Archives: 02/2010

When Bipartisanship Is Good News

Usually when I hear that a policy proposal has bipartisan support, I instinctively check for my wallet. But I greeted with pleasure the news on Wednesday that two lawmakers — Rep. Scott Garrett (R, NJ) and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D, PA) — had introduced a bill to shut down the USDA’s Market Access Program, which the congressmen rightly paint as “corporate welfare to big business.”

I yield to no one in my abhorrence of trade barriers, here and abroad. But this program is less about addressing market access per se, and more about taxpayer funding of marketing campaigns, trade shows and other promotions, which surely are the responsibility of the firms/industries concerned.

Incidentally, the Market Access Program is a line item in one of many agricultural programs identified by our Tax and Budget team as being ripe for the chopping block.

EDA, NADO, and the Appropriations Hearings Charade

A couple weeks ago Orson Swindle, an assistant secretary of commerce for economic development in the Reagan Administration, was kind enough to send me news articles from his days battling policymakers over porky Economic Development Administration projects. In a 1989 Insight article, Orson gave a nice summation of one of the problems with special interest spending:

The minute you fund a program you’ve just created a constituency group. Before long, they will be organized and have a staff here in Washington, which is paid from dues from the members who get their money from the federal government. And those go up and lobby to keep the money going. It’s a classic microcosm of what’s wrong with government.

The National Association of Development Organizations is a perfect example of what Orson was talking about.

NADO says it “is an advocate for federal programs and policies that promote regional strategies and solutions for addressing local community and economic development needs.” It got started in 1967 when federal subsidization of state and local government was taking off. It’s headquartered in Washington and its dues come from members getting money from the federal government. According to USASpending.gov, NADO itself has received almost $1 million in federal money over the past decade.

Economic Development Administration funding is obviously a core interest for NADO. On January 8th it applauded a pro-EDA funding letter sent by 20 senators to President Obama. NADO’s concluding remarks are illustrative of the incestuous relationship between the special interests and members of Congress:

NADO thanks those regional development organizations that contacted their Senators to urge them to sign the letter. Regional development organizations are encouraged to formally thank those Senators that showed their support for EDA.

Exactly what does NADO mean by formally thank? Regardless, “thanking” politicians for giving the gift of other people’s money is patently repulsive.

On February 3rd, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science held a hearing on the EDA to discuss its budget. According to the subcommittee’s website, four of the five witnesses called to testify were NADO representatives. The fifth witness was the president of the Arkansas State University System, whose testimony sang the virtues of EDA grants. Talk about a stacked deck.

For those unaware, this is how appropriations committee dog and pony shows hearings operate. There’s usually nary a word of criticism from testifiers for the simple reason that critics are generally persona non grata.

Former Yale University professor James Payne wrote an insightful Cato Policy Analysis entitled “Budgeting in Neverland: Irrational Policymaking in the U.S. Congress and What Can Be Done about It.” In it, Payne details how appropriations hearings are pro-government spending echo chambers. Payne recounts one exchange with a member of Congress that is rather ironic:

In an interview with Rep. Allan Mollohan (D-WV), the congressman unconsciously revealed how extremely one-sided the environment was. I mentioned to him that as part of my research I would be coming to his appropriations subcommittee to testify against funding for the National Science Foundation. “You don’t want to fund the National Science Foundation?” he asked in disbelief. “I’ve never heard anybody say they didn’t think NSF ought to be funded.”

There are many arguments against taxpayer funding of scientific research, including the points that it retards science, corrupts scientists, and hinders economic development, not to mention all the more obvious ones about opportunity cost, tax burdens, tax system overhead costs, waste, and perverse income redistribution. That Representative Mollohan had never heard any of these many arguments, despite his presumed expertise as a member of the NSF appropriations subcommittee, showed how complete the insulation of members of Congress had become.

Congressman Mollohan is the chairman of the aforementioned House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science.

In his study, Payne surveyed 14 committee hearings. His finding speaks for itself:

The comprehensive tabulation showed that in those 14 hearings, 1,014 witnesses appeared to argue in favor of programs and only 7 spoke against them, an imbalance of 145 to 1.

With the release of the president’s bloated $3.8 trillion budget proposal, the appropriations season is under way on Capitol Hill. So while taxpayers will be hard at work for Congress, Congress will be hard at work for the special interests like NADO. A classic microcosm of what’s wrong with Congress indeed.

The Health Care Debate on C-SPAN

Today, President Obama began to fulfill the promise that health care legislation would be hashed out on C-SPAN. His discussion with congressional leaders was broadcast on that cable channel and streamed live on the Internet. The nearly six-and-a-half hour-long meeting began to touch on many of the issues at stake in the health care area. 

I’ll leave observations about the merits to our experts, who live-blogged the morning session. I found a few things interesting from a transparency perspective:

The format was far more conducive to productive discussion than procedures for “debate” in Congress. What generally happens in the House and Senate is display of members’ and senators’ well-settled views.  So today interested Americans could get a real sense of the issues and how their representatives think about them.

There seemed to be a division between representatives who knew the technical subject matter and those who—for lack of a better phrase—knew the emotional subject matter. Surprisingly astute commentaries on fiscal realities were met with appeals to the story of one constituent or another—or of members’ own families’ health predicaments.

Though there was much talking past one another, these are all good things to see. It will inform the public, and a better informed public will make better decisions about health care legislation, about individual representatives, and about the proper role of government. 

I know how I feel about these things. (I’m soft-pedaling my views here as hard as I can…) My opinions didn’t change, though I adopted new nuances to my thinking.

