Topic: Regulatory Studies

Obama Administration Turns Antique Collectors And Dealers Into Criminals

The Obama administration is preparing to treat virtually every antique collector, dealer, and auctioneer in America as a criminal.  In the name of saving elephants, the administration is effectively banning the sale of all ivory objects, even if acquired legally decades ago.  Doing so will weaken conservation efforts and enrich those engaged in the illegal ivory trade.

Under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) only ivory from before 1989 can be sold.  Unfortunately, ivory prohibition has not stopped the slaughter of elephants. 

The greatest demand for new ivory comes from Asia.  Most ivory in America arrived legally, many years ago. 

Until now the rules were simple and sensible.  Ivory imported legally can be sold.  Moreover, the burden of proof fell on the government to convict you of violating the law.  That’s the way America normally handles both criminal and civil offenses.

However, in mid-February the administration issued what amounted to a ban on ivory sales.  As I point out in my new Forbes online column:

In practice, virtually every collector, dealer, auctioneer, and other person in America is banned from selling ivory items, even if acquired legally, owned for decades, and worth hundreds or thousands of dollars.  Every flea market, junk shop, estate sale, antique store, auction showroom, and antique show is at risk of raids, confiscations, and prosecutions.

First, no imports are allowed, not even of antiques, which before could be brought to America with a CITES certificate. 

Second, all exports are banned, except antiques (defined as over a century old) in what the Fish and Wildlife Service says are “exceptional circumstances.”  At best the administration is raising the administrative and cost burdens of exporting to countries which already limit ivory imports to items with appropriate CITES documentation.  Or the new rule may restrict the sale of items previously allowed, thereby hindering Americans in disposing of their legal collections. 

The Farm Bill Came Surprisingly Close to Fixing Some Protectionist Regulations

There’s plenty of criticism flying around about the new farm bill. It spends unprecedented amounts of money to prop up one of the most successful industries in the country. It uses Soviet-style central planning to maintain food prices and make rich farmers richer. Its commodity programs distort trade in violation of global trade rules. 

But this year’s the farm bill had the potential to mitigate some these sins by repealing a number of high-profile protectionist regulations. Despite a few close calls, however, the final version of the bill kept these programs in place, exposing the United States to possible retaliation.

COOL

One of those programs is the mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law. This requirement was first imposed by the 2002 farm bill. Ostensibly designed to increase consumer awareness, the true impact of the program is to push foreign-born cattle out of the market. The law requires meat packers to keep track of, and process separately, cattle that was born and/or raised for some time in Canada. The added expense benefits a portion of U.S. cattle ranchers at the expense of meat industry as a whole.

The negative impact on the Canadian and Mexican cattle industries was enough to prompt a complaint at the WTO. After the United States lost that case, the administration amended the regulation. But the new regulation, rather than bringing the United States into compliance, actually makes the law even more protectionist. Canada has made clear its intention to impose barriers on a wide range of U.S. products in retaliation.

Repealing this disastrous regulation through the farm bill was discussed during numerous stages of the legislative process, but no language on COOL was ever added to the bill.

Catfish

Another program that could have been fixed by the farm bill was a bizarrely redundant and purely unnecessary catfish inspection regime. The new system would cost an estimated $14 million per year to administer and (by the USDA’s own admission) do nothing to improve the safety of catfish. However, the new institutional requirements imposed on catfish farmers to comply with the new regime would all but eliminate Vietnamese competitors from the market. The U.S. catfish industry and their allies in Congress are all for it.

Even though both house of Congress had at one point or another passed bills that repealed the new catfish regime, the final bill that came out of conference kept the redundant system in place.

The inspection issue has complicated negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Vietnam will be a member, and could become the basis of a complaint at the World Trade Organization. 

In the words of Sen. Mike Lee, the farm bill is “a monument to Washington dysfunction, and an insult to taxpayers, consumers, and citizens.”  It is also the most popular vehicle for imposing protectionist regulations that serve a small set of businesses at the expense of the national economy. 

There was hope that this bill could roll back some of the damage done in the past, at least for a handful of odious regulations. That hope was sorely misplaced.

IRS Officials Created a New Entitlement Program, Because They Felt Like It

Over at DarwinsFool.com, I summarize a lengthy report issued by two congressional committees on how the Treasury Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Health and Human Services conspired to create a new entitlement program that is authorized nowhere in federal law. Here’s an excerpt in which I summarize the summary:

Here is what seven key Treasury and IRS officials told investigators.

In early 2011, Treasury and IRS officials realized they had a problem. They unanimously believed Congress had intended to authorize certain taxes and subsidies in all states, whether or not a state opted to establish a health insurance “exchange” under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. At the same time, agency officials recognized: (1) the PPACA plainly does not allow those taxes and subsidies in non-establishing states; (2) the law’s legislative history offers no support for their theory that Congress intended to allow them in non-establishing states; and (3) Congress had not given the agencies authority to treat non-establishing states the same as establishing states.

Nevertheless, agency officials agreed, again with apparent unanimity, to impose those taxes and dispense those subsidies in states with federal Exchanges, the undisputed plain meaning of the PPACA notwithstanding. Treasury, IRS, and HHS officials simply rewrote the law to create a new, unauthorized entitlement program whose cost “may exceed $500 billion dollars over 10 years.” (My own estimate puts the 10-year cost closer to $700 billion.)

The full post includes details some pretty stunning examples of how agency officials were derelict in their duty to execute faithfully the laws Congress enacts.

Free the Inside Traders

Manhattan U.S. attorney Preet Bharara claimed another victory in his crusade against “insider trading,” a practice he once called “pervasive.”  Last week he won a conviction against Mathew Martoma, formerly at SAC Capital. 

