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Published: Thu, 22 Mar 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 22 Mar 2018 22:14:31 -0400


Rand Paul Reads the Omnibus Spending Bill (Because Someone Has To)

Thu, 22 Mar 2018 19:00:00 -0400

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who might be thinking of holding up the Senate's vote on the insane and mysterious omnibus spending bill, is publicly conducting some basic due diligence for a legislator: demonstrating that, unlike pretty much all his colleagues in House or Senate, he's actually trying to read the monstrous thing before voting. (Paul notes it took over two hours for his office printer to even print the thing.) He's giving the American people some insights, good and bad, in real time via his twitter feed. Some highlights: Page 226 of terrible, no good, rotten deficit spending bill. I found a kernel of hope: "no funds in this act will be used to support or justify torture." — Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 22, 2018 Good news on the state-level marijuana rights front: Page 240 good news for states rights: no funds will be spent to prevent any state's medical marijuana initiatives. Thank you Congr. Rohrbacher — Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 22, 2018 Some things Paul wonders if require this level of public (i.e. you and me) funding: Here are a few more highlights: o $1m for the Cultural Antiquities Task Force o $6.25m for the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation o $20m for Countering Foreign State Propaganda o $12m for Countering State Disinformation and Pressure — Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 22, 2018 And more of that: o $1m for the World Meteorological Organization o $218m for Promoting Democracy Development in Europe (yep..the birthplace of democracy needs promoting) o $25m for International Religious Freedom o $10m for disadvantaged Egyptian Students — Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 22, 2018 Encouraging FISA news: on page 355. NSA prohibited from targeting US persons with FISA 702 program. sounds good —but — privacy advocates fear that NSA still does back-door targeting of US persons. Courageous Senator Wyden has asked how many US persons caught up in supposedly foreign data base. — Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 22, 2018 Paul wonders about the integrity of the often-ignored War Powers Act: Page 348 of terrible, rotten, no-good budget busting bill, a nugget that I wish we obeyed sec. 8103: none of the funds may be used in contravention of the War Powers Act — Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 22, 2018 And sheds light on our foreign policy apparatus' weird definition of "permanent": eyes getting tired but really someone should read this beast. Page 392 sec 9007: no $ shall be spent "for the permanent stationing of US forces in Afghanistan" Wonder what they meant by permanent? Some might argue that after 16 years we approaching the definition of permanent. — Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 22, 2018 Insight into how revenue no matter how high never seems to make overall debt shrink: Page 430 of "crumni-bus:" Good news. The government is going to "earn" $350 million by selling oil from Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Bad news is the $ won't go to reduce the $21 trillion debt. The $ will be instead be spent elsewhere by the Federal government. — Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) March 22, 2018 Paul is continuing to put himself through this hell for the American people in real time on his twitter feed. Reason's Eric Boehm also knows more about the omnibus than your average congress member.[...]

9 Ridiculous Things About the Omnibus Budget Bill

Thu, 22 Mar 2018 18:33:00 -0400

Less than 24 hours after the 2,300-page bill was made public, the U.S. House of Representatives, by a vote of 256 to 167, approved a $1.3 trillion spending package that funds the federal government through the end of the fiscal year on September 30. The omnibus bill still has to clear the Senate, where a vote could happen sometime Thursday night or Friday. In what is surely not a comprehensive list, here are nine ridiculous things about the catch-all spending measure. The Amount of Spending Not too long ago, Republicans in Congress—led by the current speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)—were so concerned about limiting the growth of government that they imposed caps on federal spending. Now? Not so much. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the omnibus bill spends $143 billion more than would have been allowed under the sequester-era caps and $52 billion more than the ceiling set by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The spending increases are bipartisan, with Republicans getting additional funding for the military in return for spending more on domestic programs favored by Democrats. The bill is a fiscal embarrassment in just about every way imaginable. Unemployment is low, the economy is humming along, and we are only a few months removed from the passage of a tax reform bill that will reduce future government revenues. Spending more money—lots more money—makes no sense. More Toys for the Pentagon The beginning stages of the first-ever audit of the Defense Department have already uncovered $800 million that simply vanished from the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency, and there is surely more waste to be found inside the world's biggest military budget. But that's not going to stop Congress from throwing an additional $144 billion at the Pentagon for the purchase of new equipment. The new military spending includes the purchase of an additional 143 military aircraft. "That's great news for major defense primes like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, both of which stand to make billions more from the additional sales," reports Defense News. Killer Bridges The pedestrian bridge on the campus of Florida International University that collapsed two weeks ago, killing six people, was funded in part by an $11.4 million grant from the Department of Transportation's TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) program. The omnibus budget bill will triple funding for that program, because apparently the Pentagon isn't the only federal department where racking up a body count is rewarded rather than punished. Even when it's not helping fund collapsing bridges, TIGER is a mess, awarding grants that subsidize city officials' bad decisions. Consider Atlanta, where a streetcar project got $47 million in TIGER grants in 2010 (the most of any project that year) but ended up costing three times as much as expected while creating about a quarter of the promised jobs. The Government Accountability Office found that TIGER projects often violated internal controls meant to prevent projects from being used as political patronage. Funding was often doled out to proposals that were rated as inferior to other contenders or that came in after deadlines. The Department of Transportation's chief economist referred to most of the cost-benefit analysis conducted by grant applicants as "pretty bad," as Reason's Christian Britschgi has detailed. Nothing says accountability for past mistakes like a 200 percent raise. The Border Wall President Donald Trump wanted to spend $23 billion on a border wall between the United States and Mexico, but Congress agreed to allocate just $1.6 billion this year, with some of the funding earmarked for enhanced barricades near San Diego and along the Rio Grande River. A good chunk of the rest will be spent on planning, design, and technology. In other words, it's spending that will be used to justify more spending on Trump's signature immigration policy. We've been over this before. The Wall Won't Work. But it seems we're[...]

