Who shouldn’t we test for drugs?

Recently Governor Rick Perry and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst announced their support for drug testing for people who receive government assistance for the poor. Under the proposed law, applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TAFN) in Texas would be required to pass a drug test.

One of the motives behind this legislation is efficiency. Texans don’t want to see their tax dollars going to pay for illegal drugs. However, based on Florida’s experience with a similar program Texas would likely spending more to administer than it would save in denied benefits. As the Miami Herald reported, only 108 of the 4,086 (2.6%) people who took the test failed.  Florida came out at least $45,780 behind because drug testing there averaged $35 per test. That doesn’t include other costs of the program and the court costs required to defend the law in courts.

The response of some Florida legislators and their allies in Texas is that this is really about stopping illegal drugs. As David Dewhurst commented, “It is a legitimate function of government to help people who are not able to help themselves.” Of course, if this is really the motive of the law it need not be limited to TAFN recipients. Further,if we’re really interested in helping those Texans not able to make their own decisions we should expand testing to include alcohol and prescription drug abuse.   Finally, it’s ironic that Texas would be cracking down on all drug use just as other states are moving toward decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.


The risk to privacy may be the biggest issue. If accepting TAFN or other government benefits gives the government the right to regulate your private life, the same could be said about college students accepting grants, government employment, contracts with the state, Social Security, and other possibilities.

The idea of making recipients take drug tests is an appealing idea. After all, it only intrudes into a the private lives of only a few people who are unlikely to raise an objection. On the other hand, I wonder what the limits are once the government has decided it the right to know these kinds of things about any of its citizens.

What level of interaction with the government require surrendering personal liberties? Should we start by drug testing our least fortunate citizens or our highest elected officials?


Justice Scalia says Guns May be Regulated

As reported on Fox News (“Scalia opens door for gun-control legislation, extends slow burning debate“) and in National Journal (“Scalia: Guns May be Regulated“), Justice Antonin Scalia has said that regulating weapons would pass a constitutional test. A few people were surprised that the court’s most conservative voice would take such a stance. It’s easy to forget that no right is unrestricted. Freedom of speech is not absolute and Scalia would probably make a very similar argument to the classic “shouting fire in a crowed theatre” limitation on free speech to back his argument for recognizing a prohibition on someone carrying a “really horrible weapon just to scare people like a head ax or something.”

Republicans and Democrats roughly equally partisan

The Gallup poll has released some results (“Republicans Turn Against John Roberts, U.S. Supreme Court“) that suggest that Republicans and Democrats are roughly equal in how blindly partisan they are. According to Gallup’s results, Republicans turned against the Supreme Court in nearly identical numbers to Democrats embracing the Court.

If you were looking at the overall numbers you would only see that approval of the Supreme Court was the same before and after the decision on the Affordable Care Act (55%) while disapproval had gone from 40% to 45%. However, shifts on opinions on the court are evident once you look at people from each party.

Republicans and Democrats shift their opinions on the supreme court.

Republicans initially assumed that Chief Justice John Roberts was wonderful with 67% of Republicans holding a favorable opinion of him and only 4% having an unfavorable view. Now, the Chief Justice’s is viewed unfavorably by  44% of Republican and favorably by only 27%. Democrats started out more balanced on Roberts (35% favorable, 31% unfavorable), but have recently seen the light with 54% of Democrats now viewing him favorably.

Republicans have gone from their default assumption about anyone they know little about (“Any Republican must be okay”) to a new assumption based on the only court decision most of them are aware of (“Anyone who disagrees with me on health care is bad”). Neither view does John Roberts justice (pardon the pun).

Save Our Republican-Impeach Earl WarrenJohn Roberts has disappointed the base of the party that spawned him. That’s what justices do from time to time. If the founding generation wanted all of our decisions on rights based on public opinion they would have made judges subject to election and never bothered with the Bill of Rights.

I remember the signs up all over the south calling for the impeachment of Earl Warren. The Court will be dragged into the great issues of the day and sooner or later they make someone mad.

But the republic survives.

