McCain/Thornberry Military Plan would Boost Spending, Deficits, and Dangers

Congressional Republicans have a new plan for a military spending boost. John McCain, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, last week released a report calling for a $54 billion increase in 2018 Pentagon spending and a $430 billion increase above current Pentagon plans for the next five fiscal years. McCain’s House counterpart, Mac Thornberry, backed that plan today in a Fox News op-ed. Both chairmen also want an immediate “supplemental” increase of an indeterminate amount to the 2017 military budget. 

Enacting the McCain/Thornberry plan requires undoing the defense spending caps set by the Budget Control Act. Complying with the caps would shave more than $100 billion off existing plans over the next five years, meaning that the new plan would spend more than half a trillion more than current law allows. That’s before counting any 2017 supplemental or Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding, currently at $59 billion. The plan calls for transferring OCO spending, which is now uncapped, back into the base budget once the abolishment of the Budget Control Act leaves it unconstrained.

The title of Thornberry’s op-ed, Here’s How We Will Make America’s Military Great Again, suggests its intended audience. During the campaign, President Trump endorsed an across-the-board military buildup likely to cost $70 to $100 billion a year but absurdly claimed that he could fund it by cutting Pentagon waste, fraud, and abuse. Since his election, Trump and his advisors have done little to clarify how they’ll fund the buildup or use the expanded military, besides parading it down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Will 2017 Be Another Year of Educational Choice?

It’s National School Choice Week, so it’s a good time to survey the countryside and see what’s in store for the year ahead.

Last year was relatively quiet in terms of school choice legislation. South Dakota enacted a relatively limited tax-credit scholarship program and Maryland enacted a small voucher program, but there wasn’t much progress otherwise. 

By contrast, 2015 was the Year of Educational Choice. Not only did 15 states adopt 21 new or expanded educational choice programs, three of them enacted education savings account (ESA) laws. As I’ve noted previously, ESAs represent a move from school choice to educational choice because families can use ESA funds to pay for a lot more than just private school tuition. Parents can use the ESA funds for tutors, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online classes, educational therapy, and more. They can also save unused funds for future educational expenses, including college.

Already, several states this year are considering ESA legislation. Last week, legislators in Arkansas introduced a universal-eligibility, tax-credit funded ESA similar to what Jonathan Butcher and I described in our report last year, “Taking Credit for Education.” Donors would receive tax credits for contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that would fund the ESAs. According to a just-released study from Julie Trivitt and Corey DeAngelis of the University of Arkansas, if enacted, the ESA would expand educational choice while saving taxpayers an estimated $2.8 million.

This week, the Missouri Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to create tax-credit funded ESA, similar to the Arkansas bill described above. Missouri will also consider publicly funded ESAs, as well as other choice proposals.

Other states considering publicly funded ESAs include Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Texas. I’ve also heard that Arizona legislators are considering expanding their ESA, possibly to include all Arizona students. Meanwhile, in Nevada, Gov. Sandoval is looking to find ways to fund his state’s ESA after the state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of the program but struck down its funding mechanism

Several states will also be considering tax-credit scholarship programs, including Kentucky, Nebraska, and (likely) Texas. In addition, South Carolina is looking to expand its tax credit.

I’m likely missing a number of proposals, and it will be tough to top 2015, but 2017 very well might be the Year of Educational Choice, Jr.

Withdrawing from TPP Was a Senseless Act of Wanton Destruction

Earlier today, demonstrating his preference for action over reason, President Trump signed an executive order to officially withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to witness the rare act of a politician fulfilling a campaign pledge. On the other hand, there is nothing else good about it. Trump detonated a bomb; six years of negotiations went boom; now what?

To a president who seems intent on turning the country inward, raising the barricades, demanding self-sufficiency, and eschewing the outside world, the TPP was an obvious target. But what’s especially disconcerting is that the president didn’t need to go this far to keep TPP out of play. The agreement couldn’t possibly take effect without congressional passage of implementing legislation, and his signature affixed. He could have just kept TPP on the back-burner in the event that its utility, relevance, or imperative to U.S. economic and geostrategic objectives became evident, as his term progressed. Because it will.

My colleagues and I did a thorough, chapter-by-chapter assessment of the TPP and concluded that, on net, implementation would advance our economic freedoms. But there is also a geostrategic rationale for the TPP that compels beyond the text of the agreement. I presented that case in a few different articles, but here’s an excerpt from the most recent oped, in The Hill

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Will House Republicans’ “Border Adjustable” Tax Plan Cause a Trade War? (Spoiler: Maybe Not!)

