Federal Highway Spending

The federal Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is running out of money. Congress will likely pass a short-term fix for the program in coming weeks. Over the longer term, many policymakers favor raising taxes to close the $14 billion annual gap between HTF spending and revenues.

Tax-hike advocates say the gap is caused by insufficient gas tax revenues. It is true that the value of the federal gas tax rate has been eroded by inflation since it was last raised two decades ago. But the gas tax rate was more than quadrupled between 1982 and 1994 from 4 cents per gallon to 18.4 cents. So if you look at the whole period since 1982, gas tax revenues have risen at a robust annual average rate of 6.1 percent (see data here).

In recent years, gas tax revenues have flat-lined. But the source of the HTF gap was highway and transit spending getting ahead of revenues, and then staying at elevated levels.

The chart below (from DownsizingGovernment.org/charts) shows real federal highway and transit spending since 1970. Real highway spending (red line) has almost doubled over the last two decades, from $29.1 billion in 1994 to $56.2 billion in 2014. Real transit spending (green line) has also risen since the mid-1990s. (If you visit the /charts page, you can see the dollar values by hovering the mouse over the lines.)

For more, see my congressional testimony and also recent items by Emily Goff.

A Plea to End Corporate Welfare

Following last week’s event for Ralph Nader’s Unstoppable, I sat down with him to discuss some of the ideas he expressed about how best to gather a large coalition to end corporate welfare, crony capitalism, and corporatism. We may agree more than this discussion indicates, but we disagree quite a bit, as you’ll see. You be the judge.

A somewhat longer audio version is available here.

The New Yorker Maps NYC’s Shadow Transit System

In a recent article for The New Yorker, Aaron Reiss explores New York City’s shadow transportation system – a network of so-called “dollar vans” that serve mostly low- income areas with large immigrant communities. The system lacks “service maps, posted timetables, and official stations or stops,” but Ross uses interactive maps and videos made with Nate Lavey to detail routes in Chinatown, Flatbush, Eastern Queens, Eastern New Jersey, and the Bronx.

Not too surprisingly, this ingenious shadow system faces serious regulatory obstacles. Vans have had a long and tumultuous regulatory history, with oversight changing hands several times in the past thirty or so years and the largely immigrant drivers facing police harassment. Since 1994, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has been issuing van licenses, allowing vehicles to serve parts of the city with sufficient public need. Still, the number of illegal, unlicensed vans continues to outstrip by far the 481 licensed ones. The licensed vans operate under highly restrictive rules, which forbid them from picking up along New York City’s innumerable bus routes and require all pick-ups to be prearranged and documented in a passenger manifest.

In August last year Sean Malone of the Charles Koch Institute spoke to Reason TV about a film he had made featuring a Jamaican immigrant, Hector Ricketts, who faced regulatory hurdles after starting a commuter van service that transported healthcare workers to New York City’s outer boroughs. Thankfully, with the help of the Institute for Justice, Ricketts was allowed to stay in business.

Reiss’s article and Malone’s film both highlight the perversities of regulations that shield traditional public transit from competition in a free market. You might think that policymakers concerned with improving opportunities in low-income areas would want to celebrate and encourage the entrepreneurial initiative and community service represented by “dollar vans” and the service run by Hector Ricketts. Instead, they choose to chase such enterprising service providers into the legal shadows.

Medical Licensing in the States: Some Room for Agreement—and Reform

Even before Obamacare, many states faced the prospect of a doctor shortage due to an aging population and a limited supply of physicians. Obamacare will exacerbate this shortage by expanding insurance coverage to some degree, which will further increase the demand for care. One study projects that this increased demand will require between 4,300 and 7,000 more physicians by 2019.

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that state medical boards across the country “have drafted a model law that would make it much easier for doctors licensed in one state to treat patients in other states, whether in person, by videoconference or online,” in what they are saying has the potential to be “the biggest change in medical licensing in decades.” This is a positive development, especially given that it seems to have a measure of bipartisan support, with 10 Republicans and 6 Democrats endorsing the plan in a recent letter.  If ultimately enacted, it could go a long way to increasing access to care, especially in underserved areas, but there are still many obstacles to seeing this plan become a reality, and it is far from the only option at the disposal of policymakers.

Another proposal to address this doctor shortfall is to expand the role of nurse practitioners (NP’s), who are registered nurses who have also received a graduate degree in nursing. States determine what services these NP’s can perform, and their scope of practice varies significantly. States that currently have reduced or restricted scope of practice should explore loosening these restrictions, because doing so could go some way to addressing the looming doctor shortage and increase access to care without a reduction in quality.

Jonathan Turley on Halbig v. Burwell

Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, has an opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times on Halbig v. Burwell:

The administration’s loss in the Hobby Lobby case is a bitter pill to swallow, but it is not a lethal threat to Obamacare. For critics of the law, Halbig is everything that Hobby Lobby is not. Where Hobby Lobby exempts only closely held corporations from a portion of the ACA rules, Halbig could allow an mass exodus from the program. And like all insurance programs, it only works if large numbers are insured so that the risks are widely spread. Halbig could leave Obamacare on life support — and lead to another showdown in the Supreme Court.

Read the whole thing.

A ruling is expected from the D.C. Circuit in Halbig any day now. Here are some materials that will let you hit the ground running.

Cato Spending Charts

How much does Congress spend on Veterans Affairs, the IRS, or Customs and Border Protection? How much has spending increased over time?

You can answer those questions quickly and easily with Cato’s updated charting tool for the federal budget.

The tool allows you to plot real outlays for about 500 departments, agencies, and programs, 1970-2014. All data is from the Office of Management and Budget.

The chart page opens blank. Click “+” to open a department and then check boxes for the departments, agencies, and programs you want to plot.

To save your chart as an image or a pdf, right click on it.

This chart shows spending on the three largest federal agencies. The data is in constant 2014 dollars.

The Republic of Gilead Is Not Nigh

If you were judging only from the outraged reaction  online, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby had just mandated the adoption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as the blueprint for American society.  Yet as my colleague Ilya Shapiro notes, there’s a profound disconnect between all the rhetoric about “denial of access” to contraception and the substance of the ruling.

At the heart of the majority’s opinion is this: The Department of Health and Human Services has already developed a way to exempt religious non-profit corporations—such as churches, charities, and hospitals—from the legal mandate to pay for employees’ contraception coverage.  In what amounts to an accounting trick, they permit those corporations to purchase plans without such coverage, and then require that insurance companies themselves independently provide it to the uncovered employees.  Because pregnancy is quite a bit more expensive than contraception, this apparently ends up not imposing any additional net cost on the insurers.  The result is that employees of religious non-profits end up with no-copay contraception coverage, exactly as if the employer were required to provide it directly, but the employers are satisfied by this ledger shuffling that they aren’t being compelled to violate their most deeply held moral convictions.  Which, one would think, is a win-win.

Against this background, the Court simply held that since HHS has already found a way to achieve the government’s aim of ensuring employees have access to free contraception without compelling non-profit employers to act against their profound religious convictions, they must do the same in the case of for-profit employers, at least where the for-profit corporation is “closely held.”  The majority quite explicitly denied this ruling has any implications for cases where there might not be such a happy win-win means of achieving the government’s ends, at no additional cost, without forcing employers to violate their convictions. As Justice Alito’s opinion emphasizes: