Tag: darrell issa

Let’s See What DATA Can Do

The New York Times reported at the top of page one yesterday on the $4.1 million in payments that a single physical therapist in Brooklyn got from Medicare in 2012. It’s a shocking sum, and Medicare fraud is common in both physical therapy and the Brooklyn area. The therapist who received the money says that the billings are for his large, multi-office practice.

The point is broader: Reporters, medical trade association figures, investigators and researchers are poring over newly released data about Medicare spending. They’re strengthening public oversight and the public’s capacity to question this government program. It’s data that the American Medical Association and other industry groups fought against releasing. There is risk that the numbers will lead some to unfair conclusions, perhaps even in the case of this Brooklyn physical therapist, but the public oversight it brings to the Medicare program and the circumspection it brings to fraudsters and others will be more than worth it. Data is a powerful oversight tool.

That’s why I think it’s good news that the House of Representatives passed the DATA Act yesterday. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, introduced by Mark Warner (D-VA) in the Senate and Darrell Issa (R-CA) in the House, requires the federal government to adopt data standards for all federal spending and publish all of it online. This will permit the public to gather insights like the ones in that New York Times story across the vastness of the federal spending enterprise. It will make the diffuse cost of government a little more acute in the minds of many, positioning Americans to say specifically which spending should stop.

Change will not come instantly, and the legislation is not self-executing, but groups like the Data Transparency Coalition, a prime mover behind the legislation, appear poised to insist on full execution of the law. Implementation should not have the cost that the Congressional Budget Office estimated for it, and if it does, the billions saved thanks to availability of information to the public should justify the costs. If another “cost” of transparency is improvement of federal programs that should be eliminated, I think that beats the today’s status quo of having them on the books and failing.

The DATA Act is not a direct response to a 2008 Cato event asking the Obama administration to “Just Give Us the Data.” Indeed, the administration has been conspicuously unsupportive of transparency in this area, though transparency was a key campaign theme in President Obama’s first election. Cato studies in this area since then include “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” and “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.” We’ll be repeating the grading study during the summer, though it’s doubtful the administration’s grades will improve by that time. We will use the data structures that the DATA Act requires in our Deepbills project, which shines light on Congress’s proposals, including its plans for spending.

Obamacare: House Hearing on the IRS’s Illegal Taxing, Borrowing & Spending

As Jonathan Adler and I detail in our Health Matrix article, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA,” the Obama administration is attempting to rescue Obamacare from oblivion by literally taxing, borrowing, and spending more than $700 billion without congressional authorization. In a recent letter to the editor of the Washington Post, I explain how these illegal taxes are already hurting workers. 

On July 25, chairmen of the House Ways & Means Committee, the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, and two Oversight subcommittees sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew demanding information related to the illegal tax-credit rule.

The House Oversight Subcommittee on Health Care has announced it will hold a hearing this Wednesday, July 31, on the IRS’s illegal tax-credit rule titled, “Oversight of IRS’s Legal Basis for Expanding ObamaCare’s Taxes and Subsidies.” Adler will testify alongside Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and Missouri physician and small business owners Charles Willey, each of whom has filed suit to block the IRS’s illegal rule. 

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.”

Open Government Research—-or Maybe Private Ordering

I came across an interesting information policy scuffle yesterday. It’s worth knowing about in general, and I’ll share my liberconoclastic view of things below.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has introduced a bill called the Research Works Act. The consensus is that it’s meant to keep government-funded research from being published for free. This would keep the publication of that research going through scholarly and scientific journals, neatly maintaining profits for an industry that society might not need while restricting public access to research the U.S. taxpayer paid for. (I have my doubts that the language of the bill actually successfully does that, but that’s inconsequential.)

Here’s a good opponent-side article on the bill. The Association of American Publishers likes the bill.

On a discussion list, Jonathan Band articulated how the business of government-funded research works. It’s helpful to know if you haven’t focused on this area before:

  1. Federal and state governments, directly or indirectly, pay salaries of researchers.
  2. Federal government awards grants for specific research projects. Average NIH grant is around $500,000.
  3. Researcher performs the research and writes a draft article about it.
  4. Researcher submits the draft article to publisher.
  5. Publisher requires the researcher to transfer the copyright in the draft article (for free) before it will touch the draft.
  6. Publisher emails the draft article to other researchers in the field.
  7. These “peers” review the article for free as part of their contribution to the field. (As noted in step 1, their salaries are paid by government.)
  8. The researcher revises the draft in response to the peers’ comments.
  9. Publisher does copy editing and publishes article. Publishers acknowledge that their costs per article are under $5,000.
  10. Publisher sells subscriptions to research libraries, which ultimately are largely government funded.

