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Published: Fri, 24 Nov 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Fri, 24 Nov 2017 13:40:24 -0500


How Congress Keeps Its Sexual Harassment Hush Money Secret

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 12:18:00 -0500

BuzzFeed reported Tuesday night that the office of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) paid $27,000 to settle a previously undisclosed sexual harassment complaint against the lawmaker. The story is notable not just for the allegations against a powerful member of Congress, but for shedding light on the highly opaque process through which the House of Representatives handles such settlements—and keeps them concealed. Amid the cascade of sexual harassment allegations ignited by The New York Times' exposé of Harvey Weinstein, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) told MSNBC earlier this month that the House had paid out millions of dollars over the last decade to settle sexual harassment claims. Under public pressure, the Office of Compliance, which acts as the House's rough simulacrum of a human resources department, released documents showing it had paid out $17 million since 1997 to settle a variety of workplace claims, including sexual harassment. The details of those settlements, including their nature, are confidential. Claimants are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement to begin the lengthy mediation process. Last week Speier introduced legislation that would prohibit Congress from requiring nondisclosure agreements in such situations and would require regular reporting of settlements. "In 1995, Congress created the Office of Congressional Compliance to protect itself from being exposed, and it has been remarkably successful," Speier said in a statement. "Twenty years later, 260 settlements and more than $15 million have permanently silenced victims of all types of workplace discrimination. Zero tolerance is meaningless unless it is backed up with enforcement and accountability." "It's clear that our country is at an inflection point with respect to the behavior of powerful men across our society," says Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group that works for government transparency. "Congress itself is neither excluded nor sacrosanct from that reckoning, but continued secrecy will hinder public understanding of how our representatives conduct themselves in office. Ethical standards that include training, oversight, and public disclosure of all past settlements online as open data are in the public interest, and we hope that Congress does so." It's important to understand just how secretive the current House process for settling harassment claims is. In most regular cases, lawsuit settlement by the federal government go through the Treasury Department's Judgement Fund, which has an online, searchable database of payouts, filterable by agency and date. For example, the Department of Veterans Affairs has settled nearly 8,000 lawsuits between 2007 and 2016, according to records from the Judgement Fund database—most of them, unsurprisingly, for medical malpractice. It is the federal agency with the second highest number of settlement payouts, behind the Social Security Administration, which has about 13,000. But the House harassment payments described by Speier don't appear in that database. Nor do they appear in the disbursement disclosures the House is regularly required to file. Because of the provisions of the ironically named Congressional Accountability Act, settlement payment come from a special Treasury fund that the Office of Compliance draws from as necessary. The offices responsible for the payouts, and the reasons for the settlements, are kept strictly confidential. In Conyers' case, his office didn't even go through that process, according to the documents obtained by BuzzFeed: [O]ne of Conyers' former employees was offered a settlement, in exchange for her silence, that would be paid out of Conyers' taxpayer-funded office budget. His office would "rehire" the woman as a "temporary employee" despite her being directed not to come into the office or do any actual work, according to the document. The complainant would receive a total payment of $27,111.75 over the three months, after which point she would be removed from the payroll, according to the document. Because of the nondisclosure a[...]

The Good, the Bad, and the Unspeakably Ugly: A Reason Surveillance Reform Bill Primer

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 09:30:00 -0500

Before the year's end Congress needs to decide what it's going to do about Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which permits the federal government to engage in surveillance of foreign targets that are not on U.S. soil, secretly and without warrants. Section 702 amendments sunset at the end of the year if Congress does not act to renew it. These amendments were originally passed in 2008 and renewed in 2012. These surveillance authorities have become a source of controversy because it has become increasingly clear to the public that Section 702 has drawn in domestic communications from Americans when they were speaking with (or even just talking about) targets of foreign surveillance. There are "minimization" procedures to limit the ability of intelligence agencies from reading private communications from and by Americans without a warrant, but civil rights groups and surveillance experts have warned FBI and NSA intelligence agents bend the rules with "back door searches" and "reverse targeting" in order to keep tabs of Americans or people on American soil. Intelligence agencies have also engaged in searches "about" a subject of foreign surveillance, in addition to communications to or from the target, futher drawing in communications of Americans. The top concerns here are that the surveillance is done without warrants and overseen by the deliberately secret FISA court. The secrecy is to protect intelligence investigations and anti-terror and anti-espionage efforts. Since the intended targets are not supposed to be American citizens and not on American soil, the Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted searches are not compromised. But when the feds access and use data from Americans, there are problems. Privacy-minded groups and some supportive lawmakers are looking to reform Section 702 to provide stronger protections for American citizens against unwarranted surveillance. The White House, however, has said they do not want any changes in Section 702, even though President Donald Trump has complained about people in his 2016 presidential campaign having their conversations collected through such surveillance. Below is a useful primer on the three Section 702 bills floating around in Congress, what each bill hopes to accomplish and a subjective assessment of its chances. It's entirely possible all three fail and a renewal with no changes is added to a must-pass, end-of-year omnibus bill. It's also possible Congress will fail to get a renewal approved and Section 702 sunsets. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, among other groups, would love to see Section 702 surveillance authorities go away entirely. But there is little evidence lawmakers are willing to take that political risk at a time of public concern over mass violence or terrorist attack within the U.S. borders. USA Liberty Act of 2017 (H.R. 3989) This is an intended "compromise" bill that has been offered up to rein in the use of unwarranted use of Americans' communications to fight domestic crimes while still allowing some access intended to assist the FBI and NSA in fighting terrorism and espionage from foreign actors. What does it actually do about surveillance? The USA Liberty Act requires federal investigators to get a court order in order to access the content of domestic communications when looking for evidence of a crime. The information accessed must be directly related to an investigation. The bill provides exceptions for getting foreign intelligence information (which is the point of the surveillance authorization in the first place), if the subject qualifies under federal law for an emergency surveillance authorization, or if the target's life is directly threatened and the information may be used to assist them. The bill creates specific procedures to document requests for the "unmasking" of the identity of an American who is referenced in these collected communications. Is it any good? The USA Liberty Act doesn't actually stop a lot of "back door" access to unwarranted domestic survei[...]

