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Published: Wed, 16 Aug 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Wed, 16 Aug 2017 21:34:47 -0400


Canadians Can Eat Genetically Enhanced Salmon; Americans Can't

Wed, 16 Aug 2017 10:25:00 -0400

Our neighors to the north can now enjoy salmon genetically enhanced to grow faster and eat less feed. Thanks to absurd overregulation, Americans can't. The Atlantic salmon are enhanced using a Chinook salmon gene that enables them to grow much faster using less feed. Nature News reports that AquaBounty Technologies, which developed the fish, has now sold nearly five tons of it to customers in Canada. The company applied to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to get approval for its genetically enhanced salmon back in 1995; it took the agency til 2015 to rule that AquAdvantage salmon, as the product is known, "is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious." Health Canada approved it for sale six months later. But you still can't buy it here in the U.S. The usual claque of anti-science activists are suing the FDA in an effort to block the company from marketing the fish. And Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, aiming to protect her state's salmon fishers from competition, has inserted a rider in the agriculture spending bill that bans the sale of enhanced salmon until the the FDA publishes its final labeling guidelines. Murkowski claims that Americans must be warned that AquAdvantage salmon are "frankenfish." As a general regulatory principle, genetically enhanced foods do not have to be labeled unless they are nutritionally different than their conventional versions. Canada sensibly does not require special labels on AquAdvantage salmon. AquaBounty is currently raising its sterile triploid salmon in an onshore facility in Panama. In June the company announced that it will expand a Prince Edward Island production facility and has acquired a fish farm in Indiana, where it plans to begin raising its enhanced fish for the U.S. market. Aquabounty sold its fish at wholesale for $5.30 per pound in Canada. In comparison, Tradex Foods reports that the current price on fresh atlantic salmon (farmed) in Miami for trimmed fillets is $4.25-$4.30 per pound. In any case, Alaskan fishers should rest easy. The Aquabounty facility in Indiana would produce about 1,200 tons of Atlantic salmon annually. Americans annually consume about 180,000 tons of Atlantic salmon, of which 170,000 tons are imported. Only 2,000 tons of Atlantic salmon are wild-caught. Most of the 105,000 tons of Pacific salmon is wild and is caught in domestic waters. Congress has tied the FDA's hands with respect to the AquAdvantage salmon, but the agency could do a great deal of good by withdrawing the scientifically ridiculous draft regulations meant to govern genomically improved livestock, which the Obama administration issued on its way out of the door in January. Personally, I dislike the flavor of salmon. But I plan to eat an AquAdvantage fillet as soon as I can legally lay hands on one.[...]

Trump Launches a Suicidal War on His Own Party

Sun, 13 Aug 2017 00:00:00 -0400

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump often told the story of the kind woman who found a half-frozen snake and took it in and nursed it back to health—only to be repaid with a cruel bite. What Republicans didn't know is that in this story, they're the woman and Trump is the reptile. With his approval rating sinking, Trump has decided his problem is that he has too many allies. So he set out to rid of himself of an important one: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The taciturn Kentuckian managed to inspire rage by suggesting that, being new to Washington, Trump had "excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process." The president responded by tweeting angrily, "Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn't get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!" As if that weren't enough, Trump followed up in an interview by indicating he might favor McConnell's resignation as Republican leader if he couldn't get Trump's agenda enacted. McConnell looks as worried as a poker player holding four aces. He is accountable only to the voters back home, who elected him to his sixth term by a 15-point margin in 2014, and to Senate Republicans, who installed him as their leader 10 years ago and appear to be perfectly content with him. Upon reading Trump's tweets, Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, we can assume, immediately fell to their knees to rejoice at this sudden windfall. As commanders of an outnumbered force, their best hope is that their adversaries will devour themselves, and Trump is doing his best to make their wish come true. He has proved himself the supreme master of the unforced error. There are many things Trump does not seem to comprehend about the presidency. One is that on a wide range of important issues, he can't do much without the help of Congress. Another is that the legislative branch is equal to the executive branch, not subordinate. He also fails to grasp that he has no more of a popular mandate than every single member of Congress, none of whom came in second in the popular vote. He didn't install any of them. The voters did. Every representative and senator knows—far better than Trump does—what he or she needs to do to win re-election. Most of them were in office long before he arrived and will be there after he's gone. They don't owe him and don't fear him. A president, of course, can sometimes compel even unfriendly members of Congress to going along with his legislative agenda. In 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan got his signature tax cut approved even though his party was in the House minority. No fewer than 48 Democrats (and all but one Republican) felt obliged to support it. In the Senate, only 10 Democrats dared to vote no. But at the time, Reagan had an approval rating of 55 percent. Having been a two-term governor of California, he also had some knowledge of how to work with lawmakers. Trump, by contrast, boasts an approval rating of 38 percent and a bottomless ignorance of the legislative process. It didn't occur to him that if an unpopular president wants anything passed, he needs to offer ideas that are practical and politically salable (see: Reagan tax cut). Trump was unable to get Congress to vote for the repeal and replacement of Obamacare partly because he didn't know anything about policy details and therefore was ill-suited to negotiate with people who do. He was also handicapped, as congressional Republicans were, by the unexpected surge of public sentiment for the status quo. Getting any major change through Congress demands careful craftsmanship and shrewd compromises. Neither requirement played to Trump's strengths. His missteps go beyond consigning himself to legislative impotence. They also put his presidency in jeopardy. A president under investigation by a special counsel has to consider the prospect of impeachment. All Trump has to do to avoid it is keep Republicans aligned with him. But instead of striving to i[...]