It’s doubtful that many people’s opinions will change. But I’m confident that a more open process will lead to better results in many senses: specific policy results; electoral activity; and people’s overall sense of the role of government.

Today’s meeting only scratched the surface, of course. Sessions like this in the days and weeks to come will do more to improve the transparency of the lawmaking process, in this issue and hopefully others. Today’s transparency precedent is something that the president and federal lawmakers should not retreat from.

Are We Really Going to Leave Iraq? (cont’d)

A follow up on yesterday’s post about my skepticism that we would be able to get out of Iraq by 2011 (and get all “combat” troops out by September 1 of this year):

One way to square these two seemingly contradictory statements is if the bipartisan consensus Rozen implies exists reflects an agreement between Democrats and Republicans that the United States should use Iraq as a new military base in the Middle East like we used to use Saudi Arabia.  Ricks’s report strongly implies that the military is trying to force Obama to stay, although it’s not clear whether Obama has any desire to take up a fight with them over leaving.  And that’s assuming he actually wants to leave.

Ricks writes cryptically that “this debate is just beginning. I expect that Obama actually is going to have to break his promises on Iraq and keep a fairly large force in Iraq, but of course that won’t be the first time he’s had to depart from his campaign rhetoric on this war.”  Finally, Ricks suggests

Let’s open the betting: How many U.S. military personnel will be in Iraq four years from today–that is, Feb. 25, 2014? The person who guesses closest gets a signed copy of any of my books. My guess: 28,895. Not “combat” troops, of course! Goodness no. Just “advisory” troops who carry M-16s and call in airstrikes and such.

I have enough humility to duck a precise guess, but I would be very, very surprised if the number is zero.  Americans don’t give up military footholds unless we’re chased out, a la Vietnam, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.  We’re still in Europe, for goodness’ sake.

Patriot Act Update

It looks as though we’ll be getting a straight one-year reauthorization of the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, without even the minimal added safeguards for privacy and civil liberties that had been proposed in the Senate’s watered down bill.  This is disappointing, but was also eminently predictable: Between health care and the economy, it was clear Congress wasn’t going to make time for any real debate on substantive reform of surveillance law. Still, the fact that the reauthorization is only for one year suggests that the reformers plan to give it another go—though, in all probability, we won’t see any action on this until after the midterm elections.

The silver lining here is that this creates a bit of breathing room, and means legislators may now have a chance to take account of the absolutely damning Inspector General’s report that found that the FBI repeatedly and systematically broke the law by exceeding its authorization to gather information about people’s telecommunications activities. It also means the debate need not be contaminated by the panic over the Fort Hood shootings or the failed Christmas bombing—neither of which have anything whatever to do with the specific provisions at issue here, but both of which would have doubtless been invoked ad nauseam anyway.

India Explicitly Rejects Bringing Environmental Issues Into WTO

An article today in BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest (What? You don’t subscribe??) contains an explicit rejection by India’s trade minister of the idea that carbon border tax adjustments belong in the WTO’s agenda.  Border tax adjustments in this context refers to de facto tariffs that would “level the playing field” for domestic producers competing with foreign producers not subject to climate change policies of an equivalent rigour, also called “border carbon adjustments” or variations on that theme.

While Minister Khullar predicts that these sorts of measures will be in place in 2-3 years time, he rejects that the WTO is the forum to deal with environmental issues.

Furthermore, countries introducing such measures can expect litigation:

India and other developing countries will undoubtedly challenge the true impetus behind the [border carbon adjustment] measures.

“Such measures imposing restrictions on imports on the grounds of providing a ‘level playing field’, or maintaining the ‘competitiveness’ of the domestic industry, etc are likely to be viewed as mere protectionist measures by the developed world to block the exports of the poorer nations,” [a recent report from an Indian think-tank closely connected with the Indian government] reads. “This is because there is little empirical evidence that companies relocate to take advantage of lax pollution controls.”

The [report] argues that such unilateral trade measures will inevitably lead to tit-for-tat trade retaliation that could spiral into an all-out trade war. Such warnings have also been raised by China and several think tanks following the issue.

I’ve written before on the dangers of introducing climate change issues into the WTO (and Dan Griswold has written more broadly on why labor and environmental standards don’t mix well with the aim of freeing trade) but this is yet another firm, unequivocal warning to developed countries that their proposals (and they are still just proposals at this stage) will have consequences. Developed country politicians who insist on forcing rich-world standards on the poor world should listen carefully.

On Fourth Amendment Privacy: Everybody’s Wrong

Everybody’s wrong. That’s sort of the message I was putting out when I wrote my 2008 American University Law Review article entitled “Reforming Fourth Amendment Privacy Doctrine.”

A lot of people have poured a lot of effort into the “reasonable expectation of privacy” formulation Justice Harlan wrote about in his concurrence to the 1967 decision in U.S. v. Katz. But the Fourth Amendment isn’t about people’s expectations or the reasonableness of their expectations. It’s about whether, as a factual matter, they have concealed information from others—and whether the government is being reasonable in trying to discover that information.

The upshot of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” formulation is that the government can argue—straight-faced—that Americans don’t have a Fourth Amendment interest in their locations throughout the day and night because data revealing it is produced by their mobile phones’ interactions with telecommunications providers, and the telecom companies have that data.

I sat down with podcaster extraordinaire Caleb Brown the other day to talk about all this. He titled our conversation provocatively: “Should the Government Own Your GPS Location?