Current Farm Bill Waste Targeted as Congress Moves Toward Next Farm Bill

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 08:00:00 -0500

As Congress ramps up plans to renew the quinquennial Farm Bill next year, two separate efforts in Washington this month called for cuts to wasteful spending enabled by the stinky current Farm Bill. Both efforts—one a bill introduced last week, the other a report released this week—are making waves. The Farm Bill, in part, is intended to set federal farm policy for the next five years. While taxpayer-funded payments to farmers—farm subsidies—have under past farm bills always been wasteful, subsidies under the most recent Farm Bill grew by billions of dollars. Last week, Congress sought to rein in a portion of the out-of-control spending it enabled in 2014 when it passed the latest Farm Bill. A new, bi-partisan bill, dubbed the Harvest Price Subsidy Prohibition Act, was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.). The bill—a companion was also introduced in the House—would eliminate the Harvest Price Option (HPO), a subsidy (tied to already subsidized crop insurance) that guarantees a higher price for farmers at harvest if their crop's price rose after planting. If that sounds needlessly confusing, it is. The short of it is, as Sen. Flake says, is that the HPO acts as "a taxpayer-subsidized profit guarantee." No business—small or large, farm or industrial, rural or urban—should have its profitability guaranteed by the government. Why not? "HPO is like insuring your car for $5,000, and getting a check for $10,000 after it's totaled," says Sen. Flake. "It's the kind of program that only makes sense in Washington." The HPO program has cost taxpayers more than $21 billion. Along similar lines, a report issued Tuesday by the Environmental Working Group, which monitors and criticizes farm subsidies, exposes how two other Farm Bill-enabled programs waste billions more. The EWG report, "Double Dipping: How Taxpayers Subsidize Farmers Twice for Crop Losses," focuses on two Farm Bill programs, known as Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC). Farmers who receive taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance may still choose to participate in either ARC or PLC, even though "all three programs essentially pay subsidies for exactly the same reasons." According to the EWG report, hundreds of thousands of farmers have taken advantage of the loophole by double dipping. That's put American taxpayers on the hook for nearly $24 billion in unnecessary double payments to farmers. "Farm state politicians sell farm subsidy programs to taxpayers on the premise that they help keep family farmers on the land," said Don Carr, a senior advisor with the Environmental Working Group, in an email to me this week. "But when year after year the same well off mega farms enjoy millions in redundant subsidies while the bruising agriculture economy continues to drive small and mid-sized farmers out of business, it becomes clear that the original intent of these programs has strayed way of course." These out-of-control giveaways are even more galling because the current Farm Bill was touted as the one that would help rein in spending. (To be clear, though, pretty much every Farm Bill is touted by Congress and lobbyists as a cost-saving measure.) Farm Bill critics, including me, predicted growing waste under the current Farm Bill. "During the most recent debates over passage of a Farm Bill, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) urged support for crop insurance, which he referred to as a set of 'important risk management tools for farmers and ranchers nationwide' that 'can help reduce costs,'" I detail in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable. "Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, of which Sen. Cochran is also a member, lauded the Farm Bill as 'an opportunity to cut spending.' That's not how it's worked out. Rather, costs have skyrocketed under the new Farm Bill thanks to crop insurance subsidies." Wasting taxpayer dollars is but one n[...]

