Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Choking off suffocating activities like “Operation Choke Point”

The federal government’s efforts to restrict the freedoms Americans have enjoyed for more than 200 years have gotten so preposterous recently that the most of these efforts leave people incredulously saying, “Seriously?”

To wit: The Environmental Protection Agency recently went after people who burn wood to heat their homes. Trying to destroy the coal and oil industries isn’t enough, now the EPA thinks wood – an inexpensive, renewable energy source – which is the mainstay of rural homes and of some of the nation’s poorest residents, is harmful, and the agency has banned the sale of 80 percent of wood-burning stoves.

And now the nation’s most out-of-control agency has charcoal grills in its crosshairs, and has funded a project at the University of California with $15,000 of taxpayer money to study the emissions from grease drippings when people indulge in that dangerous activity, outdoor cooking.

First it was toilets, because they used too much water; then inexpensive, safe incandescent light bulbs, which have been replaced with CFLs that contain mercury and emit ultraviolet radiation; and now wood stoves and potentially outdoor grilling. There are too many people on the payroll at the EPA with too much time on their hands.

These efforts are necessary, we are told, to keep the world from grinding to a halt because of … well, some horrible disaster related to climate change, or global warming, or whatever the alarmists are now calling their imagined cataclysm.

Each time some new target becomes public we ask, “Can it get any worse?” Unfortunately, the answer always is, “Yes.”

The EPA is not the only arm of the government harming the good citizens they exist to serve. The Department of Justice has jumped blindly onto that bandwagon with a program even more intolerable than the EPA’s misadventures called Operation Choke Point, which looks way too much like something you would find in other less-free countries, or perhaps used by mob bosses in Chicago.

Operation Choke Point is a method of preventing perfectly legal businesses from being able to operate satisfactorily, not by pointing to a law these businesses have broken or a shady practice they have indulged in, or by going through legislative channels to have what they do declared illegal, as our concept of the rule of law demands, but by underhandedly strong-arming financial institutions with whom these business have accounts, and “convincing” them to not do business with these merchants any longer.

Businesses such as ammunition sales, escort services, on-line gambling, so-called “racist materials,” third party payment processors, payday lenders, and online lenders, have been targeted simply because someone in the DOJ or higher up in the administration doesn’t like them. Some are perhaps undesirable, but all are legal.

What happens is that the DOJ and bank regulators pressure banks and other third-party payment processors to cease providing or deny banking services to industries the government alleges pose a “reputation risk” to the bank or service provider.

Last May, Todd Zywicki wrote in The Washington Post the “initiative has been shrouded in secrecy, but now it is starting to come to light  … and since then it has been difficult to discover details about it … Without an ability to process payments, the businesses – especially online vendors — cannot survive.”

The irony is that while the DOJ and bank regulators are choking off financial services to perfectly legal industries, they are also encouraging banks to provide banking services to illegal marijuana sales.

When you have people in high offices that are more interested in serving some ideological god than they are in serving the American people, and when that ideological god demands the improper use of government force against legal activities, something must be done to stop it.

And last week, the U.S. Senate started down that road. The Senate Budget Committee approved an amendment to end Operation Choke Point, and according to The Daily Signal, Committee member Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, will offer an amendment this week to the Senate’s budget proposal to defund the DOJ program.

Sen. Crapo last year commented that Operation Choke Point “has morphed into an attempt to shut down entire industries of law-abiding and legitimate merchants.” And he sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing “strong concerns” about the program. Unsurprisingly, the Justice Department, declared that it has “no interest in pursuing or discouraging lawful conduct.”

And the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will question FDIC officials about the agency’s involvement in Operation Choke Point, and hopes to find out who was involved, how high up it goes, and whether anyone has been held accountable.

The answer to that last item will likely be “No.” It is virtually unheard of for federal employees to pay a price for their malfeasance. It is also likely we will not learn the any names associated with this outrageous offense.

