Tag: Congress

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.

Are Driverless Cars Fool-Proof? Not Quite

Randal O’Toole discussed the idea of safe, efficient, driverless cars in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It and in this full-page Wall Street Journal essay in 2010. It wasn’t exactly a new idea – Norman Bel Geddes first imagined the idea 75 years ago at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – but O’Toole was on the cutting edge of bringing it to more popular attention. And as he noted, one of the important benefits of driverless, or “self-driving,” cars is safety. As a driving-test site, citing British studies, says: “By far the biggest cause of road accidents is driver/rider error or reaction, which causes 68% of all crashes.” The loss of control, the reliance on mysterious computers, scares many of us. But there’s good evidence that computers can guide both airplanes and automobiles more reliably than human operators.

But maybe not all human operators.

Meredith Shiner of Yahoo! News reports:

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday brought a prototype of a driverless car to Washington in an attempt to show Congress that it could embrace a future devoid of man-made errors. 

And then Congress broke that car.

It was not immediately clear whether the mere proximity to the Capitol created the series of events that led to an emergency switch being flipped, causing the car to shut down, or if an actual member of Congress did it….

In true Washington fashion, no one would take immediate responsibility for the developing car situation.

Okay, not entirely fool-proof. But getting there.

Update: NBC News reports: “D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hit the kill switch on the car before she was supposed to take a ride, and they couldn’t get it running again.”

Cut Saturday Mail to Fund Highways?

The Highway Trust Fund will be out of money in a few months, mainly because Congress insists on spending more than it takes in. To avert this supposed crisis, Republican leaders are proposing to cut Saturday deliveries of mail and use the savings to replenish the trust fund.

There’s actually a tiny grain of Constitutional sense behind this proposal. The original legal justification for federal involvement in highways, back when members of Congress actually cared about such things, was that the Constitution authorizes Congress “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.” If the “post roads” aren’t paying for themselves, then who better to pay for them than the post offices?

In this sense, the Republican proposal is slightly more rational than President Obama’s proposal to use the increased revenues from a corporate income tax reform that will eliminate loopholes but reduce corporate tax rates. The administration predicts reducing rates will reduce corporate tax obligations in the long run but closing loopholes will increase revenues in the short run (interesting how Obama is promising corporations lower taxes after he is out of office in exchange for higher taxes when he is still in office). Obama wants to use some of those increased revenues to supplement the Highway Trust Fund.

More than offsetting the tiny Constitutional sense of the Republican proposal is that it will take ten years of Postal Service cuts in order to cover one year’s worth of red ink from the Highway Trust Fund. In other words, the plan is far from sustainable and will simply lead to another transportation cliff in a year or so.

Obama Allows Congress to Participate in Lawmaking

This headline appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post:

Obama allows Congress a voice in NSA

The story reports that President Obama “will call on Congress to help determine the [NSA surveillance] program’s future. Which is good because Article I, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States provides that:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.

Deciding the scope and extent of any federal surveillance powers is clearly a legislative matter. Subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution’s limits on federal powers, legislative powers are vested in Congress, not the president. How can reporters (and headline writers) write so cavalierly about the president “giving” Congress a chance to “weigh in” on matters of fundamental law? This headline should be as jarring as one reading, “Obama plans to give Supreme Court a say in fate of NSA program.” It isn’t up to the president. The legislative branch is empowered by the Constitution to make law, and the judicial branch is empowered to strike down legislative and executive actions not authorized by the Constitution. The president’s job is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the rise of presidential power ‘‘was as much a matter of congressional acquiescence as of presidential usurpation.’’ It’s time for Congress to stop acquiescing. And for journalists to remind readers of the powers granted to presidents in the Constitution.

Be Thankful for “Diminished Productivity” in Washington

Let’s do a simple thought experiment and answer the following question: Do you think that additional laws from Washington will give you more freedom and more prosperity?

I don’t know how you will answer, but I strongly suspect most Americans will say “no.” Indeed, they’ll probably augment their “no” answers with a few words that wouldn’t be appropriate to repeat in polite company.

