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All articles with the "Congress" tag.

Published: Thu, 20 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 20 Jul 2017 21:14:10 -0400


Open the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airport Scrutiny to Get Worse as House Moves to Mandate Sex-Trafficking Training

Wed, 28 Jun 2017 13:50:00 -0400

A plan to privatize air-traffic control operations has dominated discussion of the House's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, but the bill's regulatory parameters go far beyond that. An array of government expanding proposals are also included in the House's 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act. One of them would require new mandatory training for all "ticket counter agents, gate agents, and other air carrier workers whose jobs require regular interaction with passengers" on "recognizing and responding to potential human trafficking victims." The trafficking-training amendment, from Rep. Julia Brownley (D-California), was one of dozens of AIRR-Act amendments voted on Tuesday by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. After more than nine hours of markup and amendments, the Committee approved the AIRR Act, by a vote of 32 to 25. On the surface, Brownley's trafficking amendment may seem beneficial, or at the very least harmless. But it's part of a larger and ongoing government project that is anything but benign. Under the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) "Blue Campaign" and related initiatives, federal agents have already been training flight attendants and other airline personnel on how to "detect" human traffickers or trafficking victims on their planes. They've also been conducting public outreach at airports and elsewhere to encourage ordinary travelers who "see something" suspicious to "say something"—by texting the tip directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There is no evidence these efforts have actually yielded any trafficking busts—which shouldn't surprise anyone not immersed in some Taken-style fantasy. Immigrants who wind up victims of sex or labor exploitation here are generally lured via fraud—the promise of an opportunity that either doesn't exist or isn't what it was made out to be. Some enter the country illegally, but many come over on tourist, student, or temporary-work visas, flying into the country alone or with others in the same situation. "Potential human trafficking victims" flying into the U.S. on commercial flights through major U.S. airports aren't the sort who can be pre-screened by well-meaning gate agents. But what do employees do with all that extra "awareness"? A heightened sensitivity to anything out-of-the-ordinary—which in the United States can still mean interracial families or a child traveling with two fathers—means a propensity to profile passengers based on stereotypes. An Asian-American woman traveling with her non-Asian husband, a dad traveling alone with his daughter, a gaggle of young Korean women traveling together are the folks flagged by well-meaning and woke customer-service staff. The ICE, DHS, and other law-enforcement staff who greet them aren't always so well-intentioned, although they are fast. "When reports come in to the hotline, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents come immediately to meet the plane as it reaches the ground," Deborah Sigmund, co-founder and president of the group Innocence at Risk, has said. It's worth noting that Brownley's amendment provides no description of the kind of training airport employees will receive, how often they'll receive it, or who will develop and conduct it. Most likely, responsibility for the training will fall to DHS and its nonprofit advisers, which have already been involved in training truckers, flight attendants, and motel employees on the alleged "signs" of sex trafficking. And from previous experience the training will be useless. The "signs" of sex trafficking they offer range from the rare and ridiculous (the stuff of action-movie lore, like someone with a bar-code tattoo with the word "Daddy" next to it) to excessively broad indicators that could ensnare any one of us on a bad day, such as being dressed "inappropriately" for travel, not knowing details about a flight, or not making prolonged eye contact. Airline Ambassadors International, which often w[...]

