Tag: rule of law

ATF: Laws are for the Little People

That’s the only message I can take away from the ATF proposal to require Federal Firearm License (FFL) holders to report the sale of two or more semiautomatic rifles that accept detachable magazines in states along the border with Mexico. In other words, this is gun control for the sake of Mexico.

Thing is, the proposal breaks the law. The ATF doesn’t have the authority to do this.

As David Hardy notes at Of Arms & the Law:

There are several violations of the Gun Control Act, as amended by the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act. First, 18 USC §926(b) provides “The Attorney General shall give not less than ninety days public notice, and shall afford interested parties opportunity for hearing, before prescribing such rules and regulations.” This is stricter than the Admin Procedure Act’s general provision for a “reasonable” comment period, and it has no emergency exceptions. ATFE is only giving 30 days’ notice.

Second, the FOPA amendments were intended to cut off future requirements of direct reporting – I say future because the existing regs (including reporting of multiple handgun sales were grandfathered in, but limited to those specific requirements. Thus far and no farther.

The ATF’s action provokes a court contest over the limits of the agency’s powers, which are clearly being exceeded. The litigation will provide another opportunity for Hardy’s excellent article about the legislative history of the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act to get cited in federal court.

All of this is unnecessary and lawless. There is a legitimate way for allowing the ATF to take this action: amend the law. Instead the Executive is ruling by regulatory fiat, damaging and degrading the rule of law. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going around these days.

Wikileaks Cable: Martinelli Is a Threat to the Rule of Law in Panama

Last August I warned about the troubling signs coming from Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli. Elected in 2009 on a free market platform, Martinelli has quickly embraced interventionist economic policies (particularly a sharp increase in public spending) that sooner or later will take a toll on Panama’s macroeconomic stability. More worryingly, I pointed at a disturbing pattern of cronyism, erosion of democratic checks and balances, and harassment of the media emanating from the Martinelli administration.

A cable released by Wikileaks this week seems to confirm many of these fears. Dated August 2009 and signed by then U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson, it describes Martinelli’s “autocratic tendencies” such as asking the U.S. government for help to wiretap political opponents—a request that was promptly rejected by the U.S. embassy in Panama. Stephenson goes on to say that, after meeting the Panamanian president, she is under the impression that Martinelli “may be willing to set aside the rule of law in order to achieve his political and developmental goals.”

According to the cable, Martinelli has resorted to “bullying and blackmailing” of private businesses. Stephenson describes how the Panamanian president told her that “he had already met with the heads of Panama’s four mobile phone operators and discussed methods for obtaining call data.” A bill has also been introduced in the National Assembly (where Martinelli’s coalition enjoys a large majority) that would “require registry of prepaid cell phones and compel mobile operators to submit call data to the government for criminal investigations.” Martinelli also told Stephenson that “he had twisted the arms of casino operators and threatened to cancel their concessions if they did not pay their back taxes and cut their ties to the opposition political figures who had granted their generous concessions.”

The cable ends noticing how “[m]ost of [Martinelli’s] government appointments have favored loyalty over competence.” That is, the Martinelli administration is riddled with cronyism– as I wrote back in August.

There is new evidence outside of the Wikileaks cable which confirms Martinelli’s ominous autocratic inclinations. For instance, international media organizations have lambasted the Martinelli administration in recent months for its encroachment on independent media. Reporters Without Borders dropped Panama 30 spots in its latest Press Freedom Index, noticing that the country “has taken an opposite direction, in an atmosphere growing increasingly tense between the media and the authorities.” The Interamerican Press Association says in its most recent report on Panama that “[o]ver the past six months, freedom of the press has been threatened by actions by institutions belonging to the government of President Ricardo Martinelli, as well as from the Judicial Branch and the Prosecutors’ Office.” As I pointed out in my August op-ed, Martinelli has appointed loyal (and controversial) figures to both the Supreme Court and the Prosecutors’ Office.

The diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks as well as these reports by international organizations lend credibility to the argument that Ricardo Martinelli is a growing threat to Panama’s rule of law and democratic institutions. Panamanians have a lot to be worried about.

The Constitutional Vision of The New York Times

The editorialists at the The New York Times are out of sorts this morning over a Tea Party backed constitutional amendment that would give state legislatures the power to veto any federal law or regulation if two-thirds of the legislatures approved. Despite the backing of incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor and legislative leaders in 12 states, the proposal has little chance of succeeding, the Times avers, “but it helps explain further the anger-fueled, myth-based politics of the populist new right.” Indeed, it expresses “with bold simplicity the view of the Tea Party and others that the federal government’s influence is far too broad.”

Well? Isn’t that what the election last month was all about? But right there, for the Times, is the problem: “In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty.” With the Tea Party, however, the tables have turned. What most troubles the Times, it seems, are Tea Party signs that say “We Want Less!”

And nowhere is that better captured than when the Times speaks of “the mistaken vision of federalism on which [this amendment] rests. Its foundation is that the United States defined in the Constitution are a set of decentralized sovereignties where personal responsibility, private property and a laissez-faire economy should reign. In this vision, the federal government is an intrusive parent.”

If that vision is “mistaken,” so too, apparently, were the Founders, because it was their vision as well. To be sure, the Constitution they crafted held “competing elements, some constraining the national government, others energizing it,” as the Times writes. And true also, the government they shaped was meant “to promote economic development that would lift the fortunes of the American people” – but mainly by securing the framework for liberty, the rule of law, not by pursuing prosperity through government programs. In particular, the Framers believed in personal, not government, responsibility; private, not collective, property; and a free, not a planned, economy. And they left most power with the states, where it would be exercised responsibly, or not – something to keep in mind as we watch our “failed states” asking Washington (read, the other states) to bail them out.

Is Congress Above the Law?

The first item on this election campaign’s Contract with America was that, if elected (as they have been), the House Republicans would require that all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply to Congress.  We’ll see if that and the other promised reforms materialize, but it does raise yet another issue in the context of Obamacare.

As my colleague Michael Cannon pointed out to me, the new health care law kicks congressmen out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.  (The current FEHB is no different from the health coverage provided by any private employer -– federal employees choose from a series of private plan options (none of which is run by the government), and receive a subsidy from the federal government acting in its role as an employer.)

My first reaction to hearing this was:  Good – if the rest of us lose our health care freedom, so should those who forced this new atrocity on us.  But apparently this result was not intended, so the Obama administration has decided to ignore that part of the law.

No joke.  Here is the Congressional Research Service report on the provisions that oust members of Congress from their health insurance.  And here is the letter in which an Obama appointee announces that the administration will ignore the law.  These two articles also provide important information.

Now, assuming that something constitutionally problematic is going on here, what can anyone do about it?  To put it in legal terms, who has standing to sue for this apparent constitutional violation?  It’s a tough row to hoe – taxpayers cannot bring suit based on generalized grievances – but off the top of my head, I can think of two possibilities: (1) members of Congress suing the president or the Department of Health and Human Services for essentially passing new law and therefore infringing on congressional prerogatives (thereby violating the separation of powers); or (2) an insurance broker or carrier who would otherwise be signing up new clients.

And there are two additional related questions:

1. Why did Congress expand Medicaid while refusing to participate in it themselves?  Obamacare expanded Medicaid to an estimated 18 million new Americans, none of whom will have a choice of private plans, instead being dumped into Medicaid, a program notorious for access problems (and which in Arizona now doesn’t cover organ transplants).  Yet all Senate Democrats voted against an amendment enrolling members of Congress in the new Medicaid program (all Republicans voted for it, except one who was absent).

