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Published: Sun, 21 Jan 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 21 Jan 2018 13:34:08 -0500


Avoiding a Government Shutdown Means Adding $30 Billion (at Least) to the Debt

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 14:50:00 -0500

Keeping the government open will come with a hefty price tag, and lawmakers seem poised to put it all on the nation's credit card. With a possible shutdown of the federal government looming unless lawmakers agree to a new spending plan before midnight on Friday, the House on Thursday passed a continuing resolution (CR) extending current spending through February 19. Tied up with the CR to keep the government open are bills to extend funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for six years and a deal to address the status of so-called "Dreamers," illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, which is itself tied up with Trump's desire to ramp-up security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Because the CR requires 60 votes to pass the Senate, Republicans are unable to pass it without Democratic votes. Those votes are, for now, not forthcoming. What happens in the next 10 hours, before the shutdown happens, is still anyone's guess—about the only thing that is clear is that House-passed CR is dead in the Senate. And for anyone worried about the status of the federal debt, that's good news. Though it was largely lost behind the other issues being discussed in advance of the possible shutdown, the CR passed by the House on Thursday would have added another $30 billion to the national debt. It would have ignored spending caps set by Congress in 2011 and would have disregarded cuts implemented as part of the 2013 sequester. Tax cuts included in the CR would further add to the national debt. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget points out, the bill would have included a two-year delay of the so-called "Cadillac tax" on high-cost health insurance plans, which is set to go into effect in 2020, a one-year suspension of the health insurer tax, which was suspended last year, went into effect for 2018, and would be suspended again for 2019, and a two-year delay of the medical device tax, which came back into effect in 2018 but no tax has been due yet. "We need our leaders to reach a budget deal that sets achievable discretionary caps and finances any near-term spending increases with permanent spending cuts or new revenue," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the CFRB, in a statement about the House-passed CR. "The ultimate goal should be to reduce ballooning deficits – this bill increases them." It could get worse. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) tweeted Thursday before the House vote that the CR was a prelude to further increases in those spending caps. Worse yet, Congress is passing this CR to buy time to negotiate another INCREASE in the spending caps. When will Republicans start limiting government? — Justin Amash (@justinamash) January 19, 2018 Coming as it does in the immediate aftermath of the passage of a major tax cut that will reduce government revenues by about $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, the idea that Congress is trying to increase spending seems like the height of fiscal insanity. Every dollar spent today must be collected in taxes someday later. Cutting taxes is great, but it's also easy. Cutting spending, it seems, is near impossible for Congress to even consider—indeed, they are far more interested in finding ways to get around existing limits on spending than they are in reducing spending at all. It appears that the House-passed CR is dead. Whatever comes next could quite possibly be worse.[...]

Meet the Republicans Who Care About Surveillance Abuse Only When Trump's the Target (UPDATE: Trump Signs 702 Bill)

Fri, 19 Jan 2018 13:15:00 -0500

Some lawmakers who just voted to expand the feds' ability to secretly snoop on Americans are suddenly very concerned about how such surveillance might have been misused. They're not concerned about the privacy of average Americans like you or me. They'e concerned that some FBI officials and members of the Obama administration may have abused Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) authorities to spy on and leak communications from Donald Trump's campaign staff. Members of the House have seen a four-page classified memo originating from the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee. It reportedly claims significant misconduct and abuse of the FISA approval process to go after Trump's campaign. I can't be much more specific about what the memo says because I can't see it. It's classified. The lawmakers who have seen it cannot say what's in it. (Again, it's classified.) But a bunch of Republican lawmakers have been coming forward to insist that it's very bad and that we should all be very concerned. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) called the contents "worse than Watergate." They want the memo's contents declassified and released. Conservatives are pushing a hashtag campaign, #ReleaseTheMemo, calling for the public to see the documents and the allegations within. Honestly, they should release the memo. It may just be political theater intended to discredit the investigation into Trump's staff, but that's an argument in favor of releasing the memo, not withholding it: If its contents are hogwash, then we can all see that it's hogwash, say so, and move on. As it stands, we're stuck with grandstanding politicians with obvious agendas butting heads against other grandstanding politicians with other obvious agendas, and the public doesn't even have the benefit of knowing what the memo actually says. We're just being told to feel a certain way based on partisan loyalties. But let's make something clear here: These guys only care about how the FISA surveillance abuses affect them. Rep. King voted just last week to let the feds secretly collect the communications of Americans, without warrants, and use what they find in domestic criminal investigations—under a law originally intended to spy on foreign terrorists and agents of espionage. Check out this tweet campaign from Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.): The American public deserves the truth. We should not hide the truth from them. They've waited too long. Do not pull the wool over their eyes. Show them the facts. They deserve nothing less. #ReleaseTheMemo #ReleaseTheFile #FISAMemo — Lee Zeldin (@RepLeeZeldin) January 19, 2018 Zeldin seems terribly concerned about the abuse of federal surveillance, but just like King he voted last week to expand the government's authority to surveil its citizens. Not every Republican is a hypocrite here. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) also tweeted out his concerns about the memo's contents and wants it publicly released. Unlike Zeldin, he voted against renewing and expanding FISA surveillance authorities. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who has said he finds the memo's contents "extremely disturbing," has been attempting to reform the FISA Amendments to stop warrantless searches of Americans' communications. But pols like Zeldin and King are essentially the inverse of the Democratic lawmakers who call Trump a wannabe dictator but then vote just like Zeldin and King to expand federal surveillance powers. Edward Snowden and some other folks are hoping this burst of outrage will prompt President Trump to veto this renewal of federal snooping powers. After all, we did have that awkward tweet last week where Trump worried about FISA abuse and contradicted the White House's formal position in favor of the legislation. Don't hold your breath, though. It's great that there are a few people in Congress like Poe and Yoho who care about the Fourth Amendment all around, but Trump is interested only in how surveillance has been used to hurt him. The narrative being sold here is not that these broad surveillance authorities [...]

