Don’t Envy Senator Wyden

Being a U.S. senator can be fun. The position brings with it a certain amount of influence, fame, and stature. However, serving in the Senate also is fraught with challenges. Much time must be spent away from family. Flying back and forth between home and Washington can wear a person out. And some voters always are unhappy with you, sometimes really unhappy.

This is a complicated moment for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). He has paid his dues in the Senate since 1997 and now is one of its more senior members. That seniority has brought him to the position of ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has the responsibility (among others) for establishing policies pertaining to international trade.

Congress is trying to decide whether to grant President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), formerly known as “fast track” authority. TPA commits Congress to an up-or-down vote (no amendments) on a trade agreement presented to it by the White House.  This procedure provides foreign negotiating partners with assurance that Congress will consider any agreement as a complete package, thus avoiding the risk that it might be amended in response to pressure from groups that are unhappy with one or more of its provisions. 

Such pressure dissuaded Congress from approving provisions that had been agreed to by the administration in the 1967 Kennedy Round of negotiations, which were conducted under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Other countries were not amused when the United States didn’t live up to its Kennedy Round commitments. To rebuild its negotiating credibility, the United States needed to find a way to bridge the Constitution’s clear delineation of powers: the president has the right to negotiate with other countries, but Congress has authority to regulate foreign commerce. 

The response was the Trade Act of 1974, which developed the basic formula for approving trade agreements that has been used ever since. Congress granted the president five years of negotiating authority that covered both tariffs and non-tariff measures.

The most recent version of TPA expired in 2007. President Obama currently is seeking a new grant of negotiating authority in order to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other nations, and possibly also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the 28 members of the European Union. 

Senator Wyden will play a crucial role in determining whether or not TPA is approved. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), chairman of the Finance Committee, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, would like to introduce TPA legislation. However, they don’t want to do so without bipartisan support. There is a long tradition of Democrats and Republicans working together on behalf of trade liberalization. 

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, generally opposes trade reforms that could lead to a greater selection of affordable automobiles for consumers. In other words, he’s a lost cause when it comes to sponsoring a version of TPA that the White House might approve. This is why all eyes are on Senator Wyden.

Chairmen of House and Senate Budget Committees Propose Good Fiscal Frameworks, Particularly Compared to Obama’s Spendthrift Plan

Earlier this year, President Obama proposed a budget that would impose new taxes and add a couple of trillion dollars to the burden of government spending over the next 10 years.

The Republican Chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees have now weighed in. You can read the details of the House proposal by clicking here and the Senate proposal by clicking here, but the two plans are broadly similar (though the Senate is a bit vaguer on how to implement spending restraint, as I wrote a couple of days ago).

So are any of these plans good, or at least acceptable? Do any of them satisfy my Golden Rule?

Here’s a chart showing what will happen to spending over the next 10 years, based on the House and Senate GOP plans, as well as the budget proposed by President Obama.

Keep in mind, as you look at these numbers, that economy is projected to expand, in nominal terms, by an average of about 4.3 percent annually.

The most relevant data is that the Republican Chairmen want spending to climb by about $1.4 trillion over the next decade (annual spending increases averaging about 3.3 percent per year), while Obama wants spending to jump by about $2.4 trillion over the same period (with annual spending climbing by an average of almost 5.1 percent per year).

Religious Persecution: First Freedom Remains Under Global Siege

Americans take religious liberty for granted. But four of five people around the world lack the freedom to worship and live faithfully.

The Pew Research Center, with Peter Henne as lead researcher, recently issued its latest study on religious liberty. The report makes for a sad read.

In some nations governments suppress the faithful. In other countries people make their societies unfriendly to minority beliefs, imposing a wide range of less formal sanctions, including murder.

The overall global environment to religious faith is hostile. Concluded the study:  “restrictions on religion were high or very high in 39 percent of countries. Because some of these countries (like China and India) are very populous, about 5.5 billion people (77 percent of the world’s population) were living in countries with a high or very high overall level of restrictions on religion in 2013, up from 76 percent in 2012 and 68 percent as of 2007.”