Unconstitutional State Food, Agriculture Crackdowns Spur Congress to Act

Sat, 12 Aug 2017 08:00:00 -0400

Earlier this summer, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Calif. Wisc.) introduced a bill that could dramatically change the ways states tax and regulate interstate commerce, including commerce in agriculture and food. The bill, known as the No Regulation Without Representation Act of 2017, would bar states from regulating or taxing many businesses that don't physically operate within their borders. The bill is intended to rein in "certain State impositions on interstate commerce." It declares "a State may tax or regulate a person's activity in interstate commerce only when such person is physically present in the State during the period in which the tax or regulation is imposed." But wait. Doesn't the Constitution already prohibit states from regulating interstate commerce, via the Commerce Clause (and its corollary, the dormant Commerce Clause) and the Fourteenth Amendment? You bet! But states increasingly ignore those edicts. Take Massachusetts, where voters in November adopted Question 3. The law, which won't take effect for at least a couple years, bans "the sale of eggs, veal, or pork of a farm animal confined in spaces that prevent the animal from lying down, standing up, extending its limbs, or turning around." The law applies not just to farms in Massachusetts but also to "farms located in other states," notes one recent report. As I wrote last year, the law "impose[s] unwise, harmful, costly, and unconstitutional standards for raising a host of livestock animals." Though the Massachusetts law imposes the same restrictions on businesses in every other state that it imposes on businesses in Massachusetts, that doesn't make the law fair. It makes it unconstitutional. "The state may well be allowed to regulate many facets of agriculture within its borders," I wrote last year. "But it has no such authority to regulate the way livestock is raised in other states." The bill introduced by Rep. Sensenbrenner is a direct threat to the Massachusetts law. While Massachusetts voters clearly erred in choosing to adopt this unconstitutional law, they're not alone. California voters adopted a similar law earlier this decade. Both states' laws, which I discuss together here, are just the sort of unconstitutional laws Rep. Sensenbrenner's bill is intended to eradicate. Indeed, it appears the origins of Rep. Sensenbrenner's bill stem directly from battles like these over food and agriculture. "[The new bill] is likely related to a fight between states that has been progressing through the courts," reads a good National Law Review analysis of the bill, which compares it to a narrower Sensenbrenner bill that stalled last year. "California has a law that requires eggs sold in California to be laid by hens in cages that are of a specific size. Missouri and other states sued to invalidate California's law, but lost in the 9th Circuit and certiorari was denied by the US Supreme Court on May 30, 2017." Unsurprisingly, the bill has strong supporters and vehement detractors. Animal-rights and animal-welfare groups are in the latter camp. "We're all for neutering pets," Paul Shapiro, vice president for policy engagement with the Humane Society of the United States, told me by email this week, "but we don't know why Mr. Sensenbrenner wants to neuter the states and strip their ability to protect their own citizens." The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bi-partisan group that represents state lawmakers across the country, says the bill is "one of the most coercive, intrusive, and preemptive legislature measures ever introduced in Congress." The National Governor's Association, which also opposes the bill, issued a joint statement with the NCSL saying the measure would hinder states' power to tax. But many conservative, libertarian, and business groups support the bill., helmed by libertarian CEO Patrick Byrne, says the bill would limit unfair and burdensome taxation by states. Hamilton Davison, head of the American Catalog Mailers Association, which also supports t[...]

Trump Needs Congressional Authorization for Pre-Emptive Strike on North Korea

Wed, 09 Aug 2017 12:45:00 -0400

President Donald Trump needs authorization from Congress to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. That much is clear in the Constitution, but it's not always so clear in Washington itself. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan—who represents Alaska, one of the U.S. locations the North Korean regime sometimes threatens with missile strikes—has stressed this. "If one of the military options that the administration is looking at is a preemptive war on the Korean peninsula launched by the United States, that would require the authorization of Congress," Sullivan said yesterday on Fox News. "Article I of the U.S. Constitution is very clear about that." The Constitution is only as useful as it's applied, and there are few indications the Congress will reassert its role here. Efforts up to now to enforce the Constitution's strictures in this area have all failed. Trump yesterday warned that further North Korean threats may be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." Pyongyang promptly responded by floating the idea it would strike Guam, a U.S. territory with a number of military installations. The governor of Guam says there was currently "no threat" to his island. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also sought to tamp down fears, telling reporters "I do not believe that there is any imminent threat" and "I have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days." Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, tried to put the rhetorical crossfire in perspective as well. "Strictly speaking, this is how representatives of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have reacted to all previous UN Security Council resolutions. We will judge by their actions," Lavrov told reporters at the end of the ASEAN summit in Manila. "We are confident that there is no alternative to the resumption of the political process, in particular the six-party talks" between North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. The War Powers Act permits the president to commit military forces for 60 days before congressional authorization is necessary, and it requires him to notify Congress of a military action within 48 hours. The Congress has not authorized a military action since the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) concerning Iraq and its alleged WMD threat. The executive branch has justified most of the military operations falling under the umbrella of the war on terror with the 2001 AUMF aimed at the perpetrators of the September 11 terror attacks and "associated forces." Originally intended for the war in Afghanistan, the 2001 AUMF has been used to cover for military action across the Muslim world. There have been other military actions lacking explicit congressional authorization too—Barack Obama pointed to resolutions from the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League to justify the 2011 intervention in Libya. Congress declined both to authorize the intervention and to defund it. Trump launched a strike earlier this year against an airfield in Syria allegedly used to transport chemical weapons. A handful of members of Congress—including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and the lone vote against the 2001 AUMF, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)—insisted the president needed congressional authorization, but no effort to get Congress to reassert its role got anywhere. Trump took to Twitter this morning to claim the U.S.'s nuclear weapons arsenal was "far stronger and ever more powerful than before" because of an order he made in January for a Nuclear Posture Review. "Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!" the president tweeted.[...]