The Omnibus Spending Bill Is a Fiscal Embarrassment

Thu, 22 Mar 2018 00:15:00 -0400

Republicans are once again proving why they actually deserve the label of the biggest swamp spenders. The latest gigantic omnibus spending bill would fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year—with a price tag of $1.3 trillion. That doesn't include entitlement funding or payments for the interest on our debt—which continue to grow and drive our debt higher, as Republicans have apparently given up on slowing down spending. Most Republicans favor the bill as a way to avoid the self-inflicted risk of another government shutdown. Never mind that members have had no time to read the 1,000-page bill and figure out what is actually in it. They just have to take Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's word. He said, "It has some things no one likes, and it has a lot of things not everybody likes but most people like. It was a fair compromise." Schumer's uncharacteristic cheerfulness about the measure probably had much to do with the $900 million in funding for the Gateway tunnel project, a boondoggle supported by all New York-area lawmakers. It most likely won't be in the final bill, though, because President Donald Trump threatened to veto the bill if the project were to be included. Immigration is another sticky point, but we can all expect it to be resolved at some point by nudging the right people for their support. You can also expect Republicans and President Trump to spin this as a "yuge" victory for their team. After all, isn't it a sign that they can govern? Sure, if you tolerate massive deficit spending, being irresponsible, and pushing all that liability down the throat of future generations. I don't, because I actually care about the well-being of my kids and grandkids. To be fair, this is no surprise. These are the same guys who agreed back in February to add $300 billion of spending over two years to the already monstrous federal tab. Showing yet again that bipartisanship isn't good news for those of us who care about the fiscal path our country is on, the agreement blew the budget caps that were meant to control excess spending by opportunistic politicians. Democrats are, of course, loving it. Let's face it; they know that when Republicans are in power, they can act like a drunken teenager with Daddy's credit card, but they sober up when they have the gavel. What's worse, Republicans are terrible negotiators. For example, Democrats have once again managed to get most of their non-defense priorities funded by the Republican-controlled Congress and White House in exchange for allowing more defense spending. The result is a $143 billion boost to this year's spending above budget caps. Who cares about budget rules and deficits when you can throw more cash at the Department of Defense? This will, of course, lead to much larger deficits than originally projected. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, red ink for 2018 will reach $800 billion. That's a solid $230 billion higher than what was projected by the Congressional Budget Office in its June 2017 10-year forecast. That's a whole $2 trillion in additional debt after just one year of Republican control of the legislative and executive branches. Larger deficits also mean larger interest payments. A CRFB analysis found that "interest payments will quadruple, topping $1 trillion per year in as little as a decade. That's more than we will spend each year on the military or Medicaid, and as a share of the economy, it is the highest in history. ... Over the next decade, we'll spend around $7 trillion—$55,000 per household—just servicing our debt." The economy is growing. The scale of the Afghanistan War is relatively small—and even some defense hawks recognize that there's enough waste and unnecessary spending already in the military budget that could be cut to pay for whatever modernization is necessary. Unemployment is going down, and people feel more hopeful about the economy. This is hardly the time for Republicans to deliver the biggest increase to federal spending in y[...]