Democrats Accuse Republicans of Mass Murder

Mon, 26 Jun 2017 16:00:00 -0400

So the Democrats, after opposing Donald Trump in the 2016 election partly out of what they claimed was concern about his incivility and coarseness, are now pursuing a debate about health care legislation in Washington by characterizing the Republicans who disagree with them about policy details as mass murderers. Think that's an exaggeration? Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential candidate who remains among its most prominent and mainstream voices, tweeted Friday: "If Republicans pass this bill, they're the death party." Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) tweeted, "I've read the Republican 'health care' bill. This is blood money. They're paying for tax cuts with American lives." Ezra Levin, an influential Washington organizer of the resistance to Trump, tweeted Sunday, "TrumpCare will kill tens of thousands of working class people, and with the savings it cuts taxes for billionaires." This line of argument carries a powerful emotional charge. It isn't, though, a particularly useful, constructive, or clear-minded way to think or talk about writing laws. To start with, there's the Washington-centric misconception that the killers are the congressmen. Disregarded are any other actors who play roles in our health care system. If federal politicians are murderers for adjusting health care laws, what about all the state-level politicians who failed to enact Mitt Romney-style comprehensive coverage in their own states before Obamacare? Were they also murderers for failing to act? What about doctors and hospitals who refuse to treat non-emergency patients who are uninsured and can't pay? The system could probably treat more people if doctors, nurses, and medical-device and drug-company executives earned less money. Does that make every BMW-driving surgeon a murderer? Is every individual American a murderer who spends any discretionary income on movies or trips to Disney World rather than charitable donations earmarked for uncompensated care to his local hospital? It may well be that as a moral matter, voluntarily paying for a poor person's health care is a superior use of money than driving a fancy car or taking an expensive vacation. But an individual's choice to consume rather than donate doesn't make that individual a murderer, or even a killer. Neither does a congressman's decision not to compel the individual, by taxing him, to do so. The failure of Democrats to recognize this signals a fundamental confusion. There's also a false certainty in the claim that higher taxes for more health insurance will translate into extended lives. Some of the more honest Democrats acknowledge this if one listens to them carefully. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, in repeating an exaggerated claim that TrumpCare would cause 28,000 unnecessary deaths, conceded, "Nobody, obviously, knows exactly what would happen." Obviously. The "Harvard" study—really more of a blog post by one Harvard professor, two non-Harvard medical students, and two scholars at a liberal think-tank—that Sanders and Clinton cite is more nuanced than they claim. It mentions two studies—"outlier results"—raising doubts about whether insurance coverage translated into better health. It concedes, accurately, "insurance is a necessary but not sufficient factor to receive quality health care." Ironically, its model for projecting what it calls "excess deaths" is based entirely on extrapolation from "analyses of the Massachusetts health reform." Again, that is a state-level reform of the sort that might have spread organically and successfully if President Obama and the Democrats in Congress hadn't decided to impose it nationally. Democratic accusations about additional deaths are often made without any price tag attached. Assume, for the moment, that Democrats are right that money should be taken away from higher earners and redistributed instead for the purpose of extending life-years or improving health. There's a whole universe of possible interventions ot[...]

The Illusory Savings From Cutting Medicaid

Sun, 25 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400

When economists talk in their sleep, they say, "There is no such thing as a free lunch." This axiom is drilled into them from day one of their undergraduate education and never leaves their minds. Any economist who tried to deny it would find herself suddenly choking in pain and unable to speak. What it means is that if the government does something that costs money, some human somewhere will bear the expense. "Free" public schools, "free" parks, and "free" roads all have to be paid for by the citizenry. Collectively, we can't get something for nothing. This useful insight has long been offered as an objection to costly government programs. But it applies as well to measures that extract savings from costly government programs. In their replacement of Obamacare, congressional Republicans promise to achieve greater frugality in Medicaid, which helps low-income Americans, without inflicting more hardship. The melancholy truth: Not gonna happen. Last year, total spending for Medicaid amounted to $533 billion. Nearly two-thirds of the funds come from the federal government, and the rest comes from the states. Some 69 million people are covered by it, up from 54 million in 2012. The expansion was intentional. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Washington signed on to cover 100 percent of the cost of expanded coverage at the outset, with its share falling to 90 percent from 2020 on. The health care plan offered by Senate Republicans, like the one passed by the House, would reverse the trend by giving states a certain amount per Medicaid recipient or a block grant for a fixed amount. Either way, the federal contribution would steadily shrink compared with what it would do under the ACA. Under the House plan, the federal savings would amount to $880 billion over a decade. The Senate bill is supposed to wring out even more. Supporters say Medicaid enrollees would be better off because states would be free to redesign their programs to make them more efficient and responsive to beneficiaries. But remember that fundamental economic proposition. Just as you can't get something for nothing, you generally can't get more for less. The House changes, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, would reduce the number of people on Medicaid by 14 million by 2026. Many people who now have coverage would lose it, and many who would have become eligible would be turned away. States could always protect the vulnerable by boosting their contribution to make up for the lost federal funds. But that would mean requiring their taxpayers to foot the bill. Republicans say the changes would be positive because Medicaid coverage is often useless. House Speaker Paul Ryan claims that "more and more doctors just won't take Medicaid." In fact, 69 percent of physicians currently accept new Medicaid patients, and the percentage has been stable for decades. It's lower than for privately insured patients, because Medicaid provides doctors with lower reimbursements, but budget cuts would probably exacerbate that malady. Some recipients would get cut off under the GOP plans, and some would get less coverage. That—surprise!—would leave them worse off, because comprehensive health insurance is a good thing to have. Medicaid coverage, reports the Kaiser Family Foundation, is proven to ensure "earlier detection of health and developmental problems in children, earlier diagnosis of cancer, diabetes, and other chronic conditions in adults, and earlier detection of mental illness in people of all ages." Cutting back Medicaid coverage would save taxpayers some cash, but only by taking it from others. The reduction would raise costs for low-income people and most likely degrade their health. It would also increase the financial load on hospitals, which treat a lot of people who have no coverage. A study by scholars at Northwestern University and Columbia University figured that each new uninsured person costs nearby hospitals an average of $9[...]

