Topic: Government and Politics

A Practical (and Semi-Optimistic) Plan to Tame the Federal Leviathan

Like a lot of libertarians and small-government conservatives, I’m prone to pessimism. How can you be cheerful, after all, when you look at what’s been happening in our lifetimes.

New entitlement programs, adopted by politicians from all parties, are further adding to the long-run spending crisis.

The federal budget has become much bigger, luring millions of additional people into government dependency.

The tax code has become even more corrupt and complex, with more than 4,600 changes just between 2001 and 2012 according to a withering report from outgoing Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

And let’s not forget the essential insight of “public choice” economics, which tells us that politicians care first and foremost about their own interests rather than the national interest. So what’s their incentive to address these problems, particularly if there’s some way to sweep them under the rug and let future generations bear the burden?

And if you think I’m being unduly negative about political incentives and fiscal responsibility, consider the new report from the European Commission, which found that politicians from EU member nations routinely enact budgets based on “rosy scenarios.” As the EU Observer reported:

EU governments are too optimistic about their economic prospects and their ability to control public spending, leading to them continually missing their budget targets, a European Commission paper has argued. …their growth projections are 0.6 percent higher than the final figure, while governments who promise to cut their deficit by 0.2 percent of GDP, typically tend to increase their gap between revenue and spending by the same amount.

Needless to say, American politicians do the same thing with their forecasts. If you don’t believe me, just look at the way the books were cooked to help impose Obamacare.

But set aside everything I just wrote because now I’m going to tell you that we’re making progress and that it’s actually not that difficult to constructively address America’s fiscal problems.

First, let’s look at how we’ve made progress. I just wrote a piece for The Hill. It’s entitled “Republicans are Winning the Fiscal Fight” and it includes lots of data on what’s been happening over the past five years, including the fact that there’s been no growth in the federal budget.

Senate Leaders Demand Treasury, HHS Inform Consumers About Risks Of HealthCare.gov Coverage

The Obama administration is boasting that 2.5 million Americans have selected health insurance plans for 2015 through the Exchanges it operates in 36 states under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and that they are well on their way to enrolling 9.1 million Americans in Exchange coverage next year. But there’s a problem. The administration is not warning ObamaCare enrollees about significant risks associated with their coverage. By mid-2015, 5 million HealthCare.gov enrollees could see their tax liabilities increase by thousands of dollars. Their premiums could increase by 300 percent or more. Their health plans could be cancelled without any replacement plans available. Today, the U.S. Senate leadership – incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), Conference Chairman John Thune (R-SD), Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), and Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) – wrote Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell to demand the administration inform consumers about those risks.

First, some background.

  • The PPACA directs states to establish health-insurance Exchanges and requires the federal government to establish Exchanges in states that fail to do so.
  • The statute authorizes subsidies (nominally, “tax credits”) to certain taxpayers who purchase Exchange coverage. Those subsidies transfer much of the cost of ObamaCare’s many regulations and  mandates from the premium payer to the taxpayer. For the average recipient, Exchange subsidies cover 76 percent of their premium.
  • But there’s a catch. The law only authorizes those subsidies “through an Exchange established by the State.” The PPACA nowhere authorizes subsidies through federally established Exchanges. This makes the law’s Exchanges operate like its Medicaid expansion: if states cooperate with implementation, their residents get subsidies; if not, their residents get no subsidies.
  • Confounding expectations, 36 states refused or otherwise failed to establish Exchanges. This should have meant that Exchange subsidies would not be available in two-thirds of the country, and that many more Americans would face the full cost of the PPACA’s very expensive coverage.
  • Yet the Obama administration unilaterally decided to offer Exchange subsidies through federal Exchanges despite the lack of any statutory authorization. Because those (illegal) subsidies trigger (illegal) penalties against both individuals and employers under the PPACA’s mandates, the administration soon found itself in court.
  • Two federal courts have found the subsidies the administration is issuing to 5 million enrollees through HealthCare.gov are illegal. The Supreme Court has agreed to resolve the issue. It has granted certiorari in King v. Burwell. Oral arguments will likely occur in February or March, with a ruling due by June.
  • If the Supreme Court agrees with those lower courts that the subsidies the administration is issuing through HealthCare.gov are illegal, the repercussions for enrollees could be significant. Their subsidies would disappear. The PPACA would require them to repay the IRS whatever subsidies they already received in 2015 and 2014, which could top $10,000 for many enrollees near the poverty level. Their insurance payments would quadruple, on average. Households near the poverty level would see even larger increases. Their plans could be cancelled, and they may not be able to find replacement coverage.
  • The Obama administration knows it is exposing HealthCare.gov enrollees to these risks. But it is not telling them.

