Tag: obama

Transparency: Good News / Bad News

Last week was an interesting week for transparency, with some good news and some bad news.

On the “good” side of the ledger, the administration rolled out “Data.gov,” a growing set of data feeds provided by U.S. government agencies. These will permit the public to do direct oversight of the kind I discussed at our “Just Give Us the Data!” policy forum back in December.

My metric of whether Data.gov is a success will be when independent users and Web sites use government data to produce new and interesting information and applications. The Sunlight Foundation has a contest underway to promote just that. Get ready for really interesting, cool, direct public oversight of the government.

Also under the White House’s new “Open Government Initiative,” an Open Government Dialogue “brainstorming session” began last week. The public can submit ideas for making the government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. This is important stuff, an outgrowth of President Obama’s open government directive, issued on his first full day in office.

That directive called for the Office of Management and Budget to require specific actions of agencies “within 120 days,” which meant the final product was due last week. And that missed deadline is where we start to slide into the “bad” on the transparency ledger.

Last week, President Obama gave an important speech on national security (which I blogged about here and here). But you couldn’t find the speech in the “Speeches” section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site. It’s buried elsewhere. That’s “basic Web site malpractice,” I told NextGov.com. And I cautioned my friends in the transparency community not to forget Government 1.0 for all the whiz-bang Gov 2.0 projects flashing before our eyes. Whitehouse.gov should be a useful, informative resource for average Americans.

The current top proposal on the “brainstorming” site referred to above is to require a 72-hour mandatory public review period on major spending bills. This is reminiscent of President Obama’s promise to hold bills five days before signing them. But, as Stephen Dinan reports in the Washington Times, the president signed several more bills last week without holding them the requisite time.

The White House protests that they posted links to bills on the Thomas Web site at the Whitehouse.gov blog. But that does not give the public meaningful review of the bills in their final form, as they have come to the president from Congress. “Posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it,” says John Wonderlich at Sunlight.

President Obama signed nine new laws since we last reviewed his record on the “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. Alas, it’s been a case study in pulling defeat from the jaws of victory.

Five of the bills were held by the White House more than five days before the president signed them, but they weren’t posted! Simply posting them on Whitehouse.gov in final form would have satisfied “Sunlight Before Signing.”

President Obama’s average drops to .043, and that’s crediting him one win for the DTV Delay Act, which was posted at Whitehouse.gov in its final form for five days after Congress passed it, but before presentment, which is the logical time to start the five-day clock.

Here is the latest tally of bills passed by Congress, including the date presented, date signed, whether they’ve been posted or linked to at Whitehouse.gov, and whether they’ve been posted for the full five days after presentment. (Corrections welcome - there is no uniform way that the White House is posting bills or links, so I may have missed something.)

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009
1/28/2009
1/29/2009
1/29/2009
No
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009
2/4/2009
2/4/2009
2/1/2009
No
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act
2/9/2009
2/11/2009
2/5/2009
Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
2/16/2009
2/17/2009
2/13/2009
No
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes
3/6/2009
3/6/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building”
2/26/09
3/9/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009
3/11/2009
3/11/2009
3/6/2009
No
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs
3/18/2009
3/20/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes
3/19/2009
3/20/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009
3/30/2009
3/30/2009
3/30/2009
No
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009
3/24/2009
3/30/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-13, The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act
4/20/2009
4/21/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-14, To designate the United States courthouse under construction at 327 South Church Street, Rockford, Illinois, as the “Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse”
4/14/2009
4/23/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-15, The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009
4/14/2009
4/24/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-16, The Statutory Time-Periods Technical Amendments Act of 2009
4/30/2009
5/7/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-17, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of David M. Rubenstein as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution
4/28/2009
5/7/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-18, A bill to repeal section 10(f) of Public Law 93-531, commonly known as the “Bennett Freeze”
4/28/2009
5/8/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-19, The Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009
4/30/2009
5/12/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-20, The Protecting Incentives for the Adoption of Children with Special Needs Act of 2009
5/5/2009
5/15/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-21, The FERA
5/19/2009
5/22/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-22, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009
5/20/2009
5/22/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-23, The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009
5/21/2009
5/22/2009
5/14/2009
No
P.L. 111-24, The Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009
5/20/2009
5/22/2009
5/14/2009
No

Obama Chooses Sotomayor for Supreme Court Nominee

soniaIn nominating Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill the seat of retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, President Obama chose the most radical of all the frequently mentioned candidates before him.