To Protect Mueller From Trump, Republican Silence May Be Shrewd

Thu, 22 Mar 2018 00:01:00 -0400

For congressional Republicans, having Donald Trump in the White House is like carrying around a vial of nitroglycerin. It can be useful in getting your way with others, but it puts you at perpetual risk of making a wrong move and being blown to pieces. Most of these legislators came into this relationship against their own preferences, having favored someone else in the GOP primaries. Now that they are in it, they are constantly trying to figure out how to work with the president to advance their agenda while keeping him from setting off explosions. As Trump escalates his attacks on special counsel Robert Mueller, they are being accused of timidity for declining to move legislation to prevent Trump from firing him. "Paul Ryan needs to be stronger, and so does Mitch McConnell," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). Rep. Jerry Nadler, (D-N.Y.), charged that by not acting, "they're almost encouraging" Trump to dismiss Mueller. Passing this type of bill, argued an editorial in The Washington Post, "would send a clear, public message that congressional leaders have so far declined to convey: Firing Mr. Mueller would elicit a substantial real-world reaction that would severely harm the White House." The critics sound like childless adults who think parents should be able make their kids behave perfectly. Keeping Trump under control is harder than it looks. Some of the most important Republicans on Capitol Hill may be holding off not because they want to see Mueller fired but because they don't. When you throw a pass, the legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal noted, three things can happen—and two of them are bad. A push for this legislation would have even worse odds. Five things could happen, and only one is good. First, a measure to protect Mueller could fail to get the votes to pass. Or it could pass without the two-thirds needed in both houses to override a veto. Either fate would give Trump the idea that he could purge the special counsel and get away with it. The prospect of legislation could also prompt him to pre-empt it by firing Mueller immediately. The least likely outcome would be that the measure actually becomes law. If it did, Trump might dismiss him anyway and bet the courts would strike it down. Some prominent GOP lawmakers have publicly warned Trump to leave Mueller alone. But even Republicans who have been willing to challenge the president are not lining up behind such legislation. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who says that firing Mueller "would be the end of President Trump's presidency," is sponsoring a bill to protect the special counsel—but thinks it can wait. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina doesn't mind that his bill is collecting cobwebs, because there is no "imminent need." Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a vocal Trump opponent, has yet to buy in. What would explain this paradox? The general line among Republican members is that the president should let the special counsel complete his task. Some may also be communicating to Trump privately that while they can tolerate his furious denunciations of Mueller, they would not tolerate his firing. Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff for Sen. Mitch McConnell, told The New York Times that if the Republican leader feels the need to let Trump know he shouldn't get rid of Mueller, "he probably communicates it directly and doesn't feel the need to pontificate in public." The Republicans may also be playing a long game. By not passing a bill to constrain Trump, they convey their loyalty to GOP voters—82 percent of whom still view the president favorably. If these members are going to abandon him, they may calculate, better to wait until he makes a huge misstep. With any luck, he'll restrain himself and they won't have to. Perhaps the inaction of congressional Republicans reflects animus toward the special counsel, blind allegiance, to Trump, or cowardice. But it's equally plausible that they are making a considered effort to avoid encouraging or prov[...]

Fix NICS Bill Would Help Block Gun Sales to Peaceful People

Wed, 21 Mar 2018 13:20:00 -0400

Legislation aimed at improving background checks for gun buyers may be included in a must-pass spending bill that Congress is expected to approve tomorrow or Friday. The bill, which would encourage data sharing with the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), has faced a surprising amount of resistance for a measure that has broad support among Republicans as well as Democrats and even has the backing of the National Rifle Association. Some of the resistance to the bill, known as the Fix NICS Act of 2017, is tactical. Democrats, perceiving an opportunity to enact broader gun control following last month's mass shooting at a Florida high school, worry that if Fix NICS passes by itself, Congress will do nothing more. But there are also substantive concerns about Fix NICS that have been raised by supporters of gun rights, who rightly worry that it will help block firearm sales to people who pose no threat to others. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced Fix NICS last November in response to the mass shooting that killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The perpetrator of that attack, Devin Kelley, had been convicted by a general court martial of assaulting his wife and stepson while serving in the Air Force, which disqualified him from owning guns under federal law. That record should have prevented Kelley from passing a background check when he bought the rifle he used in the attack, but the Air Force failed to share the information with NICS. Cornyn's bill aims to prevent that sort of screw-up by requiring federal agencies to certify twice a year whether they are sharing "all relevant records" with NICS and submit plans for improving compliance. Agencies that fail to follow through on their plans would be ineligible for bonus pay. Fix NICS also would encourage sharing of local and state records, which the federal government cannot directly mandate without running afoul of the 10th Amendment, by giving agencies that demonstrate "substantial compliance" preference for Bureau of Justice Assistance grants. Fix NICS, which Donald Trump supports and the House approved in December as part of a bill that also would make each state's concealed-carry permits valid throughout the country, has 76 cosponsors in the Senate, including 32 Republicans. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who has due-process objections to the bill, is not one of them. Lee argues that the Department of Veterans Affairs wrongly identifies veterans as "mental defectives," which disqualifies them from gun ownership, when they need help managing their benefits. In a March 18 Townhall essay co-authored by Mark Geist, Lee says about 168,000 veterans have lost their Second Amendment rights as a result of that policy. "Our veterans should not have to worry that their civil rights will be violated if they seek help from the very federal agency that was designed to help them," Lee and Geist write. Lee favors an amendment "requiring a judge to determine that a person is a danger to [himself] or others, or meets similar criteria, before being labeled a 'mental defective.'" Gun Owners of America shares Lee's concern and raises another objection to Fix NICS. The group notes that current law requires the attorney general to "immediately" correct mistakes when he learns that people have been erroneously included in the NICS database. Fix NICS would give the attorney general 60 days to act, the GOA says, and there are no consequences if he fails to do so. The NRA argues that the GOA's complaint is misguided, since the revised law would retain the word immediately but give it substance by requiring correction within 60 days. "Fix NICS actually provides some remedy for people who may have been erroneously entered into the NICS database," Lars Dalseide, a spokesperson for the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, told the Washington Free Beacon's Stephen Gutowski in December. "This Fix NICS provision expedites NICS appeals for those ind[...]

