Topic: Government and Politics

Selective Taxation Is Tyranny

The House of Representatives has passed a 90 percent tax on the bonuses paid to AIG employees, seemingly forgetting President Obama’s admonition “that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment.”

Everybody’s angry. But anger doesn’t make good law. And there are real questions about both the wisdom and the legality of such legislation. Bloggers like Conor Clarke, Megan McArdle, and Eugene Volokh have asked if the bonus tax is legal or constitutional. And thank goodness for bloggers who ask the questions that members of Congress and print journalists seem to ignore!

The bloggers wonder if after-the-fact taxes on specific people violate the constitutional ban on bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. (Ex post facto = after the fact.) Good questions indeed. But they should go further and ask, Are laws like this tyrannical? Ex post facto legislation isn’t just bad because it’s unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional because it’s bad. (Nate Silver did raise these broader questions, arguing that the bonus tax bill was like the congressional intervention into the Terri Schiavo case: quite possibly legal and constitutional, but “it represented a gross overreach of the chamber’s authority, and ultimately undermined, at least a little bit, the rule of law.”)

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tells Conor Clarke, “It would not be terribly difficult to structure a tax, even one that approached a rate of 100%, levied on some or all of the bonuses already handed out (or to be handed out in the future) by AIG and other recipients of federal bailout funds so that the tax would survive bill of attainder clause challenge. …The fact that the individuals subject to the tax in its retroactive application would in principle be readily identifiable would not suffice to doom the tax either from a bill of attainder perspective or from a due process perspective.”

Which led liberal blogger Kevin Drum to this conclusion:

it looks like the answer here is simple: even though the purpose of this tax would pretty clearly be punitive with extreme prejudice, we need to carefully pretend that it’s not.  And we need to make sure the legislative history shows that it’s not (it should be “manifestly regulatory and fiscal” Tribe says).

Considering that the rage of the anti-bonus army is being egged on by New York Post headlines such as “Not So Fast You Greedy Bastards” and “Tax the Damn Bonuses to Hell,” it might be tough to persuade a judge that this was “regulatory and fiscal,” not punitive, legislation.

The rule of law requires that like people be treated alike and that people know what the law is so that they can plan their lives in accord with the law. In this case, a law is being passed to impose taxes on a particular, politically unpopular group. That is a tyrannical abuse of Congress’s powers. And in addition, it is retroactive legislation, changing the law upon which AIG and its employees had relied. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 62, “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws … undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.”

Selective taxation is tyranny. Ex post facto legislation violates the spirit of the liberal order, even if a particular piece of legislation can be “structured” to pass constitutional muster.

New Era of Unlimited Federal Power

The House has passed a measure imposing a special punitive tax of 90% on certain employee compensation in response to the AIG scandal. As others have noted, this raises serious constitutional issues. Article I, Section 9, Clause 3 says simply and directly: “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” The congressional bill being considered in response to the AIG bonuses seems to violate both those prohibitions at least in spirit.

The Constitution’s Framers apparently considered (page 154) this clause to be very important in guarding against legislative tyranny, and James Madison noted in Federalist 44:

Bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts, are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation.

Aside from the dangers to liberty from overzealous members of Congress, there are issues of priorities here. While Congress has been busy with this particular inquisition, the Federal Reserve is moving ahead with a new plan to shower the economy with a massive $1.2 trillion cash infusion–an amount 7,200 times greater than the $165 million of AIG retention bonuses.

So members of Congress should be grabbing their pitchforks and heading down to the Fed building, not lynching AIG financial managers, most of whom were not the ones behind the company’s failures.

Obama’s First Signing Statement

obama-signs-billPresident Obama issued his first signing statement last week. While approving the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, he reserved the right to reinterpret, evade, or ignore a number of the bill’s provisions. To some conservatives, that smelled like vindication; and some liberals found it fishy. Who’s right? Both, to some extent.

During the Bush years, “signing statements” came to stand for a much broader set of issues than the practice itself. After President Bush used one to basically announce that, veto-proof majority or no, he didn’t have to follow the McCain Detainee Treatment Act, “signing statements” in the public mind became shorthand for the Bush theory that the president is sole constitutional “decider” on all matters related to national security—in much the same way that the PATRIOT Act became shorthand for overzealousness in homeland security. The obnoxiousness of each—open defiance in the signing statement case, the dopey Orwellianism of the acronym with PATRIOT—made them symbols, even though neither represented the worst abuses in the fight against terrorism.

