Topic: Regulatory Studies

Obama Playing Politics with Regulation? That’s Old News

In the newspaper business, the most precious space is on the front page, above the fold, of the Sunday edition. In that space yesterday, the Washington Post trumpeted that the Obama White House had ”systematically delayed enacting a series of rules on the environment, worker safety and health care to prevent them from becoming points of contention before the 2012 election.

WaPo reports:

The Obama administration has repeatedly said that any delays until after the election were coincidental and that such decisions were made without regard to politics. But seven current and former administration officials told The Washington Post that the motives behind many of the delays were clearly political, as Obama’s top aides focused on avoiding controversy before his reelection.

The number and scope of delays under Obama went well beyond those of his predecessors, who helped shape rules but did not have the same formalized controls, said current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

For many WaPo readers, this revelation may be shocking. For readers of the Cato Institute’s journal Regulation, it’s old news.

Last spring, the American Action Forum’s Sam Batkins and the Bush Institute’s Ike Brannon reported that federal data show the Obama administration’s regulatory activity had slowed in 2012. Their explanation for the “pause”: “presidents up for reelection typically delay controversial regulations that could anger various constituencies.” Because the administration felt confident of President Obama’s reelection, they saw little reason to push through rules in a mad dash of “midnight regulation” and instead kept their activities out of the voters’ sight.

Batkins and Brannon go on to say that now that the 2012 election has safely passed, we should not expect a mad dash of regulation. That’s not good news, however. As they explain, “a reelected president has little compunction to issue regulations quickly—not with four more years of governing in the offing. As a result, no one should interpret the regulatory pause in 2012 as evidence of a new ‘go slow’ approach by the Obama administration.”

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the New “Final” Volcker Rule

There was only one way that the five regulatory agencies tasked with drafting the Volcker Rule–the provision of Dodd-Frank limiting proprietary trading by banks–were ever going to meet the year-end deadline and give meat to a poorly drafted statutory provision. That was if they retained maximum ex post facto discretion to decide whether bank activity is permissible or not under the rule. Unsurprisingly, this appears to be exactly what they have done.

I have some particular concerns:

The rule will require a “maze of regulators” (via the Wall Street Journal)

You thought the debate over the extraterritorial application of cross border derivatives (i.e., the fight between the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission)was contentious? Volcker is going to be five times worse. The rule still requires ongoing monitoring and enforcement by FIVE separate agencies and, as Wayne Abernathy of the American Bankers Association noted, there is still no mechanism for coordination built into the rule.

The rule lacks “bright line distinctions” (per Janet Yellen)

Basically banks won’t know if they’re in compliance or not until their regulator determines it. Ominously, SEC chairman Mary Jo White said that the regulators would be available to add “clarification.” Needless to say, a final rule should not need clarification.

The devil is in the enforcement

Several of the regulators noted that the key to “successful” implementation of the rule is ongoing monitoring and enforcement. But how do you monitor and enforce a rule that doesn’t have a bright line? So much for the rule of law.

The rule contains an exception for sovereign debt

In other words, banks can trade in as much sovereign debt as they want for their own account, but if they were to engage in similar activity with respect to investment grade corporate debt–Exxon Mobil for example–this will be illegal proprietary trading. (I feel safer already!)

Much of the “new final” rule does not have the benefit of public input

The two SEC commissioners who voted against the rule both complained they did not have sufficient time to review the contents–one labeled the year-end deadline “wholly political”–and were concerned that many of the new provisions did not have the benefit of public comment. They are correct that, at the very least, the rule should have been re-proposed as a draft.

For a full transcript of the final rule and Volcker related materials, see here.