That’s because taxpayers instinctively understand that more activity in Washington usually translates into bigger and more expensive government. And big government isn’t so fun for those who pay the bills and incur the costs.

So what’s the purpose of our thought experiment? Well, new numbers have been released showing that the current Congress is going to set a modern-era record for imposing the fewest new laws.

But while most of us think this is probably good news, Washington insiders are whining and complaining about “diminished productivity” in Congress. The Washington Post is very disappointed that lawmakers aren’t enacting more taxes, more spending, and more regulation.

…this Congress — which is set to adjourn for the year later this month — has enacted 52 public laws. By comparison, …90 laws were encated during the first year of the 113th Congress and 137 were put in place during the first year of the 111th Congress.

Just in case you don’t have a beltway mindset, another Washington Post report also tells you that fewer laws is a bad thing.

…whatever gets done in December will still be part of a year with record-low congressional accomplishment. …According to congressional records, there have been fewer than 60 public laws enacted in the first 11 months of this year, so below the previous low in legislative output that officials have already declared this first session of the 113th Congress the least productive ever.

Let’s actually look at some evidence. The first session of the current Congress may have been the “least productive” in history when it comes to imposing new laws, but what’s the actual result?

DOJ Backpedals on School Choice Lawsuit

In response to withering criticism and political pressure, the U.S. Department of Justice is backpedaling on its lawsuit against Louisiana’s school choice program, which provides school vouchers to low-income students assigned to government-run schools receiving a D or F rating for performance. The lawsuit sought to “permanently enjoin the State of Louisiana from awarding any school vouchers to students attending schools in districts operating under federal desegregation orders” unless the state receives permission from the federal government. Now the DOJ is claiming in a carefully-worded letter to Congress that they were just looking for information:

To be clear, we are neither opposing Louisiana’s school voucher program nor seeking to revoke vouchers from any student. […] Our goal in filing a motion for further relief […] was straightforward: The United States is seeking the court’s assistance in ensuring that the information Louisiana collects in connection with its school voucher program is provided to the United States in a timely fashion and that Louisiana implements its program in full compliance with federal law, including the desegregation order in this case.

Unfortunately, the DOJ is being disingenuous. While their lawsuit would not have revoked vouchers that the state had already distributed, it would have blocked all future vouchers to students in districts under desegregation orders without federal permission. In other words, rather than leaving the choice of school in the hands of parents, parents would have to beg the federal government to allow their children to escape from failing government schools. This is problematic since the DOJ’s absurd definition of segregation would prevent black students from leaving a school that the DOJ deems “insufficiently black” because there are a greater percentage of black students than black people living in the district. For example:

Are Democrats and Republicans Colluding to Preserve Congress’ Obamacare Exemption?

I have written about the special (and illegal) Obamacare exemption the president has granted Congress.

It turns out, this exemption polls poorly. Opposition is north of 90 percent, unites Obamacare opponents and supporters, and has the potential to oust incumbents members of Congress who accept an special exemption that other Americans don’t get.

You might think that Republican and Democratic party committees would be salivating at the prospect of using this issue to oust incumbents of the other party. At a minimum, you would think that Obamacare opponents (i.e., Republicans) would drive a wedge between the law’s supporters (i.e., Democrats) and the public by forcing supporters to vote on a measure eliminating the exemption. Doing so could elect more new Republicans in 2014 by allowing them attack incumbent Democrats thus: “My opponent voted for Obamacare, and then voted to give himself and his well-paid friends in Congress a special exemption that the people of this state/district don’t get. That’s just wrong.”

Yet it appears the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have negotiated a truce on this issue. If true, both parties have agreed not to give voice to the will of the people by attacking members of the other party who consent to this special privilege granted to members of Congress. If true, it would confirm what I have written previously: “America has a two-party system. But it’s not Republicans versus Democrats. It’s the ruling class — Republicans and Democrats — against everyone else.”

I can hardly imagine a more powerful argument for allowing unlimited spending by independent groups to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. That is, I can hardly imagine a more powerful argument against “campaign finance reform.”

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