Tag: congressional oversight

How’s That Oversight Coming Along?

One of the claims made by defenders of NSA spying is that it’s overseen and approved by all three branches of the federal government.

Computer security expert Bruce Schneier provides some insight into how well congressional oversight is working in a short blog post entitled: “Today I Briefed Congress on the NSA.”

This morning I spent an hour in a closed room with six Members of Congress: Rep. Logfren, Rep. Sensenbrenner, Rep. Scott, Rep. Goodlate, Rep Thompson, and Rep. Amash. No staffers, no public: just them. Lofgren asked me to brief her and a few Representatives on the NSA. She said that the NSA wasn’t forthcoming about their activities, and they wanted me – as someone with access to the Snowden documents – to explain to them what the NSA was doing.

Many members of Congress have been derelict for years in not overseeing the National Security Agency. Now some members of Congress are asking questions, and they’re being stonewalled.

It’s the government so…

I suggested that we hold this meeting in a SCIF, because they wanted me to talk about top secret documents that had not been made public. The problem is that I, as someone without a clearance, would not be allowed into the SCIF.

Randy Barnett and I made the case last fall that the panels of judges who approve domestic spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should not be regarded as legitimate courts. Their use to dispose of Americans’ rights violates due process.

And the executive branch? Here’s President Obama: “I mean, part of the problem here is we get these through the press and then I’ve got to go back and find out what’s going on…”

How’s that tri-partite oversight coming along?

Issa: IRS Is Violating ObamaCare by Illegally Taxing Employers in 33 States

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) writes in the Washington Examiner

To combat the sticker shock of Obamacare’s numerous requirements on health insurance premiums, the law creates expensive subsidies, which take the form of tax credits, for individuals who purchase a government-approved insurance plan. In order to avoid the appearance of a federal takeover of health care, the law ties the availability of these premium tax credits to an “Exchange established by the State.” Importantly, the way the law was written, if tax credits are not available within a state, then the expensive employer mandate tax does not apply to companies within that state.

With so many states refusing to play the role the law’s drafters envisioned, the Obama administration has embarked on a legally dubious effort to bypass the plain language of the law. Obama’s IRS has issued a rule that delivers the expensive subsidies through federally run exchanges as well. If it stands, this extralegal rule will undermine the decision-making role offered to states by Obamacare, and cause hundreds of billions of dollars of taxes and spending not authorized by the president’s health care law…

The language that limits tax credits to state-established exchanges should not now shock Obamacare’s supporters. Early in 2009, legal scholar Timothy Jost, one of Obamacare’s leading proponents, explicitly suggested linking the tax credits to state-established exchanges as a way to encourage states to set up the exchanges.

The Obama administration may be surprised and disappointed that many states have not found the refundable tax credit to be a sufficient incentive to set up their own exchanges, exposing their citizens to the other taxes and penalties associated with the law. But this does not justify the administration’s effort to ignore the plain language of the law that Obama championed and signed.

For more on this issue, see Jonathan Adler’s and my Health Matrix article, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.”

GOP Vows to Keep Fighting IRS’s Illegal ObamaCare Taxes if Obama Wins

Roll Call reports that if President Obama wins re-election, House and Senate Republicans will hold votes on rescinding his illegal IRS rule that unlawfully taxes employers and individuals in the 30 or so states that do not create their own health insurance exchanges:

House Republicans are opening a new front in their drive to derail the 2010 health care overhaul, using an expedited legislative procedure to upend targeted parts of the law…

Republican leaders are preparing to launch the effort during the post-election session that begins Nov. 13.

The resolution backed by Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who heads the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Tennessee Republican and the measure’s chief sponsor, is meant to nullify the upcoming IRS rule authorizing the distribution of subsidies through tax credits in every state, even the 35 that have not yet established state health care exchanges…

House leaders plan to bring the resolution to a vote during the lame-duck session if Obama wins re-election but will lay the groundwork for using the budget reconciliation process to strike parts of the law instead if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wins, Republican aides said.

The resolution aimed at the IRS rule is the first in a series of Republican initiatives intended to block parts of heath care law if Obama is given a second term, a senior Senate Republican aide said.

“If Obama wins, you will see more of them. If Romney wins, you will see fewer,” said the Senate Republican aide, who added that even if such resolutions ultimately fail, they could require Democrats to cast votes that could pose re-election problems in 2014.

I don’t see why they wouldn’t hold the vote regardless of the outcome of the election. President RomneyCare would probably need some reminding that his own party is serious about repealing ObamaCare.

Jonathan Adler and I first called attention to the IRS’s ploy here, and we’ve been hammering away at it herehereherehere, here, and here. If you really want to nerd out, read our forthcoming Health Matrix article, ”Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.” Oklahoma’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit challenging the IRS’s illegal ObamaCare taxes.

John Goodman says stopping the IRS’s illegal ObamaCare taxes could deal “a fatal blow to ObamaCare.”

Biennial Budgeting: Baloney Budget Reform

I don’t recall ever agreeing with the left-liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), but their new paper on the drawbacks of the federal government switching to biennial budgeting is a good read. Congressional Republicans, including House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), are the chief proponents of switching to a biennial budget cycle. By providing (qualified) support to the CBPP paper, I’m hoping to demonstrate to would-be GOP naysayers that criticism of biennial budgeting isn’t confined to one area of the ideological spectrum.

