Archives: March, 2013

If ObamaCare Isn’t Vulnerable, Why Is the President Violating the Law to Save It?

From my oped in today’s Daily Caller, heralding the release of my new Cato white paper, “50 Vetoes: How States Can Stop the Obama Health Law”:

But the surest sign that Obamacare remains vulnerable is that the Obama administration is violating its own statute, congressional intent, and even a Supreme Court ruling in order to save the law.

In “50 Vetoes,” a study released today by the Cato Institute, I explain the administration is so afraid of a sticker-shock fueled backlash that it is preparing to spend more than $600 billion that Congress never authorized to numb consumers to the costs of this law. Along the way, the administration will impose roughly $100 billion in illegal taxes on employers and individuals (including some legal immigrants below the poverty level), and deny millions of individuals the right to purchase low-cost “catastrophic plans.”

To cement the law’s Medicaid expansion in place, the administration is also violating the Supreme Court’s ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius. The Court prohibited the federal government from coercing states into implementing the expansion. Yet HHS is still threatening every state with the loss of all federal Medicaid funds if they fail to implement parts of the expansion. These are not the actions of an administration that feels its health care law is secure.

Finally, supporters forget that President Obama and congressional Republicans have already repealed important parts of the law, including Obamacare’s third entitlement program — a long-term care program known as the CLASS Act, repealed as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal. President Obama is already repealing his law one provision at a time.

Obamacare supporters may scoff at repeal. But if vulnerable Democratic senators start hearing from their constituents about the chaos and sticker shock they experience later this year, the scoffing will cease.

Read the whole paper.

More Calls for Intervention in Syria

Pressure is building on President Obama to involve the United States more deeply in the brutal civil war in Syria that may have claimed as many as 70,000 lives, and created more than a million refugees. Late last week, the editorial board of the Washington Post called for “aggressive intervention by the United States and its allies to protect the opposition and civilians.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) apparently believes that the Post didn’t go far enough because the editorial explicitly ruled out sending U.S. ground troops. He wants the U.S. military to secure suspected chemical weapons caches there. But where Graham is leading few will follow, aside from his frequent co-conspirator, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). The American people are not anxious to send U.S. troops into the middle of yet another civil war in the region.

Some do want the U.S. government to do more, however, and not just the people who sold us the war in Iraq. For example, during a stop in Saudi Arabia earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry made vague references to increasing the flow of arms to the Syrian opposition. Back here in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) became the latest to call for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Arms supplied to resistance fighters can be directed against other targets when the regime collapses (or may simply prolong the war if it doesn’t), which is why no-fly zones are seen as the less risky option. They could satisfy the understandable human instinct to be seen as doing something, anything, in the face of enormous human suffering. As such, if President Obama were to institute a no-fly zone, it might forestall an even more costly and risky operation, one that did involve U.S. troops on the ground. 

But no-fly zones often become precursors to additional involvement at a later date. If the no-fly zone fails to swiftly halt the violence, some will claim that preserving U.S. credibility requires an even deeper commitment. Or they can just become a slippery slope in their own right. The ink was barely dry on the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya before the mission morphed into a no-drive zone on the ground, and then a major military operation to overthrow Qaddafi’s government. 

As a general rule, we shouldn’t send our military on feel-good missions that have little chance of success. And that is what no-fly zones are. They also have a clear political purpose, in this case to ensure that the opposition prevails over the Assad regime and its supporters. There is no such thing as an impartial intervention. We are choosing sides, and arguably already have, without a clear sense that the regime that comes after will be an improvement over what came before. We are placing ourselves into the middle of a much wider sectarian dispute taking place throughout the region. 

Claims that the United States has a unique opportunity to shape the political process in Syria are equally misguided. Though we wish otherwise, a U.S. government stamp of approval is likely to undermine the legitimacy of genuine democrats in Syria, to the extent that there are any. And we know that the opposite is true: individuals or groups singled out for criticism, for example the al-Nasra Front, have seen their stature rise. The reason is simple: the American brand has never been lower in the region, and is held in particularly low regard in Syria. 

When I wrote about Syria late last year (here and here), I was reasonably confident that President Obama would not intervene, in spite of the fact that his decision to help the Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Qaddafi established a precedent for a similar regime-change operation in Syria. The key distinctions between the two cases include UN Security Council support for intervention in Libya, but not in Syria, a relatively well-defined mission in Libya, but not in Syria, and a reasonable expectation that the costs of military operations could be kept limited, and would deliver clear results, which was true in Libya, but is not true in Syria. Earlier this week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey threw cold water on the notion that the military could produce an acceptable outcome in Syria. 