Prosecute Former Spymaster James Clapper for Lying to Congress Now. Time is Running Out.

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 12:30:00 -0500

(image) James Clapper, then the Director of National Intelligence, flat out lied to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) at Senate hearing on March 12, 2013 when he was asked whether the National Security Agency collects "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." Clapper replied, "No sir. Not wittingly."

The fact that Clapper had wittingly lied to Congress was made clear just three months later by whistleblower and patriot Edward Snowden's revelations of the vast extent of the NSA's warrantless electronic spying on Americans.

Clapper should have been prosecuted for lying long ago. The statute of limitations on perjury will run out this coming March, so time is of the essence. The Washington Examiner cites numerous lawmakers urgently calling for the prosecution of Clapper including Representatives Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), and Ted Poe (R-Tex.) who argues, "The time for the Department of Justice and the FBI to bring the accusations against James Clapper in front of a grand jury is long overdue. He and others who have held administrative power must be held accountable to the same laws that govern the people of the United States."

Evan Greer from the privacy activist group Fight for the Future tells the Examiner:

"James Clapper lied to Congress, and to the American people, about U.S. government surveillance programs that allow agencies like the NSA and FBI to constantly monitor all of us without due process or any suspicion of wrongdoing. Allowing the government to turn our computers and phones into spies that we take with us everywhere we go is detrimental to human rights and has a chilling effect on freedom of expression, but the worst part is that there is zero evidence that these programs have ever stopped a single violent attack."

"What makes these mass government surveillance programs so dangerous is that they're allowed to operate without any meaningful accountability or oversight," Greer added. "The fact that James Clapper is free to go about his life while Edward Snowden is still exiled is a travesty of justice."

Yes, it is.

Of course, when Clapper is found guility at trial (as he surely would be), the former spy chief should be sentenced to prison for five years for his perjury.

Watch below to see Clapper baldface lie to Congress:

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Republicans Have Made Two Arguments for Bringing Back Earmarks. They're Both Wrong.

