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‘Ethics’ commissions about politics more than oversight

May 27, 2016, 12:24 PM

One of my proudest moments as a columnist came in 2008 when the Orange County Board of Supervisors launched the Office of Independent Review to monitor the Sheriff’s Department. I was one of many observers who championed an “independent” oversight board following a horrific jail beating death, some disturbing police shootings, and the federal indictment of a past sheriff.

The office, however, quickly became co-opted by the Sheriff’s Department. It has sparked no meaningful improvement of county law enforcement even as a massive scandal involving the district attorney’s and sheriff’s use of jailhouse snitches has unfolded. Critics were right. That vote created a mini-bureaucracy that offered little more than a veneer of oversight.

That reinforced an important point that, in my zeal, I overlooked at the time: Government commissions are a foolhardy way to try to rein in government agencies. It’s a broad principle that can be applied locally and nationally. Often, these commissions are the worst of all worlds. They give the impression of oversight without actually overseeing much of anything.

Fool me once, shame on me. But not a second time. I’m thinking of another proposal on the June coming ballot to create an independent campaign finance and ethics commission in Orange County. “It will be a truly independent body,” argue its supporters in a campaign statement. It promises big things: “to hold politicians accountable and ensure our government answers to the people.” But the chance it will clean up local politics is somewhere in the ballpark of zero.

The measure is the brainchild of one of the county’s best-known grassroots political activists, Shirley Grindle. Grindle is the dogged campaign-finance watchdog who authored the so-called TINCUP (Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics) ordinance in 1977. She also rewrote it to simplify it in 1992, and voters approved the changes with an 82-percent “yes” vote.

Anyone can call her and ask for information about who gave how much to what candidate—and she says she can usually get you the information in a few minutes using a system of index cards. “I’m not going to be here forever,” said Grindle, now in her early 80s. Her personal monitoring of the county law certainly helps keep politicians honest. Measure A is the result of her 12-year effort to create a formal commission to carry on her volunteer oversight work. This is the first time she’s had a board of supervisors supportive of the idea.

As good as the idea sounds to some people, it’s deservedly controversial. The commission would have five commissioners and an executive director under the authority of the Board of Supervisors. Board members, by the way, would be among those top county officials whose finance practices and ethics would be under review. So the idea of independence is a stretch, even with tough restrictions on the types of people who can serve on the commission. How many supervisors will appoint people who closely monitor them?

We see the limits of this approach at the state level, where the Fair Political Practices Commission oversees statewide campaign finances and ethics. Because the FPPC doesn’t monitor local elections, this commission would handle that in Orange County. It’s common, though, for political opponents to game the process to embarrass opponents. The proposed Orange County commission would get subpoena power, so it could access bank accounts and compel politicians to appear before its hearings. That would be good in cases of real wrongdoing, but problematic if the commission adopts more of a political tone—or gets played by a political pro.

“It’s a very expensive price tag so supervisors can make accusations,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of the GOP-oriented Flashreport. “As a political consultant, I can make hay with this by filing a complaint and getting a big article, ‘Ethical complaint lodged.'” But it will take months or sometimes years to figure out if there was any actual wrongdoing. He sees it as another means for politicians to engage in game-playing.

Consider that one of its biggest champions is Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is planning a run for district attorney. In March, taxpayers flew him to San Francisco as part of a photo op to hand out a $100,000 reward check. The Register reported in November that Spitzer has engaged in “unprecedented spending from a war chest that’s paid for $340,000 in travel, groceries, restaurant meals, hotels, office and retail store purchases, a security system and donations to politicians, causes and civic groups.” It’s legal, but this should send up the usual red flags. Will any such commission see the forest for the trees?

The price tag is unclear. Grindle envisions volunteer commissioners and one full-time executive director, with costs under $300,000 a year. Others predict higher costs, given how fiefdoms grow. But cost is secondary to substance. The real problem is the commission might convince people something is being done to clean up elections—while it does no more to improve ethics than the Office of Independent Review did to improve policing.

And this Orange County example should be a warning to activists throughout the country. Don’t expect a commission to provide anything more than window dressing. Don’t be as foolish as I was.

Should we just take the nicotine out of cigarettes?

May 27, 2016, 10:35 AM

There has been significant discussion among public-health experts in recent months of studies purporting to show the benefits of reducing nicotine in cigarettes, particularly the results of a randomized trial published last fall in the New England Journal of Medicine by University of Pittsburgh psychologist Eric C. Donny and colleagues. Pointing to this research, some have suggested the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could force American cigarette manufacturers to reduce the nicotine content of cigarettes gradually until it is removed altogether.

While the subject merits study and debate, there is a very real possibility that reducing nicotine in cigarettes could do more harm than good. This risk could be especially acute if the decrease is gradual, causing smokers to smoke more and inhale more deeply to get the desired dose of nicotine, as appears to have been the case with the so-called “low-tar cigarettes.”

Despite hype to the contrary and millions of dollars spent on “regulatory science,” it appears to me that science has nothing to do with the kinds of tobacco-control policy actually created and implemented by the FDA and CDC. Regulators’ minds have been made up that, no matter what the level of risk, there is no possibility that any nonpharmaceutical nicotine-delivery product can provide public-health benefits.

The past few years have seen record reductions in both teen and adult prevalence of smoking, yet federal authorities do not recognize that the expanding popularity of e-cigarettes and related nicotine vapor products might have played a major role in securing this public health benefit.