The general’s candor is both welcome and refreshing. Although the suffering in Syria is gut-wrenching, the U.S. military lacks the ability to resolve the underlying social and political disputes that are driving the civil war. Indeed, as Ben Friedman pointed out last year, outside intervention might actually prolong such conflicts, or initiate new ones, resulting in even greater loss of life. 

The American people have so far proved unwilling to intervene in Syria, and are particularly resistant to the idea of U.S. troops marching on Damascus. They were similarly disinclined to become involved in Libya, however, and the president ignored the public in that previous case. He should not do so with respect to Syria. And Congress shouldn’t allow it if he tries.

50 Vetoes: How States Can Stop the Obama Health Care Law

Today, the Cato Institute releases my latest working paper, “50 Vetoes: How States Can Stop the Obama Health Care Law.” From the executive summary:

Despite surviving a number of threats, President Obama’s health care law remains harmful, unstable, and unpopular. It also remains vulnerable to repeal, largely because Congress and the Supreme Court have granted each state the power to veto major provisions of the law before they take effect in 2014.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) itself empowers states to block the employer mandate, to exempt many of their low- and middle-income taxpayers from the individual mandate, and to reduce federal deficit spending, simply by not establishing a health insurance “exchange.” Supporters of the law do not care for this feature, yet they adopted it because they had no choice. The bill would not have become law without it.

To date, 34 states, accounting for roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population, have refused to create Exchanges. Under the statute, this shields employers in those states from a $2,000 per worker tax that will apply in states that are creating Exchanges (e.g., California, Colorado, New York). Those 34 states have exempted at least 8 million residents from taxes as high as $2,085 on families of four earning as little as $24,000. They have also reduced federal deficits by hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Obama administration is nevertheless attempting to tax those employers and individuals, contrary to the plain language of the PPACA and congressional intent, and to deny millions of Americans the opportunity to purchase low-cost, high-deductible coverage. Employers, consumers, and even state officials in those 34 states can challenge those illegal taxes in court, as Oklahoma has done. States can also block those illegal taxes—and even stop the federal government from operating an Exchange—by approving a strengthened version of the Health Care Freedom Act.

The PPACA’s Medicaid expansion, which would cost individual states up to $53 billion over its first 10 years, is now optional for states, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius. Some 16 states have announced they will not expand their programs, while half of the states remain undecided. Yet the Obama administration is trying to coerce states into implementing parts of the expansion that the Court rendered optional. States can replicate Maine’s lawsuit challenging this arbitrary attempt to limit the Court’s ruling.

Collectively, states can shield all employers and at least 12 million taxpayers from the law’s new taxes, and still reduce federal deficits by $1.7 trillion, simply by refusing to establish Exchanges or expand Medicaid.

Congress and President Obama have already repealed the third new entitlement program the PPACA created—the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, or CLASS Act—as well as funding for the “co-op” plans meant to serve as an alternative to a “public option.” A critical mass of states exercising their vetoes over Exchanges and the Medicaid expansion can force Congress to reconsider, and hopefully repeal, the rest of this counterproductive law. Real health care reform is impossible until that happens.

Internal British Study: Afghanistan ‘Unwinnable in Military Terms’

Recent news reports have missed a major item on Afghanistan. Last week, the Independent reported on an internal study from the British government’s Ministry of Defence (MoD). The study, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, examines the “extraordinary number of similar factors that surround both the Soviet and Nato campaigns in Afghanistan.” 

The study finds that despite their differences: 

Both interventions have been portrayed as foreign invasions attempting to support a corrupt and unpopular central government against a local insurgent movement which has popular support, strong religious motivation and safe havens abroad. In addition, the country will again be left with a severely damaged and very weak economic base, heavily dependent upon external aid. 

It goes on: 

The highest-level parallel is that both campaigns were conceived with the aim of imposing an ideology foreign to the Afghan people: the Soviets hoped to establish a Communist state while Nato wished to build a democracy,” it says. “Equally striking is that both abandoned their central aim once they realised that the war was unwinnable in military terms and that support of the population was essential. [Emphasis added.] 

In a questionable comment that one would expect a U.S. official to utter, the British government website states “We are in Afghanistan to protect our own national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs.” The internal study, of course, comes to a contrary conclusion: “The military parallels are equally striking; the 40th Army [of the Soviet Union] was unable decisively to defeat the mujahedin while facing no existential threat itself, a situation that precisely echoes the predicament of Isaf [the Nato-led security mission].” 

To learn more about the international community’s inability to rescue Afghanistan—and why the international community made that grandiloquent pledge in the first place—register for the Cato Institute policy forum on Friday, April 5th , “The war in Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?” I will host Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the RAND Corporation’s Ambassador James Dobbins, and West Point Professor and COIN critic Colonel Gian Gentile to discuss America’s longest war.

