Public-private Partnerships: a Cautionary Tale from the UK

Given the administration’s plans are still as clear as mud, yesterday’s Cato event on infrastructure was necessarily wide-ranging. Panelists welcomed Trump’s desire to harness more private sector involvement, but there are many different forms policy to support this could take, from removing regulatory and user pricing barriers, right through to the distortionary tax credits proposed by his advisors Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro.

One possibility is greater use of public-private partnerships. These entail agreements between government and a private contractor for the building, financing or operation of infrastructure with the aim of passing on substantial risk to the private sector. They can take different forms, from simply transferring management responsibilities to a private sector firm, right through to integrated contracts that incorporate the design, build, maintenance and operation of the infrastructure (for example, toll roads.)

In terms of results, types of PPPs are not created equal. As Randal O’Toole noted, “demand risk PPPs,” where a private company builds and then runs, say, a toll road for a set period of time, allow the expansion of capacity with incentives for the private firm to control long-term costs (including considering future maintenance needs) whilst alleviating taxpayers of the usage risk. Yes, there are still political risks that governments will renege on agreements, but when there are obvious cash streams from the investment linked to usage, beneficial investment can be forthcoming. Chris Edwards has previously pointed out the success of the Capital Beltway project in Virginia, for example.

Other types of infrastructure, not least provision of loss-making modes or those with no user fees, are more difficult. In these cases, public-private partnership contracts have and can be designed such that private investors build, operate and maintain an asset with a stream of tax revenue payments from the government instead.

Sadly this “availability payment” model, as Randal calls it, where the private contractor gets paid irrespective of usage, is less likely to curb costs. In fact, the UK made extensive use of this type of agreement in the building of hospitals and schools through the 2000s, and the results have been disappointing.

Success in road schemes and a number of privately-owned prisons in the early 1990s (with a much higher proportion delivered on time and on budget than through traditional procurement) led to a huge expansion of PPPs. By 2003/04 they accounted for 39 percent of capital spending by UK government departments, and there were over 500 in operation by 2008, including in the building of schools, hospitals and public transport (especially rail). Britain led the world in their use.

This expansion of PPPs though is now associated with high lifetime costs for taxpayers, not least arising from badly negotiated bundled contracts with private contractors. Many hospitals face huge deficits. Any benefits arising from the privatization of risk and on-time and on-budget delivery of projects was eclipsed by higher borrowing costs coupled with the costs of consultants and lawyers in drawing up the contracts. Furthermore, the opacity of the liabilities for taxpayers has proved very unpopular, with significant attempts to renegotiate contracts.

The House GOP Leadership’s Health Care Bill Is ObamaCare-Lite — Or Worse

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised legislation that “fully repeals ObamaCare.” Monday night, the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives released legislation it claims would repeal and replace ObamaCare. Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Capitol Hill to pressure members of Congress to support the bill. On Wednesday, two House Committees will begin to mark-up the legislation. House and Senate leaders are hoping for quick consideration and a signing ceremony, maybe by May, so they can move on to other things, like tax reform and confirming Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch.

Everyone needs to take a step back. This bill is a train wreck waiting to happen.

The House leadership bill isn’t even a repeal bill. Not by a long shot. It would repeal far less of ObamaCare than the bill Republicans sent to President Obama one year ago. The ObamaCare regulations it retains are already causing insurance markets to collapse. It would allow that collapse to continue, and even accelerate the collapse. Republicans would then own whatever damage ObamaCare causes, such as when the law leaves seriously ill patients with no coverage at all. Congress would have to revisit ObamaCare again and again to address problems they failed to fix the first time around. ObamaCare would consume the rest of Congress’ and President Trump’s agenda. Delaying or dooming other priorities like tax reform, infrastructure spending, and Gorsuch. The fallout could dog Republicans all the way into 2018 and 2020, when it could lead to a Democratic wave election like the one we saw in 2008. Only then, Democrats won’t have ObamaCare on their mind but single-payer.