Given the way her panel recently summarily dismissed the Ricci case –- involving the complaint by New Haven, Connecticut, firefighters that the city had thrown out the results of an officers exam because the results did not come out “right” –- and the expectation, based on oral argument, that the Supreme Court will reverse the Second Circuit decision, there will likely be an extremely contentious confirmation battle ahead. If confirmation hearings are scheduled for summer, they will follow shortly upon the Court’s decision in that explosive case.

Are we to imagine that President Obama chose as he did because he wants that battle?

Cheney vs. Obama: Tale of the Tape

In case you missed it, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney spoke separately today on terrorism and national security. Like two boxers at a pre-fight press conference, they each touted their strength over their opponent. They espoused deep differences in their views on national counterterrorism strategy.

The Thrilla in Manilla it ain’t. As Gene Healy has pointed out, they agree on a lot more than they admit to. Harvard Law professor and former Bush Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith makes the same point at the New Republic. Glenn Greenwald made a similar observation.

However, the areas where they differ are important: torture, closing Guantanamo, criminal prosecution, and messaging. In these key areas, Obama edges out Cheney.

Torture

Cheney:

I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.

Obama:

I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured.

Torture is incompatible with our values and our national security interests. When we break our own rules (read: laws) against torture, we erode everyone’s faith that America is the good guy in this global fight.

Torture has been embraced by politicians, but the people who are fighting terrorists on the ground want none of it. As former FBI agent Ali Soufan made clear in Senate hearings last week, it is not an effective interrogation technique. Senior military leaders such as General Petraeus, former CENTCOM commanders Joseph Hoar and Anthony Zinni, and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Charles Krulak all denounce the use of torture.

If we captured Al Qaeda operatives who had tortured one of our soldiers in pursuit of information, we would be prosecuting them. Torture is no different and no more justifiable because we are doing it.

Closing Guantanamo

Cheney:

I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.

Obama:

[I]nstead of serving as a tool to counter-terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

This is an area where Cheney is disagreeing not just with Obama but with John McCain. We would be having this debate regardless of who won the last Presidential election. Get over it.

The current political climate gives you the impression that we are going to let detainees loose in the Midwest with bus fare and a gift certificate for a free gun at the local sporting goods store. Let’s be realistic about this.

We held hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war in America during World War II. The detainees we have now are not ten feet tall and bulletproof, and federal supermax prisons hold the same perfect record of keeping prisoners inside their walls as the detainment facility in Guantanamo Bay.

Criminal Prosecution

Obama basically said that we will try those we can, release those who we believe pose no future threat, and detain those that fit in neither of the first two categories. That’s not a change in policy and that pesky third category isn’t going away.

Obama and Cheney do have some sharp differences as to the reach of war powers versus criminal prosecution.

Cheney:

And when you hear that there are no more, quote, “enemy combatants,” as there were back in the days of that scary war on terror, at first that sounds like progress. The only problem is that the phrase is gone, but the same assortment of killers and would-be mass murderers are still there.

Obama:

Recently, we prosecuted and received a guilty plea from a detainee - al-Marri - in federal court after years of legal confusion. We are preparing to transfer another detainee to the Southern District of New York, where he will face trial on charges related to the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania - bombings that killed over 200 people.

I have written extensively on al-Marri, the last person to be detained domestically as an enemy combatant. The FBI did everything right when it investigated and indicted this Al Qaeda sleeper agent masquerading as an exchange student, only to have the Bush administration remove those charges in order to preserve the possibility of detaining domestic criminals under wartime powers. This claim of governmental power is a perversion of executive authority that Obama was right to repudiate.

The man being indicted in New York is Ahmed Gailani. If he is convicted for his role in the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he will join his co-conspirators Wadih El-Hage, Mohammed Odeh, Mohammed al-Owhali, and Khalfan Mohammed in a supermax.

This is also where we hold 1993 World Trade Center bombers Ramzi Yousef, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh”), Mohammed Salameh, Sayyid Nosair, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Ahmed Ajaj.