Christians and Muslims, who make up the largest share of the world’s population, are the most widely harassed faiths (in 102 and 99 countries, respectively)—in both cases, ironically, far more grievously in Muslim than Christian nations.

But particularly worrisome has been the increase in anti-Semitism. Noted Pew: “there has been a marked increase in the number of countries where Jews were harassed,” to 77, a recent peak. The problem is more social than government, and is evident in 34 of 45 European nations.

In 2013 18 nations were found to have “very high” levels of government restrictions. A Baker’s Dozen of the chief miscreants were Muslim states: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Four were classically authoritarian and/or Communist/post-Communist (so were the three Central Asia nations listed previously): Burma, China, Eritrea, and Russia. The surprising outlier was Singapore, which bans particular sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. (North Korea could not be ranked due to a lack of data.)

There is substantial overlap between persecuting states and those with significant social hostilities, but also some notable differences. Seventeen make the disreputable very high antagonism category.

The Senate Budget: Even More Vague than the House

Senate Budget Chairman Mike Enzi released his budget proposal yesterday afternoon. The request follows yesterday’s proposal from House Budget Chairman Tom Price. The two requests are similar. Both would reduce projected spending by $5 trillion and balance the federal budget over the next ten years. Both budgets repeal ObamaCare, and neither includes reforms to Social Security. The big difference between the two is that the Senate version is even vaguer than the House version.

Like the House budget, the Senate budget includes Medicare reforms. It also includes a proposal that would cut $400 billion from Medicare over the next ten years, matching the level of cuts from President Obama’s budget request in February. The Senate version does not specify how it will cut $400 billion, other than stating that it “does not endorse the President’s specific policy proposals.”  The House plan at least it acknowledged how it would reduce Medicare spending (by using a premium support model to generate savings).

The Senate’s defense funding plan is also less clear than the House plan. Both keep the 2011 bipartisan Budget Control Act spending levels for the base defense budget, which is $523 billion for fiscal year 2016. The Senate budget includes an additional $58 billion in “emergency” defense funding, the same amount the president includes. While the House included $90 billion in “emergency” defense funding, the Senate includes a provision that would allow it to establish a “deficit-neutral reserve fund” for further increases in defense spending. That is budget-speak for an undisclosed amount of defense spending hikes, with some sort of spending cut elsewhere in the budget to offset the increase. So while the House plan appears more expensive than the Senate plan, the Senate’s total defense spending level for fiscal year 2016 isn’t obvious and could eventually be higher.

Overall, the proposals from Price and Enzi are similar. As the two chambers reconcile their proposals over the next several weeks, the negotiated budget should provide further insight into Republican spending priorities.

Scholarship Tax Credits Do Not Financially Benefit Donors

In a desperate attempt to halt New York legislators from enacting a new school choice law, teachers and their allies have resorted to misrepresenting what the proposed law would do.

Scholarship tax credit laws make donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations eligible for tax credits, rather than merely tax deductions. The scholarship organizations help low- and middle-income families afford tuition at the schools of their choice. The New York proposal, known as the Education Investment Tax Credit, would create a 75 percent tax credit, meaning that a $1,000 donation to a scholarship organization would reduce a donor’s tax liability by $750. Between the donation and the remaining $250 in tax liability, the donor would have given a total of $1,250.

New York teachers unions and the think tank they fund are trying to portray this arrangement as somehow financially benefiting the donors. Sadly, some media outlets have reported their spin verbatim, including WXXI News:

“It’s nothing more than a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations,” said Ron Deutsch, with the think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, which is in part funded by unions.

He says it’s also bad tax policy that could harm other charitable organizations. Under current laws, a million dollar charitable donation nets the donor just $22,000 in tax credits. He says education tax credit donors would get $750,000 back from a million dollar donation. Under a Senate version of the plan, donors would get $900,000 dollars back.