Thu, 11 Jan 2018 10:59:00 -0500

Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 with promises to clean up Washington's profligate spending and shrink government. One of their first major accomplishments was killing the congressional earmark, a wasteful, corrupt practice scorned by tea party activists and the new generation of GOP lawmakers elected by them. Eight years later, the Republican Party is led by a president who yearns for a return to earmarks and legislative leaders who, with their time in power possibly growing short, could undo one of the few genuinely positive accomplishments on their record. There's a lesson about the nature of politics in here, if you take a careful look. President Donald Trump, during a televised "negotiation session" with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle Tuesday, floated the idea of resurrecting earmarks as a way to grease the skids in Congress. If that was all, it could be easily dismissed. Trump is not exactly a disciplined speaker nor soundly versed in policy—during Tuesday's negotiations, he appeared to agree with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on immigration, only to be corrected moments later by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), with whom Trump then expressed agreement. But some Republican lawmakers have been working behind the scenes since last year to revive earmarks. According to Politico, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters this week that he's open to having "conversations" about the idea. That would be most unfortunate. Earmarks are among the most grotesque forms of political privilege, special favors lawmakers hand out as rewards to faithful campaign donors or to help sway voters, paid for by the rest of us. Both parties were guilty of abusing the system, but many of the most memorable abuses were Republican efforts. In the early 2000s, then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) bought land near his farm, then inserted a $200 million earmark to fund the construction of a road through the same plot of land—which, of course, had to be purchased from Dennis Hastert. Former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) was convicted of taking $2 million in bribes and living rent-free on a private yacht in return for funneling earmarks to defense contractors. The most infamous earmark of all—the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere," a $400 million transportation project intended to link an island with 50 residents to the rest of mainland Alaska—was slipped into a 2005 spending bill by the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Even when they're not literal bridges to nowhere, earmarks are pretty good metaphors for what's wrong with our political system, so why would anyone want to bring them back? There are two basic arguments. Trump made one on Tuesday. "Maybe all of you should start thinking about going back to a system of earmarks," said Trump. "One thing it did is it brought everybody together." This is pure golden-ageism. There was a higher degree of bipartisanship in the past. There were also earmarks in the past. But bringing back earmarks won't revitalize bipartisanship any more than forcing members of Congress to use rotary phones. Earmarks also run counter to everything Trump supposedly wants to do. "Earmarks are the antithesis of the 'drain the swamp' election that sent President Trump to the White House. They are corrupt, inequitable, and wasteful," says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscal conservative group that campaigned for killing earmarks. "We urge President Trump to reconsider and withdraw his recommendation upon consideration of the sordid history of earmarks." If a bill can't pass without bribing backbenchers with teapot museums and turtle tunnels—real, actual earmark projects of the past—you have to consider the possibility the bill doesn't deserve to pass. True, getting rid of earmarks hasn't fixed the problem of wasteful government spending. There's still plenty of outrageous executive branch agency spending. Citizens Against Government Waste [...]

Darrell Issa Retiring from Seat He Barely Won Last Time

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 15:00:00 -0500

(image) Darrell Issa, widely considered the most vulnerable Republican in this November's House elections, announced today that he is retiring from Congress.

Issa, who has represented his corner of California since 2001, chaired the House Government Oversight Committee from 2010 to 2015. There he led probes into whether the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeted Tea Party groups; how the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) lost track of illegally purchased U.S. guns it allowed to be taken to Mexico; troubles with Transportation Security Administration body scanners; and, of course, Benghazi. He also ended the preposterous congressional hearings into steroid use in baseball.

Unfortunately, little of this led to substantive action. Forget abolishing the IRS—Issa's investigations didn't even let us review or reduce the ATF's budget. As of 2016, nearly 800 body scanners were deployed at 157 airports.

Nevertheless, the investigations were still by and large far more useful than anything the committee, now obsessed with Russia, has produced in the last year.

Also on the plus side: In 2012, Issa prevented an amendment from gutting Texas Rep. Ron Paul's Audit the Fed bill. (Paul's legislation passed the House unanimously but died in the Senate.) Issa also introduced a sensible bill last year aimed at preventing state licensing boards from self-dealing. A vocal critic of asset forfeiture, Issa recently tried to defund the Department of Justice's asset forfeiture fund.

In other ways, alas, Issa was an orthodox Republican. He voted for the Iraq war and the PATRIOT Act, and his zest for government oversight faded after President Trump took office.

He faced an uphill battle for re-election: Hillary Clinton won his district by nine points over Trump in 2016, when Issa won over his Democratic opponent by about half a percentage point. With today's announcement, someone else will have to carry the GOP's banner in the race.

Amash, Paul, and Others Trying to Stop Congress from Expanding Domestic Surveillance Powers