Senator Coburn’s Final Report

One the best U.S. senators of recent decades is leaving. No one has spotlighted the ongoing waste in federal spending more than Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. In his farewell address, he advised his colleagues: “Your whole goal is to protect the United States of America, its Constitution and its liberties … it’s not to provide benefits for your state.” As if to underline Coburn’s point, the Washington Post yesterday described how Senator Roger Wicker helped pour $349 million down the drain on an unused NASA facility in his home state of Mississippi.

One of Coburn’s strategies has been to use his expert staff to write investigative reports on federal activities. The huge collection of reports his staff has produced is remarkable. Each one is a big fat indictment of malfunctioning government.

Seeing this stream of high-quality and fun-to-read reports over the years has made wonder what the staffs of the other 99 senators do with their time. Every senator ought to be using his taxpayer-funded staff to try to save taxpayer money. Every senator ought to be digging into the giant $3.6 trillion spending empire that they have collectively created and trying to cut out some of the fat.

Coburn’s final report released last week is another impressive document. Coming in at 320 pages, Tax Decoder digs through the massive federal tax code and highlights hundreds of special deals, carve-outs, and illogical breaks. Tax Decoder’s findings are too voluminous to summarize here, and even seasoned tax wonks will find interesting stuff that they did not know.

Consider the chapter on nonprofit organizations, which spans 42 pages and is buttressed by 462 endnotes. This part of the tax code is a complex mess rife with abuse. Coburn’s staff found that Lady Gaga’s charity raised $2.6 million and handed out just $5,000 one year in benefits, while spending the rest on salaries, promotions, and parties. The Kanye West Foundation spent $572,383 one year, but not a dime on charity.The Cancer Fund for America raised $80 million, but handed out just $890,000 to cancer patients.

While the GAO—an arm of Congress—investigates federal activities, its reports are usually dry and timid. The agency’s role is not to upset its political masters. Similarly, most members of Congress don’t want to upset their colleagues, and so they shy away from criticizing wasteful spending directed to any state, not just their own. It’s easier for them to follow the herd, play the game, grab benefits, and hopefully cruise to safe reelection. Many outside groups and reporters do a great job investigating the government, but senators are in a uniquely powerful and privileged position to lead the charge. 

That’s why Senator Coburn and his staff filled a void with their reports. They uncovered idiocy in the budget, and they informed the public with the juicy details. Many members of Congress say that the government spends too much, but they shy away from specifics. But now that Tom Coburn is going, which members are willing to step up to the plate?   

Congress Sacrifices U.S. Security with New Sanctions Against Russia

In the midst of negotiations to avoid another government shutdown, Congress rammed through new sanctions against Russia as part of the misnamed “Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.”

Congress appears determined to turn an adversary into an enemy and encourage retaliation against more significant American interests. Observed my colleague Emma Ashford: “the provisions in this bill will make it all the more difficult to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis, or to find a way to salvage any form of productive U.S.-Russia relationship.”

Last year, the corrupt but elected Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by protests backed by rabid and sometimes violent nationalists. The United States and Europe flaunted their support for the opposition. Indeed, American officials openly discussed who should take power after his ouster.

Russian President Vladimir Putin still was not justified in dismembering Ukraine, but America would have reacted badly had Moscow helped overthrow a Washington-friendly government in Mexico.

Ukraine’s fate is not a serious security interest for the United States. The conflict raises humanitarian concerns, but no different than those elsewhere around the globe.

Kiev’s status matters more to Europe, largely for economic reasons. If the European Union and its members want to confront Russia over Ukraine, they should do so—without Washington’s involvement.

Are the Baltic Republics Serious about Defense?

News stories in the West contend that Russia’s increasingly aggressive behavior is causing the Baltic states and other NATO members in Eastern Europe to become far more serious about national defense.  There is no doubt that tensions in the region are on the rise, including a surge of  incidents involving NATO intercepts of Russian military aircraft operating over the Baltic Sea.  The new congressional approval of military aid to Ukraine may well increase the already alarming level of animosity between NATO and Russia. 

