Archives: July, 2011

Bill Daley on When It’s Okay to Impeach Obama

On NPR this morning, I heard White House chief of staff Bill Daley say, “The president cannot usurp the power that’s in the Congress.” What a relief! Also, this:

I don’t think the American people would find it appropriate for the president of the United States to defy the laws of the nation and its Constitution, without their belief that that president should be impeached. And this president isn’t going to do anything against the Constitution, against the laws of the United States of America.

So if the president were to defy, say, the War Powers Resolution by ridiculously redefining “hostilities,” or if he were to defy the Constitution by signing a law that claims for Congress a power the Constitution does not grant (say, ObamaCare), we should impeach him.  Got it.

 

The Federal Government Is So Big, It Even Takes the Washington Post’s Breath Away

On the front page of today’s Washington Post, above the fold, a news story begins:

If nothing else, the crisis over the debt ceiling is reminding the country of the astonishing reach of the federal spigot, encapsulated by a figure that President Obama tossed out recently: The government sends out “70 million checks” every month.

Reporter Alec MacGillis went on to note that the president underestimated:

The figures used by Obama and Geithner were, if anything, too low. They relied on Treasury Department figures from June that include Social Security (56 million checks that month), veterans benefits (4.5 million checks), and spending on non-defense contractors and vendors (1.8 million checks).

But those numbers do not include reimbursements to Medicare providers and vendors (100 million claims in June), and electronic transfers to the 21 million households receiving food stamps.

Nor do they include most spending by the Defense Department, which has a payroll of 6.4 million active and retired employees and, on average, pays nearly 1 million invoices and 660,000 travel expense claims per month.

However, we should remember that

The mind-boggling number challenges a common critique of the federal government as a creaky apparatus where tax dollars are lost in the bureaucratic cracks. From the vantage point of the 70 million or 80 million checks, the government is a finely tuned machine that brings in revenue and disperses it back out across the country.

Whew. For a minute there I was worried.

 

NPR’s Mara Liasson Says So Far, House GOP Is Winning

I’m still trying to figure out what I think about the debt-limit fight.

As a policy matter, I want to cut the federal government’s claim on the people’s economic resources by much more than 40 percent.  (Dear critics, please note that it’s no kind of objection to say that cuts of that magnitude would cause vulnerable people pain.  The alternatives – higher taxes or a Greek-style debt crisis – would also cause vulnerable people pain.  In my estimation, they would cause more pain to greater numbers of vulnerable people.)

Where I get queasy is when people make credible arguments that not raising the debt limit would result in such a political backlash that it would  compromise efforts to cut federal spending.

Which is why I found this exchange yesterday between NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly and Mara Liasson so fascinating:

KELLY: [C]an you even say at this point, who seems to be winning this fight after all these weeks?

LIASSON: Well, on substance you’d have to say the Republicans. Each time that they’ve laid down the demand, they’ve prevailed. First, when the president wanted a clean debt ceiling bill, they said no. They said it had to be linked to spending cuts, they won on that. Then they wanted dollar for dollar cuts for the amount they were raising the debt ceiling by. They got that. Now, in this latest iteration, they’re demand that the bills contain no revenues, that seems to be prevailing, neither the Reid Plan or The Boehner Plan has any revenues. But, Republicans have paid a big price for this in the polls. Their numbers are much worse than the president on these issues. The president, on the other hand, seems to be winning the argument, but maybe not the debate. The polls show that the American people prefer his approach, his balanced approach that include tax hikes on the wealthy, but that doesn’t seem to be giving him any leverage with Republicans in Washington.

KELLY: Yeah, I mean, as you say, the President Obama said last night, Americans are fed up. Are our voters going to hold one side more responsible than other, do you think? And weve only got a few more seconds left.

LIASSON: Well, polls show that more people would blame the Republicans if there’s s a default, but I think that may be misleading. Republicans might get the blame, but it I think the president will be punished because he needed the deal the most. If there’s a downgrade of U.S. government credit rating, which seems likelier than ever now, the damage to the economy will be damage, politically, to him.

Nobody knows for sure whom the public will blame if people suffer, just as nobody knows when the House Republicans will run out of leverage.

It seems, though, that the House GOP has been tremendously successful at changing the terms of this debate over the federal budget.  That’s something I haven’t seen acknowledged by those – of all political stripes – who say that the House Republicans are nuts.  I’m interested to hear what others think about Liasson’s perspective.