Congress Is Still Ignoring Its Spending Problem as Deadline Looms for $1.3 Trillion Spending Bill

Tue, 20 Mar 2018 16:15:00 -0400

Congressional leaders hope to vote on a new spending bill by the end of Thursday, a day before the deadline to avoid another government shutdown. The $1.3 trillion* bill will fund the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year on September 30. According to reports from Politico, CNBC, and other outlets, big ticket items still being negotiated include how much to spend on President Donald Trump's border-wall pet project, how much to spend on a new train tunnel linking New Jersey with New York City, and whether to include protections for immigrants who came to America illegally as children. You know what's almost entirely absent from the discussion? Any concern for America's long-term fiscal health. To be fair, the right time to have that discussion was probably earlier this year, before Congress passed the budget deal that paved the way for this bill. The omnibus package set to pass this week fills in specific line items, while the budget outlines spending priorities in broad strokes. But instead of addressing any deeper fiscal issues, lawmakers voted to raise spending caps and add to the national debt. The current budget plan will add an estimated $1.7 trillion to the federal debt in the next decade, and it will cause the Treasury to run a trillion-dollar deficit every year for the foreseeable future, according to a nonpartisan analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Because tax cuts passed late last year reduced future government revenues, higher spending in coming years will have a dramatic effect on America's national debt. The committee projects that annual interest spending on the national debt will rise from $263 billion in 2017 to $965 billion by 2028. Not everyone in the government is ignoring the problem. David Malpass, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for international affairs, told Fox Business last month that he's increasingly troubled by huge budget deficits. "I think it is too high now, and it's going higher," he said of the national debt. It's going higher, in part, because of quick succession with which Republicans approved tax cuts and massive spending increases, a combination that undercut an argument Republicans have used for years to push for lower taxes. Only by cutting government revenue could spending be brought under control, the argument went. That logic seems to have misunderstood just how disconnected revenue has become from spending—even among Republican officials who spent a good portion of the past decade talking about the need for fiscal restraint. "It turns out that tax cuts did not starve the beast," writes Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "The beast simply grabbed a plate of deficit-finance and continued eating." If cutting taxes can't bring spending under control, the last, best hope lies with voters. A February poll from Rasmussen Reports found that 77 percent of likely voters think politicians' unwillingness to cut spending is more to blame for the budget deficit than taxpayers' unwillingness to pay more in taxes. Voters also say they want Congress to balance the budget, Rasmussen reports, but they generally believe that won't happen. The usual caveats apply here. First, it's not surprising that a poll of voters found that voters think politicians are the problem. A poll of politicians would probably show that they think voters' unwillingness to pay more in taxes is a larger part of the problem. Second, voters in aggregate usually agree that they want to pay less in taxes and see the government spend less—but it's difficult to get a consensus on what, exactly, should be cut. Foreign aid usually polls well as a target for spending cuts, but it accounts for a teeny, tiny share of federal spending. If you're serious about getting the federal deficit under control, you need serious cuts to the Pentagon and to entitlements—and election after election shows that, given the choic[...]

Rand Paul Will Oppose Trump's Pro-War, Pro-Torture Nominees for State, CIA

Wed, 14 Mar 2018 13:30:00 -0400

(image) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) plans to oppose the nominations of Mike Pompeo for secretary of state and Gina Haspel as Pompeo's replacement running the Central Intelligence Agency.

Paul's opposition could complicate the Trump administration's plans to replace outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was fired this week and will leave his post at the end of the month.

When it comes to picking a replacement for America's top diplomat, Paul says he could not support nominees who are trying to steer Trump in a more interventionalist direction.

"I cannot endorse his nomination of people who loved the Iraq war so much that they want an Iran war next," Paul says. "President Trump sought to break with the foreign policy mistakes of the last two administrations. Yet now he picks for secretary of state and CIA director people who embody them, defend them, and, I'm afraid, will repeat them."

Paul sits on the crucial Senate Foreign Relations Committee, giving him significant leverage over these nominations. If the committee's 10 Democratic members also oppose Pompeo's or Haspel's appointment, Paul would be the swing vote on the 21-member committee. If either nominations make it to the Senate floor via a different route (Senate leaders could bypass the committee process, Politico says), Republicans could face another close vote with a slim 51–49 majority.

There's good reason for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to think long and hard about a confirmation vote for Pompeo. As Emma Ashford explains, Pompeo has been very vocal on policy, including his outspoken support for withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal. It's unusual for the director of the CIA to speak out on matters of policy, and Pompeo's tendency to do so might complicate the high-level diplomatic negotiations he would oversee as secretary of state. When it comes to other potential hotspots, from North Korea to the ongoing proxy war on the Arabian Peninsula, Pompeo is likely to take a more hawkish stance than Tillerson did.

Domestically, Pompeo has supported the expansion of a surveillance state. In a 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pompeo called on Congress to "pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database." He has also called for the execution of Edward Snowden.

Paul opposed Pompeo's appointment to run the CIA last year, saying in January 2017 that Pompeo's "desire for security will trump his defense of liberty."

Less high-profile but no less important is Trump's pick to replace Pompeo at the CIA. Paul says that Haspel's record on torture, which includes running a CIA "black site" prison in Thailand, should disqualify her from consideration.

