Tag: Senate

A Chance to Fix the PATRIOT Act?

As Tim Lynch noted earlier this week, Barack Obama’s justice department has come out in favor of renewing three controversial PATRIOT Act provisions—on face another in a train of disappointments for anyone who’d hoped some of those broad executive branch surveillance powers might depart with the Bush administration.

But there is a potential silver lining: In the letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) making the case for renewal, the Justice Department also declares its openness to “modifications” of those provisions designed to provide checks and balances, provided they don’t undermine investigations. While the popular press has always framed the fight as being “supporters” and “opponents” of the PATRIOT Act, the problem with many of the law’s provisions is not that the powers they grant are inherently awful, but that they lack necessary constraints and oversight mechanisms.

Consider the much-contested “roving wiretap” provision allowing warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to cover all the communications devices a target might use without specifying the facilities to be monitored in advance—at least in cases where there are specific facts supporting the belief that a target is likely to take measures to thwart traditional surveillance. The objection to this provision is not that intelligence officers should never be allowed to obtain roving warrants, which also exist in the law governing ordinary law enforcement wiretaps. The issue is that FISA is fairly loosey-goosey about the specification of “targets”—they can be described rather than identified. That flexibility may make some sense in the foreign intel context, but when you combine it with similar flexibility in the specification of the facility to be monitored, you get something that looks a heck of a lot like a general warrant. It’s one thing to say “we have evidence this particular phone line and e-mail account are being used by terrorists, though we don’t know who they are” or “we have evidence this person is a terrorist, but he keeps changing phones.” It’s another—and should not be possible—to mock traditional particularity requirements by obtaining a warrant to tap someone on some line, to be determined. FISA warrants should “rove” over persons or facilities, but never both.

The DOJ letter describes the so-called “Lone Wolf” amendment to FISA as simply allowing surveillance of targets who are agents of foreign powers without having identified which foreign power (i.e. which particular terrorist group) they’re working for. They say they’ve never invoked this ability, but want to keep it in reserve. If that description were accurate, I’d say let them. But as currently written, the “lone wolf” language potentially covers people who are really conventional domestic threats with only the most tenuous international ties—the DOJ letter alludes to people who “self-radicalize” by reading online propaganda, but are not actually agents of a foreign group at all.

Finally, there’s the “business records” provision, which actually covers the seizure of any “tangible thing.”  The problems with this one probably deserve their own post, and ideally you’d just go through the ordinary warrant procedure for this. But at the very, very least there should be some more specific nexus to a particular foreign target than “relevance” to a ongoing investigation before an order issues. The gag orders that automatically accompany these document requests also require more robust judicial scrutiny.

Some of these fixes—and quite a few other salutary reforms besides—appear to be part of the JUSTICE Act which I see that Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced earlier this afternoon.  I’ll take a closer look at the provisions of that bill in a post tomorrow.

Czar of All the Americans

Anger about Obama’s many “czars” is rising, reports the Washington Post:

On paper, they are special advisers, chairmen of White House boards, special envoys and Cabinet agency deputies, asked by the president to guide high-priority initiatives. But critics call them “czars” whose powers are not subject to congressional oversight, and their increasing numbers have become a flash point for conservative anger at President Obama.

Critics of the proliferation of czars say the White House uses the appointments to circumvent the normal vetting process required for Senate confirmation and to avoid congressional oversight.

I have tended not to take concern over “czars” very seriously. After all, advisers to the president can’t exercise any power that the president doesn’t have (or assume without response from Congress or the courts). And I figured the White House doesn’t call people “czars,” that’s just a media term, so it’s not really fair to blame the White House for what reporters say.

But then, thanks to crack Cato intern Miles Pope, I discovered that the White House does call its czars czars, at least informally. A few examples:

In an interview on April 15, 2009 Obama said, “The goal of the border czar is to help coordinate all the various agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security…”

In a March 11, 2009, briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs turned to “address the czar question for a minute, because I think I’ve been asked in this room any number of times if the czars in our White House to deal with energy and health care had too much power.”

On March 11, 2009 Vice President Biden said, “Today I’m pleased to announce that President Obama has nominated as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy – our nation’s drug czar – Gil Kerlikowske…”

More examples here.

So they do like czar imagery. So have at them, critics.

And while I said that the advisers have no real power, there’s at least one who does – a real czar – the “pay czar,” Kenneth Feinberg. He “has sole discretion to set compensation for the top 25 employees” of large companies receiving bailouts, and his “decisions won’t be subject to appeal.” Now that’s a czar.