But what really matters is the underlying constitutional theory, not the particular quasi-legislative device it’s reflected in. Which is worse: openly announcing that you’re not going to obey new congressional restrictions on torture—as Bush did with the 2006 McCain Amendment—or secretly violating the old ones for years? The latter, clearly. At least a signing statement puts you on notice.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama, unlike McCain, never promised to end the practice of signing statements entirely. Obama’s position was more nuanced. When it comes to signing statements, some nuance is appropriate. I don’t agree with the ABA’s blanket condemnation of the practice. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, despite the Supreme Court’s 1983 repudiation of the legislative veto, Congress continues to smuggle legislative vetoes into omnibus spending bills. One could argue that the president’s only recourse is to veto the bill–and more vetoes of spending bills would surely be welcome. But it seems to me that in such cases, issuing a signing statement is a venial sin at worst. There’s a vast difference between that sort of signing statement and one that asserts that the president cannot be bound by a law barring torture.

Most of the objections Obama lodged in his signing statement fall well short of the Bush-Cheney end of the spectrum. But there’s at least one that looks particularly dodgy:

United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. Section 7050 in Division H prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States. This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as Commander in Chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority. Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority and responsibilities.

Here Obama echoes Bushian claims about the extent of the president’s authority under the commander-in-chief clause. But given the context, perhaps the better parallel is with Bill Clinton. President Clinton also asserted the power to ignore congressional restrictions on his ability to place U.S. troops under foreign command. That sort of executive unilateralism in the service of multilateralism was distinctly troubling. As one commentator noted in 2000:

Responding to congressional efforts to stop the new policy, the Clinton administration has claimed a broad constitutional power in the president to delegate military command authority to any person. According to the administration, the president’s commander in chief power allows him to select whomever he believes necessary for military success…. That position has serious constitutional and policy defects. First, the administration’s legal justification for its recent multilateral command policy fails to account for the Constitution’s limitation on the delegation of federal power outside of the national government….

You know who wrote that? John Yoo. My head hurts.

The Incredible Expanding Stimulus Programs

Get on a media list, and you get lots of emailed press releases. Like this one today:


In case you’re wondering, it’s from the Association of Home Appliance Measures (AHAM). And it won’t surprise you to hear that “The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) and the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) urge the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to quickly disburse funding to state energy offices for the Energy Efficient Appliance Rebate Programs so that consumer rebates will be available for the summer months to purchase ENERGY STAR appliances.” Yes, indeed, that’s the way to get the economy moving again: get people out there buying new appliances.

You know what I think would really stimulate the economy? Federal tax credits for contributions to free-market think tanks. Nonprofits are facing diminished revenues and layoffs during these tough times. A tax credit would “create or save up to 4 million jobs.” OK, maybe not quite 4 million, but some number “up to” that. And by focusing the credit on free-market think tanks, you’d help to encourage sound long-term economic policy. It’s a win-win idea. I should get out a press release.

Wednesday Podcast: ‘The Science of Medical Marijuana’

Photo: Kelly Anne CreazzoSpeaking at a Cato forum Tuesday, Dr. Donald Abrams, director of Clinical Programs at the University of California Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, discussed the science behind medicinal marijuana, and explained why the drug should be allowed for patients who suffer from a variety of symptoms.

After the event, Abrams spoke with Caleb Brown for Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, explaining the promise of marijuana as medicine:

One of the reasons I am in favor of people using the plant is because… we no longer have a health care system in the United States, we have a disease management system, and it is very expensive largely due to pharmaceuticals. If there is a plant that is a medicine that people can grow for themselves in their own backyard then I think we can really go a long way to decrease some of the costs of health care. But if we are saying that a physician is going to be able to prescribe this entity to a patient then unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, it does need to be regulated or approved and the only way to do that is through the standard route.

The Stimulus Bill, Rebranded

A while back I noted that the administration had helpfully developed a special symbol to brand its wonderful stimulus program.  The purpose is to ensure that the people will be eternally grateful and thus will reward the president with their votes, er, no, that would be partisan and run contrary to everything the new administration stands for.  The purpose is to educate people about what the government is doing on their behalf.

As one would expect, with a symbol so ridiculous have come some wonderful parodies.  Several focus on what is being done to the taxpayers.  There’s even a funny poster to go along with some other entries.

