Topic: Government and Politics

Loretta Lynch’s Worrisome Answer on Civil Asset Forfeiture

Referring to the federal government’s forfeiture regime as “an important tool” in fighting crime, attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch staunchly defended the concept of civil asset forfeiture during the first day of her confirmation hearings.

After Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) questioned the “fundamental fairness” of Americans having their property taken by the government without any proof (or often even suspicion) of criminal wrongdoing, Lynch asserted that there are “safeguards at every step of the process” to protect innocent people, “certainly implemented by [her] office … as well as an opportunity to be heard.”

Even setting aside the litany of federal civil asset forfeiture abuses that have come to light recently across the country, Lynch’s reference to her own office’s handling of civil forfeiture is particularly concerning.

Lynch is currently the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and her office, despite its safeguards, is responsible for one of the more publicized and questionable uses of the asset forfeiture program.  In May of 2012 the Hirsch brothers, joint owners of Bi-County Distributors in Long Island, had their entire bank account drained by the Internal Revenue Service working in conjunction with Lynch’s office. Many of Bi-County’s customers paid in cash, and when the brothers made several deposits under $10,000, federal agents accused them of “structuring” their deposits in order to avoid the reporting requirements of the Bank Secrecy Act. Without so much as a criminal charge, the federal government emptied the account, totaling $446,651.11.

For more than two years, and in defiance of the 60-day deadline for the initiation of proceedings included in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000, Lynch’s office simply sat on the money while the Hirsch brothers survived off the goodwill their business had engendered with its vendors over the decades.

The Oil Price Plunge Won’t Cause Russia or Iran to Capitulate

The recent dramatic drop in global oil prices has significant geopolitical as well as economic implications.  Consumers in the United States and other countries enjoy substantial savings, while marginal producers, both here and abroad, find their profit margins severely squeezed.  As I discuss in an article at Aspenia Online, some of the oil-producing states that have been especially hard hit include Russia, Venezuela, and Iran.  All of those countries are governed by regimes that are on bad terms with the United States, so there is a temptation among American political leaders and pundits to relish the current discomfort of those governments.

Greater restraint is warranted.  The geopolitical benefits to the United States from the current depressed pricing environment are not trivial.  Increased economic constraints appear to be one factor making Iran’s clerical regime more willing to negotiate seriously about that country’s nuclear program.  Venezuela’s already substantial financial woes, caused by the leftist government’s chronic economic mismanagement since the late 1990s, has made that country a less appealing political model for the rest of Latin America.  Washington’s worries about a leftist “Bolivarian” revolution sweeping the region, which were prominent just a few years ago, have faded considerably.

The Obama administration is especially pleased about how lower oil prices are putting pressure on Vladimir Putin’s government.  Although Western economic sanctions, imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, account for some of the country’s distress, the precipitous drop in oil prices (with Brent crude now selling for well under $50 per barrel) is a more important factor.  Not only has the value of the Ruble shrunk by more than 50 percent, the Russian government faces a budgetary squeeze verging on a crisis.  U.S. officials hope that the growing financial and economic discomfort will compel Putin to make major foreign policy concessions.

Pentagon Spending and Bureaucratic Bloat

There are major spending battles on the Washington agenda this year, including over the defense budget. Congress needs to decide whether to stick with capped spending levels agreed to in 2011, or allow its past restraint efforts to unravel.

Republican defense hawks want to bust the spending caps, while the small-government wing of the party wants to hold the line. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) told the Wall Street Journal, “We’ve been spending too much on defense for years because we have a lot of waste within the Department of Defense … There’s room to cut, and I think we are perfectly capable of staying within the sequester caps.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) noted, “To defend ourselves, we need a lean, mean fighting machine that doesn’t waste money on a bloated civilian bureaucracy.”

Amash and Paul’s position is buttressed by a new GAO study on the management bloat in Department of Defense (DoD) headquarters.

