White Paper

Policy Priorities for the 114th Congress

By Cato Institute
February 4, 2015

Pundits have lately been declaring the 112th and 113th Congresses the “least productive” in recent history. Why, they passed fewer than 600 laws between them! One leading writer even called the 113th “by just about every measure, the worst Congress ever,” surely overlooking the Congresses that passed, for instance, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Indian Removal Act, the internment of the Japanese Americans, Prohibition, conscription, or indeed the income tax.

At the Cato Institute we take a different view. We propose that passing more laws — that is, more mandates, bans, regulations, taxes, subsidies, boondoggles, transfer programs, and proclamations — is at best a dubious accomplishment. In fact, given that the American people pondered the “least productive Congress ever” twice, and twice kept the government divided between the two parties, it just might be that most Americans are fine with a Congress that passes fewer laws.

Sometimes, indeed, the wisest course for Congress is to repeal a law, or to refrain from passing a proposed law. In part, that view reflects one major theme of this agenda: that even many vitally important things in American society are not the province of the federal government. We stand firmly on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, on the bedrock American values of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace. And throughout our 38 years we have been willing to criticize officials of both parties when they sought to take the country in another direction. But we have also been pleased to work with officials of both parties when they seek to expand freedom or limit government.

In this document, Policy Priorities for the 114th Congress, we outline modest and practical steps Congress and the administration could take in the next two years in that direction — reforms of health care, financial regulation, taxes, surveillance, marijuana policy, civil asset forfeiture, war powers, immigration, transportation, and more.

Those who are familiar with the Cato Handbook for Policymakers will notice that this is a much slimmer volume. This document is not intended to supplant the Handbook. Rather, Policy Priorities is intended as an updated supplement to begin a conversation among Cato scholars, members of Congress, and congressional staff about policy solutions to current challenges.

Is it possible that Congress will choose to pursue policies — tax increases, yet higher spending, continued subsidies for risky decisions, intrusion into corporate decision-making — that would slow down U.S. economic growth, perhaps make us more like France, with a supposedly kinder, gentler capitalism and a GDP per capita of about 75 percent of ours? Yes, it’s possible, and clearly there are proposals for such policies. But if we want economic growth — which means more health care, scientific advance, better pharmaceuticals, more leisure opportunities, a cleaner environment, better technology — in short, more well-being for more people — there is no alternative to market capitalism. And if we want more growth, for more people, with wider scope for personal choice and decision-making, libertarian policy prescriptions are the roadmap.

Private property, free markets, and fiscal restraint are important foundations for liberty. But there are restrictions on liberty beyond the realm of taxes and regulations. We hope that elected officials of both parties will recognize the dangers of warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, censorship, drug prohibition, executive overreach, entanglement of church and state, and other such policies. Americans declared in 1776 that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights, and in 1787 they wrote a Constitution that empowers a limited government to protect those rights.

For those who go into government to improve the lives of their fellow citizens, the hardest lesson to accept may be that Congress should often do nothing about a problem — such as education, crime, or the cost of prescription drugs. Critics will object, “Do you want the government to just stand there and do nothing while this problem continues?” Sometimes that is exactly what Congress should do. Remember the ancient wisdom imparted to physicians: First, do no harm. And have confidence that free people, left to their own devices, will address issues of concern to them more effectively outside a political environment.

Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter 1: Health Care Reform
Chapter 2: Financial Regulation
Chapter 3: Reforming Surveillance Authorities
Chapter 4: Reclaiming the War Power
Chapter 5: Ending Legalized Piracy - Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform
Chapter 6: Stopping Police Militarization - Reforming the 1033 Program
Chapter 7: The Future of the Export-Import Bank
Chapter 8: Corporate Tax Reform
Chapter 9: Fairness, the Internet, and State Taxing Power
Chapter 10: Trade Promotion Authority
Chapter 11: Immigration
Chapter 12: Surface Transportation Policy
Chapter 13: Infrastructure Investment
Chapter 14: Federal Marijuana Policy