I don’t agree with everything in the paper and I don’t share some of the authors’ concerns, but here are three solid points that the paper makes:

  • In 1940, 44 states practiced biennial budgeting. Currently, only nineteen do. In addition, larger states typically have an annual budget cycle. The authors correctly ask, “if large state governments find that biennial budgeting is not the best approach given the responsibilities they shoulder, is it likely to prove appropriate for an entity with the far more extensive domestic and international responsibilities of the U.S. government?”
  • The authors call the claims made by proponents that biennial budgeting will free up more time for oversight “overstated.” Authorizing committees can conduct oversight anytime they want. The appropriation committees conduct oversight when they review agency budget requests each year. What’s the benefit of having oversight conducted by the appropriations committees every two years?  (For the record, I think the value of congressional oversight is overstated for public choice reasons, but I’ll play along for today.)
  • The authors explain what I consider to be the fatal flaw with biennial budgeting:

The desire of many lawmakers to rein in such supplemental appropriations and reassert meaningful control over all annually appropriated funds — and the practice the Obama Administration has followed of including war funding within the regular defense appropriations bill, which has improved budget transparency — would become much harder to fulfill if biennial budgeting were implemented. It is not possible for Congress effectively to plan ahead for unexpected needs in the second year of a biennium. Large supplemental appropriations to meet such needs outside of the two-year budget plan would almost certainly become a regular part of the budget process and could further erode budget controls and accountability.

(Note: A recent paper from Cato adjunct scholar Veronique de Rugy explains that supplemental appropriations are already a problem.)

As a former budget official in a state that uses biennial budgeting, I just don’t understand what congressional Republicans think they’re going to accomplish. The cynic in me thinks that at least part of the support stems from the unwillingness of most Republicans to get specific on what they’d eliminate from the federal budget. Like the Balanced Budget Amendment, I think a lot of Republicans are simply using biennial budgeting as political cover.

Wishful Thinking about ObamaCare Investigations

NPR found two Republicans who caution House Republicans that their efforts to investigate ObamaCare could “backfire.”

But all those hearings could also have the opposite effect — giving the administration a chance to make its case in favor of the law, a case that often got drowned out during the election campaign.

“The next round of this, while there will continue to be the broad sloganeering on both sides, will presumably get a little bit more into the detail,” says Martin Corry, a health care lobbyist and former official at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Bush administration. “So if you’re a family with a 22-year-old still in college, you may not want to see that provision [that lets grown children stay on their parents’ health plans] repealed.”

… Former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger of Minnesota says he thinks the Democratic-led Senate could try to dampen the House repeal efforts by holding a series of hearings of its own.

Let me see if I understand.  If House Republicans hold hearings, it will be a boon to ObamaCare.   Even though House and Senate Democrats stoutly refused to hold such hearings.  If House Republicans hold hearings, sloganeering will give way to detail.  And if House Republicans hold hearings, ObamaCare supporters will finally be able to get their message out — something they were unable to do while they controlled both chambers of Congress and the executive branch.

Is the Obama Mortgage Foreclosure Plan Legal?

While considerable attention has rightly focused on the failure of President Obama’s various mortgage foreclosure plans to actually lower the rate of foreclosures, few have bothered to even ask whether the plan is allowable under the TARP statute.

Alex Pollock at AEI first raised this issue during testimony before the Congressional Oversight Panel.  Alex’s point is that TARP only allows the modification of mortgages that are actually acquired by the government.  Recall the original purpose of the TARP was to buy “troubled assets.”  In managing those assets, Congress required the executive branch to come up with a plan to assist the borrowers behind those troubled assets.

Apparently unlike the Treasury department, I believe we should go back to the language of the statute in determining what it allows and doesn’t allow.  Section 110(b)(1) is quite clear:  “to the extent that the Federal property manager holds, owns, or controls mortgages, mortgage backed securities…” Nowhere else in TARP is there any other ability to establish a mortgage modification program.  In using TARP funds to pay for modifications of loans not owned by the federal government, the Obama administration is acting far outside of its legal authority under TARP.

Many, including myself, have criticized the TARP as a massive delegation of spending power from Congress to the Treasury Department.  Such delegation is, in my mind, clearly unconstitutional.  However, even within such a broad delegation, there are parameters in which Treasury must act.  Treating TARP as simply a large pot of money to spend however Treasury chooses is nothing short of illegal.

Czar of All the Americans

Anger about Obama’s many “czars” is rising, reports the Washington Post:

On paper, they are special advisers, chairmen of White House boards, special envoys and Cabinet agency deputies, asked by the president to guide high-priority initiatives. But critics call them “czars” whose powers are not subject to congressional oversight, and their increasing numbers have become a flash point for conservative anger at President Obama.

Critics of the proliferation of czars say the White House uses the appointments to circumvent the normal vetting process required for Senate confirmation and to avoid congressional oversight.

I have tended not to take concern over “czars” very seriously. After all, advisers to the president can’t exercise any power that the president doesn’t have (or assume without response from Congress or the courts). And I figured the White House doesn’t call people “czars,” that’s just a media term, so it’s not really fair to blame the White House for what reporters say.

But then, thanks to crack Cato intern Miles Pope, I discovered that the White House does call its czars czars, at least informally. A few examples:

In an interview on April 15, 2009 Obama said, “The goal of the border czar is to help coordinate all the various agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security…”

In a March 11, 2009, briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs turned to “address the czar question for a minute, because I think I’ve been asked in this room any number of times if the czars in our White House to deal with energy and health care had too much power.”

On March 11, 2009 Vice President Biden said, “Today I’m pleased to announce that President Obama has nominated as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy – our nation’s drug czar – Gil Kerlikowske…”

More examples here.

So they do like czar imagery. So have at them, critics.

And while I said that the advisers have no real power, there’s at least one who does – a real czar – the “pay czar,” Kenneth Feinberg. He “has sole discretion to set compensation for the top 25 employees” of large companies receiving bailouts, and his “decisions won’t be subject to appeal.” Now that’s a czar.