Health Care and the Politics of Disruption

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 12:00:00 -0400

At the beginning of May, the insurance giant Aetna announced that it would cease selling health coverage in Obamacare's insurance exchanges entirely.

The individual market created by the law relies on the participation of both individuals and insurers. But Aetna is arguing that the system is fundamentally flawed. The company said it was projecting losses of about $200 million this year, "the result of marketplace structural issues that have led to co-op failures and carrier exits, and subsequent risk pool deterioration."

The insurer's exit provided yet another reminder of the instability that exists within the system created under Obamacare, which is built around a series of exchanges run by states and the federal government. Most of the non-profit insurers—called co-ops under the law—have failed, and many of the nation's major insurance companies have scaled back participation in the exchanges. In states such as Maryland, Virginia, and Connecticut, insurers put in requests for double-digit rate hikes for the coming year.

In parts of the country, there's only one company selling health plans through the exchanges. Next year, some states or counties may be left with zero participating insurers: Shortly after Aetna's exit, Medica, currently the only insurance company to sell Obamacare plans in Iowa, said that it might not stay in the market. Later that month, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City said it would pull out of the Missouri exchange, which will leave 25 counties without any participating insurer unless another company decides to step in.

In June, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska announced it was eliminating the two plans it sells that comply with the law's standards. There's now only one Obamacare option in the state.

The volatility within the exchanges will likely bring widespread disruption to individual health coverage arrangements, whether through higher rates or lost coverage and forced plan switching. As a result, Obamacare is almost certainly not sustainable in its current form.

The politics of health care revolve—arguably more than anything else—around disruptions in coverage and services. If current levels of instability persist, public dissatisfaction will likely force change on the system, somehow.

At the same time, the politics of disruption also make it difficult to impose change on the nation's health care system. Polls show that Obamacare has become popular for the first time this year, even as the exchanges have struggled. But if insurers keep pulling out and premiums keep rising rapidly, it's hard to see the current equilibrium continuing.

At this point, the question isn't whether there will be disruption. It's when and how it will occur.

Regular Cars Didn't Need Federal Regulation; Neither Do Driverless Vehicles

Mon, 31 Jul 2017 14:15:00 -0400

A senator once asked the head of Google's self-driving vehicle program what sort of legislation was needed to help his industry. "What we have found in most places is that the best action is to take no action," he replied, adding that "in general the technology can be safely tested today on roads in many states." Last week a congressional committee ignored that advice and took action. In a bipartisan vote of 54–0, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has now forwarded the SELF DRIVE Act* for consideration by the full House of Representatives. (The Senate is working on similar legislation.) The bill's goal is to set up a national regulatory framework to encourage the development and deployment of autonomous passenger vehicles. But why does Congress need to get involved with autonomous vehicle development at all? After all, between 1900 and 1965 automakers managed to put tens of millions of non-self-driving vehicles on the road - some 90 million by the mid-1960s - with essentially no interference from the federal government. The federal government didn't really get into the automobile regulation business until Congress created the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 1966. The immediate impetus behind the push to create the new federal automobile safety agency was the publication of Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed Dangers of the American Automobile, which claimed that GM's Corvair had a tendency to roll and therefore was a "one-car accident." In 1972, the very agency that Nader's alarmism conjured into existence issued a report finding that the "Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests...the handling and stability performance of the 1960–63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic." In other words, federal automobile regulation was founded on activist misinformation. Prior to 1966, automobiles somehow got fitted with such safety equipment as windshield wipers, headlights, and turn signals without federal intervention. (In 1939, Buick became the first U.S. automaker to offer factory-installed flashing turn signals.) Industry standards were generally devised not by bureaucrats but by the Society of Automotive Engineers. On the postive side, the SELF DRIVE Act would preempt states from adopting their own rules for regulating "highly automated vehicles, automated driving systems, or components of automated driving systems." A year ago, the California Department of Motor Vehicles proposed a draft regulation that would require all self-driving cars to have steering wheels, pedals, and a licensed, specially trained driver in the front seat. Fortunately, the agency recently backed off those requirements. Nevertheless, 20 states have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles and 33 states have introduced yet more such legislation this year. But that's not all the bill would do. Among other things, it directs the secretary of transportation to issue within 24 months a final rule requiring autonomous vehicle manufacturers to submit safety assessment certifications; creates a Highly Automated Vehicle Advisory Council to undertake information-gathering activities, develop technical advice, and present best practices or recommendations to the Transportation Secretary; requires manufacturers to devise and submit cybersecurity plans; and prohibits manufacturers from selling highly automated vehicles until they have developed privacy plans with respect to the collection, use, sharing, and storage of information about vehicle owners and occupants. Perplexingly, the bill also protects state automobile dealer franchise laws that ban direct sales of cars. Since most autonomous vehicles will likely be operated as robotaxis, dealer franchises are likely to go the way of livery stabl[...]

