Tag: Congress

Congress Takes on the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a headline proclaimed: “Saudi Arabia is Facing Unprecedented Scrutiny from Congress.” The article focused on a recently defeated Senate bill which sought to express disapproval of a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, though the presence of a genuine debate on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – and the ongoing war in Yemen – is a good sign, Congress has so far been unable to turn this debate into any meaningful action.  

Yesterday’s resolution, proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, would have been primarily symbolic. Indeed, support for the bill wasn’t really about impacting Saudi Arabia’s military capacity. As co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken noted, “the very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children.” This message was intended as much for the White House as for the Saudi government, with supporters arguing that the Obama administration should rethink its logistical support for the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, opponents of the measure carried the day, and the resolution was defeated 71-26. These senators mostly argued that the importance of supporting regional allies outweighed any problems. Yet in doing so, they sought to avoid debate on the many problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. In addition to the war in Yemen – which is in many ways directly detrimental to U.S. national security interests, destabilizing that country and allowing for the growth of extremist groups there – Saudi Arabia’s actions across the Middle East, and funding of fundamentalism around the world are often at odds with U.S. interests, even as it works closely with the United States on counterterror issues. As a recent New York Times article noted, in the world of violent jihadist extremism, the Saudis are too often “both the arsonists and the firefighters.”

Playing the China Card Wisely Is Obama’s Last Best Chance to Sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the economic centerpiece of the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed “strategic pivot” to Asia, which – in 2009 – heralded U.S. intentions to extricate itself from the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan and to reassert its interests in the world’s fastest-growing region. After six years of negotiations, the comprehensive trade deal was completed last year and signed by its 12 charter members earlier this year. But the TPP must be ratified before it can take effect – and prospects for that happening in 2016 grow dimmer with each passing day.

One would assume TPP ratification a policy priority of President Obama. After all, he took office promising to restore some of the U.S. foreign policy credibility that had been notoriously squandered by his predecessor. If Congress fails to ratify the agreement before Christmas, Obama will leave office with American commercial and strategic positions weakened in the Asia-Pacific, and U.S. credibility further diminished globally.  The specter of that outcome would keep most presidents awake at night.

In Newsweek today, I put most of the blame for this precarious situation on a president who, throughout his tenure, has remained unwilling to challenge the guardians of his party’s anti-trade orthodoxy by making the case for trade liberalization generally, or the TPP specifically:

Superficially, one could blame election-year politics and a metastasizing popular antipathy toward trade agreements for the situation, but the original sin is the president’s lackluster effort to sell the TPP to his trade-skeptical party and the American public. In the administration’s division of labor, those tasked with negotiating the TPP kept their noses to the grindstone and brought back an agreement that reduces taxes and other protectionist impediments to trade…

How to Dissuade Congressional Action

A recent Cato policy forum on European over-regulation took an unexpected turn when my friend and colleague Richard Rahn suggested that falling prices and increasing availability of writing paper may have been responsible for increasing the number and length of our laws and regulations. (Dodd-Frank is longer than the King James’ Bible, to give just one obvious example.)

Goodness knows what will happen when new legislation stops being printed on writing paper and starts appearing only on the internet. (I never read Apple’s “terms and conditions,” do you?)

Anyhow, Richard’s hypothesis will soon be put to the test in Great Britain, where the lawmakers have just decided to stop writing the Acts of Parliament on calfskin – a tradition dating back to the Magna Carta – and use paper instead. Will the length of British laws increase, as Rahn’s hypothesis predicts? We shall see.

In the meantime, Americans remain stuck with a Niagara Falls of laws and regulations that our lawmakers generate every year. Many distinguished scholars have wondered how to slow our Capitol Hill busybodies down a little. The great Jim Buchanan had some good ideas, but the most effective, if not harshest, means of preventing over-regulation was surely developed by the Locrians in the 7th century BC.

As Edward Gibbon narrates in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “A Locrian who proposed any new law, stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck, and if the law was rejected, the innovator was instantly strangled.” (Vol. IV, chapter XLI; V pp. 783–4 in volume 2 of the Penguin edition.)

Ours is, of course, an enlightened Republic, not an iron-age Greek settlement on the southern tip of Italy. The life and limb of our elected officials must, therefore, remain safe. But, what if instead of physical destruction, a failed legislative proposal resulted in, so to speak, “political death?” What if the Congressman or Senator, whose name appeared on a bill that failed to pass through Congress, were prevented from running for reelection after their term in office came to an end? 

Just a happy thought before the weekend.