Sacramento Sex Scandal Offers Lessons About Hypocritical California Politics

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 00:30:00 -0500

There are few areas of private life that California's legislators won't at least attempt to meddle in, which makes it that much more infuriating when the Capitol crowd can't get its own house in order. I'm thinking, of course, about the unfolding sexual-harassment scandal, and lawmakers' amazing efforts to basically look the other way. Nothing to see here, just keep moving on. Maybe, by the time lawmakers get back to work in January, the whole mess will be off the news pages. Then they can go back to doing what they do best—regulating and hectoring the rest of us. But, for now, the rest of us can at least learn some stellar lessons about political hypocrisy. One key lesson is that a lawmakers' publicly stated positions and posturing have little to do with how they might handle any particular scandal. The latest evidence of this comes from KPIX-TV in the Bay Area, which reported that Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), "is a vocal supporter of women's rights, so her silence on the matter of Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra's sexual harassment case is surprising." But "this isn't the first time she's been silent when it comes to sexual harassment" and that particular San Fernando Valley Assembly member, according to the news report. Last month, a longtime legislative staffer, Elise Flynn Gyore, told the Sacramento Bee that in 2009 then-staffer Bocanegra followed her like "prey" at a nightclub and unexpectedly "put his hands up my blouse and down my blouse and was grabbing me." The Assembly Rules investigation found it "more likely than not that Mr. Bocanegra engaged in behavior that night which does not meet the Assembly's expectations for professionalism." Bocanegra was disciplined, but the matter was brushed under the rug. Per the TV station, Bocanegra ran for his seat with the backing of the Democratic Party. He recently apologized but remains the powerful majority whip. KPIX obtained a copy of a letter 11 women sent to the rules committee seeking the file on the sexual-harassment complaint. Skinner was the chairwoman of the committee, and the TV station interviewed one of the letter's signers "who confirmed, Nancy Skinner never responded to their request." This might not be as hypocritical as when, say, former Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat known for his strident gun-control positions, was arrested on corruption and gun-trafficking allegations after an undercover operation in that city's Chinatown that was worthy of a Hollywood movie. But it's close. That leads to another lesson: Any new rules apply to us, not them. You'll hear hyperbolic rhetoric on the Assembly and Senate floors warning about the crisis du jour, such as a wave of sexual abuse on college campuses. In 2014, the governor signed a "yes means yes" law that "requires affirmative consent—affirmative, conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity—throughout the encounter, removing ambiguity for both parties," according to its authors. I'm certainly not downplaying campus assaults, but there's far less of a zeal to do anything about the cascading evidence of deep, cultural problems regarding sexual harassment within the Capitol. Some scandals apparently are more worthy of action than others. Gyore spoke out following publication of an open letter from 140 influential women—including six sitting lawmakers—complaining that many men in the Capitol "leveraged their power and positions to treat us however they would like." Why didn't they speak out? They didn't want to make waves given that these men often "hold our professional fates in their hands." They detailed an ugly culture in a state that "postures itself as a leader in justice and equality." Those are stinging allegations, backed up by reports that the legislature quietly paid out $850,000 in taxpayer-funded harassment settlements over the past couple decades. The California Legislative Women's Caucus issued a statement noting that "the absence of repercussions is yet another example of the perva[...]

Porn Star Cherie DeVille and Rapper Coolio Announce White House 2020 Bid

Thu, 16 Nov 2017 12:00:00 -0500

(image) Frustrated with the state of American politics, porn star and physical therapist Cherie DeVille says she's running for president in 2020 with the rapper Coolio as her running mate.

"If our criteria now for becoming a political official is minor celebrity, I have that," DeVille told The Hill on Tuesday. "I feel like I can be [what] the American people—for better or for worse—want, which is interesting news, scandalous news, you know, not 'boring' political news. But at the same time [I can] do what the American people really need" by being "a person with integrity, and having someone listen to the people."

DeVille said she sobbed when Donald Trump won the 2016 election, not necessarily because of his personality or politics but because of what she felt it "meant for the direction the country was going in. We're voting for people as if we're on a reality television show."

But if you can't beat 'em...well, you know the saying. By August 2017, DeVille had enlisted porn actress Alix Lynx as her press secretary and musician Coolio—who "is primed to bring the nation CoolioCare"—as her vice-presidential partner.

Their campaign slogan: "Make American Fucking Awesome Again."


So...this has to be a publicity stunt, right? In the same genre as Kid Rock's potential Senate bid?

Yes and no. DeVille and Coolio have certainly been playing up the camp and kitsch factors so far. And DeVille—who earned a doctorate and ran her own physical therapy business before launching a porn career in her 30s—does not seem delusional about actually getting elected.

But she's throwing her hat in the proverbial ring in order to "start a dialogue" about sex worker stereotypes. "I just want to challenge the public opinion that a sex worker, just because they're a sex worker, couldn't be in public office," she said.

In the course of making that point, however, "it's evolved into a real and realistic run for president."

The campaign is being backed by the adult entertainment company F*cking Awesome.

Alas, it's a mixed bag as far as libertarian leanings go. According to their website, DeVille and Coolio are running on a platform that includes universal healthcare coverage, marijuana legalization, renewable energy, LGBT rights, and liberalizing immigration laws.

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Taylor Swift Should Apologize for Being Apolitical: Fashion Mag

