Tag: reform

Supremes to Hear PATRIOT ‘Material Support’ Challenge

As I mentioned in passing in my post yesterday, one of the reforms in Russ Feingold’s JUSTICE Act involves tweaking the USA PATRIOT Act’s definition of “material support” for terrorism to ensure that it doesn’t cover things like humanitarian aid or legal assistance. Today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case concerning that very issue:

The key plaintiff in the current appeal is the Humanitarian Law Project, a Los Angeles, California-based non-profit that says its mission is to advocate “for the peaceful resolution of armed conflicts and for worldwide compliance with humanitarian law and human rights law.” HLP sought to help the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group active in Turkey. Known as PKK, the party was founded in the mid-1970s and has been labeled a terror organization by the United States and the European Union. Its leaders have previously called for militancy to create a separate Kurdish state in parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, where Kurds comprise a population majority. […]

Another plaintiff is an American physician who wanted to help ethnic Tamils in his native Sri Lanka. Much of the island nation is controlled by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which has also fought for decades to carve an independent state. The government claims the Tamil Tigers have “used suicide bombings and political assassinations in its campaign for independence, killing hundreds of civilians in the process.”

HLP and a group of Tamil doctors say they merely wanted “to provide their expert medical advice on how to address the shortage of medical facilities and trained physicians” in the region but “they are afraid to do so because they fear prosecution for providing material support.”

A federal appeals court agreed with the groups that the statute as written is unconstitutionally vague; the government wants to preserve the current broad language. Arguments won’t take place until early next year, but if you can’t wait for a preview, check out this exchange between David Cole and Paul Rosenzweig on PATRIOT’s material support provision, part of a highly illuminating series of debates on aspects of the law (as originally written) hosted by the American Bar Association.

The President’s Health Care Tax

As Michael Cannon discussed in an earlier post, the White House is trying to claim that health care “reform” does not mean higher taxes. This is a two-pronged issue. First, there is a mandate to purchase health insurance. Second, there is a tax (the White House calls it a fee) on people who fail to purchase a policy.

The White House claims this mandate is akin to state-level requirements for the purchase of health insurance, and that the newly-insured people will be getting some value (a health insurance policy) in exchange for their money. These assertions are defensible, but that does not change the fact that a tax is being imposed.

It might be plausible to argue that the mandate is not a tax if the value of the insurance policy to the individual was equal to the cost. But since these are people who are not buying policies, their behavior reveals that this obviously cannot be true. So this means that they will be worse off under Obama’s plan and that at least some of the cost should be considered a tax.

The Social Security payroll tax allows a good analogy. Labor economists correctly argue that the payroll tax functions, in part, as a “premium” for what can be considered a government-provided annuity. As such, when we try to measure the disincentive effect of the payroll tax, it is appropriate to include the perceived value of future Social Security benefits (for most Americans, especially with average or above-average incomes, the “rate of return” is very low or negative, so a substantial share of the payroll tax is a tax both in the legal sense and economic-distortion sense). The same is true of a mandatory health insurance policy (even if the money does not go through the government’s hands).

On the broader issue of paying money and getting something of value in return, another analogy is helpful. A share of the gasoline excise tax is used for road construction and maintenance. We all benefit from roads, even if we don’t drive (let’s set aside issues such as whether the benefits equal the costs, whether the federal government should be involved, etc). Does that somehow mean the gasoline excise tax is not a tax? Of course not.

Turning now to the excise tax, the Administration’s argument that this is a fee is even less defensible. The Baucus legislation in the Senate Finance Committee explicitly references an excise tax. Equally revealing (and even more ominous), the IRS is charged with collecting the fee. The White House can argue that the tax - in the economic sense - is lower than the fee if something of value is exchanged. But the tax is still there.

Rather than play games, the White House should make an open argument for bigger government. The fact that the Administration prefers to be deceptive says a lot about the underlying merits of their proposal.

Reform Needed, but Obama Plan Would Result in More Financial Crises, not Less

Today President Obama took his financial reform plan to the airwaves.  While there is no doubt our financial system is in need of financial reform, the President’s plan would make bailouts a permanent feature of the regulatory landscape.  Rather than ending “too big to fail” – the President wants us to believe that with additional discretion and power, the same Federal Reserve that missed the boat last time will save us next time.

The truth is that the President’s plan will result in a small number of companies being viewed by debtholders as “too big to fail”.  These companies would see their funding costs decline, allowing them to gain market-share at the expense of their rivals, making these firms even larger.  Greater concentration in our financial services industry is the last thing we need, yet the Obama plan all but guarantees it.

Obama also chooses myth’s over facts.  The President claims that de-regulation and competition among regulators caused the crisis.  The facts could not be more different.  Those institutions at the center of the crisis – Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman –could not choose their regulator.

