With the election only weeks away, pundits are visualizing how a Republican-controlled Senate would impact future policy decisions. Today’s Washington Post highlights the supposed plight of federal workers under a Republican Congress.
The piece discusses House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal:
Under the Ryan budget, the contribution of most federal employees toward their retirement plan would increase by 5.5 percentage points with no increase in benefits — effectively a pay cut. Ryan emphasizes a “defined-contribution system” that centers on employee payments to their retirement program instead of the current system, which includes pensions from the U.S. government. He estimated his plan would save the government $125 billion over 10 years.
That $125 billion in savings, however, would come from the pockets of federal employees.
The piece continues in a similar vein discussing Republican-supported legislation that would make it easier for federal employees to be disciplined, fired, and restricted in their conference expenditures--all reasonable proposals. It cites federal employee union officials on the difficulties these policies would place on federal workers.
But the piece fails to mention the elephant in the room: federal employees are compensated more generously than their private-sector counterparts.
Using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average wage for a federal civilian employee in 2013 was $81,076, compared to the average wage of $55,424 for private-sector employees.
The big advantage for federal employees is their robust benefit packages. Federal employees receive the largest selection of health insurance of any employer in the country, generous vacation and time-off policies, and both a defined benefit pension and 401(k)-style retirement account. Adding in the value of these benefits, the average federal civilian employee receives annual compensation of $115,524. Compensation for the average private-sector employee is $66,357.
Particularly striking is the availability of pensions to federal employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10 percent of private-sector employers are offered defined benefit pension plans. The majority of recipients are unionized employees, concentrated in the utilities industry.
Given this large disparity it is reasonable that the Ryan Budget would increase employee contributions to their pensions. This plan was also endorsed by the Bowles-Simpson commission as a meaningful step to reforming compensation for the federal civilian workforce.
While $125 billion sounds like a large cut to federal employee compensation, it represents less than 5 percent of compensation over the next ten years. Asking federal employees to pay a bit more for their lavish benefits is a common-sense reform for the new Congress. Hopefully, Congress will go further and phase-out the defined-benefit pension program in its entirely.
Secretary of State John Kerry met late yesterday in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Though somewhat overshadowed by Kerry’s meetings with Iran, the meeting nonetheless provided some fascinating clues as to where the Ukraine crisis is headed.
First, international tensions over Ukraine seem to be slowly relaxing, although violence continues to mar the ceasefire in the Donbas itself. Russian troops are withdrawing from the border, as specified in the Minsk Protocol. The United States is making encouraging noises about the possibility of sanction removal. More importantly, Kerry made a clear point of emphasizing Russian-American cooperation and announced that the two countries would engage in intelligence sharing on ISIS. This represents a major about-face for the Obama administration, which just six months ago said its goal was to “isolate President Vladimir Putin.” It seems that faced with the difficulty of managing simultaneous conflicts – something the White House is not good at – officials are opting for a more conciliatory approach to Russia.
Second, Crimea wasn’t mentioned. Though it calls for Ukrainian sovereignty to be respected, the protocol doesn’t explicitly discuss Crimea. In short, it looks like Crimea may be off the negotiating table, effectively ceded to Russia. Instead, the main point of contention between Kerry and Lavrov appears to have been the worry that Ukrainian separatists will hold another referendum on joining Russia, in place of Ukrainian parliamentary elections in late October.
Third, no Ukrainian representatives were present at the meeting, although President Poroshenko is set to meet with Vladimir Putin and several European heads of state tomorrow in Milan. Ukraine is struggling to fund its fight against the separatists, and international assistance is drying up. If Ukraine is being edged out of the process, it would be extremely bad for them, but could be positive for the United States, which gains little from a protracted cold war-style stand-off with Russia.
So where does this leave us? Distracted by developments in the Middle East, America seems content to let the status quo triumph in Ukraine, turning the dispute into a fairly typical post-Soviet frozen conflict, like those found in Georgia or Azerbaijan. Crimea would remain a de facto but unrecognized part of Russia, while Donetsk and Luhansk would be part of Ukraine in name only. Low levels of conflict will continue, but as long as Russia doesn’t get involved, the international community will likely ignore it. This outcome is probably the best that Russia could hope for, as it has the secondary advantage of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO or the European Union.
But while a diplomatic solution in Ukraine is wise, it shouldn’t be allowed to metastasize into a frozen conflict. As we saw in Georgia in 2008, these situations are inherently unstable and have the potential to spring back to life unexpectedly. For the sake of long-term stability, it would be better to negotiate now a more long-lasting deal between Russia and Ukraine, one which provides for substantial autonomy of the disputed regions within a Ukrainian federal structure.
As members of the faculty of Harvard Law School, we write to voice our strong objections to the Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedures imposed by the central university administration...
