Topic: Regulatory Studies

The Christmas Tree Tax Is a Microcosm of What’s Wrong with Constitutional Law

Jim Harper beat me to the punch on the new Christmas tree tax – probably because I initially thought it was a joke – but there’s actually much more to say here beyond the USDA’s claim that it’s not a tax and the general absurdity of the situation.  Three quick things:

First, there are obvious Free Exercise and Equal Protection issues here.  That is, unless we consider Christmas trees to be wholly secular, this is an obvious burden on the free exercise of Christianity, and one that no other religion faces.  Even if it might be reasonable to see Christmas trees as not particularly religious – pine trees played no role in The Greatest Story Ever Told and, e.g., my secular Jewish family always had a traditional Russian New Year’s Tree (which has no ties to Russian Orthodox Christianity) – but do we want courts drawing lines between, say, creches/crucifixes and trees/Santa?

Second, and probably even more important given the times in which we live, where in the Constitution does the federal government get the power to tax the sale of a local agricultural product?  Setting aside trees trucked in from out-of-state, there’s no interstate commerce here to regulate.  And if it’s a tax (which, again, Ag officials deny) – presumably an excise, which is specified in the Constitution and which courts have construed to be a tax on transactions or privileges – how does assessing it to promote the general welfare or common defense?  The administration cites the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996, under which the tax mandatory fee funds a new program to ”enhance the image of Christmas trees and the Christmas tree industry in the United States.”  That’s what passes for the general welfare? 

Third, even if the tax is a lawful use of federal power, shouldn’t Congress be the body levying it, rather than an agency of the USDA?

I could go on, but this little 15-cent tree tax is a microcosm of what’s wrong with constitutional law, evermore divorced from the Constitution as it is.  Yes, under modern doctrine, the Christmas tree tax can be probably justified under either the Commerce Clause or the General Welfare Clause – and Congress can delegate to bureaucrats the power to levy certain “assessments” – but is that the kind of government we signed up for?

h/t Cato legal associate Chaim Gordon

Obama on Record: Supports Internet Regulation

I’m perplexed by the challenge of referring neutrally to legislation moving through Congress dealing with whether or not the government should regulate Internet service. Work with me as I untangle the Standard Federal Obfuscation™ involved here.

The White House has issued a “Statement of Administration Policy” that deals with S.J. Res. 6 (House companion H.J. Res. 37 passed in April.) The bill is a “resolution of disapproval” under the Congressional Review Act. The CRA allows Congress to reject federal regulations for a period of time after they have been finalized. Resolutions like this enjoy expedited procedures in the Senate, making it harder for Senate leadership to stop them moving.

The Federal Communications Commission voted in December to apply public-utility-style regulation to the provision of Internet service. Congress is moving to reject the FCC’s claim of authority using the CRA, and the president has now said he will veto Congress’ resolution that does that.

Well—the obfuscation continues—actually, the Statement of Administration Policy says “[t]he administration” opposes S.J. Res. 6, and, “If the President is presented with S.J. Res. 6, which would not safeguard the free and open Internet, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the Resolution.”

At some point, it may be an important detail that the president hasn’t promised a veto yet. His advisers have promised to advise him to veto. OK. Whatever. They work for him. It’s a veto threat.

But, but,… Would these regulations safeguard a “free and open Internet”? The statement says, “Federal policy has consistently promoted an Internet that is open and facilitates innovation and investment, protects consumer choice, and enables free speech.” In a sense, that’s true: When the engineers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created the Internet protocol and when federal policy opened the Internet to commercial use, this made for the open Internet we enjoy today.

But it’s not federal policy driving these values today. It’s the Internet itself—all of us. Tim Lee ably pointed this out some years ago in his paper, “The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality without Regulation.” The marketplace demands an open Internet. If there are deviations from the “end-to-end principle” that serve the public better, the market will permit them. The Internet is not the government’s to regulate.

Now, some news reporting has things a little backward. Wired’s Threat Level blog, for example, carries the headline, “Obama Pledges to Veto Anti-Net Neutrality Legislation.” Headlines need to be short, but it could just as easily and accurately read “Obama Pledges to Veto Anti-Regulation Legislation” because the question is not whether the Internet should be open and neutral, but who should ensure that openness and neutrality. Should neutrality be ensured by market forces—ISPs responding to their customers—or by lawyers and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.?

S.J. Res. 6 would reject the FCC’s claim to regulate the Internet in the name of neutrality. It says nothing about whether or not the Internet should neutral, open, and free. Again, that’s not the government’s call.

Did you follow all that? If you didn’t, you don’t need to. Here’s the summary: President Obama has gone on the record: He supports Internet regulation.

