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Published: Thu, 19 Oct 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 19 Oct 2017 03:24:06 -0400


The Real Insult to the Troops Is Rudderless Military Adventurism

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 15:57:00 -0400

(image) Several pundits, members of Congress, and former Obama officials have worked themselves up over President Donald Trump's latest perceived slight to military families. But the far greater and more persistent slight comes from a rudderless U.S. foreign policy whose pointless military interventions lead inevitably to needless deaths.

Had Trump not botched the landing so tremendously on calling the families of the four soldiers killed in Niger two weeks ago, the incident, and America's presence in the landlocked West African country, would have been forgotten by most Americans.

Instead, we've plunged into a he-said/she-said over what exactly Trump told the widow of one of the soldiers killed in Niger. The widow's congresswoman, Democrat Frederica Wilson, was in the car while Trump was on speakerphone and claims he told the woman her husband "knew what he signed up for." Trump denies it; the soldier's mother backs up Wilson's account. All of which ignores the question of what exactly the U.S. is doing in Niger in the first place.

U.S. operations in Niger, ongoing since the Bush II era, have been a bipartisan failure of strategy and accountability. Troops were first sent to Niger in 2005 to "assist" French and local counterterrorist efforts. The Bush administration never bothered to seek congressional authorization, nor to claim that the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) covered the effort. When Obama sent additional troops to the country in 2013, that move came with no congressional input or substantive public debate either.

Most members of Congress are more comfortable getting outraged at Trump being a boor than asserting their constitutional role in making U.S. war policy. The best way to honor soldiers' sacrifices is to put some limits on America's war machine.

For 16 years now, successive presidents have used the post-9/11 AUMF to wage war around the world. The U.S. deployed troops first to Afghanistan—now home to the longest war in American history—and then to the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq (for the ISIS mission), Syria, Somalia, and who knows where else.

The only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF was Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who warned presciently that the bill would be a blank check for the executive branch to wage war around the world. Her most recent effort to set an expiration date on the 2001 AUMF was killed by the House Republican leadership without a debate or a vote on the floor.

Congress' unwillingness to check the executive's military actions is far more disrespectful to the troops than anyone's careless words can be on their own, even the president's.

Congressional Republicans Aim to Loosen Rules Restricting Export-Import Bank Cronyism

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 13:46:00 -0400

Congress is trying to open a huge loophole in the rules governing the Export-Import Bank, one of the federal government's most crony-capitalist institutions. The bank gives taxpayer-backed guaranteed loans to corporations doing business in foreign countries. But thanks to a reform adopted in 2015, it can't give loans of more than $10 million without the consent of three of the five members of its board of directors—a stumbling block, since the agency's board has been largely vacant for the last two years. With President Donald Trump's nominations to Ex-Im Bank stalled for now, the corporatists have been looking for a workaround. Their solution: If the rules are a problem, change them. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) along with 30 other Republicans have proposed a bill to let the Ex-Im Bank remove the three-out-of-five rule. "The bank is a critical lifeline for many manufacturers, large and small, in maintaining their competitiveness in international markets and it is past time that its doors are open," said Dent in a released statement. These are common claims in defense of the agency. In reality, only 25 percent of the Ex-Im Bank's activities go towards small businesses. Most of its financing goes to large corporations. Many of the companies that have benefited in the past from the Export-Import Bank have remained steady on their own two feet without its assistance in the last two years. Apparently, they don't have trouble finding lenders in the private sector. Less than 1 percent of small business jobs in the American economy rely on Ex-Im Bank. Ten companies account for over 60 percent of the agency's resources. Boeing alone gets 40 percent, leading many to nickname Ex-Im "Boeing's bank." This isn't the first time Rep. Dent has attempted to make it easier for Ex-Im Bank to make loans without a quorum. In July 2016 he added an amendment to an appropriation bill with similar aims. In July 2017 he made a similar attempt. Last month he tried again, only to be thwarted by the House Financial Services Committee. Dent has now announced his intent to retire from Congress, but he seems intent on giving the bank a boost before his term ends in 2018. Other Republicans see the Im-Ex Bank differently. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) attempted to eliminate the Ex-Im Bank this past summer, but he wasn't able to get the votes. Former Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), Trump's recent nominee to the board of the Ex-Im Bank, has been a sharp critic of the credit agency over his 15 years in Congress. In a 2015 speech, Garrett called Ex-Im Bank "corporate welfare" and "a bank that embodies the corruption of the free enterprise system." Trump was also critical of the agency when he was campaigning for president. Once he got the job, his tune changed. His predecessor did a similar flip-flop. It remains to be seen if the same will be true of Garrett.[...]