Politicians Choosing Their Voters vs. Voters Choosing Their Politicians

Tue, 20 Jun 2017 15:45:00 -0400

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Gill v. Whitford, a case where the issue is whether the Republican-dominated Wisconsin legislature drew the state's voting district boundaries in such a way as to give their candidates an overwhelming advantage. Republican candidates garnered just 48 percent of the vote statewide in 2012, but took 60 of 99 seats in the state legislature. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court ruled that the Wisconsin's legislature's latest redistricting plan "constituted an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander." The court ordered the legislature to devise and submit a fairer redistricting plan by November 1, 2017. The practice of drawing district boundaries to establish an advantage for a particular party is called gerrymandering. The name comes from Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 signed an egregious redistricting bill. One of the voting districts it created resembled the shape of a salamander; thus, "gerrymander." Gerrymandering is generally achieved by either "packing" or "cracking." Packing concentrates the opposing party's voters in one district to reduce their voting power elsewhere. Cracking dilutes the voting power of the opposing party's supporters by spreading them across many districts. With the exception of scrutinizing districts clearly designed dilute the power of black voters, federal courts have been reluctant to involve themselves in redistricting fights. This reluctance stems from courts' difficulty identifying any simple and objective way to determine the extent of gerrymandering. But mathematicians and statisticians have recently turned their attention to the issue, and they may be able to provide some guidance to the courts. In Gill V. Whitford, the federal appeals court that ruled against the state cited a measure called the efficiency gap. Devised by Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago, and Eric McGhee, a political scientist at the Public Policy Institute of California, the efficiency gap scheme measures a state's "wasted" votes. (Basically, votes are "wasted" if they are cast for a defeated candidate or cast in excess of those needed to elect a winning candidate.) In Stephanoupoulos' calculation, the efficiency gap is "the difference between the parties' respective wasted votes in an election, divided by the total number of votes cast." If a party is simultaneously getting an unusually high number of landslide victories and an unusually high number of crushing losses, that would be a sign of gerrymandering. "Based on their calculations of the efficiency gaps in all redistricting plans over the past 40 years, Stephanopoulos and McGhee suggest setting thresholds above which redistricting plans would be presumptively unconstitutional; if the efficiency gap is 8 percent or more, or if it is enough to change at least two congressional seats, that would be enough to justify a constitutional challenge. In North Carolina's 2012 congressional election, for example, the efficiency gap was 21 percent,, which resulted in the Democratic candidates winning only 4 out of 13 seats. " Meanwhile, the Duke mathematicians David Mattingly and Christy Graves have devised a program that draws voting district boundaries based on contiguity, geographical compactness, and a difference in population of no more than 0.1 percent. Although Democrats won 50.3 percent of the vote in 2012 in North Carolina, they captured only four of the state's 13 seats in the House of Representatives. In three of the districts drawn by the Republican-dominated legislature, voters were more than three-quarters Democrat. This is a classic example of packing. The program devised by Mattingly and Graves creates thousands of randomly drawn district maps. Of those maps, they find that on average 7.6 seats would go to Democrats, compared with the four they actually won. Other researchers are trying to devise fair and objective ways to set [...]

Cindy McCain: Crony Philanthropist

Tue, 20 Jun 2017 09:40:00 -0400

After "aggressively courting" her for the role, President Donald Trump has reportedly nabbed Cindy McCain to serve in his State Department as an ambassador-at-large for human rights. She would almost certainly concentrate on sex trafficking, which has been the main focus of her recent advocacy—and on which she has a track record of spreading misinformation, promoting policies that make prostitution more dangerous, and partnering with people who use human trafficking as a cover for all sorts of rights-violating behavior. And this is just one of myriad red flags that the beer empress and senator's wife isn't quite as consistent or staunch a humanitarian as she's made out to be. It turns out the "freedom, democracy, and human rights" institute launched by Cindy and Sen. John McCain is supported by large donations from entities known for persistent rights violations, including Saudi Arabia, a U.S. defense contractor selling smart bombs to the Saudis, and a Moroccan mining company occupying land in Northwest Africa. In fact, examining McCain's philanthropic record reveals a long history of personal abuse of nonprofit resources, shady connections, and shoddy work. For years, McCain has been playing the role of crony philanthropist, and now she is poised to bring her dubious advocacy to the highest levels of government. Friends in Authoritarian Places McCain has been lauded for her work on human trafficking—appearing on numerous panels and giving high-profile interviews on the topic. But she didn't pick up the issue until 2013, when she suddenly emerged as a fully formed crusader against sexual exploitation. The bulk of Cindy McCain's anti-exploitation efforts are channeled through the Arizona government's Human Trafficking Task Force, which she co-chairs, and the McCain Institute for International Leadership, where she is chair of the Human Trafficking Advisory Council as well as one of the institute's most visible spokespeople. Housed within the Arizona State University (ASU) system, the McCain Institute was launched in 2012 with $8.7 million left over from the McCain/Palin presidential campaign fund. (The McCains also set up the McCain Institute Foundation to collect donations for the institute and pass them on to ASU in $500,000 annual increments.) Upon its launch, ASU President Michael Crow said the McCain Institute would be "guided by the values that have animated the career of Senator McCain—a commitment to sustaining America's global leadership role, promoting freedom, democracy and human rights, as well as maintaining a strong, smart national defense." Publicly, the institute's biggest issues are combatting "modern slavery," addressing human rights abuses abroad, using technology to solve humanitarian problems, and pushing a vague pro-development and democracy agenda globally in order to promote peace. In practice, this often looks like advocating for U.S. action in Syria and tougher penalties for prostitution while helping develop new digital surveillance technology and facilitate international business relationships. "I don't think very many people have the same kind of access around the world that McCain has. When you mention his name, you do get top-tier people wanting to be associated and be helpful." —McCain Institute Executive Director Kurt Volker The McCain Institute's top donors include a plethora of groups with far from stellar records or reputation when it comes to human rights. Many of these same entities were also donors to the Clinton Global Initiative. For instance, OCP S.A., a state-controlled Moroccan phosphate mining company that has given at least $100,000 to the McCain Institute. OCP controls more than 75 percent of the world reserves of phosphates—which have become a hot ingredient in fertilizer—including mines built during Spanish colonization of the West Sahara. It has been accused of mistreating indigenous Sahrawi mine wor[...]