For me, the problem isn’t that John Roberts made an argument contrary to the base of his party. The problem is that other justices, President Obama, Mitt Romney, and a host of congressional leaders seem afraid to exercise leadership and try to persuade members of their party on a major issue. I may not agree with Roberts’ argument but I respect his willingness to make it.

Only time will tell whether Justice Roberts goes on to be a great leader of the court or a huge mistake. However, reaction of partisans to his vote on the health care decision tells us more about our partisan assumptions as the Chief Justice’s legal reasoning.

So, don’t take your opinion on the court’s decision too seriously. Chances are that it’s largely an echo of your partisanship.

Hospital Won’t Hire Very Obese Workers

A Texas Tribune story (“Victoria Hospital Won’t Hire Very Obese Workers“) raises an interesting question: Should employers be allowed to discriminate based on weight or other aspects of physical appearance.

As the story points out, the hospital’s policy goes beyond the ability to function on the job or health costs concerns.

Citizens Medical Center’s written policy doesn’t indicate that paying for the health insurance of obese workers is too expensive — the reason some companies have been able to ban workers who use tobacco — or suggest that obese employees are unable to do their jobs. Mostly, it references physical appearance, and puts overweight applicants in the same category as those with visible tattoos or facial piercings.

Their argument seems relatively straight forward. Many of their patients are over 65 and apparently don’t like seeing obese people. According to the hospital’s chief executive, “The majority of our patients are over 65, and they have expectations that cannot be ignored in terms of personal appearance.”

Texas law does not protect the obese from discrimination (only one state does) but we may have to decide whether or not it should.

Freedom of expression?

Here’s a good topic for classroom discussion: Does freedom of speech extend to dressed like a bunny, peeking at people from behind a tree and pointing your finger like a gun?

It appears that the answer in Idaho is no.

The truth about states’ rights

Rick Perry stirred up a debate in the Republican party when he told reporters that he did object to New York legalizing gay marriage since this was a matter was best left to the states.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, expressed outrage. A couple of quotes are revealing.

The 10th Amendment and states’ rights is very important to conservatives, but it’s not our highest value.”

“There are some things so fundamentally wrong that we have not left those things up to the states.”

Bauer and his conservative allies are embracing the principle that most Americans practice: States rights matter–unless something matters more.

Both liberals and conservatives are willing to put aside states’ rights to pursue higher values or right things that are fundamentally wrong. Perry’s firm stance for the Tenth Amendment illustrates the lack of commitment to the Tenth Amendment and should open an interesting debate on where states’ rights stands with Americans.


It turns out that Perry is a little more flexible on states’ rights than I thought. He would support overriding the Tenth Amendment with constitutional amendments that took away states’ rights to define marriage or permit abortions.

Vetoing the texting-while-driving bill

On June 17, Governor Perry vetoed H.B. 242 that would have made texting while driving illegal. Perry’s veto statement cited a civil liberties argument calling the bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”

Perry’s decision is part of a fundamental debate about the proper role of the government. Perry is correct that the government is attempting to manage the behavior of adults. The debate is really what are reasonable limits.

Everyone in America talks about “freedom.” What you learn watching politics is that people have very different ideas about what the limits of freedom should be. Social conservatives want to use government to tell you can not do one set of things, liberals often want to keep you from doing different things. There are those libertarians out there (you can check out the Libertarian Party yourself) who would let you do pretty much anything: drugs, prostitution, and texting while driving.

You can no longer have an open container of alcohol in your vehicle in Texas–even if the driver is not drinking from it or hasn’t had enough to be impaired by alcohol. That is a comparable restriction to the texting ban. Adults are being prohibited from doing something even if it may not have not impacted the safety of others. As Ben Wear pointed out in the Austin-American Statesman, Perry signed a bill in 2009 mandating that passengers in the back seat of a car wear seat belts. That law is just as intrusive as HB 242 and certainly has less impact on the safety of other drivers. More recently, Perry sung the praises of legislation that requires pregnant women to get sonograms before they can have an abortion.

Almost all of the people who attain power are anxious to use it to shape behavior. They believe in freedom but find exceptions. Perry’s veto decision does not make much sense to me, but it may to someone else.