Congress Could Let All Patients Have the 'Right to Try' Without Going Through the FDA's Complicated Application Process

Tue, 03 Oct 2017 17:25:00 -0400

It is a rare thing to see Congress pass a law that increases personal freedom. Yet that is exactly what it could do later this fall if the House follows the Senate's lead on a so-called "Right to Try" bill. The law would allow individuals with terminal illnesses, without having to first get permission from the Food and Drug Administration, to try drugs that have not been approved. Since 2012, 37 states have adopted "right to try" laws, giving patients to access experimental treatments that have cleared the first phase of the FDA's trials, with the permission of a doctor. Passing a law at the federal level would be important for residents of those remaining 13 states, but would also help steer FDA policy, advocates say. "Right to try is about the terminal patients who don't fit into a control group, who can't afford to travel or move to another country, and who simply want permission to seek the same treatments that other patients—sometimes patients in the same medical facility—are already receiving," says Naomi Lopez Bauman, director of healthcare policy for the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based free market think tank that has largely spearheaded the state-level Right to Try movement. The U.S. Senate in August passed—by unanimous consent—Senate Bill 204, a right to try bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. That bill, and a similar proposal sponsored by Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., were the subject of a hearing hosted Tuesday by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. There is no immediate timetable for either bill to receive a vote on the House floor, and Tuesday's hearing made clear that right to try legislation faces more opposition in the lower chamber than it did in the Senate. "The legislation being proposed could expose critically ill patients to greater harm," worries Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., minority chairman of the committee. Other Democrats expressed similar worries, even while expressing sympathy for patients who are asking little more than for government to get out of the way during the final days of their lives. There are "very legitimate frustrations with the current system," for allowing patients access ot non-FDA-approved drugs, admitted Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas. But those problems are not a good reason to remove the FDA from the process, Green said. Currently, the FDA runs a so-called "expanded access" program for terminally ill patients who cannot get into drug trials for various reasons. According to a Government Accountability Office report published in July, FDA had approved 99 percent of the 5,800 requests made from 2012 through 2015 by patients seeking access to the program. Lack of access, then, is not the problem, but time is. Patients with terminal illnesses can wait as little as a few hours to as long as 30 days for the FDA to respond to a request to try a new drug, according to the GAO, and that wait could ending any slim hope of finding a successful treatment. If you think dealing with bureaucrats is awful when you're standing in line at the DMV or applying for a passport, imagine having to go through that same process when your life is on the line. Under Scott Gottlieb, the newly appointed commissioner of the FDA, the administration has moved to slash the amount of paperwork necessary to get patients enrolled in expanded access programs. Earlier Tuesday, Gottlieb announced further reforms to streamline the experimental treatment review process for patients and doctors. The FDA "believes difficult decisions about individual treatment are best made by patients with the support and guidance of their treating physicians," Gottlieb told the committee Tuesday. Those welcome changes do not accomplish as much as a federal right to try law, in part because the FDA's statistics are something of an illusion. Gottlieb says the FDA accepts 99 percent of all applicants, ignoring how many patients don't bother going through the process in the first place. About 500,000 Americans die of cancer each year, but the FDA receives only[...]

House Passes Bill Making Abortion After 20 Weeks a Federal Crime

Tue, 03 Oct 2017 08:36:00 -0400


Update: On Tuesday afternoon, the bill passed the House 237 to 189.

Third time's a charm? The U.S. House of Representatives is considering "The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks, for the third time since 2013. But this time, the White House has signaled full support for the bill.

Under the new legislation (H.R. 36), abortion after 20 weeks pregnancy would be a crime except in cases where the life of the mother is at risk or the pregnancy is a product of rape or incest. Pregnant women who find out after the cutoff that they are carrying an nonviable fetus (i.e., one that cannot survive outside the womb) would still be forced to carry the fetus to term.

While women seeking an abortion after 20 weeks would not be criminalized under federal law, anyone who performed or agreed to perform an abortion on someone more than 20 weeks pregnant would face five years in federal prison, a fine, or both. "A woman who undergoes a prohibited abortion may not be prosecuted for violating or conspiring to violate the provisions of this bill," it states.

The failure to directly criminalize women may seem like a bright spot. But in this way the bill not only restricts women's control over their own bodies and reproductive futures but also takes a pass at their agency, declaring us too morally or intellectually inferior to know what we are doing and be held responsible for our decisions. In fact, under Republicans' new proposal, a woman who seeks out an abortion after 20 weeks and finds a doctor to do it may then sue the abortion doctor in civil court.

From a philosophical standpoint, it's bullshit—but from a political point, it makes sense. Republicans know that if they start throwing women in jail for terminating their pregnancies, they would lose a lot of centrist support; not so if they can make this about punishing evil "abortionists" that prey on poor pregnant women.

In a statement Monday, the Trump administration said it "strongly supports H.R. 36, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, and applauds the House of Representatives for continuing its efforts to secure critical pro-life protections."

But while conservative representatives and President Trump may be enthused about the proposed abortion ban, the Senate has indicated that now is not the time. On Monday, Republican Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said taking up the abortion bill was "not a near-term priority."