First, let’s look at how the main features of this bill fall short of repeal.

Four Ways the President’s New Immigration Ban Undercuts His Own Arguments

President Trump signed a new executive order temporarily banning all immigration from several majority-Muslim countries. The entire point of the new order is to place his ban on more secure legal footing, but in several respects, the new order actually undermines the defenses that he has given over the past month.

“Delaying implementation puts our country in peril!”

After a judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the original order for a few days to get a hearing to listen to further arguments on both sides, President Trump tweeted:

Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!

In other words, the delay threatened U.S. security. Yet this new executive order does not become effective for more than a week. Does the president’s delayed rollout also “put our country in peril”? The president’s legal team will have a more difficult time arguing that another judicial delay will cause “irreparable harm” to the U.S. this time.

“Current vetting is totally inadequate!”

President Trump in his speech to Congress said:

It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur. …That is why my administration has been working on improved vetting procedures.

In other words, these nationalities must be completely banned because the current vetting is worthless. Yet this new order allows people who currently have a valid visa to come. If the vetting process is so inadequate, then exempting current visa holders makes no sense. They are still a threat even if they have gone through the process. 

“This is about better vetting, not banning people.”

The president in his original executive order stated:

To ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals… I hereby suspend entry into the United States… of such persons for 90 days.

Thus, the whole point of this “temporary” ban is to give the administration 90 days to review the vetting. It’s not about keeping people out. If that’s so, then why does the new executive order restart the clock to 90 days? 37 days have passed since the order was enacted. Why would the time when the prior order was suspended not count against the 90-day review? It seems obvious that it’s because the review was a fraud, and the real goal is about banning people. It was unable to accomplish its goal due to the judge’s order, so the new order restarts.

The new order also cites the case of a Somali who was brought over when he was a child who then became a terrorist as a reason for the ban. Yet that is not a failure of vetting; that is a failure of assimilation. Using this example would imply that this ban is not about vetting and that the president has no plans to keep it temporary.

Trump Justifies Executive Order by Citing Terrorists Who Were Not Planning a Domestic Attack

President Trump’s updated executive order used the Bowling Green terrorists as a justification for his policy changes even though they weren’t planning a domestic terrorist attack. His order states that “in January 2013, two Iraqi nationals admitted to the United States as refugees in 2009 were sentenced to 40 years and to life in prison, respectively, for multiple terrorism-related offenses.” Those two Iraqi nationals were Mohanad Shareef Hammadi and Waad Ramadan Alwan and they were each convicted of multiple terrorism offenses—but they were not convicted or even charged with attempting to carry out a terror attack on U.S. soil despite some erroneous media reports to the contrary. 

Hammadi and Alwan were arrested in an FBI sting operation. Hammadi pled guilty to a 12-count indictment on multiple charges of providing material support to foreign terrorists, material support for a designated terrorist organization, exporting a missile system that could destroy aircraft, and fraudulently procuring a U.S. passport. Alwan pled guilty to a 23-count indictment that included engaging in terrorism against Americans overseas, teaching someone how to make a bomb, providing material support to foreign terrorists, material support for a designated terrorist organization, and exporting a missile system that could destroy aircraft. The FBI rendered all of the weapons inert before allowing Hammadi and Alwan to handle them so nobody was ever in any real danger.

Alwan did show a confidential informant how to build bombs but, according to the Department of Justice, those lessons were provided “with the intent that they be used to train others in the construction and use of such IEDs for the purpose of killing U.S. nationals overseas, including officers and employees of the United States.” The press release that announces Hammadi’s guilty plea doesn’t mention any support for domestic terrorist attacks. Additional court documents show neither Alwan nor Hammadi was charged or convicted of planning a domestic terror attack.

Upon their indictment, David J. Hale, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Kentucky said, “Whether they seek shelter in a major metropolitan area or in a smaller city in Kentucky, those who would attempt to harm or kill Americans abroad will face a determined and prepared law enforcement effort dedicated to the investigations and prosecutions necessary to bring them to justice.”