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 12:20:00 -0500

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and a bipartisan group of 42 lawmakers are going to try to stop Congress from expanding the feds' ability to snoop on American citizens. If they fail, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is threatening a filibuster in the Senate. This week the House is considering legislation to renew Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments. This law grants intelligence agencies the authority to snoop on foreign targets on foreign soil without warrants, overseen by a secretive FISA court. This is done in the name of stopping espionage and terrorism. But the surveillance powers have also been secretly used on Americans to track down evidence of other crimes, without a warrant, circumventing both the Fourth Amendment and the FISA Amendments' stated intent. "We think that is unconstitutional, hugely problematic, and we're here to defend the rights of the American people," Amash said this morning at a press conference attended by members of both parties in both houses of Congress. Section 702 had been set to expire at the end of 2017 if it was not renewed. But several lawmakers refused to vote for its renewal unless it is reformed to protect Americans against warrantless surveillance. Unable to reach an agreement, lawmakers kicked the can down the road and just renewed Section 702 unchanged until January 19. Tomorrow, the House may take up one proposed renewal bill. Unfortunately, the bill they're considering is absolutely awful. The FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017—pushed by the intelligence committees of both the House and the Senate—explicitly authorizes the exact violations of citizens' privacy that Amash and company are trying to stop. Rather than demanding that the FBI and NSA get warrants before they access Americans' private data and communications, it does the opposite: It gives the feds formal permission to snoop on citizens for a list of federal crimes without getting a warrant first. Amash has introduced a substitute amendment in the House that would replace the text with the contents of the USA RIGHTS Act. This is an alternative bill sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in the Senate and by Amash, Ted Poe (R-Texas), and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) in the House. The USA Rights Act would restrain the feds from using information collected in secret unwarranted FISA searches as evidence in court cases. It would also forbid "about" searches, where feds snoop on communications that are "about" a target as opposed to just communications to and from that target. And it would forbid "reverse targeting," where the feds snoop on foreign targets for the purpose of accessing the communications of the Americans talking to them. At today's press conference, Paul said he would filibuster any plan to renew Section 702 without warrant protections for Americans. To judge from the turnout this morning, it looks like he won't be alone if he does. I've written extensively about the difference between these two bills under consideration and what they do. If you need a refresher, check out this primer. Or read what Paul himself had to say at Reason about FISA reauthorization here.[...]

4 Things Congress Can Do to Stop a Cannabis Crackdown

Mon, 08 Jan 2018 13:50:00 -0500

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions provoked bipartisan protests from members of Congress when he rescinded Obama administration guidelines discouraging U.S. attorneys from prosecuting state-legal marijuana suppliers. The move united progressive Democrats who support drug policy reform with conservative Republicans who believe in federalism (especially if they happen to represent one of the 29 states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use). Legislators, of course, can do more than complain; they have the power to resolve the conflict between state and federal law in this area more definitively than Justice Department memos ever could. Here are some of their options. 1. Spending Rider Since 2014 a spending rider now known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment has prohibited the Justice Department from interfering with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, the rider means the DOJ may not prosecute people for marijuana-related conduct that complies with state law, even in cases initiated before the rider was passed. The rider must be renewed every fiscal year, and Sessions has urged Congress not to do so, saying it unwisely constrains prosecutorial discretion. The amendment, which was extended through January 19, will expire after then unless it is included in the overdue omnibus spending bill for this fiscal year. As currently written, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment does not protect state-licensed marijuana suppliers who serve recreational customers. In light of Sessions' decision, there is a decent chance that an expanded version of the rider, covering all state marijuana laws that depart from prohibition, will be included in the next omnibus spending bill. But the rider would last only until the end of the current fiscal year, after which it would have to be renewed again. It is also possible that other federal appeals courts will read the rider more narrowly than the 9th Circuit has (although that circuit does include five of the eight states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use). 2. Respect State Marijuana Laws Act Recognizing the uncertainty caused by the limited duration and scope of his spending rider, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is also sponsoring the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, which he and Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) first introduced in 2013. The act is admirable in its simplicity, declaring that the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act dealing with cannabis "shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with State laws relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marihuana." The current version of the bill, introduced last February, has two dozen cosponsors, including 12 Republicans. It may pick up more support thanks to Sessions. "Because of @jeffsessions actions," Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) tweeted on Friday, "I'm joining the 'Respect State Marijuana Laws' bill. I believe in States' Rights & I've seen how cannabis derived medicines can stop seizures in a child, help a veteran cope with pain, or provide relief to a senior with glaucoma." 3. Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act The Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, which was introduced by Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) last February, is somewhat more ambitious than Rohrabacher's bill but would have much the same practical effect. Rather than carving out exceptions to the federal ban, it removes marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act entirely while criminalizing its importation into states where it remains illegal. The bill has 15 cosponsors, including five Republicans. 4. Marijuana Justice Act Like Garrett's bill, the Marijuana Justice Act, which was introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) last August, would deschedule marijuana. It also includes provisions expunging federal mari[...]

Congressional New Year's Resolutions

Fri, 29 Dec 2017 10:30:00 -0500

As 2017 thankfully limps to its conclusion, we turn our sights to 2018 and ways in which Congress can be less awful. In this special holiday edition of "Mostly Weekly" Andrew Heaton comes up with some out-of-the-box ideas for our legislators:

And, of course, what to do about that shrimp running on a government-funded treadmill.

Mostly Weekly is hosted by Andrew Heaton with headwriter Sarah Rose Siskind. Watch past episodes here.