Order Some More Avocado Toast: What Tax Reform Means for Millennials

Fri, 29 Sep 2017 13:25:00 -0400

Depending on which definition you're using, the generation of Americans known as "Millennials" started being born somewhere between 1977 and 1982. Suffice it to say that none of us were paying much attention to politics the last time Congress passed a comprehensive tax reform bill, in 1986. Though there's no way to know whether any tax bill will make it through Congress this year, Millennials have reason to be optimistic about reforms that lower rates and spur economic growth. But we should also be wary. America's fiscal policy could rob tax reform of its benefits if left unaddressed or made worse. First, the good. Probably the most obvious benefit of tax reform—for Millennials and for plenty of other Americans too—is the potential for simplifying the tax code. Republicans have promised that tax reform will make it possible to file your taxes on the back of a postcard, something they say can be done by ending special tax breaks and shortening the tax code. At present, the code is more than 4 million lines long and complying with it consumes more than 6 billion hours every year, according to the IRS' National Taxpayer Advocate. The economic and accounting burdens of complying with the tax code fall inequitably on smaller businesses and individual taxpayers, according to research by economists Jason J. Fichtner and Jacob M. Feldman of the Mercatus Center. "An overly complex and cumbersome tax code favors businesses and individuals who can afford well-paid accountants and lawyers," they wrote in a 2015 report. A simpler tax code is good for almost everyone, but it stands to help Millennials more than most. A 2016 survey commissioned by NerdWallet, a San Francisco–based personal finance website, found that 80 percent of taxpayers aged 18 to 34 say they're fearful about some aspect of preparing taxes, well above the 69 percent of people across all ages who said the same thing. Millennials might have an undeserved reputation for being easily frightened, but there's no doubt that the current tax code induces unnecessary stress. And Millennials are the group least likely, generationally speaking, to have access to tax help. "Millennials tend to have less experience with a deeply confusing tax code, less cash to seek professional help and less need for the more complicated returns that having children or a mortgage can bring," says Liz Weston, a personal finance columnist at NerdWallet. Tax reform carries other benefits for younger Americans. Done right, it means increased economic growth and more job opportunities. In the four different tax reform ideas floated last week by the Tax Foundation, projected GDP growth ranged from 2.2 percent to 7.1 percent. Wages are projected to grow too, by between 1.6 percent and 5.3 percent in the foundation's four scenarios. Lower corporate taxes—the GOP plan would cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent—mean potentially lower costs for all consumer products, from avocados to iPhones. "Tax reform must be bold" for it to work, says David Barnes, policy director for the pro-market group Generation Opportunity. "It must make the tax code simpler, fairer, and more efficient by eliminating special interest tax credits and deductions." Still, tax reform carries plenty of risk. If Congress passes and Trump signs a tax reform bill that doesn't do anything to cut spending, it will only pile more debt onto younger generations. Already, each American owes about $62,000 as his or her share of the national debt—that's roughly 8,850 orders of avocado toast (average cost: $7)—and that amount will get larger if tax rates fall and spending doesn't. But does Congress even care about the deficit? The outline of a tax plan introduced by Republican leaders this week suggests not. The plan would cut $5.8 trillion in taxes, offset by only $3.6 trillion in base-broadening offsets. That leaves a $2.2 trillion deficit increase over the next decade, according to an estimate by the C[...]

Defenders of the CFPB's Newest Financial Regulation Are Ignoring Crucial Facts

Wed, 27 Sep 2017 14:15:00 -0400

In the wake of the Equifax breach, in which hackers stole names, social security numbers, and other personal information for more than 143 million people from the credit scoring agency's databases, Americans are rightfully more concerned about holding financial institutions accountable for misusing or losing valuable data. Democrats have now tried to turn the Equifax breach to their political advantage, whipping up a dry-but-important battle over financial regulation into a populist squall. Republicans want to repeal a new rule by the Consumer Financial Protection Agency banning arbitration clauses in contracts signed between consumers and financial services companies, including banks and credit card companies. The new CFPB rule requires disputes or settlements in banks fraud or other customer betrayal cases to be settled through class-action lawsuits rather than a third-party arbitrator. Despite mixed evidence, the CFPB says banning arbitration is good because it allows consumers "their day in court." Republicans have turned to the Congressional Review Act to wipe the CFPB's arbitration rule off the books. The law is a now-familiar tool used to repeal about a dozen Obama-era regulations since President Donald Trump took office in January. The House voted along party lines in July to pass a CRA resolution repealing the rule, and the Senate is set to vote on the same resolution perhaps as soon as this week. The White House has indicated its support for the move "Forced arbitration is a tool that big corporations use to silence victims of corporate fraud or corporate abuse," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Tuesday during brief remarks on the Senate floor, invoking the Equifax breach. "Forcing these families to sign away their rights is not only wrong, it's dangerous." Similar rhetoric is blaring from television screens in some states, like Maine, where ads funded by Allied Progress Action, a progressive campaign organization, are targeting Republican senators seen a swing votes on the CRA resolution. "Big corporations like Equifax got caught trying to sneak it past you," the ads say, referring to the arbitration clauses sometimes included in financial services contracts. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Those ads—and the Democratic talking points about the arbitration rule—are flawed in several ways. "If there were a consumer bureau for political ads—not that there should be—this one would be facing some penalties for deception," says John Berlau, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank opposed to the arbitration rule. It's not accurate to say that arbitration clauses eliminate anyone's rights. Only government can do that. These are private contracts between banks or credit card companies and their customers. If customers agree to waive their rights to a class-action lawsuit and accept arbitration instead, that's something they are free to do, Berlau says. By banning arbitration, it's the CFPB withholding choices from consumers. The CFPB and its defenders say they are protecting consumers, a second flaw in its thinking. Studies show, often, if not always, wronged customers end up getting bigger payouts through arbitration than through the courts. After lawyers' fees, the average payout in class-action suits was only $32.38 per person, according to the CFPB's own data. Research by Todd Zywicki, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a free market think tank, and Jason Scott Johnston, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School*, found that arbitration is "an inexpensive, fast, and efficient process" compared to the time consuming process of class action lawsuits. When CFPB Director Richard Courdray announced last year that the bureau was aiming to steer disputes away from arbitration and into the legal sys[...]

