(Ways and) Means to an End

The House Ways and Means Committee released their trade policy vision on Tuesday, and it should give cause for concern to free-traders who thought a compromise could be reached between the Democratic majority and the administration on how to advance the trade agenda. There are few details on how exactly trade agreements could be made acceptable to Democrats in the immediate future, and plenty of demands that could give potential trade partners cause for alarm.

The administration must give 90 days’ advance notice to Congress when seeking its approval for trade agreements, under the terms of the trade promotion authority delegated by Congress to the President. Because that authority expires on July 1, there are only two working days left to iron out differences on completed trade agreements (those with Peru, Colombia, and Panama, and possibly the still-under-frantic-negotiation agreement with South Korea). The Democrats’ one-pager was lamentably short on details about how to make these agreements acceptable to them.

In the longer-term, if the new majority’s trade strategy is indicative of its overall approach to trade policy (and we have every reason to believe that it is) then negotiated trade liberalization looks to be over for the next two years at least. Unless, of course, the secret 15-page proposal (mentioned in this NY Times piece) presented to the administration contains more of substance, and less of the deal-breaking demands, than what was released to the public.

The details we do have from the one-pager, however, do not paint a pretty picture. The Democrats’ plan proposes new emphasis on labour and environmental standards (including some standards to which, some critics point out, the United States is not a party), non-tariff barriers, calls for immediate action (italics in original) on currency manipulation in China and Japan, and more help for workers displaced by trade. Organized labor has welcomed it, of course, although–bizarrely–so have some Republican members of the committee, including the ranking Republican, Jim McCrery (R-LA). Steven Pearlstein in an article in yesterdays Washington Post, called some of the demands “political poison pills.”

Previous Cato research on some of these topics can be viewed here, and my colleague Dan Ikenson gave an interview on BBC on Tuesday night on the Dems’ proposal: view here.

DC Gun Laws

Eugene Volokh has thoughts on what constitutes a violation of the DC law regarding firearms possession.  Today’s Washington Post says police and lawyers are unsure about what is legal and what is illegal–at least with respect to members of Congress and their staff. The DC police say Senators may have guns in their offices, but it would be a crime for the members to carry or transport a handgun from their residence to their office.  To get around that bizarre reading of the law, one lawyer suggests that Senators have a DC police cruiser transport their weapons to and from their offices.  Good grief. 

Everyone seems to agree that Senator Webb’s staffer, Phillip Thompson, meant no harm.  Given that, shouldn’t Thompson invoke his constitutional right to a trial by jury?  I wish he would, but that is not likely to happen.  Prosecutors can extort guilty pleas from people like Thompson by using plea-bargaining tactics (pdf).  DC prosecutors will give Thompson an offer he can’t refuse: waive your right to a trial and plead guilty and you’ll get probation.  If Thompson says he’d like to have a jury trial, prosecutors will warn him that if he goes that route, the city will throw the book at him and add a criminal “count” for every single bullet (“unregistered ammunition”) that was in his possession.  Not many people are willing to risk years in prison by taking a case to a jury.  

Bottom line: A crazy quilt of laws and extorted guilty pleas.

Still Dissing Reagan

Twenty-seven years after his election as president, journalists still like to take a poke at Ronald Reagan whenever they get the chance. A Washington Post story today on lawyer-actor-senator Fred Thompson’s possible presidential candidacy notes that equal time rules could require TV stations to take “Law and Order” off the air during if Thompson becomes a candidate and then says

In the 1970s and 1980s, stations dropped “Bedtime for Bonzo” and other Reagan movies during his campaigns for governor of California and for president.

Yes, no doubt they did drop Reagan’s most amusingly titled movie. But they presumably also dropped such movies as Dark Victory, Brother Rat, Knute Rockne All American, The Hasty Heart, and Kings Row. But those just don’t sound as goofy.

I wonder how many liberal journalists have ever watched Bedtime for Bonzo. It’s actually quite funny to see Reagan as a young liberal college professor trying to prove the “nurture” side of the nature-vs.-nurture and saying that there are no bad kids, just bad environments.

It’s Only Disclosure!

Policymaking in First Amendment area begins with a presumption of liberty. That is, strong reasons must be given to restrict basic liberties.

Mandatory disclosure of campaign finance activity requires such strong reasons. The U.S. Supreme Court has given three reasons for mandated disclosure: to deter corruption, to inform citizens so they can predict what a candidate might do in office, and to help enforce contribution limits.

Not much is known about how the policy of mandated disclosure actually relates to these “state interests.” No one has been much interested in examining their effects because no one much objected. Mandatory disclosure was thought of as the least intrusive means to regulate campaign finance and political activity. Hence, even people inclined to criticize campaign finance regulation were heard saying, “it’s only disclosure.”

Since the agenda of possibilities was limited, alternatives were not considered in light of the costs and benefits of disclosure. Now that’s changing. Dick Carpenter and the Institute for Justice have conducted a survey to learn more about the likely effects of disclosure, especially in the context of a ballot initiative. The results do not encourage complacency about mandated disclosure. The study is well worth a look.

Bob Bauer comments on the Institute for Justice study during his insightful remarks on the fifth anniversary of you-know-what.

Congress vs. President

Since the news media keeps saying that we’re heading for a “constitutional showdown” between President Bush and the Congress, it’s time for a pop quiz. 

Who wrote the following passage?

“Congress’s power to compel members of the executive branch to obey its legitimate requests for information has long been deemed critical to the functioning of our democracy and has been upheld by the Supreme Court.”

A. Hillary Clinton

B. Dick Cheney

C. Thurgood Marshall

D. John Yoo

The correct answer is D, John Yoo.  See “How Congress’s Subpoena Power Works,” Wall Street Journal, May 28, 1997.  Interestingly, ten years later, there’s another op-ed in the Journal, but today’s piece (subscription required) argues that the Bush Administration can resist congressional subpoenas that relate to the current controversy concerning the firing of the U.S. Attorneys.