Tag: reauthorization

Transportation Cliff or Pothole?

Recent news reports have zeroed in on Washington’s next “cliff,” the “transportation cliff” that is expected to happen when the federal Highway Trust Fund runs out of money sometime this summer. Most of those articles have a hidden agenda: to increase spending for transit even though transit now gets 20 percent of federal surface transport dollars but carries little more than 1 percent of the travel carried by automobiles (about 55 billion passenger miles by transit vs. 4.3 trillion passenger miles in cars and light trucks). This post will explain some of the politics of the transportation cliff.

1. Why are we about to go off a transportation cliff?

Since 1956, federal highway programs have been financed with federal gasoline taxes. Those revenues go into the so-called Highway Trust Fund (“so-called” because it’s no longer very trustworthy) and then are distributed to the states for highway construction and maintenance. In 1982, Congress began dedicating a small but growing share of gas taxes to transit. Today, more than 20 percent of federal gas taxes are spent on transit, and there is no guarantee that the remaining 80 percent goes for highways, as Congress often diverts some of that money to such things as bike paths, national park visitor centers, museums, and other local pork barrel projects.

Congress reauthorizes this spending every few years. Traditionally, an authorization bill provides a spending ceiling. But the 2005 reauthorization bill made spending mandatory, meaning the ceiling was also the floor. (In 2012, Congress passed another reauthorization bill. That one didn’t mandate spending, but Congress went ahead and spent to the limit anyway, knowing full well that this would mean the Highway Trust Fund would be exhausted by sometime in 2014.)

When the 2008 financial crisis led to a reduction in driving, gas tax revenues failed to keep up with spending. Since then, Congress has had to supplement gas taxes with about $55 billion in general funds in order to keep the Highway Trust Fund from running out of money.

Anti-auto interest groups often portray these supplements as highway subsidies. But they would not be necessary if Congress weren’t diverting 20 percent of gas tax revenues to transit. Although more money goes to highways than to transit, because highways are so much more heavily used, federal subsidies to transit are about 80 times as great, per passenger mile, as federal subsidies to highways.

Will Republicans Make a Principled Stand Against Ex-Im Reauthorization in 2014?

Jobs are good. Exports create jobs. We create exports. Renew our charter.

Such is the essence of the marketing pitch of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, whose officials have begun ramping up their lobbying efforts ahead of a 2014 vote concerning reauthorization of the Bank’s charter, which expires in September.  Last go around, in 2012, Ex-Im ran into some unexpected turbulence when free-market think tanks, government watchdog groups, and limited government Republicans in Congress raised some compelling – but ultimately ignored – objections to reauthorization.

The ostensible purpose of the Ex-Im Bank is to assist in financing the export of U.S. goods and services to international markets. Even if that were a legitimate role of government, the public must keep a watchful eye on how much and to whom loans are made – especially given the current administration’s tendency to bet big on particular industries and specific firms, and in light of its commitment to seeing U.S. exports reach $3.14 trillion in 2014.

From the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s 2013 Annual Report:

The Ex-Im Bank’s mission is to support American jobs by facilitating the export of U.S. goods and services. The Bank provides competitive export financing and ensures a level playing field for U.S. exporters competing for sales in the global marketplace. Ex-Im Bank does not compete with private-sector lenders but provides export financing that fill gaps in trade financing. The Bank assumes credit and country risks that the private sector is unable or unwilling to accept. It also helps to level the playing field for U.S. exporters by matching the financing that other governments provide to their exporters. The Bank’s charter requires that the transactions it authorizes demonstrate reasonable assurance of repayment.

The defensive tone of this mission statement anticipates Ex-Im critics’ objections, but it certainly doesn’t answer them. The objectives of filling gaps in trade financing passed over by the private sector and expecting a reasonable assurance of repayment are mutually exclusive – unless the threshold for “reasonable assurance” is more risk-permissive than the private-sector’s most risk-permissive financing entities.  Therefore, Ex-Im is either putting taxpayer resources at risk or it is competing directly with private-sector lenders for customers in need of finance. And if the latter, then as it seeks to create the proverbial “level playing field” for the U.S. companies whose customers it finances, Ex-Im is un-leveling the playing field for the finance industry, as well as for the U.S. firms in industries that compete globally with these U.S-taxpayer financed foreign companies.

Why the Senate’s Vote on the Patriot Act Is Actually Pretty Good News

Last night, By an overwhelming 86-to-12 margin, the Senate approved a temporary 90-day extension of three controversial provisions of the Patriot Act scheduled to sunset at the end of the month. The House just voted to move forward on a parallel extension bill, which will presumably pass easily. Because I’m seeing some civil libertarian folks online reacting with dismay to this development, I think it’s worth clarifying that this is relatively good news when you reflect on the outlook from just a couple of weeks ago.