Rand Paul and John McCain Might Have Killed the GOP's Obamacare Repeal Bill

Fri, 22 Sep 2017 14:19:00 -0400

Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and John McCain, R-Ariz., will vote against the latest Republican-led effort to repeal parts of Obamacare, likely killing any slim chance that the proposal had of reaching the necessary 50 votes in the Senate. Paul told the Associated Press he plans to vote against the Graham-Cassidy bill because it does not do enough to repeal Obamacare's regulations and taxes. McCain, in a statement issued later Friday, said he would not vote for the bill because he disagreed with the procedural shortcuts Republicans were taking to get the bill to the floor without committee hearings and the opportunity for amendments. McCain, who cast the deciding vote against the Senate's so-called "skinny repeal" bill in July over similar concerns about Senate GOP leaders abandoning "regular order," said he would consider voting for the Graham-Cassidy bill "were it the product of extensive hearings, debate, and amendments" and only after getting a full CBO score of the bill, something that won't be available before the end of the month. "I cannot in good conscience vote for the Graham-Cassidy proposal," McCain said Friday. "We should not be content to pass health care legislation on a party-line basis, as Democrats did when they rammed Obamacare through Congress in 2009. If we do so, our success could be as short-lived as theirs when the political winds shift, as they regularly do." I cannot in good conscience vote for Graham-Cassidy. A bill impacting so many lives deserves a bipartisan approach. — John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) September 22, 2017 By themselves, Paul and McCain would not be enough to sink the GOP health care bill. But at least two other Republican senators—Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine—are widely believed to be "no" votes on the bill. Collins confirmed Friday to the Associated Press that she's leaning against the bill. President Donald Trump on Friday threatened Republicans—and Paul in particular—who were considering voting against the bill. He said those who refused to support the Graham-Cassidy bill in the Senate "will known as 'the Republican who saved Obamacare'" In the tweet, Trump specifically identified Paul, who has so far been the only Republican to go on the record as opposing Graham-Cassidy, though at least two other Republican senators—Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine—are widely believed to be "no" votes on the bill. Murkowski and Collins, along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voted against the so-called "skinny repeal" bill in July. Rand Paul, or whoever votes against Hcare Bill, will forever (future political campaigns) be known as "the Republican who saved ObamaCare." — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 22, 2017 Trump's threats have nothing to do with the policy of the bill, and the White House is only interested in a political win, Paul told the AP. Paul's assessment of the situation seems pretty accurate. Trump has never indicated much of an interest in the policy aspects of the health care debate that has raged on Capitol Hill since March, though he did quickly organize a Rose Garden press conference to celebrate the House's passage of an earlier Obamacare repeal bill. A lack of White House engagement was widely noted in the wake of the "skinny repeal" bill's embarrassing failure in July, but—aside from some bluster on Twitter—neither the president nor his top health officials have been particularly active in selling the Graham-Cassidy bill to potentially recalcitrant Republicans this week. Indeed, even Republicans in the Senate who said they would vote for the Graham-Cassidy bill appeared this week to be having a difficult time explaining the merits of it. A vote on the bill is scheduled for next week, but that timeline is dictated more by the ticking clock than by any broad agreement that Graham[...]

Want to Do Tax Reform Right? Here Are Four Ideas.