It is also buttressed by looking at DoD civilian and uniformed employment levels. The chart below shows that civilian DoD employment has grown 105,000 since 2001, while uniformed employment has grown just 22,000. Based on numbers in the chart, the ratio of bureaucrats-to-soldiers has increased from 47 percent in 2001 to 54 percent in 2014. But with the advance of computer power and other technologies, one would think that the bureaucratic overhead costs of our fighting force would be falling over time, not increasing.

How much could we save by improving bureaucratic efficiencies, and cutting the number of Pentagon civilians by at least the apparent excess of about 100,000? Annual pay and benefits for federal civilians is about $120,000 a year, so we could save roughly $12 billion a year by trimming this aspect of Pentagon bloat.

All data from the “Analytical Perspectives” sections of the FY2003 and FY2015 federal budgets. Data for 2014 are OMB estimates.

Ukraine’s Fight With Russia Isn’t America’s Business

Ukraine’s military has lost control of the Donetsk airport and the rebels have launched another offensive. Fortune could yet smile upon Kiev, but as long as Russia is determined not to let the separatists fail, Ukraine’s efforts likely will be for naught.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Only a negotiated settlement, no matter how unsatisfying, offers a possible resolution of the conflict. The alternative may be the collapse of the Ukrainian state and long-term confrontation between the West and Russia.”

Ukraine’s most fervent advocates assume anyone not ready to commit self-immolation on Kiev’s behalf must be a Russian agent. However, there are numerous good reasons for Washington to avoid the fight.

1) Russia isn’t Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya.

While the Obama administration has resisted proposals for military confrontation with Moscow, a gaggle of ivory tower warriors has pushed to arm Ukraine, bring Kiev into NATO, and station U.S. men and planes in Ukraine. These steps could lead to war.

Americans have come to expect easy victories. However, Russia would be no pushover. In particular, Moscow has a full range of nuclear weapons, which it could use to respond to allied conventional superiority.

2) Moscow has more at stake than the West in Ukraine.

Ukraine matters far more to Moscow than to Washington. Thus, the former will devote far greater resources and take far greater risks than will the allies. The Putin government already has accepted financial losses, economic isolation, human casualties, and political hostility.

Employers Aren’t Mind-Readers and Shouldn’t Be Forced to Pry Into Employees’ Religious Beliefs

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws against employment discrimination. Along with enforcing these laws—most notably, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin—the EEOC tells employers how not to discriminate. For example, the EEOC’s Best Practices for Eradicating Religious Discrimination in the Workplace instructs that an employer should “avoid assumptions or stereotypes about what constitutes a religious belief” and that managers “should be trained not to engage in stereotyping based on religious dress and grooming practices.” 

It’s passing strange, then, that the government is now arguing before the Supreme Court not only that employers can do these things, but that they must, or face liability under Title VII, in the context of reasonable accommodations that companies have to make for religious practice. Discerning when such accommodations are necessary can be difficult because people practice religion differently—and often in their own personal, non-obvious way. 

Title VII has thus traditionally been understood to leave it to the employee to determine when a company policy conflicts with his or her religious practice and then to request an accommodation. This interpretation leaves employers free to pursue neutral policies up to the point that they have actual knowledge of such a conflict. 

In the last several years, however, the EEOC has apparently taken the position that employers must pry into their employees’ religious practices whenever they have an inkling of suspicion that an accommodation may be needed. Abercrombie & Fitch is one company that has found out just how impossible a situation this puts employers into. When Abercrombie decided not to hire Samantha Elauf as a sales associate based on her violation of the company’s “Look Policy”—a branding guide that, among other things, prohibits the wearing of clothing generally not sold by the store, like Elauf’s black headscarf—the company found itself on the wrong end of a government lawsuit. 

A federal district court ruled for the EEOC even though Elauf never informed them that she would need a religious accommodation.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that an employer must actually know about a religious practice before it can be held liable for discriminating on that basis. The Supreme Court took the case at the EEOC’s request and Cato has now filed a brief in support of Abercrombie. 