We have substantial science that shows both the addictiveness and lethality of tobacco products is almost entirely determined by whether the product is combusted or smoke-free. These facts are not recognized in either CDC or FDA policy.

Despite the obvious promise, I see no action and no research agenda by U.S. federal regulators to explore actively the potential benefits of adding a tobacco harm reduction component to current tobacco control programming that uses nonpharmaceutical products. While substantial attention is paid to the issue of the chemical profile of tobacco products and efforts to somehow make them safer, I see no one exploring the fact that we have no idea what the potential harms or benefits might be of reducing any given chemical substance in tobacco or tobacco smoke, and no agenda to explore this issue in the near future.

There is an obvious, but usually unstated presumption within much of the public-health community that claiming a product to be far lower in risk than cigarettes will recruit large numbers of nonsmoking teens to nicotine use. I see no CDC or FDA research to explore this issue and explore the possibility that e-cigarettes, in particular, could be promoted for tobacco harm reduction without recruiting significant numbers of teens who otherwise would have abstained.

The most recently published studies promoting reduced-nicotine cigarettes make the point that they will work only if there is an easy way for smokers to switch to a satisfying alternative nicotine-delivery product. It seems quite obvious that pharmaceutical nicotine products do not meet this specification, but that e-cigs and related vapor products do.  So where is the science behind the CDC’s continuing condemnation of e-cigs and the FDA’s promulgation of deeming regulations designed to remove all of the most effective (that is, customizable vape shop) e-cig related products from the market?

As I understand the science, it seems clear to me that promoting elimination of nicotine from cigarettes cannot possibly work unless a tobacco-harm-reduction initiative is already in place. Such an initiative would simply consist of public-health authorities honestly communicating the differences in risk posed by different classes of nicotine-delivery products.

Since such an initiative might be able to achieve more than 90 percent of the benefit to be secured by removing nicotine from cigarettes without having to remove that nicotine, the only sensible and scientifically sound approach would be to start with the tobacco-harm reduction initiative; only then, if needed, proceed to force the removal of nicotine from all cigarettes.

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Dope by mail: Another challenge for the Postal Service

May 27, 2016, 7:30 AM

The U.S Postal Service’s financial and other operational challenges regularly are in the news. Less well-known is its illicit drug problem.

Thanks to the internet, anyone can now become a drug dealer. One no longer need join a criminal gang and suffer a violent initiation ceremony. Technological disintermediation means any schlub can order synthetic drugs online and peddle them. Supply sources can be found in the dark corners of the web, with deals sometimes done through anonymous routers and bitcoin.

Crazily enough, the mules can be decidedly low-tech: unwitting mail carriers. Overseas pharmacies disguise containers of fentanyl, flakka and other nasty drugs as licit products and drop the small parcels into their government-run posts. Our Postal Service then brings them to customers’ doors and post office boxes. One study of 29 illicit foreign drug shops found that all of them delivered via the mail rather than a private shipper.

The Senate recently held a discussion on the subject, and Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, all spoke of the havoc the online drug trade has wreaked on their home states. In Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, which comprises Cleveland, 12 individuals died from fentanyl overdose over a five-day period in March. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., noted that his nephew died from an overdose.

Why bad drugs are coming to America via the postman is straightforward: foreign pharmacies and dealers find government posts ask fewer questions. Private delivery companies, like DHL and UPS, demand foreign shippers provide all sorts of data each time they send something. Foreign government posts do not have such high standards. As a result, the Postal Service and law-enforcement authorities lack data that could be used to identify foreign drug mills.

Using drug-sniffing dogs and opening each package to inspect the contents won’t work. As postal expert Don Soifer observes:

With 275 million packages entering the U.S. last year through international mail and express delivery companies, physically inspecting every one is not realistic. Some strategic screening upon entry is essential… [I]nformation about the sender and package contents, received electronically and in advance of the shipment, is essential to this screening. It allows federal officials to strategically target packages for inspection, which according to customs makes their security much more effective.

These data, as a customs officer told the Senate committee, are very useful in drug-trade interdiction. The Postal Service, unfortunately, reports that it cannot demand that foreign posts require these data from shippers. Instead, it must work through the Universal Postal Union, a United Nations agency that brokers agreements between the world’s various government postal operations. The UPU, whose website home page looks like it was built in 1998, has a reputation for being a dilatory body riven by parochial politics. Its current response to the illicit-shipments problem is a public-relations campaign telling people, in essence, “Don’t ship dangerous stuff.”

There are no easy answers to this problem. Drug legalization might reduce the public demand for these rotten overseas concoctions. But that would do nothing to address the more rudimentary problem: the insecurity of the government mails. A lot of it moves in and out of the nation — USPS handled 940 million international mail pieces last year.

Which prompts the question: what would happen if the USPS simply refused to accept parcels from nations (e.g., China) that have low parcel-security-acceptance standards? Certainly, the revenue hit would be tiny. The USPS received $2.8 billion in international revenues in 2015, which is only about 4 percent of its total cash haul for the year. And a good chunk of those revenues were for delivering international letter mail (as opposed to packages).

Undeniably, it’s an impolitic question to ask. But with Americans dying daily from synthetic drugs, it’s worth putting out there.

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Pennsylvania lawmakers bat around regulations for self-driving cars

May 27, 2016, 7:00 AM

Not unlike curious cats, lawmakers often show inordinate interest in the newest and shiniest objects to pass their field of vision. In Pennsylvania, recently hailed as a center of autonomous vehicle innovation and home to ridesharing service Uber’s technology-testing center, state legislators must have picked up a glint from one of the test vehicle’s spinning sensor arrays.