“Nice Charter School Bill You Got There… Shame If Anything Were To Happen To It”

The latest politician to blur the lines between legislating and running a protection racket is Representative Dan Eaton, division chairman of the New Hampshire state legislature’s powerful House Finance committee.

In what Charles Arlinghaus of the New Hampshire Union Leader generously described as “a rare moment of candor”, Rep. Eaton recently stated during a committee hearing that he was going to hold up an entirely uncontroversial bipartisan charter school bill purely for political purposes. As he explained, “I’m looking at this as political. We have a [budget] negotiation [with the state senate] coming up in June and I want to have a trump card or two, and this is … a very healthy trump card.”

Arlinghaus breaks it down:

Consider what he’s saying: He liked the bill and supports the policy, but he believes he can use the bill as part of a hostage negotiation with the Senate. He wants to say to the Senate “I know you want this, but we’ll kill it even though we like it too unless you do something else we want that is completely unrelated.”

Without question, some give and take and normal compromise will be part of a budget process. Everyone expects the House and Senate to pass different budgets and to then negotiate over the details of what gets included. But this bill isn’t part of that process and wouldn’t be part of that negotiation unless Eaton gets to keep it captive in a back room. In effect, he’s looking at charter schools and saying, “I’m sorry you got caught in the crossfire, but I think I can sell you for a good price.”

The bill in question was intended to clear up a misunderstanding about a recent change to the Granite State’s charter school law that the state attorney general’s office understood to mean the opposite of what the legislative authors had intended. The bill, which restored the previous statutory language, had already received a positive recommendation from the NH House Education Committee and passed the full NH House on a voice vote, meaning that the support was so overwhelming that it was unnecessary to count the votes in favor and opposed. What seemed like common sense to most legislators apparently looked like an opportunity for political hostage-taking for Rep. Eaton.

Without the fix, the five new charter schools that are already in the governor’s budget cannot be authorized. Even a delay until the budget negotiations in June will jeopardize the ability of these charter schools to be ready to open in September.

As a former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, I can attest that the “Live Free or Die” state’s citizen legislature often embodies the highest ideals of self-government. Most of the legislators I encountered in both parties were principled and completely dedicated to making New Hampshire an even better place to live. Unfortunately, these sort of legislative shenanigans leave a stain on the august institution. Let us hope that sunlight proves to be a sufficient disinfectant.

Force-Feeding Fiscal Federalism

State and local politicians love federal money. Every federal dollar that a state or local politician can spend is a dollar that he or she doesn’t have to ask his or her voters to come up with through taxes or fees.

One problem is that citizens might (erroneously) view local spending that is subsidized by the federal government as being a “free lunch.” Citizens are numbed to the real cost of government and the incentive for them to keep tabs on how state and local officials spend money is weakened.

According to an article in Politico, federal sequestration cuts to state and local subsidies could mean that local taxpayers will be asked by local officials to cover the difference: 

To keep their budgets in order, local officials across the country — many of whom don’t have the luxury of running deficits — say a dysfunctional Congress is forcing them to resort to the type of tax increases that Republicans, in particular, so fiercely oppose. 

Some of the hard-hit jurisdictions are obvious. Residents in Fairfax County, Va., which is home to defense contractors and thousands of federal employees, are being warned that property taxes could rise by an average of $262 later this year because of fallout from the sequester.

Heaven forbid that defense contractors and federal employees – already beneficiaries of captive federal taxpayers – might have to bear a greater responsibility for the local government services that they “benefit” from. Perhaps a potential tax increase will cause Fairfax County residents to take a closer look at how local officials have been spending money and decide that additional money isn’t needed. (And perhaps the defense contractors and federal employees in particular will have a better understanding of why some of us don’t want to pay additional federal taxes to help maintain current levels of federal spending.)

Sequestration might not be the ideal way to cut federal spending, but if it results in people appreciating that federal spending isn’t a free lunch, good.

See this Cato essay for more on fiscal federalism.

Was the Iraq War Worth It?

That’s the question posed by US News and World Report’s “Debate Club” today.

Here’s the opening to my response.

Tragically, the Iraq War was not worth the costs. The leading advocates for war understated the costs and exaggerated the benefits. They claimed that the war would be cheap, perhaps even profitable, thanks to lower oil prices. They suggested that it would be easy, a “cakewalk,” not requiring a long-term U.S presence to stabilize the country after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. They blithely dismissed concerns about the tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and between Sunnis and Shiites.

We now know how wrong they were. A new report from the Watson Institute for International Studies at BrownUniversity tallies up the costs: nearly 4,500 U.S. troop fatalities, more than $1.7 trillion spent, and another $490 billion owed. Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed in the sectarian bloodletting that occurred after the collapse of Saddam’s regime exceed 130,000. Millions were displaced, many still have not returned to their homes. The Iraqi Christian community has been decimated.

You can read the rest here and vote for the best argument.