But the notion that the Baltic republics have embarked on serious programs to boost their defense capabilities in light of Moscow’s menacing behavior is vastly overstated.  The military spending of those three countries has merely moved from minuscule to meager.  Although all NATO members pledged after the Alliance’s summit meeting in 2006 to spend a minimum of two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, few members have actually done so.  Indeed, eight years later, only the United States, Britain, Greece, and Estonia among the 28 member states fulfill that commitment

And Estonia barely met that standard.

All three Baltic governments are going to great lengths to highlight their alleged seriousness about defense, but the actual data fail to support the propaganda.  Amid much fanfare, Estonia plans to boost its military spending from 2.0 percent of GDP to…. wait for it, 2.05 percent!  Lithuania intends to raise its budget next year from 0.89 percent to 1.01 percent.  And Latvian leaders solemnly pledge that their country will spend no less than 1 percent—up from the current 0.91 percent.

Time to Close Thailand’s Camps for Burmese Refugees?

MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, THAILAND—Trees give way to primitive wooden homes in the rolling hills approaching Mae La refugee camp on Thailand’s border with Burma.  The largest camp in Thailand, Mae La, holds 50,000 refugees. 

Three years ago Burma’s ruling generals yielded authority to a nominally civilian leadership and initiated a series of ceasefires with various ethnic groups.  The resulting peace is real but imperfect. 

Today there are as many as 150,000 refugees in ten Thai camps.  Overcrowded Mae La was established three decades ago when many assumed that their stay would be short.

Residents are barred from even leaving the camps without official permission.  Education is difficult.  People’s lives, futures, and dreams are all confined by fences and armed guards.

Perhaps worse, sustenance is provided and work prohibited.  This has discouraged independence, enterprise, and entrepreneurship. 

With the changes in Burma serious discussions about closing the camps have begun.  In July Thailand’s military junta declared its objective to repatriate all refugees by 2015.

Mae La refugees I talked to wanted to return, but worried about security.  NGOs observe that a national political settlement has yet to be implemented.   

KGB’s Old Lubyanka Headquarters Glowers at New Russia

MOSCOW—Red Square is one of the world’s most iconic locales. Even during the worst of the U.S.S.R. the square was more symbolic than threatening. 

Very different, however, is Lubyanka, just a short walk away. 

In the late 19th century 15 insurance companies congregated on Great Lubyanka Street.  The Rossia agency, one of Russia’s largest, completed its office building in 1900. 

But in 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power.  They took the Rossia building for the new secret police, known as the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, or Cheka.

The first Cheka head was Felix Dzerzhinsky.  He conducted the infamous “Red Terror,” what he called a “fight to the finish” against the Bolsheviks’ political opponents. 

After his death in 1926 Grand Lubyanka Street was renamed Dzerzhinsky Street.  A great statue of Dzerzhinsky, weighing 15 tons, was erected in a circle in front of the Cheka headquarters. 

After the KGB was dissolved the building went to the Border Guard Service, later absorbed by the Federal Security Service (FSB), responsible for foreign intelligence. Today Lubyanka looks non-threatening, a yellowish color and architectural style less severe than the harshly grandiose Stalinist architecture seen throughout the city.

The KGB faced its greatest challenge in the Gorbachev era.  Demands for reform raced beyond Mikhail Gorbachev’s and the KGB’s control.  In August 1991 KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov helped plan the coup against Gorbachev. 

After the coup’s collapse a crowd gathered in front of Lubyanka and attempted to pull down the Dzerzhinsky monument.  City officials used a crane to finish the job.

Journalist Yevgenia Albats wrote:  “If either Gorbachev or [Boris] Yeltsin had been bold enough to dismantle the KGB during the autumn of 1991, he would have met little resistance.”  However, these two reformers attempted to fix rather than eliminate the agency.

And the KGB effectively ended up taking over Russia.  Yeltsin named Chekists, or members of the “siloviki” (or power agents), to important government positions, most importantly Vladimir Putin, who headed the FSB and then became prime minister—and Yeltsin’s successor as president when the latter resigned.

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