Topic: Government and Politics

They’re Not Making Jeff Smiths Like They Used To

Movie poster

For generations of Americans, “Jefferson Smith” was the archetype of the honest, hard-working man of the people who gets into politics to serve the public interest and stands up to powerful interests. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential movie about a corrupt system that can be toppled by a single man of integrity. So maybe it’s no surprise that there seem to be a lot of Jeff Smiths getting into politics. What better name to inspire confidence?

Unfortunately, Sen. Jeff Smith of some unnamed Western state would be mighty embarrassed by some of the Jeff Smiths who have come along in his wake.

Today in Washington, D.C., former city council candidate Jeff Smith was sentenced to 60 days in jail for accepting illegal campaign funds and making false reports to the city’s campaign finance office. Like D.C. mayor Vincent Gray, Smith was essentially accused of benefiting from an illegal shadow campaign run by a major donor who makes his money from city contracts.

Today’s Jeff Smith story reminded me of one from a few years ago. As Jason Zengerle reported in the New Republic, Missouri state senator Jeff Smith “was the brightest young star in the Missouri Democratic Party. Thanks to an award-winning documentary about him, he was also a national political figure—a crusading reformer whose combination of charisma, idealism, and intelligence prompted comparisons to Howard Dean, Paul Wellstone, and even Barack Obama. Although he was only in his first term, no one (least of all of Smith himself) doubted he was destined for greatness.”

Jefferson Smith was the leader of the Boy Rangers. Jeff Smith of Missouri taught political science at Washington University and had equally devoted young supporters. Indeed, that Jeff Smith was so Capra-esque – at least to liberal eyes – that filmmaker Frank Popper made a film about him. Zengerle writes that the film, “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, is a minor masterpiece of the political documentary genre. After its release in 2006, it broadcast nationally on PBS’s prestigious ‘Independent Lens’ series and earned Popper, a first-time feature director, numerous festival accolades.”

But then it all went wrong. Right from the beginning, actually. In his first campaign, afraid of losing, Smith turned to some sketchy operatives who put together – whattaya know? – an illegal shadow campaign to attack his opponent. Eventually the FEC came calling, and then the FBI. Things spiraled out of control. One of the operatives ratted him out. His campaign manager committed suicide. Smith was sentenced to a year in jail.

I remember hearing back in Kentucky about a woman who refused to vote for a friend for public office because “if a man’s not ruint when he gets in there, he’s ruint when he comes out. And there’s no sense in ruining a good time.” Frank Capra’s fictional Jeff Smith could resist the temptations of power, but it seems that a lot of regular folks named Jeff Smith – or anything else – can’t.

 

 

Religious Liberty in China: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

BEIJING—Today China’s big cities look much like urban areas anywhere in the world. There are lots of cars. What I didn’t expect was to see a Christian “fish” on an auto. 

Religion is “on the rise,” one U.S. diplomat told me.

It also is under attack by the Chinese government.  As I wrote in the American Spectator online:  “When it comes to religious liberty in the People’s Republic of China, there’s the (surprisingly frequent) good, (not so constant) bad, and (still too often) ugly.”

China turned hostile to Christianity after the 1949 revolution. The PRC has routinely been ranked among the worst religious persecutors. 

In its latest report on religious liberty, the State Department observed: “The government exercised state control over religion and restricted the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when these were perceived, even potentially, to threaten state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, including social stability. The government harassed, assaulted, detained, arrested, or sentenced to prison a number of religious adherents.” 

Nevertheless, the experience varied geographically:  “In some parts of the country, however, local authorities tacitly approved of or did not interfere with the activities of unregistered groups.”

The group China Aid, headed by Bob Fu, a former house church pastor, compiled a list of incidents. The authorities in Zhejiang Province have been particularly repressive, destroying churches and crosses. 

Provincial officials pointed to the zoning laws to justify this and similar actions elsewhere, but Renee Zia, of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, argued that it was just “an excuse for the current wave of clamping down on Christian churches.” The government’s real concern is Christianity’s growth. Provincial party chief Xia Baolong reportedly complained that Christian symbols were too “conspicuous.”   

Still, the situation in the PRC is far better than it was even a decade or two ago. The majority of persecution cases, wrote blogger Renee Riley, involved Christians who “were either engaged in activity which the government perceived as a threat, or they ran afoul of the economic or political interests of corrupt local leaders.” Open Doors reported that the government has “chosen not to strictly control Christian activities in most regions in China,” and that the majority of churches “are not registered, but tolerated.” 

