Tag: jeff sessions

The Border Security Obsession

Immigration is mainly an economic phenomenon, but the politics surrounding reform are mired in border security talking points. The soon-to-be-voted-on Hoeven-Corker amendment to the immigration reform bill will double the size of border patrol and place an absurd array of technology and fencing on the southern border. The Hoeven-Corker amendment is a political necessity, but a policy absurdity.

Securing the border is largely a rhetorical excuse to oppose reforming the immigration system. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said of the Hoeven-Corker amendment that, “I do not think this amendment is going to touch many of the objections that I spoke about.” The Hoeven-Corker amendment militarizes the border to an embarrassing degree–replacing the Statue of Liberty’s promise of liberty to all with a wall facing southward.   

How will this $5-billion-a-year security buildup be financed? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates enormous fiscal gains from immigration reform–reducing deficits from between $700 billion and $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. Spending large portions of those anticipated savings on more security will convince some Republicans to vote for the entire immigration bill, but it won’t solve the unlawful immigration problem going forward. Fixing the legal immigration system will. 

Allowing more legal low-skilled guest workers will channel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal market. Immigrants won’t cross illegally if they can come in legally through a checkpoint. Shrinking the size of the unlawful immigrant population by channeling most of them into the legal system will help Border Patrol weed out the criminals, national security threats, and sick people from the vast majority of willing peaceful workers. History shows us the way. 

In the early 1950s unlawful immigration was a problem, but Border Patrol did not just punish the immigrants, it funneled them into the legal market. During that time there was a guest worker visa program called Bracero. After arresting unlawful immigrants, Border Patrol drove them down to the Southern border and immediately let them enroll in the Bracero program, allowing them to return to their jobs after taking a few steps over the border and coming back into the U.S. with lawful permission. 

Soon, would-be unlawful immigrants learned they could just enter legally–and they did. Unlawful immigration dropped by more than 90 percent in the following years. If there was a legal immigration option today, expanded to sectors of the economy besides just agriculture, immigrants would overwhelmingly make the same choice.

Today, the immigration enforcement infrastructure already exists to funnel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal market. The only thing lacking is a functional guest worker visa program. The current immigration reform bill’s guest worker visa program is a complicated mess that is barely better than the current system.  

Allowing additional legal guest workers will accomplish more than spending $5 billion a year on border security.  It will channel peaceful people in the legal immigration system while leaving Border Patrol to deal with the real criminal and national security threats that remain.  Militarizing the border without improving the guest worker visa system risks a repeat of the 1986 Reagan amnesty.

The good portions of this immigration reform bill still outweigh the bad but we cannot afford too many more Hoeven-Corker amendments.

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.

Senate Spares Rural Development Subsidies

An amendment to a Senate appropriations bill introduced by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) that would have reduced funding for rural development subsidies at the Department of Agriculture by $1 billion was easily voted down today. Only 13 Republicans voted to cut the program. Thirty-two Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to spare it, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), ranking budget committee member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and tea party favorite Marco Rubio (R-FL).

This was a business-as-usual vote that will receive virtually no media attention. However, it is a vote that symbolizes just how unserious most policymakers are when it comes to making specific spending cuts. That’s to be expected with the Democrats. On the other hand, Republicans generally talk a good game about the need to cut spending and they rarely miss an opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for its reckless profligacy. Republicans instead fall back on their support of a Balanced Budget Amendment and other reforms like biennial budgeting.

I think most Republicans are in favor of a BBA because they believe it gets them off the hook of having to name exactly what they’d cut. There are several reasons why Republican policymakers won’t get specific: 1) they really don’t want to cut spending; 2) they’re afraid of cheesing off special interests and constituents who benefit from government programs; 3) they’re more concerned with being in power and getting reelected; 4) they’re just plain ignorant of, or disinterested in, the particulars of government programs.

As for biennial budgeting, Republicans would have us believe that appropriating money every other year will give policymakers more time to conduct oversight of government programs. I think it’s another cop-out. Coburn’s office put out plenty of information on the problems associated with USDA rural development subsidies (see here). A Cato essay on rural development subsidies provides more information, including findings from the Government Accountability Office that are readily available to policymakers.

(Note: I worked for both Jeff Sessions and Tom Coburn.)

With Friends Like Sen. Sessions, Free Trade Is in Trouble

According to a story in Politico today, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has been whipping his Republican colleagues to vote in favor of the China currency legislation that appears to be headed for passage in the Senate. (My Cato colleague Dan Ikenson has explained  why raising tariffs on imports from China would be a mistake.)

