivers, construction workers and pedestrians alike.”

An interesting question is, who thinks up these issues to study in the first place?  I mean do bureaucrats have that much time on their hands that they can think up and then conduct research on whether the size of letters determines how long it takes people to read street signs?

Another question is, on what Constitutional basis does the Department of Transportation rely on to force state and local governments to comply with its sign mandate?  Even if your interpretation of the interstate commerce clause was incorrect and you believed it gave the feds jurisdiction over regulating all commerce between states, most of the roads covered in this mandate are local and not involved in any interstate commerce of any kind.

Of course, the federal government’s interpretation of the interstate commerce clause is a fallacious one anyway.  The clause was intended to give the Congress power to ensure free trade between the states which was a common problem under the Articles of Confederation.  James Madison in Federalist Paper 45 set the record straight as far as the Founders’ intentions were concerned about federal power,

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are    few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

Since roads and highways do not fall under the subjects of “war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce” and they do fall under “improvement and prosperity of the State” if he were alive today Madison would agree that the Department of Transportation shouldn’t even exist let alone have the right to place mandates on the states.

But, of course in our contemporary political climate Constitutionalism means little.  Congress and the Executive Branch violate the Constitution all the time without any after thoughts.  So, let me try a different angle.  In economics there is something called opportunity cost.  It has to do with possessing scarce resources and facing a decision on how to use those resources.  The more resources you spend on one choice leaves less to spend on others so you have to decide which choices’ benefits are most valuable to you.  The federal government is leaving the states very little choice.  All states are on fixed budgets.  Unlike the federal government, states cannot simply fire-up the printing presses of the central bank.  In this current depression, states especially are having to make some tough choices about funding.  Facing dwindling tax revenues and unable to raise taxes, they must still fund schools, police, and many social services.   By mandating that states spend millions to change street signs the federal government is forcing states to cut funding for necessary human services.

We can’t expect bureaucrats to do the right thing and cancel an unfunded mandate that is so outrageous and harmful to the states in these trying times.  After all they are just unelected leeches on society.  But where is Congress?  Doesn’t it care that precious resources are being diverted away public safety, kids and the elderly?  Republicans in Congress should especially be willing to take a stand.  It was their own Bush Administration that initiated the mandate in 2003 and they are the ones always talking a good game about small, limited government.  This would be an easy unfunded mandate to protest since the Democrats would have little ammunition to play their typical race-baiting, fear mongering games.  But, no, there are no signs that relief will be forthcoming from Congress.  Seems the only recourse for the states if they have any gumption is to nullify the mandate.  They should tell the feds to quit violating their constitutional powers and refuse to fund the signs.  This would put the feds in their place and give the decision making for state spending back to the people where it belongs.
Kenn Jacobine teaches internationally and maintains a summer residence in North Carolina

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