How Congress Should — and Shouldn’t — Bolster School Choice

This week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on “Expanding Education Opportunity through School Choice.” As I’ve written before, there are lots of great reasons to support school choice policies, but Congress should not create a national voucher program:

It is very likely that a federal voucher program would lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. Once private schools become dependent on federal money, the vast majority is likely to accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

Congress’s Diminishing Power of the Purse

One of the most important aspects of the separation of powers is the commitment of the power of the purse to the legislative branch. It constrains the executive and the judiciary from engaging in unilateral action without congressional approval. If there’s no approval, there will be no money to pay for the executive action, as the rule would have it. Unsurprisingly, with the advent of the administrative state and an aggressive executive, this power has been significantly diminished in modern times

Indeed, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides expressly that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts,” to the exclusion of any other branch’s exercise of those powers. The upshot: the separation of powers, especially Congress’ power over appropriation priorities, is eroded as executive agencies and executive allies have access to funds not appropriated by Congress.

In order to keep their power of the purse intact, Congress originally enacted the Miscellaneous Receipts Statute in 1849. That law is now codified today in Title 31 of the U.S. Code. It requires all government officials in receipt of funds, such as settlements from civil or criminal enforcement, to deposit that money with the Treasury. As a structural point, the law effectively aims at stopping executive agencies from self-funding through enforcement or other receipts of money. It maintains their dependence on Congress for their annual appropriation.

However, the Justice Department has found a way around this law to fund political allies on the left or executive priorities without congressional approval: settlement agreements. As Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel recently reported, “[i]t works like this: The Justice Department prosecutes cases against supposed corporate bad actors. Those companies agree to settlements that include financial penalties. Then Justice mandates that at least some of that penalty money be paid in the form of “donations” to nonprofits that supposedly aid consumers and bolster neighborhoods.”

The trick here is that Justice never “receives” the funds within the meaning of the Miscellaneous Receipts Statute, and thus has no requirement to deposit the funds it exacts from defendants with the Treasury—the donations are made directly without money ever being received into Justice’s hands.

Despite the fact that Justice Guidance discourages the practice because “it can create actual or perceived conflicts of interest and/or other ethical issues”—and, indeed, it was almost banned in 2008 due to perceptions of abuse—Justice continues to push this method of funding political allies and favored priorities of the executive. In fact, “[i]n 2011 Republicans eliminated the Housing Department’s $88 million for ‘housing counseling’ programs,” Strassel reports, “which spread around money to groups like La Raza. Congress subsequently restored only $45 million, and has maintained that level. . . [B]ank settlements pour some $30 million into housing counseling groups, thereby essentially restoring all the funding.”

The Senate’s Historic ObamaCare Repeal Vote

Highlights from my op-ed today at Real Clear Policy on last week’s Senate vote repealing the majority of ObamaCare:

Health-care entitlements are supposed to be a political third rail — touch them, and you die. This Senate vote means majorities in both chambers of Congress will approve a bill repealing not one but two health-care entitlements…That alone makes yesterday’s vote historic.

Even more remarkable, it is doubtful Republicans will suffer at the polls for it. Republicans have done well by running against Obamacare. Most recently, Matt Bevin won the governor’s race in Kentucky by campaigning against ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, which his predecessor implemented.

The history-making doesn’t end there. A bill repealing the majority of ObamaCare is now almost certain to land on President Obama’s desk. It is not often that presidents have to veto a law repealing most of their signature legislative achievement.

Finally, the vote is historic for what it portends: It proves that America is just one presidential election away from repealing ObamaCare…

With that prospect on the horizon, states that have not implemented ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion will now be even more reluctant to do so. This vote may even encourage Governor Bevin to make Kentucky the first state to withdraw from the expansion…

Republicans and Democrats should replace ObamaCare not with “ObamaCare-lite,” but with reforms like large health savings accounts (HSAs), which would drive down medical prices and deliver an effective tax cut of $9 trillion — greater than the Reagan and Bush tax cuts combined.


Transportation Bill Steps Backwards

This week’s Congressional passage of the 1,301-page Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act represents, for the most part, a five-year extension of existing highway and transit programs with several steps backwards. Once a program that was entirely self-funded out of dedicated gasoline taxes and other highway user fees, over the past two-and-one-half decades the surface transportation programs has become increasingly dependent on deficit spending. The FAST Act does nothing to mitigate this, neither raising highway fees (which include taxes on Diesel fuel, large trucks, trailers, and truck tires) nor reducing expenditures.

If anything, deficit spending will increase under the FAST Act, which will spend $305 billion ($61 billion a year) over the next five years. Highway revenues, which were $39.4 billion in F.Y. 2015, are not likely to be much more than $40 million a year over the next five years, so the new law incurs deficits of about $20 billion a year. The law includes $70 billion in “offsets”–funding sources that could otherwise be applied to reducing some other deficit–which won’t be enough to keep the program going for the entire five years.