Topic: Government and Politics

The Congressional Pack Rats

The U.S. Congress hoards real estate like proud pack rats. For example, the Department of Defense has 562,000 facilities that cover 24.7 million acres—an area about the size of Virginia.

The Pentagon has surprisingly indicated that it might be wise to shed some of its real estate. Congress has stonewalled the Pentagon on this. Indeed, Congress has barred the Pentagon from even thinking about the Department of Defense’s excess asset problem.

The congressional—and often bureaucratic—asset-hoarding pathology is a result of perverse economic incentives that accompany public ownership. These incentives encourage bad behavior. The fact that capital carrying charges or rents are not paid for publicly owned assets means that no costs have to be budgeted for holding them. Once assets are under government ownership and control, they are viewed as being free; nothing must be given up for the assets’ use and retention. Furthermore, if a decision is made to dispose of some of those assets, the revenues from their disposal are usually not earmarked for use by the department or agency that initiates the sale. Hence, there are no bureaucratic or budgeted benefits that flow from the liquidation of government property.

I ran into both congressional and bureaucratic stonewalling over 30 years ago when I designed President Reagan’s privatization program. Until capital carrying charges on public assets are budgeted (read: charged), the game will remain rigged in favor of the pack rats.

Washington Should Celebrate Valentine’s Day by Dumping Allies

It’s hard to get out of a bad relationship. People can’t admit that it’s time to say goodbye.

Countries have the same problem. The United States has spent decades collecting allies, like many people accumulate Facebook “Friends.”

After Valentine’s Day, Washington should send the equivalent of a “Dear John” letter to at least a half-dozen foreign capitals. Where to start:

 

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and America have little in common other than commerce in oil. Essentially a totalitarian state, the monarchy plunders people, brutalizes political opposition, suppresses religious expression, and even exports Sunni tyranny.

But no alliance is necessary for the two states to cooperate when their interests coincide. It’s time to send Riyadh a text message breaking up. The two governments still should cooperate where appropriate, but the U.S. military no longer should act as an inexpensive bodyguard for the al-Saud family.

 

South Korea

The United States was drawn into war in Korea during the Cold War. Then American troops were required on the peninsula until South Korea gained both political stability and economic development.

By the 1980s the South had raced well ahead of the North economically. Today South Korea enjoys a 40–1 economic lead, 2–1 population edge, vast technological advantage, and overwhelming diplomatic support.

The South can defend itself. Other forms of cooperation could be conducted without a “Mutual Defense Treaty” that would be mutual in name only.

Fortified Properly For the State of the Union Speech

People ask about my soft spot for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and from now on I’m just going to point them to this article.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg admits to sharing some wine with her colleagues and not being “100 percent sober” for President Obama’s State of the Union address in January. …

“The audience for the most part is awake, because they’re bobbing up and down, and we sit there, stone-faced, sober judges. But we’re not, at least I wasn’t, 100 percent sober,” Ginsburg said during a talk at George Washington University on Thursday night, according to a report by The Blaze. 

“Because before we went to the State of the Union, Justice Kennedy brought in … it was an Opus something or other, very fine California wine […,” Ginsburg said.]

Ginsburg has also appeared to fall asleep during the president’s annual address to Congress in prior years.

As my Cato colleague Gene Healy has written, the annual speeches have long been “pompous, unedifying spectacles” in which Congressmembers clap robotically while ”the president stands at the front of the House chamber making exorbitant promises that would shame a carny barker” and a supposedly typical citizen or two are invited to showcase touching, politically well-vetted personal tales. Any legislative proposals of interest will require analysis over days or weeks, a process not well suited to in-person lecturing. “President Jefferson, who thought delivering the speech before Congress assembled smacked too much of a king’s ‘Speech from the Throne,’” converted the report to a written document, Gene writes, but Woodrow Wilson (it would be him) revived the regal practice.

For bringing to this hard-to-endure, self-important ritual the attitude it deserves, a thanks to Justice Ginsburg. 

You Asked Cato EVP David Boaz Anything. Here’s What Happened…

Over his 33 years at Cato and through his earlier activities in the libertarian policy sphere, Cato’s Executive Vice President David Boaz has played a key role in the development of both the Cato Institute and the libertarian movement at large; he even wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on libertarianism!

On Tuesday, in conjunction with the release of his new book, The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom (which, incidentally, sold out on Amazon within hours), Boaz took to Reddit’s iAMA forum to discuss libertarianism, his book, and the burgoening “libertarian moment,” inviting Redditors of all ilks to ask him anything

During the hour long Q&A session, Boaz tackled a wide-array of questions, weighing in on everything from the drug war and abortion to effective strategies for social change and the efficacy of libertarian governance.  Each one of his responses ignited impassioned debates amongst the forum’s diverse audience as commenters from all sides of the political spectrum hashed out the ideas of liberty. 

The resulting discussion is a fascinating one, very much worth your attention. Check out the Reddit discussion and Boaz’s book, and then continue the conversation on Twitter using #LibertarianMind.