Wed, 15 Nov 2017 10:40:00 -0500

Pop star Taylor Swift's new album, Reputation, is on its way to setting sales records. So it's a good time to slag the performer for being insufficiently politically correct, right? Or, more precisely, for being insufficiently political. The editors at Marie Claire, "a fashion publication with character, substance, and depth for a woman with a point of view and a sense of humor," think so: We're still waiting for an explanation of Taylor Swift's decision to remain apolitical during the 2016 election. #Reputation — Marie Claire (@marieclaire) November 14, 2017 The article does acknowledge that last November, a sweater-clad Swift did post an Instagram pic from a line at a polling place with the caption, "Today is the day, get out and VOTE," but come on, right? Some people interpreted her sweater as confirmation that she was casting a vote for Hillary Clinton (see this post by Lena Dunham for explanation of the theory), but that's a far cry from stating her political stance outright. Taylor is not required to be open about her politics, of course, but it's also fair to question her decision to remain silent in what was a particularly contentious and consequential presidential battle. Yeah, no. As former Reason scribe Charles Paul Freund (read his masterpiece "In Praise of Vulgarity: How Commercial Culture Liberates Islam—and the West") was fond of saying, nothing bothered Soviet cultural commissars more than American pop tunes about puppy love and driving aimlessly around in cars. More than Elvis and Little Richard, who at least freaked out the older generation, Paul Anka and Neil Sedaka were perceived as bigger threats to the USSR precisely because they represented a complete absence of revolutionary potential. In a society in which everything was about politics and ideology, the most revolutionary act was to simply ignore politics and ideology, if only for a few minutes. And so it is in the contemporary United States, where, to paraphrase George W. Bush's much-derided statement after the 9/11 attacks, you're either with us or against us (Bush himself was paraphrasing one of Jesus' most-dualistic statements in the New Testament). For the entirety of the 21st century, it seems, more and more parts of our lives are being infected by partisanship of the dumbest and rankest form. Marie Claire is hardly the only or even the worst outlet when it comes to insisting that Taylor Swift join the barricades or STFU, but it's always worth pointing out that very few people want to live in a world where every goddamned thing is drafted for political purposes. The Kiss Army is right to remain neutral. Indeed, one of the main reasons I fell in with libertarians is precisely because their vision of the world is predicated upon squeezing areas in which politics operates to its minimum so we can get on with living our lives. Even if we live to be 200 years old (and we will, someday!), life will always be too short to fight over which celebrity should vote for which candidate. If a public figure wants to use her fame to advance this or that cause, issue, or candidate, more power to them. But as basketball legend and recidivist public nuisance Charles Barkley put it way, way back in 1993, "I am not a role model." In many, perhaps most, ways the personal is the political, but not in the grim partisan way that the Marie Claires and the Breitbarts of the world seem to insist. There is plenty to criticize Taylor Swift about—Marie Claire notes in passing she tried to legally quash the speech of neo-Nazis who were claiming her as one of their own, her decision to screw her fans by ditching Spotify, and her ditching of Tim Hiddleston come to mind—but not being sufficiently partisan? Please. That way madness, or at least bitterness, or Phil Ochs, lies. In 2014, Remy and Reason TV decided to shake it off: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscree[...]

Are You Allowed to Vote While Wearing a 'Don't Tread on Me' T-Shirt? SCOTUS Will Soon Decide

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 12:50:00 -0500

Does the Constitution permit state governments to create "speech-free zones" that ban political attire within 100 feet of a polling place on election day, even if that attire does not mention a candidate, a campaign, or even a political party? Or does the First Amendment protect the citizenry's right to wear such attire while casting a ballot? The U.S. Supreme Court will tackle those questions later this term when it hears oral arguments in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky. The justices agreed to take up the case yesterday. At issue is a Minnesota statute declaring that "a political badge, political button, or other political insignia may not be worn at or about the polling place on primary or election day." The ban applies to all apparel "designed to influence and impact voting" or "promoting a group with recognizable political views." Andrew Cilek, the executive director of the conservative group Minnesota Voters Alliance, ran afoul of the law in 2010 when he tried to vote wearing a t-shirt adorned with an image of the Gadsen Flag, the phrase "Don't Tread on Me," and a Tea Party Patriots logo. Cilek was also wearing a "Please I.D. Me" button from the conservative group Election Integrity Watch. Cilek and the Minnesota Voters Alliance, represented by the lawyers at the Pacific Legal Foundation, are now asking the Supreme Court to strike down the Minnesota law. "This Court has never countenanced speech-free zones at polling places," they argue in their briefing. "Rather, it has held that bans on First Amendment activity are unconstitutional, regardless of the forum." On the opposite side of the case is Joe Mansky, the elections manager for Ramsey County, Minnesota, along with several other state officials. They maintain that the law "is not overbroad but a reasonable and viewpoint neutral regulation of speech in the nonpublic forum of a polling place." The Supreme Court's key precedent in this area of the law is a 1992 decision known as Burson v. Freeman, in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of a Tennessee statute that created "campaign-free zones" within 100 feet of polling places on election day. That law prohibited "campaign posters, signs or other campaign materials, distribution of campaign materials, and solicitation of votes for or against any person or political party or position on a question." Mansky and his fellow state officials insist that Burson clearly cuts in their favor. But there is an important difference between that precedent and the present case. Burson dealt only with campaign-related speech. The Minnesota law goes much further, encompassing the far wider category of political speech, including speech that makes no mention of any campaign, candidate, initiative, referendum, or party. In other words, it's one thing to ban a "Vote for Bernie" shirt from the polling place; it's another thing to ban an "Occupy Wall Street" shirt. And that is precisely what is at issue here. The same reasoning that would allow Minnesota to prohibit "Don't Tread on Me" shirts from polling places on election day would also allow the state to prohibit AFL-CIO buttons or NAACP hats, to name just a few of the sort of everyday items that Americans wear in order to express their political beliefs or identities. In an amicus brief filed in support of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, the Cato Institute, Rutherford Institute, Individual Rights Foundation, and Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website) argue that the law's extensive reach is a fatal flaw worthy of judicial rectification. "When a statute is written so generally that it could plausibly be enforced against vast swaths of speech," the brief notes, "this Court has applied the doctrine of overbreadth, invalidating the statute for placing too much discretion in the hands of government agents. Minnesota's law, which simply bans 'political' insignia, suffers from precisely this con[...]

