Archives: 10/2014

Public Oversight of Congress, One Click at a Time

In mid-August, using Cato Deepbills data, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University started alerting visitors to its U.S. Code pages that the laws these visitors care about may be amended by Congress.

The most visited bills are an interesting smattering of issues.

Getting top clicks is H.R. 570, the American Heroes COLA Act. Would it surprise you to learn that beneficiaries of Social Security’s Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance program are looking to see if veterans’ disability compensation will get the same cost-of-living increases? The relevant section of the Social Security Act on the Cornell site points to the bill that would grow veterans’ benefits in tandem with Social Security recipients’.

S. 1859, the Tax Extenders Act of 2013, is the second bill with the most referrals from Cornell. People looking into federal regulation of health insurance—or myriad other statutes—are finding their way to this complex piece of legislation. We know visitors to the Cornell site are legally sophisticated. They just might be able to follow what S. 1859 does.

Immigration is a hot-button issue, and Deepbills links at Cornell such as the code section dealing with reimbursement for detaining aliens are sending people to S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.

Another hot-button issue and top source of clicks from Cornell’s site: federal gun control. People looking at gun control law are following links to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) bill to ban assault weapons.

As of Thursday morning, 674 people had clicked 855 times on links to the bills in Congress that affect the laws they’re interested in. Those numbers aren’t going to instantaneously revive public oversight of the government. But usage of these links is rising, and Tom Bruce at Cornell says he plans changes that may increase clicks by 3 to 5 times. He guesses that people see Cato’s sponsorship of the data they can access 20,000 times a day. (“I should have asked you for a penny per impression ;),” he says. Funny guy.)

A lot more people are aware of work Cato is doing to increase government transparency, but, more importantly, a small but growing cadre of people are being made aware of what Congress is doing. This positions them to do something about it. Public oversight of Congress is increasing one click at a time.

At a Minimum, Transatlantic Trade Negotiations Should Ditch Investor-State Provisions

Some exaggeration notwithstanding, Harold Meyerson, with whom the occasion to agree is rare, does a reasonably good job describing some of the pitfalls of the so-called Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism in his Washington Post column yesterday.  ISDS has become a source of growing controversy, which threatens to derail the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations, which are reported to be floundering during the seventh “round” of talks taking place this week in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

“Under ISDS,” Meyerson writes, “foreign investors can sue a nation with which their own country has such treaty arrangements over any rules, regulations or changes in policy that they say harm their financial interests.”  That is more or less correct, but the implication that the threshold for bringing a suit is simple harm to a foreign investor’s financial interests is misleading.  What is being disciplined under ISDS is not harm to financial interests of foreign investors, but harm that comes from discriminatory treatment of foreign investors.  Thus, ISDS avails foreign investors (i.e., U.S. companies invested abroad, foreign companies invested in the U.S.) of access to third-party arbitration tribunals as venues for determining whether and to what extent the plaintiff suffered economic damages on account of host-government actions or policies that fail to meet certain minimum standards of treatment.

Meyerson suggests that ISDS provisions be purged from the TTIP negotiations because they subordinate U.S. courts to unaccountable tribunals, which “invites a massive end-run around national regulations.” Though I firmly believe the U.S. economy is racked with superfluous and otherwise unnecessary regulations, I do believe that a successful foreign challenge of U.S. laws, regulations, or actions in a third-party arbitration tribunal (none has occurred, yet) would subvert accountability, democracy, and the rule of law.  For those and several other reasons, I’m on board with Meyerson’s suggestion to purge ISDS from TTIP, and would extend the purge to all trade agreements.  In fact, I developed eight reasons for purging ISDS from the trade negotiations in this paper earlier this year.

Grading America’s Governors

This morning, Cato released the 12th edition of the “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors.” The report card uses statistical data to grade the governors on their tax and spending performance from a limited-government perspective. The governors who cut taxes and spending the most receive an “A,” while the governors who increase taxes and spending the most receive an “F.”

Four governors were awarded an “A” on this report card: Pat McCrory of North Carolina, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Paul LePage of Maine, and Mike Pence of Indiana.

The common theme among these Republican governors is fiscal restraint. All four proposed or signed into law large tax cut packages in their state while also holding the down the growth of state spending.

At the other end of the fiscal spectrum, eight Democrat governors were awarded an “F.” These governors substantially increased taxes and spending within their states. They were: Mark Dayton of Minnesota, John Kitzhaber of Oregon, Jack Markell of Delaware, Jay Inslee of Washington, Pat Quinn of Illinois, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, and Jerry Brown of California.

Over the years, the data-driven Cato report cards have shown that Republican governors are more fiscally conservative, on average, than Democrats. However, there are some Democratic centrists who have recently made important tax reforms, including Andrew Cuomo of New York and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who both earned a “B.”

Fiscal decisions made by governors matter to state economies. Much attention is paid to the uncompetitive federal corporate income tax, which collected $274 billion in 2013. But state and local taxes cost businesses $671 billion in 2013. The largest state taxes on businesses are property taxes of $242 billion and sales taxes on business inputs of $140 billion. The good news is that some governors are working hard to reduce these job-killing burdens.