The number of Christians was estimated in 2011 by Pew Research at 67 million and likely is much higher today. There already may be more Christians than Chinese Communist Party members. Yang figured there could be 247 million Christians by 2030. 

The PRC hopes to constrain Christianity by forcing it into a “patriotic” channel. Nevertheless, the PRC may not find it easy to create a Sinicized Christianity. I attended the 800-member Beijing Chaoyang Church. There were 70 baptisms on the day I attended. The church is state-sanctioned, but the sermon seemed orthodox theologically (simultaneous translation was provided for foreigners).

My friend Phil Sheldon, who regularly attends the church with his Chinese wife, spoke positively of his experience. He earlier wrote: “I have seen and heard Christianity expressed in public. I have been in restaurants with Christian music playing.”  And then there’s that car sporting a “fish”!

Even some CCP members recognize the challenge.  Admitted Wang: “If we rush to try to push for results and want to immediately ‘liberate’ people from the influence of religion, then it will have the opposite effect.” 

In the PRC today, people are ever less willing to worship the false god of communism.

The Future of Dollarization in Ecuador

A new “monetary and finance” law that was approved by Ecuador’s National Assembly in July, is expected to be signed into law any day now. Many suspect that this marks the beginning of the end for dollarization in Ecuador, which began in January of 2000. But the underlying threat to dollarization is the incessant growth of public spending. Losing dollarization would be a sad development, considering it is what has protected Ecuadorians from one of the worst evils of populism: high inflation.

The remarkable contribution dollarization has made to the Ecuadorian economy is worth noting. A 2010 study published by Ecuador’s central bank (BCE) analyzed the first decade of the absence of independent monetary policy and found that average GDP growth increased from -6.3 percent during the 1990s to 4.4 percent during the 2000s; annual inflation decreased from a high of 90 percent in September of 2000 to single digits within a year, and has averaged 3 percent since 2004. Additionally, interest rates went down immediately, thereby reducing the cost of capital. According to the World Bank, the percentage of Ecuadorians living on less than $2 a day (PPP) decreased from 37.7 percent in 2000 to 10.6 percent in 2009.

Of course, there are many problems dollarization cannot solve and the positive outcomes above are not solely due to it. But it probably has been one of the main factors contributing to Ecuadorian growth prior to and during our current “revolutionary” government. In fact, Ecuador owes its superior economic performance today–compared the two most prominent populist nations in the region, Argentina and Venezuela–mostly to dollarization.

Defeat the Islamic State by Allowing Syria and Others to Kill Radicals

Administration officials proclaim the Islamic State’s isolated experiment in 7th Century Islam to pose a dire threat to America.  After promising to strictly limit the military mission in Iraq, the president is preparing to expand the war to Syria, where the administration is working to overthrow the Assad government—which now blocks Islamic control over the entire country.  Instead, the administration should encourage other nations, starting with Syria, to kill ISIL radicals.

Iraq is a catastrophic failure.  Yet the Obama administration risks falling into war there again. 

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wants to address the Islamic State “on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border” between Iraq and Syria. 

However, Washington’s intelligence capabilities in Syria remain limited.  More important, the Obama administration has spent three years attempting to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime, which possesses an air defense system and warned that it would treat any attacks as “aggression.” 

The administration should reconsider its policy in Syria.  As I point out in Forbes online, “The Assad government is even more committed than Washington to eliminating the Islamic State as a geopolitical force.”

Yet America’s support for the opposition has weakened the Assad government’s ability to fight ISIL.  Washington’s preference for less radical groups also has discouraged Damascus from targeting the Islamic State, whose existence inhibits U.S. involvement. 

Reaching a modus vivendi with Damascus would encourage Assad to focus on ISIL.  Assad is no friend of liberty, but Washington must set priorities. 

The First Amendment Protects Random Ugly Rap Lyrics

To ensure that public discussion remains “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” the First Amendment protects speech that is “vituperative, abusive, and inexact.” While nobody will argue that Anthony Elonis’s speech—the subject of a Supreme Court case this coming term—was anything but “vituperative, abusive, and inexact,” there is considerable disagreement over whether his speech should be protected by the First Amendment. 

Elonis’s chosen form of speech was a series of rap lyrics he posted on Facebook under the pseudonym “Tone Dougie.” Many of the lyrics were violent and lurid, and some of those violent images were made in reference to Elonis’s estranged wife, who took them as a threat to her life. As a result of his crude posts, Elonis was fired, his wife obtained a protective order against him, and he was arrested and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), which makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat to injure the person of another.”

