Tag: obama

The Iran Policy Clownshow

I’ve been talking about U.S.-Iran policy to groups around the United States for about eight years now. Many members of these groups—World Affairs Councils, university groups, local groups interested in Middle East policy—disagree with my general take on Iran and the Middle East, but I’ve always gotten a fair hearing and good questions.

Given that, it’s been both amusing and depressing to watch the political spectacle that’s been happening in Washington this week. It all began when Bill Kristol’s favorite senator, Tom Cotton (R-AR), got 46 of the other 53 Republican Senators to join him in signing an “open letter to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to scare the clerical leadership away from a diplomatic deal by threatening to scotch it themselves once Barack Obama is out of office. Cotton, a Harvard Law grad, was subsequently chided on his understanding of the U.S. Constitution both by the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, as well as by Jack Goldsmith, a conservative lawyer who worked on the legal aspects of the war on terror for the George W. Bush administration.

In response to media inquiries, GOP Senators gave embarrassing explanations of the letter. Most absurd was Cotton’s protestation that the letter was intended to help produce a better deal. This claim is absurd not because the causal pathway from this letter to a better deal is dubious (although it is), but because Cotton has made perfectly clear that his goal is the destruction of negotiations, not improving them. As he remarked at a January Heritage Foundation event:

the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.

Injunction against Obama’s Immigration Action: Policy and Political Consequences

U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen granted a preliminary injunction to block the implementation of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration – specifically the DAPA program and his expansion of DACA - until he decides on their legality.  Constitutional scholars are going to be writing about this for the near future (I recommend reading Josh Blackman’s comments here and our Cato brief here) and the appeals will come quickly.  In the midst of this lively debate, the political and policy consequences of Judge Hanen’s ruling should not be ignored. 

The political consequences could be immediate.  Speaker Boehner could use this moment of GOP “victory” to pass a clean DHS funding bill as he hides behind the preliminary injunction.  It could tone down the intensity of the political debate on Capitol Hill now that the courts will decide DACA/DAPA’s future.  The GOP does not have the votes to force the Democrats to accept defunding either of those programs.  This preliminary injunction allows Speaker Boehner to stop the DACA/DAPA defund fight while claiming some victory and avoiding the defeat he seems to be preparing for.  Now he can leave it to the courts with some confidence, more than he is likely to be feeling right in the DHS defunding fight, that they will rule in the GOP’s favor in a few weeks.  Regardless, this provides an opportunity for Boehner to skip the bruising DHS funding fight without suffering a political rout.

The Real Climate Terror

The Obama Administration is sticking to its talking points claiming climate change affects us more than terrorism. It might be valuable to compare and contrast the real life affects Americans endure from both of these threats.

First, let’s take a look at climate change’s effects in the United States: Hurricane power, when measured by satellites, is near its lowest ever ebb. There’s no change in the frequency of severe tornados. The relationship between heavy snow and temperature is negative along the East Coast. Carbon dioxide and longer growing seasons are significantly increasing the world’s food supply, and there’s no relationship between global temperature and U.S. drought.

Compare this with the effects of terrorism: On September 11, 2011, terrorists took down the World Trade Center and nearly an entire side of the Pentagon, extinguishing 2,996 lives. As a result, every American’s privacy is assaulted by the government on a daily basis—and let’s not talk about what they’ve done to air travel, or worse, Iraq. We’ve managed to remain in a perpetual state of war, unleashing a wave of federal spending our great grandchildren will be repaying.

Perhaps next time President Obama skips the TSA lines to fly around the world on Air Force One (on the taxpayer dime, emitting the carbon of which he’s so scared) he should look down at Arlington National Cemetery at the tombstones left from the reaction to terrorism–it’s an excellent reminder of the real cost of government action.

(Read more about actual threat of terrorism in “Terrorizing Ourselves,” by Benjamin Friedman, Jim Harper and Christopher Prebel, and “Responsible Counterterrorism Policy,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart.)

Removing EITC and Child Tax Credits for DACA/DAPA recipients and Non-Citizens

President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), have allowed those beneficiaries to retroactively receive Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) and Child Tax Credits (CTC).

The DACA and DAPA programs grant recipients temporary work permits during the period of their deferred action.  Under current legislation, CTC eligibility is determined through either a Social Security Number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).  Since many unauthorized immigrants are already issued ITINs, eligibility for the CTC is not much affected by DACA and DAPA.

EITC eligibility status is another story altogether, as currently only those who file taxes with a valid SSN are eligible to receive the benefits.  DACA and DAPA will allow those recipients to apply for an SSN, thereby making them eligible for EITC benefits.  Another IRS rule allows those recipients to retroactively claim EITC benefits for previous years in which they were not in the country legally.  Under current law, taxes can be filed retroactively for up to three years by using the 1040X Amended Tax Return Form.  Because DACA and DAPA recipients are eligible for SSNs, they are able to file amended tax returns, making many eligible for EITC benefits in previous years.

The EITC is known as a refundable tax credit, meaning that low-income families can receive a tax “refund” that is larger than their original tax liability.  The program has become notorious for fraudulent and improper payments, yet the IRS has not enacted systematic reforms.  According to a report by the Treasury Inspector General, the IRS paid out $63 billion in EITC payments in 2013 alone – $15 billion of which were given to people ineligible to receive EITC benefits.  Of that $63 billion, only $8 billion were actual tax cuts and $55 billion were payments.

Non-citizens should be ineligible for means tested welfare benefits, the EITC, and CTC.  Walling off welfare benefits is the best option after scaling the benefits back or removing them for everybody.  Here is our previous work on how to build a wall around the welfare state.  Since I did not consider the EITC in my original Cato policy analysis on how to wall off welfare benefits to non-citizens, these are the specific laws that would need to be amended to correct this.