Last week, a 10-member bipartisan group of state senators introduced legislation that would erect a series of constraints on the development of autonomous vehicles. They claim the bill would enhance safety. S.B. 1268 requires operators of autonomous vehicles to contract with the state, on pain of criminal prosecution, to test their vehicles. It would further require operators to demonstrate they hold $5 million in general liability insurance or self-insurance and also would require them to report all collisions, however minor, to the state.

On their face, these requirements are not onerous, particularly for firms as well-capitalized as Uber, Google or the world’s major carmakers. But that does not mean that they will not present problems. Just because a regulatory bar is intended to be low does not mean that it will not have a chilling effect on the development of technology. These legislators, who claim to not wish to stand athwart innovation, are doing exactly that – perhaps without realizing it.

The path along which innovations are made is rarely clear. Concrete examples of how S.B. 1268 could harm Pennsylvania stem from that fact. For instance, the heightened insurance requirement included in the bill currently is ambiguous about whether the $5 million liability insurance requirement is per-vehicle or per-driver. In either case, that level of coverage, the need for which has not been established, erects a barrier to entry for subsequent autonomous vehicle developers.

This legislation, in spite of its regulatory hurdles, will not prove insurmountable for firms and institutions with existing research efforts in Pennsylvania. What it will almost certainly do is guarantee that future autonomous-vehicle entrepreneurs will seek out more permissive environments from which to base their operations. S.B. 1268 will kill any semblance of garage-tinkering innovation within the state.

The cost of this unnecessary legislation is high, particularly since it is apparent that self-driving vehicles are already testing without causing any meaningful public impact. Absent the appearance of specific concerns capable of redress, there is no pressing need nor is there a great vacuum that must to be filled by legislative action. By default, this technology is already subject to civil restraints.

The more fundamental question here is about the appropriate role of state versus federal regulation. Of the 18 states that have thus far enacted legislation related to autonomous-vehicle technology, the standards to which operators are subject vary dramatically. Some states are better than others. It should speak volumes to Californians that Uber, headquartered in San Francisco and a creature of Silicon Valley, has opted to test its vehicles on the other side of the country to escape the legislative and regulatory strictures of the Golden State.

Of course, state-level regulatory balkanization is not necessarily a bad thing, provided that the subject of the regulation has an appropriate nexus with state-level governance. The benefits of federalism, local control and subsidiarity are well established. To date, the states have retained control of vehicle licensing and a smattering of other functions related to their constitutional police power. But broad standards for vehicle safety are determined by the federal government – and properly so.

The good news is that July is fast approaching. With the middle of summer will come new standards from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those guidelines will almost certainly be imperfect, but they will begin to correct the wholly predictable trend of legislators pawing at things that they do not understand.

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Coalition letter on the USDA catfish inspection program

May 26, 2016, 11:56 AM

Dear Senator Ayotte,

As organizations that represent millions of taxpayers across the country, we write to support your efforts to repeal the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) catfish inspection program. We are pleased to see you and your cosponsors, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), using the Congressional Review Act to repeal one of the most demonstrably wasteful and duplicative programs ever enacted.

The unnecessary and duplicative bureaucracy created by this program has now been targeted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) a record ten times: February 2011, March 2011, May 2012, February 2013, April 2013, April 2014, December 2014, February 2015, April 2015, and April 2016.

The USDA spent $19.9 million to develop and study the catfish inspection program then told GAO it would cost the federal government an additional “$14 million annually” to run the program. This after GAO found the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently spends “less than $700,000 annually to inspect catfish.” If the cost of other, similar regulatory programs is any guide, the USDA program will cost far more than the estimated $14 million.

The GAO also notes that it not only wastes taxpayer dollars and duplicates work already being done by the FDA, it actually weakens, rather than strengthens, our food safety systems:

“…the agency’s proposed catfish inspection program further fragments the federal oversight system for food safety without demonstrating that there is a problem with catfish or a need for a new federal program.”

Eliminating wasteful federal spending and burdensome regulation is a very difficult task, especially when proceeding one program at a time. But the value to taxpayers of doing so is undeniable. Thus, as you gather support for S.J. Res 28, please know we strongly support this effort to close the book on this now infamous and embarrassing example of government waste.

The USDA catfish work is an embarrassing waste of tax dollars and so overtly duplicative a program it belongs in the annals of Washington waste history.


David Williams, President, Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Norm Singleton, President, Campaign for Liberty

Jeff Mazzella, President, Center for Individual Freedom

Tom Schatz, President, Council for Citizens Against Government Waste

Sabrina Schaffer, Executive Director, Independent Women’s Forum

Heather R. Higgins, President & CEO, Independent Women’s Voice

Brandon Arnold, Executive Vice President, National Taxpayers Union

Andrew Moylan, Executive Director & Senior Fellow, R Street Institute

Karen Kerrigan, President & CEO, Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council

Steve Ellis, Vice President, Taxpayers for Common Sense

Interview with District 9 council candidate Sarah Saez

May 26, 2016, 10:54 AM

From San Diego Union-Tribune

Take them from what Steven Greenhut called, indentured servitude, actually comparing it to sharecropping where people worked the farms, but could never own the farms, right? And that’s the same, exact thing with the taxi industry. So by lifting the cap what we were able to do is make them owner operators.