Tighter Gun Laws Will Leave Libertarians Better-Armed Than Everybody Else

Tue, 14 Nov 2017 00:01:00 -0500

Has it occurred to anybody that when restrictive laws are imposed, they're likely to have the greatest impact on the people most willing to obey them? The past week saw yet another invocation by the usual suspects of the supposed need for tighter gun controls. This time, we had a special emphasis from lawmakers on such "innovations" as banning people convicted of domestic abuse from owning firearms—which is to say, restrictions that are already on the books and have been in place for years, but which haven't had the wished-for effect. Honestly, so many of gun-controllers' preferred laws have been implemented that they can't be expected to know that their dreams have already come true. But laws aren't magic spells that ward off evil; they're threats of consequences against violators, enforced by imperfect and often incompetent people, and noted or ignored by frequently resistant targets. Gun controls then, like other restrictions and prohibitions, have their biggest effect on those who agree with them and on the unlucky few scofflaws caught by the powers-that-be, and are otherwise mostly honored in the breach. As a result, gun laws intended to reduce the availability of firearms are likely to leave those who most vigorously disagree with them disproportionately well-armed relative to the rest of society. That raises some interesting prospects in a country as politically polarized and factionalized as the United States. That gun restrictions are widely disobeyed is a well-documented fact. I've written before that Connecticut's recent "assault weapons" registration law achieved an underwhelming 15 percent compliance rate, and New York's similar requirement resulted in 5 percent compliance. When California imposed restrictions on such weapons in 1990, at the end of the registration period "only about 7,000 weapons of an estimated 300,000 in private hands in the state have been registered," The New York Times reported. When New Jersey went a step further that same year and banned the sale and possession of "assault weapons," disobedience was so widespread that the Times concluded, "More than a year after New Jersey imposed the toughest assault-weapons law in the country, the law is proving difficult if not impossible to enforce." That's in states with comparatively strong public support for restrictions on gun ownership. Across the Atlantic, despite varying but generally tight laws on gun ownership, "Contrary to widely-accepted national myths, public gun ownership is commonplace in most European states," according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. How can that be? "Public officials readily admit that unlicensed owners and unregistered guns greatly outnumber legal ones," possibly because of "a pervasive culture of non-cooperation with public authorities" in many places. Just a thought, but existing examples of defiance of gun laws in the United States might be an indication that "a pervasive culture of non-cooperation with public authorities" is exactly what we should expect in response to any future successes gun controllers might achieve legislation-wise. And restrictions don't affect everybody the same way. Some people embrace them, while others reject them. And no issue is as politically divisive as the gun debate. In the United States, gun ownership and opinions on gun laws tend to divide rather starkly along tribal political lines. In last year's presidential election, gun-owning households voted overwhelmingly for Trump, while non-gun households went for Clinton. When polled, Republicans tend to be much more supportive of concealed carry, and Democrats much more supportive of restrictions, even in polling conducted after highly publicized and emotionally wrenching shootings. Unsurprisingly, surveys find that Republicans are more than twice as likely to own firearms as Democrats (49 percent vs. 22 percent), and conservatives [...]

Why the Senate Tax Reform Bill Is a Big Deal for Gig Economy Workers

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 10:55:00 -0500

A key provision in the tax bill that Senate Republicans unveiled yesterday clarifies the role of workers in the so-called "gig economy." It also sets up a showdown over whether platforms like Uber and Airbnb will be required to withhold taxes on behalf of their users. As I detailed in a Reason feature back in September, the current federal tax code—last updated in 1986, long before Uber, Airbnb, and the rest of the gig economy came along—fails to adequately account for the estimated 2.5 million Americans who earn income through on-demand platforms every month, according to an estimate from JP Morgan Chase. There have always been independent contractors, of course, but their numbers have shot upwards over the past decade as online platforms made it easier than ever to offer rides, lodging, or other services at the tap of an app. Many workers who sign up to drive for Lyft or sell homemade goods on Etsy are unaware that they are also signing up for a far more complex tax status by earning a few hundred dollars in a side gig. The tax debate offers a rare opportunity to fix some of these problems. The Senate version of the tax reform bill makes a solid attempt at doing that by including portions of the South Dakota Republican John Thune's New Economy Works to Guarantee Independence and Growth Act—the NEW GIG Act. Thune's legislation clarifies that gig economy workers are independent contractors, and that neither service recipients nor third party apps are employers. At the same time, the bill would require gig economy businesses to withhold income tax from their contractors—a provision that would ease the confusion facing Uber drivers who might expect income tax to be taken out of their pay in the same way it is for W-2 employees. Thune says his bill "would provide clear rules so these freelance-style workers can work as independent contractors with the peace of mind that their tax status will be respected by the IRS." Researchers at Boston College and American University have found that gig economy workers confused by their status as independent contractors, or by other elements of the tax code, often do not pay taxes at all or have to hire expensive tax help to figure out what they owe on a relatively small income. Thune's proposal would also set a new reporting threshold for all miscellaneous income earned by independent contractors. Workers who earn less than $1,000 would not have to report their income at all, while those who earn more would. Under current law, this threshold is a bit fuzzy. Some income is subject to reporting after $600 is earned, but credit card payments that total less than $200,000 do not—unless the income was earned via 200 or more separate credit card transactions. A similar bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) and could be incorporated in the House version of the tax bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. (The House and Senate bills both use the same name, despite some differences in substance.) The potential sticking point has to do with the idea of requiring sharing economy platforms to withhold income taxes from their users. As written, the Thune amendment would require income tax withholding as part of a three-pronged test that grants independent contractor status to gig economy workers. The platforms themselves want this clarification included in the law as a way to short-circuit lawsuits, like one already launched by Uber drivers in California, aimed at forcing them to treat workers as employees. In return for clarifying that gig economy workers are contractors, Congress appears to be saying, those platforms will have to collect income taxes from those same workers. By doing that, Congress guarentees that more taxes will be paid—rather than the current system, which relies on individual contractors to correctly calculate and pay their own taxes[...]