Lawmakers Demand Sessions Investigate Backpage's 'Criminal Role in Sex Trafficking' in Wake of Misleading Washington Post Article

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 10:00:00 -0400

The Washington Post has been playing right into politicians' hands when it comes to the narrative about Backpage. A series of recent Post articles suggest a sinister plot by Backpage executives to promote human trafficking, when all the paper's "trove of newly discovered documents" seems to show is that the company hired a firm to promote on foreign competitors' sites. "A contractor for the controversial classifieds website has been aggressively soliciting and creating sex-related ads, despite Backpage's repeated insistence that it had no role in the content of ads posted on its site," the Post opens one article—thereby kicking things off in a misleading manner. While it will take the Post writers 21 more paragraphs to mention it, the contractors solicited all sorts of user-generated advertising for, not just sex-related or adult-oriented advertising. The ads the contractors created, meanwhile, were either 1) posted to competitors' sites—not Backpage—in a ploy to lure perusers of those sites to Backpage, or 2) draft ads made from existing copy on competitors' sites. The contracting company, Philippines-based Avion BPO, would offer users of these other sites a free first listing on, along with a link to the draft ad that they could easily activate. Based on this evidence, Post writers suggest that Backpage's years of denials that the site "facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking" could be a lie. But for all their breathless insinuations, the writers don't actually tie a single Avion-brokered ad to illegal conduct, let alone harm against children. From what the Post reveals, it's also unclear whether Backpage even knew about the tactics Avion workers were using to generate new listings. It's possible the contracting company came up with the bait-and-switch strategy on its own. Regardless, Backpage's claims to Congress and U.S. courts about its ad policies have always referenced U.S. content. Avion's activity was relegated to overseas endeavors (and, since laws vary greatly from country to country when it comes to both internet content and prostitution, was not necessarily illegal at all). To use Avion as a bouncing-off point to open yet another U.S. federal inquiry into Backpage—as Reps. Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) and Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) are now doing—is purely opportunistic, as Avion's creation or not of foreign ads is irrelevant for U.S. legal purposes. Here in the United States, Senators recently spent more than a year pouring through internal Backpage documents related to adult-ad content. Yet nothing in their resulting report negates Backpage's claims that the company does not create the content that appears on its site, nor does it show a company carelessly indifferent to its site's content. Backpage repeatedly tweaked its automated filter and manual-review policies in an attempt to strike a balance between banning all "adult" content and giving free reign to ad posters. This is above and beyond what's required by law in order to benefit from Section 230 protection. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that third-party web publishers and platforms are immune from liability if a user-posted ad results in criminal activity (with a few exceptions). It seriously limits the ability of opportunists in government and the general populace to take down any website or app they don't like. Without Section 230 protection, most of the Internet would be vulnerable to frivolous civil lawsuits and severe prosecutorial overreach (such as charging Facebook as an accessory any time someone livestreams himself doing something illegal). And people like this letter writer could get their wish for lowly content screeners at social sites to be tried as collaborators should any illegal activity unwittingly get by. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of prosecutors, politicians, and other autho[...]

Congress Wants to Make It Harder for Trump to Pursue Peace, Easy as Ever for Trump to Pursue War

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 16:40:00 -0400

Congress is finally asserting its role in U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, it's not acting to curb a decade and a half of often aimless interventions around the world, let alone to curb the president's power to unilaterally commit the U.S. military to action, as President Donald Trump did when he bombed a Syrian government airfield, as he threatens to do with North Korea, and as President Barack Obama did in Libya in 2011. Instead, Congress passed legislation to tighten sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and to prevent the president from easing those sanctions on his own. It passed with a veto-proof majority, and the White House has signaled the president is likely to sign it. That would make it harder for the president to defuse international tensions. But it remains easy for him to escalate tensions. Congress, after all, has showed no interest in reining in the White House's war-making powers. The House leadership just killed an effort by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to repeal the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force, which has been used to provide legal justification for virtually every U.S. military endeavor since the Iraq War, the last conflict that got its own authorization. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Moscow in 2014 in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea. The sanctions did not end the fighting in Ukraine or return Crimea to Ukraine. They did not encourage dialogue between the U.S. and Russia or between Ukraine and Russia. They did help further deteriorate U.S.-Russia relations. This new set of sanctions is aimed at "punishing" Russia for attempting to "influence" the American presidential election. That's not helpful for anything but domestic political rhetoric. Combining sanctions against Russia, which still has normal diplomatic relations with the U.S., and sanctions against North Korea and Iran, so-called "rogue states" which do not have anything resembling normal diplomatic relations with the U.S., don't make them any more palatable. Instead, it's a troubling reminder that one of the easiest way to build a coalition in Washington is around warmongering. Last year's presidential campaign was the third consecutive election where the nominee who advocated better relations with Russia won. Donald Trump ran for president in part on the idea that the U.S. was doing too much around the globe, and specifically rejecting Hillary Clinton's brand of anti-Russia saber-rattling. Perhaps surprisingly, he was able to win the Republican primary while explicitly rejecting the foreign policy doctrines of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. Trump's early actions in Syria and toward North Korea suggest he's since embraced the role of the U.S. as "world policeman" after all. Leading Democrats, meanwhile, have blamed Russia for Clinton's loss, leading them to embrace far more anti-Russian attitudes than in the Obama era. While Romney was wrong to call Russia America's number one geopolitical foe, Obama too was wrong. Russia is not America's greatest geopolitical foe, and it does not even have to be a geopolitical foe at all. But it is a geopolitical power whose interests will not always align with the U.S.'s, and that's OK. In many of these instances, such as the row over Ukraine that led to the first round of sanctions, there are few compelling American interests for Russia to be at odds with to begin with. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and offers no strategic benefit to the United States. If anything, U.S. involvement in the region reduces the pressure on Ukraine—and on other regional powers, namely the European Union—from taking responsibility for resolving the crisis. Some European countries, incidentally, are worried that new American sanctions could hurt them. Specifically, Germany and Austria worry that the sanctions could threaten Europe's energy supplies, whi[...]