Freedom Caucus Conservatives Break from Trump, Want More Surveillance Reform

Fri, 16 Jun 2017 13:40:00 -0400

The White House and several prominent Senate Republicans want to keep the scope of federal surveillance powers intact, but there's a rebellion afoot. The House Freedom Caucus has said it does not want to renew some federal snooping powers unless there's reform that better protects Americans from unwarranted data collection. Earlier this month, such Republican senators as Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, John McCain of Arizona, and Susan Collins of Maine, among others, announced they were introducing a bill to make permanent some temporary surveillance powers granted by amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The White House has formally declared its support for this bill. The powers under dispute fall under Section 702 of FISA amendments. Section 702 is intended to allow the National Security Agency (NSA) to snoop on the communications of foreign targets. But this surveillance often ends up drawing in data and records and communications from United States citizens as well, all collected without a warrant. While there's a "minimization" process intended to protect U.S. citizens' privacy and due process rights, there's also an "unmasking" procedure government officials have used to investigate domestic crimes beyond threats of terrorism and espionage. Such a process appears to run afoul of the Fourth Amendment's protections, and civil rights advocates across the political spectrum want to reform Section 702 to protect against these "backdoor" searches. Section 702 wll expire at the end of the year if Congress does nothing (or is unable to get enough votes to pass something). So this short announcement from House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) is a warning to President Donald Trump, Sen. Cotton, and others that the party is not in total agreement: Government surveillance activities under the FISA Amendments Act have violated Americans' constitutionally protected rights. We oppose any reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act that does not include substantial reforms to the government's collection and use of Americans' data. If this conflict within the party sounds familiar, it's because it played out after Edward Snowden's leaks too. At that time, several privacy-minded Republicans resisted efforts to renew a part of the Patriot Act that was being used to justify the mass collection of Americans' private phone call and online activity metadata. The end result of that fight was that part of the Patriot Act was allowed to sunset and was replaced by the USA Freedom Act, which formalized but also put some restrictions on how the government was able to access that metadata. I noted earlier in the week that the pro-surveillance senators who support the unchanged renewal of Section 702 were in a difficult situation because they did not have a lot of leverage: All opponents have to do to make them fail is nothing at all. This warning by the Freedom Caucus, which has about three dozen members, will let the Senate and the White House know that Republican control over Congress doesn't mean reauthorization is going to be easy. This may be the first step in a USA Freedom Act–style compromise.[...]

Congress Wants to Let Cops Wiretap Sex Workers, the CDC Study Them, and Homeland Security Screen Them

