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R Street alarmed by North Carolina property insurance bill

March 11, 2015, 12:39 PM

WASHINGTON (March 11, 2015) – The R Street Institute expressed deep concern today over the introduction of S. 208 in the North Carolina State Senate.

The measure, aimed at restructuring insurance claims of weather-related catastrophic loss, would give the state’s insurance commissioner the authority to order rate rollbacks and allow him to pick and choose which catastrophe models insurers may use in examining their risks. It would also shift the risks of catastrophes currently borne by private insurers and reinsurers around the world directly onto the shoulders of all North Carolina residents.

“North Carolina already has one of the most restrictive insurance markets in the country,” said R.J. Lehmann, senior fellow with the R Street Institute and author of R Street’s annual insurance report card. “The proper response to North Carolina’s insurance problem is to scrap the Rate Bureau altogether and move to an open, competitive insurance market where rates truly reflect risk.”

In R Street’s 2014 insurance report card, North Carolina was one of only two states to score an “F,” largely due to the fact that insurers collectively set rates and terms for home and auto insurance through the Rate Bureau. Because it produces one-size-fits-all products, the end result is that innovative new products available to consumers in other states are much less available to North Carolina consumers.

The bill also calls for the ability of the Coastal Property Insurance Pool in North Carolina to issue tax-exempt bonds following a storm, which would be financed over time by post-storm assessments.

“Essentially, the Beach Plan would charge ‘hurricane taxes’ that raise the coast of coverage for everyone for years to come,” said Lehmann.


R Street warns so-called ‘Marketplace Fairness Act’ is anything but

March 11, 2015, 11:32 AM

WASHINGTON (March 11, 2015) – The R Street Institute expressed disappointment at yesterday’s reintroduction of the so-called “Marketplace Fairness Act” in the U.S. Senate. This poorly designed bill would allow states to impose complicated and burdensome tax collection requirements on out-of-state businesses.

“This was a bad bill in the last Congress and it’s still a bad bill now,” said Andrew Moylan, R Street executive director. “By wiping away geographic limits to state tax authority, the legislation would impose serious burdens on Internet retail and undermine basic tax policy principles.”

R Street has advocated for an innovative approach to the online sales tax issue, origin sourcing, where remote retail sales would be governed by the same collection standards that exists for brick-and-mortar sales today. Essentially, businesses would collect taxes based on their physical location, not the residence of their customers. Some members of the House of Representatives already are exploring such legislation.

“An origin-sourcing approach could address the concerns the Marketplace Fairness Act’s proponents raise, while preserving proper limits on taxation, due process and privacy protections for consumers,” said Moylan. “The MFA suffers from a fatal flaw: empowering states to tax entities outside their borders, forcing online retailers to collect under the rules of as many as 9,998 taxing jurisdictions and exposing them to audits in 46 states with sales taxes.”

National and state-level polling done jointly by R Street and the National Taxpayers Union shows overwhelming disagreement with the MFA across the country, with a nearly 40 point margin of opposition among Republicans, 20 points among independents and even five points among Democrats.

“Our polling shows that the universal response of Americans to this issue is that the Internet should exist to enrich their lives, not the treasuries of other states,” said Moylan.



Earthquake risks are rising, but take-up isn’t

March 11, 2015, 9:35 AM

The West Coast’s risk of ruin is even greater than we previously feared. According to the just-released Third Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast, the likelihood that California could see an earthquake of 8.0 or more over the next 30 years is now estimated to be about 7 percent, up from 4.7 percent when the last UCERF was issued in 2008.

The new report incorporates evolving scientific understanding of the multi-fault ruptures, in which earthquakes and aftershocks can hit multiple faults simultaneously. But you wouldn’t know there was any significant cause for alarm by looking at the state’s earthquake insurance take-up rate, which remains at or below 10 percent.

It isn’t just California where take-up rates fail to mirror levels of risk. The Cascadia Subduction Zone lies at sea off the Pacific Coast, running from northern California to British Columbia. More than 300 years ago, the fault line slipped and resulted in an earthquake that measured an estimated magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale. Since the Pacific Northwest was largely unsettled at the time, the historical record of the event is sparse and an associated sense of the northern Pacific Coast’s huge risk is dim.

Yet we see in Oregon, the take-up rate, while better than California’s, is still only around 20 percent. Even worse, in Washington, even after the serious Nisqually earthquake of 2001, the take-up rate hovers around 12 percent. The unwillingness of consumers on the West Coast to purchase earthquake insurance is remarkable in light of the peril they face.

Conventional wisdom suggests principal reasons that residents forego coverage: underestimation of the risk; the high cost of coverage; and misguided belief in the inevitability of a government bailout. But another reason, generally underappreciated, is that most people fail to understand the role insurance plays in reconstruction. By providing certainty and private capital, earthquake insurance offers a qualitatively different path to rebuild than the slow and uncertain one promised by taxpayer-sponsored bailouts.