Bill named after murdered Girl fails House vote. Thank goodness.

May 26, 2016, 10:52 AM

From Reason

Current law already allows telecom providers to share info with police in emergencies if the user has given permission or if law enforcement clears a few existing bureaucratic and judicial hurdles to prove to the company that an emergency is indeed underway, as the R Street Institute has noted. This bill would have taken a bigger dent out of the Fourth Amendment by removing even those minimal barriers—which are designed to protect users’ privacy—and leaving the definition of emergency up to law enforcement, as the ACLU noted earlier this year.

U.S. Senate fumbles with Facebook, fairness and free speech

May 26, 2016, 9:33 AM

Let’s just assume that the rumors are true. Imagine a world in which Facebook actively promoted liberal stories and suppressed conservative ones. Let’s go a step further and assume the private companies that constitute “the liberal media” have the organizational capacity, resources and motivation to bias our cultural narrative against people who love the Second Amendment, hate abortion, want to reduce government spending and love Jesus.

I would still say—get over it.

None of us is entitled to a media echo chamber of our choosing. The same is true for liberals as well as conservatives. In fact, we’re far better off when we actually are confronted with alternative views we might not like.

That’s why the freedoms of speech and the press are woven into the foundational fabric of America. The Supreme Court has generally permitted certain time, place and manner restrictions on speech, but it has zealously protected the content.

Our ability to communicate freely without government oversight is one of the most meaningful indicators of liberty in American society.

We literally just finished a battle to stop the rebirth of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) “Fairness Doctrine” that required broadcasters to present contentious public issues in a manner the FCC deemed fair and balanced. Until the doctrine was repealed during the Reagan administration, the FCC evaluated whether a broadcast licensee had acted “reasonably and in good faith to present a fair cross-section of opinion on the controversial issue.”

I shouldn’t need to explain why it’s a bad idea for federal bureaucrats to decide media “fairness.”  We don’t need government speech police when the target is Facebook or MSNBC any more than we need it with Fox News or Rush Limbaugh.

Sen. John Thune, R-N.D., knows that. Assessing efforts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, he noted: “I believe that the marketplace of ideas only operates for the benefit of citizens if it is just that: a true marketplace.” But he didn’t stop there. “I believe it is dangerous for Congress and federal regulators to wade into the public airwaves to determine what opinions should be expressed and what kind of speech is ‘fair.'”

But in recent days, pursuant to the oversight authority of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Thune wants to know if “Facebook news curators…manipulated the content of the Trending Topics section, either by targeting news stories related conservative views for exclusion or by injecting non-trending content.”

Thune attempts to couch his inquiry as a matter of Facebook potentially misleading the public, but it feels a lot like he’s trying to ensure conservatives get “fair” air time on a private company’s media platform. To put the shoe on another foot, imagine if a Democratic senator sent a letter to Fox News requesting the channel justify that its content is “fair and balanced.” Do we really want to start playing this game?

As someone who makes a lot of conservative arguments, I’d love for Facebook and other media platforms to give my work fair treatment, but the government shouldn’t force them to do so. The platforms don’t belong to the government or me; they belong to private companies. If I don’t like it, I’m under no obligation to use Facebook at all—a decision that would undoubtedly reduce the reach of any content I produce.

Facebook is a tremendously influential purveyor of information, but we’re in dangerous territory again when government is weighing how, when and why the company delivers content. Just about everyone supports free speech; we simply need to make sure we know what it means.

One senator’s war on innovation

May 26, 2016, 9:32 AM

The California Legislature is well-known for its heavy-handed approach to business. The state recently scored dead last in Chief Executive magazine’s survey of CEOs, which isn’t even newsworthy, given the state continually ranks at the bottom. I recall the senator who years ago, after being asked about ongoing business flight, said it’s OK with him if a few companies go and “rip off” some other state. Steadily and often quietly, more than a few California companies have taken theirrip off — jobs, taxes, development — to Nevada, Utah, and Texas.

Yet there has been one part of the economy where legislators have been more reasonable. That’s the sharing economy, and in particular, the situation with transportation network companies (TNCs)such as Uber and Lyft. These ride-hailing innovators are emblematic of the entire Bay Area tech vibe that is the state’s economic bright spot. Even California’s lefty Democrats tend to recognize the silliness of siding with the grimy old taxicab industry, as it seeks to shut out innovative — and popular — competitors.

But while the vast majority of California legislators have been willing to approve bills backed by the ride-sharing industry, they ultimately go nowhere, mostly thanks to one Democratic lawmaker who does a better job representing the taxi industry than his own San Diego constituents. It’s an eye-popping situation, given Sen. Ben Hueso’s older brothers own San Diego’s taxicab company, USA Cab. As chairman of the state Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, Hueso has refused to bring to a vote bills that cleared the Assembly on nearly unanimous votes.

For instance, A.B. 828 passed last May on a 71-1 vote. The California Department of Motor Vehicles issued an advisory last year stating “even occasional use of a vehicle in this manner (for-ride-sharing) requires it to be registered commercially.” Requiring commercial plates for people who occasionally drive their personal cars in this way would impose a raft of taxi-style regulations.

The DMV ultimately withdrew its edict after receiving opprobrium for seeking to apply 81-year-old regulations to a modern, tech-based business. But the measure should have had a hearing. Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, captured one reason ride-sharing is so appealing, even to the political left: “Exempting TNC drivers from the commercial vehicle registration process encourages the expansion of TNCs, which reduces vehicle trips, total vehicle miles driven and the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.”