Reforming Section 32(c)(1)(E) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 delineates the eligibility for EITC benefits. The language in subsection (1) determines eligibility.  Changing the statute there could eliminate the ability for newly legalized immigrant workers to retroactively file for EITC benefits.  This section could also be amended to deny the EITC to non-citizens broadly, but that is more complex as SSNs are granted to some non-citizens.  A citizenship requirement for EITC would still decrease the outlays. 

CTC should also be denied to those who had their deportations deferred. CTC eligibility requirements are included in Section 24 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.  Denying CTC benefits for previous years when the tax filer was ineligible for such benefits was actually proposed in Congress last year – here is the text of that bill.  If possible, CTC benefits should be reserved for citizens only (if we can’t get rid of them altogether).

Immigration is a huge economic net-positive for the United States and fiscally neutral in the long run.  Poor immigrants generally underuse means-tested welfare compared to poor Americans.  Immigrants broadly subsidize the entitlement programs.  Regardless, tax credits should not be retroactively available to immigrants who have had their deportations deferred nor should non-citizens have access at all.

Fiscal conservatives can use immigration as an argument in favor of restricting welfare and EITC benefits.  That would be a far more effective and conservative use of their time than using the welfare state as an argument against liberalized immigration.       

Selling Trade Liberalization Like the Measles Vaccine

President Obama is presiding over what may prove to be the most significant round of trade liberalization in American history, yet he has never once made an affirmative case for that outcome. Despite various reports of intensifying outreach to members of Congress, the president’s “advocacy” is couched in enough skepticism to create and reinforce fears about trade and globalization.

Politico reports:

On Tuesday, Obama sent a letter directly to Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), arguing that reaching new trade agreements is the only way to stop China from dominating the global markets and letting its lax standards run the world.

“If they succeed, our competitors would be free to ignore basic environmental and labor standards, giving them an unfair advantage against American workers,” Obama wrote Gallego in a letter obtained by POLITICO. “We can’t let that happen. We should write the rules, and level the playing field for the middle class.”

Certainly, playing the China card could help win support for Trade Promotion Authority and, eventually, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it needn’t be the first selling point.  Pitching trade agreements as though they were innoculations from an otherwise imminent disease betrays a profound lack of understanding of the benefits of trade. With TPP near completion and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks expected to accelerate, the president’s stubborn refusal to make an affirmative case for his trade initiatives to the public and the skeptics in his party is disconcerting. Bill Watson was troubled by the president’s feeble advocacy of trade liberalization in his SOTU address.

The State of the Union: Please, Just Do No Harm

At the National Interest, I critique the president’s State of the Union speech:

Instead, we got a sweeping vision of a federal government that takes care of us from childhood to retirement, a verbal counterpart to the Obama campaign’s internet ad about “Julia,” the cartoon character who has no family, friends, church or community and depends on government help throughout her life. The president chronicled a government that provides us with student loans, healthcare, oil and the Internet.

The spirit of American independence, of free people pursuing their dreams in a free economy, was entirely absent. Indeed, the word “freedom” appeared only once in the speech.

I wasn’t so impressed with the “middle-class economics” he laid out:

The president wants more and better jobs. And yet he wants to raise taxes on the savings and investment that produce economic growth and better jobs. And he proposes a higher minimum wage, which would cost some low-skilled workers their jobs. Those proposals are not well thought out….

The president spoke a lot about the future. He mentioned Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And he twice boasted of shrinking deficits. But he never addressed the elephant in the room: The deficit is about to head back up, reaching $1 trillion in a few years. The national debt is $18 trillion and still growing. Worse, those entitlements programs have an unfunded liability of around $90 trillion. What’s his plan to avert an unprecedented financial crisis a few years after he leaves office? He didn’t say, because he has no plan.

Things got a little better when he turned to foreign policy:

When he turned from economics, the president offered a bit more to libertarian-minded voters. He said that we don’t want to be “dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing” or “dragged into another ground war in the Middle East.” He said that “when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.” Music to noninterventionist and realist ears.

But the reality is somewhat different. He has officially ended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but American troops remain in both countries, which are hardly experiencing postwar tranquility. He has bombed seven countries, three more than President Bush. We are getting more deeply entangled in a new war in Iraq and Syria, without congressional authorization. Obama asked Congress to “pass a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. We need that authority.” Really? He hasn’t shown any need for it these past six months. Nor did he ask for authorization to wage war in Libya. The senator who said in his 2008 campaign, “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” has become a president who acts as if he does.

I also found an opportunity to praise his promises on Cuba, criminal justice reform, and the dignity of every citizen. But I concluded:

Early in the speech the president said, “We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t screw things up, the government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm.” Please, just do no harm. Americans will make plenty of progress if government doesn’t interfere. 

TONIGHT: Cato Scholars Live-Tweet the State of the Union


Tonight at 9 p.m. EST, President Obama will lay out his plans for the upcoming year in his sixth annual State of the Union (SOTU) address. What will the President’s words mean for liberty? 

Find out tonight: Cato scholars will be live-tweeting their reactions to what the president says—and what he leaves out. Following the President’s address, stay tuned for commentary on the Republican and Tea Party responses. Featured scholars will include everyone from David Boaz to Mark Calabria, Walter Olson to Alex Nowrasteh….and many, many more.

This is your chance to ask the experts what to expect from the policy world in 2015—and to add your two cents to the discussion. Follow @CatoInstitute on Twitter and join the conversation using #CatoSOTU