The paradigm for how private risk transfer effectively leverages capital and insulates taxpayers from risk can be seen in New Zealand, which, like the United States, is an advanced nation with a concentrated and severe earthquake risk. Unlike the United States, its strategy for handling earthquake risk is predicated on promoting deep earthquake insurance penetration. This is the result of long-term thinking, and the effort was proven to be wise.

Beginning in 2010, a string of profound seismic events struck New Zealand. Among those earthquakes was a magnitude 7.1 shock near Christchurch in September 2010; a magnitude 6.3 near Lyttelton in February 2011; and yet another magnitude 6.3 earthquake centered in Christchurch in June 2011. The total economic impact of these seismic events is difficult to quantify but, by some estimates, rebuilding in the Canterbury region will cost nearly NZ$40 billion.

Though difficult to monitor and quantify, the pace of recovery relative to the damage sustained appears to be brisk. The construction necessary to completely rebuild will take more time, but housing shortages have been addressed through a combination of repair and new construction. As a result, the region’s population, which diminished in the wake of the quakes, has begun to meaningfully rebound. This recovery was possible because private insurance contributions amounted to 80 percent of the losses experienced. Crucially, in spite of the great severity of the damage, capital found its way to the region without delay.

By contrast, when northern Italy was subject to two less severe earthquakes, magnitude (6.0 and 5.8, respectively) over a nine-day period in 2012, it suffered roughly U.S.$16 billion worth of loss, but only about U.S.$1.3 billion of it was insured. Because of the low earthquake insurance take-up rate, the total insurer contribution to the region’s recovery was only 14 percent. To rebuild, a state financing body called Cassa Depositi e Presiti was forced to disburse U.S. $15.8 billion.

Further aid was later required from the European Union, but became a political bargaining chip for budget negotiations. Not only did Italian taxpayers take a hit, but those in the region were subject to long periods of delay in beginning their recovery. This is the result of insufficient long-term planning, and the lack of economic preparation was proven to be foolish

At the moment, the future of the Pacific Coast looks far more like Italy than it does New Zealand. West Coast earthquakes are not a matter of “if,” but of “when.” It is long past time for our politicians and consumers to embrace the solution offered by private earthquake risk transfer. Until they do, residents and policymakers will rest perilously easy with their own economic swords of Damocles held over their heads by a sure-to-fail geological hair.

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

Congress needs to reassert regulatory oversight, R Street study finds

March 10, 2015, 8:45 AM

WASHINGTON (March 10, 2015) – After years of ceding authority to the executive branch, Congress should take steps to regain its rule-making power, according to a paper released by the R Street Institute today.

In “Three steps for reasserting Congress in regulatory policy,” R Street Governance Project Director and Senior Fellow Kevin R. Kosar writes that, due to Congress shirking its responsibility, federal agencies take it upon themselves to write thousands of new regulations per year.

“Power abhors a vacuum, so the executive branch has moved in the legislative space abandoned by Congress,” writes Kosar. “Agencies increasingly are the nation’s lawmakers, finalizing about 80 new rules per week and proposing another 50 new regulations.”

Kosar outlines several remedies to help Congress regain its legislative power from the executive branch. These steps include engaging member interest in regulations by creating regular bulletins to monitor proposed and final rules; using the Congressional Review Act to encourage members to demand further scrutiny, and potential preemption, of troublesome proposed rules; and enacting legislation like the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act. REINS-type legislation would require Congress to approve proposed rules whose effects on the economy would be greater than $100 million.

“REINS-type legislation would force regulatory oversight back onto Congress’ legislative calendar,” Kosar writes. “Additionally, requiring congressional approval would stop vaguely written statutes from being implemented.”

The full paper can be found here:


Capitol Hill

March 10, 2015, 8:27 AM

From Washington Internet Daily :

“Attempts to expand copyright law and increase regulatory control stifle the new creative revolution fueled by the Internet and constant advances in consumer electronics,” said a letter delivered to Congress Monday from several think tanks, advocacy groups and law professors. Think tank R Street Institute signed the letter, and Executive Director Andrew Moylan confirmed its contents and delivery. The letter’s signatories included the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Association, the Internet Infrastructure Coalition and Public Knowledge, it said. “The free market will find a way to integrate technological innovation in order to compensate creators over time,” the letter said. “Copyright overregulation merely enriches some at the expense of the very creators it claims to help.”

Oppose the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act

March 10, 2015, 7:00 AM

Letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from the American Civil Liberties Union, Cause of Action, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, the Defending Dissent Foundation, the Government Accountability Project, OpenTheGovernment.org, the Project on Government Oversight, Public Record Media, the Society of Professional Journalists, The Sunlight Foundation and the R Street Institute urging opposition to the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015.