Fri, 22 Sep 2017 08:30:00 -0400

Health care reform is front-and-center on Congress' agenda, but the clock is ticking. The Senate has until Sept. 30 to pass a bill with less than 60 votes. After that deadline—whether the Graham-Cassidy bill has passed or not—it's likely the discussion will shift toward the thing many GOP leaders (including President Donald Trump) have wanted to focus on all along. Tax reform. It's no secret Republicans are eager to reform our tax system and consider changes to corporate tax policy. Beyond that, though, details are still a little bit sketchy and plenty complicated. Earlier today, Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, outlined three principles for tax reform. Lower the corporate tax rate (Trump favors a new rate of 15 percent, down from the current 35 percent). Pass an actual budget. And, if necessary, pay for the tax changes with spending cuts. The final leg is the key to the whole thing, because it reveals the truth about tax reform or any other complex policy issue. It's all about Congress making actual trade-offs, rather than simply cutting taxes and adding to the federal deficit. This is a practical rather than theoretical argument. For tax reform to pass in the Senate via the reconciliation process and without Democratic votes which it is unlikely to get, the majority must conform to the Boyd Rule, requiring that it does not add to the federal deficit. How, then, do you make all those pieces fit together? The Tax Foundation has a few ideas. The D.C.-based think tank, which favors lower rates and a broader base for taxes, today released four potential blueprints, each with benefits and trade-offs, for Congress. Three of the four are revenue neutral. The fourth requires an estimated $70 billion in spending cuts to balance. "The goal here to show is that there are a lot of ways to successfully achieve tax reform," said Scott Drenkard, an economist for the Tax Foundation. "This won't be easy, and everyone is going to have to give up some special provisions that currently benefit them, but the end game is lasting economic growth and higher wage." Option A: Replace the federal corporate income tax with a 22.5 percent cash flow tax, and allow companies to expense the investments in full (as de Rugy explains, "companies generally aren't allowed to immediately deduct (expense) their investment costs when calculating taxable income and that this creates a bias against business investment"). The current seven individual tax brackets would be consolidated into three at rates of 12, 20.5, and 37 percent. The standard deduction would nearly double, from $6,350 ($12,700 married filing jointly) to $12,000 ($24,000 married filing jointly). Projected GDP growth: 7.1 percent. Trade-offs: It would eliminate all itemized deductions, except the home mortgage interest and the charitable contribution deductions. The home mortgage interest deduction would be capped at $500,000 of acquisition debt. Family and child benefits would be consolidated. The personal exemption would be replaced with a $500 non-refundable credit for non-child dependents. Option B: Cut the corporate income tax rate from the current 35 percent to 15 percent. Make bonus depreciation permanent and broaden the corporate tax base by eliminating nonstructural business tax expenditures. The current seven individual tax brackets would be consolidated into three at rates of 10, 25, and 38 percent. The standard deduction would be greatly increased, from $6,350 to $50,000 for single filers (from $100,000 married filing jointly; $75,000 heads of household). Projected GDP growth: 3.2 percent. Trade-offs: The personal exemption and all personal credits would be eliminated, including the current Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit (they would be replaced by new consolidated credits: a new work credit, a new child tax credit, and a new additional chi[...]

Graham-Cassidy Promises States More Flexibility; Leaves Washington Fully in Charge of Americans' Health Care

Thu, 21 Sep 2017 11:02:00 -0400

On the same day that 10 governors—a mix of Republicans and Democrats—announced their opposition to a new health care bill being positioned for a vote in the U.S. Senate, one governor's statement of support stood out. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, said the Graham-Cassidy health care bill is "the best path forward to repeal and replace Obamacare," in a Facebook post Monday, and called for "Congress and the Administration to give states more flexibility and more options moving forward." The extent to which the Graham-Cassidy bill—so named because its chief architects are Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.—increases flexibility for states is a subject of some importance, and much debate, as the Senate mulls the proposal. Along with other changes to the Affordable Care Act, the bill would abolish Obamacare's Medicaid expansion and would instead block grant more than $1.1 trillion in federal health care spending to the states between 2020 and 2026. It would also allow states to waive Obamacare rules prohibiting charging different insurance rates to women and to people with pre-existing conditions, for example, and rules requiring coverage of certain benefits on the individual market. The bill would grant states significant new flexibility to determine how Obamacare dollars are spent. That might seem like a welcome sign that, as Ducey put it, Congress and the White House are interested in giving states more flexibility when it comes to health care policy. "This bill—while imperfect—gives states a real opportunity to re-imagine their healthcare systems," says Naomi Lopez Bauman, director of health care policy for the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, a free market think tank. "If a state can figure out a way to use the subsidies to provide a direct benefit across the market, they can do it." That flexibility might only go so far. While Bauman sees the proposal as a flawed-but-potentially-positive step towards greater state-level control of health care policy, other analysts warn that state control over health care might be counter-productive if the goal is reducing the role of government in health care decisions. Any movement towards federalism in the Graham-Cassidy bill would come only with the expressed permission of the federal government, could be rescinded at any time, and may not even survive next week's expected Senate debate on the bill. Already, there are movements to limit what states can do with those block grants. "If you give a big chunk of money to California, they're going to go set up a single-payer system run by the state and then come back and say 'we don't have enough money, we need more,'" Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., told the Washington Examiner on Monday. He's proposed adding language to the Graham-Cassidy bill explicitly forbidding states from using the new block grants towards the establishment of a state-run single-payer system. On one hand, Kennedy is right to be worried about the cost of single-payer plans set up by California or New York. "Given the renewed enthusiasm on the left for the abolition of private health insurance through single-payer systems, there can be little doubt that this is the direction that blue states will take under Graham-Cassidy," predicts Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a free market think tank. Those systems are likely to be far more expensive than what would be covered by the Graham-Cassidy block grants—and, once established, could be used as an argument for increasing federal funding to the states. Allowing states to experiment with health care policy could help policymakers discover what works and what doesn't. A single-payer plan in Vermont collapsed because the state could not pay for it, and efforts in New York, California, or elsewhere are likely to meet the same ends. [...]