The President’s plan chooses convenient targets and protects entrenched interests, rather than address the true underlying causes of the crisis.  At no time have we heard the President discuss the expansionary monetary policies that helped fuel the bubble.  Nor has the President talked about the global imbalances – the global savings glut that poured surplus savings from the rest of the world into the US.  But then the President appears to hope that loose monetary policy and continued American consumption funded by China will get him out of his own political problems with the economy.  It is especially striking that the President makes little mention of the housing bubble, as if it was only the bust that was the problem.

The President continues to say he inherited this crisis.  While true, he did not inherit the same individuals – Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke – who were at the center of creating the crisis.  All Obama needs to do is find a position for Hank Paulson and he will have completely re-assembled the Bush financial team.

Without real reform – fixing Fannie and Freddie, scaling back the massive subsidies for leverage in our tax code, loose monetary policy – it will only be a matter of time before the next crisis hits.  If we implement the President’s plan, we will, however, guarantee that the next crisis will be even larger and severe than the current one.

‘No Child Left a Dime’

That’s my favorite placard from the Washington tea party protests on Saturday. No Child Left a Dime underlines perhaps the central concern of the protesters – the ongoing massive fiscal irresponsibility in Washington by both parties.

We’ve got deficits of more more than $1 trillion for years to come. Federal debt will approach World War Two levels within a decade. Even so, the Democrats are trying to ram through a $1 trillion health care expansion, and the head of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, is defending against any cuts to Medicare, the program that is the single biggest threat to taxpayers. People are marching not just because Obama and the Democrats are scaring their pants off, but because most Republicans in positions of power are spendthrifts as well.

The chart illustrates that no child will be left a dime because the government will have it all. This is the CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario,” which essentially means the business-as-usual scenario if Congress doesn’t cut anything in coming years.

Note that the most rapidly growing box, the white box, is the program that Michael Steele doesn’t want to touch. The program is expected to grow by 6.3 percent of GDP by 2050. In today’s money, 6.3 percent of GDP is about $900 billion a year in added spending. So it’s like Steele doesn’t see anything wrong with tomorrow’s young families forking over an additional $900 billion a year in taxes on this one program, or about $7,700 a year for every American household.

It’s worse than that. The biggest box on the chart by 2050 is interest on the government debt, and by far the biggest contributor to the growth in interest is Medicare. So including interest, Michael Steele’s (ridiculous) Medicare position is sort of like supporting a more than $10,000 tax hike on every young family for this one program.

Come on Republicans, you can do better than that. How about starting simply by proposing some of CBO’s modest and commonsense Medicare reforms like raising deductibles?

(By the way, interest costs rise in coming years because of an excess of spending, not a shortage of revenues. Under this CBO scenario, all current tax cuts are extended, and yet federal revenues still rise as a share of GDP over time above the historical norm of recent decades).

Obama’s Health Care Speech in Plain English

health care addressHell of a speech last night, eh?  Here are a few of my favorite gems.

Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition.

Translation: I, Barack Obama, ignoring thousands of years of failed price-control schemes, will impose price controls on health insurance. I will force insurers to sell a $50k policies for $10k. What could go wrong?

We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month.

True. And your employer mandate would kill hundreds of thousands of low-wage jobs that would never come back.

They will no longer be able to place some arbitrary cap on the amount of coverage you can receive in a given year or a lifetime.   We will place a limit on how much you can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses…. And insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care.

Translation: Boy! Are we going to force you to buy a lot of coverage!

I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need.

…except for the bureaucrats I proposed to put between you and your doctor.

Some… supported a budget that would have essentially turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program. That will never happen on my watch. I will protect Medicare.

Translation: I will never let seniors control their own health care dollars. I will never give up Washington’s control over your health care decisions.  Mmmmuuuuhahahahahaha!

…there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed.

Translation: There are too many lobbyists counting on me to succeed: drug-industry lobbyists, health-insurance lobbyists,  physician-cartel lobbyists, large-employer lobbyists, hospital lobbyists….

It’s a plan that asks everyone to take responsibility for meeting this challenge – not just government and insurance companies, but employers and individuals.

Translation: I’m going to tax the hell out of you, but I don’t want you to notice how much I’m going to tax you. So I’m going to tax employers and insurance companies, and they’re going to pass the taxes on to you. Most of the taxes won’t even show up in the government’s budget. It’s all very clever. No, seriously – just ask my economic advisor Larry Summers.

It’s a plan that incorporates ideas from Senators and Congressmen; from Democrats and Republicans – and yes, from some of my opponents in both the primary and general election.

Translation: I may have savaged your ideas in the past, called them irresponsible…risky…dangerous…whatever. But that wasn’t about principle; I just wanted to become president. Now that I’m president, I need a win. So you’ll help me, won’t you? Hey, where’s Hillary?

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court.  The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign.  Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.

After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand.  They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum.  Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United.  That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.”  The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!

A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case.  It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws.  And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate!  (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)

Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion.  That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech.  Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.”  The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.

One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.”  While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”

Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery).  I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.

Friday Links

  • Nearly 30 European countries have agreed to end their government mail monopolies in the next five years. The U.S. Postal Service has estimated losses of $7 billion this year. It’s time to privatize.