Another big scalp was hedge fund billionaire Raj Rajaratnam, convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 11 years in prison.  A decade ago Martha Stewart was convicted of obstruction of justice in an insider trading case.

Objectively, the insider trading ban makes no sense.  It creates an arcane distinction between “non-public” and “public” information.  It presumes that investors should possess equal information and never know more than anyone else. 

It punishes traders for seeking to gain information known to some people but not to everyone.  It inhibits people from acting on and markets from reacting to the latest information. 

Martoma was alleged to have gotten advance notice of the test results for an experimental drug.  Martoma then was accused of recommending that SAC dump its stock in the firms that were developing the pharmaceutical.

If true, SAC gained an advantage over other shareholders.  But why should that be illegal?  The doctor who talked deserved to be punished for his disclosure.  However, Martoma’s actions hurt no one.

IRS Illegally Expands Obamacare

To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700-page law, these new tax laws have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways. As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of the new tax provisions, when combined with state decisionmaking and Interal Revenue Service rulemaking, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem.

Here’s the deal: The legislation’s §1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State.” The provision was supposed to be an incentive for states to create their own exchanges, but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchange, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where §1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting §1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges.

This creative interpretation most obviously hurts employers, who are fined for every employee who receives such a tax credit/subsidy to buy an exchange plan when their employer fails to comply with the mandate to provide health insurance. But it also hurts some individuals, such as David Klemencic, a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the IRS’s tax-credit rule. Klemencic lives in a state, West Virginia, that never established an exchange, and for various reasons he doesn’t want to buy any of the insurance options available to him. Because buying insurance would cost him more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance. After the IRS expanded §1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges, however, Klemencic could’ve bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the tax for not buying insurance.

Klemencic and his fellow plaintiffs argue that they face these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers by extending a tax credit not authorized by Congress. The district court rejected that argument, ruling that, under the highly deferential test courts apply to actions by administrative agencies, the IRS only had to show that its interpretation of §1311 was reasonable—which the court was satisfied it had.

Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have now filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. While it is manifestly the province of the judiciary to say “what the law is,” where the law’s text leaves no question as to its meaning—as is the case here with the phrase “established by the State”—it is neither right nor proper for a court to replace the laws passed by Congress with those of its own invention or the invention of civil servants. If Congress wants to extend the tax credit beyond the terms of the Affordable Care Act, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers.

This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decisionmaking, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.

Halbig v. Sebelius will be heard by the D.C. Circuit on March 25 (the same day that the Supreme Court hears the Hobby Lobby contraceptive-mandate cases).

Leaving Child Alone In Car For A Few Minutes = Abuse?

When I was small, my (conscientious, non-abusive) mother would leave me alone in the back seat of our car for brief spells while she ran into stores to do errands, an experience that’s entirely typical for most people I know from my generation. Nowadays a parent who behaves that way might risk a police record or a serious encounter with child welfare authorities. “In [a New Jersey] appeals court decision last week, three judges ruled that a mother who left her toddler sleeping in his car seat while she went into a store for five to 10 minutes was indeed guilty of abuse or neglect for taking insufficient care to protect him from harm.” The child was unharmed and an investigation of the household found it not otherwise problematic, which apparently still did not suffice to stop the abuse charge from going forward.

When the law behaves this way, is it really protecting children? What about the risks children face when their parent is pulled into the police or Child Protective Services system because of overblown fears about what conceivably might have happened, but never did?

Author Lenore Skenazy, who’s led the charge against the forces of legal and societal overprotectiveness in her book Free-Range Kids and at her popular blog of the same name, explains her doubts about the New Jersey case here and here. Tomorrow, Wed. Feb. 5, she’ll be the guest of the Cato Institute for a lunchtime talk on helicopter parenting and its near relation, helicopter governance; I’ll be moderating and commenting. The event is free and open to the public, but you need to register, which you can do here.

So Long And Thanks For All The Nannying

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has announced his retirement from the House of Representatives. Here’s an excerpt from my non-fan-letter from 2011, when he lost his longtime chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee:

Some lawmakers can talk a decent game about lean ‘n’ smart regulation, but no one ever accused Waxman of having a light touch. (The 900-page Waxman-Markey environmental bill, mercifully killed by the Senate, included provisions letting Washington rewrite local building codes.) He’s known for aggressive micromanagement even of agencies run by putative allies: his staff has repeatedly twisted the ears of Obamanaut appointees to complain that their approach to regulation is too moderate and gradual. More than any other lawmaker on the Hill, he’s stood in the way of any meaningful reform of the 2008 CPSIA law, which piles impractical burdens on small makers of children’s products, thrift stores, bicycles and others.

Like his predecessor, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Waxman and his subcommittee chairs have famously used hearings as a club to discipline interest groups that don’t cooperate. Last spring he menaced large employers with hearings after several of them announced (contrary to some predictions) that ObamaCare was going to hurt their bottom lines. …

The committee was an unending source of ghastly new legislative proposals for regulatory manacles to be fastened on one or another sector of the economy, ideas that with any luck we may now be spared …. Thus it appears unlikely that the Republican-led committee will give its blessing to something called the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 (H.R. 5786), introduced by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), which – by mandating that all compounds found in personal-care items at any detectable level be expensively tested for and disclosed on labels – could have added tens of thousands of dollars of cost overhead to that little herbal-soap business your sister is trying to start in her garage. (Fragrance expert Robert Tisserand explains why most small personal-care product makers would not survive if the bill passed). Nor is it likely that the new leadership of chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) will be in a hurry to adopt Rep. Schakowsky’s H.R. 1408, the Inclusive Home Design Act, which would mandate handicap accessibility features in most new private homes.

(hat tip for title: Jonathan Blanks)