Topic: Political Philosophy

Wherefore the Freedom Caucus?

In a column for Reason Magazine yesterday, Matt Welch asks “What’s the point of a ‘limited government’ bloc that doesn’t limit government?” Indeed, in the Trump era some of the President’s most strident defenders can be found amongst the ranks of the Freedom Caucus, and, as my colleague Chris Edwards points out, they seem every bit as comfortable with big deficits as the other fiscal-conservatives-cum-spendthrifts in the GOP.

But, to my knowledge, nobody has yet performed a systematic analysis of the Freedom Caucus’ voting behavior vis-a-vis other Republicans in the House. Do they, as a caucus, even vote cohesively? If so, are they at all differentiable from generic Republican House members? I set out to test this using the NOMINATE methodology to assign an “ideal-point” estimate for each member of the House during the modern era of Republican dominance (2011-2018). For a quick explainer on NOMINATE, see this page. The basic upshot is that it will differentiate members of Congress according to their voting patterns, along two dimensions, with the x-dimension being dimension of primary importance and capturing inter-party variation. Democrats tend to have negative scores on the x-dimension, and Republicans tend to have positive scores. The y-dimension captures intra-party variation. The sign is arbitrary, but the inter-point distance is meaningful. I’ve labeled everyone who appears on the “membership” list on the Freedom Caucus wikipedia page. 

First, let’s look at all final passage votes over this period, regardless of substantive topic (this excludes votes such as amendments and procedural votes).

passage.png (862×550)

Freedom Caucus members are clearly differentiable from generic Republicans, and predominantly occupy the upper-right quadrant. 

Now, let’s generate ideal point estimates over subsets of all substantive rollcalls (amendments, procedure, etc.) pertaining to certain select topics:

domestic_appropriations.png (862×550)entitlements2.png (862×550)

environment.png (862×550)defense.png (862×550)

Across each of these rollcall subsets, Freedom Caucus members are differentiable from other House Republicans, and consistently occupy the upper-right quadrant (note: comparing the substantive implications of these two dimensions across subsets is difficult. Nonetheless, Freedom Caucus members are distinct in some sense).

 It’s worth noting that on procedural votes, House leadership exercises more effective discipline on its members. This is consistent with the political science literature (Cox and Poole 2002). For example, look at the pattern on motions to recommit:

 recommits.png (862×550)

While the substantive implications of the above graphs aren’t clear as of yet, I don’t think we can so easily dismiss the Freedom Caucus as generic Republicans. 


Trump Isn’t Only “Constitutional Crisis” Afflicting Congressional Oversight

Earlier this week, Vox’s Sean Illing asked 10 law professors whether President Trump’s sweeping refusal to cooperate with congressional investigators has plunged the nation into “a constitutional crisis.”  I recommend the article, and I also observe that I’m 100% on Congress’s side regarding the legitimacy of its information queries. Indeed, I’m with my colleague Gene Healy, who has rightfully Tweeted that, “#ExecutivePrivilege is something judges just made up out of penumbras and emanations of Article II.”

For this post, however, I argue that congressional oversight, per se, is in its own state of “constitutional crisis” wholly independent from Trump. Specifically, I will make two claims. First, I explain why congressional oversight always has been sub-optimal. Then, I explain why contemporary oversight is acutely awful.

Even decades ago, when Members of Congress were policy savants relative to now, congressional oversight was known as the body’s “neglected duty.” In a famous 1984 article, Professors Mathew McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz lent a conceptual framework to explain this inadequacy. Their core insight was to identify two types of congressional behavior regarding oversight. The first was the “police patrol,” which describes ongoing monitoring of the law’s execution. The second type was “fire alarm” oversight, by which the professors meant that lawmakers snap to attention only when hot-button issues become sufficiently politicized.

Quite obviously, the “police patrol” method is superior because, if it is done faithfully, then such supervision could head off the crises that lead to “fire alarms.” Nevertheless, the “fire alarm” approach takes less work, and it reaps more political currency in the form of attention. Due to these incentives, Congress has underinvested in oversight for as long as legislators have delegated power to execute the law.