Then there’s A.B. 1360, which cleared the Assembly 73-0 last May. It promotes another widely sought goal: carpooling. The measure would allow Uber, Lyft, and other companies to charge carpoolers individual fares rather than single group fares, given that carpoolers often have different destinations. That measure also remains bottled up in committee. Hueso has said these bills will get a hearing late in the legislative process, but they’ve been held up for ages in his committee.

Last month, his committee passed a bill that would impose rate regulations on ride-sharing companies, but it ultimately was halted in the Senate Transportation Committee. The Los Angeles Times reported three years ago Hueso “introduced a bill to classify taxi drivers as independent contractors instead of employees of cab companies.” It failed, but it’s ironic, given many ride-sharing opponents want to force the app-based companies to treat their drivers as full-time employees.

One of my pet peeves: those myriad legislators who spend their time as shills for their own particular hobby horses. There’s a former police captain, for instance, who basically represents the law-enforcement lobby in the Assembly; union legislators who do unions’ bidding and so forth. But Hueso’s role here is particularly annoying, given the narrow (and fading) size of the industry he champions.

“Hueso said he never had any personal financial interest in USA Cab and sold his share in the related business in the early 2000s, a few years before first winning elected office on San Diego’s City Council,” the Times reported in March. Still, the Senate should be more sensitive to appearances — and to the concept of fairness.

There’s quite a hypocrisy angle here, also. Senate Majority Leader Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, publicly slammed the U.S. Senate in March for its refusal to hold a vote on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. Yet De Leon allows his childhood friend, Hueso, single-handedly to delay votes on bills widely supported in both houses of the Legislature.

It’s hard to understand special protections for the taxi industry given De Leon’s concern about low-wage workers (he co-sponsored the statewide minimum-wage boost). As I reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune, “89 percent of the city’s cab drivers rent cabs. Because of a city-imposed cap on the number of cabs, these drivers cannot go out on their own. They pay around $1,200 a month to lease their cabs.” A prominent survey showed the city’s cabbies “earn a median of less than $5 an hour.”

San Diego deregulated the permit system, thus dramatically lowering the cost of medallions and allowing drivers to go out on their own. That’s the best way to compete with Uber and Lyft — not by protecting a small group of cab owners. Some legislation might be needed — last year, the state passed a reasonable insurance-related compromise that clarifies when a driver is on call for the company — but competition offers the best solution.

Ironically, the Austin, Texas City Council voted for onerous new ride-sharing regulations — and the city’s voters sided with the council by rejecting a referendum to overturn the law. Now that Uber and Lyft have suspended operations there, the city reportedly is encouraging an alternative ride-sharing nonprofit. That sounds like the kind of lefty policy that California politicians usually promote.

But as foolish as Austin’s approach has been, at least the council approved the rules and voters had their say at the ballot box. What explains California’s willingness to let one senator — and one“whose family has deep ties to the taxi industry,” as a San Diego Union-Tribune editorial explained — put the kibosh on reasonable ride-sharing rules that virtually everyone else in the Legislature favors?

The House takes a small step to make Congress great again

May 25, 2016, 4:44 PM

Something remarkable happened a week ago: a committee in Congress voted to spend a little bit more money on congressional staff. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., offered the amendment to a spending bill, which was approved overwhelmingly by voice vote.

Cynics in the audience may snort and scoff, “Well, what’s new? Those fat cats are always lining their own pockets!” The view that Congress splurges on staff may be widely held in this country.

The facts are otherwise. Adjusted for inflation, spending by the House of Representatives on staff has declined since 2001, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The cost of living in the D.C. area is sky-high and congressional staff tend to quit the Hill after a couple of years for more lucrative work (often for lobbying firms and interest groups). To pay for this tiny raise, the House did not reach deeper into the public’s pockets. Instead, it chose to defer spending on the upkeep of the Capitol building and grounds.

Each member of the House of Representatives receives a chunk of change to spend on staff. Farr’s amendment raised that amount by 1.5 percent. According to Demand Progress’ Daniel Schuman, this increase amounts to about $18,000 for each congressional office. But don’t get the idea that any staffer is getting rich. The raise will be spread among the 18 staff in each office and will be reduced roughly 25 percent to 35 percent by federal and state payroll taxes. The effect on take-home pay will be tiny, but something beats nothing. Perhaps it will help slow the staff- and brain-drain from Congress.

Democrats supported the Farr pay amendment, but so did staunchly fiscal conservative Republicans. The very conservative Texas Republican John Carter voted for it. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., stood and spoke strongly in favor of it, noting that Congress needs staff to serve constituents and “do our jobs.” Lest anyone imagine Rep. Palazzo is a RINO (“Republican In Name Only”), he’s the same congressman who gave copies of the Bible to his 534 fellow legislators and asked them to draw upon it for guidance in governing. He also scores well on the various conservative voting scorecards.

That conservatives supported the pay measure actually makes perfect sense. Many on the right are very concerned that the massive growth of the executive branch has thrown the separation of powers out of balance. As constitutional literalists, they are aghast that agencies enact laws more often than our national legislature, despite Article I of the Constitution’s declaration that: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

In hopes of reversing the recent diminishment of Congress, conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recently have launched movements to re-establish Congress as the first branch of government. (Disclosure: R Street Institute has partnered with New America to study ways to increase legislative capacity.)