Senate Republicans Aim to Block New Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Rule

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 13:10:00 -0400

Congress has used the Congressional Review Act to repeal a variety of Obama-era rules this year. Senate Republicans now plan to use it to strike a blow against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and its director, Richard Cordray. Cordray's bureau filed a new rule on July 10 that would stop banks, credit card companies, and payday lenders from using arbitration to settle disputes with customers, thus making it easier for consumers to take financial institutions to court. The regulation is set to take effect next March, Bloomberg reports. But only if Congress allows it. Twenty-four Republican members of the U.S. Senate filed a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution yesterday that would block the rule. "Members of Congress previously expressed concerns with the proposed version of the rulemaking—concerns that were not addressed in the final rule," Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee explained in a statement announcing the resolution. "By ignoring requests from Congress to reexamine the rule and develop alternatives between the status quo and effectively eliminating arbitration, the CFPB has once again proven a lack of accountability." Some activists have jumped to defend the regulation. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said today that the rule "helps consumers hold big banks and other financial companies accountable"; the group accused members of Congress of being in a "desperate rush" to undo it so consumers can be ripped off by financial institutions. Such reactions ignore how the federal government is supposed to operate. It's the duly elected members of Congress who should get the final say on laws, not unelected (and potentially unconstitutionally appointed) heads of executive branch agencies who are unaccountable to the people or to other branches of government. "Congress, not King Richard Cordray, writes the laws," said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) in a statement supporting the CRA resolution. "This resolution is a good place for Congress to start reining in one of Washington's most powerful bureaucracies." The CFPB's regulation was pitched as a way to level the playing field for consumers, but the justification for the new rule is based on a single study that has been widely criticized for failing to fully consider the consequences of such a shift. It did not address, for example, whether consumers would in fact collect larger settlements after attorneys' fees were deducted from the outcome. Switching to a system that relies more heavily on the courts instead of arbitration may deliver a big payday to trial lawyers, but it would leave consumers worse off in the long term, Republican senators argue. Under the Congressional Review Act, a simple majority of both houses of Congress can block any executive branch regulation or rulemaking within 60 days of its announcement. As Reason's Matt Welch has detailed, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans have used the act this year to wipe at least 14 Obama-era rules off the books, including: The "Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces" rule, which barred companies from receiving federal contracts if they had a history of violating wage, labor, or workplace safety laws. That regulation, derided by critics as "blacklisting," was already held up in court. A Bureau of Land Management rule, known as "Planning 2.0," that gave the federal government a bigger role in land use decisions. The rule was opposed by the energy industry. Two regulations on measuring school performance and teacher training under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a law Obama signed in 2015 with bipartisan support. As Bloomberg notes, there's no guarantee that the bill will pass, given the current congressional struggles over passing Obamacare and a federal budget. Congress is also in the process[...]

Open the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

Mon, 17 Jul 2017 15:31:00 -0400

(image) Hurray for the editorial board at the Washington Post! On Sunday, they published a op-ed forthrightly urging Congress and the Trump administration to move forward on opening the long-stalled Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada.

"It's past time the opposition was sidelined for good," the op-ed declares. "The nation's nuclear regulators have found that technical hurdles can be overcome; the biggest barriers to developing the site are political. Congress should re-fund Yucca Mountain and finally end this gratuitous fight."

More than 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel is being stored at nuclear power plants scattered across the countryside. It wasn't supposed to be that way. The plan was to send it all to the Yucca Mountain which was slated to open in 1998.

Since 1982, some $15 billion has been spent on preliminary study and work on the facility. Every environmental impact assessment has found that the repository would be safe for people and the environment. Opposed by environmental activists and the Nevada congressional delegation the facility was mothballed in 2010 by the Obama administration.

Now the Trump administration has asked congress to appropriate $120 million to restart the licensing process for the facility. In late June, the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 49 to 4 on a bill that would move along the stalled Yucca Mountain approval process.