In this manner, oversight was shortchanged in Congress during the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century. Back then, however, a decentralized power structure within the legislature provided a counter-incentive for the use of preferable “police patrol” techniques. As I explained in a prior post, Members of that period cared about policy because policy chops were necessary to succeed in Congress. At that time, committees and subcommittees competed with the president to manage administrative agencies, and, as with life generally, competitors do their homework.

Starting in the 1980s, however, power in Congress shifted from committees to party leadership. Many factors were at play in causing this change. Crucially, congressional leaders, such as Reps. Tip O’Neil and Newt Gingrich, altered the rules to facilitate centralization. The modernization of mass media played another important role, in that it allowed to party leadership to push a national message. Finally, recurrent impasses with the president over spending and budgets—known as the “fiscalization” of politics—facilitated the centralization of power by creating the necessity for high-level negotiations, which, naturally, would be conducted by congressional leaders and thereby enhanced their power accordingly.

Due to this shift, partisan affinity now trumps institutional prerogative, such that one party loses interest in oversight whenever “their guy” occupies the White House. Also due to the shift to centralized power, Members of Congress know less about policy-making because there’s little incentive to have such knowledge. Each of these factors works to undermine the occasion and performance of “police patrol” superintendence of the administrative state.

Yet the current contretemps between Congress and the Trump administration reveals that the legislature’s oversight function has withered further, such that “fire alarm” investigations, too, are falling by the wayside. To be precise, they’ve altered from an inferior form of oversight (relative to “police patrols”) to a worthless form.

Historically, “fire alarm” oversight pertained to catastrophes or governing scandals. In either case, the investigatory lodestar was reform. That is, congressional investigations traditionally sought to discern how something bad happened, and then how to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Even investigations that don’t easily fit this usual framework—such as Watergate—shared a nexus with governmental reform. Nixon’s excesses inspired institutional responses, including the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act and the 1977 Legislative Reorganization Act.

As I survey the current landscape of fire-alarm investigations, I see a qualitatively different application in the present day. When it comes to resource allocation for oversight, I can think of any number of “fire alarms” to sound, including:

  • The reported possibility of war (!!) with Iran;
  • The president’s declaration every other day of a fake “national emergency” to get what he wants without Congress getting in the way; and,
  • The EPA sneaking a major New Source Review regulation into the (unrelated) revision of an Obama-era climate rule.

Despite these—and many more—worthy targets for serious congressional oversight by opponents of the Trump administration, House leadership is pouring resources into getting Trump’s tax returns and relitigating the Mueller Report. I find Trump as off-putting and dangerous as anyone, but these strike me as the silliest possible subjects for oversight.

On the one hand, I think these investigations don’t inform anyone. Who doesn’t think Trump would fire subordinates—and then Tweet about it—to head off an investigation? And who doesn’t think Trump exaggerates his wealth all the time? Notwithstanding these qualities, which are baked into Trump’s brand, the American people elected him president, alas. The upshot is that I’m not convinced that these investigations bring much new to the table.

More importantly, I fail to see any prospect for reform. Neither of these investigations bears any relationship to a specific policy outcome. It’s all about Trump, the man, and none about Trump, the policymaker. Nor am I sanguine about the prospect that these investigations ultimately could inspire institutional reforms the way that Watergate did. Well into the third year of this presidency, I have not once seen the democrats reach out to Never-Trumpers to explore curbing the power of the office. Instead, the majority in the House seems to want only to damage Trump politically, and otherwise maintain the president’s power for when their party takes control.

In sum, I wholeheartedly support Congress’s right to information from President Trump, but I also bemoan its present use of that right.

One Problem with Big Government: Often Run by Crooks and Liars

Presidential candidates are proposing ideas to expand government, including a Green New Deal and Medicare for All. One flaw with such schemes is that they would give government officials large new powers to be exercised not by angels but often by very shady characters.

James Madison wrote that politicians sought office “from 3 motives. 1. ambition 2. personal interest. 3. public good. Unhappily the two first are proved by experience to be most prevalent.”

There are news stories every day that buttress Madison’s point. Here are two that caught my eye.

Catherine Pugh: “Personal Interest”–as covered by Brakkton Booker of NPR,

After weeks of growing pleas for her to step down, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has resigned, her attorney said Thursday.

… Pugh, a Democrat, is under investigation for alleged “self-dealing” in connection to the sale of thousands of copies of a self-published children’s book series. Many of those sales went to entities that she had influence over or that sought to do business with the city.