The House has already approved a one-year extension that would plant the next reauthorization vote on the right eve of primary season in a Presidential election cycle, all but guaranteeing a round of empty demagoguery followed by another punt. As of last week, everyone expected the Senate to bring Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s three year reauthorization—which also extends the odious FISA Amendments Act of 2008—to the floor. The discussion on the Senate floor last night makes it clear that this didn’t happen because of pushback from legislators who were sick of kicking the can and wanted time to hold hearings on substantive reforms.

This is actually a better outcome than simply letting the three sunsetting powers lapse—which, realistically, was not going to happen anyway. First, because at least one of the expiring authorities, roving wiretaps, is a legitimate tool that ought to be available to intelligence investigators if it’s amended to eliminate the so-called “John Doe” loophole. Second, because while all three of these provisions have serious defects that raise legitimate concerns about the potential for abuse, they are collectively small beer compared with National Security Letters, which have already given rise to serious, widespread, and well documented abuses. One of the three sunsetting powers has never been used, and the other two are invoked a couple dozen times per year. All three involve court supervision. The FBI issues tens of thousands of National Security Letter requests each year, the majority targeting American citizens and legal residents, without any advance court approval. The vast majority of the thousands of Americans whose financial and telecommunications records are seized each year are almost certainly innocent of any wrongdoing, but their information is nevertheless retained indefinitely in government databases. With very few exceptions, these people will never learn that the government has been monitoring their financial transactions or communication patterns. Forcing a debate now on the expiring provisions opens a window for consideration of proposals to rein in NSLs—including a new sunset that would create pressure for continued scrutiny.

A new Pew poll released this week reports that Americans remain fairly evenly split on the question of whether the Patriot Act is “a necessary tool that helps the government find terrorists” or “goes too far and poses a threat to civil liberties.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the change of administration, Democrats have become more supportive and Republicans somewhat more skeptical.) But this is actually a signally unhelpful way to frame debate about legislation encompassing hundreds of reforms to the byzantine statutory framework governing American intelligence investigations—more a toolbox than a “tool.” The question shouldn’t be whether you’re “for” or “against” it, but whether there are ways to narrow and focus particular authorities so that legitimate investigations can proceed without sweeping in so much information about innocent people. A three-month extension signals that Congress is finally, belatedly, ready to start having that conversation.

The Sun Never Sets on the PATRIOT Act

A year ago, the protracted wrangling in Congress over the re-authorization of several expiring provisions of the PATRIOT ACT made plenty of headlines. Most observers expected the sunsetting powers to be extended, but civil libertarians hoped serious and sorely needed reforms might be part of the package. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held multiple hearings on the topic, and an array of competing reform and reauthorization bills (PDF) were proposed, adding extra safeguards (of varying stringency) to the greatly expanded surveillance powers Congress had approved in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But Congress had a full plate, and so it punted—approving a straight one-year reauthorization without any modifications at the last minute. (You’d be forgiven for not noticing: The extension passed under the heading of the “Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act.”) As I
noted in December, however, the Justice Department has promised Congress that it will voluntarily adopt some of the measures that had been floated in those reform bills—which would be a fine thing in itself, but I worried that the move seemed calculated to reduce the impetus for binding legislation.

Well, I’ve just noticed—quite serendipitously, as there doesn’t appear to have been a whisper in the press—that the new House Intelligence Committee Chair, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), has introduced yet another one-year extension, which would push the sunset of the expiring provisions back to the end of February 2012. Given the very limited number of days Congress has in session before the current deadline, and the fact that the bill’s Republican sponsor is only seeking another year, I think it’s safe to read this as signaling an agreement across the aisle to put the issue off yet again. (I’ve asked Rogers’s office for a comment and will update this post if I hear back.)

In the absence of a major scandal, though, it’s hard to see why we should expect the incentives facing legislators to be vastly different a year from now. Heck, we’ve had a pretty big scandal involving the misuse of National Security Letter powers, but even right on the heels of the Inspector General’s report documenting those abuses, the mildest reforms proffered last year died on the vine. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I suspect this is how reining in the growth of the surveillance state becomes an item perpetually on next year’s agenda.

Obama’s Education Proposal Still a Bottomless Bag

This morning the Obama Administration officially released its proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka, No Child Left Behind). The proposal is a mixed bag, and still one with a gaping hole in the bottom.

Among some generally positive things, the proposal would eliminate NCLB’s ridiculous annual-yearly-progress and “proficiency” requirements, which have driven states to constantly change standards and tests to avoid having to help students achieve real proficiency.  It would also end many of the myriad, wasteful categorical programs that infest the ESEA, though it’s a pipedream to think members of Congress will actually give up all of their pet, vote-buying programs.

