Archives: 12/2017

Food Stamp Reform in 2018?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of the costliest welfare programs at about $70 billion a year. Not only is it costly, but a large share of the benefits are not used as intended.

Recipients are supposed to use SNAP or food stamp benefits to “make healthy food choices” and “obtain a more nutritious diet.” But it turns out that about $15 billion of food stamp spending goes for junk food, such as candy and cola. Many recipients are not making the nutritious choices the government intends.

The Trump administration is expected to pursue welfare reforms next year, and trimming food stamp benefits is one priority. The Washington Post says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

is considering proposals to let states impose new restrictions on purchases of soda and candy and require SNAP candidates to apply in person, according to the Secretaries Innovation Group (SIG), which represents state social service secretaries from 20 Republican administrations. The agency is also considering a proposal to allow states to reduce payments to some groups of people, including undocumented immigrants’ citizen children.

… In the past, the USDA has rejected requests from states to take some of the actions SIG has suggested, particularly limiting the types of foods that people can buy with food stamps.

… One of the more controversial proposals involves a recommendation that the USDA ban “harmful” foods, such as soda and candy, from being purchased with food stamps. SIG also proposes that the program allow the purchase of only specific, “approved” foods, similar to what the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program does.

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is intended to subsidize nutrition for needy families,” reads SIG’s proposal, which was submitted to the USDA and Republican congressional leadership, and obtained by The Post. “However, too many recipients are utilizing their benefit to purchase items that are not only void of nutrition, they are damaging to their health.”

The article says “SNAP is America’s largest anti-hunger program,” but the main food-related health problem for low-income households today is not hunger, but obesity. Americans with low incomes are more obese than people with high incomes, on average. In general, people with low incomes are not suffering from too little food, but from too much of the wrong kinds of food.

So ending SNAP’s subsidies for junk food would be a pro-nutrition way to cut demand for the program and reduce taxpayer costs. Federal reforms to allow states to restrict benefits would move in the right direction. If food stamps could be only used for items such as fruits and vegetables, it is possible that fewer people would use the program and costs would fall.

For more on federal food subsidies, see here.

All I Want for Christmas…Is a BRAC

Five successive Secretaries of Defense have asked Congress for permission to reduce excess and unnecessary military bases. The fairest and most transparent way to make such cuts is through another Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round. So far, however, the SecDefs’ requests have gone unanswered. For their sake, but mostly for the sake of the men and women serving in our armed forces, I want one, too. All I want for Christmas is a BRAC.

According to the Pentagon’s latest estimates, the military as a whole has 19 percent excess base capacity. If it helps to visualize the nature of the problem, nearly 1 in every 5 facilities that DoD operates are superfluous to U.S. national security, or their functions could be consolidated into other facilities elsewhere. This is important because requiring the military to carry so much overhead necessarily compels the services to divert resources away from more important things – from salaries and benefits for military personnel, to maintenance and upkeep for their equipment, and even to the purchase of new gear.

Justice Department Tackles Rule By Guidance Letter

The U.S. Department of Justice, November 17 [press release/memo]:

Today, in an action to further uphold the rule of law in the executive branch, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo prohibiting the Department of Justice from issuing guidance documents that have the effect of adopting new regulatory requirements or amending the law. The memo prevents the Department of Justice from evading required rulemaking processes by using guidance memos to create de facto regulations.

In the past, the Department of Justice and other agencies have blurred the distinction between regulations and guidance documents. Under the Attorney General’s memo, the Department may no longer issue guidance documents that purport to create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities outside the Executive Branch….

“Guidance documents can be used to explain existing law,” Associate Attorney General Brand said. “But they should not be used to change the law or to impose new standards to determine compliance with the law. The notice-and-comment process that is ordinarily required for rulemaking can be cumbersome and slow, but it has the benefit of availing agencies of more complete information about a proposed rule’s effects than the agency could ascertain on its own. This Department of Justice will not use guidance documents to circumvent the rulemaking process, and we will proactively work to rescind existing guidance documents that go too far.”

This is an initiative of potentially great significance. For many decades, critics have noted that agencies were using Dear Colleague and guidance letters, memos and so forth — also known variously as subregulatory guidance, stealth regulation and regulatory dark matter — to grab new powers and ban new things in the guise of interpreting existing law, all while bypassing notice-and-comment and other constraints on actual rulemaking. To be sure, many judgment calls and hard questions of classification do arise as to when an announced position occupies new territory as opposed to simply stating in good faith what current law is believed to be. But the full text of the memo shows a creditable awareness of these issues. Note also, even before the Justice memo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s statement in September, on revoking the Obama Title IX Dear Colleague letter: “The era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.”