… The Baltimore Sun reported she has received roughly $800,000 over the years from the sale of the books. Some of the biggest benefactors include the University of Maryland Medical System.

UMMS is a private nonprofit for which Pugh served as a board member until mid-March, when she resigned from the position. It paid Pugh roughly $500,000 for copies of the books spread out in five payments from 2012-2018, according to the Sun.

A separate payment by health giant Kaiser Permanente of more than $100,000 for some 20,000 copies of the book between 2015 and 2018 was also reported by the Sun.

The payouts for the books came at a time when the company was seeking to provide coverage to city employees. The city’s spending panel, which Pugh sat on, eventually awarded the company a $48 million contract with the city in 2017.

Richard Holbrooke: “Ambition”–written by Adam Kushner of the Washington Post, 

The late diplomat possessed heroic talents, achieved feats of strength and rose high. But his own flaws undid him. 

… Behind all of it was a desperate, gnawing ambition that drove him to behave monstrously toward both his colleagues and the people he ostensibly loved.

… Holbrooke “was an absent husband and an indifferent father.” He cheated frequently over his three marriages and propositioned his best friend’s wife. After his son Anthony was born, he kept a lunch appointment with George Kennan before going to visit his wife and meet the baby in the hospital. Holbrooke pushed away his mother, brother and children because his third wife didn’t like them.

It was even worse inside government, where he fought constantly for status and recognition, leaked (and lied about it) to hurt rivals, kowtowed to bosses, terrorized subordinates, and elbowed his way into meetings where he wasn’t needed or wanted. “He is the most viperous character I know around this town,” Henry Kissinger, the greatest operator of them all, once said of Holbrooke.

What does government service look like when it’s so self-serving? When Holbrooke became assistant secretary of state, he told the deputies he’d inherited that their offices needed repainting — and then replaced them while they were out. … He crashed so many of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s meetings and motorcades that Vance’s secretary sent a memo: “You may not insert yourself as a passenger in the Secretary’s car unless this office has specifically approved your request to accompany him.”

When national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wanted him fired for chatting “warmly” with the Vietnamese ambassador in Laos before Washington restored relations with Hanoi, he lied and said the report of the meeting was just an act of Soviet disinformation.

When a mentor, Averell Harriman, died, Holbrooke harangued his widow into letting him give a eulogy; then he shuffled the name cards at a meal after the service so he could “chat up the right dinner guest.”

… Holbrooke begged Pakistan’s foreign minister to tell Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what a good job he was doing. “You will have heard that he was a monstrous egotist. It’s true. It’s even worse than you’ve heard,” [Biographer] Packer summarizes.

… Packer truly shows Holbrooke’s ugliness. It is everywhere, and it’s revolting. … Holbrooke spent his career accruing enemies, and his comeuppance arrived in spurts. (“I’m going to be the next Henry Kissinger,” he said in his early 30s to a lover who actually knew Kissinger “and found him to be a pompous asshole.” She dumped him).




Why the New Zealand Terrorist Hated Not Just Muslims but also Capitalists

On March 15, in New Zealand, one of the most peaceful places on earth, an unspeakable massacre took place. A gunman attacked two nearby mosques, one after another, killing as many Muslims he could with his machine gun. In several minutes, fifty innocent souls were murdered, and some thirty others were seriously injured.  

One thing must be clear about this horror: it was not the work of some deranged individual with mental issues. It was an act of terrorism motivated by an ideology — an ideology we can call militant white nationalism.

We can see this clearly in the 74-page manifesto the attacker put on the internet. Titled “The Great Replacement,” the document is built around a major obsession: that the birthrates of white people, those who are “ethnically and culturally European,” are declining, whereas the birthrates of non-white immigrants, especially Muslims, are high. From this, the man projects that by the year 2100, whites in Europe will become a minority. He calls this “racial replacement,” and even claims: “This is WHITE GENOCIDE.” 

From this, he infers the duty to fight “the invaders within our lands,” who are primarily Muslims who have migrated to the West for opportunity. These invaders must be killed as much possible, he argues, both to scare them away, and also to “take revenge” for old conflicts. He is so ruthless that he sees “the children of the invaders” also as legitimate targets, because “they become adults and reproduce.”