Cutting funding for the EPA, the DOJ, and any/every other agency that over-reaches is an appropriate mechanism to redress the wrongs they commit against the American people. The government spends far too much money, and cutting spending where it is being used wrongly or unconstitutionally ought to be celebrated by every freedom loving American.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Democrats have never done what 47 Republican senators did to Obama

Dissatisfied with President Barack Obama’s approach to Iran’s continued march toward acquiring nuclear weapons, 47 Republican Senators signed an open letter that was sent to the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Arkansas freshman Sen. Tom Cotton authored the letter, which was signed by all but seven Senate Republicans.

This action has been termed “unprecedented,” and has brought forth the wrath of Democrats in Congress and the administration. Vice President Joe Biden, for example, declared that "In 36 years in the United States Senate, I cannot recall another instance in which senators wrote directly to advise another country … that the President does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them.”

Secretary of State John Kerry expressed similar sentiments: “This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy,” and went a step further by saying that in his 29 years in the Senate he had “never heard of or even heard of being proposed anything comparable to this.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said, “Republicans are undermining our commander-in-chief while empowering the ayatollahs. We should always have robust debate about foreign policy, but it's unprecedented for one political party to directly intervene in an international negotiation with the sole goal of embarrassing the president of the United States.”

Other criticisms charged Republicans with trying to undercut the president by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without first consulting the White House, and then by sending this letter to subvert an agreement that would avoid war, as MSNBC’s Mika Brzenzinski charged on the Morning Joe program. And the pièce de résistance: the New York Daily News cover calling the Republican letter signers “traitors.”

Some law professors, pundits and news media charge that the Republican senators have committed treason by violating the Logan Act of 1799, which states: "Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."

And now for the rest of the story.

Predictably, there is far more heat than warranted here, Treason? No. Traitors? No. Gross amounts of hyperbole? Absolutely! Deliberate deception! Of course.

The Logan Act is not a factor here because, first, many legal authorities believe the Act is constitutional, as it infringes on the free speech guaranteed citizens by the U.S. Constitution, but also because the senators represent one of two houses of a co-equal branch of government, and therefore acted with the authority of their position, which also allows them to take a part in agreements with other nations.

Most important, however, is that despite the breathless overstatements by critics of the letter-writers, this action is not at all unprecedented, and in fact some of the loudest critics have themselves indulged in similar acts.

Take Secretary of State John Kerry, for instance. In 1971 during negotiations by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger trying to reach an end to the Vietnam War, then-Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., as leader of the anti-war group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, travelled to Paris to meet face-to-face with the North Vietnamese delegation, which was at the time an enemy combatant nation.

In 2007 then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal., met fact-to-face with Bashar al-Assad while President George W. Bush was in negotiations with the Syrian leader.

Another Speaker, Jim Wright, D-Tex., talked face-to-face with Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega in 1987.

Senator James Abourezk, D-S.D., secretly met with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat in 1973.

In 2006 Senators John Kerry, D-Mass., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Arlen Spector R-Pa., (who soon after became a Democrat) traveled to Damascus when the policy of the Bush administration was to isolate the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The Left has a problem remembering these inconvenient facts, which are probably contained in emails at the State Department or the IRS.

Furthermore, the letter was an open letter, not a private communication and presented facts about our constitutional system the Iranians likely did not know, not a negotiation.

The letter explained that any agreement between President Obama and the Iranian leaders binds only President Obama; future presidents will not be bound by it. Only treaties ratified by the Senate bind the U.S. That is a significant point.

Further, the negotiations may well involve the president unilaterally undoing sanctions against Iran passed by the Congress. That is a no-no; he does not have authority to do that.

It is certainly fair to criticize the fact that the message was presented in a letter addressed to Iranian leaders, instead of, say, being run as an op-ed in one or more national newspapers. However, that is about the worst aspect of this molehill called Mount Treason.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Democrats want to “help” people even when they don’t need help

Last July, Jeffrey Dorfman discussed the battle that began near the end of 2013 over maintaining extended unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks. In Forbes Magazine the University of Georgia economics professor explained that during the debate the preceding December and January Congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama insisted that if the benefits were not extended, it would hurt workers who would lose benefits, but the nation’s economy would also suffer.