Fri, 09 Jun 2017 15:30:00 -0400

So far this year, federal lawmakers have introduced more than 30 bills related to "sex trafficking," which many in government now define to mean all prostitution. This week alone brought three new efforts. And following the familiar pattern of the drug war, these measures mostly focus on giving federal law enforcement more "tools" to find, prosecute, and punish people for actions only tangentially, if at all, connected to causing harm. One such measure would expand state and local government authority "to seek wiretap warrants in sexual exploitation and prostitution cases" (emphasis mine) and mandate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institute of Justice conduct a "study on the long-term physical and psychological effects of the commercial sex trade." It would also give the Department of Homeland Security a mandate to develop protocols "for implementation across federal, state, and local law enforcement" on how to screen people "suspected of engaging in commercial sex acts" for the possibility that they have been trafficked. The screening process would also be applied to people suspected of working in violation of any labor regulations, including occupational licensing rules. Homeland Security would also train crimefighters nationwide on how to investigate prostitution customers for their alleged "roles in severe trafficking in persons." And Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be required to instruct law enforcement across the land that their efforts to fight human trafficking must "include a demand reduction component"—i.e., must target prostitution customers. Sessions would also have to declare "that commercial sexual exploitation is a form of gender-based violence," opening the way for possible hate-crime enhancements for anyone who tries to pay for sex. This bill, known as the Abolish Human Trafficking Act (S. 1311), was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R–Texas) on June 7 and already has 12 co-sponsors, including such prominent politicians as Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). In a statement, Rep. Klobuchar invoked a rise in the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline—a government-funded telephone service that fields everything from unfounded anonymous tips about suspected streetwalking to general requests for information, with a vast number of calls coming from government officials—as evidence that the supposed sex trafficking epidemic is growing. A companion bill (H.R. 2803), sponsored by Republican Reps. Ted Poe of Texas and Ann Wagner of Missouri, was introduced in the House on Wednesday. A statement from Rep. Poe said his bill would stop "modern slavery" by giving law enforcement the tools to stop "dastardly criminals from exploiting others, whether they be the buyer or seller." The official soundbites from almost all of these bills' co-sponsors mention the benefits for cops and prosecutors, showcasing our government's lopsided approach to sexual exploitation. While lip service is paid to the "victims," it's law enforcement agencies that get all the consideration and tools—tools that help them conduct ever more intrusive investigations in the service of less and less deserving targets, wring whatever money and assets they can from defendants, and collect laurels as they ship convicts off to fill federal-prison beds. Here are a few more key things that S. 1311 and H.R. 2803 would do: Add sexual abuse, human trafficking, and "transportation for prostitution or any illegal sexual activity" to the crimes which could establish someone as part of a "criminal street gang." Enhance maximum penalties—not for folks who actually force others into sex or other work, mind you, but for those who transport people for "immoral purposes," anyone who interferes with or impedes a sex t[...]

The Financial Choice Act Doesn't Repeal Dodd-Frank, but It's Still a Big Deal

Thu, 08 Jun 2017 18:31:00 -0400

The number of regulations on American banks has doubled since 2010, which means plenty of work for regulators in Washington but less time (and money) for banks to do the things they are supposed to be doing. The culprit behind those growing piles of financial regulations is the Dodd-Frank Act, passed by Congress in response to the banking collapse that led into the so-called Great Recession. Congress on Thursday took a step towards reducing those piles of regulations, as the House voted straight down party-lines to approve the Financial CHOICE Act. Though the bill is expected to face significant opposition in the Senate, its passage is the surest sign yet that Republicans are serious about rolling back Obama era regulations that force banks to spend more time (and money) dealing with government imperatives. "This law may have had good intentions," said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan on Thursday, referring to the Dodd-Frank Act, "but its consequences have been dire." Republicans said the reforms contained in the Financial CHOICE Act would rein-in regulations that have made it harder for small banks to operate, while providing a better mechanism for unwinding large banks that become unstable. Despite the rhetoric from both major parties in advance of Thursday's vote, the Financial CHOICE Act does not repeal Dodd-Frank and does not deregulate the financial sector. As Thomas Hogan, a professor of finance at Troy University, noted at The Hill, the bill actually leaves many Dodd-Frank provisions intact and puts "an emphasis on financial stability while trimming excessive regulations that have harmed consumers and business activities." A major component of the House-passed bill would give small banks an escape from complying with the complex Dodd-Frank rules that attempt to stop banks from taking on too many risky investments. Though those rules are only necessary for larger banks, all financial institutions must abide by them. Under the Financial CHOICE Act, smaller banks would have the option of ignoring those rules if they maintain a larger reserve of cash as a backstop against bad investments. Another key element of the bill would create a new chapter in the bankruptcy code to allow failing banks to be unwound through bankruptcy instead of relying on bailouts or government-imposed restructuring. Even though Dodd-Frank was passed, in part, to prevent future bailouts of banks deemed "too big to fail," the law may have created a regulatory environment that makes future bailouts more likely by giving the federal government a larger role to play. Politically, though, the biggest change in the Financial CHOICE Act is the restructuring of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As I wrote last week, the proposal would allow the president to remove the director of the CFPB at will, and would force the bureau to go through the congressional appropriations process (instead of getting its budget directly from the Federal Reserve). The bill also gives the CFPB a Senate-confirmed inspector general, requires cost-benefit analyses of CFPB regulatory proposals, and prevents the CFPB from collecting consumers' financial information without permission (something that it has a history of doing). Democrats oppose the dismantling of Dodd-Frank and particularly dislike the idea of reining in the CFPB, setting up a potential battle in the Senate, where Republicans don't have enough votes to force the bill through without Democratic support—though some elements of the bill could be passed with a simple majority through the reconciliation process. During debate in the House, Democrats indicated support for some parts of the bill, which provides a potential way forward for some, but likely not all, of the Financial Choice Act. Still, Thursday's vote is a sign that—even with controversy swirling around [...]