The strongest defense of individual liberty today is going to come from entrepreneurial activists around the country like these, who have harnessed the power of ridicule, not politicians on Capitol Hill who, after voting for bloated federal budgets for years, now claim to realize that government spending is a bad thing.  The latter are “the summer soldier and sunshine patriot” who Thomas Paine spoke of back in 1776.  It is up to the rest of us to carry the heaviest burden of the battle for liberty.  The the fight is worth it as the price of freedom always has been high.  As Paine noted in “The Crisis”:   “it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

Threats to a Free Society, Small and Large

Limited government and individual liberty are under such a sustained attack today that it’s easy to miss some of the small but truly nefarious assaults on the most basic freedom to be left alone.  After all, when the federal government seems determined to socialize much of the economy and control the rest of it, who cares about some local nanny-state restrictions?

Yet the willingness to override individual liberty in seemingly “small” matters reflects the same statist philosophy behind large assaults on the free society.  It’s important to fight the battles, both small and large.

One of the latest political fads is setting public dress standards.  Writes Greg Beato for Reason online:

What else is the law but a metaphorical belt designed to uphold proprietary and keep us from exposing our inherent baseness to each other? This, at least, is what an epidemic of legislative tailors seem to believe: Each month brings news of the latest effort to crack down on saggy pants. In December, the Jasper County Council in South Carolina passed an ordinance making it illegal to wear your britches three inches below your hips and expose your underwear—or worse—to innocent bystanders. In January, South Carolina State Senator Robert Ford introduced a bill that would make saggy pants a crime throughout the entire state. Earlier this month, Joe Towns, Jr., a state representative from Tennessee, took up the call against the surprisingly long-lived fashion crime, which started in the early 1990s and continues to be popular despite—or perhaps because of—repeated efforts to criminalize it over the years.

Sag-bashers object to the style on more than just aesthetic grounds. A hallmark of hip-hop culture, saggy pants are considered an homage to prison garb, where belts aren’t allowed because of their potential utility as noose or weapon. To wear saggy pants, critics maintain, is to reject authority, embrace criminality, and visually assault the world with the garish plaids and bold patterns of fashion boxers. Also, critics assert, saggy pants make it easy to conceal knives and guns within their droopy, voluminous folds.

The ascension of President Obama may be one reason for the surge of anti-sagging evangelism in recent months. “You know, some people might not want to see your underwear—I’m one of them,” he exclaimed during a November 2008 interview with MTV. But while Obama made it clear he wasn’t interested in trying to criminalize the style, calling laws against pants-sagging as “a waste of time,” politicians like Robert Ford and Joe Towns, Jr., apparently don’t watch much MTV; the former even presented his anti-sagging legislation as a kind of tribute to the new president. “You’ve got an African-American president,” he told the Associated Press. “You don’t have to emulate prisoners no more. You can emulate somebody like Barack Obama.”

According to the Associated Press, Ford doesn’t believe his bill will pass—apparently he “just wants a spirited discussion” on the taxpayer’s dime. And even in cases where such political theater blossoms into genuine law, it often remains, well, political theater. In Delcambre, Louisiana, for example, saggy pants have been punishable by a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail since June 2007. When I called Delcambre’s mayor, Carol Broussard, to ask him how many people the town has cited for that offense since the ordinance went into effect, he said he didn’t believe any had. “There have been some warnings, though,” he offered.

Even if enforcement is rare, however, the number of places in America where, say, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton might end up with lifetime sentences just for walking down the street is somewhat alarming. Along with Jasper County and Delcambre, Lynnwood, Illinois, Mansfield, Lousiana, and who knows how many other municipalities now have specific ordinances that make it illegal to expose anything more than a three-inch swath of underwear. In addition, as Radley Balko has documented at Reason, zero-tolerance vigilantes like Flint, Michigan police chief David Dicks and Jackson, Mississippi mayor Frank Melton seem more inclined to follow the strong arm tactics of the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy-style bullies than our Founding Fathers when it comes to making over their fellow citizens. “I certainly respect the Constitution, but we have some issues that are much bigger than the Constitution,” the mayor declared, as he announced his intention to issue an executive order against saggy pants even after the Jackson city council voted against such a measure on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

Yes, some things “are much bigger than the Constitution.”  That’s certainly the conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C.!

I’ll admit that I just don’t understand the style of wearing one’s pants nearly down to one’s thighs, and I’d prefer not to see some young person’s underwear.  It’s an obvious issue for parental dictates as well as social pressure.  But should the government be prepared to prosecute – after all, that’s what the law is all about – people with low-riding pants?  The fact that these measures are considered seriously demonstrates how far we have fallen away from the ideal of a limited government committed to protecting individual liberty.