2. Will members of Congress use their own salaries to pay any fines assessed because their employees have “unaffordable” health coverage?  Obamacare includes a $2,000 per worker penalty for any employer that does not provide “affordable” coverage, beginning in 2014.  Many junior staffers have incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty level ($43,320 for a single person, or $88,200 for a family of four), and thus could be subject to the new statutory test of whether their health insurance options are “affordable.”  While it’s unclear how this particular provision will be implemented for Hill staff – due to the “significant unintended consequences” of sloppy drafting – it’s entirely possible that member offices could be assessed a $2,000 penalty for every worker needing insurance subsidies because they have no “affordable” alternative.  If that scenario happens, will the members of Congress who voted for the law pay the penalty out of their own salaries or will they rely on taxpayer funds to finance an obligation they imposed on themselves?

Things to Be Thankful For

Not long ago a journalist asked me what freedoms we take for granted in America. Now, I spend most of my time sounding the alarm about the freedoms we’re losing. But this was a good opportunity to step back and consider how America is different from much of world history – and why immigrants still flock here.

If we ask how life in the United States is different from life in most of the history of the world – and still  different from much of the world – a few key elements come to mind.

Rule of law. Perhaps the greatest achievement in history is the subordination of power to law. That is, in modern America we have created structures that limit and control the arbitrary power of government. No longer can one man – a king, a priest, a communist party boss – take another person’s life or property at the ruler’s whim. Citizens can go about their business, generally confident that they won’t be dragged off the streets to disappear forever, and confident that their hard-earned property won’t be confiscated without warning. We may take the rule of law for granted, but immigrants from China, Haiti, Syria, and other parts of the world know how rare it is.

Equality. For most of history people were firmly assigned to a particular status – clergy, nobility, and peasants. Kings and lords and serfs. Brahmans, other castes, and untouchables in India. If your father was a noble or a peasant, so would you be. The American Revolution swept away such distinctions. In America all men were created equal. Thomas Jefferson declared “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” In America some people may be smarter, richer, stronger, or more beautiful than others, but “I’m as good as you” is our national creed. We are all citizens, equal before the law, free to rise as far as our talents will take us.

Equality for women. Throughout much of history women were the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were often barred from owning property, testifying in court, signing contracts, or participating in government. Equality for women took longer than equality for men, but today in America and other civilized parts of the world women have the same legal rights as men.

Self-government. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “governments are instituted” to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that those governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Early governments were often formed in the conquest of one people by another, and the right of the rulers to rule was attributed to God’s will and passed along from father to son. In a few places – Athens, Rome, medieval Germany – there were fitful attempts to create a democratic government. Now, after America’s example, we take it for granted in civilized countries that governments stand or fall on popular consent.

Freedom of speech. In a world of Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, and cable pornography, it’s hard to imagine just how new and how rare free speech is. Lots of people died for the right to say what they believed. In China and Africa and the Arab world, they still do. Fortunately, we’ve realized that while free speech may irritate each of us at some point, we’re all better off for it.

Freedom of religion. Church and state have been bound together since time immemorial. The state claimed divine sanction, the church got money and power, the combination left little room for freedom. As late as the 17th century, Europe was wracked by religious wars. England, Sweden, and other countries still have an established church, though their citizens are free to worship elsewhere. Many people used to think that a country could only survive if everyone worshipped the one true God in the one true way. The American Founders established religious freedom.

Property and contract. We owe our unprecedented standard of living to the capitalist freedoms of private property and free markets. When people are able to own property and make contracts, they create wealth. Free markets and the legal institutions to enforce contracts make possible vast economic undertakings–from the design and construction of airplanes to worldwide computer networks and ATM systems. But to appreciate the benefits of free markets, we don’t have to marvel at skyscrapers while listening to MP3 players. We can just give thanks for enough food to live on, and central heating, and the medical care that has lowered the infant mortality rate from about 20 percent to less than 1 percent.

A Kenyan boy who managed to get to the United States told a reporter for Woman’s World magazine that America is “heaven.” Compared to countries that lack the rule of law, equality, property rights, free markets, and freedom of speech and worship, it certainly is. A good point to keep in mind this Thanksgiving Day.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times in 2004 and was included in my book The Politics of Freedom.