Elonis argued that his rap lyrics were an artistic expression and that because he did not intend them to be a threat, his speech should be protected. The federal district court hearing his case didn’t see it that way. The judge rejected his request that the jury be instructed to consider his actions based on whether he expressed a subjective intent to threaten and instead instructed the jury to judge his speech based on whether a reasonable person would have interpreted the lyrics as a serious expression of intent to inflict bodily injury. Elonis was thus convicted and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit also rejected his argument that a subjective intent to threaten is required before speech loses First Amendment protection.

Now before the Supreme Court, Cato has joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the National Coalition Against Censorship on a brief supporting Elonis’s position. We argue that Supreme Court precedent shows that (1) a subjective intent to threaten is an essential element of a “true threat,” (2) requiring a finding of subjective intent is in line with First Amendment principles, and (3) drawing the line between threat and protected speech carefully is particularly important given the rise of the Internet as a forum of communication—one where it can be easy to take things out of context.

As a matter of most people’s taste, the Internet may well be better off without violent rap lyrics like Anthony Elonis’s. But that shouldn’t matter to this case or how it’s analyzed under the First Amendment, which requires a high standard of proof regarding incitement or threats of violence before individuals can be jailed for their speech. The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to speak that truth freely across all mediums.

Elonis v. United States will be argued at the Supreme Court in November or December.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Julio Colomba.

Congress Gets Unlimited Power Because…Slavery?

After engaging in a racially motivated street fight with a black man, Charles Cannon found himself facing—as expected—assault charges and a sentencing enhancement to penalize him further under Texas’s hate crime law. To federal prosecutors, however, this was not good enough, so they charged Cannon under the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA). You see, they had to make a federal case out of a fistfight to stop the return of slavery.

If that sounds odd, it probably should. The HCPA was passed pursuant to Section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment ban on slavery, which authority the Supreme Court has extended to eliminating the “badges and incidents” of slavery. Defining these “badges and incidents” is naturally left up to Congress, and Congress has determined that racially motivated violence fits into that ever-expanding category. Cannon challenged his HCPA charges, but the federal district and appeals courts upheld the HCPA’s constitutionality, deferring to Congress’s power to “rationally determine” what the badges and incidents of slavery entail.

In petitioning the Supreme Court for review, Cannon argues that the HCPA intrudes on the states’ police power to prosecute local crimes and that Congress can’t be the judge of the limits of its own powers, whether under the Thirteenth Amendment or otherwise. Joined by the Reason Foundation and the Individual Rights Foundation, Cato has filed a brief supporting Cannon’s petition. We argue that the use of hate-crime laws to sweep local criminal activity into federal court has nothing to do with stamping out slavery and that the Court should decide the legitimacy of these laws before a more highly politicized case comes along—Ferguson, anyone?—and makes that task even harder.

Not only are federal hate crime laws constitutionally unsound, but, as George Zimmerman’s trial over the death of Trayvon Martin highlighted, they invite people dissatisfied with a state court outcome to demand that the federal government retry unpopular defendants. Giving Congress unlimited power and impairing the fundamental right to be free from double prosecution are too high and too immediate a price to pay to combat the phantom menace of slavery’s return to the United States.

The Supreme Court will decide this fall whether to take Cannon v. United States. For more on the case, see this description and brief on behalf of two members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

This blogpost, as well as Cato’s brief, was co-authored by legal associate Julio Colomba.

L.A. Considers Giving Away Lottery Tickets To Encourage Voting

Concerned about low voter turnout, the Los Angeles Ethics Commission has floated the idea of using “financial incentives, such as a lottery system” to lure the apathetic to the polls. The Los Angeles Times has the details, while columnist Debra Saunders weighs in with critical commentary here and here.  From Saunders’s second post:

Total prize money is expected to be $100,000, or 1 percent of the $10 mil Los Angeles spent on public financing last year. … While the commission was thinking of giving away 100 $1,000 prizes, [City Councilman Herb] Wesson suggested that the panel consider a bigger takeaway – say a $50,000 prize, and two for $25,000. The measure hasn’t even made it to a City Council vote, and already politicians are trying to figure out how to fatten the prize.

Lottery tickets, paying off in other people’s money, as a reward for voting. That’s a perfect metaphor for the political process, isn’t it?