Libertarian Plays Spoiler in Close Pennsylvania Special Election

Wed, 14 Mar 2018 09:30:00 -0400

Libertarian congressional candidate Drew Gray Miller may have played spoiler in Pennsylvania's down-to-the-wire special election last night. Just after midnight, with all precincts reporting in the 18th district and some absentee ballots still being counted, Democratic candidate and former county prosecutor Conor Lamb had a 579-vote lead over the Republican, state Rep. Rick Saccone (R–Allegheny). Lamb declared victory early this morning, but Saccone has not yet conceded. Meanwhile, Miller accumulated 1,372 votes—well more than the gap between the two major party candidates. As the race tightened around 10 p.m., Miller took to Twitter to relish his newfound status as the guy who would be blamed for costing someone the election: We're only a few hours away from me being the most hated man in America #PA18 — Drew Gray Miller (@DrewGrayMiller) March 14, 2018 Needless to say, Miller's 0.6 percent of the vote is not an outstanding showing. For comparison, Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson received 2.4 percent of the statewide vote in 2016 and garnered at least 1.8 percent in each of the four counties that make up the 18th congressional district. Johnson also covered the spread in the presidential election, as Trump carried Pennsylvania by 1.1 percent. Still, margins matter in close races. And this race was as close as they come. "No party is entitled to anybody's vote," Drew Bingman, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania, told Reason on Tuesday night. "Maybe next time the Republican Party might consider somebody a little more libertarian." Bingaman praised Lamb for running a smart campaign that at times eschewed the national Democratic Party's positions on issues like gun control. (Lamb's first campaign ad featured footage of him firing an AR-15 at a shooting range.) Bingaman was impressed that a candidate like Lamb can win in a district that, on paper at least, is stacked in the GOP's favor, and he took that as a welcoming sign for third-party candidates elsewhere. It took until late in the evening for CNN and several other media outlets to add Miller's name to their list of results. (He was the only other candidate in the race.) This happened only after it became clear that the Libertarian could cover the spread between the top two. The typical narrative emerged, that Miller had somehow cost Saccone the race: Drew Miller, the Libertarian, has more votes than Lamb's margin. He may have been the difference in the race. — David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) March 14, 2018 "It's a step forward as far as I'm concerned to be considered a spoiler," Bingaman said, noting that it brought increased visibility to the candidate and party after the media largely ignored Miller's campaign in the lead-up to the vote. Regardless of the reason for the outcome, Tuesday's result is certainly a disaster for Republicans. Trump won the district by 19 points in 2016. Outgoing Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned after an affair with a staffer became public, did not even face a Democratic opponent two years ago. Republicans made a bad result worse when they publicly bailed on their candidate in the final hours of the race. National GOP leaders dumped on Saccone to Politico and tried to pin an seemingly inevitable loss on his poor fundraising skills—as if money is the most important factor in a post-Trump political landscape—only to have Saccone come within a few hundred votes of victory. After Tuesday night, the top two candidates in the race will go their separate ways—literally. The 18th district was dissolved by the state Supreme Court in January, when it ruled Pennsylvania's congressional districts are an unconstitutional gerrymander. But those old lines were used for yesterday's special election, because it had already been scheduled. The new map, imposed by the state's high court (and subject to a challenge at the U.S. Supreme[...]

Congress Is Bad at Budgeting

Mon, 12 Mar 2018 06:00:00 -0400

Congress is dysfunctional—and nothing illustrates that like the body's increased reliance on short-term funding bills in place of comprehensive budgets, right? These continuing resolutions (C.R.s) are often used in times of crisis to prevent a government shutdown when Democrats and Republicans can't agree enough to pass any of the 12 regular appropriations bills before October 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year, as required by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974.

(image) Yet a look at the data suggests that the number of C.R.s hasn't actually spiked in the last few years. According to the Congressional Research Center, between 1977 and 2018, Congress has enacted an average of 4.4 continuing resolutions per year to keep the government running. While there has been an uptick in their use, it started way back in 1997. Before then, the annual average was 3.3. Since, it has jumped to 5.1. At its worst, Congress passed 13 C.R.s in 1996 and 21 in 2001.

A better measure of congressional dysfunction is the number of regular appropriations bills enacted on time by Congress. That tally has plummeted since 1977 and stalled at zero since 2010, mostly thanks to the Senate. The House of Representatives passed all 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2018, for example, only to watch each one die in the upper chamber.

Sources: Congressional Research Service, "Continuing Resolutions: Overview of Components and Recent Practices"; U.S. Congress, "Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2018"

Trump Orders Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum. Can Congress Stop Him?

Thu, 08 Mar 2018 16:45:00 -0500

Well before he was president, Donald Trump wanted tariffs. In an April 2011 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump said that if he were president, he would impose a 25 percent tariff on all Chinese goods imported into the United States. "Protectionism?" the future president scoffed when asked about the consequences of tariffs for the American economy. "I want to be protected." Other aspects of his chaotic 2016 presidential campaign got more attention, but tariffs were always a part of the Trump platform. A tariff on Chinese goods would show that the United States was "not playing games anymore," Trump said at an August 2016 rally in Florida. Shortly after winning the election, Trump's transition team talked about the possibility of a 10 percent tariff on imports. And as his first year in the White House ticked along, Trump seemingly became more impatient. "I want tariffs," he reportedly bellowed during a tense discussion with some of his top economic advisers in August of last year. On Thursday, Trump finally got his tariffs. "We're going to be very fair, we're going to be very flexible, but we're going to protect the American worker, as I said I would do in my campaign," Trump said. A 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum will take effect in 15 days, the White House announced Thursday. Trump said he's willing to exempt Canada and Mexico from the tariffs, and to review other countries on a case-by-case basis. The tariffs would shelter domestic producers of steel and aluminum from some foreign competition, but at the expense of the many steel- and aluminum-consuming businesses in the United States. Consumers would end up paying more for everything from beer and baseball bats, to appliances and automobiles. Republican leaders in Congress disagree with Trump's tariff plan, and publicly broke with the White House this week to denounce the tariff plans while simultaneously working behind the scenes to limit the scope of the new import taxes. After Trump's announcement, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) released a statement warning of "unintended consequences" from Trump's trade action. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Reason that he was opposing the tariffs in part because he was "very concerned about retaliatory action from other countries." Words are one thing. But can Congress stop Trump's tariffs? The answer is complex. Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the explicit power "to lay and collect taxes, duties," and the like. But Congress is limited in what it can do by law, and maybe more importantly, by politics. First, the legal angle. Trump's tariffs are being implemented under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which gives the White House more or less carte blanche to impose tariffs on national security grounds. The national security rationale for tariffs on steel and aluminum is pretty weak—the administration says that American weapons of war depend on steel and aluminum supplies, so domestic producers must be protected from international supplies that could be cut-off in the event of a conflict—but it exists and that's enough. "There's not much they can do to address this particular case," says Dan Ikenson, director of trade policy studies at the Cato Institute. "We're in uncharted waters in a lot of ways." Handing over those powers to the executive branch might have been a prudent decision in some regards. Congress has, traditionally, been more open to protectionist policies like tariffs (just think about how defensive members of Congress get about anything in their home districts), while the presidency has been more likely to support free trade, in part because the executive branch handles international affairs and because the president gets credit (and blame) for the economy as a whole. "They [...]

A Jailed Model Claims to Have Evidence of Russian Meddling in U.S. Elections. Her Story Is Even Weirder Than You Think.

Wed, 07 Mar 2018 11:45:00 -0500

By now you've probably heard about the Russian model trapped in a Thai jail who claims to have hard evidence of Russia meddling in America's elections. Over the past week, Nastya Rybka's story has been broadcast by major media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times—and largely received like just another gratuitous twist in the MAGA plotline, another pretty young thing who claims to have dirt on Donald Trump and has every reason in the world not to be trusted. Rybka may turn out to know nothing at all about Trump, Russia, and election influence. But in theory, at least, she has a plausible claim to having obtained relevant dirt. She left a trail of evidence of her 2016 affair with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska—a Vladimir Putin ally and Paul Manafort business associate—across Instagram, Periscope, and YouTube. These posts led Russian journalists to discover that Deripaska had been visited on his yacht off Norway by a high-ranking Russian official, and led Russian authorities to threaten to shut down YouTube and Instagram if they didn't remove reports on this. And the Russian official was far from the only important figure that Deripaska met while Rybka was around, she says. Rybka now claims to have audio of Deripaska's conversations that could reveal information about Russia trying to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In a video from a Thai police car after her arrest, Rybka says she is "the only missing link in the chain related to Russia and elections in the United States"—a chain that links Deripaska, "Putin, and Trump"—and is "ready to provide" her evidence "to the United States, Europe, or any other country that can bail me out of Thai jail." Since Rybka's story hit the U.S media, many have cast doubt on her claim by virtue of its timing, assuming it nothing more than a ruse to get out of trouble in Thailand. But Rybka—who has said her real fear is being sent back to Russia—was alluding to sensitive geopolitical information before her February 26 arrest. "In my book 'Who wants to seduce a billionaire' there are many facts that hurt influential people of several countries," Rybka wrote in a February 22 Instagram post. "Some readers have reacted to it skeptically, believing that the book has artistic fiction. But friends, EVERYTHING there is a real story." The real story of Nastya Rybka's involvement in geopolitical intrigue is far weirder than has been widely told and may be more benign than many would assume. Seduction School Meets Geopolitics Neither the 21-year-old Moscow model nor her mentor seem to be political people. Rybka was hired with a cabal of other young models to socialize at one of Deripaska's yacht parties in 2016. She didn't know who he was at first, she said in a recent interview, but was interested in him because he was confident and powerful. Born in Belarus as Anastasia Vashukevich, Rybka has spent the past several years as a protegee of the pickup artist and seduction coach Alex Lesley. Along with a few others, Rybka and Lesley fly around the world teaching sexual skills and seduction techniques to men and women. Their books (both have authored a few) and social media accounts serve as marketing for these classes, by providing evidence of their prowess at seduction. But Rybka also seems to vacillate between viewing seduction as a "game" she is playing on poor billionaires and having a real attachment to her "victims." On Instagram, Rybka portrays herself not as a sex worker or companion-for-hire (as many places have reported) but a model, author, educator, and "huntress" with a passion for sex, travel, and collecting experience, not cash. She calls herself "the Goldfish"—a nod to her status as a catch for wealthy men who like to go "fishing" for pretty young women—and can be found defending [...]