Script by Andrew Heaton with writing assistance from Sarah Rose Siskind
Edited by Austin Bragg and Sarah Rose Siskind.
Produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg.
Theme Song: Frozen by Surfer Blood.

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Congress Kicks Surveillance Debate into 2018

Wed, 27 Dec 2017 14:05:00 -0500

(image) As 2017 comes to a close, Congress, still divided over how (or whether) to limit federal surveillance authorities, has kicked the can down the road to at least January 19.

As part of a continuing resolution to keep the federal government running for a few more weeks, Congress extended the deadline to decide what to do about Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments.

Section 702 grants the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) the authority to engage in covert, unwarranted surveillance of foreign targets overseas. It is a source of public controversy in recent years because it has become clear and public that the federal government has been using this authority to secretly collect data and communications from and about American citizens and using it as evidence for domestic crime investigations, without getting warrants and without citizens knowing it was happening.

Section 702 expires at the end of the year, or it would have if not for the continuing resolution passed right before Christmas. Before renewing Section 702, civil rights activists groups and privacy rights-oriented lawmakers want to make sure the law's text is reformed so that the use of unwarranted surveillance against American citizens is restricted.

But Congressional leadership, White House officials, and the intelligence community are reluctant to see any changes that might restrict surveillance powers. Right before the holiday, the House tried and failed to advance an absolutely terrible renewal bill that would have given the FBI and NSA formal permission to use unwarranted surveillance to investigate a whole bunch of domestic crimes in this law aimed at foreign targets.

That effort failed and this short-term renewal means the fight is far from over. Technically, the FBI and NSA say that they don't actually have to start winding down their surveillance until April, so there's still time to fight over how to reword the law (for information on which bills are currently in circulation, written in plain English, read here).

But the continuing resolution briefly postponed budget fights to keep the government open. There's still a very high likelihood that some sort of surveillance renewal could get jammed into a spending bill that gets passed with little discussion. Senators like Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) say they'll fight efforts to pass a Section 702 renewal without any debate in Congress. And they've put together the bill that best protects American citizens from unwarranted surveillance.

We thought this fight might be over by the end of the year, but it's going to keep going into 2018.

Will Opening Up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Spark Another Alaska Oil Boom?

Thu, 21 Dec 2017 14:30:00 -0500

"Please God, give me one more oil boom. This time I promise not to piss it away." I heard that phrase several times when I was on a lecture tour in Alaska in the early 1990s. In 1979, just two years after crude had begun flowing down the Alaska pipeline from the North Slope, the real price of oil was nearly $100 per barrel. By the time of my visit, the price had fallen to under $25 per barrel. Back then about 1.5 million barrels per day were arriving at the marine shipping terminal in Valdez. Today the total is under 500,000 barrels per day. The just-passed Tax Cut and Jobs Act authorizes the sale of oil and gas leases in a small section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), so Alaskans may get a shot at that extra oil boom. The region may contain as much as 10 billion barrels of technically recoverable petroleum. The Prudhoe Bay field next door was originally estimated to contain 25 billion barrels, of which nearly 13 billion have been produced. Naturally, environmentalist are upset. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), for example, declared: "As if this tax bill were not terrible enough, it goes after one of the most beautiful places on Earth. This is the biological heart of the refuge and will drive a stake right through it." Let's consider what's actually on the table. In 1980, Congress specifically set aside part of the ANWR coastal plain for future oil and natural gas exploration and production. The tax bill authorizes lease bids on just 2,000 more acres—about one-tenth of one percent of the 19 million acre refuge. While some may consider the mosquito-infested boggy coastal plain "beautiful," the fact is that the remote ANWR (including the more scenic mountain regions) receives between 1,200 and 1,500 visitors annually. Environmentalists claim that hydrocarbon exploration and production will disrupt the caribou herds that roam the refuge. This same argument was made when the original production from Prudhoe Bay began. But as drilling, construction, and production ramped up around the Prudhoe Bay region in the 1970s, the Central Arctic Herd actually expanded from 3,000 animals in 1972 to nearly 70,000 caribou by 2010. Since then the herd size has fallen to 22,000. Researchers don't blame the herd's decline on oil and gas production—which, after all, has not been increasing. Instead they cite increased mortality due to the late arrival of spring in 2013 and 2014. In addition, some animals from Central Arctic Herd migrated to join the larger Porcupine Herd. The Porcupine Herd, which roams areas of the ANWR where no oil or gas production or exploration has taken place, also experienced significant population ups and downs. In the 1970s, the herd contained an estimated 100,000 animals. That number rose to about 175,000 by 1990, then fell back to 125,000 or so by 2000. By 2013, the herd size had grown to 197,000. A report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game notes that number of caribou in Alaskan Arctic herds reached 700,000 in the first decade of the 21st century. This might have resulted in overgrazing, which is now contributing to the decline of some of the herds. In any case, it seems unlikely that oil and gas leasing in ANWR will drive a stake through its biological heart. Even if oil companies are interested in oil production in the ANWR, it will likely take at least a decade before crude begins flowing from the refuge, due partly to the technical complications of working in the Arctic and partly, of course, to the inevitable lawsuits coming from environmental activist groups. Disclosure: As part of my lecture fee, I extracted from my University of Alaska–Anchorage sponsors a visit to the Prudhoe Bay production facilities on the North Slope in February. It was around -50 degrees Fahrenheit (with a wind chill). The caribou were sensibly hiding out in the mountain[...]