Al Qaeda on the Ropes

A front-page story in today’s Washington Post reports that al Qaeda is a shadow of its former self, and finds that there is even talk among senior defense and intelligence officials of the organization’s imminent demise.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared during a recent visit to Afghanistan that “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” The comment was dismissed by skeptics as an attempt to energize troops while defending the administration’s decision to wind down a decade-old war.

But senior U.S. officials from the CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies have expressed similar views in classified intelligence reports and closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill, officials said.

“There is a swagger within the community right now for good reason,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee.

“Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is nowhere near defeat,” Chambliss said, referring to the Yemen-based affiliate. “But when it comes to al-Qaeda [core leadership in Pakistan], we have made the kind of strides that we need to make to be in a position of thinking we can win.”

It is unfortunate that this story is filed in the “news” category. Al Qaeda has been on the ropes for some time. It is, at best, “a fragmented and unmanageable movement.“ But if senior officials are willing to speak so publicly about our recent gains, it may signal something significant.

As many have noted, one of AQ’s goals (and the goal of many other terrorist organizations) is to induce a counterproductive and self-injurious overreaction on the part of its target audience or government. The best approach, though it is difficult to achieve in practice, is to avoid terrorizing ourselves. If, many years from now, historians conclude that AQ was never as threatening as we made it out to be, they may deem the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on homeland security post-9/11, and the trillions more spent on wars that were once believed connected to the so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT), to have been an enormous waste of resources. We will be seen as having played into Osama bin Laden’s “bleed and bankruptcy” strategy. Alternatively, in-depth analysis may find certain low-visibility (and likely low-cost) policies to have been particularly effective at degrading the organization’s capabilities, and ultimately foiling bin Laden’s ridiculously grandiose schemes for world domination.

For now, U.S. officials continue to issue advisories of a danger from al Qaeda. The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that a State Department global travel warning urged Americans to “take precaution and maintain vigilance about terrorist threats, demonstrations and the possibility of violence against U.S. citizens.” If Secretary of Defense Panetta is feeling confident, the folks in Foggy Bottom appear not to have received the memo. This policy disconnect–with some officials believing we are safer while others warn of impending danger–may be caused by bureaucratic inertia, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, or merely an elaborate scheme to deflect blame in the unlikely event that an attack occurs at some later date. 

For now, while we should cheer al Qaeda’s rapidly diminishing hold on our collective psyche, we still seem a long ways from that place Sen. John Kerry spoke of during the 2004 presidential campaign

”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.”

”As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”

How’s that Big-Government Environmentalism Workin’ For Ya’?

I don’t know what conclusion the correspondent who sent me this pair of articles meant for me to draw, but I think they nicely illustrate how centralizing power with the federal government fails to advance environmental values, while eroding others.

First, there’s the AP story showing deep and extensive ties between offshore oil and gas companies and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation. That’s the renamed Minerals Management Service, the agency that was supposed to prevent things like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last summer.

Everyone dreams of a “real regulator” that will clean up industry, protect public values, and smartly manage economic activity. What you routinely end up with is a pro-industry self-dealing agency that fails to protect the values it was assigned while mismanaging productive activity. Case in point.

Next, woe be it to the environmental activist who goes monkey-wrenching government-industry plans. Tim DeChristopher has been sentenced to two years in prison and fined $10,000 for derailing a government auction of oil and gas leases near two national parks in Utah. DeChristopher ran up bids on 13 parcels totaling more than 22,000 acres near Arches and Canyonlands national parks, then failed to make good on his bids.

I suspect I would find DeChristopher’s environmentalism at least overwrought, but when did it become a criminal offense to default on an auction bid? When the government got into the business, that’s when. Instead of, say, pre-qualifying bidders, it evidently just uses its monopoly on coercion to lock up people who mess around with its action.

Command-and-control is probably the simplest way to advance environmental values, but it has failed so dramatically so many times, and it fosters a punitive state that jails its citizens. The simplest way to advance environmental goals may not be the best.

If you prioritize the environment, and if you’ve read this far in this post, I suspect you might be willing to consider more harmonious ways of pushing for a greener planet, ways that respect and use private property rights and that don’t put people in jail. Free-market environmentalism exists, though it’s a ways off from here.

You Should Support a Value-Added Tax…if You Want Bigger Government and More Debt

I testified before the House Ways & Means Committee yesterday. As always, my trip inside the belly of the beast was an interesting adventure.