The Light Don’t Shine on Higher Ed

I’m accustomed to a standard response when I propose removing government from some part of education: it’s not gonna happen, so forget about it. Often, a popular counter-proposal is then offered: Have government require “transparency” from schools, either of the k-12 or higher variety. Transparency, apprently, is something we can get.

Except, it seems, we almost never do.

A couple of weeks ago I provided numbers exposing the likely failure of transparency in elementary and secondary education. Today, in a surprising twist, someone else reveals transparency futility in higher ed: Education Sector’s Kevin Carey, in a joint report with AEI’s Andrew Kelly. It’s surprising because Carey is one of the people who has dismissed my arguments for removing government as unrealisitc, and instead championed transparency as an achievable solution. In light of this, all credit to him for publishing his study.

The  paper, The Truth Behind Higher Education Disclosure Laws, is awfully clear: Transparency requirements in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act have led to either rampant evasion or deception in reporting everything from Pell-recipient graduation rates to employment placement info. Indeed, the report says that “by creating an illusion of transparency and disclosure” the requirements are worse than having no reporting at all.

Sound familiar?

Based on what we know about transparency mandates in education, it seems at least as quixotic to expect regulations to work as to expect that we can begin to remove govenment funding. The reality is that regulations are often far too convoluted and endless for the regulated to comply with even a small fraction of them; they often stymie enforcement for the same reasons; and they are regularly ignored because those who would be regulated have a lot more political sway on their issues than the public.

Unfortunately, repeated failure doesn’t seem to deter those with an abiding faith in regulation, including Carey and Kelly, whose report largely recommends tougher rule enforcement. But go from regular push ups to those hand-clapping ones and you still won’t budge the Earth.

Or maybe I’m wrong (it’s theoretically possible). Maybe government actually can make colleges change for the better. Maybe it’s just that transparency isn’t the answer. Indeed, whether government can move colleges for the better will the subject of a terrific, full-day conference Cato will be hosting on November 18th with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. Speakers will include CCAP founder and economist Richard Vedder; George Washington University President Emertius Stephen Joel Trachtenberg; Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein; and many more powerful analysts of the ivory tower. And the discussion, I assure you, won’t just be more regulation versus less taxpayer aid. There will be a wide variety of perspectives offered, and no doubt many surprising debates. I hope you’ll join us, and you can register here!

Financial Regulators Are Not Above the Constitution

As protestors across America condemn Wall Street for its greed and corruption, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to examine a ruling that holds some of Wall Street’s biggest regulators immune from suit.

In 2006, the National Association of Securities Dealers and the regulatory arm of the New York Stock Exchange consolidated to form the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). NASD and FINRA are “self-regulatory organizations” (SROs), because the Securities and Exchange Commission charges them with regulating their own members — a set-up that is supposed to protect investors and the public. But NASD officers may have achieved the consolidation (and thereby received huge bonuses) by misstating material facts on a proxy solicitation, which induced member firms to give up some of their voting powers in exchange for a payout.

Remarkably, the Second Circuit held that a lawsuit against NASD for the alleged fraud could not proceed because the defendants had sovereign immunity. Yes, SROs should be immune for their actions as quasi-government regulators. For example, immunity is appropriate for government actors like judges, who must have some protection from private suit to do their jobs properly. But judges are not immune for things they do in their private lives — they can be sued just like anyone else. The Second Circuit, however, held that SROs, which have expansive and varied powers, enjoy absolute immunity even for actions that are merely “incident to” their regulatory duties. That is, suits involving private corporate actions cannot proceed if they are incident to actions taken in a governmental capacity.

In this case, the court found that the voting-rights changes were “incident to” FINRA’s regulatory activities because they were part of a plan to make a larger entity that would also have regulatory duties. This case raises serious constitutional issues about the role the judiciary plays in ensuring that SROs remain faithful to their delegated duties of protecting investors and the public. Because SROs are quasi-private actors, they have incentives to act in their own best interests — rather than in the public interest — and they do not have to be as transparent as fully public agencies.

Further, the executive branch, including the SEC, has failed to hold SROs accountable for their self-serving behaviors. As we see from this case, the judiciary provides the sole opportunity for SRO accountability. Cato, joined by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has now filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to review Standard Investment Chartered, Inc. v. NASD. Accountability among branches of government — the separation of powers and checks-and-balances — is a central tenet of our constitutional structure, and is especially important for SROs, which exercise great power over financial markets. Our brief argues that the judiciary remains the last check on SROs’ unbridled power and that the Second Circuit erred in failing to hold these SROs accountable.