Will Congress Finally Pass 'Audit the Fed' Legislation?

Tue, 06 Jun 2017 13:55:00 -0400

The Federal Reserve Transparency Act of 2017 could finally fulfill a dream by many of eliminating the Fed's unique exemption from Government Accountability Office (GAO) oversight. Under H.R. 24—popularly known as "Audit the Fed" legislation—the comptroller general would conduct an audit of Board of Governor operations and report his findings to Congress. The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), and companion legislation is sponsored by Senator Rand Paul (R–Ky.) in the Senate. The same legislation passed the House in 2012 and 2014, only to die in the Senate. Janet Yellen and other Fed officials are consistently opposed to GAO oversight. (This bill has previously been covered by Reason here). It should come as no surprise that the bill hits a nerve with Fed officials. As summarized by a Rand Paul spokesman: "Clearly the Federal Reserve fears the information that may be disclosed as part of an audit." After the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform quickly passed the 2017 bill in late March, Democrats reacted with similar dramatics. Committee member Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D–D.C.) claimed that "This bill would open the floodgates to political interference in monetary-policy making." Oversight of the Fed requires a delicate balancing act. A central bank too sensitive to political pressure could attract the political business cycle: Intentionally lowering interest rates to give the economy a little pre-election boost resulting in an economic boom then bust. But under H.R. 24, such hypothetical floodgates would remain closed. In an emailed response to Reason, George Selgin, director of the Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives at the Cato Institute, provides some perspective: "Fed officials' reaction to proposals to 'audit' the Fed—proposals that in fact call for nothing more than a relaxation of some very severe current restrictions on the GAO's ability to investigate the Fed's activities—can only be described as hysterical. The changes in question would not at all increase Congress's ability to influence or interfere with the Fed's conduct of monetary policy. They would merely allow Congress access to more information, from a disinterested, independent, and highly reputable source, to assist it in performing its existing oversight responsibilities. The spectacle of so many officials, many of them well-trained economists, arguing, in essence, that so far as this Congressional duty is concerned, less information is better, is frankly rather shameful." Rep. Massie has been an outspoken critic of the Fed, blaming the 2008 financial crisis on low interest rates. In an op-ed, he describes how the Fed has not earned their privilege of privacy through successful policy: "One hundred years ago, Congress established the Fed and delegated its constitutional authority 'to coin money and regulate the value thereof.' Under the Fed's reckless inflationary policies, the dollar has lost over 95 percent of its value since then. My bill, H.R. 24, the 'Federal Reserve Transparency Act,' would remove the veil of secrecy around the Fed." While the previous attempts to audit the fed have failed, Republican control in both houses and vocal support from President Trump may make Federal Reserve oversight a reality.[...]

The New Book Alyssa Milano Thinks Every Congressman Should Read [Reason Podcast]

Sat, 03 Jun 2017 10:30:00 -0400

Congress's Constitution is a 500-page academic book about legislative authority, written over the course of a decade. How fortunate for author Josh Chafetz, a professor of law at Cornell University and contributor at The Hill, that his topic has suddenly become rather trendy, as the general public takes a newly keen interest in the question of what leverage the House and Senate have over, say, a newly elected president. Even America's (one-time?) TV sweetheart is wondering who's the boss in Washington? I want to buy a copy for everyone in Congress. — Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) June 1, 2017 Tune in to hear Reason magazine Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward talk with Chafetz about how what you learned in school about the balance of powers isn't quite right, the story behind why filibusters are so common these days, and why former House Speaker John Boehner (R–S.C.) is underrated. Produced by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Katherine: Hi, I'm Katherine Mangu-Ward, and I'm here with Josh Chafetz to record the Reason Podcast. Josh is a Professor of Law at Cornell Law School. He received his B.A. from Yale University and his doctorate in politics from Oxford. He has a new book, 'Congress's Constitution: Legislative Authority and the Separation of Powers'. Thanks for talking with us, Josh. Josh Chafetz: Thanks for having me. Katherine: Everybody hates Congress. Should Congress feel slighted or does Congress deserve it? Josh Chafetz: I should start by saying everybody has always hated Congress. Hating Congress is an American national pastime, and I think partly that's for reasons that we wouldn't want to change, which is to say that Congress is the institution where disagreement, and debate, and the good parts of democracy are most apparent, and it turns out that while Americans like those things in the abstract, they don't always like seeing them. Right? They say they like compromise but they don't like fighting and they don't like unprincipled behavior. The reasons that we don't like Congress when we actually see it working are also the reasons that we say in the abstract that we do like things like democracy. I think it's just inevitable that Americans dislike Congress to be honest. Katherine: Every school could learn that the separation of powers is one of the great things about the American system. You suggested that maybe we should complicate that idea a little bit. I think people have this idea that there are a list of things government does and it was divvied up among the branches, and the end, but that's not right, is it? Josh Chafetz: Yeah. My view is that the list of things that each of the branches does is not particularly static or written in stone, but there's actually a relatively small number of discreet tools that each branch has granted in the constitution, and then how much power the branch has actually exercised in practice is largely a function of how successful they are at wielding those tools. That is to say how successful they are at engaging with the public. Over the course of American history for instance, the court system has managed to successfully convince Americans to allow it to wield significantly more power than it wielded in the late 18th or early 19th century. Since World War 2, the exe[...]