New Senate Agriculture Committee Head Received Farm Subsidies

In his blog post yesterday — appropriately entitled “Congressional Conflict of Interest“ — my colleague Chris Edwards questioned the selection of Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) to head the Senate Agriculture Committee:

Lincoln has been “a tireless advocate for the Arkansas rice industry’ and a ‘champion for agriculture.” You can see what 20 or so other agriculture lobby groups say about Lincoln here. These are very laudatory remarks, but what about the taxpayers? What do taxpayers think about her support for the $20 billion or so in annual giveaways to farmers?

I wonder what taxpayers think about the fact that Senator Lincoln and her family have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in farm subsidies?

From a 2007 USA Today article:

Members of Congress must report sources of income totaling more than $200, but most get payments through partnerships or other entities, so it can be difficult to learn which ones receive the subsidies. Recipients are searchable by name on www.ewg.org, but, for example, payments to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., are listed under her maiden name, Lambert, at a Virginia address near Washington.  Records show Lincoln and her family members collected $715,000 from 1995-2005, the most recent year complete data are available. She said she personally received less than $10,000 a year, and the subsidies ended in 2005 when her land was sold.

Let’s say I force a stranger under threat of imprisonment or violence to part with part of his or her paycheck, and proceed to give that money to a friend.  I would rightly be labeled a thief or worse.  Suppose I not only gave the money to my friend, but kept a cut for me and my family.  That would be even worse.

But when politicians do it we call them “public servants”?

A Harsh Climate for Trade

Although it has very much taken a back-seat to health care, and a press report [$] today say it could be bumped down yet another notch on the administration’s hierarchy of goals, climate change is shaping up to be a major battle if the others don’t prove to be prohibitively exhausting. So today I am weighing in on the debate by releasing my new paper on the dangers of using trade measures as a tool of climate policy.

The Democrats were keen to pass a climate change bill in advance of the December meeting in Copenhagen designed to agree on a successor regime to the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012.  However, opposition from a number of quarters and the fear of health-care-town-halls-mark-II has cooled their heels. Senate leaders have pushed back the deadline for passing bills out of committees a number of times.

The reason why climate change legislation has become so controversial is that businesses and consumers are, quite understandably, fearful about any policies that threaten to increase their costs. I’ll leave it to others to blog about the effect of emissions-reductions policies on jobs and profits, but even the fear of losses has led to calls for special deals for “vulnerable industries”, in the form of free emission permits and/or protection from imports that are sourced from countries that purportedly take insufficient steps to limit emissions.

H.R. 2454, the so called Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House in June, contains both free permits and provisions for carbon tariffs. I’ve blogged before about the efforts of trade-skeptic senators to introduce the same kinds of protections in the senate bill. To that end, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D, OH) is reportedly meeting with Sen. Barbara Boxer, Chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next week about trade protections for manufacturing industries.  As my paper makes clear, I think these efforts are misguidedly ineffective at best, and harmful at worst.

I’m looking forward to discussing these issues in more detail tomorrow at a Hill briefing in Washington DC. Registration for the event was closed very early because of overwhelming demand, but you can watch the event when the video becomes available on the Cato website.

Then Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

According to CNS News:

In a sign that intra-party negotiations continue to drag on, [House Democratic Majority Leader Steny] Hoyer [MD] declared that no single provision was sacred, not even President Obama’s coveted government-run “public option” plan.

“I want to see the Senate give its proposal so that in September we can contribute to having a conference that’s productive and results in health care reform,” said Hoyer. “I don’t think there’s any specific item that is absolutely essential to reform.”

You can say that again.

Senate Votes to End Production of F-22 Raptor

As I have written previously, President Obama and the members of Congress who voted to kill funding for the F-22 did the right thing.

The Washington Post reports:

The Senate voted Tuesday to kill the nation’s premier fighter-jet program, embracing by a 58 to 40 margin the argument of President Obama and his top military advisers that more F-22s are not needed for the nation’s defense and would be a costly drag on the Pentagon’s budget in an era of small wars and counterinsurgency efforts.

While this vote marks a step in the right direction, the fight isn’t over. The F-22’s supporters in the House inserted additional monies in the defense authorization bill, and the differences will need to be reconciled in conference. But the vote for the Levin-McCain amendment signals that Congress will take seriously President Obama and Secretary Gates’ intent to bring some measure of rationality to defense budgeting.

The Raptor’s whopping price tag— nearly $350 million per aircraft counting costs over the life of the program— and its poor air-to-ground capabilities always undermined the case for building more than the 187 already programmed.

In the past week, Congress has learned more about the F-22’s poor maintenance record, which has driven the operating costs well above those of any comparable fighter. And, of course, the plane hasn’t seen action over either Iraq or Afghanistan, and likely never will.

Beyond the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, we need a renewed emphasis in military procurement on cost containment. This can only occur within an environment of shrinking defense budgets. Defense contractors who are best able to meet stringent cost and quality standards will win the privilege of providing our military with the necessary tools, but at far less expense to the taxpayers. And those who cannot will have to find other business.