You Won't Be Able to Pay Taxes on a Postcard, and That's Exactly How H&R Block Likes It

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 15:55:00 -0500

When House Republican leaders unveiled a tax reform bill on November 2, they made a bold promise. "This is a complete redesign of the code, so we can simplify it so much that nine out of 10 Americans can file using a postcard-style system," said Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-Texas). President Donald Trump noted what that could mean for businesses that make their living off helping Americans navigate the awful, complex federal tax code. "The only people that aren't going to like this is H&R Block," Trump said later that same day. "They're not going to be very happy." It was indeed bad news for H&R Block. Shares of the company's stock fell 2.7 percent that day. But this afternoon, as the House cast the final vote on the Tax Cuts And Jobs Act, H&R Block's stock was trading at about $28 per share, up 13.8 percent from where it was on November 2. Intuit Inc., which owns the TurboTax brand, has seen its shares rise by about 5.5 percent over the same period. I'm happy for the shareholders of H&R Block, who will be rewarded for their investment in the company. But the drop and subsequent rise of the company's stock tells you something about how the promises made for the Republican tax bill differ from the reality of the final text. Americans will not, in fact, be able to file their income taxes on the back of a postcard, and the bill does not do much to simplify the tax code (though the higher standard deduction does mean that fewer households will have to itemize deductions, a welcome change). As Kevin Carmichael pointed out at FiveThirtyEight today, increasing the standard deduction doesn't do a whole lot for most people, because even families that take the standard deduction still often need help with their taxes. Simplifying the tax code in a meaningful way would have meant removing the various credits, deductions, and gimmicks littered throughout the code. Most of those remain. Listen to the talking points Republicans are using this week. They aren't saying anything about paying your taxes on a postcard now. Nor is there much bragging about how many pages have been cut from the tax code. The code is still complicated, and so the tax prep companies win. This isn't new territory for them. Intuit spent handsomely in 2013 to defeat a Democratic proposal that would have had the IRS pre-fill tax forms for taxpayers, as a 2013 Propublica investigation revealed. Since 1998, major tax preparers have spent almost $28 million lobbying Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a pro-transparency think tank. They had help, of course. A multitude of special interests deploy legions of lobbyists—like this asshole—to preserve or create exemptions, breaks, and credits. That's why the idea of a postcard-sized tax form has always been a pipe dream. The new tax bill means most Americans will get to keep more of the money they earn. And that's great, because they'll need that money to pay their accountants.[...]

Congress Mulls Passing Most Intrusive Federal Surveillance Bill Available (Update: Bill Is Dead 'For Now')