Next up: Trump should appoint Nuclear Regulatory Commission members who actually favor nuclear power and direct them to cut through the regulatory embellishments that are stymieing the development of new and safer nuclear power plants.

McCain and the Trump-Russia Dossier: What Did He Know, and When?

Sun, 16 Jul 2017 13:15:00 -0400

Did John McCain and a controversial D.C. lobbying group conspire to get the infamous "pee dossier" into the hands of the press? A lawsuit making its way through court in the UK hopes to determine just what role the senator and his associates had in making the lurid dossier public. New filings in the lawsuit, obtained by McClatchy, detail how David Kramer—employed by the nonprofit and purportedly non-political McCain Institute—acted as a representative of McCain in the Arizona senator's dealings on sensitive intelligence measures. It also reveals that McCain was one of a just few people with whom the dossier's author, ex-British spy Christopher Steele, shared a copy of his final findings. So how did they get from there to publication in Buzzfeed? One possible—and intriguing—pathway lies with Orion Strategies, a group known for using the media and the McCain machinery to lobby on behalf of foreign governments. While the Steele suit doesn't mention Orion, a closer look at the two-man lobbying shop showcases too-close-for-comfort ties to many principal players in the dossier's leak and a long history of influencing McCain policy and press coverage when it comes to Russia-related issues. By now we know the basics behind the dubious document: it was prepared by Steele in December, largely from work done between June and November 2016 for Fusion GPS, a D.C.-based political consulting firm. Fusion was paid first by anti-Trump Republicans and later by Hillary Clinton supporters to produce evidence of Trump's alleged financial and political ties to Russia. In January 2017, a leaked copy of the dossier was published by Buzzfeed, under the editorial direction of Ben Smith. Smith said the document was obtained by reporter Ken Bensinger and vociferously defended Buzzfeed's decision to run a document it called "not just unconfirmed" but also inclusive of "clear" errors. "This was a real story about a real document that was really being passed around between the very top officials of this country," Smith said on Meet the Press. It was McCain who gave the FBI the dossier, in December. It alleges the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin to "hack" the U.S. election. "The Russian regime had been behind the leak of embarrassing email messages emanating from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to the Wikileaks platform," and as a result Trump had agreed to "sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue," the dossier claimed. It also claimed Trump had personally commissioned a "golden showers" show from Russian sex workers. A federal investigation was reportedly underway before McCain handed over the dossier, but his copy was a more complete version than the one obtained earlier by U.S. intelligence agencies. McCain said he turned over the document out of civic duty. "I received that information from a credible source and I thought the only thing for me to do would be to give to the FBI," he told Fox News in January. Having it and doing nothing "would be a breach of my oath of office." Yet McCain's well-known feud with Trump, his longtime advocacy against Russia, and a possible personal beef with the firm behind the dossier—Fusion was also paid by Russia to push for the repeal of sanctions authored by McCain as part of the Magnitsky Act—provide reason to suspect altruism may not have been McCain's sole motive. It was "late summer/August 2016" when Steele began briefing reporters on his research, according to a recent document filed by Steele and his company, Orbis Business Intelligence Limited, in response to the lawsuit Aleksei Gubarev filed against them. Gubarev, a Russian venture capitalist, claims he and his companies (Webzilla BV, Webzilla Limited, and XBT Holding S.A.) were falsely identified as part of the DNC hacking operation in[...]

There's No Harm in Fantasizing About a Better Future

Wed, 12 Jul 2017 14:03:00 -0400

In Radicals for Utopia, published last month, journalist Jamie Bartlett profiles Zoltan Istvan, who ran for president under the Transhumanist Party's banner in 2016. Along with several other journalists, Bartlett traveled across the southwest on Istvan's "immortality bus" (a rickety camper shaped like a coffin-slash-log cabin), and watched Istvan preach the gospel of transhumanism to fellow futurists and skeptics alike. "Transhumanist science is undeniably exciting and fast-moving," Bartlett writes of watching Istvan tell a half-empty auditorium in Las Vegas that humanity will conquer death within 15 to 25 years. "But the science is not almost there." He knocks Istvan for "flit[ting] with misleading ease between science and fiction, taking any promising piece of research as proof of victory." In another scene, Bartlett channels the frustration of other futurists who have tired of the transhumanism project altogether. "Transhumanists have been promising us jetpacks and immortality," one biohacker tells Bartlett. "We're sick of [their] bullshit promises." Later, we learn that Istvan is not particularly liked by even other transhumanists, that he is terrible at leading a political party, and that the chief goal of his campaign was to get people to pay attention to him. In other words, that he is like every other person who has ever run for president. After painting Istvan as bumbling (when the immortality bus breaks down) and unscientific (when he expresses enthusiasm for cryogenics), Bartlett describes him as something like a villain. "Transhumanism feels like the perfect religion for a modern, selfish age; an extension of society's obsession with individualism, perfection and youth," he writes. He accuses Istvan of "ignor[ing] current problems and overlook[ing] the negative consequences of rapidly advancing technology." It's an odd claim considering Istvan's presidential platform called for "the complete dismantlement and abolition of all nuclear weapons everywhere, as rapidly as possible." Nuclear weapons were once a rapidly advancing technology, they are currently a problem, and Istvan seems to be quite concerned about their negative consequences. It's an even odder claim considering that the people who are dedicating themselves to the problems du jour don't seem capable of actually fixing any of them. Last I checked, the Israelis and Palestinians are still at it. Al Qaeda, too. The world is less poor than it once was, but there are still three-quarters of a billion people living in extreme poverty. In the U.S., black lives still matter less than blue and white ones. Is this really transhumanism's fault? What would Bartlett have Istvan do? Go back in time and donate the money he spent on the Immortality Bus to Hillary Clinton? Bartlett then tells us that many other technologists and intellectuals are opposed to the world Istvan hopes one day to live (forever) in. Elon Musk "declared AI to be comparable to summoning the Devil," he writes. "Stephen Hawking said 'the development of artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.'" Francis Fukuyama "called transhumanism 'the world's most dangerous idea.'" Artificial intelligence seems to worry Barlett more than Istvan's other enthusiasms. He notes that self-driving cars will likely displace human truckers and that drones will displace human warehouse workers. Apparently, no one wants to live in a world where poor little boys and girls can't realize their dreams of living out of a long-haul cab and inhaling particulates in storage facilities. All things considered, Bartlett's treatment of Istvan the candidate is fair. Anyone who desires the powers of the presidency deserves, at the very least, to have his or her vision for the job harshly interrogated. And many asp[...]