The odds are good that the House pay raise will become law. Whether the Senate will follow suit and treat its employees less stingily remains to be seen.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

As rocket wars wage in DC, a cautious move towards competition makes sense

May 25, 2016, 3:16 PM

On the morning of Aug. 12, 1998, a Titan IV-A rocket exploded about 40 seconds after launch. The explosion – caused by a short circuit in the guidance system –destroyed a top secret “Mercury” spy satellite as well as the launch vehicle. The cost was roughly $1 billion.

When it comes to American access to space, the margin for error approaches zero. Unfortunately, that’s about the only point where Congress agrees right now when it comes to America’s military launches.

Rocket wars are raging in Washington, and they’re launching arguments with significant national security implications.

On the one side are Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Dick Durbin D-Ill.; on the other is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Most elected officials seem to fall in one of two corporate camps. Shelby and Durbin, for example, generally back the United Launch Alliance (ULA), and McCain is similarly supportive of SpaceX. Parochial economic interests play an important part as well. For instance, Shelby represents 850 or so employees at ULA’s Decatur, Alabama, assembly facility. You can bet they’re paying attention to the current policy debate.

ULA and SpaceX aren’t exactly household names. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that’s held a virtual monopoly on military space launches from its creation in 2006 until the U.S. Air Force awarded SpaceX a GPS satellite launch contract in 2016. SpaceX is the brainchild of PayPal co-founder Elon Musk who also serves as CEO of Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity.

For these companies, billions of dollars are at stake, and SpaceX is pulling out all the stops to break into ULA’s market dominance.

To put it mildly, the policy battle is about as complicated as the rocket science behind the companies.

To ULA’s credit, the company has successfully launched more than 100 rockets without incident. But they’ve also been given vast resources to do so. For example, McCain refers to ULA’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch capability contract as “$800 million to do nothing.” That’s not exactly fair, since the contract gives the Air Force tremendous launch flexibility, but $800 million a year effectively to be ready to launch seems tremendously generous.

The EELV contract also points to the problem with a lack of competition: We don’t actually know if the price is right. ULA could be helping the Air Force realize significant savings. Taxpayers and legislators simply don’t have a competitive comparison to know whether that’s true. According to a recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) report by Steven Hildreth, “Much of the detailed cost data are proprietary, not readily comparable, and some are speculative to the extent that there is little operational empirical data on which those costs are provided.” In other words, ULA essentially holds a “just trust us” relationship with the federal government.

The tax dollars have, however, generated an impressive track record that ULA supporters are happy to contrast with SpaceX’s relatively few launches. In particular, ULA proponents point to a total mission failure experienced by SpaceX in 2015, when a Dragon rocket disintegrated as it carried cargo to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).

ULA’s pristine track record is due in large part to its creation after the companies that formed it worked out the kinks. For example, the United States lost three military satellites due to failed launches from 1998 to 1999, at a cost exceeding $3 billion. One of those, a failed Titan IV (Lockheed) launch in 1999 carried a critical national security communications satellite. The communications capability it would have provided wasn’t replaced until 2010.

SpaceX bounced back from the 2015 launch failure with flair. It stuck the landing of a Falcon 9 rocket booster on a drone ship at sea after a successful ISS resupply launch.

The upstart rocket company isn’t content with ULA’s table scraps either, and they’ve proven willing to punch the incumbent ULA square in the nose on everything from litigation to public relations.

Stick with me here, because this isn’t going to get less complicated. Rockets are made of two basic pieces: the vehicle and the engine. ULA’s Atlas V rocket uses a Russian-made engine called the RD-180. The engine is the progeny of efforts to keep Russian scientists U.S.-focused after the Cold War. For the better part of a decade, the engine’s use wasn’t particularly controversial. Then Vladimir Putin happened.

In May 2014, Putin’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, engaged in a little saber-rattling by announcing, “Russia will ban the United States from using Russian-made rocket engines for military launches.” Back to the point about ensuring American access to space. If Russia made good on its threat, the lack of RD-180s would effectively ground ULA’s Atlas V rockets. As a result, the United States has been forced to rethink its dependence on the RD-180.

In a politically savvy move, SpaceX and its proxies are hammering ULA as a cronyist propping up the Putin regime with purchases of the Russian engines. Obviously, it’s not a disinterested argument since SpaceX isn’t lobbying to end the billions the United States spends on importing Russian oil, crustaceans, weapons and other items. The United States isn’t going to make or break Putin with our rocket purchases, but he does appear to have a potential avenue to hamper our military’s space access if he’d like.

SpaceX allies want to curb purchases of the RD-180, and it’s not simply a matter of patriotism. Wouldn’t you like to start a race by literally having officials limit the use of or ban altogether your chief competitor’s engine? That’s a serious leg up if you can swing it. ULA obviously has a different perspective. They’d like to see a domestic replacement of the RD-180 developed, while phasing out the Russian engine over a longer period of time.

In the interim, SpaceX supporters have argued that the Air Force could end reliance on the RD-180 by using SpaceX’s Falcon 9s to handle the majority of national security payloads and ULA’s Delta IV rocket for the rest. That argument conveniently ignores that the Delta IV is significantly more expensive to launch than the Atlas V, because it’s designed for the military’s heaviest payloads.

According to the Hildreth CRS report, “Even with a smooth, on-schedule transition away from the RD-180 to an alternative engine or launch vehicle, the performance and reliability record achieved with the RD-180 to date would likely not be replicated until well beyond 2030.” In short, the RD-180 is a reliable engine, and it’s probably not going to be easy to replace quickly.