Adding a little background, he wrote: “After the 2007-2009 recession, Congress repeatedly authorized emergency extended benefits so that the unemployed could collect benefits for as long as 99 weeks [nearly two years]. When the extended benefits finally were allowed to expire in December 2013 they had lasted 20 months longer than following any previous recession. Yet, Democrats wanted to continue them even longer.”

But, he said, six months after the decision not to extend the benefits again, neither the unemployed nor the economy suffered as predicted, and in fact “the results have been quite positive.”

“Economic research seems to be clear that providing such extended unemployment benefits went beyond helping people transition to a new job,” wrote professor Dorfman, “instead allowing them to extend their job search. Instead of taking a job offer that might be suitable, unemployed people who still had some income thanks to Congress’ generosity looked for a great job. Thus, extending unemployment benefits led to higher unemployment and a slower recovery.”

Unemployment benefits are funded by an insurance premium paid by employers to provide benefits for a set period of time, which helps folks cope until they find a new job. In most states employees are covered for up to 26 weeks. During and immediately after a recession when unemployment rates are high, the federal government generally steps in and provides an extended period of benefits. However, in such cases, benefits paid after the period covered by unemployment insurance are paid for out of tax revenue, which is essentially welfare.

A recent study supports the professor’s assertion, this one by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which indicates that the labor market improvement President Obama so frequently uses to show his policies are working, occurred even though Congress did not follow the president’s wishes and extend the benefits again to 99 weeks. Rather than widespread doom and gloom, when extended benefits were not approved, job creation increased by about 1.8 million. NBER also noted that in 2013 the states with generous unemployment benefits created fewer jobs than the national average, but that job creation in those states increased in 2014 to above the national average when they cut back on benefits.

In examining this situation the Las Vegas Review-Journal opined: “Was long-term unemployment assistance necessary for some people? Yes. But, without question, millions of Americans at the margin — those who rejected offers to work for a little more than jobless benefits were worth, or those who supplemented jobless aid with under-the-table work in the gray economy — saw no point in re-entering the taxpaying workforce when they could be paid for so long to not work. And that simply wasn’t working for our economy.”

There is substantial support in these data for the idea that liberal/Democrat policies that are intended to help people beyond their actual need for help is good neither for the people they intend to help, nor for the best interests of the country at large.

The reality that government policies have failed shows up in the low level of people in the workforce who actually have jobs. The civilian labor force participation rate reflects the proportion of non-institutional civilians 16 to 64 years of age who are working or looking for work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the participation rate hovered between 62.9 percent and 62.7 percent in the eleven months from April 2014 through February 2015, and has been 62.9 percent or lower in 13 of the 17 months since October 2013.

It has been 37 years since the participation rate was below 63 percent, back in March of 1978. In February, the number of work-eligible civilians not working or looking for work totaled nearly 93 million people.

BLS reported that the non-institutional population reached 249,899,000 in February, and only 157,002,000 of those were working or looking for work. The rest had become discouraged and stopped looking for a job.

So while job creation has been in positive territory lately, and the unemployment rate has dropped to near 5 percent, the economy has not produced enough jobs to get those 93 million people back to work, and when those numbers get figured in to the employment picture, the unemployment rate doubles.

The job market still has not returned to pre-recession levels nearly six years after the recession ended in 2009.

A vibrant economy depends upon people working and earning money they can spend on needs and wants. Business, not government, creates jobs. But government restricts job creation through over-regulation and high taxation.

Our elected leaders and bureaucrats seem immune from learning that less restrictive market conditions contribute to creating jobs.

This immunity affects those of the liberal persuasion to a disproportionate degree.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Is there anything on Earth the government doesn’t want to control?