The airwaves are full with pundits making observations about the political situation of various governors. The Cato report card allows you to sidestep the noise and see what the data shows about whether a governor is growing or restraining government.

Curious how your governor scored? Check out the full rankings.

Cargill v. Syngenta: Biotechnology and Trade

On September 12, Cargill, a major commodity trading and processing firm, filed a lawsuit in a Louisiana state court against Syngenta Seeds for selling genetically engineered MIR 162 (also known as “Agrisure Viptera®”) seed corn to farmers. China has not yet approved importation of corn containing MIR 162, so U.S. exports to that country of corn and corn products have come to a halt. Demand for U.S. corn has fallen. Cargill believes its losses exceed $90 million. 

Syngenta’s view?  “Syngenta believes that the lawsuit is without merit and strongly upholds the right of growers to have access to approved new technologies …”. The company’s position is that it has been legally selling seeds containing MIR 162, a trait that provides useful insect resistance, to U.S. farmers since 2010.  Other major corn importers – including Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Colombia and the European Union – have approved importation of corn with the MIR 162 trait. Syngenta has been seeking approval in China since March 2010. MIR 162 has not raised any health or environmental safety issues. 

Cargill’s view is that Syngenta has rendered U.S. corn supplies ineligible for export to China. Corn containing MIR 162 has spread throughout the U.S. marketing system to the extent that it would be expected to be present in any ocean vessel loaded for export:

Little Evidence Supports the FDA’s Proposed Food Label Rules

In the upcoming issue of Regulation magazine, Robert Scharff, associate professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at the Ohio State University, and Sherzod Abdukadirov, research fellow in the Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argue that the FDA’s two proposed rules on food nutrition labeling are supported by little evidence and should be scrapped.

The food labeling rule would, as Scharff and Abdukadirov explain, result in a number of changes “involving both formatting and content changes to labels, increases in recordkeeping, and new analytic requirements.” The second rule, the serving size rule, would affect packages that contain a small number of servings. 

The FDA claims that implementing both of these rules will help Americans make healthier food choices. However, as Scharff and Abdukadirov point out, the FDA does not cite any work that supports the underlying assumption that consumers will change their short-sighted behavior if changes are made to food labels. In fact, an FDA-commissioned study found that increasing the font size for calorie information on food labels had no effect on consumer behavior. In addition, the FDA has provided little evidence that inserting a separate line on labels for “added sugars” will result in health benefits.

Aside from the lack of evidence cited by the FDA, Scharff and Abdukadirov explain that the study on the effects of regulations written to comply with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which is used by the FDA to make the benefits calculations of its proposed rules, is flawed. Not only is the study unpublished and yet to be peer reviewed, its sample is limited to women aged between 19 and 50 years old, which artificially inflates the effects of nutrition labels on behavior because women are more likely to view nutrition panels than men.    

If the two proposed rules are implemented they will add billions of dollars in costs for consumers. Such an expensive change in regulations should have to be justified with good empirical data. Scharff and Abdukadirov show that the FDA’s proposed rules are justified mostly by good intentions, not data.  

Obama Puts Americans at Risk: ISIL’s Neighbors Should Eliminate the “Caliphate”

President Barack Obama is channeling George W. Bush in launching a new Mideast war. Why is Washington involved? 

The Islamic State is evil, but the organization’s raison d’etre is establishing a Middle Eastern caliphate, or quasi-state, not terrorizing Americans. In fact, grabbing territory provided the United States with a target for retaliation in response to any attack, something lacking with al-Qaeda. 

The murder of two Americans captured in the region was horrid but opportunistic. Morally abominable, yes. Cause for war, no.

Washington has never had much success in fixing the Middle East. The United States has been bombing Iraq since 1991. ISIL would not exist but for America’s 2003 invasion. 

Washington has been battling al-Qaeda since 2001. While the national organization is largely kaput, the group has spawned multiple national off-shoots.

The Bush administration justifiably overthrew the Afghan Taliban as punishment for hosting al-Qaeda. But 13 years of nation-building has been far less successful.

Three years ago, the Obama administration declared that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had to go. Since then, “moderates” have lost ground. The Islamic State’s capture of the city of Raqqa created a base for attacking Iraq.

Washington joined European states in ousting Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi in the name of the Arab Spring. Today the country is in collapse. Yemen, the subject of a lengthy and heavy drone campaign, appears headed in a similar direction.

Now Washington plans to rid the world of ISIL.

Washington Should Recognize India as an Emerging Great Power

Before becoming prime minister, India’s Narendra Modi was barred from receiving a visa to visit the United States.  A rising leader in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he was tied to deadly sectarian violence. But now he leads one of Asia’s most important powers and the Obama administration is rolling out the red carpet.

India long was ruled by the dynastic India National Congress Party, which enshrined dirigiste economics as the state’s secular religion.  Eventually, however, reality seeped into New Delhi. The Congress Party liberalized the economy. The BJP broke the Congress monopoly on power. 

New Delhi appeared ready to follow the People’s Republic of China to international superstar status. But then enthusiasm for economic reform ebbed, economic growth slowed, and conflict with Pakistan flared. 

However, on May 26, Narendra Modi became prime minister.  He is visiting the United States to speak before the United Nations and meet with President Barack Obama. The trip could yield rich benefits for both countries.