Showdown Looming over Reform of Federal Surveillance Laws

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 13:10:00 -0500

The House Judiciary Committee has advanced a bill that would provide Americans modest protections from unwarranted surveillance, but falls far short of what civil liberties and privacy groups (and several legislators) demand. It's no surprise the USA Liberty Act passed out of the committee, 27-8, yesterday, having been hammered out by committee members and lawyers. But the committee resisted amendments that would make the privacy protections for Americans stronger. The USA Liberty Act is meant to address the pending sunset of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments. Section 702 is one of several federal authorities for foreign surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI to keep tabs on potential spies and terrorists. But Section 702 has also been abused, allowing for "backdoor searches" of communications of American citizens. These communications are collected "incidentally" during the surveillance of foreign targets and are used by federal agencies in the investigation of domestic crimes. All of it happens without a warrant with the oversight of the secretive FISA court. After Edward Snowden helped Americans understand the full extent to which our communications and metadata were being collected by the federal government, there's been a concerted effort by civil rights groups and lawmakers, with strong support for the Fourth Amendment, to restrain the feds. The USA Liberty Act does modestly restrict the feds and requires that they seek court orders to view these communications when looking for evidence of a crime. But it doesn't do much about the collection of the data. And there are enough exceptions to worry that little will actually change. The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns: But the warrant requirement is limited due to a number of troubling carve-outs. First, this court oversight requirement won't be triggered except for those searches conducted to find evidence of a crime. No other searches for any other purposes will require court oversight, including when spy agencies search for foreign intelligence, and when law enforcement agencies explore whether a crime occurred at all. Metadata—how many communications are sent, to whom, at what times—won't require court oversight at all. In fact, the Liberty Act doesn't include the reforms to metadata queries the House had previously passed (which unfortunately did not pass the Senate). In the Massie-Lofgren Amendment, which passed the House twice, agents who conducted queries for metadata would be required to show the metadata was relevant to an investigation. That relevance standard is not in the Liberty Act. Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), co-founders of the House's Fourth Amendment Caucus, attempted to amend the Liberty Act to end these "backdoor searches" without a warrant. Their efforts were rejected. According to The Hill, leaders of the House would not continue supporting the bill with the increased restrictions. But it's not clear that rest of the House will support the USA Liberty Act without these reforms. Several civil rights groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union, are warning the bill needs these strong protections from searches. And members of the Republican Freedom Caucus have expressed opposition to a renewal that doesn't have strong protections for Americans against unwarranted snooping. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) tweeted that the Liberty Act, as it stands now, codifies Fourth Amendment violations in searches, so we explect a "no" vote from him. Members of the Senate have their own ideas. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have teamed up on the USA RIGHTS Act, which more thoroughly restricts and allows fewer exceptions to unwarranted surveillance against Americans. There's also the absolutely terrible legislation [...]

Libertarian Party Wins More Than a Dozen Elections Across the Nation

Wed, 08 Nov 2017 15:45:00 -0500

The Libertarian Party participated in elections in 12 states yesterday: Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Washington. The party's candidates won races (not always partisan ones) in the following states:

(image) • In Florida, party members were elected to the Altamonte Springs City Commission, the Coconut Grove Village Council, and the Cape Canaveral City Council.

• In Pennsylvania, party members were elected Rome Township auditor, Spring Township auditor, auditor of Upper Providence, Victory Township supervisor, Houston Borough judge of elections, Exeter Township school director, Lower Nazareth auditor and judge of elections, constable in Sunbury, and member of the Houston Borough Council.

• In Washington, party members were elected to the Long Beach City Council and the Covington City Council.

• In North Carolina, a party member was elected to the Carthage Town Board of Commissioners.

While nowhere near the spread between winning Democrat Ralph Northam and losing Republican Ed Gillespie, at least 29,000 Virginians voted for Libertarian Cliff Hyra for governor. Michelle Darnell won an impressive 32 percent in a Washington State Senate race in the Redmond area, though with only one major-party opponent, the winning Democrat.

Details on the L.P.'s results yesterday can be found on the party's website; some of the above were noted in this tweet from the National L.P.