Clifford Winston on Lawyer Licensure

Brookings senior fellow Clifford Winston is in today’s New York Times arguing the position (as does his new book with Robert Crandall) that state licensing rules governing who can enter the legal profession are “barriers to entry” that should simply be “done away with.” As I observed last month as part of a symposium on the idea at Truth on the Market, I wish Winston had done more to develop the distinction between lawyers’ everyday role in, say, drafting wills and closing real estate transactions (for which the de-licensing approach he favors might indeed hold out hope of wider choice and reduced cost for consumers) and lawyers’ powers to pursue litigation, subpoenas, and other compulsory process against unwilling opponents and third parties. The latter is a type of coercive, indeed quasi-governmental, weaponry and it is by no means obvious that it should be delegated to all comers. As I argued last month:

The coercive powers wielded by private lawyers [when they wear their litigators’ hats] are more akin to the powers wielded by prosecutors and other government officials than to the powers wielded by, say, optometrists or dentists….

The way forward might be to split the tasks of a lawyer in two, moving to deregulate the advisory and document-preparation functions (which could indeed be a way of saving consumers large sums) while continuing to apply appropriate scrutiny to those in the profession who presume to wield coercive litigation powers. Although the British separation of highly regulated barristers from less highly regulated solicitors does not precisely track this distinction, it is worth keeping in mind as a possible model for a division between an “outer” legal profession whose operation might be entrusted to general business principles and an “inner” group of professionals of whom more is expected, as we expect more ethically and legally from judges themselves, public prosecutors, and others cloaked in public authority.

My full symposium contribution is here.

Should You Need a License to Hang Curtains?

The latest example of liberty-reducing occupational licensing schemes comes to us from Florida, where a law restricts the practice of interior design to people the state has licensed. Those wishing to pursue this occupation must first undergo an onerous process ostensibly in the name of “public safety.”

In reality, the law serves as an anti-competition measure that protects Florida’s current cohort of interior designers. Our friends at the Institute for Justice have pursued a lawsuit against the law but lost their appeal in the Eleventh Circuit.

Cato has now joined the Pacific Legal Foundation on an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to review that ruling. The lower court got it wrong not just with respect to the right to earn a living, however, but also on First Amendment grounds.

That is, interior design, as a form of artistic expression, is historically protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, interior designers are measured primarily on the value of their aesthetic expression, not for any technical knowledge or expertise. This type of artistry is a matter of taste, and the designer and client usually arrive at the end result through collaboration and according to personal preferences. Thus, the designer-client relationship has little in common with traditionally regulated professions such as medicine, law and finance, where bad advice can have real and far-reaching consequences—but even then, the Supreme Court has emphasized the First Amendment implications of placing “prior restraints” on expression through burdensome licensing schemes.

Instead of following that precedent, however, the circuit court carved out a constitutionally unprotected exception for “direct personalized speech with clients.” Florida’s “public safety” justification is similarly weak, given that the state has presented no evidence of any bona fide concerns that substantiate a burdensome licensing scheme that includes six years of higher education and a painstaking exam—instead relying on cursory allegations that, for example, licensed designers are more adept at ensuring that fixture placements do not violate building codes.

Finally, the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling disregarded the infinite array of auxiliary occupations the Florida law subjects to possible criminal sanctions: wedding planners, branding consultants, sellers of retail display racks, retail business consultants, corporate art consultants, and even theater-set designers could all get swept in. The state has already taken enforcement actions against a wide spectrum of people who are not interior designers, including office furniture dealers, restaurant equipment suppliers, flooring companies, wall covering companies, fabric vendors, builders, real estate developers, remodelers, accessories retailers, antique dealers, drafting services, lighting companies, kitchen designers, workrooms, carpet companies, art dealers, stagers, yacht designers, and even a florist. This dragnet effect also suggests that the law is too broad to survive constitutional scrutiny.

The Court will likely decide by the end of the year (or early 2012) whether to take this case of Locke v. Shore.

Another Romneycare/Obamacare Similarity: Earning Their Sponsors Insurance-Company Love

I’ve been meaning to post this article from OpenSecrets.org that sheds light on the claim that either Obamacare or its twin, Romneycare, somehow “get tough” on insurance companies:

Health Insurance Industry Opens Check Books for Mitt Romney, Barack Obama

Research by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that President Barack Obama and his GOP rival Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, are the only two presidential candidates to have raised more than $40,000 from the health insurance industry so far this election cycle…

Both men have favored health care policies that include an individual mandate for people to purchase private insurance plans. Romney did so as governor of Massachusetts, and Obama did so as part of the health care reform package he signed into law last year…

Such mandates are supported by the insurance industry, which stand to benefit from increased customers as well as from government subsidies that help enroll people who could not otherwise afford insurance.

Romney, in fact, has received more than five times as much money from the health insurance industry than any other GOP presidential candidate, according to the Center’s research.

That should weigh on the minds of states that are considering whether to create the health insurance “exchanges” that will implement Obamacare’s individual mandate and subsidies for insurance companies.