The Politico story says that Sessions is “traditionally a proponent of free trade,” but his actual voting record indicates otherwise. According to the trade vote data base we maintain on the home page of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at Cato, Sen. Sessions has voted in favor of lower trade barriers on a bare majority (26 out of 49) of the significant trade votes we’ve recorded.

Since 1997, Sen. Sessions has voted in favor of protectionist farm bills (2002, 2007, 2008), banning safety-certified Mexican trucks from U.S. roads (2007), country-of-origin labeling (2003), the WTO-illegal Byrd amendment (2003, 2005), the original Schumer-Graham bill to impose a 27.5 percent tariff against imports from China (2005), sugar import quotas (1999, 2000, 2001), and steel import quotas (1999)

Meanwhile, he’s voted against the Morocco free-trade agreement (2004), trade promotion authority (1998, 2002), and normal trade relations with Vietnam (2001) and China (1997, 1999).

And to top it all off, it was Sen. Sessions who single-handedly scuttled renewal last year of the Generalized System of Preferences, the long-standing program that had allowed certain imports from poor countries to enter the United States duty free. As my Cato colleague Sallie James has chronicled (here and here), the good senator refused to allow the program to be renewed because of a dispute affecting a small number of his constituents who are employed making sleeping bags.

Like too many of his fellow senators, Sen. Sessions supports our freedom to trade only as long as it does not affect any noisy special interests in his own state.

Eternal Vigilance Needed on Trade Carve-Outs

A bill that would have set a troubling precedent indeed was killed in the Senate last week. I’ve written previously about the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, and its fate has been tied up with the Generalized System of Preferences, a scheme by which certain developing countries gain duty-free access to the U.S. market for many of their goods. Congress was trying – and failed – to pass an extension of the programs together, along with the Andean Trade Preference Act.

Well, in an effort to extend for eighteen months the stimulus-enhanced TAA program (they were less fulsome in their enthusiasm for the other part of the bill; the barrier-reducing ATPA), Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced what they deemed to be a legislative “fix” to the thorny problem of how to extend all these programs in the face of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) opposition to the GSP so long as sleeping bags were included in the program (there just happens to be a sleeping bag manufacturer in his state).  Their solution? Just carve out sleeping bags from the GSP.

Section 202 of the proposed bill was literally titled “Ineligibility of Certain Sleeping Bags for Preferential Treatment Under the Generalized System of Preferences”. The Senators didn’t even go to the trouble of carefully wording and designing the provision so that it – oh, hey, look at that! – just happened to pertain to exactly the product for which a carve-out was being sought. No, in this case all subtleties were thrown to the wind. They even, should any confusion remain, helpfully provided the specific H.S. number (the code used by customs officials to identify a good) for the sleeping bags in question.

(I should note here that administrative reviews – processes built into the GSP to avoid what legislators deem undue harm to domestic interests – had already shown that the conditions for GSP ineligibility for sleeping bags were not met. )

While this bill thankfully failed, it serves as a timely reminder that legislators will not allow anything so minor as the rule of law (in this case an administrative review) to prevent them from seeking favors for certain constituents. Thank goodness that effort was thwarted this time: a precedent whereby any Senator (or House member, for that matter) can get a carve out from general trade liberalization for their special interest friends would see the post-war progress on freer trade – imperfect though that may be – quickly unravel.

An additional note: in their press releases, Senators Casey and Brown both alluded to the “fact” that the TAA helps workers “either get back to work or regain some measure of the financial security that has been stripped from them due to unfair foreign trade.” [emphasis mine]  TAA has no such condition attached: workers eligible for the stimulus-enhanced TAA didn’t even have to prove that they lost their job because of a trade agreement, let alone any condition that the trade was “unfair” (i.e.,  a result of dumping or subsidization – and see here why those charges are themselves  canards).  Unless, of course, the Senators consider any trade that threatens domestic producers’ interests to be “unfair”.

Congress: Where 20 Jobs = $580m

When talking to groups about the political economy of trade protection, I always mention concentrated benefits versus diffuse costs. Public choice theory explains many bad policies, of course, but tariffs and subsidies are excellent examples of interventions that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Congress, or specifically two members of that esteemed body, have recently provided me with a textbook example. The Generalized System of Preferences is a federal program that offers duty-free access to the U.S. market to certain goods from certain developing countries. Or, I should say, was a federal program, because it expired on December 31. My opinion of the program is ambivalent at best, but one cannot deny that the program brings real cost savings to American consumers and businesses – to the tune of $580 million a year – through lower import duties.