The Union of Politics and Professional Wrestling

Wed, 05 Jul 2017 12:00:00 -0400

ROCKY: "Why'd you get so crazy on me out there?" HULK HOGAN (THUNDERLIPS): "That's the name of the game." — Rocky III How fitting it is that professional wrestling is turning to partisan politics at the same time partisan politics has descended to professional wrestling. Last week attention focused on Daniel Harnsberger, a Richmond real-estate agent who wrestles as The Progressive Liberal. It's a great schtick, and Harnsberger has fun with it. "I know how you stupid Trump voters think," he says in one video. "Allow me to illustrate: 'Dur-dur-dur, I love coal. Dur-dur-dur, I love mountains.'" This makes Harnsberger a natural "heel," as they say in the business: the bad guy in a match, who squares off against the good guy, known as the "face." Generalizations are dangerous, but it's probably fair to say a Venn diagram of the pro-wrestling-fan demographic and the progressive-liberal demographic shows little overlap. Thing is, Harnsberger really is a progressive liberal. When he says Bernie Sanders would make a great secretary of state and Donald Trump is a con man, he means it. Hence Harnsberger is acting out a role, but not entirely. He is an entertainer, but he is also making a point. The same holds true for a lot of people. It certainly holds true of cable news networks, which mimic the pro-wrestling format by having, or at least strongly implying, a good side and a bad side. On Fox, Trump is the face and liberals are the heel. On MSNBC, the roles are reversed. But the script reads much the same. The same goes for entertainers such as Samantha Bee and Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Bill O'Reilly and Tucker Carlson. And the guests who appear on their shows. Sometimes the guest is the heel. Sometimes he or she is another face, brought on to tag-team the other side. Either way, the straw men always get the stuffing beat out of them. The personalities are playing roles, but the roles are not entirely imaginary; they are simply made-for-TV exaggerations, and when one of the characters makes a point, he or she is also stating an actual belief—albeit one that might be stripped of all nuance and doubt for the sake of audience loyalty. Political campaigns increasingly resemble pro wrestling, too: The rivalries are theatrically exaggerated, the rhetoric over-the-top. Every candidate is always "the most extreme" liberal or conservative ever to run for the office, according to his or her opponent. Every election is always "the most important" in our lifetime, according to all sides. Everything is hyped almost to the point of parody. In this world, then, perhaps we should not be surprised that Donald Trump has done so well. Nor should we be surprised that he has refused to inhabit the role of president in the manner of previous presidents, by assuming a mantle of gravitas and greatness. He already is playing a role that works quite well for him. Trump's antics look absurd in the traditional political realm, but they fit the world of pro wrestling perfectly. His ridiculously bombastic boasts about his own greatness are a standard part of the pro-wrestling repertoire. The puerile, high-volume insults he hurls at his chosen targets also are a regular element of any WWE show. His frequent falsehoods are perfectly natural in a medium where everything is fake to begin with. On Sunday his act reached its apotheosis: Trump tweeted an old video of himself at a pro-wrestling match pummeling someone. In the new version, a CNN logo is superimposed on the victim's face. Many in the media were predictably, and probably theatrically, outraged by what they saw, or claimed to see, as an incitement to violence. But Trump's fans think his offensive tweets are hilarious. In 1989, to avoid the regulations impose[...]