Not to mention would-be trans-pacific airline bombers Wali Khan Amin Shah and Abdul Hakim Murad.

Al Qaeda operatives Mohammed Jabarah, Jose Padilla, and Abu Ali will share his mailing address.

Let’s not forget American Taliban Johnny Walker Lindh, Shoe Bomber Richard Reid, Al Qaeda and Hamas financier Mohammed Ali Hassan Al-Moayad, Oregon terrorist training camp organizer Ernest James Ujaama, and would-be Millenium Bomber Ahmed Ressam.

That’s a lot of bad guys. It’s almost like we’re checking names off a list or something.

Messaging

Cheney:

Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy. Apparently using the term “war” where terrorists are concerned is starting to feel a bit dated.

Obama: no quote is necessary here. The differences in narrative between Obama and Cheney are clear and woven into what Obama says.

Terrorism is about messaging. America finds herself in the unenviable position of fighting an international terrorist group, Al Qaeda, that is trying to convince local insurgents to join its cause. Calling this a “War on Terror” can create a war on everybody if we use large-scale military solutions for intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic problems.

We have to tie every use of force or governmental power to a message: drop leaflets whenever we drop a bomb, hold a press conference whenever we conduct a raid, and publish a court decision whenever we detain someone. Giving the enemy the initiative in messaging gives them the initiative in the big picture.

Conclusion

Once we get past the rhetoric, the differences are few but worth noting. I take Obama in the third round by TKO.

… But Obama Generally Comprehends Terrorism

My difference with the President on releasing photos of Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, he exhibits an understanding of terrorism and how to counter it – an understanding that was not on display at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue this week or at the American Enterprise Institute today.

Here’s a portion of President Obama’s speech today showing that he knows how overreaction to terrorism (such as resorting to torture) plays into the terrorism strategy:

As commander-in-chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts – they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.

IRS Commissioner: Obama Used False Numbers to Attack Low-Tax Jurisdictions

During the campaign, President Obama asserted that tax havens “cost” the Treasury $100 billion per year (see, for instance, 8:07 of this video), echoing the assertions made by demagogues such as Michigan’s Democratic Senator, Carl Levin. Many gullible journalists proceeded to disseminate this number, even though I repeatedly warned that it was a blatant fabrication. Indeed, it was the first falsehood that I punctured in my video entitled, Tax Havens: Myths vs Facts.

So it was with considerable interest that I read about the recent testimony of IRS Commissioner, Douglas Shulman, who acknowledged that the Obama-Levin numbers are “wild estimates” that “don’t have much basis.” Here is the key passage from a report from Bloomberg:

Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman said projections that the US loses $US100 billion annually to offshore tax havens are “wild estimates” that “don’t have much basis”. …”Those numbers are pretty broad numbers,” Shulman said. The $US100 billion figure, a compilation of private-sector estimates, is often cited by Michigan Senator Carl Levin… North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan also frequently cites the $US100 billion figure.

This, of course, raises an interesting question. If politicians are willing to use dishonest numbers to push a certain policy, what does that suggest about the merits of the policy?

Obama’s Fuel-Economy Standards

If you like driving a big car or SUV, the good news about Obama’s new fuel-economy standards is that they won’t dictate what kind of car you will be able to buy in the future. If you want to buy a 15-mpg SUV, Detroit (or Aichi or Wolfsburg) will be free to make and sell you one.

The bad news is that the standards may make your car more expensive. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are actually calculated as the mean of gallons per mile, not miles per gallon. So, as of 2016, for every 15-mpg model made by an auto maker, that company will have to make five models of cars that can go 50 mpg in order for its fleet to meet Obama’s new target. Since bringing each new model to market can cost billions of dollars, if there are not enough people who want to buy those fuel-efficient cars to cover their design costs, the company will have to add a share of those costs to your SUV.

If you want to save energy, the good news is that Obama’s standards are more stringent than those in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 – but not by much. While the 2007 law required new car fleets to average 35 mpg by 2020, Obama’s standard requires fleets to average 35.5 mpg by 2016.

The bad news is that nothing in Obama’s standard guarantees that they will actually save energy. The rule only requires that the mean fuel economy of all models, not all cars, made by a manufacturer meet the 35.5 mpg standard. Not much energy will be saved if gas guzzlers sell well and hybrids don’t.

