Boiling the Voter-ID Teapot

Last week, former Federal Election Commissioner Hans A. von Spakovsky published a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum entitled Stolen Identities, Stolen Votes: A Case Study in Voter Impersonation. Contrary to claims made by prominent newspapers and attorneys, he argues, in-person voting fraud is a real problem.

The evidence he provides is a vote fraud ring that began operating in 1968 and that was broken up more than 25 years ago in 1982. Impersonation fraud can be committed at polling places, and a voter-ID requirement would make it a little harder, but a quarter-century-old case is hardly evidence of a significant problem.

How states secure their voting processes should turn on how they structure their voting processes. States might choose a voter ID requirement if they can do so in a way that balances security against access, convenience, and privacy. Absentee balloting is generally a far greater threat to the security of elections than weak or non-existent ID requirements at polling places.

The thing that matters most is avoiding a uniform national voter ID requirement. I wrote about this in my TechKnowledge piece Voter ID: A Tempest in a Teapot That Could Burn Us All: “To ensure that American voters enjoy their franchise in a free country, clumsy voter ID rules should be avoided. A national voter ID system should be taken off the table entirely.”

Rep. Bachman Misleads Her Constituents

Over the last few weeks, I’ve pointed out a few of the misleading arguments being deployed on behalf of expanding executive power in the wiretapping debate. But I think this op-ed in my home state’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, may take the cake. It’s written by Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN), and it’s a brazen effort to mislead my fellow Minnesotans about the wiretapping debate without saying anything that’s technically false. Rep. Bachman writes:

One of the critical tools that has allowed us to keep the homeland safe after 9/11 has been the Protect America Act. It updated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to deal with new, deadly challenges in this age of terror – enabling intelligence services to immediately listen to phone calls made between foreign terrorists.

Now, it’s true that the Protect America Act was passed “after 9/11.” It’s also true that the Protect America Act was passed after Pearl Harbor. And the Battle of Hastings, for that matter. The key point is that the Protect America Act was passed in August 2007, six years after 9/11.

This matters because, as Kurt Opsahl at EFF points out, Bachman goes on to imply that “attack after attack,” including the liquid explosives plot in the summer of 2006, was stopped by the Protect America Act. Indeed, she writes, “last year, the Heritage Foundation compiled a list of 19 confirmed terror plots against American targets that had been thwarted.”

Here is the report Bachman is presumably referring to. The 19 attacks range from the Richard Reid shoe bomb attack in December 2001 to the JFK Airport plot in June 2007. In other words, all 19 thwarted attacks occurred before the Protect America Act was enacted in August 2007. Bachman never explicitly says otherwise, but she’s obviously doing her best to give her constituents the impression that the PAA was enacted sometime in 2001 or 2002. Reasonable people could disagree about whether this qualifies as a lie. But I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Rep. Bachman has a low opinion of her constituents’ intelligence.

The Remarkable Moral Deafness of Rep. Rohrabacher

Walter Pincus has a writeup today of a House hearing last Tuesday on what we should be doing about Iraqi refugees. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) remarked on the failure of the administration to help Iraqis who have worked for the Coalition as translators:

“I can’t remember President Bush speaking about this refugee crisis or the need for the United States to respond aggressively to it except in passing,” Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said.

As for the Iraqi translators, some 500 more of whom have signed up to seek visas, Ackerman said, “I don’t understand why the administration isn’t processing them … unless that was never their intention and all along they were willing to talk a good game but leave these people high and dry.”

Then there’s the Republican position, as presented by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.):

“They’re wonderful people who’d like to live here, especially the ones who have helped us, but the last thing we want to do is to have people who are friendly to democracy … moving here in large numbers at a time when they’re needed to build a new, thriving Iraq.”

So Rep. Rohrabacher knows better than these Arabic-speaking, living-in-Iraq Iraqis what’s best for them. And, as it happens, what’s best for them is to stay in the hellish maelstrom of violence that is Iraq, despite the stated views of these folks themselves. Somehow the foolish idea has gotten into their heads that they’re owed something for having put their lives on the line, day in and day out, to assist the Coalition. In fairness to Rep. Rohrabacher, he’s offering them something: the right to help salvage the grandiose political science theories of men like Rohrabacher. And for that, we should be sure they’ll be eternally grateful.

My colleague Malou Innocent had a piece on the plight of Iraqis who’ve aided the Coalition back in December. Give it a read and see if Rohrabacher’s position doesn’t become all the more uncomfortable.

The Dangers of Warrantless Wiretapping

My friend (and Cato alum) Julian Sanchez has a great op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the history of wiretapping abuse. Supporters of warrantless wiretapping act as though it’s outrageous to suggest that unchecked surveillance powers might be abused. But history suggests that abuses of wiretapping power was the norm, rather than the exception, in the pre-FISA legal regime:

In 1945, Harry Truman had the FBI wiretap Thomas Corcoran, a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust” whom Truman despised and whose influence he resented. Following the death of Chief Justice Harlan Stone the next year, the taps picked up Corcoran’s conversations about succession with Justice William O. Douglas. Six weeks later, having reviewed the FBI’s transcripts, Truman passed over Douglas and the other sitting justices to select Secretary of the Treasury (and poker buddy) Fred Vinson for the court’s top spot.