Wed, 20 Dec 2017 11:00:00 -0500

Today the House may vote to renew the authority of the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) to engage in unwarranted surveillance and codify its use against Americans. Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments expires at the end of the year. The regulations are used by federal intelligence agencies to snoop on foreign targets, secretly and without warrants. It turns out the feds have also been using Section 702 to snoop on communications by Americans here on American soil to fight domestic crimes, all without getting a warrant as the Fourth Amendment requires. So as the clock ticks down, privacy-minded activists and legislators have been working to demand changes to Section 702 before renewing it to guarantee that the FBI and NSA get warrants in order to collect, review, or use as evidence communications and data from Americans for domestic purposes. No dice. At least not yet. Last night House leaders scheduled for a vote the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017, H.R. 4478. This, among the proposed bills to renew Section 702, is the worst of the lot, hammered out by the intelligence committees of both the House and the Senate. Like many bad laws, it does the opposite of what its promoters claim it does. It "reforms" Section 702 by essentially codifying into law some of the worst ways it has been used. The two biggest problems with the law: Rather than requiring the FBI and NSA to get warrants to collect and use communications from Americans, it authorizes this snooping for a whole host of domestic crimes—any crime involving death, kidnapping, serious bodily injury, crimes against kids, transnational crimes, and even computer fraud. All without warrants. The law says that the FBI "may apply" for a court order to get access but it's not mandatory. In addition, the attorney general has the authority to decide whether the crime being investigated falls under the many warrant exceptions and that decision is explicitly exempt from judicial review. The law will eventually allow for the return of "about" searches. These controversial searches had been used by intelligence officials to collect and access communications that were merely "about" a subject of surveillance, not just to or from that target. These searches were halted earlier in the year after it became clear that the NSA was collecting all sorts of communications it did not have the authority to access. This bill will allow the FBI and NSA to restart "about" searches if they submit a report to the two congressional intelligence committees first and subject themselves to a 30-day review period. Two members of the House's Intelligence Committee, Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Denny Heck (D-Wash.) wrote their opposition to the bill but were outvoted. Speier, who voted against renewing Section 702 last time it was scheduled to sunset in 2012, warned: "Since that time, significant numbers of Americans have been improperly swept up in surveillance activities that the law says must not target Americans. This improperly obtained information is retained for years. It has been used in court against Americans charged with crimes that have nothing to do with national security, with no warrants and without the required notifications to the defense. The government selectively publicizes what it calls Section 702 successes, but has defied Congress by refusing [to] share information on how many Americans are impacted by Section 702 failures. The checks and balances built into the system are insufficient: A rotating cast of federal oversight judges are expected to grapple with highly technical aspects of electronic surveillance, outmatched by an army of expert government lawyers. The only good news about this bill is that it's not a permanent r[...]

Trump and the NFL Agree: Taxpayers Should Keep Subsidizing Stadiums

Tue, 19 Dec 2017 10:29:00 -0500

After feuding with the National Football League for months, over everything from how players act during the national anthem to whether the games are violent enough, President Donald Trump appears to agree with the league about at least one thing: Taxpayers should subsidize stadiums. The Republican-crafted tax reform bill, which is expected to pass both chambers of Congress today, maintains the current federal tax exemption for bonds issued to pay for the construction of stadiums. An earlier version of the bill, which cleared the House in November, would have done away with that exemption (though public projects such as infrastructure could have been funded with tax-free bonds). The NFL lobbied to kill that change, and the version of the bill that emerged from the conference committee deleted the provision. Preserving the ability to use tax-exempt bonds for sports stadiums was "a priority for Mr. Trump," according to a GOP aide who spoke to The Wall Street Journal. "I can't think it's any coincidence that after the House passed a repeal of the tax-exempt bond stadium subsidy, the NFL weighed in publicly—and, I have no doubt, other leagues did so privately—to rail against the measure, and then the congressional conference committee killed it," says Neil deMause, author of the anti-stadium-subsidy book Field of Schemes. "Pro sports leagues spend heavily and well on lobbyists, which is exactly why all attempts to reign in the billions of dollars a year in local and federal subsidies for stadiums have gone nowhere." Unlike other, more direct ways that state and local governments subsidize the construction of professional sporting palaces, the federal rules exempting municipal bonds from taxation mean that all taxpayers from coast to coast help to underwrite a stadium project. Fans of the Boston Red Sox helped build the new Yankee Stadium in New York City, which relied on $1.6 billion in municipal bonds. Football fans everywhere will underwrite the construction of the Oakland Raiders' new home near the Las Vegas Strip, set to open in 2020 at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion. According to a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, more than $13 billion in municipal bonds have gone to 45 major professional sports stadium projects since 2000. "Tax-exempt muni bonds are presented to voters as not costing them anything, but the result is always that other forms of taxes must rise to compensate," says Gregg Easterbrook, author of the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column at The Weekly Standard. "They're like a restaurant that says, 'Your cheeseburger is free but the soda is mandatory and costs $10 a glass.'" Almost every professional sports stadium in America has also been granted a special property tax exemption by their local and state governments, Easterbrook points out. As opposition to stadium subsidies has grown, Congress has at least started paying lip-service to the idea of closing the municipal bond loophole. A bipartisan proposal introduced earlier this year by Sens. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) and James Lankford (R–Okla.) would prohibit local officials from using municipal bonds for stadium projects. Its best chance of passing, alas, was probably as part of the tax bill. Ironically, the municipal bond loophole that pro teams now use to get back-door subsidies arose because Congress tried to close a different stadium-subsidizing loophole in 1986. Previously, teams had used tax-exempt private revenue bonds to fund construction, but when Congress passed the last major tax reform bill, it said those could no longer be used for stadium projects. So local governments turned to tax-exempt municipal bonds instead. In the midst of his anthem spat with the NFL in October, Trump took to Twitter to call for [...]