Upon their sentencing in 2013, Assistant Attorney General Monaco said, “These two former Iraqi insurgents participated in terrorist activities overseas and attempted to continue providing material support to terrorists while they lived here in the United States. With today’s sentences, both men are being held accountable.” 

Neither of those statements by U.S. attorneys, the numerous press releases I linked to above, nor the court documents show that Alwan or Hammadi was convicted or charged with planning a domestic terrorist attack. The sting operation was designed to show the two terrorists shipping weapons and money abroad to support insurgent operations against American forces in Iraq, not against Americans on U.S. soil. Alwan and Hammadi thought they were providing material and money for insurgents to kill Americans abroad—a serious crime but not one targeting Americans on U.S. soil. The overarching purpose of Trump’s new executive order is to protect the “nation from terrorist activities by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” The convictions of Alwan and Hammadi do not support the supposed overarching purpose of Trump’s executive order.  

Trump’s Wiretap Dance

I’ve already explained, in a post over at Just Security, some of the law and background surrounding what we know about Donald Trump’s incendiary claim that his predecessor wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign, and I’d suggest reading that if you want to delve into some of the wonky details, but I thought it might be worth a separate point to pull out some of the critical points and remark on how the story has evolved since Saturday.

  • There’s no basis on the public record to support the allegation that phones at Trump Tower were wiretapped, or that the Trump campaign was targeted for electronic surveillance, let alone on the orders of Barack Obama. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has publicly denied it, and FBI Director James Comey has reportedly been pressing for a disavowal from the Justice Department. This appears to be something Trump concocted on the basis of (deep breath now) his own misreading of a misleading Breitbart News article based on a talk radio host’s summary of months-old reports in the British press. Those news stories—which conspicuously haven’t been reported out by the deeply-sourced intelligence journalists at U.S. outlets, and so should be taken with a grain of salt—concern some sort of order, purportedly sought by the FBI from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, targeting Russian banks in order to follow up intelligence leads concerning possible transfers of funds from Russia to Trump aides. If the reports are true, that’s vastly different from what Trump alleged, and not obviously improper on its face, though when intelligence surveillance intersects domestic politics, even indirectly, there’s always an elevated risk of abuse.
  • The White House has been dodging and weaving a bit in its public statements following Trump’s allegations on Twitter. Initially, aides told multiple reporters that they thought the president had been reacting to the Breitbart piece, which was circulated internally on Friday. But, as I explain in more detail in my Just Security post, the sources drawn on for the Breitbart piece don’t actually support Trump’s claims. More recently, spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway insinuated that Trump may have some other classified basis for his accusations. She’s called on the FBI to release more information, while other White House officials have suggested it should fall to Congress to investigate. This is all, to put it mildly, grossly irresponsible. If the president has classified information about improper surveillance of his campaign, he is empowered to declassify it. If he’s not sure whether to believe what he reads on the Internet, the head of the executive branch is not limited to relying on Breitbart News to learn about the activities of his own intelligence community. But it should be wholly unacceptable for Trump to level serious accusations of criminal abuse of intelligence authorities by his predecessor,  then punt to Congress when pressed to produce evidence.  

42 Percent of “Terrorism-Related” Convictions Aren’t for Terrorism

The reason for President Trump’s reissued executive order is to “protect the Nation from terrorist activities by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” A further justification buried in the executive order is that “[s]ince 2001, hundreds of persons born abroad have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the United States.” 

What exactly is a “terrorism-related crime”? There is no definition in U.S. statutes. The phrase “terrorism-related” does appear but mostly in reference to actions of government officials in response to terrorism such as a terrorism-related travel advisory. One use of the phrase “terrorism-related” that makes the most sense in this context comes from the anti-terrorism Information Sharing Environment (ISE) that integrates information which the GAO defined as relating to “terrorism, homeland security, and law enforcement, as well as other information.” That’s so broad that a reasonable person can’t possibly see “terrorism-related” as synonymous with “terrorism.”