“Foreign intelligence” was often used as a pretext for gathering political intelligence. John F. Kennedy’s attorney general, brother Bobby, authorized wiretaps on lobbyists, Agriculture Department officials and even a congressman’s secretary in hopes of discovering whether the Dominican Republic was paying bribes to influence U.S. sugar policy. The nine-week investigation didn’t turn up evidence of money changing hands, but it did turn up plenty of useful information about the wrangling over the sugar quota in Congress – information that an FBI memo concluded “contributed heavily to the administration’s success” in passing its own preferred legislation.

Julian also describes abuses in the Harding, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. He concludes:

It’s probably true that ordinary citizens uninvolved in political activism have little reason to fear being spied on, just as most Americans seldom need to invoke their 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech. But we understand that the 1st Amendment serves a dual role: It protects the private right to speak your mind, but it serves an even more important structural function, ensuring open debate about matters of public importance. You might not care about that first function if you don’t plan to say anything controversial. But anyone who lives in a democracy, who is subject to its laws and affected by its policies, ought to care about the second.

Harvard University legal scholar William Stuntz has argued that the framers of the Constitution viewed the 4th Amendment as a mechanism for protecting political dissent. In England, agents of the crown had ransacked the homes of pamphleteers critical of the king – something the founders resolved that the American system would not countenance.

In that light, the security-versus-privacy framing of the contemporary FISA debate seems oddly incomplete. Your personal phone calls and e-mails may be of limited interest to the spymasters of Langley and Ft. Meade. But if you think an executive branch unchecked by courts won’t turn its “national security” surveillance powers to political ends – well, it would be a first.

It’s My Way or No Highway

Congressional earmarks have received a lot of media attention lately, despite the fact that they make up only a small percentage of the overall budget.

Even advocates of limited government sometimes bemoan the disproportionate focus on earmarks and the relative lack of attention paid to larger spending items, like entitlement programs.

But the full story on earmarks isn’t simply their direct impact on the budget. Earmarks are also used by Congressional leadership to raise the public profile of incumbents in tough reelection fights, entice members to vote for controversial bills, and enforce party discipline.

The latter was on display yesterday when, as The Hill notes, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David Obey (D-WI), “canceled meetings with a New Orleans delegation because a Louisiana lawmaker had defied party leadership on a procedural vote the night before.”

In canceling the meeting, Obey was “punishing” Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) by refusing to allow his constituents to make a pitch for their earmark wish list to the House’s chief appropriator. More broadly, Obey sent a clear message to other lawmakers: recalcitrance will jeopardize your earmarks.

Using taxpayer funds to enforce party discipline is a blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars. Further, this practice undercuts a chief argument of earmark defenders who claim that the process is an essential means to fast-track funds to critical local projects, like roads and infrastructure. Unless, of course, truly critical projects exist only in the districts of loyal partisans.

In other earmark news, yesterday the Senate overwhelmingly rejected a one-year moratorium on earmarks. Hardly a surprise.

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Last week I observed that existing hobbled “school choice” programs have yet to transform American education because they fall far short of free markets. NRO’s Carol Iannone responds:

Well, of course! And necessarily so…. public education could never be completely open to a fully free market…. [And even if it were,] the results would not be pretty, because the market cannot ensure quality.

She endeavors to back up these assertions with an analogy to cable television (which apparently includes programming she finds lacking in culture). But, Ms. Iannone, it ain’t necessarily so, and we needn’t resort to analogy to find that out. Free education markets actually exist today, and have existed at various times and places throughout history, all the way back to the classical Athenians (whose cultural contributions were so enduring that they can still be found on cable television, 2,500 years later).

Rather than imagining what we think a free education marketplace might look like; rather than dreaming about how wonderful an idealized set of government standards could be; I suggest that we actually compare real education markets to real government-run and intrusively regulated schools. That is what I have spent the past decade-and-a-half doing. Based on my own and others’ findings, I recommend unfettered markets, coupled with financial assistance to ensure universal access, as the best way of fulfilling the ideals of public education. There are many possible ways of getting there, from the continued gradual expansion of certain existing programs to the passage of stronger ones such as Cato’s own Public Education Tax Credit.

I recently summarized and linked to the huge preponderance of econometric research favoring market over monopoly schooling, so let me just add a further detail here: the evidence does not support the view that government-mandated standards improve upon the operation of true free education markets. On the contrary, it shows that government licensing of teachers has little effect other than to eliminate from the teaching pool many of the most capable applicants and to drive up wages. And in those countries where real market schools can be compared to government schools, the curricula demanded by parents in the education marketplace are generally more in tune with the labor market, and more effectively and efficiently taught, than the curricula handed down by government appointed experts. This echoes the historical pattern I documented in my book Market Education: The Unknown History.

I invite government standards advocates, who claim that support for market education is based on “faith,” to actually look at the research and then to look at themselves in the mirror. Which of us has the better empirical case?