Another notable pledge in the DoJ press release:

The Attorney General’s Regulatory Reform Task Force, led by Associate Attorney General Brand, will conduct a review of existing Department documents and will recommend candidates for repeal or modification in the light of this memo’s principles.

Note also this recent flap over certain financial regulations and the possibility that they may have been issued without notice to Congress, which could preserve Congress’s right to examine and block them under the terms of the Congressional Review Act. [cross-posted from Overlawyered; earlier in this space on the era of “rule by letter” at the Education Department]

One in a Billion Chance a Year of Being Killed by a Chain Immigrant in a Terror Attack

Yesterday, Bangladesh-born Akayed Ullah attempted a suicide bombing in New York City.  Fortunately, he only injured a few people and severely burned his own torso.  Ullah entered the United States on an F4 green card for the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.

Some are using Ullah’s failed terrorist attack to call for further restricting family-based immigration and the green card lottery.  After hearing about the failed terrorist attack, President Trump argued that “Today’s terror suspect entered our country through extended-family chain migration, which is incompatible with national security … Congress must end chain migration.”  Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also argued for ending chain immigration and the visa lottery program.  He said ending those green card programs “would make us safer.”

Neither President Trump nor Rep. Goodlatte indicated how much safer ending chain immigration or the diversity visa would make us.  Since September 2016, I have been updating information on the number of people killed in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil by foreign-born terrorists according to the visa they initially used to enter the United States.

Muslim Ban? Fewer Muslim Refugees, Immigrants, and Travelers Enter U.S. in 2017

During his campaign, President Trump promised to ban all Muslims outright until he could figure out “what is going on.” He later explained that this idea had developed into several policies that would have the same effect. Since his inauguration, Trump has begun to implement them—they include slashing the refugee program, banning all immigration and travelers from several majority Muslim countries, and imposing new burdens on all visa applicants as part of “extreme vetting” initiatives. So far, these policies appear to have “worked,” strongly reducing Muslim immigration and travel to the United States.

Muslim refugee admissions have fallen dramatically over the past year. According to figures from the State Department, Muslim refugee flows fell 94 percent from January to November 2017 (the last full month of available data). In calendar 2016, the United States admitted almost 45,000 Muslim refugees, compared to a little more than 11,000 in 2017—fully half of those entered in January and February. Of course, the administration has cut refugee flows generally, but the Muslim share of all refugees has dropped substantially too—from 50 percent in January to less than 10 percent in November.

Estate Tax Lobbying

Pundits of every political persuasion decry corporate lobbying in Washington, and a major tax bill is a great opportunity for businesses to gain benefits if they convince members of Congress to help them out. However, battles over tax provisions are sometimes not what they appear on the surface.

For years, liberal pundits have characterized efforts to repeal the estate, or death, tax as the plutocrats pulling the levers of power on the Republican side of the aisle. But a new investigative piece at Daily Caller by Richard Pollock exposes the lobbying that is undermining good policy on estate taxation.

I favor estate tax repeal, for numerous reasons, as I laid out here. One reason is the large waste of resources spent on paperwork and avoidance. I noted:

The estate tax is probably the most inefficient tax in America. It has a high marginal rate and is very difficult for the government to administer and enforce. It has also created a large and wasteful estate planning and avoidance industry. The industry overflows with high-paid lawyers and accountants doing paperwork, litigation, asset appraisals, and creating financial structures to minimize the tax burden using trusts, life insurance, and private foundations.

Global Science Report: Another Indication of Lukewarming

In March 1990, NASA’s Roy Spencer and University of Alabama-Huntsville’s (UAH) John Christy dropped quite a bomb when they published the first record of lower atmospheric temperatures sensed by satellites’ microwave sounding units (MSUs). While they only had ten years of data, it was crystal clear there was no significant warming trend.

It was subsequently discovered by Frank Wentz of Remote Sensing Systems (RSS), a Santa Rosa (CA) consultancy, that the orbits of the sensing satellites successively decay (i.e., become lower) and this results in a spurious but slight cooling trend. Using a record ending in 1995, Wentz showed a slight warming trend of 0.07⁰C/decade, about half of what was being observed by surface thermometers. 

In 1994, Christy and another UAH scientist, Richard McNider, attempted to remove “natural” climate change from the satellite data by backing out El Niño/La Niña fluctuations and the cooling associated with two big volcanoes in 1983 and 1991. They arrived at a warming trend of 0.09⁰C/decade after their removal.

Over the years, Spencer and Christy slightly revised their record repeatedly, and its latest iteration shows a total warming trend of 0.13⁰C/decade, which includes natural variability. But it is noteworthy that this is biased upward by very warm readings near the end of the record, thanks to the 2015–16 El Niño.