Destroying Evidence = American Hero

That’s what the attorney for former CIA officer Jose Rodriguez is saying about his client. Rodriguez and other CIA personnel destroyed videotapes of detainee interrogations. The Justice Department announced that Rodriguez will not face criminal charges, but did not elaborate on the reasoning behind the decision.

Rodriguez’s decision to get rid of the tapes came after White House lawyers, responding to a court order, instructed the CIA not to destroy any evidence associated with detainee interrogations.

I know that the term “slippery slope” is overused, but it’s clearly evident here. Thwart the rule of law by declaring torture legal, thwart it again to cover up your actions.

And Of Course They Won’t, No Not Until The Next Time

Here is the test of whether we still live in a society governed by the rule of law: Will anyone at the FBI be fired over the latest report out of the Office of the Inspector General?

Let’s review. Earlier this year, a comprehensive OIG report revealed that for years the FBI had ignored the paper-thin procedures demanded by our National Security Letter statutes to obtain sensitive telecommunications records of thousands of Americans, not just without a court order—because apparently we’re fine with that now—but without any kind of legitimate process at all. With nothing more elaborate than a Post-It Note requesting the data. As far as the public record is concerned, nobody has suffered any consequences for this massive abuse of the public trust.

Now we learn that an FBI supervisor, in an exercise of spectacularly poor judgment, sent a rookie out to monitor an antiwar rally—evading the charge of monitoring Americans based exclusively on the basis of First Amendment protected activity only because of the laughable pretext that said rookie was there to eye the crowd for any international terrorists who might be in attendance. Fine.  But when Congress got wind of this and began to inquire into why this had occurred—and why said rookie had filed a report on “antiwar activity” that focused on whether any persons of apparent “Middle Eastern descent” had been involved—the OIG found that someone at the FBI had utterly fabricated a retroactive justification for the investigation, involving dubious “terror suspects” that nobody had actually believed at the time might be present at this rally.

According to the FBI, this fabrication was then offered up by FBI Director Robert Mueller before the Bureau’s overseers in Congress. This leaves us with a limited number of possibilities. One is that the head of the FBI was aware of and welcomed what the OIG determined to be a complete invention designed to cover up for an improper investigation. If that’s what happened, the head of the FBI committed perjury and should be prosecuted for it. But the OIG doesn’t believe that’s how it went, and I’m inclined to believe them: It would be irrational to risk perjuring oneself before the Senate Judiciary Committee over a minor error like this, however foolish.

But then someone gave the FBI director a pack of lies to feed to Congress, and the OIG was inexplicably unable to trace this fabrication to its source—which even allowing for the FBI’s massively dysfunctional computer systems seems implausible. So now we have a pressing question: If we don’t think the head of the FBI decided to lie to Congress, who concocted the lies he told them? Are we to believe that the nation’s top cops are either so inept or so indifferent to the question that they can’t answer it? I suspect they very well could find out if they were so inclined. If they don’t, and if there are no consequences for this clumsy cover-up, why should we believe that congressional oversight of intelligence will ever discover or check abuse of investigative power? The message will be clear: Concoct lies to protect your bosses, and your colleagues will wink at your deception, perhaps grateful for having been spared the obligation of making up their own lies.  One lie out of a hundred might be called out in an OIG report—they only have so much time and so many resources—but even if it is, no harm will come of it. The investigators will be mysteriously unable to identify the liar, and everything will blow over. Why risk telling the truth? The initial fuss will subside, and Americans will soon enough be distracted by the next episode of Jersey Shore.

I think we’ve had quite enough of that.  Someone at the FBI decided that it was a good idea to lie to Congress in order to cover up improper monitoring of an unpopular political group.  In this case, it was pacifists, but who knows who’ll be next. If brazen lies aren’t punished the one case out of a dozen or a hundred that draw the attention of the overseers, why should they ever bother to observe the rules? So watch the Department of Justice.  If someone is fired over this, maybe we still live in a country governed by the rule of law. If not, they’re convinced we’re so dim and besotted by reruns of Friends that they no longer even feel obliged to put up a good show.