Airbus, Alabama, Boeing, and McCain

Press reports on the tanker saga have left two points unappreciated. The first is the hidden cost of creating a new aircraft assembly facility in Alabama. The second is how John McCain’s demands for competition in this deal helped Airbus and Northrop – not because McCain is crooked but because competition in defense contracting is phony.

To review: The Air Force needs refueling tankers because we fight far-off wars and don’t want to ask permission for overseas basing rights. B-52 bombers couldn’t fly from Missouri to Afghanistan to bomb the Taliban without tankers. Fighters and cargo aircraft need them too. The Air Force’s tanker fleet of 520 KC-135s and 59 larger KC-10s is old. In 2004, the Air Force tried to begin replacing them by leasing tankers from Boeing, as private airlines do. The deal unraveled when it emerged that leasing the tankers would add $6 billion to the taxpayers’ bill, that the deal was partially intended to prop up Boeing, and that Boeing had bought influence with Pentagon officials. McCain led the opposition. Two Boeing executives and one Air Force official went to prison. The Secretary of the Air Force and the head of Boeing lost their jobs.

Still looking for new tankers, the Air Force solicited another set of proposals for the new tanker, now dubbed the KC-45A. A few weeks ago, Airbus, a subsidiary of EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, won, along with its partner, American defense contractor Northrop-Grumman. The deal would eliminate jobs in Kansas and Washington where Boeing has production facilities. Congressmen and Senators from those states erupted into patriotic indignation and vowed hearings. Politicians from Alabama, where Airbus will place a new production facility, vowed to fight for the deal. Boeing protested, which forces a GAO review – delaying the start of production by at least 100 days. Now allegations have emerged that McCain aided the victors while taking their money and their lobbyists for his Presidential campaign. Got it?

The Air Force says EADS’s tanker is better than Boeing’s. I believe them. It would be reckless to choose an inferior product given the likely protest from the loser and what happened in 2004. But while getting the best plane for the least money is essential, when it awards contracts, the Pentagon should be able to consider their effect on the political landscape, because that landscape drives future contracts. You can’t get the politics out of defense contracting, so you need to get the politics right.

The political problem with the Airbus deal is that it opens a production facility in Alabama to make conventional aircraft assembled elsewhere into tankers, but will not close Boeing’s similar plant in Wichita, Kansas. This means taxpayers have a new mouth to feed. Because they create concentrated interests, US military production facilities are nearly impossible to close. In the private sector, sellers make money by cutting costs and delivering products more efficiently. In defense contracting, companies succeed by keeping production lines open and relying on local Congressman, workers and lobbyists to get them work. That’s why the US has twice the number of shipyards it needs despite consolidation in the shipbuilding industry. It would have been better to keep all the production in Europe, preventing new domestic lobbies from forming, or more realistically, accomplish the same thing by making Airbus lease Boeing’s plant.

Senator McCain has mud on his face because after he blocked the Boeing lease deal and pushed to reopen the bidding, he got around $14,000 in contributions from EADS employees, more than any other politician. Then he hired some of their lobbyists for his presidential campaign. Did that affect his behavior on the current round of proposals? McCain says no. “All I asked for in this situation was a fair competition,” he says.

But keep in mind what fair competition here means. As my friend Owen Cote, a researcher at MIT, points out, with only two viable competitors, this is a not a real market. Ensuring competition among two sellers means giving both leverage over the buyer, because if one exits the process, competition is lost. What the press has not pointed out is that McCain’s insistence on competition gave Airbus the power to force changes in the Air Force’s criteria.

There were two disputes about the Pentagon’s request for proposals that McCain got involved in to the benefit of Northrop-Airbus. First, in September and December 2006, just before the Pentagon was to release its RFP, McCain wrote to top Pentagon officials, asking them to eliminate language in the RFP forcing consideration of how penalties due to a WTO dispute over subsidies might affect the tanker’s production cost. That provision, championed by Boeing booster Norman Dicks (D-WA), would have hurt Northrop-Airbus more than Boeing. McCain got his wish.

Second, in the December letter, McCain asked the Pentagon to give the proposals credit for having more cargo space, instead of equal points for having in excess of a certain amount of space. Meanwhile, the Northrop-Airbus team, which was proposing a bigger aircraft, threatened to withdraw their bid if the Air Force did not change its criteria on this issue. This double whammy put the Air Force up a creek. If Northrop and Airbus weren’t bluffing, leaving the criteria be would hand the deal to Boeing, and enrage McCain, who could then accuse the Air Force in public hearings of giving Boeing another sweetheart deal. The Air Force complied, giving another advantage to Northrop-Airbus.

It therefore appears that John McCain was necessary to EADS getting this deal, even as he was taking in their campaign contributions and lobbyists. That doesn’t mean there’s anything nefarious here. McCain had good reason to help block the deal in the first round. The changes he asked for in the second round were arguably wise. The subsidy issue could actually be seen as an ace in the hole for Boeing that should not have been there in the first place. Plus $14,000 is cheap if he were going to sell out.

But it sure doesn’t look good. Who was it that said that “questions of honor are raised as much by appearances as by reality in politics”?