It takes real chutzpah to describe an arrangement that decreases the amount of money in the donor’s pocket as a “giveaway.” Deutsch falsely claims that the donors receive a “net” benefit, but the net is actual in the negative. The hypothetical donor that Deutsch describes could have paid only $1,000,000 in taxes, but instead chose to pay $250,000 in taxes and donate an additional $1,000,000. In other words, the donor would have saved $250,000 had she decided not to donate anything.

Some giveaway!

Scholarship tax credits expand educational opportunities for low-income families–the type that have been rallying in support of the proposal in recent weeks. Donors do not financially benefit from their donations whatsoever. Media outlets should not let themselves be used to spread misinformation to the contrary.

For those interested in learning how scholarship tax credit laws affect the lives of real families, watch the Cato Institute’s recent film, “Live Free and Learn”:

Putin Returns

In a piece published today over at Townhall, I talk about Vladimir Putin’s recent disappearance from the public eye, and why it wasn’t as big a deal as you might think.

The rumors surrounding his ten-day disappearance ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was kept busy, scotching speculation that the Russian leader was ill, quashing reports of a power struggle within the Kremlin, and refuting assertions that Putin had been absent to attend the birth of his new child.

When Putin finally reappeared on Monday, he waved away all questions about his absence, simply noting that “life would be boring without gossip.”  We’ll probably never know where Putin was for those ten days, though his pallor implied a minor illness. Given the consistent unwillingness of the Kremlin to divulge information about Putin’s personal life, the whole thing may have been nothing more than the flu.

But it’s worth asking why Putin’s disappearance caused such a media furor. Putin’s centrality to the Russian political system is so well-accepted that commentators and policymakers routinely treat Putin himself as sole representative of the Russian state, psychoanalyzing the man for insight into Russian foreign policy choices. His disappearance, therefore, implied the possibility of chaos in Russia.

Putin is certainly the key figure in Russian politics today, in terms of both personality and power. His ability to mediate between key factions inside the Russian state has allowed him to solidify power, and to govern far more effectively than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, ever did. He is still overwhelmingly popular. Yet Putin is not the only player in Russian politics. He has a number of close, senior advisors, many of whom could fill a central role in the system Putin built. His death or incapacitation would be a shock, but it wouldn’t necessarily result in major political changes.

Obviously, we can’t predict the future. After all, who could have predicted when Boris Yeltsin picked a young, unknown former intelligence operative as his presidential successor how successful Putin would be in reining in the corrupt excesses of the Russian state, or how effectively he would undermine Russian democratic reforms?

Yet it is unlikely that Putin’s departure from office, no matter when it occurs, will result in chaos and the collapse of the Russian government. It is even less plausible that his death would result in a pro-democracy or pro-Western protest movement like the one we saw in Ukraine.

Instead, as I argue in the article, it is probable that one of Putin’s close advisors would become his successor, taking over as Russia’s president, probably with a thin veneer of legitimacy in the form of largely uncontested elections. With a similar background and worldview, this successor would simply continue many of Putin’s policies. In short, Putin’s Russia – and its odious foreign policy – probably isn’t going anywhere, even if the man himself does. 

Police Body Cameras Are Not a Panacea

Las Vegas police officer Richard Scavone is facing a misdemeanor battery charge after body camera footage revealed that he had, according to Undersheriff Kevin McMahill, used excessive and unreasonable force while arresting a woman for loitering for prostitution in January.

Scavone’s lawyer said that his client, who is suspended with pay, was one of the 400 volunteers taking part in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s body camera study. Footage of the incident has not been released, as it is being used in the ongoing investigations conducted by the Clark County District Attorney and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

This is not the first time that police body cameras have captured alleged excessive force. In January, prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico said that they would be pursuing murder charges against two police officers who in March 2014 shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless paranoid schizophrenic camping in the Sandia Mountains. The killing was filmed by a helmet camera worn by one of the officers at the scene. Speaking about the case, Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said, “We have evidence in this case to establish probable cause we didn’t have in other cases.”

Both the Las Vegas and Albuquerque incidents highlight that body cameras are valuable in providing extra transparency and accountability but are not a panacea for allegations of police misconduct.