The Airborne Version of the Post Office/Department of Motor Vehicles

Don Boudreaux’s Cafe Hayek Blog is always worth reading, but his recent complaint about the snail-like pace of passport control struck a raw nerve since I also travel frequently. Don makes the point that it is foolish for people to want government to take over health care when it is so incompetent at everything it does. That is a very valid point, but it understates the case. Passport control (and also security screening) should be incredibly simple. Data on flight schedules and passenger density is easily available. Yet somehow the bureaucrats are incapable of having staff on duty during peak times. So if this relatively easy task is beyond the ability of the bureaucracy, then something more complex like health care surely will turn into a disaster when placed in the hands of government:

The reason we missed our flight is that nearly 50 minutes of our time after landing was consumed by waiting in a long and slow-moving line to clear passport control.  At that terminal on Friday evening, the TSA had only three agents to service the line of U.S. citizens returning from abroad.  Three.  That’s it.  Most of the passport-control-agent booths stood empty.

Mr. Gonzales

Alberto Gonzales is arguably our worst attorney general. It is true that he has misled Congress, the courts, and the public, but there is too much attention being paid to political questions such as: Who put together that list of U.S. attorneys to be fired? Was it Gonzales, his chief of staff, or did Karl Rove say something about a U.S. attorney to anyone else in the administration at some point?

Instead, members of Congress investigating Gonzales should focus on these misleading policy statements:

1.  Gonzales on Bush’s order creating military tribunals: “The order preserves judicial review in civilian courts.”

This is what the order says: Individuals who are designated “enemy combatants” by President Bush “shall not be privileged to seek any remedy or maintain any proceeding, directly or indirectly, or to have any such remedy or proceeding sought on the individual’s behalf, in (i) any court of the United States, or any State thereof, (ii) any court of any foreign nation, or (iii) any international tribubal.” (Section 7(b)(2) of Bush Military Order, November 13, 2001; emphasis added). This order “preserves” judicial review?

2.  In February 2002, President Bush pledged that prisoners in the war on terror would be treated humanely. As White House counsel, Gonzales presumably helped the president with this pledge. When newspaper reports of mistreatment began to appear, members of Congress pressed Gonzales about administration policy. Gonzales then admitted that the administration’s humane policy order did not bind CIA personnel involved in prisoner interrogations. A minor oversight?

3.  “National Security Letters” direct recipients to hand certain specified items over to the FBI agents who serve the Letters. When constitutional questions were raised about these Letters, Gonzales argued that citizens would just know that they really didn’t have to comply with the Letter and that they could consult with an attorney and challenge it in court — nothwithstanding the letter’s warning not to discuss the matter with any person. 

It is common sense to do the opposite of what FBI agents demand? That’s a curious statement from an Attorney General. 

 Of course, we should also be alarmed by Gonzales’s straightforward statements of policy:

1.  In legal briefs in the Padilla case, this administration argued that Americans can be whisked away to military prison on the say-so of the president.

2.  The habeas corpus provision in the Constitution does not guarantee anything.

Gonzales should go. More background here.

Is the NSA Above the Law?

As I report today in Ars Technica, a federal judge in California allowed continued investigations by five state regulators into allegations that AT&T has been collaborating with the National Security Agency in a massive warrantless wiretapping program.

However, the judge, Vaughn R. Walker, declined to rule on the government’s central argument, that the investigation could run afoul of the state secret privilege. On that issue, Judge Walker deferred to the Ninth Circuit, which is currently considering the case of Hepting v. AT&T, a class-action lawsuit alleging that AT&T has violated its customers’ rights by participating in the NSA program. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case, has secured a sworn statement from a former AT&T employee alleging that the company has allowed the NSA to build a secret facility inside its San Francisco office and diverted massive amounts of Internet and voice traffic through the room to allow the NSA to use the information as it wishes.

I’m not an expert on the legal minutia of the state secrets privilege, but the Bush administration is making what strikes me as an incredible claim: that the NSA program’s very existence (or non-existence) is a state secret, that it would be impossible to litigate such a case without revealing sensitive information about how such a program worked, and that therefore any case related to such a program must be dismissed immediately, before it reaches trial or even discovery.

It’s hard to see how this position can be reconciled with the rule of law. Americans have rights under the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act against indiscriminate domestic surveillance. But if the government can defeat all legal challenges to a program merely by designating it a state secret, it’s hard to see how those rights can ever be vindicated.

I suppose if the Bush administration can opt out of habeus corpus merely by declaring someone an enemy combatant, they can opt out of the Fourth Amendment by declaring their surveillance activities to be state secrets.

Parliament of Windbags

Let me add to Sallie’s observations on the House farm bill battle.

I watched the action on CSPAN over the pro-reform Kind/Flake amendment and was really struck by the arrogance of the anti-reform members. They repeatedly said essentially: “How dare members like Flake criticize the hard work of the Agriculture Committee — he’s not on the committee, he’s not a farmer, and so what does he know about farming!”

The anti-reform members also trotted out the ”downtrodden small farmer” rhetoric, despite the frequent reminders from the reformers that the vast share of subsidies go to the largest and wealthiest farms.

And for any voters who still think that the GOP is the party of spending restraint, note that on the vote for the Kind/Flake amendment, 32% of Democrats favored reform while only 23% of Republicans did.

It’s a New York Sunny Day

Thanks to an editorial this morning championing school choice, the New York Sun has become the first major paper in the country to simultaneously recognize that a) education markets work, and 2) education policy — including market-based reform — is a matter for the states and the people, not the federal government.

Having spent a lot of time banging away on these messages, I’ve gotta say this makes my week.

Here’s hoping that the Sun’s illumination shines on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and the rest of the presidential contenders.

Parliament of Whores, Indeed

Those hoping for reform of the outdated and economically damaging farm bill have cause for disappointment today, after the House defeated, by a margin of three votes to one, an amendment that represented some hope for change. (The roll call can be viewed here). That amendment, whilst by no means close to sufficient reform, included important changes to income eligibility requirements and payment limits for subsidies, and would have closed a loophole allowing producers to manipulate the marketing loan program.

Unscathed passage of the House Agriculture Committee’s bill (see my colleague Dan Griswold’s brief criticism of the House bill here) looked in doubt just a few days ago, but House majority leaders managed to sway Rep. Jim McGovern (D., MA), originally in the reform camp, to vote for the farm bill by promising about $840 million to his pet cause, overseas food aid. The Congressional Black Caucus agreed to support the farm bill after a promise to spend $1.1 million on settling racial discrimination claims from the 1990s.

As if the House proposal for the “new” farm bill wasn’t insult enough for the taxpayer and consumer, the proposal for funding some of the largesse is beyond the pale. The $4 billion increase in food stamps and nutrition programs, which could presumably be paid for by cutting the subsidies to farmers of chosen crops, will instead be financed by taxing “inshoring” companies — U.S.-based subsidiaries of foreign companies who employ American workers.

For a Congress supposedly concerned that international trade is threatening American jobs, taxing employment of American workers seems perverse — not to mention violative of tax treaties. Business groups and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have expressed their deep dissatisfaction with the tax increase. Some Republicans, including the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee Robert Goodlatte (Va.), have indicated they would vote against the farm bill (up for a final vote today) because of the tax increase. I’ll believe that when I see it.

On a more positive note, the proposed tax increase has led the administration to issue a veto threat, albeit of the less-than-clear “his senior advisers will recommend that the president veto this bill” variety.