Rand Paul, on Trump: ‘I Think He Will Sign Audit the Fed if We Can Get it to Him’

Tue, 06 Mar 2018 14:20:00 -0500

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) this week is once again trying to overcome his own party's reluctance to act in power how it campaigned in opposition, by introducing his stalled-out bill to audit the Federal Reserve as an amendment to The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, a Dodd-Frank semi-rollback that's expected to pass with bipartisan support. "I think it always has a chance of passing, but the hardest part is actually getting a vote on things," Paul told me in an interview today. "You never know unless you try." If Republican politicians meant what they said, Audit the Fed would already be the law of the land. The proposal, first introduced and popularized by longtime congressman and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul, was included in the last two GOP platforms, passed by the House of Representatives in 2012 (by a 327-98 vote) and 2014 (333-92), and campaigned on by Donald Trump ("It is so important to audit The Federal Reserve," Trump tweeted in February 2016). Yet it's a different story when the GOP holds power. The latest House Audit the Fed bill, sponsored by Paul pal Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky), was put in that Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse, while companion Paul legislation didn't even get that far. (Paul did whip 53 votes back in January 2016, but that fell short of the 60 required; see my interview with him at the time for more.) As for President Trump, Paul's father Ron complains that "he has not even uttered the words 'Audit the Fed,' or talked about any changes to monetary policy, since the election." Yet the younger Paul, who—in contrast to Senate colleagues such as Jeff Flake—has maintained a productive relationship with Trump, remains hopeful. "We've talked about Audit the Fed before and the fact that he supported it during his campaign," he said. "I think he will sign Audit the Fed if we can get it to him. The hardest part that we have to overcome is the institution of the Fed itself. The biggest lobbyist on Capitol Hill against auditing the Fed is the Fed." That obstacle was only made more difficult after Trump appointed as his new Federal Reserve Chair the central bank's principal spokesman against Paul's legislation: Jerome Powell. (The senator was one of just 13 votes against Powell's confirmation). Powell reiterated his opposition to Audit the Fed during confirmation hearings. "Congress has chosen to shield monetary policy from a policy audit," he told senators. "That has been a wise choice made to show respect for the independence of monetary policy….A [Government Accountability Office] audit would be a way for Congress to insert itself into the making of monetary policy on a meeting-by-meeting basis." Paul dismisses such arguments. "I kind of think it's unseemly that…an entity created by government lobbies its own government not to have sunlight and not to be audited," he said. "What we have now is…a fake audit. What you see is that there is an audit by the GAO, but they don't audit any of the things that the Fed owns. The Fed owns over $4 trillion worth of stuff, and none of that is reported in the audit. I kind of tongue in cheek say, 'Yeah, they audit how much coffee they buy, they audit what their salaries are, and, you know, whether or not they're going to Las Vegas on a holiday on government expense.' That is audited, but then the $4 trillion worth of stuff is not. We don't know whether it's marked to market, we don't know whether they bought it from their cousin. There needs to be more sunlight on what they own, what they pay for, and what it's valued." What is Paul's impression of Powell's approach to monetary policy? "I think he's—like so many that have been at the Fed—he's a strong believer in basically price controls on money. This is[...]

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser's Proposed Bump Stock Ban Is Mostly Pointless

Tue, 27 Feb 2018 17:09:00 -0500

(image) D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a plan yesterday to introduce local legislation banning the possession and sale of bump stocks in the nation's capital. The policy's net effect would be close to zero, however.

For one thing, D.C.'s longstanding assault weapons ban makes the great majority of firearms which can accept bump stocks—AR-15s, AK-47s, and their variants—already illegal to own or possess. Moreover, bump stocks operate on recoil, which you can't get without firing a gun. Guess what? Legally owned or not, firing a gun is also illegal within city limits, except in self defense.

Bowser's proposed ban would merely outlaw a part that helps an outlawed gun do an outlawed thing, faster.

So what's the point of banning bump stocks in D.C.?

When Congress gave the District limited autonomy to pass local laws in 1973, it reserved the power to review and veto the Council's decisions under most circumstances. When District law implicates issues of national political concern, such as abortion and marijuana prohibition (and, these days, gun control) Congress often intervenes to block the Council's typically-progressive maneuvers.

Local leaders generally resist this meddling, but in this case, they're actually hoping for it. Kevin Donahue, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, told The Washington Post that Bowser's administration hopes to force members of Congress to go "on the record" regarding bump stock prohibition, either letting the District's symbolic ban stand, or stepping in to veto it. "They could actively disapprove a bump stock ban, or they could tacitly approve," Donahue said. "Either way, they'll be on record."

Presumably, Donahue and Bowser want to force pro-gun politicians who have tentatively voiced approval of a bump stock ban to put their money where their mouth is, or not.

D.C., which has one of the strictest "state-level" gun control regimes in the country, had 116 homicides in 2017, of which 89 were fatal shootings. A spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Forensic Services, which processes illegal guns recovered by police, said that their office received 2,191 firearms last year, but could not say how many of those were rifles that would be capable of accepting a bump stock attachment. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, rifles of all kinds accounted for 3.27 percent* of gun homicides from 2011-2016.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that rifles accounted for 2.28 percent of gun homicides. They accounted for 2.28 percent of all homicides, and 3.27 percent of gun homicides.

Massachusetts Salon Owner Says He Wants to Hire More Workers. Licensing Is the Reason He Can't.