Obama’s Hypocrisy Regarding Forcible Border Changes

In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama stated that he was considering sending weapons to the government of Ukraine.  Noting that Russia had already annexed Crimea and was now backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, the president warned that “the West cannot stand and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”

Such sentiments might have more credibility if the Western powers, including the United States, had not engaged in similar conduct.  But Washington and its NATO allies have indeed redrawn borders, including borders in Europe, through military force.  Two incidents are especially relevant.  Turkey, a leading member of NATO, invaded Cyprus in 1974 and amputated some 37 percent of that country’s territory.  Turkish forces ethnically cleansed the area of its Greek Cypriot inhabitants and, in the years that followed, desecrated a large number of Greek historical and religious sites.

Ankara subsequently established a client state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the occupied territories.  Turkey has steadfastly refused to atone for its illegal invasion and occupation, much less disgorge the land that it conquered.  Yet except for some token economic sanctions imposed shortly after the invasion, which were soon lifted, Washington has never even condemned the aggression that its NATO ally committed. 

One might assume that it would be awkward for U.S. leaders to excoriate Vladimir Putin’s regime for annexing Crimea or setting up puppet states in the occupied Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which Moscow did after a short, nasty war in 2008) when a NATO member is guilty of similar behavior.  But such flagrant inconsistency has apparently caused American officials little difficulty.

Obama’s ISIS AUMF: Codifying “Mission Creep”

Today, six months after President Obama unilaterally launched our latest war in Iraq, five months after he expanded the war to Syria, four months after his administration thought up a name for the war, and three months after he promised to go to Congress for authorization, the president sent congressional leaders a draft “Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”—along with a message insisting that “existing statutes provide me with the authority I need” to wage war anyway.

Better late than never? Maybe not: as I explain in my “Reclaiming the War Power” chapter in Cato’s new monograph “Policy Priorities for the 114th Congress,” retroactive authorization might be worth it as part of a package deal that sunsets the 2001 AUMF and imposes new barriers to “mission creep” in the war against ISIS. The Obama AUMF does neither.

As drafted, the president’s ISIS AUMF:

1. Does not impose geographic restrictions on the use of military forces (…thus a war that began with the placeholder Pentagon designation “Operations in Iraq and Syria” could easily expand beyond its current two-country theater);

2. Does not include firm limitations on ground combat operations (…unless you think barring “enduring offensive ground combat operations” is a workable and enduring limitation);

3. Does not preclude the war’s expansion to “associates of associates” of ISIS (… in fact, the Obama AUMF’s “associated forces” provision contains a broader delegation than did the 2001 AUMF, which doesn’t contain any such provision…);

4. Does not sunset the 2001 AUMF; and

5. Does not clarify application of the 2001 AUMF to the ISIS fight (…which risks leaving any limits it imposes susceptible to evasion by a president invoking the earlier resolution).

What little congressional debate we’ve seen so far on the president’s new war hardly smacks of “Profiles in Courage.” Still, the draft AUMF approved by the lame-duck Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December, flawed as it was, made for a far better starting point. It imposed a three-year sunset on the 2001 AUMF, applied new transparency requirements, and at least tried to provide limits on ground combat beyond a few flexible adjectives. If Congress is going to retroactively authorize the president’s latest war, they ought to reclaim some of the control they’ve ceded, not blithely delegate still more power. As I argue in greater detail here, “the 114th Congress should pick up where the SFRC left off, and impose additional limits on presidential authority.” Adopting the Obama AUMF as-is would amount to signing another blank check.

King v. Burwell: In 2013, Nelson Admitted He Didn’t Know if the ACA Offered Subsidies in Federal Exchanges

The plaintiffs in King v. Burwell claim the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act only offers premium subsidies, as the statute says, “through an Exchange established by the State.” Members of Congress who voted for the PPACA – most recently Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) and former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) – now swear it was never their intent to condition Exchange subsidies on state cooperation.

Ironically, Casey’s and Nelson’s decision to wade into the King debate demonstrates why, when a statute is clear, courts traditionally assign no weight to what members of Congress claim they intended a law to say – especially if, as here, those claims come after a clear provision has proven problematic. While he claims he never intended to condition subsidies on states establishing Exchanges, Casey repeatedly voted to condition Exchange subsidies on state cooperation, has misrepresented what Congress intended the PPACA to do, and continues to misrepresent the PPACA on his Senate web site. Nelson’s claims about what Congress intended should likewise be taken with a grain of salt. In an unguarded moment in 2013, Nelson admitted that in 2009 he paid no attention to “details” such as whether the PPACA authorized subsidies in federal Exchanges.

All Sides Agree: Casey Supported Conditional Exchange Subsidies

Casey and Nelson exchanged correspondence exactly one day before amicus briefs supporting the government were due to be filed with the Supreme Court. Casey asked for Nelson’s recollection of whether, in 2009, Nelson or anyone else suggested the PPACA’s subsidies would only be available in states that established Exchanges. Perhaps more than anyone, Nelson was a pivotal figure in the debate over the PPACA. Not only did he insist on state-based Exchanges rather than a national Exchange run by the federal government, his was the deciding vote that enabled the bill to pass the Senate and become law – and he withheld his vote until his demands were met.