Amid the clamor to provide fuller remedies to complainants who file sexual assault and harassment charges, the university is preparing to trample the interests of others:
Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation.
Among the problems: overly broad definitions of misconduct in situations like that of mutual incapacitation by alcohol, and procedures that deny "any adequate opportunity to discover the facts charged and to confront witnesses and present a defense at an adversary hearing."
Had Harvard arrived at these rules as a result of purely internal deliberations, it would be one thing. But in practice it's yielding to strong-arm pressure from the combined efforts of the Obama Department of Justice and Education Department Office for Civil Rights (for more details, see my article for Commentary last year.) Like hundreds of other colleges and universities over the past year, Harvard responded to this pressure by meekly folding its hand:
The university’s sexual harassment policy departs dramatically from [existing] legal principles, jettisoning balance and fairness in the rush to appease certain federal administrative officials.
We recognize that large amounts of federal funding may ultimately be at stake. But Harvard University is positioned as well as any academic institution in the country to stand up for principle in the face of funding threats.
It's especially gratifying to see that the letter's signers include prominent scholars associated over the years variously with feminist, liberal, and left-leaning causes, such as Nancy Gertner, Charles Ogletree, Charles Nesson, Janet Halley, and Elizabeth Bartholet, along with perhaps more expected names like longtime contrarian Alan Dershowitz. A turning point? Let's hope so. The letter is here (h/t Eugene Volokh).
Randy Barnett has an excellent post at the Volokh Conspiracy about his recent amicus brief requesting the D.C. Circuit grant en banc review of Sissel v. HHS. (Sound familiar?) Sissel challenges the constitutionality of ObamaCare's individual mandate -- which the Supreme Court ruled could only be constitutional if imposed under Congress' taxing power -- on the grounds that this, ahem, tax originated in the Senate rather than the House, as the Constitution's Origination Clause requires.
A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit ruled against Sissel. The panel's rationale was that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was not the sort of "Bill for raising revenue" that is subject to the Origination Clause, because the purpose of the PPACA is to expand health insurance coverage, not to raise revenue. Barnett explains why this reasoning is nutty. Under the Sissel panel's ruling, no bills would ever be considered revenue measures because all revenue measures ultimately serve some other purpose. The panel's interpretation would therefore effectively write the Origination Clause out of the Constitution. Barnett argues instead that the courts must recognize the PPACA as a revenue measure subject to the Origination Clause because the Supreme Court held the taxing power is the only way Congress could have constitutionally enacted that law's individual mandate.
A shorter way to describe Barnett's argument is that he turns ObamaCare supporters' own victory against them: "You say the individual mandate is constitutional only as a tax? Fine. Then it's subject to the Origination Clause."
Barnett again corners the D.C. Circuit with another sauce-for-the-gander argument on the procedural question of whether that court should grant en banc review of its panel decision in Sissel:
Of course, en banc review is rarely granted by the DC Circuit, but given that it recently granted the government’s motion for en banc review of the statutory interpretation case of Halbig v. Burwell presumably because of the importance of the ACA, the case for correcting a mistaken constitutional interpretation is even more important, especially as the panel’s reasoning has the effect of completely gutting the Origination Clause from the Constitution...
Or, the shorter version: "You guys think Halbig is worthy of en banc review? Fine. If the Sissel panel erred, the downside is even greater."
We'll see whether the D.C. Circuit thinks the Constitution is as worthy of its protection as ObamaCare.
(Cross-posted at my comment-friendly blog, Darwin's Fool.)
As the police move in to tear down the barricades built by the protesters in Hong Kong, I am reminded of scenes from the musical "Les Miserables," and of this song:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free!
I hope that the students of Hong Kong will be more successful than the French students were in June 1832. This time, of course, the whole world is watching, and that may make some difference.
On October 30, the Cato Institute will host a conference featuring leading experts on four legal challenges that critics understandably yet mistakenly describe as "the most significant existential threat to the Affordable Care Act":
Thursday, October 30, 2014, 9:00AM – 1:30PM.
Luncheon to follow.
Featuring: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt; Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller; Robert Barnes, The Washington Post; Jonathan Adler, Case Western Reserve University School of Law; David Ziff, University of Washington School of Law; Brianne Gorod, Constitutional Accountability Center; James Blumstein, Vanderbilt University; Michael F. Cannon, Cato Institute; Len Nichols, George Mason University; Tom Miller, American Enterprise Institute; and Robert Laszewski, Health Policy and Strategy Associates, LLC.
In Pruitt v. Burwell and Halbig v. Burwell, federal courts have ruled that the Internal Revenue Service is misinterpreting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, unlawfully paying billions of dollars to private health insurance companies, and unlawfully subjecting more than 50 million individuals and employers to the Act’s individual and employer mandates. In King v. Burwell, another federal court found the IRS’s interpretation is permissible. A fourth lawsuit, Indiana v. IRS, is due a ruling at any time.