On the negative side of the register, the proposed reauthorization would force all states to either sign onto national mathematics and language-arts standards, or get a state college to certify their standards as “college and career ready.”  It would also set a goal of all students being college and career ready by 2020. But setting a single, national standard makes no logical sense because all kids have different needs and abilities; no one curriculum will ever optimally serve but a tiny minority of students.

Also, on the (VERY) negative side of the register, Obama’s budget proposal would increase ESEA spending by $3 billion from last year – for a total of $28.1 billion – to pay for all of the ESEA reauthorization’s promises of incentives and rewards. That’s $3 billion more that the utterly irresponsible spenders in Washington simply do not have, and that would do nothing to improve outcomes.

Even if this proposal were loaded with nothing but smart, tough ideas, it would ultimately fail for the same reason that top-down control of government schools has failed for decades. Teachers, administrators, and education bureaucrats make their livelihoods from public schooling, and hence spend more time and money on education lobbying and politicking than anyone else. That makes them by far the most powerful forces in public schooling, and what they want for themselves is what we’d all want in their place if we could get it: lots of money and no accountability to anyone.

As long as such asymmetrical power distribution is the case – and it’s inherent to “democratic” control of education – no proposal, no matter how initially tough, is likely to make any long-term improvements. As the matrix below lays out, no matter what combination of standards and accountability you have, politics will eventually lead to poor outcomes. It’s a major reason that the history of government schooling is strewn with “get-tough” laws that ultimately spend lots of money but produce no meaningful improvements, and it’s a powerful argument for the feds complying with the Constitution and getting out of education.

When all is said and done, you can throw all the great things you want into the federal education bag, but as long as politicians are making the decisions you’ll always come up empty.

Patriot Act Update

It looks as though we’ll be getting a straight one-year reauthorization of the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, without even the minimal added safeguards for privacy and civil liberties that had been proposed in the Senate’s watered down bill.  This is disappointing, but was also eminently predictable: Between health care and the economy, it was clear Congress wasn’t going to make time for any real debate on substantive reform of surveillance law. Still, the fact that the reauthorization is only for one year suggests that the reformers plan to give it another go—though, in all probability, we won’t see any action on this until after the midterm elections.

The silver lining here is that this creates a bit of breathing room, and means legislators may now have a chance to take account of the absolutely damning Inspector General’s report that found that the FBI repeatedly and systematically broke the law by exceeding its authorization to gather information about people’s telecommunications activities. It also means the debate need not be contaminated by the panic over the Fort Hood shootings or the failed Christmas bombing—neither of which have anything whatever to do with the specific provisions at issue here, but both of which would have doubtless been invoked ad nauseam anyway.

Timber Payments and Logrolling

Since 1908, the U.S. Forest Service has paid 25 percent of its gross receipts to the states for spending on roads and schools in the counties where national forests are located. In the Pacific Northwest, receipts started to decline in the late 1980s due to lower timber sales as a result of efforts to protect the spotted owl. In 1993, Congress responded with additional “spotted owl payments” to the affected states. A 2000 law spread these payments to all national forests, but the bulk continued to go to the Pacific Northwest.

When the law was reauthorized last year, members of Congress used it as an opportunity to grab money for their states. According to the Associated Press:

The federal largesse initially focused on a handful of Western states, with Oregon alone receiving nearly $2 billion. Spending of that magnitude, though, sparked a new timber war – this one among politicians eager to get their hands on some of the logging money. A four-year renewal of the law, passed last year, authorizes an additional $1.6 billion for the program through 2011 and shifts substantial sums to states where the spotted owl never flew. While money initially was based on historic logging levels, now any state with federal forests – even those with no history of logging – is eligible for millions in Forest Service dollars. Doling out all that taxpayer money is based less on logging losses than on the powerful reality of political clout.

Democratic New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman bluntly admitted that the money grab was a result of good ole congressional logrolling:

Of much more important note: New Mexico’s two senators served as chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate committee that rewrote the timber payments formula. New Mexico’s increase under the new formula was 692 percent… Bingaman defended the changes. ‘Frankly we had to broaden the program in order to get the support to go ahead and do a reauthorization, and that’s exactly what we did,’ he said in an interview.

And of course, the porkfest was bipartisan:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was an early backer of the law and provided political cover for Republicans to support it… Timber harvests in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest have been modest in recent decades – ranging from $7,600 to $77,000 annually – but Clay County, Ky., which includes part of the forest, received $338,510 this year from the timber program, a 341 percent increase.

A Cato essay on the U.S. Forest Service notes that a “reform step would be to revive federalism by eliminating federal forest subsidies to the states and turning portions of the national forests over to the states. Other activities could be privatized… Some experts have proposed full privatization of the national forests.”

Such reforms would help to address the chaotic nature of current forest management through the federal political process, as illustrated by the spotted owl saga.