Congress Does Not Want Its War Power

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 00:01:00 -0400

The short-lived CBS series Brain Dead, now available on Netflix, is a science-fiction satire about an invasion of Washington, D.C., by extraterrestrial bugs that crawl into people's ears and hijack their minds as part of a plot to conquer the world. But the most implausible aspect of the story is a dramatic Senate committee vote on whether to authorize military action in Syria. In the real world, of course, no such vote is necessary, because the president does whatever he wants with the armed forces he controls while Congress abdicates its constitutional responsibility to decide when the country should go to war. Last week 61 senators showed they are happy with that situation by tabling an amendment that would have forced a debate about endless, metastasizing wars that cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives without making Americans any safer. The amendment, introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would have repealed the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and the 2002 resolution approving the war in Iraq. The repeal would have taken effect in six months, giving Congress time to consider the justification for continued U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the various other countries supposedly covered by those resolutions. "The war in Afghanistan has gone on 16 years now," Paul said before the vote on his amendment. "We have people who will be fighting in the war…in the next year or so who were not yet born on 9/11. We have long since killed the people who perpetrated 9/11." For years Donald Trump opposed what has become America's longest war, calling it "a total and complete disaster" that has "wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure." After becoming president, he changed his mind, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to remain in a country where by his own account "we don't know what we are doing." But as far as 61 senators are concerned, there is nothing to debate here. Barack Obama said the 2001 AUMF should be repealed because it was dangerously obsolete. He nevertheless claimed it authorized military action against ISIS, which did not exist when the resolution was passed. Obama belatedly sought congressional permission for that war while insisting he did not need it. But as far as 61 senators are concerned, there is nothing to debate here. Paul notes that Congress never approved U.S. intervention in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, or Somalia. As a presidential candidate, Trump criticized such ham-handed meddling in foreign civil wars. As president, not so much. But as far as 61 senators are concerned, there is nothing to debate here. Obama opposed the war in Iraq. So did Trump, although not until after it started. Even Hillary Clinton, who as a senator voted for the war, eventually conceded it was a mistake. "For years now," Paul noted last week, "some senators and candidates have lamented that they voted for the Iraq war." But as far as 61 senators are concerned, there is nothing to debate here. Those 61 senators include every Republican aside from Paul, Mike Lee (Utah), and Dean Heller (Nev.), who opposed tabling Paul's amendment, and Marco Rubio (Fla.), who did not vote. Opponents of the amendment also included 13 Democrats, several of whom have publicly questioned Trump's fitness for office. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) thinks Trump is a "buffoon." Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) says Trump is attacking "basic institutions of government…in unprecedented ways." Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who last year remarked that Trump "doesn't seem to know what's happening outside of Trump Tower," recently worried that he "tries to make national security policy or foreign policy through tweeting." In July a hot mic caught Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) calling Trump "crazy." These senators view th[...]

Congress to Trump: Reform Surveillance Authorities or Lose Them

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 12:15:00 -0400

Federal surveillance authority reforms may be coming, whether the President Donald Trump's administration and the intelligence community likes it or not. To be clear, they do not, despite the Trump's vocal complaining that he was snooped on during the election campaign. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows for unwarranted secret surveillance of foreign targets outside of American soil, is set to expire this year. It's a tool for keeping an eye out for terrorist plots as well as foreign espionage. But Section 702 gets messy because sometimes communications and information originating from American citizens gets scooped up in this surveillance. That's what happened to members of Trump's staff during and after his election. When communications from Americans gets caught up in the surveillance, there are procedures to "minimize" both access and exposure of the individuals' identities. But there are also procedures for unmasking and revealing this information, so domestic federal agencies like the FBI are frequently able to access this data and use it for crime-fighting other than foreign terrorism. All of this is happening secretly, without traditional warrants, conflicting with the Fourth Amendment. Reformers want changes to Section 702 before renewal to better protect the rights of American citizens. According to Charlie Savage at The New York Times, the reformers may be winning. A bipartisan group of senators is looking to add some limits to Section 702's authorities: The lawmakers — including the Republican representatives Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia and Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the current and former committee chairmen, and Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat — have privately agreed to support extending the law, the FISA Amendments Act, through 2023, according to congressional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations. It is set to expire at the end of December. As part of an extension, they also have agreed to push for restrictions on surveillance. Among them is a requirement that F.B.I. agents obtain warrants before searching the program's repository of intercepted messages for information about American criminal suspects. And they want to ban a disputed form of internet surveillance in which the agency collected emails that were about a foreign target of surveillance but neither to nor from that person; the N.S.A. voluntarily ceased that form of surveillance this year but wants to retain the flexibility to turn it back on again. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said they want Section 702 renewed permanently, without changes. Neither cares about the Fourth Amendment implications. But Goodlatte says the White House does not have the votes in the House of Representatives to get what it wants. And because of the sunset provision, the administration does not have a lot of leverage. All the reformers and the opponents of Section 702 have to do to win is refuse to pass new legislation. The House Freedom Caucus warned back in June they did not support a blanket renewal of Section 702. In that sense, what's happening to Section 702 seems similar to what happened with Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Edward Snowden revealed the abuse of this section and the authorization of the mass collection of metadata about the communications of millions of Americans here within the United States. When it came time for Section 215's renewal, however, Congress didn't have the votes. It expired and was replaced by the USA Freedom Act, which still allows for access to collected metadata from phone communications, but includes stricter search guidelines. So the Trump administration may have to go along with these ref[...]