Frank: Nonbank “Designation” Goes Too Far

An interesting op-ed in today’s WSJ echoing my own previous op-eds (http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/treasury-departments-regulatory-overreach-expands and http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/too-big-fail-too-foolish-continue). The WSJ quotes former House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank as saying that he does not favor designating large asset managers such as BlackRock or Fidelity as “systemically important” and that this was not the intent of his law. Those are pretty strong words from one of the chief architects of Dodd-Frank and all the more remarkable since Frank has seldom acknowledged an aspect of the financial sector he didn’t think could use more regulation.

According to the Journal, Frank noted that “overloading the circuits isn’t a good idea” and said that the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) created by Dodd-Frank “has enough to do regulating the institutions that are clearly meant to be covered—the large banks.”

Implicit in this this statement, is the idea that the FSOC is somewhat out of its depth when it comes to identifying “systemic risks” in the nonbank financial system. Unsurprising, since most of the Council’s staffers are young political appointees with no financial sector experience. Even more fundamental, as Frank alludes to, is the lack of evidence that the industries being targeted in any way contribute to widespread systemic risk. Frank concentrated on the lack of evidence that asset managers transmit risk through the system, but the same logic can be applied to insurers and hedge funds as well.

Absent a full repeal of the Dodd-Frank, and given the growing bipartisan recognition of the dangers of extending bank-like supervision to the nonbank sector, at the very least, Congress should limit the application of Titles I and II of Dodd-Frank to bank holding companies only.

Another Battle Against Silly Tour-Guide Regulations

For the second time this fall, Cato has filed a brief supporting a lawsuit challenging the power of cities to stifle and regulate speech by licensing tour guides—effectively restricting who may lawfully speak to an audience about the city’s history. 

In September, we filed a brief supporting “Segs in the City,” a segway touring company challenging a D.C. law which made it illegal to give tours in Washington, D.C., without completing a licensing process that involves a thorough history exam. Now we’ve filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, again joined by First Amendment expert Eugene Volokh, in support of a group of tour guides challenging New Orleans’ licensing scheme. (Both the D.C. and New Orleans guides are represented by our friends at the Institute for Justice.)

Like D.C., New Orleans only licenses guides who can pass a history test. In addition to that blatantly unconstitutional speech restriction, the Big Easy also requires licensees to submit to periodic drug tests. All that just so they can talk about the history and culture of New Orleans without spending five months in prison!

We argue that the licensing regime is a content-based restraint on speech and therefore must pass the strictest judicial scrutiny, so the government needs a compelling reason for it and has no other way of accomplishing the same goal. The law is a content-based speech regulation in that it is (a) triggered by the content of speech, and (b) justified on the basis of the content that it regulates. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a law regulating the content of speech—as opposed to its location, timing, or manner—is subject to strict scrutiny. The justifications offered for the licensing law refer to the “sufficient knowledge” of the guides and the accuracy of their speech. That is as much a content-based justification as saying that people need to be protected from hearing “erroneous” political opinions or “controversial” historical theories.

Finally, we argue that tour guides are not members of a “profession,” such as lawyers, doctors, and accountants, which could merit less First Amendment protection in order to protect the public from harm. Unlike those professions, tour guides don’t have intimate relations with clients. Instead, like most businesses, they simply have customers. The government can’t possibly require authors, public lecturers, or documentary filmmakers to get licensed in order to protect the public from “misinformation,” and it has no more basis for licensing tour guides.

The Fifth Circuit will hear argument in Kagan v. City of New Orleans early in the new year.

PISA School Test Results

New international student test results called PISA have been released. See here and here. Once again, U.S. high-school kids did poorly. American kids ranked 36th in math, 24th in reading, and 28th in science among 65 countries and jurisdictions. The U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.

A number of Asian countries scored the highest on all three tests. But Canadian kids also did very well, scoring toward the top on all the tests. On math, for example, Canadian kids ranked 13th, compared to U.S. kids at 36th.   

American policymakers often react to such dismal U.S. results by calling for more central planning of education through federal subsidies and mandates. But note that Canada has no federal education department and no federal subsidies for its K-12 schools. Canadian education is entirely controlled at the provincial and local levels.  