GOP Pushes Bad, Punitive Anti-Federalist Immigration Bills Through the House

Fri, 30 Jun 2017 14:20:00 -0400

House Republicans overwhelmingly voted in favor of two bad immigration-focused bills yesterday that potentially punish those in the United States illegally with new harsh prison sentences and attempts to push cities into helping federal authorities deport people. The first bill, popularly known as "Kate's Law," adds new criminal penalties and federal prison sentences to any immigrant who returns to the United States after being deported for criminal behavior. But it also threatens up to 10 years in federal prison for illegal immigrants who repeatedly return to the United States after being deported, even if they've committed no other crimes. It also forbids the immigrant from challenging the legitimacy of any prior removal orders. The second bill, the "No Sanctuary for Criminals Act," attempts to push cities, particularly so-called "sanctuary cities," into cooperating with federal immigration officials to detain and eject those in the country illegally. President Donald Trump (and many, many other Republicans) made a big deal about fighting sanctuary cities—which generally don't ask residents or people who interact with government officials about their citizenship status—on the campaign trail. But after Trump took office, his Department of Justice was faced with an awkward truth: Most sanctuary cities are not defying federal laws at all, and there's not much the government can currently do about them. Federal laws do not require that cities and local law enforcement assist immigration officials by detaining people the feds want to deport. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can ask cities to hold illegal immigrants for in "detainer orders." But they're requests. Cities have their own rules about when they'll comply with such orders (often requiring court orders or a warrant for cooperation). Ultimately after the Department of Justice started threatening federal grant money to sanctuary cities, they ended up discovering that really only a handful of governments (eight cities and one county) are behaving in a way that was even remotely in defiance of federal authority. What the "No Sanctuary for Criminals Act" does is forbid municipalities from stopping local law enforcement officials from helping federal immigration officials by complying with detainer orders. In areas of immigration enforcement, it overrules the ability of cities to control the behavior of their own law enforcement officers. The act also classifies specifically which grants the federal government would withhold from sanctuary cities that defy them. Previously the administration through executive order threaten to withhold all sorts of federal grants, but the courts have previously ruled such behavior unconstitutional. The grants have to be connected to enforcing the laws themselves. This act specifically defines which grants could be denied sanctuary cities. The votes fell mostly across party lines—Republicans in favor of the two bills and Democrats against them. More Democrats were willing to cross the aisle to vote in favor of harsher criminal sentences for illegal immigrants than to cut federal grants from sanctuary cities, so make of that what you will. Only one Republican voted against both bills, libertarian Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. Amash tweeted his reasons why. He found both bills to significantly violate the Constitution and the concept of federalism: I voted no today on two bills that together violate the 1st, 4th, 5th, 10th, and 11th Amendments. I will always defend our Constitution. — Justin Amash (@justinamash) June 29, 2017 A spokesperson for Amash's office told Reason, "Rep. Amash supports securing our borders and has voted to defund sanctuary cities, but these bills go[...]

Gary Johnson Returns to Politics! (As Soon As He Finishes This Cross Country Bike Tour)

Thu, 29 Jun 2017 13:30:00 -0400

Gary Johnson is back. Well, almost. By the end of today, the two-time Libertarian Party candidate for president will be midway of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests in northern Colorado more than 1,400 miles into the 2,800-mile Tour Divide bicycle race. (You can track him here, although he is occasionally deviating from the race route.) Before leaving for Banff, Alberta, the former two-term governor of New Mexico made plans to return to politics, to mobilize "the largest grassroots army of liberty activists in the nation." Johnson and strategist Ron Nielson have relaunched Our America Initiative, a website "giving voice to the notion of less government and greater freedom, and advocating policies that will allow entrepreneurs, young people and all Americans to achieve their dreams." Johnson issued this statement to Reason while on his Continental Divide bike route: "In November of 2016, 4.5 million Americans cast their votes for liberty, truly free markets and a small-government alternative to the status quo. That vote total, for Governor Bill Weld and myself, is the highest for a "third party" in two decades. That tells us something, especially given that our campaign spent roughly 1/1,000 of what the Republicans and Democrats spent—each. It tells us that more Americans than ever are fed up with a broken political system that simply isn't offering solutions. And it tells me that those Americans deserve a voice in the debates going on in Washington, DC, and state capitals across the nation. As a former Governor who left office after serving two terms and quietly let my successors do their things, I am a firm believer in giving a new President and a new Congress a chance. That's what we do in America. But we've now had enough time to see the directions our government is taking. We are watching as President Trump and the Republicans seem intent on replacing Obamacare with Somebody-Else Care. The whole idea of health care reform for the past decade has purportedly been to reduce costs and increase access. Obamacare isn't doing that...and what we are seeing so far from the Republicans won't do it either. Replacing one version of government-managed health care with another is doomed to fail. There aren't many things the federal government manages well, and our health is certainly isn't one of them. Lower costs and greater access will only come from a legitimately free market, taking the shackles off of innovation, removing crony-capitalist insulation from competition, and allowing patients, not bureaucrats, to make decisions. And to help those who truly need help, send the money to the states to shape programs that will actually work. We've seen a budget proposed that once again ignores the 800-pound gorilla of entitlements, increases defense spending...and claims to put us on a path toward a balanced budget. That's insane, and exactly the kind of political cowardice that has given us trillions in debt. Whether it be trade or immigration, we are watching as the politicians try to lead us down a nationalist path that is not only painful and short-sighted, but not very American. Individual freedoms. Drug policy. Criminal justice reforms. Well, the early signs aren't good. In fact, it seems we have a government today led by folks who are determined to turn back the clock and embrace policies that have not only failed, but have eroded our freedoms almost beyond recognition. I could go on, but one thing is clear. The voices of liberty, free markets and real freedom need to be raised. 4.5 million Americans spoke out in November, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, activists and contributors stood up to help shape a freer, more prosperous futur[...]