While these cases attempt to uphold the ACA by challenging the Obama administration’s interpretation, supporters and critics agree they could have as large an impact on the law as any constitutional challenge. Is the IRS acting within the confines of the law? Is the ACA unworkable as written? Is it inevitable that the Supreme Court will hear one of these cases, or a similar challenge yet to be filed? What is the impact of the IRS’s (mis)interpretation? What impact would a ruling for the plaintiffs have on the health care sector and the ACA? Leading experts, including the attorneys general behind Pruitt v. Burwell and Indiana v. IRS, will discuss these and other dimensions of this litigation.
To register to attend this event, click here and then submit the form on the page that opens, or email email@example.com, or fax (202) 371-0841, or call (202) 789-5229 by 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, October 29, 2014.
You Ought to Have a Look is a recurring feature from the Cato’s Center for the Study of Science that briefly highlights a few interesting blog posts from around the web that are comments on subject areas we are currently emphasizing. Climate change issues currently top the list. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary. This is the first installment of You Ought to Have a Look
We start off with the estimable Judith Curry, former chairwoman of the highly regarded School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology (aka “Georgia Tech”). Her musings, published every few days on her blog “Climate Etc.” have a wide following amongst climate geeks (like us), while oftentimes her postings should be of interest to a wider, more general audience.
Judith scored big last week with an excellent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In her subsequent blog post “My WSJ op-ed: Global warming statistical meltdown,” she takes you through the version that appeared in print as well as some of the earlier drafts of it highlighting lessons she learned along the way. The article focuses on her recent blockbuster publication in which she and co-researcher Nic Lewis peg the earth’s climate sensitivity—how much warming will occur as a result of a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide—at a value about one-half that which is produced by the collection of “state-of-the-art” climate models used by the UN and the Obama Administration to underpin their calls to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions from the production of energy.
And nearly every Friday, she posts her “Week in Review” where she highlights things that have recently caught her eye or events that she was involved in. In the current issue, she describes her recent travels which included a trip to Ohio’s Oberlin College where she “debated” me (PJM). As she describes it:
The debate went fine, we each had 10 minutes to make opening statements on the science, and then an additional 10 minutes to discuss broader implications. I used my time to discuss the values issues and decision making under deep uncertainties. PJM discussed the increasingly perverse incentives in academia and government funded science, see [link] for some of his recent writing on this topic. He definitely makes some valid points.
Next, you might want to check out the witty Matt Briggs (“Statistician to the Stars”) post on “Don’t Say ‘Hiatus’” in which he takes us (and virtually everyone else) to task for using the terms “pause” and/or “hiatus” to refer to the past 18 years or so of no statistically significant overall change in the earth’s average surface temperature. Briggs’ main point is that since climate change models are so bad (unskillful), there is no reason for a priori expectations of the temperature behavior one way or the other. In other words, a “pause” from what?
Be aware that Briggs is a very twisty writer, often leading the reader down a path that takes a sharp turn further down his somewhat detailed essays. But there is always some gem to find at the end!
Briggs is an interesting character. He is associated with Cornell, where he teaches on advanced statistics course. He was an editor of Journal of Climate, the American Meteorological Society’s flagship climate journal, but he quit after getting tired of the terrible manuscripts that were sent in (and often published).
It’s hard not to like Matt’s style, and you will be seeing a lot of his work highlighted here.
Finally, our friend Roy Spencer’s wide ranging drroyspencer.com (usually on things atmospheric, but sometimes otherwise) has an interesting article pointing out that size matters when it comes to climate change. In his post “Climate Change: A Meaningless Artifact of Technology?,” Roy notes that if you can’t distinguish the signal of climate change from the noise of natural variability (or even if you can, if it is exceedingly tiny), then there is really nothing worth getting worked up about. Roy worries:
“This seems to be the fate of our advanced society — we must find increasingly obscure things to fret over as we solve our major problems…hunger, disease, water-borne illness, infant mortality. But with real problems now appearing – renewed terrorist threats, Ebola — I fear we are straining gnats as we swallow camels.”
In a case of good timing, Roy followed-up that post with one illustrating a prime example of all this from Secretary of State John Kerry, who recently said something along the lines of “Life as you know it on Earth ends if climate change skeptics are wrong.” In his post “Life as You Know It Will End if John Kerry is Wrong…OR Right,” Roy demonstrates that, given the catastrophically high cost of converting even half of our fossil-fuel based energy to renewables, most of us will be living in poverty if Kerry’s solutions are implemented. Roy includes a video in which he and other energy policy experts discuss how the premature push toward renewable energy on a large scale will increase human suffering. It is well worth watching.
Stay tuned to our You Ought to Have a Look series for more blog highlights like these in the days ahead!