The Canadian test score advantage over the United States doesn’t prove that decentralization alone leads to higher scores, but it does prove that the United States does not need any federal involvement in order to become a top-ranked schooling nation. Indeed, Cato scholars have long argued that we would better off abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and ending all federal subsidies

My colleagues have opined on the PISA results here and here.

More on Canada’s decentralized government here and here.

Against Forced Unionization

The Supreme Court has long applied exacting scrutiny to limitations placed on the freedoms of speech and association. Unfortunately, the Court has not extended such protection to those forcibly unionized.

In Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), the Court accepted that promoting “labor peace”—limiting the number of competing workplace interests that bargain over the conditions of employment—was an interest so compelling that a state may mandate its employees’ association with a labor union, forcing them to subsidize that union’s speech and submit to it as their exclusive representative for negotiating with the government regarding their employment. Since that time, more than a dozen states have forcibly unionized independent contractors who are paid through Medicaid.

In 2003, Illinois forced its home healthcare workers to join and pay dues to the Service Employees International Union as their sole representative before the state. Workers subject to this coerced association have challenged the law as a violation of their First Amendment rights and the case is now before the Supreme Court. Cato, joined by the National Federation of Independent Business, has filed an amicus brief in support. We argue that Abood was wrong when it was decided and should now be overturned. Abood simply assumed without analysis that the Supreme Court had already recognized “labor peace” as a “compelling interest.”

But the cases Abood relied on only regarded “labor peace” as justifying Congress’s exercise of its Commerce Clause authority to regulate labor relations, not as a basis to override workers’ First Amendment rights—and a Commerce Clause analysis is logically irrelevant to the First Amendment. Furthermore, Abood turns the logic of the First Amendment on its head: Unions are designated as the exclusive representatives of those employees that are compelled to support them for the sole purpose of suppressing the speech of dissenting employees, but under Abood it is exactly this suppression of speech that validates coerced association under the First Amendment. Such logic can’t be reconciled with the Court’s strict scrutiny of laws in other First Amendment contexts.

Even if the Court chooses to maintain Abood, it should reject the coercive programs at issue here because they’re unsupported by Abood’s rationale and serve no other compelling state interest. The homecare workers subject to the law aren’t employed by the state. Although they’re paid through a Medicaid disbursal, every crucial aspect of the employment relationship, including workplace conditions, hiring, and firing, is determined by the individual cared-for by the worker. The union is thus limited to petitioning the state for greater pay and benefits. Given this limited scope, there can be no serious claim that SEIU’s exclusive representation of some workers has freed Illinois from any great burden due to “conflicting demands” from other workers. Whatever Abood’s long-term vitality, that flawed case doesn’t support the compelled unionization of workers who are in no way managed by the state.

The Supreme Court will hear Harris v. Quinn on January 21.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Lauren Barlow.

The Dangers of a Soda Tax

Discussing the problems with a soda tax is both easy and difficult. It is easy because the main argument is fairly obvious: If taxing soda in the name of public health is a legitimate function of government, then there is no functional limit on what government can do under the guise of public health.

But this argument, though straightforward, is a difficult sell because it is not terribly convincing. This is partially because it is a slippery slope argument (“step 1 will inexorably lead to step 10”), and slippery slope arguments are often straw-man arguments. Arguing against step 10 (“so why don’t we just tax all bad foods?”) is not actually the argument being made at step 1 (“I think we should tax soda.”).

The other reason the argument is difficult is because it is hard to ignore the science. Perhaps it is true that a tax on soda will help public health. In fact, I’ll concede for the sake of argument that taxes on soda will increase public health.

So, as someone who opposes soda taxes, what arguments do I have left if I’ve made these concessions? There are three: 1) The Primitivism of Politics; 2) The Modern Fallacy of “Public Health”; and 3) A Properly Formulated Slippery Slope Argument