“In other words,” Band concludes, “the public invests $500,000 in the creation of the article, and the publisher invests under $5,000. Yet, the publisher recoups all the profits from the sale of the article. Profit margins for STM publishers exceed 40%.”

I’m inclined to share these concerns. It appears to be a classic example of regulatory controls—in this case, on information—creating supra-normal rents for a particular business sector.

My conclusion is a little different, though. You see, to me, what Band describes is a situation where researchers—who nobody is paying their own money to hire—are doing research that nobody is paying their own money to produce, which results in journal articles that nobody is paying their own money to read. Privatized profit from government-funded research is as anathema to me as the next open government advocate, but I would solve the problem by letting private ordering decide where research dollars go.

Is this a retrograde argument against research? Who could possibly be against research? Publicly funded research is like nutritious vegetables for a healthy modern society!

Well, I’m against researchers, research, and research results that nobody pays their own money for because it’s demanded by political actors responding to political cues. I would rather have research dollars meted out through private ordering, because then research dollars would go to where they’re most likely to produce the scientific and intellectual gains society actually wants.

Tradeoffs are ineluctable: Money spent on government research takes away from private research, or from other priorities such as reducing debt, or reducing taxes so I can spend my money on things like donating to charity or to the impoverished individual of my choice.

The DATA Act and Cato’s Transparency Work

In his final “Chairman’s Corner” blog post as head of the White House’s Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board, Earl Devaney highlights the need for orderly publication of data about government spending.

There is bi-partisan legislation now in the Congress—it’s called the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act—that could accomplish this mission. But the reform bill faces an uphill battle, primarily because some in the bureaucracy prefer the status quo—a hodgepodge of data collection and display sites that, frankly, makes no sense at all unless you believe your government should confuse you.

The DATA Act would establish an independent board within the executive branch to track federal spending, and it would require federal agencies and recipients of federal funds to comply with reporting requirements set up by the board.

The board would “designate common data elements, such as codes, identifiers, and fields, for information required to be reported by recipients or agencies” (section 102 of the reported version, adding a new §3611 to title 31 of the U.S. code). The bill’s author, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), spoke at our September Capitol Hill briefing, rolling out our legislative data model.

On Wednesday, another Cato Capitol Hill briefing highlighted the results of our work the last few months to model federal budgeting, appropriating, and spending. Should the DATA Act become law, the model we’ve been working on can illuminate the work of the proposed board. Use of our model will help ensure that the structure of government spending data supports public oversight use cases.

I don’t know that there needs to be a board—certainly not a permanent one. The bill authorizes more money than I think is required for the board, and the Congressional Budget Office’s cost estimate for implementing the requirements of the DATA Act seems wildly high. But the dynamics set in motion by making government spending more transparent may well reduce government spending by well more than even these high estimated costs.

Spending Transparency Gets a Head of Steam

It has been a promising week for spending transparency.

On Monday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (the DATA Act), to promote spending transparency in the federal government. Among other things it would establish standardized reporting requirements for recipients of money from the federal government, with that data to be collected in and distributed from a central, independent database. It would collect all agency expenditure data, as well, and combine it with the recipient-reported data.

Think of it as double-entry bookkeeping: you collect spending data from agencies, you collect receipt data from recipients, and if the numbers don’t match up, you go look there. There’s a lot more complexity to it than that, of course, but this is a significant bill from a Republican House leader who is working to follow through on his caucus’s commitment to transparency.

Not to be outdone (but really I don’t know whether it was coincidental or inspired by Representative Issa’s bill), Vice President Biden issued a statement mid-week about spending transparency and the Recovery.gov Web site’s new “Recovery Explorer” feature, which allows users to create and customize charts and graphs with the recipient-reported data. The more information, the better, though raw data about government deliberations, management, and results is the ideal.

The DATA Act turned bicameral and bipartisan yesterday with its introduction in the other house by Senator Warner (D-VA). It simply makes sense that the government’s books should be legible to the public, and Senator Warner obviously recognizes that.

Kudos to Senator Warner, Vice President Biden, and Representative Issa for focusing the light on spending transparency this week.

Shining a light is one thing, of course. We’ll look forward to the follow-up to this promising week in transparency—the week when federal spending in transparency in once-and-for-all delivered.

Data Formats —> Public Oversight

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has a terrific op-ed piece on Internet-age government transparency in the Washington Examiner today:

If agencies used consistent data formats for their financial information, their financial reports could be electronically reconciled. It would be possible to trace funds from Congressional appropriations through agencies’ budgets to final use. The same data could flow automatically into USASpending.gov, without the errors and inconsistencies that make it unreliable today.

The idea is simple, if not easy to implement. Put government data in uniform formats, accessible to the public, and let public oversight work its will. Whether you prioritize good government, small government, or both, expect improvement.