The Battle of Budget Ideas Rages On

Thu, 01 Jun 2017 00:15:00 -0400

Love it or hate it, the recently proposed 2018 federal budget is dead on arrival. Some say that's because it's unrealistic. Some contend that it's too harsh on discretionary spending and/or too soft on calling for needed reform to some mandatory programs. And others say Republicans are never serious about cutting spending. Nonetheless, this budget, as bad as it is, should get credit for proposing a long list of targeted program cuts alongside justification for the requests. The battle of ideas is important. If Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman had never made the case and fought for school choice, many kids today would still be stuck in their falling public schools. If Nobel laureate Ronald Coase didn't defend his idea that we should auction the airwaves, there would be less innovation in the wireless telecom sector today. If no one had fought for marijuana legalization and marriage equality, neither of these battles would have been won, either. Of course, winning the battle of ideas takes time, decades even. But it starts with fighting and making the case for what you believe. I'm not equating cuts on the discretionary side of the budget to halting incarceration for smoking pot. But no battle is too small to fight. There are so many programs paid for at the federal level that should be left to state and private actors, and many more programs simply fail to accomplish their goals. It's a big mess. So as bad as this budget is—with its leniency toward Medicare and Social Security, its overall overspending, its military buildup, its whimsical growth assumptions and its frankly problematic revenue projections—I'm glad it initiates the hard battle of calling for the end of or cuts to some federal programs. Here are a few examples: The rural business and cooperative service programs in the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be eliminated. As the budget correctly states, "these programs have not been able to demonstrate that they meet the broader goals of reducing rural poverty, out-migration, or unemployment." In addition, the Government Accountability Office and the USDA's own inspectors general have been repeatedly warned about duplication, inefficiency and severe management failures. The whole department should be eliminated for its rampant cronyism, but let's start with these programs. The Economic Development Administration in the Department of Commerce would be terminated. If you can't get rid of the whole department, the EDA is a good start. A fiscal black hole and a relic of the 1960s, the program opened the gates of federal intervention into local affairs. Its grants are highly duplicative of grants extended by other agencies. Its spending is driven by politics rather than merit or need. And it's legendary for fraud and waste. Many GAO reports have found EDA job creation claims to be meritless or, at best, inconclusive. It needs to go. The Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration law enforcement grants would be eliminated. Created to incentivize state "and local law enforcement entities to provide law enforcement at airports by partially reimbursing those entities," these grants are no long needed, as state "and local jurisdictions have had plenty of time to adjust and reprioritize resources," the budget explains. Occupational Safety and Health Administration training grants at the Department of Labor would also be terminated. These grants are supposed to promote safety training for workers, even though there is no evidence that they do. OSHA should be eliminated along with these grants. The Cato Handbook for Policymakers notes, "The rate of workplace fatalities has been falling for more than a half century; workers' compensation laws and liability lawsuits a[...]

House Overwhelmingly Supports Bill Subjecting Teen Sexters to 15 Years in Federal Prison