Perhaps the highest legislative priority for House Republicans in the 115th Session of Congress is an overhaul of the United States’ antiquated and onerous corporate tax code. The details of the GOP plan aren’t out yet—it’s only summarized in a House Republican “blueprint” and the legislative text hasn’t been finalized—but the general idea is to replace the current 35% “worldwide” corporate income tax with a 20-25% “destination-based” tax on corporations’ US sales (i.e., including domestic sales of imports in the tax base, but excluding export sales—so called “border tax adjustments”).

This “destination-based cash-flow tax” (or “#DBCFT” as the tax nerds are now calling it on the interwebs) would be a fundamental shift in how (and on what) American corporations now pay tax, and it raises complex economic issues—including how trade would be affected—that I wouldn’t dare try to navigate here (but these analyses are a good start). 

On the other hand, the DBCFT debate also has addressed whether the tax plan would be consistent with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules on “border adjustable” taxes, with some folks already going so far as to claim that any version of the DBCFT would violate the United States’ international obligations and thus expose US exports to billions of dollars-worth of WTO-sanctioned retaliation. As I discuss below, however, that assumption’s not really correct; in fact, there is a very good argument that the DBCFT, if properly constructed, would pass muster at the WTO and thereby avoid potential retaliatory tariffs on US exports.

Trump’s Inaugural Address, and the Words That Were Missing

Donald Trump, in his inaugural address today: “The oath I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.” A harmless rhetorical flourish, no doubt, and one that Trump is by no means the first to make. And yet…

Note that the President’s actual oath of office says nothing about allegiance. It instead contains verbs promising two types of action: “faithfully execute the Office” and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Its exact text reads: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

If a President does those two things, the American people as a whole will benefit. So no big difference from what Trump said, right? Maybe. 

The words of the actual oath require the President first to uphold legality, even above his vision of what might be good for the people. This element of legal constraint is lost if a President sees his allegiance as being to someone rather than something. As colleague Tim Lynch wrote on Wednesday, “There are many other checks and balances in our system, but the oath of office is supposed to be the first line of defense.”

Now history may look back and see this as an unimportant choice of words. Trump’s actions one way or the other will speak louder than his shades of wording.

Still, I wish the speech had used the word “Constitution,” or “law” in a way beyond the phrase “law enforcement,” or “Framers” or “Founders,” or “Declaration” or “Amendment” or “individual” or perhaps “rights.” The one occurrence of “right” was in a passage about “the right of all nations to put their interests first.”

During his campaign, Trump’s style was noteworthy for how seldom he mentioned the Constitution, the legal limits of government power, or the rights of the individual. Let us hope that these themes emerge in future speeches by the new President.

The False Promise of “Buy American”

If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, where will President Trump turn when his “America First” policies lay waste to the very people he professes to be helping?

The ideas conjured by “Buy American” may appeal to many of President Trump’s supporters, but the phrase is merely a euphemism for doling political spoils, featherbedding, and protectionism. The president may score points with union bosses, import-competing producers, and some workers, but at great expense to taxpayers, workers and businesses more broadly.

Cordoning off the estimated $1.7 trillion U.S. government procurement market to U.S. suppliers would mean higher price tags, fewer projects funded, and fewer people hired. In today’s globalized economy, where supply chains are transnational and direct investment crosses borders, finding products that meet the U.S.-made definition is no easy task, as many consist of components made in multiple countries. And by precluding foreign suppliers from bidding, any short-term increases in U.S. economic activity and jobs likely would be offset by lost export sales – and the jobs that go with them – on account of copycat protectionism abroad.

The Rhetorical Stylings of Donald J. Trump

“The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me… could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”

George Washington, First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789

“He referred to my hands—‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.”

Donald Trump, Republican primary debate, March 3, 2016

Unless he manages to fire off a tweet in between taking the oath and approaching the podium, today’s Inaugural Address will be the first time Donald J. Trump addresses the public as president. We’re told it’s going to be a “philosophical document”; what that will mean we’ll have to wait to find out, but I’ll hazard one guess about the contents of the speech. Early Inaugural Addresses nearly always included a profession of humility by the man about to assume such grave responsibilities, as with Washington, above, or Jefferson (“the task is above my talents”); Madison (“my own inadequacy to its high duties”); Monroe (“conscious of my own deficiency”); and even Andrew Jackson (“a diffidence, perhaps too just, in my own qualifications…”). I doubt that Trump’s Inaugural Address will contain anything like that.