The report also notes several factors in the rocket wars that could ultimately undermine American access to space: RD-180 access ends, ULA discontinues the Delta launch vehicle, either ULA or SpaceX have trouble certifying their next generation of launch vehicles or ULA’s next generation engines aren’t developed in a timely fashion.

Those conditions represent plenty of room for potential error on launches that America needs to be almost as certain as death and taxes.

In spite of the complexities, competition is almost always good for the folks paying the bill – in this case, the U.S. taxpayer. At the same time, we should be sure we’re able to reliably ensure continued access to space before shifting the playing field. It’s a tough call for Congress and the president to determine what that transition looks like, because it’s a high stakes market with few customers and even fewer vendors.

The rocket wars also raise significant questions about defense and national security procurement. We have a habit in defense procurement of paying multiple companies to develop a product that they then sell to us. Cozy corporate relationships with the Pentagon are seldom in the taxpayers’ interest. In spite of how our nation has operated for quite some time, national security and fiscal prudence aren’t mutually exclusive, even with the capital-intensive nature of projects and the need for confidentiality.

The rocket wars will likely continue, but heading toward competition is likely more important than the specifics of how we get there or how long it takes. We need a more competitive rocket market, a smarter acquisition strategy and downward pressure on the costs being born by taxpayers. ULA will have serious competitive advantages as the market incumbent and their rockets may well be able to produce the best results for our nation. Rather than taking ULA’s word for it, the company should have a chance to prove it with a competitor like SpaceX increasingly nipping at its heels.

Can Puerto Rico be saved?

May 25, 2016, 10:05 AM
06/08/2016 - 10:00 am - 11:30 am
American Enterprise Institute
1150 17th St. NW

Coalition opposes Section 236 in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill

May 24, 2016, 12:42 PM

Dear Representative,

We, the undersigned groups, representing professional floodplain managers, insurance companies, fiscal conservatives, and environmental groups oppose inclusion of Section 236 in the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development (THUD) appropriations bill that will waste federal taxpayer dollars by putting federally owned or funded facilities in harm’s way.

Section 236 would effectively block the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from implementing Executive Order 13690, which updated the federal flood protection standard to better prepare and protect the Nation from future floods and coastal storms. The federal flood protection standard, also referred to as the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, will ensure that federal taxpayer-funded facilities and infrastructure are built with a higher level of resilience to flood-related damages either through locating them outside of areas vulnerable to flooding, or taking other measures like building to a higher elevation or floodproofing.

As written, Section 236 would force HUD to map every floodplain in the United States before it could implement this commonsense flood protection measure. This mapping requirement would not only be extremely costly to the American taxpayer, but would be redundant and unnecessary. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) already provides floodplain maps for communities in the nation and according to the Association of State Floodplain Managers, the total cost to provide up-to-date flood maps for all communities is between $4.2 and $7.5 billion. Section 236 would impose the same if not greater cost on HUD to carry out essentially the same task, which would be compounded by HUD’s lack of flood mapping expertise. Thus, Section 236 is a ploy to block HUD’s implementation of the flood protection standard. Blocking implementation of the standard hurts taxpayers and increases the nation’s vulnerability to costly and environmentally damaging flood events. In contrast, implementation of the flood protection standards and E.O. 13690 would save taxpayer dollars by requiring federally-funded infrastructure to be more resilient to future flooding and reducing the amount spent to repair, rebuild, and replace public facilities post-disaster.

Since 1998, FEMA has spent $25.6 billion on Public Assistance grants to repair or rebuild public facilities, buildings, and infrastructure that have been damaged by floods and coastal storms. Costs to repair and rebuild would be lessened in the future under E.O. 13690 and the flood protection standard and, most importantly, we would ensure that federally funded facilities and infrastructure are built with escalating future flood risks in mind.

Flooding is the most common and costly natural disaster in the United States. Dollar losses due to tropical storms and other flood events have tripled over the past 50 years, and currently comprise more than half of all natural disaster losses. Flood losses in the United States are projected to worsen in the coming decades, putting more people and property at risk. Unfortunately, while the federal spending post-disaster has dramatically increased over the last few decades, spending on proven, pre-disaster planning and mitigation still falls woefully short of what is needed to better protect people and their property. We know that mitigation, and smarter and safer building protects people and their property. For every one dollar spent on disaster mitigation, four dollars are saved on post-disaster recovery and rebuilding.

The flood protection standard will better protect people and property from harmful flooding in areas that face flood risks. The standards will require Federal agencies to incorporate the best science on flooding in making siting decisions, and require structures receiving federal funds to build to safer levels of flood protection and resilience. Under the flood protection standards, federal investments will be better designed, better built, and better protected from floods today and in the future. When federal funds are being used to build, rebuild or subsidize structures, the government owes a duty to the taxpayer that investments are being made in safe, sustainable, and resilient ways. HUD’s implementation of the standards, and other agencies’ implementation, will help meet that duty.

Pre-disaster mitigation efforts, which include building to a higher standard, are proven to reduce the associated costs of post-disaster recovery. Agency implementation of the federal flood protection standards will yield enhanced protection to people and property, result in cost savings on damages avoided, and lead to environmental improvements. Thus, we urge you to join is in opposing inclusion of Section 236 in the final THUD appropriations bill.


