Archives: 02/2017

Mattis Reassures in Asia, But Who Has Trump’s Ear on Foreign Policy?

Trump Mattis

On his first official trip as secretary of defense, Jim Mattis sent a signal to U.S. allies that American foreign policy in the region will feature more continuity than change. In South Korea, Mattis reaffirmed that the United States would react to a nuclear attack by North Korea with an “effective and overwhelming” response, and stated, along with the South’s defense minister, America’s commitment to proceed with the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. Mattis also provided clarification on the administration’s position in the South China Sea. In a break with past rhetoric by other administration officials, Mattis said “At this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves [in the South China Sea],” and emphasized the importance of diplomacy.

Mature foreign policy statements have been a rare commodity since Trump’s election, and Mattis’s reassurance tour brought a deep sigh of relief from friends and adversaries alike. Whether or not Trump will follow through on Mattis’s words is an open question, however.

Initial reporting on the Trump administration’s approach to decision-making reveals two things. First, while his outlook cannot be labeled “restraint,” Mattis has a relatively restrained or moderate outlook on foreign policy. Second, the ability of such moderate voices to influence Trump is challenged by a group of policy advisors centered on Chief Strategist (and National Security Council member) Steve Bannon that has a much more aggressive outlook.

John McCain: America’s Foreign Policy Loose Cannon

President Trump’s testy telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly produced a reaction from one ubiquitous U.S. player on foreign policy issues, Arizona Senator John McCain. He contacted Australia’s ambassador in Washington to assure him of Washington’s undying devotion to the U.S. alliance with Australia and to that country’s security and well-being. The implicit message was that Canberra should not take Trump or his actions seriously. In so doing, McCain basically anointed himself as America’s shadow president, with the right and obligation to bypass the elected president and conduct relations with foreign governments and other parties.

His actions were entirely inappropriate. Granted, Trump’s conduct toward Turnbull deserves no praise. During the telephone call, a dispute arose over refugee policy, and an angry Trump reportedly berated the Australian leader and abruptly cut the scheduled one-hour session short after 25 minutes. Such behavior was that of a petulant adolescent rather than the expected behavior of a president of the United States.

Nevertheless, the Constitution empowers the president and his appointees to conduct America’s foreign policy. Even senators are not authorized to undercut their authority by engaging in direct, free-lance diplomacy with foreign leaders. Yet that is what McCain did.

Unfortunately, this was hardly the first time that he has engaged in such disruptive behavior. His record is that of an annoying, and sometimes dangerous, loose cannon. For example, during Ukraine’s political crisis in late 2013 and early 2014, McCain showed up in Kiev to urge on anti-government demonstrators in their bid to unseat President Victor Yanukovych’s elected government before the expiration of its term in 2016. America was on their side, he assured them.

McCain engaged in similar meddling in Syria’s civil war. In May 2013, he met with so-called moderate rebels who were trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and as in Kiev, conveyed America’s alleged solidarity with their cause. This intrusive action occurred at a time when the Obama administration remained wary of the United States becoming entangled in the bloody, complex conflict, and was at least trying to limit the extent of U.S. involvement. Not only were McCain’s actions complicating official U.S. policy, but they should have been embarrassing to the Arizona senator. The reality is that there were (and are) very few truly moderate Syrian rebels. Most of them are Islamists masquerading as moderates to gain support from gullible Westerners. Even McCain seemed unclear about the specific identities or the nature of his interlocutors in Syria.

Especially in light of his dreadful track record, McCain should tend to his senatorial duties and stop trying to be a shadow president or secretary of state. In fact, given his dreadful, ultra-hawkish views and his advocacy of, and often feverish lobbying efforts for, a lengthy series of ill-advised foreign policy ventures (ranging from the calamitous Iraq War to a new cold war with Russia), it might be better for all concerned if he just concentrated on domestic issues.

The Government’s Bad Arguments in Defense of Discriminating Against Immigrants Based on Nationality

A federal judge in Seattle paused enforcement of President Trump’s executive order banning almost all immigration from seven countries in the State of Washington v. Donald Trump. The same judge will also hear a lawsuit brought by American Immigration Council (AIC), which makes the argument that I have made here and in the New York Times that the order is illegal as applied to immigrants coming to live in the U.S. permanently.

Washington’s main claims were constitutional, and it sought to have the entire order overturned. Nonetheless, the government did partially respond to the main argument in the AIC complaint, which is:

Section 202(a)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act [INA]…expressly provides for the non-discriminatory issuance of immigrant visas; it mandates that, with limited exceptions not relevant here, “no person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person’s race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.”

[INA section 202(a)(1)] was intended to protect the interests of both U.S. citizen and lawful permanent resident immigrant visa petitioners as well as immigrant visa applicants or holders. The EO discriminates against immigrant visa applicants or holders on the basis of their “nationality, place of birth, or place or residence,” and therefore is discriminatory and violates [INA section 202(a)(1)].

