Topic: Trade and Immigration

Hyperbole Aside, Elizabeth Warren Is Right About the Risk of Investor-State

Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes to the Washington Post op-ed pages today to warn about the dangers of the so-called Investor-State Dispute Mechanism, which is likely to be a part of the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.  In substance, if not style, Sen. Warren’s perspective on ISDS is one that libertarians and other free market advocates should share. At least, my colleague Simon Lester and I do

ISDS grants foreign investors the right to sue host governments in third-party arbitration tribunals for treatment that allegedly fails to meet certain standards, such as new laws, regulations, or policies that might have a discriminatory effect on foreign investors that reduces the value of their assets. Certainly, investors – and in this context we’re talking mostly about multinational corporations (MNCs) – should have recourse to justice when these situations arise. But under ISDS, U.S. investors abroad and foreign investors in the United States can collect damages from the treasuries of their host governments by virtue of the judgments of arbitration panels that are entirely outside of the legal structure of the respective countries. This all raises serious questions about democratic accountability, sovereignty, checks and balances, and the separation of power.

An important pillar of trade agreements is the concept of “national treatment,” which says that imports and foreign companies will be afforded treatment no different from that afforded domestic products and companies. The principle is a commitment to nondiscrimination. But ISDS turns national treatment on its head, giving privileges to foreign companies that are not available to domestic companies. If a U.S. natural gas company believes that the value of its assets has suffered on account of a new subsidy for solar panel producers, judicial recourse is available in the U.S. court system only. But for foreign companies, ISDS provides an additional adjudicatory option.

Congress Should Decide Whether Trade Agreements Abide the Terms of Trade Promotion Authority

Trade Promotion Authority (TPA or Fast-Track Negotiating Authority) is not an executive power grab.  It is a compact between the legislative and executive branches, which each have distinct authorities under the Constitution when it comes to conducting trade policy. The purpose of forging such a compact is that negotiations would be impracticable – and likely interminable – if each provision were subject to the whims of 535 legislators.

Opponents of trade liberalization have smeared TPA as a wholesale capitulation to the president, who allegedly is freed of any congressional oversight and given a blank check to negotiate unamendable trade deals in secret without any input from Congress – only the capacity to vote up or down on the final deal. In reality, though, TPA is the vehicle through which Congress conveys its trade policy objectives, conditions, and demands to the president, who negotiates with those parameters in mind. Provided the president concludes a negotiation that abides those congressional parameters, the deal is given fast track consideration, which means essentially that legislative procedures are streamlined and expedited.

The trade committees are reportedly close to introducing trade promotion authority legislation, although there remains some debate about what it should include. Enforceable provisions to discipline currency manipulation would be a bad idea, as would be including provisions to reauthorize the ineffective and misguided Trade Adjustment Assistance program (which is widely acknowledged to be a payoff to organized labor).

But one important provision (or set of provisions) that has created a bit of an impasse between Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and its Ranking Member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) concerns certification that an agreement abides the requisite congressional conditions to be afforded fast track treatment. Those of us who argue that TPA is not an executive power grab, but a practical, constitutional solution to a policymaking quandary must acknowledge the propriety of such a provision – or a provision that accomplishes as much. There must be a mechanism through which the president is held to account – that the deal reflects the broad wishes of Congress.

Suing Governments for their Environmental Policy under International Law

Some folks over at Heritage have a new Issues Brief in which they argue for including an Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism in the U.S.-EU trade deal being negotiated right now.  In a nutshell, ISDS lets foreign investors sue host country governments in an international tribunal when they feel certain of their rights have been infringed.

I’ve been critical of ISDS.  I do see the potential that such international rules have for protecting property rights, but I worry about other aspects of the rules.  One issue is that these rules protect the rights only of foreign investors.  Using Venezuela as an example, there’s an assumption that the courts there can’t help much with protecting rights. To some extent, ISDS is a response to that. So, if Exxon feels its operations there have been badly treated by the Venezuelan government, it can use the ISDS mechanism to have recourse to an international tribunal.  However, if a small Venezuelan dry cleaner is being subject to governmental abuse, it’s just out of luck.  To me, that seems problematic.  Focusing on the wealthy seems like a fundamentally unbalanced way to protect property rights.

Injunction against Obama’s Immigration Action: Policy and Political Consequences

U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen granted a preliminary injunction to block the implementation of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration – specifically the DAPA program and his expansion of DACA - until he decides on their legality.  Constitutional scholars are going to be writing about this for the near future (I recommend reading Josh Blackman’s comments here and our Cato brief here) and the appeals will come quickly.  In the midst of this lively debate, the political and policy consequences of Judge Hanen’s ruling should not be ignored. 