If gas prices go up, people will buy the fuel-efficient models that auto makers are forced to make – but that would have happened anyway. If gas stays cheap, people will continue to buy fuel-inefficient cars (tempered only by having to pay extra to cover the start-up costs of models no one wants). If you believe that saving energy or reducing dependence on foreign oil is important, then you should prefer a stronger form incentive over this mandate.

The worst-cast scenario is that the new standards increase the cost of buying new cars but don’t save any energy (except to the extent that a few people can’t afford to own a car at all). The best-case scenario is that Obama’s standards result in future auto fleets that are not much different from what a free market would have produced. Considering that Honda and Toyota are now in a price war over their Insight vs. the third-generation Prius, that may be closer to the actual outcome.

The good news is that auto makers readily acquiesced to this standard, partly because they feared something worse but partly because they didn’t think it would cost much. The Obama administration estimates that the added cost of the new standard will be $1,300 per car, but that (if gasoline remains $3 per gallon) it will save drivers $500 per year. That means it could pay for itself in the long run – but only if people actually do buy more fuel-efficient cars.

The debate over the standard reminds me of the debate after Congress gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate air quality in 1970. One faction favored of technical solutions to pollution, such as catalytic converters. The other faction argued for behavioral tools aimed at getting people to drive less.

Today, we know the behavioral solutions were a complete failure. Although many cities imposed urban-growth boundaries, built light rail, and implemented various disincentives to driving, not one can say they have reduced per-capita driving by even 1 percent.

On the other hand, the technical solutions were highly successful. Though we drive nearly three times as many miles as in 1970, total automotive air pollution has declined more than 50 percent.

There was a third faction in 1970 whose voice was almost inaudible: economists who argued that incentives would clean the air better than mandates. The mandates that were put in place only acted on new cars, and it took more than a decade (and now takes almost two decades) to turn over the American auto fleet. Properly designed incentives could have acted on all cars and cleaned the air much faster (by, for example, giving people a choice between retrofitting their cars or paying a pollution fee that was dedicated to cleaning up pollution elsewhere).

The lesson libertarians take from this is that incentives are better than mandates. But the point I like to make is that, though incentives might work better than mandates, technical solutions work far better than behavioral ones.

Despite the past failure of behavioral tools, there is a strong movement in the administration and Congress today for more behavioral controls aimed at reducing driving to save energy and greenhouse gas emissions. These behavioral tools will be expensive, they will have costly unintended consequences, and in the end they will do little to protect the environment.

I remain unpersuaded that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But if there is a political need to do so, we should at least do it in ways that cost little and provide other benefits that will help cover those costs. McKinsey & Company estimates that the United States can meet the most stringent greenhouse gas targets by investing in programs that cost no more than $50 per ton of greenhouse gas abatements. More fuel-efficient cars meet this test, says McKinsey, and will also reduce the emissions of other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides.

Meanwhile, light rail, growth boundaries, and other behavioral tools, if they save energy and reduce greenhouse gases at all, will only do so at costs of tens of thousands of dollars per ton. Though I am far from thrilled about Obama’s new policy, at least it reminds us that, for a relatively low cost, we can significantly reduce energy consumption and various pollution emissions without trying to socially engineer American lifestyles.

Cultwatch: Union Station, New York Times

obamastoreSnapped this pic at DC’s Union Station this afternoon, on my way from the Amtrak platform to the Metro (where the machine dispensed a metrocard featuring a grinning BHO). Readers planning to visit DC will be happy to know that you can get all your Obama-related tchotchkes and talismans in one convenient locale right after you get off the train.

Say what you will about hapless Jerry Ford, but he had this going for him: nobody ever thought of making an action figure in his image.

In other cult-related news, today’s New York Times has an “Op-Extra” sidebar,with “excerpts from Opinion Online.” Our friend Judith Warner, last seen discussing cougar fantasies about “sex with the president,” weighs in about the shirtless Obama cover on the current Washingtonian:

“Just as having a president who can string a sentence together with subject-verb agreement makes us all look a little bit smarter, just as having a really admirable family in the White House makes us all seem a little less dysfunctional, perhaps having a president who can look good in a bathing suit is in some bizarre way good for the nation.”

Yeah, I mean, God knows it’s been good for Russia.