The EPA is determined to control everything that has anything to do with air, ground and water. The DOJ wants to put legal but “unpopular” types of businesses out of business. The feds tell schools what they can sell to the public at bake sales and at athletic events. And now the five unelected members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have decided the government should control the greatest and most creative invention since the wheel: the Internet.

“President Obama has pushed for the reclassification, which he said is needed to ensure a fair and open Internet,” writes Susan Ferrechio in the Washington Examiner. “But critics say it will stifle innovation and increase fees and taxes by imposing on the industry a 1934 government regulation meant for managing large utilities, such as the old telephone companies.”

"The closer we get to the FCC rubber-stamping President Obama's Internet grab, the more disturbing it becomes,” said House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., prior to the FCC’s decision. Consumers, innovators, and job creators all stand to lose from this misguided approach."

Some background, from Wikipedia: “The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) to link several billion devices worldwide. It is a network of networks that consists of millions of private, public, academic, business, and government networks of local to global scope, linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies. The Internet carries an extensive range of information resources and services, such as the inter-linked hypertext documents and applications of the World Wide Web (WWW), the infrastructure to support email, and peer-to-peer networks for file sharing and telephony.”

The Internet began gaining wide usage in the mid-1990s, and since that time has provided users with resources and connections that only until recently was even imagined. It has survived very well without the control freaks at the federal leviathan sticking their noses in.

Even though the FCC did vote to take control of the Internet, the vote was not unanimous. With a Democrat in the White House, the FCC now consists of three Democrat members and two Republicans, and both Republicans voted against the takeover.

One of them, Ajit Pai, made three important points in his dissenting statement. “For twenty years, there’s been a bipartisan consensus in favor of a free and open Internet … [and] the results speak for themselves. Dating back to the Clinton Administration, every FCC Chairman — Republican and Democrat — has let the Internet grow free from utility-style regulation.

“But today, the FCC abandons those policies. It reclassifies broadband Internet access service as a Title II telecommunications service. It seizes unilateral authority to regulate Internet conduct, to direct where Internet service providers (ISPs) make their investments, and to determine what service plans will be available to the American public.

“This is … a radical departure from the bipartisan, market-oriented policies that have served us so well for the last two decades.” 

His second point centered on the idea that the disagreement between Verizon and Netflix exemplified problems that required government intervention to protect consumers. But a free Internet operating in the free market solved this problem without need of government action, and well before this foolish decision was made.

“So the FCC is abandoning a 20-year-old, bipartisan framework for keeping the Internet free and open in favor of Great Depression-era legislation designed to regulate Ma Bell,” Commissioner Pai said, referring to the Communications Act of 1934 that authorized the FCC. “But at least we’re getting something in return, right? Wrong. The Internet is not broken. There is no problem for the government to solve.”

“Literally nothing in this Order will promote competition among ISPs,” he continued, outlining the third point. “To the contrary, reclassifying broadband will drive competitors out of business. Monopoly rules designed for the monopoly era will inevitably move us in the direction of a monopoly. If you liked the Ma Bell monopoly in the 20th century, you’ll love Pa Broadband in the 21st.

“One avenue for higher bills is the new taxes and fees that will be applied to broadband. If you look at your phone bill, you’ll see a ‘Universal Service Fee,’ or something like it. These fees — what most Americans would call taxes — are paid by Americans on their telephone service.

“Consumers haven’t had to pay these taxes on their broadband bills because broadband has never before been a Title II service. But now it is. And so the Order explicitly opens the door to billions of dollars in new taxes. Indeed, it repeatedly states that it is only deferring a decision on new broadband taxes — not prohibiting them,” Mr. Pai concluded.

Will this lead to the FCC playing politics with the Internet like the IRS does with applicants for nonprofit status? Why wouldn’t it?

As happens quite frequently, rules with the force of law are being created not by the only branch of government authorized to create laws, but by the branch of government authorized only to enforce the laws properly created.

Once again under the Obama administration the Constitution is turned on its ear.