Topic: Government and Politics

Lessig Strains to Compare His Campaign to Eugene McCarthy’s

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig is running for President on the single issue of adding restrictions to certain electoral speech. In his announcement video, he points to Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 run for the White House. He says in that video:

In 1967 Democratic Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the primary here in New Hampshire to challenge his own party’s sitting president because he feared the most important moral issue of the time, the Vietnam War, was going to be invisible in that election. In four months McCarthy went from almost nothing in the polls to almost beating Lyndon Johnson in the primary and the one issue that no one wanted to talk about became the one issue that no one could ignore.

It seems clear that Lessig intends to set up a parallel between Vietnam and America’s insufficiently regimented electoral system. There’s just one problem with pointing to McCarthy in this case: Eugene McCarthy was able to make that historic primary campaign about Vietnam because a few rich anti-war guys gave his campaign massive direct contributions, something Lessig strongly opposes.

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast (Subscribe: iTunes/RSS/CatoAudio for iOS), I talk to John Samples about the facts of McCarthy’s candidacy and why Lessig’s example doesn’t hold up. We also discuss Stewart Mott, one of McCarthy’s financial backers, and his appreciation for less-than-fully-fettered political speech.

Does Donald Trump Think Washington Politicians Should Have More of Our Money to Prop Up the Entitlement State?

I have a very straightforward rule when assessing politicians. Simply stated, if they are open to tax hikes, then it’s quite likely that they have no desire to control the size, cost, and power of the federal government.

Based on that rule, I’m skeptical about Donald Trump.

To understand my doubts, here are some passages from a story on the topic in the New York Times.

For years, Republicans have run for office on promises of cutting taxes… But this election cycle, the Republican presidential candidate who currently leads in most polls is taking a different approach… Mr. Trump has…suggested he would increase taxes on the compensation of hedge fund managers. And he has vowed to change laws that allow American companies to benefit from cheaper tax rates by using mergers to base their operations outside the United States.

These policy positions are raising a lot of eyebrows.

“All of those are anti-growth policies,” said David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth… “Those aren’t the types of things a typical Republican candidate would say,” said Michael R. Strain, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, referring to the candidate’s comments on hedge funds, support for entitlement spending and the imposing of trade tariffs.

And Trump’s failure to sign the no-tax-hike pledge exacerbates the concerns, particularly when combined with his inconsistent statements on tax reform.

Mr. Trump and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida are the only leading Republican candidates who have not signed a pledge to not raise taxes. …In an interview with Fox News last week, Mr. Trump said a flat tax would be a viable improvement to America’s tax system. Moments later, he suggested that a flat tax would be unfair because the rich would be taxed at the same rate as the poor.

Byron York of the Washington Examiner writes about Trump’s fiscal policy in the context of traditional Republican orthodoxy.

Trump is preparing a tax proposal that will again set him far apart from the party’s powers-that-be. …Trump has been sending signals that his tax proposal, which he says will be “comprehensive,” will include higher rates for some of the richest Americans, a position generally at odds with Republican orthodoxy. “I want to see lower taxes,” Trump said at an appearance in Norwood, Mass., on Friday night. “But on some people, they’re not doing their fair share.”

And if his campaign manager is accurately channeling Trump’s views, the candidate even equates higher taxes with making America great.

Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski would say little about Trump’s intentions, but noted that “Mr. Trump has said that he does not mind paying what is required to make our country great again.” Raising taxes on anyone, even the super rich, has generally been anathema to Republicans for a generation.

Wow, what’s next, a Biden-esque assertion that higher tax payments are patriotic?!?

The Right to Anonymous Speech and Association

Since the Enlightenment, anonymous speech has been an integral component of social change, exemplified by Cato’s Letters, the Federalist Papers, and indeed the Anti-Federalist Papers. Accordingly, the Constitution provides a wide berth for the proper “breathing space” that “First Amendment freedoms need … to survive,” NAACP v. Button (1963), by protecting anonymous-speech rights and requiring judges to be skeptical regarding laws that compel disclosure of identifying information.

California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, has broken with this tradition in demanding that the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP), an educational foundation and public-interest law firm specializing in the First Amendment and political law, disclose its principal donors to the state. The federal district court determined that the demand for this information in the name of “investigative efficiency” was a valid use of state power, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that ruling. Importantly, this rule applies to all nonprofit organizations soliciting donations or otherwise operating in California, so the associational chill reaches into the ability of every nonprofit to exist in California while preserving privacy through anonymity.

Cato, joined by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has filed a brief supporting CCP’s request that the Supreme Court review the case. The Ninth Circuit failed to give proper solicitude to CCP’s constitutional rights here by not applying what lawyers call “heightened scrutiny” at each turn of its analysis. Instead, the lower court applied a party-specific, “as-applied” exception to the general rule that’s only relevant if the compelled disclosure has already survived a broader, “facial” challenge—and it collapsed the clear distinction between the importance of the government interest in disclosure and the extent of the nexus between the disclosure and the asserted interest.

Turbulence Ahead: Domestic Drone Debate Intensifies

National Journal has a new piece out today that highlights the continuing controversy over the Federal Aviation Administration’s failure thus far to publish a final rule governing the operation of drones in domestic airspace (FAA’s current unmanned aerial system (UAS) guidance can be found here). One thing the FAA will not be doing is wading into the commercial sector privacy debate over drones; it has punted that issue to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But what about federal agencies and their use of UASs?

Federal domestic UAS use has a checkered history.