House Republicans Push Symbolic Nonsense Abortion Bill

Mon, 18 Dec 2017 09:15:00 -0500

(image) Congressional Republicans want to ban "discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex." Like similarly spurious bills floating around state legislatures, this one would make abortion illegal when motivated by a desire to avoid having a child of a particular sex.

The House bill, H.R. 4660, marks the latest lame attempt at self-promotion from Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.). Wagner has history of introducing legislation on hot-button issues that either has no chance of passing or will lead to little to no change if passed.

Her latest bill, introduced last Thursday, has already attracted 29 co-sponsors—all Republican—so its chances of passing the House may be good. But like so many state bills to this same effect, Wagner's anti-discrimination law for "the unborn" would be utterly ineffectual on the ground (at least in terms of its stated purpose).

Nowhere in the the United States are women seeking an abortion required to explain why they are doing so. Nowhere in the U.S. are doctors required to ask. Anyone who wants to terminate a pregnancy because the fetus is male or female could still do exactly that, so long as she didn't go around announcing that was the reason.

In addition to not actually accomplishing anything in practice, sex-selective abortion bans address an issue that essentially doesn't exist in America. We have no mass culture of devaluing the birth of either sex. We have no shortage of male or female babies being born. We have no evidence of sex-selective abortion being a problem here.

But of course, this isn't really about stopping people from aborting male or female fetuses. It's about drumming up conservative outrage, demonizing women who get abortions, and trying to find yet another way to chip away at reproductive freedom.

What the GOP Tax Bill Means for Libertarians

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 16:47:00 -0500

With Republican tax reform almost a sure thing, the nation is poised to experience the most sweeping and significant changes to the tax code since the late 1980s. But are those changes—including lower corporate and individual rates, reductions in some longstanding deductions, and almost certainly trillions of dollars in new national debt—good from a libertarian perspective. Chris Edwards, director of tax policy at the CATO Institute, likes most of what he sees on the corporate side of reform. But when it comes to individual tax policy, he tells Reason's Nick Gillespie, "It's basically reassembling deck chairs on a really messy and horribly complex system." Edited by Ian Keyser. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Mark McDaniel. Music by _ghost, lisenced under Creative Commons CC BY 3.0 US. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: Hi, this is Nick Gillespie for Reason. Today we're talking with Chris Edwards. He's the Director of Tax Policy at the Cato Institute and we're talking about Republican tax reform and the implications for the economy and what it means for libertarians. Chris, thanks for talking to us. Chris Edwards: Thanks a lot for having me, Nick. Gillespie: Give us your general score card. Is this good? Is it bad? Is it somewhere in between? Edwards: The main driver here is the corporate tax reforms. The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. The Republicans would slash the corporate tax rate down pretty dramatically down to 20% at the federal level. Gillespie: And that's from 35%? Edwards: From 35 down to 20%. That sounds pretty low, but actually the global average rate is only 24% today. If you think about the United States, we've got our federal rate, but we've got state corporate taxes on top up to about 10% or more. Even with the Republican cuts, we'd only just barely start getting competitive globally. That's the corporate stuff. Gillespie: Before we get to the individual side, with the corporate stuff, one of the things that opponents of tax reform say is, 'So, corporations make a huge amount of money. They're solelists literally and figuratively.' Why are we cutting taxes on corporations and what is the thinking behind that? Why is that a good thing? Edwards: You'll hear critics say, 'American corporations are usually profitable today. A lot of them are sitting on a big pile of cash. Why do they need tax cuts?' The reason is because corporations are forward looking. They think about building a new factory here versus in Mexico or China, and they look at that stream of future profits and they look at how much the government tax grab on that will be. They might be sitting on cash now, but the reason they're not investing it is because the U.S. corporate tax rate is so high. You cut the corporate tax rate, corporations at the margin, there would be more factories, more hiring will make more sense in the United States versus our competitors. They will invest more in the long run, and they'll build more factories. You build more factories, you got to hire more workers, the demand for U.S. workers will go up and then wages will rise. Gillespie: This sounds like Trump's, but this is Trump's nightmare, because then suddenly people from Mexico are going to start coming back to the United States instead of leaving, which is what's happening. Edwards: You know the demand for labor will go up a lot. The reality, Nick, is that even though the U.S. unemployment rate is pretty low now, our participation rate in the labor force has been falling, especially for[...]