The government responded to these points by pointing to section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which reads:

Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.

Resolution of Conflict

There is an apparent conflict between the statutes. In the case of conflict, the rule of construction is 1) “to give effect to each but 2) to allow a later enacted 3) more specific statute to amend an earlier, more general statute,” Smith v. Robinson (1984).

Democrats Should Be Heartened by Betsy DeVos

Unless something unexpected happens, tomorrow the United States Senate will vote on Betsy DeVos to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education. And if you are a Democrat sweating through nightmares over what a Trump administration will do to education, you should be pretty comfy with what DeVos has said she’d like to see happen under her watch. As she stated repeatedly in her confirmation hearing, she would not use federal power—and certainly not secretarial power—to impose anything, including school choice, on unwilling states and districts.

But isn’t the vote expected to be as close as last night’s Super Bowl at the end of regulation, with all Dems voting against DeVos and Vice President Mike Pence delivering the final, overtime vote for her? Yup.

You see, over the decades, Democrats, with copious help from Republicans, have tried to make the U.S. Department of Education what it was not originally intended to be, and what with absolute certainty it cannot constitutionally be: a national school board. This vision was exposed in a comment by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, when she warned all who were suffering through the festival of misinformation and grandstanding that was DeVos’s confirmation hearing, that if approved DeVos would “oversee the education of all of our kids.”

This did not elicit the manufactured giddiness that met DeVos’s suggestion that a school with a grizzly fence might have a gun, and that such decisions should be left to states and communities who know their needs better than Washington. But Murray really ought to know that the Constitution and several laws give the feds no authority to “oversee” American education. Moreover, she had only about a year earlier voted for a law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—intended to cage the education secretary after the Obama administration had employed the position to illegally micromanage American education.

Sen. Murray was, though, soon outdone in her hyperbole. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took his rightful position in the front of the overstatement pack, declaring that DeVos “would single-handedly decimate our public education system if she were confirmed.”

How, exactly, would she do that?

The Treasury Should Revive the Snow Plan for Limiting GSE Debt Issuance

Despite both the recent release of a set of “GSE reform principles” by the Mortgage Bankers Association and Treasury Secretary Designee Steven Mnuchin’s promise to prioritize reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as matters stand such reform seems likely to remain stalled for some time: while there may be a consensus to “do something,” there is far less agreement concerning what that something should be.

To jump start the debate, protect taxpayers, and encourage a more private mortgage market, Mr. Mnuchin, if confirmed, should strongly consider reviving a plan developed by his predecessor, John Snow. That plan would take advantage of the Treasury’s authority to place limits on Fannie and Freddie’s debt issuance to reduce those agencies’ indebtedness. The reduction can and should be done in a controlled manner that could be easily reversed if necessary; a 5 percent monthly reduction, for instance, should work smoothly.

Corporate Tax Cut and Border Adjustment

The House Republican tax plan would cut the federal corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, but it would broaden the tax base in a misguided way. It would deny businesses a deduction for their imported inputs to production, but exempt exports from their taxable income.

This base change would raise tax revenues by about $100 billion a year, which is causing major blowback in the business community. It would be a radical change in the structure of business taxes and cause large disruptions in the supply chains and tax liabilities of many firms. No other nation that I am aware of structures their income tax base that way.

I’m for radical change in the tax system, but not radical change that would increase taxes on so many businesses and make the system more complex. Yes, border adjustment would reduce tax avoidance and cut compliance costs related to transfer pricing, but it would create other avoidance and compliance issues by spurring manipulation of imports and exports on tax returns.

Most supporters of border adjustment know that the economics of it are dubious, but support it anyway because it would limit the deficit impact of tax reform. That’s an understandable goal, but there are three better solutions than broadening the tax base in a way that would harm companies.

1) Match a corporate tax rate cut with corporate welfare spending cuts. Romina Boccia, Tom Schatz, and I identify $50 billion in corporate welfare cuts in a new op-ed. And it’s easy to find another $50 billion in cuts in tables 1 and 2 here to match the $100 billion from border adjustment. Unlike the proposed tax base broadening, spending cuts would boost growth by reducing microeconomic distortions caused by federal programs.

Stingray: A New Frontier in Police Surveillance

I’ve written previously on this blog regarding stingray devices: powerful surveillance tools which allow law enforcement agents to spy on the cell phones of unsuspecting Americans, often without judicial or legislative oversight.

For a deeper dive into the subject, I’ve put together a policy analysis detailing the past history, present issues, and future prospects of stingray devices and police surveillance more generally.

From the executive summary:

Police agencies around the United States are using a powerful surveillance tool to mimic cell phone signals to tap into the cellular phones of unsuspecting citizens, track the physical locations of those phones, and perhaps even intercept the content of their communications.

The device is known as a stingray, and it is being used in at least 23 states and the District of Columbia. Originally designed for use on the foreign battlefields of the War on Terror, “cell-site simulator” devices have found a home in the arsenals of dozens of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.