“Any invader you kill, of any age,” he writes in cold blood, “is one less enemy.” 

This sick cruelty has taken fifty innocent lives in New Zealand, but this may be just a beginning.  In his manifesto, Tarrant writes that he planned the mosque attacks, “to show the effect of direct action, lighting a path forward for those that wish to follow.” So, there may be others who wish to follow.

We should be also aware that Muslims aren’t the only target here. There are also Jews, who the gunman considers non-European “invaders.” That is not unlike the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville in August 2017 and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” One such militant white nationalist attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, killing eleven innocent souls.

Private Satellite Firm Aids Boeing 737 Investigation

Canada privatized its air traffic control (ATC) system in 1996. Today, Nav Canada is on the leading edge of ATC innovation worldwide. With Iridium, Nav Canada co-founded Aerion in 2012, which produces satellite-based tracking of global airliner movements. This is the future of air traffic control as it promises greater safety, fewer delays, savings of fuel, and more efficient use of airspace. The U.S. ATC system is not an investor in this revolutionary project.

Our government-run ATC is falling behind the privatized systems in Canada and the United Kingdom. ATC is a high-tech business, yet we run our system as an old-fashioned and mismanaged bureaucracy within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Aerion made the news last week when it provided crucial data on the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX crash, which killed 157 people. CNBC reported, “Even after dozens of countries grounded Boeing’s 737 Max, the FAA did not. It was only until ‘actionable data’ arrived from Aireon that the FAA made the decision, acting Administrator Daniel Elwell told CNBC.”

And here is what the Wall Street Journal reported:

When the Federal Aviation Administration reversed course and grounded Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jetliner, it moved partly after seeing data from a little-known aerospace newcomer that is changing the way the aviation industry tracks planes.

Aireon LLC, based in McLean, Va., was founded less than a decade ago—the brainchild of satellite maker Iridium Communications Inc. and Canada’s air-traffic managers. It collects and then distributes to partners, including air-traffic-control providers around the world, some of the operational data that passenger jets automatically send out in real time.

Using gear it has placed on satellites, Aireon gathers data such as a plane’s speed, heading, altitude and position. It gets updates every eight seconds or less. Air-traffic-control providers increasingly use the data to track planes from tarmac to tarmac—a capability only made possible with the development of sophisticated satellite networks.

In the case of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed Sunday killing 157, Aireon said it started furnishing its raw data as early as Monday to the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, Canadian officials and other authorities. The data would have required some time to analyze, according to an Aireon spokeswoman.

Once recipients crunched the numbers, they found similarities between the six-minute flight path of the crashed Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX and that of a Lion Air 737 MAX that crashed, after 11 minutes, killing all 189 aboard, less than five months earlier. Canadian officials said they had finished analyzing the Aireon-provided data only by Wednesday morning. They decided to ground the jet a few hours later. President Trump announced a U.S. grounding a few hours after that.

The FAA isn’t an Aireon investor, though the two have worked together previously.

… Aireon is owned by Iridium; Nav Canada, the Canadian air-traffic-control agency; and a handful of other air-traffic-control providers, including those in Britain and Ireland. … Aireon currently offers its services to 11 air-traffic-service providers spanning 28 countries. … No U.S. airline has said it is using the system.

Lessons from Rome on Executive Power and Restraint

Recent events have unnerved many Americans about the political problem of executive power. Though it seems not to bother the vast majority of citizens, there has been at least some recognition in the public conversation that the mere possibility that a personage like Donald Trump could get elected president is precisely why a system of ever-expanding executive power, such as ours, is dangerous. But the truth is, this concern has been percolating since September 11, 2001. Both Bush and Obama left the office more powerful than they found it. And that makes perfect sense: if history shows us anything, it’s that war centralizes power – often into the hands of a single person.

But as the 2020 campaign picks up, it showcases that the expansion of executive authority isn’t relegated to war powers. While Trump does his best impression of a 19th century European demagogue, Democrats are promising citizens everything to the sun and back in language that seems to presume god-like capacities in the office of the president. Unfortunately, talking points on circumscribing executive power make for an unappealing stump speech.