Chad Berginnis, Executive Director, Association of State Floodplain Managers

Rob Moore, Senior Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council

Eli Lehrer, President, R Street Institute

Franklin W. Nutter, President, Reinsurance Association of America

13 orgs to Energy and Commerce Committee: Support the Consumer Review Fairness Act

May 24, 2016, 12:32 PM

Dear Chairman Burgess and Ranking Member Schakowsky:

Each day, online review sites encourage millions of Americans to share their experiences and opinions on the businesses and services they depend on; and nearly 70% of customers say that they rely on these sites before making a purchase. By educating consumers and informing their decisions on everything from what doctor to visit to where to shop, eat or stay, online consumer reviews have become an important fixture in our everyday lives.

Unfortunately, their integrity is in danger. Businesses are increasingly employing gag clauses, hidden in non-negotiable form contracts, in an effort to silence consumers. These clauses are used to limit a customer’s right to free speech, penalizing or fining those who wish to share a negative experience with others in an online review.

These gag clauses allow bad businesses to bully their clientele into silence, inhibiting citizens’ abilities to both share their experiences online and learn from the experiences of others. To combat these efforts to stifle free speech, we are joining together to express our support for the Consumer Review Fairness Act (H.R. 5111), legislation that will help protect consumers’ right to share legitimate speech online and off.

This critical legislation, sponsored by subcommittee Vice Chairman Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ), will prohibit the use of gag clauses in consumer contracts nationwide, strengthening our First Amendment right to free speech. Prohibiting these clauses will make it more difficult for businesses to intimidate and muzzle honest reviewers and easier for those who wish to share their experiences and opinions online without fear of retaliation. Further, this legislation will ensure American businesses are held accountable to the public, thwarting deep-pocketed bullies from silencing their critics.

Today, our state laws do not equally protect the free speech rights of all Americans. The Consumer Review Fairness Act will resolve the patchwork of contradictory state laws, creating a national standard that will preserve the free speech rights of all American consumers, no matter their home state.

We thank the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade for holding this important hearing and look forward to continuing our work with the Committee to ensure this legislation advances to the benefit of American consumers.


Computer & Communications Industry Association

Fight for the Future

Internet Association

Public Knowledge

R Street Institute





Media Law Resource Center

Public Participation Project






R Street Institute to Congress: Vote NO on H.R. 4889, the Kelsey Smith Act

May 23, 2016, 2:37 PM

The R Street Institute encourages all members to vote no on H.R. 4889, the Kelsey Smith Act. This bill is expected to be considered under suspension of the rules this evening: Monday, May 23, 2016. The proposed legislation creates an unprecedented loophole to our Fourth Amendment right to privacy. It enables law enforcement to compel cell carriers to disclose user-location information without a prior court order when they believe there is an “emergency” situation.

The legislation’s goal is laudable – to help find people deemed to be in “emergency” situations. But granting law enforcement extraordinary abilities to obtain cell data without receiving a probable-cause warrant from a judge is yet another expansion of government surveillance power. Such expansions may infringe the Fourth Amendment rights of the very citizens the police may want to help

While written with the best intentions, this bill would breach the privacy of millions of Americans by giving law enforcement an unprecedented level of access to the movement, whereabouts and location of targeted individuals.

Current law already allows cellphone providers to disclose a user’s location information voluntarily either when the user in question has previously consented to such data being shared with law enforcement or when law enforcement clearly defines to a phone provider that the emergency conditions described in the bill are present. However the bill’s broad language creates a new default where a person’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy is deemed less important than a perceived “emergency”—not as determined by a judge, but instead as determined by police at their own discretion.

Some law-enforcement professionals believe they need this power to do their jobs. But in an age in which law enforcement has so frequently abused their existing investigatory powers, we may be 100 percent certain that this new power, unchecked by judicial process, will be abused. For this reason, Congress must actively defend the Fourth Amendment’s key limiting principle— an independent judicial determination of whether a demand for information (including personal location) is consistent with constitutional principles.

Finally, we note that even the chief advocates for this change in the law admit that it would not have prevented the tragic abduction and death of Kelsey Smith.

Our Fourth Amendment right to privacy is a sacred, uniquely American right crafted by our Founding Fathers that deserves our renewed commitment in the digital age. R Street encourages all members to weigh this importance before rushing to pass H.R. 4889.


R Street Institute

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Turnabout is still foul play in politically motivated subpoena fight

May 20, 2016, 11:39 AM

House Republicans’ recently announced effort to probe the activities of environmental groups and foundations like the Rockefeller Family Fund and Union of Concerned Scientists is wrong. And it’s wrong for almost exactly the same reasons that many left-wing groups were wrong to encourage a government attack on groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Peaceful political activity and speech should never be considered illegal, much less evidence of a criminal conspiracy. A “show us your papers” subpoena of the sort that left-wing groups got state attorneys general to issue to conservative groups is no less offensive simply because it comes from people who espouse a conservative philosophy and support free markets.

There are, to be sure, important differences between the subpoenas from the House Republicans and those issued by Democratic attorneys general. In particular, the House Republicans effort does, in part, target the conduct of government officials. These requests are legitimate—as such requests almost always are.

But attacks on non-profit advocacy groups are a different story altogether. The fact that many of the groups now being attacked by House Republicans encouraged more-or-less identical attacks on right-of-center groups isn’t an excuse either. Two wrongs don’t make a right and government attacks on political speech are never, ever right. Period.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Reforming Fannie & Freddie: What can Congress do now?

May 20, 2016, 9:11 AM
05/26/2016 - 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
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Rayburn House Office Building

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