But those duty savings are, apparently, worthless in the face of special interest politics. From Inside U.S. Trade on January 6 [$]:

An Alabama sleeping bag manufacturer that benefited from the expiration late last year of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program is now taking further steps in an attempt to ensure that Congress does not renew the program this year in the same form.

Exxel Outdoors CEO Harry Kazazian this week said his company is in the process of expanding its U.S. plant by adding workers and increasing production, and that this expansion is occurring as a direct result of the fact that Congress allowed the GSP program to expire on Dec. 31.

Under GSP, Bangladeshi sleeping bags that competed with the Exxel Outdoors product were able to enter the U.S. duty-free. On behalf of Exxel Outdoors, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) last year refused to let any renewal of GSP pass that would not remove at least some sleeping bags from the scope of the GSP program (Inside U.S. Trade, Dec. 23).

With the future of the GSP program still uncertain, Kazazian said he is now expanding his Alabama plant in part to put pressure on Congress to either not renew the GSP program, or renew it in a modified form that would exclude imported sleeping bags from its scope.

Kazazian said that if GSP is renewed in its old form, he would have to reverse his expansion plans. He reasoned that members of Congress may be more willing to accommodate Sessions and remove sleeping bags from GSP if faced with the prospect that renewing the program in its full form would lead to the firing of U.S. workers.

“I can’t see how anyone would make any decisions against us,” he said in an interview this week. “We are going to work as hard as we can to make sure sleeping bags are exempted from the GSP.”

These expansion plans must be really something if they can justify holding up such a broad program, right?

Kazazian said that he plans to hire 20 additional employees to start a fourth production line at the Alabama plant. He said he will commence the first phase of its expansion this month by investing in additional equipment and retooling the plant’s operations.

That’s right, readers. The GSP expired and millions of U.S. consumers and businesses (not to mention developing country exporters) are being penalized to save a hypothetical 20 (that’s two-zero) jobs that don’t even exist yet. The jobs being lost by businesses that depend on the GSP to keep them competive are, apparently, not worth consideration. And as for consumers’ buying power being eroded, well forget it.

Come back, Mancur Olson. Your country needs you.

Co-opting the Anti-Spenders

Voters who recognize the need to make major cuts to federal spending and think returning Republicans to power will accomplish this feat could be in for a big disappointment. Recent comments to the Washington Post made by former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) make it clear that anti-spending candidates elected in November will be fighting against their own party – not just the Democrats.

From the article:

Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), now a D.C. lobbyist, warned that a robust bloc of rabble-rousers spells further Senate dysfunction. “We don’t need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples,” Lott said in an interview. “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”

Lott actually provided one of the more memorable moments in my career as a Senate staffer. The scene took place in the office of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at a regular meeting of “conservative” Republican senators to discuss politics and policy. The setting was several months before the 2006 fall elections in which voters sent the Republican majority packing.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), who I was working for at the time, was pleading with his colleagues to make a last ditch effort to cut spending. Coburn argued, correctly, that voters were fed up with Republican profligacy. In the midst of the discussion, Trent Lott entered. Strolling about the office while chomping on snacks, Lott dismissed Coburn’s suggestion in his good-ole-boy southern style.

Instead, Lott said the Republicans needed to tell voters that putting the Democrats in charge of post-911 America would leave the country vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In other words, Lott’s solution was to scare voters into keeping the Republicans in charge.

Lott might be gone, but the current GOP leadership seems to share the same aversion to actually reforming government. They will attempt to “co-opt” candidates who come to Washington on an anti-spending platform. (See my post on Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)).

In a recent Washington Times piece, John Ellis makes a compelling case for why 2010 is not going to be a replay of 1994:

Nobody can doubt that House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are good and loyal Republicans, but they lack everything that made Mr. Gingrich the author of success in 1994. Both are passive and timid and lack the drive and energy a real leader needs. Both are primarily managers rather than public voices of their caucuses. Neither can dominate a TV screen as Mr. Gingrich could, and neither is able to capture the public’s attention by focusing issues sharply and succinctly. Mr. Boehner is a wooden personality devoid of Mr. Gingrich’s charisma, and the slogan: “Boehner for Speaker,” which is beginning to appear, is hardly inspiring. Mr. McConnell is amiable but retiring, never arresting or incisive.

Indeed, the current Republican leadership bemoans the Obama administration’s reckless big spending and deficits. But other than complain and insist that the president should “pay for” additional spending, the GOP leadership has given no evidence that it recognizes – or even believes – that we actually need a smaller government.

Instead, the GOP has trotted out timid half-measures that they think will play well to the country’s anti-spending mood, but that would actually accomplish very little.