Democrats Sweep Key 2017 Election Races, Reckless FBI Hacking Puts Us in Danger, German Court Rules for Intersex Rights: A.M. Links

Wed, 08 Nov 2017 09:00:00 -0500

In one of two governor's races across the country, Virginia Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Trump-styled Republican Ed Gillespie. Northam is "a pediatric neurologist and Army veteran, in the Democratic-mainstream mold of Governor Terry McAuliffe" who has "resisted liberal pressure to embrace a national single-payer health care plan," Bloomberg reports. In the country's other 2017 governor race, New Jersey Democrat Phil Murphy triumphed over Republican Kim Guadagno, taking the state back from eight years of GOP leadership under Chris Christie. Democrats had a good showing in Tuesday's mayoral elections, too, with New York's Bill de Blasio, Boston's Marty Walsh, and Detroit's Mike Duggan keeping their seats and several big cities voting in new Democratic mayors. In Charlotte, Vi Lyles becomes the city's first black female mayor, while Jenny Durkan becomes the first female mayor of Seattle since 1928. Virginia Republican Robert G. Marshall, author of Virginia's transgender bathroom bill, will be replaced in the state legislature by Democrat Danica Roem, a 33-year-old transgender woman. During the campaign, the 73-year-old sitting legislator—a 13-year veteran in the statehouse—refused to refer to Roem with female pronouns. Hoboken City Councilman Ravinder Bhalla, a Democrat and Indian-American, becomes the first Sikh mayor of a U.S. city. The election of Larry Krasner as Philadelphia's newest District Attorney signals good momentum for criminal-justice reform there. "Investigators are increasingly deploying malware without first knowing which country their suspect is located in," writes Joseph Cox at The Daily Beast. And the FBI's use of such tactics could be inviting other countries to "unilaterally hack devices located in the U.S.," said Privacy International's Scarlet Kim. Germany's highest court said citizens shouldn't have to choose either male or female on official records. The court's ruling recommends the creation of a third identity option or doing away with the category entirely. The University of Notre Dame has backtracked on a decision to end birth-control coverage on employee and student health plans. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and don't forget to sign up for Reason's daily updates for more content.[...]

Law Enforcement Groups Oppose Senate Sentencing Reform Bill, Again

Wed, 08 Nov 2017 08:30:00 -0500

A group of prosecutor and police organizations are lining up again to oppose the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that would reduce some federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Concerted opposition by hardline law enforcement groups and a small core of conservative Republicans helped torpedo the same bill in the last session of Congress, at the time considered by criminal justice advocates to be one of the best chances in more than a decade to pass major legislation. After the bill was initially introduced in 2015, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and bipartisan co-sponsors watered it down significantly to assuage hardline conservatives like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). The compromise bill would have reduced some mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, eliminating none, and adding new ones for crimes such as interstate domestic abuse and fentanyl trafficking. The bill was reintroduced this September by Grassley and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), but law enforcement groups still say it goes too far. In a letter to Republican and Democrat leaders on the Senate Judiciary Committee released Tuesday, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, the National Sheriffs Association, and four other law enforcement groups warned that the proposed legislation "undermines mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking and weakens the tools that law enforcement authorities need to enforce the law, prosecute criminals and dismantle domestic and international drug trafficking organizations." The letter cites rising violent crime in some major cities and "a national epidemic of overdose deaths, caused largely by heroin and opioid drug abuse," as a reason not to take those tools away. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), and other advocacy groups have long argued federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are incredibly punitive and an ineffective crime deterrent. "These groups are making a strange argument: We have the worst drug overdose crisis in history and so we should keep doing exactly what we are doing," says Kevin Ring, the president of FAMM. "This letter comes on the heels of a new report by the US Sentencing Commission, which concluded that mandatory minimum sentences are being applied to too many low-level drug offenders. Senator Grassley's bill actually addresses that misuse of resources." Law enforcement groups not only want the U.S. to continue its current criminal justice policies; they contend the relatively modest drop in the federal prison population is, in part, responsible for the rise in violent crime rates nationally. "Misguided legislation like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act comes about when myth and misunderstanding overwhelm fact and reality," the letter says. "The assertion that the federal prison population is exploding is myth; the federal prison population is, in fact, decreasing and the rate of decrease—and the likely relationship to the rise in violent crime—will only accelerate as early releases continue as a result of unworthy changes." U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has in many of his public speeches and written op-eds explicitly linked the drop in federal prison population—a result of several changes to prosecutor charging policies for drug offenses under former Attorney General Eric Holder—to the rise in crime rates. As my Reason colleague Jacob Sullum has explained, it's nonsensical to attribute a modest drop in the federal prison population, accounting for 14 percent of the 2.2 million incarcerated people in the U.S., to a national crime wave: Even if we assume that every drug offender who got relief under Holder's policy was a violent predator in disguise, there were not enough of the[...]