In December 2014, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General issued a report blasting the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) drone program as waste:

  • The unmanned aircraft did not meeting the CBP Office of Air and Marine (OAM) goal of being airborne 16 hours a day, every day of the year; in FY 2013, the aircraft were airborne 22 percent of the anticipated number of hours.
  • Compared to CBP’s total number of apprehensions, OAM attributed relatively few to unmanned aircraft operations.
  • OAM could not demonstrate that the unmanned aircraft have reduced the cost of border surveillance.
  • OAM expected the unmanned aircraft would be able to respond to motion sensor alerts and thus reduce the need for USBP response, but the IG found few instances of this having occurred.

On Health Care, Walker and Rubio Offer ObamaCare-Lite

In today’s Manchester Union-Leader, I explain the eerie resemblance that the health care plans advanced by presidential candidates Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) bear to ObamaCare:

The centerpiece of both “replace” plans is a refundable tax credit for health insurance. Yet such tax credits already exist, in Obamacare. Also like Obamacare, the Walker/Rubio tax credits would allow Washington to decide how much coverage you purchase, penalize you if you don’t buy that government-defined plan, and conceal massive redistribution of income under the rubric of tax cuts…

How would Walker and Rubio pay for their new spending? Would they keep Obamacare’s tax increases? Raise taxes elsewhere? Would they finance new health care spending by cutting existing health care programs? If so, chalk up yet another way their plans would resemble Obamacare.

I also provide an alternative for reformers who actually want better, more affordable, more secure health care.

Conservatives can offer a better “replace” plan that is politically feasible by expanding a bedrock conservative initiative: health savings accounts, or HSAs, which have already enabled 14.5 million Americans to save more than $28.4 billion for their medical expenses tax-free.

Expanding HSAs would give workers a $9 trillion effective tax cut, without cutting spending or increasing the deficit, and would drastically reduce government control over Americans’ health decisions. Most important, “large” HSAs would spur innovations that make health care better, cheaper, and more secure — particularly for the most vulnerable.

Conservatives need to get this right, lest they repeat the same mistake they made in 1993-94.

For decades, prominent conservatives advocated an individual mandate. The left then picked up the idea and gave us Obamacare. Before they once again fall into the same trap, conservatives should drop any support for the implicit mandate of health-insurance tax credits. Expanding HSAs is more compassionate and provides a direct route toward freedom and better health care.

For more on Large HSAs, see here, here, and here.

Federal Nuclear Clean Up: $150 Billion

Cleaning up the government’s nuclear weapons sites has become a vast sinkhole for taxpayer dollars. The Department of Energy (DOE) spends about $6 billion a year on environmental clean up of federal nuclear sites. These sites were despoiled in the decades following World War II with little notice taken by Congress. Then during the 1980s, a series of reports lambasted DOE for its lax safety and environmental standards, and federal polices began to change.

Since 1990, federal taxpayers have paid more than $150 billion to clean up the mess from the government’s nuclear sites, based on my calculations. Unfortunately, many more billions will be likely needed in coming years, partly because DOE management continues to be so poor.

A 2003 GAO report (GAO-03-593) found that “DOE’s past efforts to treat and dispose of high-level waste have been plagued with false starts and failures.” And a 2008 GAO report (GAO-08-1081) found that 9 out of 10 major clean up projects “experienced cost increases and schedule delays in their life cycle baseline, ranging from $139 million for one project to more than $9 billion for another.”

The largest of the nuclear clean up sites is Hanford in Washington State. One facility at the site has ballooned in cost from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $13.4 billion today (GAO-13-38). Overall, $19 billion has been spent cleaning up the Hanford site since 1989, and the effort continues to face huge problems (GAO-15-354).

The Washington Post reported yesterday:

A nearly completed government facility intended to treat the radioactive byproducts of nuclear weapons production is riddled with design flaws that could put the entire operation at risk of failure, according to a leaked internal report.

A technical review of the treatment plant on the grounds of the former Hanford nuclear site identified hundreds of “design vulnerabilities” and other weaknesses, some serious enough to lead to spills of radioactive material.

The draft report is the latest in a series of blows to the clean-up effort at Hanford, the once-secret government reservation in eastern Washington state where much of the nation’s plutonium stockpile originated. Engineers have struggled for years to come up with a safe method for disposing of Hanford’s millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste, much of which is stored in leaky underground tanks.

Obviously this is a complex task, but a former Clinton administration DOE official told the newspaper that DOE:

“has proven to be incapable of managing a project of this magnitude and importance,” Alvarez said. “The agency has shown a long-standing intolerance for whistleblowers while conducting faith-based management of its contractors regardless of poor performance. This has bred a culture in which no safety misdeed goes unrewarded.”

Solyndra: A Case Study in Green Energy, Cronyism, and the Failure of Central Planning

Back in 2011 I wrote several times about the failure of Solyndra, the solar panel company that was well connected to the Obama administration. Then, as with so many stories, the topic passed out of the headlines and I lost touch with it. Today, the Washington Post and other papers bring news of a newly released federal investigative report:

Top leaders of a troubled solar panel company that cost taxpayers a half-billion dollars repeatedly misled federal officials and omitted information about the firm’s financial prospects as they sought to win a major government loan, according to a newly-released federal investigative report.

Solyndra’s leaders engaged in a “pattern of false and misleading assertions” that drew a rosy picture of their company enjoying robust sales while they lobbied to win the first clean energy loan the new administration awarded in 2009, a lengthy investigation uncovered. The Silicon Valley start-up’s dramatic rise and then collapse into bankruptcy two years later became a rallying cry for critics of President Obama’s signature program to create jobs by injecting billions of dollars into clean energy firms.

And why would it become such a rallying cry for critics? Well, consider the hyperlink the Post inserted at that point in the article: “[Past coverage: Solyndra: Politics infused Obama energy programs]” And what did that article report?