Yes, Licensing Boards Are Cartels

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 09:05:00 -0400

Licensing boards are perhaps the most powerful labor institution in American history. The best estimates available suggest that roughly 30 percent of American workers are now required to get a license from one of those quasi-government agencies before they can enter the workforce. That's about the same percentage of the workforce that was a member of a union in the 1950s, the decade when union membership peaked before falling off to about half that percentage today. There's no debate about whether the federal government has a role to play in regulating the activities of labor unions, of course. Should Congress do something about licensing boards? "I think federal interest in this is really important," says Rebecca Allensworth, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University. The "dirty secret behind licensing boards," Allensworth told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon, is that very little of what they do resembles government activity. While growing to become the largest labor institution in American history, they have too often become a self-serving institutions that act like cartels instead of protectors of public health and safety. In research she published last year, Allensworth looked at all 1,790 state occupational licensing boards operating in America. Of those, she found that 1,515 (85 percent) of them were required by state statute to be comprised of a majority of currently licensed professionals in the same field. "These boards are formed, by law, as cartels," Allensworth said Tuesday. State legislatures have increasingly outsourced professional regulation to licensing boards, and in theory that's not necessarily a bad idea. Professionals working in a given field are likely to have more expertise about what rules might be needed. But in exchange for expertise, states have created the potential for professional self-dealing. And that's not just theoretical. It's very real. In North Carolina, for example, a board comprised by a majority of actively practicing dentists decided in 2012 to send cease-and-desist letters to kiosks offering teeth whitening services. The practice of whitening teeth, the board declared, could only be done by licensed dentists. In that instance, the Federal Trade Commission intervened. The whole case wound up in the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2015 that licensing boards controlled by a majority of "active market participants" could not make deliberately anticompetitive rules, unless those boards were "actively supervised" by some other element of state government. Some states have responded to the Supreme Court ruling by changing how their boards operate, but the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC case created more questions than answers. That's why Congress is now getting involved. In July, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), along with three Republican senators, introduced the Restoring Board Immunity Act to clarify how state licensing boards need to be structured in order to avoid potentially expensive lawsuits challenging boards' anticompetitive rules. "You want them to be public entities, but virtually no states prohibit them from self-dealing," Issa said Tuesday during the hearing on the bill. Lawmakers would have recuse themselves from voting on legislation that affects their own businesses, but there is no such requirement for members of licensing boards, he pointed out. In the end, licensing issues will be settled at the state level. Issa's bill is merely intended to steer states towards potential solutions to the problems created by the 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Among other things, states would have to pass legislation requiring lawmakers to conduct comprehensive reviews of their licensing boards every five years. Those would include a cost/benefit analysis and [...]

House Rules Committee Blocks Amendment Protecting Medical Marijuana

Thu, 07 Sep 2017 12:50:00 -0400

Yesterday the House Rules Committee blocked a floor vote on an amendment barring the Justice Department from interfering with state laws allowing medical use of marijuana. The amendment, which was first enacted in 2014 and has been renewed twice since then, could still be included in the final spending bill, since it has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill will be worked out by a bicameral conference committee. "By blocking our amendment, Committee leadership is putting at risk the millions of patients who rely on medical marijuana for treatment, as well as the clinics and businesses that support them," said the amendment's current sponsors, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). "This decision goes against the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly oppose federal interference with state marijuana laws. These critical protections are supported by a majority of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle. There's no question: If a vote were allowed, our amendment would pass on the House floor, as it has several times before." Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged Congress to block the Rohrabacher-Bluemnauer amendment last May, arguing that "it would be unwise to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime." Exactly what medical marijuana had to do with any of that was unclear, but the Justice Department generally opposes limits on its prosecutorial discretion, and Sessions' anti-pot prejudices are well-known. In a Washington Post op-ed piece this week, Rohrabacher rebutted Sessions' clumsy attempt to blame medical marijuana for recent increases in opioid use and opioid-related deaths. To the contrary, he said, marijuana is a safer alternative to opioids. "The drug-war apparatus will not give ground without a fight," he wrote, "even if it deprives Americans of medical alternatives and inadvertently creates more dependency on opioids. When its existence depends on asset seizures and other affronts to our Constitution, why should anti-medical-marijuana forces care if they've contributed inadvertently to a vast market, both legal and illegal, for opioids?" Unlike Sessions, Donald Trump has repeatedly said he supports medical marijuana and thinks states should be free to allow it. So even if the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment is not renewed for the next fiscal year, it is not clear that Sessions will try to shut down state-licensed medical marijuana suppliers. The amendment does not cover state-legal marijuana merchants serving the recreational market, who nevertheless have escaped prosecution so far, even though they are openly committing federal felonies every day. A cannabis crackdown would not be popular. In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, 61 percent of registered voters said marijuana should be legal for recreational use, while a whopping 94 percent said medical use should be allowed. Seventy-five percent opposed enforcement of the federal ban in states that have legalized marijuana for either purpose. "When an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose federal interference in state medical marijuana programs, it is unconscionable not to let their representatives vote on whether to continue this policy," said Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach at the Marijuana Policy Project. "Unless Congress chooses the Senate budget version, millions of seriously ill patients and the legitimate businesses that provide them with safe access to their medicine will be at risk of prosecution. This vote is a slap in the face of patients, their famili[...]