If the people counted as “terrorism-related” convictions were really convicted of planning, attempting, or carrying out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil then supporters of Trump’s executive order would call them “terrorism convictions” and exclude the “related.” After all, when people are convicted of murder we don’t call it a “murder-related conviction.” We call it murder.

The most famous list of terrorism-related convictions is that published by Senator Sessions in 2016 that shows 580 convictions from 9/11 until the end of 2014 (the link isn’t working now for some reason). Sessions’ list appears to be the source of the worry that “hundreds of person born abroad have been convicted of terrorism-related crimes in the United States.”   

Only 339 of the 580 terrorism-related convictions on Sessions’ list were actually convicted of a terrorism crime. The other 241 (42 percent) were not convicted of a terrorism crime. “Terrorism-related” apparently includes investigations that begin due to a terrorism tip but then ended in non-terrorism convictions. My favorite examples of this are the convictions of Nasser Abuali, Hussein Abuali, and Rabi Ahmed. An informant told the FBI that the trio tried to purchase a rocket-propelled grenade launcher but the FBI found no evidence of that. The three individuals were instead convicted of the non-terrorist crime of receiving two truckloads of stolen cereal—which is not terrorism.

An additional 92 (16 percent) convictions were of U.S.-born citizens whose plots would not have been prevented by Trump’s executive order. 

That leaves 247 (43 percent) who were foreign-born and actually convicted of a real terrorist offense. Of those, 180 were convicted of material support for foreign terrorists, attempting to join foreign terrorist organizations, planning a terrorist attack abroad, or a similar offense taking place abroad. Twenty-seven were extradited to the United States and tried here for any one of the offenses listed abroad. Only 40 were convicted of planning, attempting, or carrying out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Future immigrants and non-immigrants who are similar to those 40 terrorists are the intended focus of Trump’s executive order.  They only comprise 6.9 percent of the 580 “terrorism-related” convictions listed by Senator Sessions.

At most, only 58 percent of the “terrorism-related” convictions given as the likely justification for this executive order can be classified as actual terrorism. The other 42 percent were not convicted of a terrorism offense. Only 6.9 percent were convicted or attempting, planning, or carrying out a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

As a note, Stanford University associate professor of law Shirin Sinnar recently received an answer to a FOIA that showed 627 convictions to the end of 2015 but I have not been able to parse them by terrorism or non-terrorism convictions.    

The Revised “Travel Ban” Is Much Better Legally

If this new executive order had been what was was signed initially—combined with the normal interagency process and briefing of border officials as to how to implement it—President Trump wouldn’t have provoked the type of political response he did or the legal quagmire he entered. This order is much more narrowly tailored, providing exemptions not just to those with green cards and other valid visas, but also people with significant contacts to United States, students, children, urgent medical cases, and other special circumstances—and Iraq is necessarily treated as a special case—as well as spelling out reasons for the remaining restrictions.

As it stands now, the tweaks in the new executive order would normally put these actions firmly within the executive’s authority under the relevant immigration laws: presidents have broad discretion over refugee programs and to suspend entry of certain classes of foreigners on national security grounds. But, in large part due to the botched development and implementation of the previous order, this isn’t the normal case and courts will likely be less deferential to assertions of executive power here than they would otherwise be.

And then there are the atmospherics of what so many people consider to be a “Muslim ban.” Just because a presidential candidate uses hyperbolic language during a campaign—or his surrogates use similarly inartful language on national TV—doesn’t mean that any policy in that area is constitutionally suspect, but some judges will surely see it that way.

Finally, all that’s before getting into the wisdom of this policy. Refugees generally aren’t a security threat, for example, and it’s unclear whether vetting or visa-issuing procedures in the six remaining targeted countries represent the biggest weakness in our border defenses or ability to prevent terrorism on American soil.