Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Stealing Property

A headline in the Saturday Washington Post reads:

Russia’s Gazprom Purchases Siberian Gas Field From BP

The story begins:

The state-controlled energy giant Gazprom on Friday bought a vast natural gas field in Siberia from a unit of British-based petroleum conglomerate BP, continuing the Kremlin’s policy of shifting control of the country’s major energy projects from foreign to state hands.

The last part of the sentence begins to hint at what really happened, a truth that is concealed by words like “purchases” and “bought.” In fact, the Russian government and its giant energy firm Gazprom forced BP to sell, as it has forced other companies to turn valuable properties over to Gazprom and the oil company Rosneft, often through the use of trumped-up tax or regulatory issues.

Journalists should be straightforward about such things. Gazprom did not “purchase” a gas field from BP. This was no “willing buyer, willing seller” transaction. It would more accurately be described as a seizure, a confiscation, or at best a forced sale.

The Wall Street Journal used similar language. The New York Times, to its credit, was more honest and clear: Its headline read, “Moscow Presses BP to Sell a Big Gas Field to Gazprom,” and the story began, “Under pressure from the Russian government, BP agreed on Friday to sell one of the world’s largest natural gas fields to Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, in the latest apparently forced sale that benefited a Russian state company.”

Footnote: Today is the second anniversary of the Kelo decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could take private property for the benefit of other private owners such as developers. In a stinging dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote:

The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. …Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.

The United States is not Russia. But O’Connor’s warning that “the beneficiaries [of forced takings] are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms” is certainly borne out — not just by a new Institute for Justice report on eminent domain in action — but by the actions in Putin’s Russia.

Earmarks

As annual spending bills wind their way through Congress this year, there are ongoing battles over earmarked funding for members’ pet projects.

To get a sense of what the battle is about, check out this newly released list of earmarks in the House Interior appropriations bill.

People scour such lists looking for embarrassing bridges to nowhere in Alaska and indoor rainforests in Iowa.

But the real issue is federalism, not earmarks. Many of these funding projects are not federal responsibilities at all. Look at all the local sewer facilities on the list under the EPA. Why can’t Seattle, Buffalo, and other cities fund their own toilet pipes?

Of course, they can. But the idea of federalism has disappeared from public discussion in an orgy of state and local lobbying of compliant Washington politicians. For history and analysis of this issue, see here

(Oh, wait a minute, take that back — my guy Jim Moran (D-VA) scored $700K to clean up Four Mile Run beside where I live in Northern Virginia. Nice job Jim! You’ve got my vote!) 

The Islamofascists’ Reign of Terror

The New York Times reports on American troops’ efforts to push Al Qaeda insurgents out of Baqaba, Iraq, and liberate residents from their strict rule:

The insurgents have imposed a strict Islamic creed, and some have even banned smoking, one resident told Capt. Jeff Noll, the commander of Company B of the First Battalion, 23rd Infantry, during his patrol through the neighborhood.

Banning smoking? President Bush is right — if we don’t stop them in Iraq, we’ll have to fight them in Manhattan, and Montgomery County, and San Francisco….

A Reason to be Against Donor Disclosure

Several interest groups (Public Citizen, Common Cause and Democracy 21) have lately been trying to persuade Congress to set up an independent ethics panel to police members. They also want Congress to allow outside groups (like themselves) to file ethics complaints with the panel.

A House task force now proposes to grant them their wish. However, the task force also requires any group filing an ethics complaint to the new panel to disclose its donors.

The interest groups are not amused. Craig Holman of Public Citizen told The Hill:  “you can imagine how upsetting this is to the donor community.”

I do not support an independent ethics panel. However, Holman is correct here. A group that filed a complaint would open its donors to retribution by the named member or by his party or allies in Congress. Disclosure might even discourage donors from supporting these interest groups, thereby burdening the contributors’ rights to association and speech.

In fact, I think we should extend Craig Holman’s point to other donors. People who contribute to the campaigns of challengers to incumbents should also not have to disclose their donations. After all, their contribution (like an ethics complaint) threatens a member of Congress and might well bring about retribution.

Sauces, gooses, ganders. If disclosure threatens the interests of the donors to certain influential interest groups that might irritate people in power, surely it also threatens those who contribute to challengers to incumbents. These donors, like your average Common Cause contributor, should also be free of the burden of revealing their political activities to those who might do them harm.

Antigua and Barbuda Raises the Stakes

$3.4 billion. That’s the price tag Antigua and Barbuda, the island nation which successfully argued that the United States was violating its obligations to open its market to foreign online gambling providers, puts on its lost revenues as a result of the U.S. ban on some internet gambling. (More here and here.)

They are seeking to recover the money by withdrawing the protection they provide for American intellectual property (see here). The idea behind this sort of action is to harness the power of a powerful lobby group (in this case, Hollywood and the software industry) to counteract the influence of anti-internet gambling groups: If intellectual property owners are caught in the cross-fire of the dispute, maybe the United States government would feel more pressure to comply with the series of rulings against current U.S. regulations.

The push to seek compensation through the World Trade Organization comes just one day after the European Union has indicated it wants compensation for the loss of market access, but through further opening of other sectors in lieu of lifting the ban. When the United States announced last month that it was responding to their loss at the WTO by seeking to “clarify” its commitments, they indicated that they would not provide compensation to Members harmed by the ban, as is called for by WTO rules. The USTR had reasoned that since they never intended to allow internet gambling in the first place (suggesting that their commitment to do just that was an “oversight”), then Members could not expect to receive any sort of compensation in return for solidifying the ban.

We’re planning to hold a forum on this topic on 25th July. Stay tuned for details.

Nanny State Crackdown

Steve Kelly pokes fun at nanny state legislation.

Unfortunately, too many people have a “there ought to be a law” mentality.  Sometimes it is silly, but more often it is dangerous.  The Duke University case is a reminder that innocent lives can be adversely affected even if the criminal law were limited to violent offenses.   Expanding the criminal law is dangerous business.  Better to keep it limited–and keep a good eye on it. 

The DEA’s Campaign Against Pain Doctors

Yesterday, the cover story for the New York Times Magazine was about the Drug Enforcement Agency’s inane campaign against pain doctors.  We at Cato have been working on this aspect of the drug war for some time–so it’s great to see more attention to this issue. 

To read the Cato study, go here.  To view a Cato conference, go here.  For a quick article on the subject, read this Washington Post piece by Pat Michaels.