The NFL Wants to Block Tax Reform Because It Would End a Common Stadium Subsidy

Sun, 05 Nov 2017 11:10:00 -0500

The tax reform bill unveiled this week by House Republicans would do away with the federal tax exemption for municipal bonds, commonly claimed by states and cities to subsidize the construction of stadiums. The National Football League is gearing up big time to lobby against it, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. Municipal bonds were made tax exempt in 1986 as a way to encourage investors to buy them at lower interest rates, saving cities money when they need to build new infrastructure or make expensive repairs. While the bonds are designed for building roads, sewer systems, and schools, cities have issued more than $13 billion in untaxed bonds for stadium projects since 2000, according to a recent Brookings Institute estimate. That tax break is "an unseen subsidy," according to Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross, who is critical of using public money for stadiums. "It's a tax break that we never get to vote on, and it's one that don't even think about and don't see," he told Reason in June. There's bipartisan support for directing the exemption specifically for public infrastructure, rather than multi-billion dollar playgrounds for multi-millionaire athletes and billionaire franchise owners. Sens. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) and James Lankford (R–Okla.) in June introduced an independent piece of legislation to prohibit local officials from using municipal bonds for stadium projects. If that prohibition becomes law—either on its own or as part of a revamped federal tax code—those "unseen subsidies" would go away and the cost of those projects would increase. So, too, would public opposition to spending public money on stadiums. "It's something that the NFL will oppose because we believe that the construction of new stadiums and renovations of stadiums are economic drivers in local communities," NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart tells the Journal's Andrew Beaton. The 32 team owners who make up "the NFL" in this context are allowed to believe whatever they want, but the idea that new stadiums or renovations are economic drivers is not supported by facts. A landmark study published in 2000 by the Journal of Economic Perspectives reviewed 36 major metropolitan areas that had built stadiums for professional sports teams and found that, on the whole, they represented a drag on the economy. More recently, a 2015 study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, found that "NFL stadiums do not generate significant local economic growth, and the incremental tax revenue is not sufficient to cover any significant financial contribution by the city." Local governments, however, continue to put taxpayers on the hook for football stadiums. In his book The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America, Gregg Easterbrook, a journalist and longtime critic of taxpayer subsidies for the sport, says taxpayers have covered more than 70 percent of the total cost of NFL stadiums built in the past two decades. Maybe we're heading toward the end of that tradition. President Donald Trump, in between tweeting criticisms of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police abuse, has whacked the NFL for taking advantage of special loopholes in the tax code. "Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!" Trump tweeted in October. Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 10, 2017 President Barack Obama proposed eliminating tax exemptions for municipal bonds attached to stadium projects as part of his 2015 budget plan, but Congress[...]

The Death of the Alt-Weekly As Told By An Industry Lifer

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 07:00:00 -0400

On September 21, The Village Voice printed its final paper edition, its cover a Dont Look Back–era Bob Dylan offering a defiant adiós. Though the publication continues online, pundits mourned the end of an era, not just for the legendary rag but for the industry it spawned. For decades, the alternative weekly was a staple of any city where there were young people who felt the mainstream media sucked and who wanted to read as many underground cartoons, scandalous exposés, concert reviews, and wacky columnists as could fit between the ads for massages and head shops. The Voice's last issue sparked a dark autumn for alt-weeklies. Seattle's irreverent The Stranger, home to the iconic sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, switched to a biweekly format, even though its owners say the paper makes money. Creative Loafing Atlanta, around since 1972, became a monthly. The Baltimore City Paper announced it would close for good on November 1. And then there was the week that began October 13, when I announced I was resigning as editor of OC Weekly after 15 years at the paper (the last six as editor) because I refused the owner's demand that I lay off half my staff. Soon after, the Washington City Paper—once home to David Carr, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jake Tapper, among others—was put up for sale. LA Weekly got sold to mysterious owners represented by a marijuana lawyer. And the Seattle Weekly dropped out of the alt-business altogether and became just another throwaway community fishwrap. Media watchers have spilled a lot of ink and tears this year over what The Guardian called "the death of the great alt-weeklies." But more damning was the stream of hosannas put forth by alt-week alumni about the supposed glory days—so many, that the Columbia Journalism Review ridiculed such nostalgia as "hoary remembrances." Such cynicism was right. The fact is, alt-weeklies long ago condemned themselves to a slow, pitiful death. They had an amazing advantage to conquer the digital age, because they were historically younger, ostensibly hipper, and seemingly more open to evolve than the media dinosaurs they so gleefully mocked. Their legacy defines a modern-day media landscape dominated by Vice, Buzzfeed, podcasts, Instagrammers, and other outlets that inherited the alt-weekly emphasis on point of view, individualism, and creating a self-contained universe for consumers. But the alts blew it. They're even more imperiled now than the dailies, which can at least count on big-ticket advertisers too afraid to buy space in papers that drop f-bombs. Alt-weeklies find themselves in a position much like the baby boomers who launched most of them: stuck in the past, oblivious to the present, and increasingly obsolete. ¡Ask a Mexican! OC Weekly launched in the fall of 1995, when I was a junior at Anaheim High School. It was spun off from LA Weekly, a paper that served as a beacon to the West Coast left for its unabashedly progressive politics. Orange County, long defined by the libertarian Orange County Register, welcomed the outrageous weekly to the point that it broke even within a year, leading The New York Times to note it had "found an eager audience and receptive advertisers." I didn't discover the paper until April Fool's Day of 2000, because it didn't circulate in the barrio. I found out about it only because I found a copy in the trash late one night while I volunteered for a city council race. After I wrote a fake letter to the editor (long story), Weekly founder and then-editor Will Swaim invited me to pitch him story ideas. He didn't care that I was a college kid better versed in film theory than in FOIAs; he saw a guy who knew his community. I was freelancing within[...]