Topic: Trade and Immigration

A Defining Moment for Democrats and Trade

Mark Penn thought he could support the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement out of the right side of his mouth, while he opposed it out of the left. That controversy lost Mark Penn his firm’s contract with the Colombian government and his role with the Clinton campaign. Now it just may be metastasizing and moving up to Capitol Hill.

Congressional Democrats are getting hysterical over President Bush’s decision yesterday to send the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement up to the Hill for a vote. They claim that the president’s circumvention of protocol (not getting a final blessing from Congress first) now renders passage of the agreement virtually impossible.

The truth is that Congress was never going to give the administration an official green light and the president exercised the only real choice at his disposal.

But since when do Democrats cry for want of a successful trade agreement? I think there’s a little more to the story, which I address in this NRO oped today.

The long and short of it is that by sending the deal to Congress now, legislative intransigence before the November election is no longer an option. Democrats have 90 legislative days (until the end of September) to decide once and for all, in plain view of the electorate, the unions, the business community, and the international community, how they really feel about trade. The vote and the debate leading up to it could expose some deep fissures in the party, and could raise serious questions about America’s credibility and capacity to lead on matters of trade and economics.

The Costs of E-Verify - and the Immigration Laws

In my paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” I analyzed a number of different factors that would frustrate a national employment eligibility verification system. Most of them had to do with responses that undermine the functioning of the verification system itself. But I also talked about avoidance. Under a national electronic employment eligibility system, I wrote, “[w]ork ‘under the table’ would increase, and, along with it, other forms of illegality.”

Strong validation of that notion came from an interesting source last week: the Congressional Budget Office. CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that the SAVE Act (the “Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement Act”), a bill to take E-Verify national, would result in lost federal revenue of $17 billion over 10 years. That is because more undocumented workers would be paid outside the tax system. That’s a lot of work under the table.

Those who have fixated on immigration law enforcement often cite the rule of law, which is certainly an important thing. But the rule of law thrives when the law is at peace with the people, not when it’s a cudgel. As I also wrote:

Proponents of internal enforcement and electronic employment verification surely stand on a sound principle—the rule-of-law ideal that people should enter the country legally. But current immigration law is a greater threat to the rule of law than any of the people crossing the border to come here and work. Our immigration policies have fostered the illegality so common in the employment area.

How States Use Medicaid to Bilk Taxpayers in Other States

Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified before Congress on the many ways that states use the Medicaid program to defraud (my word) taxpayers in other states.  The following is an excerpt from GAO’s prepared testimony:

GAO has reported for more than a decade on varied financing arrangements that inappropriately increase federal Medicaid matching payments. In reports issued from 1994 through 2005, GAO found that some states had received federal matching funds by paying certain government providers, such as county-operated nursing homes, amounts that greatly exceeded established Medicaid rates. States would then bill CMS for the federal share of the payment. However, these large payments were often temporary, since some states required the providers to return most or all of the amount. States used the federal matching funds obtained in making these payments as they wished…[Such] financing arrangements effectively increase the federal Medicaid share above what is established by law…

Supplemental payments involving government providers have resulted in billions of excess federal dollars for states, yet accountability for these payments—assurances that they are retained by providers of Medicaid services to Medicaid beneficiaries—has been lacking. CMS has taken important steps in recent years to improve its financial management of Medicaid, yet more can be done.

Yes, more should be done.  Congress should reform Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program the same way it reformed welfare: eliminate the federal entitlement to benefits, and replace those programs’ matching grants with lump-sum block grants.  That would eliminate many perverse incentives created by those programs, including the incentive to cheat taxpayers in other states.

Those reforms would also be a nice stepping stone toward giving the states full responsibility for maintaining those programs, and getting the federal government out of the business of providing medical care to the poor entirely.

Passport Snooping Is Just the Beginning

Following up on the story earlier this week that the passport files of all three major presidential candidates had been snooped on, Brian Bennett writes in the April 7 issue of Time about plans to distribute passport information very widely indeed, such as to the Department of Homeland Security, IRS, employers, and foreign governments.

Meanwhile, the State Department has a video interview up on its website about passport privacy. Addressing the issue in a long format on a widely accessible medium is a good thing, so congratulations are due State for addressing the issue.

However, the lead question asked of Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy is a big waste of time: “Does every State Department employee have access to personal data that’s given us for passports or other reasons?” That pitch is so slow it doesn’t even reach the plate. But there is some interesting information about the State Department’s data security practices later in the video.

Unaddressed is Brian Bennett’s reporting on the proposal for wholesale sharing of passport information.

Tuesday Trade Links

A couple of interesting tidbits on trade:

  • Here’s a great video of our friend, Rep. Jeff Flake (R, AZ), speaking about the decades-long embargo on Cuba and restrictions on the freedom of Americans to travel there. Congressman Flake spoke at a Cato event (scroll to about half way down the page) on Capitol Hill last year along with Congressman Charlie Rangel (D, NY). Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies has long argued for an end to the failed embargo on Cuba.
  • The U.S. Department of Commerce yesterday released the 2007 trade deficit figure: $738.6 billion or 5.3 percent of GDP. It will no doubt come as a relief to the current account deficit (CAD) hawks to know that the CAD is down 9 percent on 2006, primarily due to higher export earnings (thanks, cheaper dollar) and an economic slowdown. More on the link between economic growth and the deficit here.

Goliath vs. Goliath?

A further development in the cross-border supply of gambling and betting services broke today when the European Union announced they would launch a formal investigation into the selective (and retroactive) prosecution of European gaming interests by US authorities.

This is yet another twist in the saga first brought to light by Antigua’s case against the United States in the WTO. That case (summarized here and updated here, here, here, and here) sparked a slew of indirectly related skirmishes, a plethora of “David vs. Goliath” headlines, and an unprecedented reaction from the United States to pick up their ball and go home. The various twists and turns of the dispute have provided ample fodder for trade junkies in the form of commercial and systemic issues: Does the WTO dispute settlement mechanism provide effective recourse for big as well as small members? How should WTO members respond when one of their cohorts wants to change the nature of the contracts between the parties? How do members balance their rights and obligations in the context of issues of public morals?

The questions look far from answered because if the EUs investigation proceeds, a new WTO case could be on the horizon. Although the EU and the United States came to a settlement in December over the United States’ wish to withdraw its commitment to open its market to the cross-border supply of gambling and betting services, the details of that settlement are sketchy. And the December deal pertains to compensation for the withdrawal of market access going forward: unless and until that deal is ratified by all WTO members (including those who are asking for compensation of their own), the U.S. obligations stand and so does the ruling that found the United States was in breach of those obligations.

In other words, while the United States might eventually be able to get away with changing its obligations to provide WTO members access to the lucrative U.S. gambling market, in the meantime their (discriminatory?) prosecution of offshore interests leaves them vulnerable.