Legislation in Congress Would Block Jeff Sessions’ Asset Forfeiture Bonanza

Thu, 31 Aug 2017 15:45:00 -0400

Several House Republicans are proposing amendments to a large funding bill moving through Congress to block Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent directive expanding the federal government's civil asset forfeiture program. Last month, Sessions announced he was rolling back Obama-era restrictions on when federal law enforcement could "adopt" civil asset forfeiture cases from local and state police. Conservative and liberal civil liberties groups say federal "adoptions" amount to a loophole allowing local police to avoid stricter state laws and higher standards of evidence when seizing private property. Nearly half of all states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past several years in response to bipartisan pressure and media investigations that revealed asset forfeiture abuses and their disproportionate impact on poor and minority residents. Under typical civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property when they suspect it's connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not convicted or even charged with a crime. The four amendments are proposed to be added to H.R. 3354, a massive piece of legislation consolidating eight other appropriations bills. Each aims in slightly different ways to stop the Justice Department from spending any funds to implement Sessions' order. Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), a vocal critic of asset forfeiture, introduced an amendment that would block the Justice Department from funding any of the activities prohibited by a 2015 directive from former attorney general Eric Holder limiting the program. "When the government takes people's property without due process, it's a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments—and it's theft," Amash says in a statement to Reason. "I'm writing a bill to end civil asset forfeiture throughout the United States. In the meantime, my amendment will prevent state and local law enforcement from teaming up with the federal government to sidestep state laws that restrict these unconstitutional takings." Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Tim Walberg (R-MI) are asking for a change blocking the Justice Department from funding Sessions' directive. The department's forfeiture program existed prior to Sessions' order, so it's unclear what effects the amendments would have if passed. A fourth proposed amendment by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) would simply block spending for any transfer from the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund to state or local police. The amendments were first noted by FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that has opposed civil asset forfeiture. "Let's be clear. Congress has to pass comprehensive legislation to reform federal forfeiture laws, which have been abused and will continue to be abused under Attorney General Sessions' directive," FreedomWorks vice president of legislative affairs Jason Pye tells Reason. "But an amendment prohibiting the use of funds from being used to carry out adoptive seizures is something that FreedomWorks will wholeheartedly support. It will be a positive step forward to address the issue until a bill like the DUE PROCESS Act, FAIR Act or some other yet to be introduced legislation is passed." Another amendment by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) would redirect $10 million from the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Fund into the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program. The amendments head to the House Rules Committee, which will decide which amendments will be considered in floor votes on the bill. Those votes are expected to happen next week. With the passage of legislation a small miracle these days, legislators have taken to tacking amendments onto funding bills needed to keep the government running. These bills are necessary with[...]

Instead of Filling Vacancies, Congress Should Abolish the NLRB

Tue, 29 Aug 2017 11:30:00 -0400

The U.S. Senate voted earlier this month to confirm Marvin Kaplan's appointment to the National Labor Relations Board, filling one of two vacancies on the five-member panel charged with setting policy for union elections and for adjudicating conflicts between union workers and employers. Rather than fill the other vacancy on the highly politicized board—which operated with only three members during most of the Obama administration because Senate Republicans refused to confirm appointees—perhaps Congress should do away with the board altogether. Created in 1933 as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act, a Depression-era law that gave the president sweeping authority to institute wage and price controls, the NLRB existed to settle sometimes-violent disputes that erupted between unions and employers. It is well past time to recognize the fundamental flaws in the NLRB, which have led the board to become politicized and partisan, says says Trey Kovacs, a labor policy analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. "The NLRB was created to be impartial government members that represented the public interest in labor disputes. That no longer happens," Kovacs says. "Democrats and Republicans basically appoint labor lawyers or employment lawyers who favor one side or the other, so it no longer represents the public interest." The NLRB is a quasi-judicial body, but hardly operates like one. Courts look to past rulings when making decisions. The NLRB is guided not by precedent, but by the whims of the board members. Outcomes tend to go in one direction or the other, depending on the ideology of the majority. "Case precedent flip-flops depending on which party is in power," says Kovacs. "So they don't really exercise any expertise, just their political will." With a 2-1 majority of Democratic appointees during the Obama administration, the board handed down a number of decisions favorable to labor unions. It allowed for the creation of so-called "micro unions" within workplaces. It dramatically shortened the length of time between when a union calls for an election and when that election is held, allowing for "ambush elections" in workplaces. The move was criticized by employers who complained they no longer had enough time to state their case against unionizing before an election. Appointing someone to the board has become as or more contentious than getting someone appointed to a federal court. Republicans issued an ultimatum to President Barack Obama in 2015 refusing to confirm additional members unless Obama nominated a candidate approved by the GOP. He declined. Had Hillary Clinton won the White House last year, it's easy to imagine a continued standoff. It's also easy to see some future Democratic-controlled Senate refusing to confirm appointees from a Republican administration. Indeed, the vote on August 2 to confirm Kaplan as the NLRB's fourth member was straight down party lines, and Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took to the Senate floor to condemn what she saw as "a new anti-worker nominee." That degree of politicization leaves the NLRB gridlocked and unpredictable in the long term. Whether you favor business or labor, that's no way to make policy or settle disputes. Kovacs suggests labor law cases go directly to federal court, where judges are beholden to precedent and are unlikely to be appointed specifically because they favor one side or the other in worker-employer disputes. In a telling ruling issued the day before Kaplan's confirmation, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a NLRB decision in favor of eight union reps who had been arrested for who occupying an[...]