Wed, 31 May 2017 11:08:00 -0400

Teens who text each other explicit images could be subject to 15 years in federal prison under a new bill that just passed the House of Representatives. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, has called the measure "deadly and counterproductive." "While the bill is well intended, it is overbroad in scope and will punish the very people it indicates it is designed to protect: our children," Lee said during a House floor debate over the bill. The bill would also raise "new constitutional concerns" and "exacerbate overwhelming concerns with the unfair and unjust mandatory minimum sentencing that contributes to the overcriminalization of juveniles and mass incarceration generally." Introduced by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) in March, the "Protecting Against Child Exploitation Act of 2017" passed the House by an overwhelming majority last week. Only two Republicans—Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and Thomas Massie of Kentucky—voted against the bill, along with 53 Democrats. "The bill prohibits some conduct that the Constitution does not allow Congress to regulate, and Rep. Amash opposes the expansion of mandatory minimums and crimes that are already prosecuted at the state level," a spokesperson from Amash's office explained of his opposition. Most of the opposition centered on the bill's effective expansion of mandatory-minimum prison sentences. One vocal critic was Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), who called the legislation "particularly appalling" because it would "apply to people who I think we should all agree should not be subject" to long mandatory minimums. "Under this law, teenagers who engage in consensual conduct and send photos of a sexual nature to their friends or even to each other may be prosecuted and the judge must sentence them to at least 15 years in prison," said Scott on the House floor. What's more, "the law explicitly states that the mandatory minimums will apply equally to an attempt or a conspiracy," Scott noted: That means if a teenager attempts to obtain a photo of sexually explicit conduct by requesting it from his teenage girlfriend, the judge must sentence that teenager to prison for at least 15 years for making such an attempt. If a teenager goads a friend to ask a teenager to take a sexually explicit image of herself, just by asking, he could be guilty of conspiracy or attempt, and the judge must sentence that teenager to at least 15 years in prison. But Johnson, a freshman congressman (and vocal Trump supporter), dismissed opponents' concern that the measure would be used in ways he didn't intend it to be used. "In Scripture, Romans 13 refers to the governing authorities as 'God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer,'" he said in response to their floor concerns. "I, for one, believe we have a moral obligation, as any just government should, to defend the defenseless." Johnson has repeatedly claimed that his bill will close "loopholes" that allow child pornographers to go free. But in the only "loophole" case he has pinpointed, it's overreaching federal prosecutors who bungled bringing a bad guy to justice, not some fundamental flaw in our criminal code. In that case, 19-year-old Anthony Palomino-Coronado was accused of molesting his 7-year-old neighbor repeatedly over the course of several months. In investigating the case, police discovered one photo of the abuse that had been taken and subsequently deleted from Palomino-Coronado's phone. Combined with the victim's testimony, the photo should have guaranteed state police little trouble in trying to prosecute Palomino-Coronado for sexual abuse of a child. But federal prosecutors preempted such a prosecuti[...]

Montana Libertarian Mark Wicks, Who Got 6 Percent Against the GOP's Gianforte, Believes the L.P. Must Focus More on State and Local Races

Sat, 27 May 2017 14:35:00 -0400

It wasn't ultimately surprising that a Republican candidate facing assault charges for allegedly bodyslamming a reporter the day before the election won his House race in Montana anyway. But Greg Gianforte's 6 percent win over Democrat Rob Quist was far lower than most assessments of Montana's relative preference for Republicans would indicate. And Gianforte's winning margin was exactly matched by the unprecedented 6 percent total for a Montana House race for the Libertarian Party's candidate, Mark Wicks. Wicks, a rancher and mailman in Inverness, Montana, thinks the key to his unusually good results for the L.P., for a campaign that could not afford any print, TV, or radio ads and only a few signs, was that the L.P. helped pressure the hosts of a televised debate to include Wicks along with his major party competitors. "When people saw how I handled myself, especially compared to the other two," Wicks said in a phone interview the day after the election, it helped him nearly double the last L.P. House candidate's 3.3 percent. (In Liberty County, next door to his home county, where Wicks says he likely personally knows one-quarter of the voters, he pulled 16 percent.) He credits his good showing in the debate not so much to ideology, but to the fact that he was able "to answer questions in a straightforward and honest way. My answers were consistent but [voters] could tell they weren't memorized. I would answer the question asked and not just pivot to a talking point." Wicks expects he'll run for office again, though not sure exactly what office or when. He'd like to have more money, sooner whenever that happens. He'd like to be in a better position to hit the ground running with a decent cash pile the way major party candidates usually can. The Libertarian National Committee (LNC) did give him a rare donation of $5,000, but it came too late in the process to do much good, Wicks says. Wicks sees the LNC faced a chicken and egg dilemma—he understands their reluctance to hand over a pile of cash to an untried candidate until after the debate showed he could comport himself well and make a decent run of it, but getting the money within the last couple of weeks before the election gave him no chance to have it serve as seed money for outreach that could have lead to more money. His campaign was able to spend "a couple thousand" on Facebook advertising, he says, but his jobs and the vast sprawl of Montana's one-district state made in-person appearances before crowds of voters also impossible. He lives about 300 miles from any major Montana city. Most of his volunteer support came via the Feldman Foundation, a national organization dedicated to finding and helping liberty-oriented candidates (named after Marc Feldman, a deceased former Libertarian Party activist and presidential aspirant). Wicks credits them with a "tremendous job, it took so much weight off my back." They managed his press releases and phone banks, for which he recalls one activist personally made 3,000 calls. "I've always been a very conservative Republican, very freedom oriented," Wicks says. But "I felt the Republican Party just left me. The Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, their budgets...they run on cutting spending and don't cut spending." He won the L.P.'s nomination against seven other candidates at a state Party convention. He knows that many in the Party "are upset that I'm not hardcore libertarian enough for them. But we have to realize we have to start in increments. We can't start with hardcore libertarianism." At least some voters thinking about him, he says, would "read the L.P. platform and decide they didn't want to vote for me because it goes too far, a [...]