The political consequences could be immediate.  Speaker Boehner could use this moment of GOP “victory” to pass a clean DHS funding bill as he hides behind the preliminary injunction.  It could tone down the intensity of the political debate on Capitol Hill now that the courts will decide DACA/DAPA’s future.  The GOP does not have the votes to force the Democrats to accept defunding either of those programs.  This preliminary injunction allows Speaker Boehner to stop the DACA/DAPA defund fight while claiming some victory and avoiding the defeat he seems to be preparing for.  Now he can leave it to the courts with some confidence, more than he is likely to be feeling right in the DHS defunding fight, that they will rule in the GOP’s favor in a few weeks.  Regardless, this provides an opportunity for Boehner to skip the bruising DHS funding fight without suffering a political rout.

Federal Judge Stops Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration

Late last night, as the DC area braced for a snowstorm, a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas granted a temporary injunction to the executive action that President Obama announced in November. The expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was set to go into effect tomorrow, with the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) starting up in May, so a quick ruling was expected after Judge Andrew Hanen held a hearing last month. And based on how that hearing went, it’s no surprise that Texas and the 25 other states suing the federal government succeeded in stopping the executive action at least temporarily.

Removing EITC and Child Tax Credits for DACA/DAPA recipients and Non-Citizens

President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), have allowed those beneficiaries to retroactively receive Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) and Child Tax Credits (CTC).

The DACA and DAPA programs grant recipients temporary work permits during the period of their deferred action.  Under current legislation, CTC eligibility is determined through either a Social Security Number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).  Since many unauthorized immigrants are already issued ITINs, eligibility for the CTC is not much affected by DACA and DAPA.

EITC eligibility status is another story altogether, as currently only those who file taxes with a valid SSN are eligible to receive the benefits.  DACA and DAPA will allow those recipients to apply for an SSN, thereby making them eligible for EITC benefits.  Another IRS rule allows those recipients to retroactively claim EITC benefits for previous years in which they were not in the country legally.  Under current law, taxes can be filed retroactively for up to three years by using the 1040X Amended Tax Return Form.  Because DACA and DAPA recipients are eligible for SSNs, they are able to file amended tax returns, making many eligible for EITC benefits in previous years.

The EITC is known as a refundable tax credit, meaning that low-income families can receive a tax “refund” that is larger than their original tax liability.  The program has become notorious for fraudulent and improper payments, yet the IRS has not enacted systematic reforms.  According to a report by the Treasury Inspector General, the IRS paid out $63 billion in EITC payments in 2013 alone – $15 billion of which were given to people ineligible to receive EITC benefits.  Of that $63 billion, only $8 billion were actual tax cuts and $55 billion were payments.

Non-citizens should be ineligible for means tested welfare benefits, the EITC, and CTC.  Walling off welfare benefits is the best option after scaling the benefits back or removing them for everybody.  Here is our previous work on how to build a wall around the welfare state.  Since I did not consider the EITC in my original Cato policy analysis on how to wall off welfare benefits to non-citizens, these are the specific laws that would need to be amended to correct this.

Reforming Section 32(c)(1)(E) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 delineates the eligibility for EITC benefits. The language in subsection (1) determines eligibility.  Changing the statute there could eliminate the ability for newly legalized immigrant workers to retroactively file for EITC benefits.  This section could also be amended to deny the EITC to non-citizens broadly, but that is more complex as SSNs are granted to some non-citizens.  A citizenship requirement for EITC would still decrease the outlays. 

CTC should also be denied to those who had their deportations deferred. CTC eligibility requirements are included in Section 24 of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.  Denying CTC benefits for previous years when the tax filer was ineligible for such benefits was actually proposed in Congress last year – here is the text of that bill.  If possible, CTC benefits should be reserved for citizens only (if we can’t get rid of them altogether).

Immigration is a huge economic net-positive for the United States and fiscally neutral in the long run.  Poor immigrants generally underuse means-tested welfare compared to poor Americans.  Immigrants broadly subsidize the entitlement programs.  Regardless, tax credits should not be retroactively available to immigrants who have had their deportations deferred nor should non-citizens have access at all.

Fiscal conservatives can use immigration as an argument in favor of restricting welfare and EITC benefits.  That would be a far more effective and conservative use of their time than using the welfare state as an argument against liberalized immigration.       

Pausing Immigration Will Not Boost Assimilation

One of the more interesting arguments in favor of further restricting lower-skilled immigration comes from the prolific pen of Reihan Salam.  His piece is worth reading in its entirety, especially his emphasis on the importance of the melting-pot metaphor, a far better approach to the ideal of assimilation than the salad bowl or other concepts.  Salam understates the amount of “togetherness” Americans feel and the degree to which immigrants and their descendants rapidly adopt American identity, as well as exaggerating the benefits of such togetherness.  But my disagreement lies elsewhere.

The big take away from Salam’s piece is that a constant flow of lower-skilled immigrants into the United States slows the economic and cultural assimilation of that immigrant group.  As a result, further restricting low-skilled immigration would aid in the assimilation of current immigrants who are settled here.  As he wrote, “the melting and fusing of different ethnic groups is essential to building a more cohesive and human society, and that slowing down immigration would help this process along.”

His conclusion rests on two points.