It is therefore worthwhile to reflect on the reason why America’s political heritage features strenuous efforts to protect against kingly usurpers. The Founding generation looked to Rome for lessons. I was struck by this passage from a book by historians Joseph R. Strayer and Dana C. Munro, a succinct history on the expansion of executive power in ancient Rome:

Rome had once been a republic, ruled by an aristocratic Senate whose power could be checked only by uprisings of the city mob. In the first century B.C. this political system caused so much disorder that the citizens of Rome allowed power to be concentrated in the hands of one man - a boss or a dictator. Octavian, the last of these bosses, became Augustus, the first emperor. His powers, however, were not much greater than those of a strong American president. He was commander of the army and head of the administration; he made policy and proposed laws, but he was supposed to act with the advice of the Senate. Augustus’ successors, however, assumed much more power. Frequent civil wars and the necessity of protecting the frontiers made their military functions more important and decreased the power of the Senate. Then came a long period of anarchy in the middle of the third century. When a strong emperor, Diocletian, finally emerged in 285, the condition of the Empire was so bad that every one acquiesced in his assumption of absolute authority. Diocletian and his successors named all officials and levied taxes at will. They were the supreme judges and court of last appeal of the Empire; they had the power of life and death over every citizen. It was an accepted maxim that “the will of the prince has the force of law, since the Roman people by law have transferred to their prince the full extent of their power and sovereignty.”

Notwithstanding how eerily familiar that all sounds, I’m not convinced that we’re condemned to a similarly despotic fate. But as the political scientist Christopher J. Fettweis has recently pointed out, an added pressure in this direction comes from the fact that the United States, as in the case of Rome, is for all intents and purposes a unipolar power (whatever they say these days about the return of multipolarity). Like Rome at the height of its imperial glory, U.S. power in the international system today is highly asymmetrical. It’s foreign policy is preoccupied not with overcoming existential peril from proximate peer belligerents intent on total war, but with chasing remote (and sometimes imaginary) threats in the distant reaches of the periperhy. Unchecked international power carries some of the same hazards as unchecked power in the domestic realm. Look no further than the Trump administration’s spurious citations of the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to legitimate ongoing, and potentially future, wars across the Middle East. Prudence and the Constitution would seem to obligate Congress to repeal, and not replace, these outdated authorizations.

Luckily, as Fettweis details at length through the example of Roman Emperor Hadrian, leaders always have the choice of retrenching and exercising restraint: “By keeping its threats in proper perspective, the United States could recognise that its security does not demand robust international military action. By restraining itself, the United States could demonstrate to the world that force should be a last resort, even for the strongest, most capable state in history, and thus do more to promote peace than all its misguided attempts at global policing. And it would waste far less blood and treasure in the process.”

Here’s hoping.

The Church of Safe Injection

One major negative of drug prohibition is that it causes riskier ingestion methods.  Prohibition raises drug prices, which encourages injection to get a big bang for the buck.  Prohibition also fosters restrictions on clean syringes, which means users exchange dirty needles, increasing the transmission of HIV and other diseases.

Prohibition also increases overdoses, since potency is difficult to assess in a black market.

Hence the Church of Safe Injection:

Lewiston, Maine: On an 11-degree night here this month, an unconventional mass was held outdoors, next to a 2017 Honda parked on a street corner.

The altar took the form of the small car’s hatchback trunk. The not-so-typical communion: sterile needles, the overdose antidote naloxone, and the rubber tourniquets used prior to drug injection. For shooting and mixing heroin hygienically, alcohol swabs and sterile water. For the cold, hand warmers and socks, and for the hungry, granola bars.

At the center of it all was Jesse Harvey, 26, a Portland-area peer recovery coach who is the founder of the Church of Safe Injection.

The congregation lends structure to a rogue coalition of harm-reduction advocates who work to distribute thousands of syringes — possessing more than 10 is illegal in Maine — as well as hundreds of doses of naloxone. Members of the “church” don’t take that title lightly.

Such organizations are a small but sensible step toward reducing the harm from drug use.  Better still, opiods would be legal, thereby reducing the incentive to inject or share needles and making it easier for users to determine potency.

Until then, however, safe needle exchanges and other harm reduction measures (like Methadone Maintenance) are steps in the right direction.  Cato’s Jeffrey Singer makes a compelling case for harm reduction here.  And Cato will host a conference on harm reduction on March 21st in Washington, DC.