Presidents don’t talk like they used to, and they haven’t for some time.  Most presidential scholars recognize “a significant transformation of the presidency at the turn of the twentieth century from a traditional, administrative, and unrhetorical office into a modern, expansive, and stridently rhetorical one in which incumbents routinely speak over the head of Congress and to the public to lead and to govern.” In a 2002 article, presidential scholar Elvin T. Lim exhaustively examined all Inaugural and State of the Union addresses from 1789 to 2000, and found—it will hardly shock you to learn—that presidential rhetoric has become “more anti-intellectual,” more imperial, “more assertive,” and characterized by “an increasing lack of humility.”

Trump won’t be the first president to simultaneously dumb down the content and ramp up the hubris, but it appears likely that, as president, he’ll take the prevailing rhetorical trends to a new level, offering the Xtreme Energy Drink version of what’s usually on tap.

Hard as it may be to picture now, in the early years of the Republic, the prevailing norm was that the president was mostly supposed to keep his mouth shut. The Founding Generation didn’t believe in Teddy Roosevelt’s Bully Pulpit: the very idea of a president claiming a special mandate to speak for the people, pounding the podium and rallying the masses behind his agenda was anathema to them.

In his pioneering study The Rhetorical Presidency, Jeffrey Tulis observed that “the founders worried especially about the danger that a powerful executive might pose to the system if [presidential] power were derived from the role of popular leader. For most federalists, ‘demagogue’ and ‘popular leader’ were synonyms, and nearly all references to popular leaders in their writings are pejorative.” In fact, that fear bookends the Federalist, with the first essay warning that of “men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants,” and the last raising the specter of “the military despotism of a victorious demagogue.”

Instead of translating popular passions into government activism, the president’s role was to resist those passions, to, as Federalist 71 puts it, “withstand the temporary delusion in order to give [the people] time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”

Accordingly, a web of tacit norms—what Tulis calls a “rhetorical common law”—constrained the president’s ability to engage in popular appeals. They weren’t supposed to address the public very frequently.  As Tulis notes, Washington’s first Inaugural is addressed to “Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives”—not the public at large; and 19th-century presidents gave very few public speeches in general.

Those norms also governed what presidents were supposed to say when they did address the public. “Every president in the nineteenth century, except Zachary Taylor, mentioned the Constitution” in his Inaugural Address, Tulis observes, and most elaborated with “reflection upon its meaning.” Lim tracks a 20th-century decline in references to the Constitution, and finds that “other keywords of typical republican rhetoric have become unpopular, with references to the once honored words like republic, citizen, character, duty, and virtuous falling significantly. … In contrast, references to leader, people, and democracy have increased dramatically over time.” Moreover, “as modern presidents have rhetorically represented themselves increasingly as protectors and defenders of the people, their rhetoric has also tended to aggrandize their status within the governmental system.” Where once presidents humbly sought the blessings of “Providence,” in their formal addresses, lately they’re more likely to invoke “God,” suggesting He’s on our side, after all.

We’ve come a long way, baby: and, as president, Donald Trump seems likely to take us even further from the “rhetorical common law” that once restrained presidential demagoguery and, with it, presidential power.

Where Obama indulged in the occasional feel-good, “rock-star” rally as president, Trump has signaled that he may make the mass rally a regular feature of his presidency. And where Obama, our first Twitter president, had a feed so reassuringly dull, you could safely unfollow it without fearing you’d miss anything, you could hardly say the same about @realDonaldTrump. As a medium of direct address, Twitter is ill-suited to encourage the “cool and sedate reflection” the presidency demands, and which Trump seems constitutionally incapable of providing. Just since his election, Trump has used it to rail against bad restaurant reviews, Saturday Night Live skits, and the United States’ nuclear-armed rivals.

Rhetorically, Trump represents the antithesis of the modest, restrained vision of the presidency shared by most of the Founders. That’s apparent from his nomination acceptance speech at GOP Convention this summer, which was dominated by alarmist hyperbole (“attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life”) hubristic promises (“beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored”); and a vox populi conception of the presidency: “I AM YOUR VOICE” (ALLCAPS in the prepared-for-delivery version released by the campaign).

In a famous (perhaps borrowed) refrain to one of his speeches, Barack Obama intoned: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter.” In this case, they do: how the president communicates reveals how he views the office—and how he intends to wield power. Trump has given us ample reason to worry on that score.

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