We argue that employers must have actual knowledge of the potential need for a religious accommodation before they can be held liable for violating Title VII because the EEOC hasn’t offered any coherent alternative and because employers already know how to use this tried-and-true actual-knowledge standard. In addition, the burden of identifying the need for accommodations has to be on the employee because, after all, it’s their religion, and thus they are in a significantly better position to identify conflicts than employers—who aren’t mind-readers and shouldn’t have to rely on crude stereotypes or pry into employees’ personal lives. 

An opposite rule would create an awkward and uncomfortable scenario all-around. The EEOC’s position is short-sighted; if the agency somehow prevails, it will have done what federal agencies do best: turn minimal burdens for some people into heavy burdens for everyone.

The Supreme Court will hear argument in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. on February 25.

Greeks Vote Against Euro and For Democracy

Greece’s parliamentary elections could reshape Europe. In voting for the radical left the Greek people have reinvigorated home rule and democracy across the continent.

Greece has been in economic crisis seemingly for eternity. Even in the Euro the system could not generate the growth necessary to repay the debt:  the economy was hamstrung by enervating work rules, corrupting political influences, profiteering economic cartels, and debilitating cultural norms.

The inevitable crisis hit in 2009. Athens couldn’t make debt payments or borrow at affordable rates. Nor could Greece devalue its currency to make its products more competitive. The European “Troika” (European Central Bank, European Commission, and International Monetary Fund) developed a painful rescue plan.

Syriza, meaning Coalition of the Radical Left, arose to challenge the two establishment parties. Headed by Alexis Tsipras, Syriza won 36.2 percent and 149 seats, two short of a majority, on Sunday.

Syriza offered dreamy unreality:  free health care and electricity along with food subsidies, pension increases, salary hikes, and more public sector jobs. Billions in new revenue is to magically appear.

Taxing Us to Spy on Us

Reading some Frederic Bastiat last night, I circled his observation that the government takes advantage of citizen passivity to increase its power, often by promising to “cure all the ills of mankind.” The government initiates “in the guise of actual services, what are nothing but restrictions; thereafter the nation pays, not for being served, but for being disserved.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that we pay our hard-earned tax dollars for the federal government to spy on us on the highways. Americans might think they are footing the $29 billion annual bill for the Department of Justice to secure our freedoms, but instead the department is abusing those freedoms:

The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.

The database raises new questions about privacy and the scope of government surveillance. The existence of the program and its expansion were described in interviews with current and former government officials, and in documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act request and reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. It is unclear if any court oversees or approves the intelligence-gathering.

The documents show that the DEA also uses license-plate readers operated by state, local and federal law-enforcement agencies to feed into its own network and create a far-reaching, constantly updating database of electronic eyes scanning traffic on the roads to steer police toward suspects.

“Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions,’’ said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. “It’s unconscionable that technology with such far-reaching potential would be deployed in such secrecy. People might disagree about exactly how we should use such powerful surveillance technologies, but it should be democratically decided, it shouldn’t be done in secret.’’

The disclosure of the DEA’s license-plate reader database comes on the heels of other revelations in recent months about the Justice Department, as well as the agencies it runs, gathering data about innocent Americans as it searches for criminals. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Marshals Service flies planes carrying devices that mimic cellphone towers in order to scan the identifying information of Americans’ phones as it searches for criminal suspects and fugitives.

Why do government officials try to keep such programs secret? I suspect it’s because they know they are disserving us by undermining our liberties. As for members of Congress, they often do little more than say government spying on us “raises concerns,” but the license plate program is a good opportunity for them to stand up to the executive branch and put a stop to it.

Notes:

The Journal’s report is not an entirely new revelation. In this essay, I mentioned that the Department of Homeland Security also has a license plate spying program.

Walter Olson weighs-in here.

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