Tue, 27 Feb 2018 15:05:00 -0500

Frank Zona's family has been in the hairstyling business for more than three generations—since before they arrived in the United States as immigrants from Sicily, where, he jokes, they probably didn't have a government-issued license. As the owner of a collection of hair salons in the Boston area, Zona employs about 75 people. He'd like to hire more. Licensing requirements, he says, are the main reason why he can't. If people want to work in Zona's salons, in virtually any capacity, they must first obtain a cosmetologist license from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That's true even for positions that don't have anything to do with cutting, coloring, or styling hair. Even shampooing or blow-drying hair, or being a stylist's assistant—the types of entry-level jobs that allow someone to test out the profession before deciding whether to work in it—must be filled only by licensed professionals. "There's only one way into the industry," Zona told a U.S. House subcommittee at a hearing today: "through a school program leading to a license." In Massachusetts, that equates to a 1,000-hour training program, at a cost of more than $12,000. These one-size-fits-all licensing rules make it harder to find new employees. They also contribute to high turnover in the profession, Zona says, because newly minted cosmetologists who never had a chance to try an entry-level job before getting a license often leave the profession because it's different from what they expected. That's not good for businesses, which want a stable workforce, and it's even worse for those workers who wasted thousands of dollars and months of their lives. Perhaps more so than in any other profession, onerous licensing rules for cosmetologists and hair stylists have to come to symbolize both how absurd government licensing schemes can be and how difficult it can be to repeal or even amend them. In Arizona, for example, state lawmakers are considering a proposal to exempt blow-drying from the state's cosmetology licensing regime. The argument for the bill is much the same as what Zona laid out in his testimony today: that entry-level jobs posing no health or safety risk to the general public should not be subject to onerous licensing requirements. "It limits job opportunities. It's a barrier to newcomers in the industry, and it increases the cost of the service. None of which helps the public," says state Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale), who sponsored the proposal. But the bill has been attacked by the head of the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology and by licensed cosmetologists, who claim that simply letting unlicensed individuals use a blow dryer could trigger a "health crisis." More honest critics express concern that the bill would allow unlicensed workers "to take a lot of work from us" by tearing down protectionist rules. "In many ways, occupational licensing has become one of the major labor policy issues facing today's workforce," Jarrett Dieterle, director of commercial freedom policy for the R Street Institute, a free market think tank, told the House subcommittee today. "One out of four Americans needs a government license to work, and the average license requires almost a year of educational training, passing an exam, and paying over $250 in fees." Those burdens can fall harder on low-income individuals who might not have the time or money to afford 1,000 hours or more in training classes for a job that they might already know how to do, Dieterle says. To that end, a number of states have already trimmed licensing requirements for hair-braiding or exempted it entirely from the cosmetology licensing regime. Arizona did that in 2011, over a similar outcry from its cosmetology board and from [...]

Democrats Release Memo Rebutting Claims that FBI Inappropriately Snooped on Former Trump Aide

Sat, 24 Feb 2018 19:15:00 -0500

House Democrats this afternoon publicly released its own memo about the secret surveillance of former Donald Trump campaign aide Carter Page, arguing that the FBI's behavior in its investigation of Page's ties to Russia was appropriate and not tainted by a controversial dossier with origins in Democratic politics. This memo by Democratic members of the House's intelligence Committee was drafted in January in response to a memo put together and released by House Republicans led by Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). In Nunes' memo, Republicans claimed that the FBI had misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) both about the political roots of the controversial "dossier" by Christopher Steele and their reliance on the dossier's claims in order to justify snooping on Page. The Democrats have responded that, no, the FBI did not abuse this process; they had already begun investigating Page's ties to Russia; and they informed the court that the information being gathered in the Steele dossier was likely intended to be used to discredit a presidential campaign (Trump's, in this case). The heavily redacted document can be looked through here. Some summarization of what they're claiming: The FBI had been concerned about Page's ties to Russian interests years before his involvement in the Trump campaign. The memo notes that in 2013, prosecutors indicted two spies who had attempted to recruit Page. The FBI had opened its current investigation on Page in July 2016. It didn't get its hands on the Steele dossier until September. When the FBI pursued renewals of their authorization to wiretap Page, they provided additional information obtained through independent sources that corroborated Steele's reporting of ties between Page and Russia. The explanations of who these independent sources were and what they said is fully redacted in this memo. The FBI gained "valuable evidence" from this surveillance of Page. Once again, there are redactions here concealing what that evidence was, but apparently it contradicted testimony from Page to the House Intelligence Committee. The FBI informed FISC that Steele had been hired by U.S. people to find information likely to discredit a presidential campaign. If that all sounds vague—that's because of the masking process intended to protect U.S. identities who are not the direct targets of surveillance. So the funding by sources connected to Hillary Clinton's campaign was not directly named (and neither was Trump), but the court was aware of political machinations going on. The FBI informed the FISC when they terminated their relationship with Steele because Steele was secretly leaking confidential information to the press. The FBI canceled payment for the Steele dossier. Steele never received money from the FBI for this information. This afternoon the Republicans in the House Intelligence Committee also put out a response to the Dem's response to the Nunes memo here, if you don't feel like you're far enough down the rabbit hole. Just as with the Nunes memo, we as citizens are not really in a position to determine who is telling the truth here. Media outlets have gone ahead with asking FISC if they'll release the underlying warrant documents so that the public can get a better sense of what's going on without Congressional partisans attempting to spin it their way. Trump has started tweeting: The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2018 Read more about the memo's release here.[...]