The tax-writing committee was holding a hearing on the value-added tax. I was on a panel with five other witnesses, and all of the other people testifying were sympathetic to a VAT. But since I had truth on my side, that made it a fair fight (though it did cross my mind that it’s not a good sign when a Republican-controlled committee stacks the witnesses in favor of a European-style tax system).

I made two points. First, a VAT is less destructive than the current income tax. As such, if we somehow repealed the 16th Amendment and replaced it with something ironclad that would prevent the income tax from ever again haunting the land, I would gladly make a trade.

But that’s not going to happen, so my second point was to warn that the VAT would be a recipe for bigger government. And even though some of my fellow witnesses said the revenue could be used to reduce deficits, I pointed out that Europe adopted VATs beginning in the 1960s and that hasn’t stopped welfare states such as Greece and Portugal from spending themselves into a fiscal crisis.

This chart, which is similar to what I included in my testimony, compares spending and debt levels in EU-15 nations (Western Europe) and the United States. As you can see, the burden of spending and debt is onerous in America (red columns), but even worse in Europe (blue columns).

That doesn’t prove that a VAT causes bigger government and more debt, to be sure, but it certainly seems to suggest that the other side is smoking dope when they claim a VAT will lead to deficit reduction. Instead, it seems like Milton Friedman was right when he warned that, “In the long run government will spend whatever the tax system will raise, plus as much more as it can get away with.”

I made some of these points in my VAT video.

P.S. Here are three very good cartoons on the VAT (here, here, and here).

Wyden Pressing Intel Officials on Domestic Location Tracking

Back in May, during the debates over reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) began raising a fuss about a secret interpretation of the law’s so-called “business records” authority, known to wonks as Section 215, arguing that intelligence agencies had twisted the statute to give themselves domestic surveillance powers Congress had not anticipated or intended. At the time, I marshaled a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that, I thought, suggested that the “secret authority” involved location tracking of cell phones. Wyden backed off after being promised a secret hearing to address his concerns—but indicated he’d be returning to the issue if he remained unsatisfied. The hearing occurred early last month. Now I suspect we’re seeing the other shoe dropping.

At a confirmation hearing this morning for Matthew Olsen, who’s been tapped to head the National Counterterrorism Center, Wyden repeatedly asked the nominee whether the intelligence community “use[s] cell site data to track the location of Americans inside the country.” This comes on the heels of a letter Wyden and Udall sent to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper demanding an answer to the same question. Olsen was unsurprisingly vague, calling it a “complicated question” but allowing that there were “certain circumstances where that authority may exist.” The committee was promised a memo explaining those “circumstances” by September. That means that just about ten years after Congress approved the Patriot Act, a handful of legislators may get the privilege of learning what it does. Ah, democracy.

On a related note, one of the data points I cited in my previous post was that Wyden’s Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act had, somewhat unusually, been structured primarily as a reform to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which governs intelligence spying, only later incorporating the same protections into the statutes governing ordinary criminal investigations. Especially striking was the inclusion of a specific prohibition on the use of Section 215 for location tracking, above and beyond the general warrant requirement. Since that writing, however, the bill gained Republican co-sponsorship, and dropped the changes to FISA that had previously been the bill’s centerpiece. Instead, the bill now contains an explicit exception for FISA “electronic surveillance,” in addition to the section providing for location tracking authorized by either a criminal or a FISA warrant. I’m not privy to whatever negotiations necessitated that change, but it’s hard to imagine anyone would have insisted on such a substantial restructuring if the intelligence community weren’t doing at least some location tracking pursuant to a lower standard than probable cause.

It’s not entirely clear exactly what the current version of the bill would permit, however. FISA is mentioned twice in the draft: once as part of a vague general exemption for “electronic surveillance,” and then again as one of the sources of authority for a “warrant” to do geolocation tracking. At a first pass, though, those two definitions ought to overlap, because FISA requires a secret intelligence court to issue a warrant based on probable cause (to believe the target is an “agent of a foreign power”) for government monitoring that falls within the FISA’s definition of “electronic surveillance,” in contrast with the far laxer standards that apply to the use of Section 215. It’s therefore an interesting puzzle what, exactly, that exception is meant to permit. Possibly the idea is to permit the (otherwise prohibited) “use” and “disclosure” of geolocation information already obtained without a warrant in order to target future judicially authorized “electronic surveillance,” but it’s hard to be sure. What does seem increasingly sure, however, is that location tracking is connected to the controversy over Section 215—and that Congress owes the American people a debate over the proper use and scope of that power, which it has thus far refused to have.