Three steps for reasserting Congress in regulatory policy

March 10, 2015, 6:00 AM

Each year, federal agencies produce more regulations. These regulations affect nearly every aspect of our lives, yet are never voted on by Congress. This is a remarkable and troubling development for the separation of powers. Regulations have the effect of law. Thus, Congress’ mostly hands-off approach to regulation has ceded a huge amount of its lawmaking authority to the executive branch, often with deleterious consequences.

This is regrettable. Congress has a duty to see to it that federal regulations comport with the law. Additionally, individual members would better serve their constituents by re-asserting their authority in regulatory policy.

Congress should take three steps to reclaim its legislative power. Leadership in both chambers can re-engage legislators’ interest by regularly notifying them of new proposed rules and pending final rules. Leadership offices may do this themselves or establish a congressional task force to monitor the Federal Register and notify members. Next, Congress can use the Congressional Review Act to halt some rules from taking effect. It empowers any representative or senator to introduce a resolution of disapproval that, if approved by both chambers and the president, would overrule the regulation before it takes effect. Finally, Congress can enact legislation like the REINS Act, which has been introduced in several recent sessions of Congress. REINS (Regulations from the Executive In Need of Scrutiny) legislation would require congressional votes of approval before the most-costly and significant regulations could take effect.


Letter from 33 groups on copyright reform

March 09, 2015, 11:40 AM

The attached letter from 33 advocacy groups urges Congress to take simple targeted steps to curb copyright infringement and frivolous lawsuits, but to avoid regulatory overreach that would impinge on fair use and a vibrant public domain.

Testimony to House Legislative Branch Subcommittee on congressional data

March 09, 2015, 11:24 AM

The attached written testimony was submitted to the U.S. House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch jointly by members of the Congressional Data Coalition and the Data Transparency Coalition, in connection with the subcommittee’s March 6 hearing, “Broadening Availability of Legislative Documents in Machine Readable Formats.”

IP groups urge copyright, public domain protections

March 09, 2015, 10:50 AM

From Politico:

Thirty-three advocacy groups with a wide range of perspectives on intellectual property are banding together to lay out a vision of copyright reform for lawmakers. In a letter to be sent to Congress, the groups urge targeted action to curb copyright abuses like infringement and frivolous lawsuits, but warn against expansive laws and regulations that burden creators and put limits on fair use and the public domain. “Simple is better,” they write. “We want to make sure that efforts to reduce infringement do not prevent legitimate uses, stifle new innovations nor bring unnecessary harm to consumers,” they write. The groups signing the letter include Public Knowledge, FreedomWorks, R Street, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Consumer Electronics Association, the American Library Association and Creative Commons USA. Read the full letter here: http://bit.ly/1NxJ7Fu

Bring Texas liquor laws into the 21st century

March 09, 2015, 9:00 AM

It’s been more than 80 years since America ended its ill-fated experiment with prohibition. Yet the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code is still littered with provisions that serve little purpose other than to constrain competition and favor entrenched interests.

That may change soon. Last month, Wal-Mart filed suit in federal court to challenge the constitutionality of several anticompetitive provisions in Texas’ laws governing the sale of distilled spirits. Legislation has also been filed in both the state House and Senate to deal with the same problem.

Like many states, Texas requires businesses to obtain a permit, known as a package-store permit, before they can sell distilled spirits for off-site consumption. However, Texas’ system is unique in prohibiting publicly traded companies from holding package store permits.

The law also provides that no individual or organization may hold more than five such permits. That may seem hard to square with the ubiquity of certain liquor store chains. Twin Liquors boasts more than a dozen locations in the Austin area alone. It turns out that a loophole in the law allows closely related family members to pool their permits. Compounding the irrationality, both the corporate ban and the five-store limit contain an exception for hotels.

These provisions serve no legitimate public health or safety purpose. Alcohol sold by a publicly traded company is not any more potent than that sold by a private one. Any point the five-store limit might have once served is undermined by the giant exceptions given to certain types of businesses.

The real purpose of these laws is not to protect the public, but to benefit some companies at the expense of others.

Over the last few years, Americans have increasingly been waking up to the problem of crony capitalism. All too often, businesses have enlisted the power of government to put its thumb on the scale and shield them from the rigors of competition. We’ve seen this over and over, from taxi companies urging cities to regulate Uber out of existence to steel companies demanding tariffs.

Businesses threatened by a competitor that offers better service, cheaper prices or higher-quality products increasingly respond not by improving their own product or service, but by trying to get the other guy’s business declared illegal. When such schemes — what the economists call “rent-seeking” — are implemented, the consumer loses.

Once restrictions are on the books, they can stay there long past the point when anyone remembers why they were enacted in the first place. The five-store limit contains a clause grandfathering stores operating prior to 1949.

What can be done? Litigation is one answer. Wal-Mart’s lawsuit is only the latest in a series of legal challenges to outdated and arbitrary elements of Texas’ alcohol regulation. But lawsuits take time and cost money, and can create a great deal of legal uncertainty while they work their way through the courts.

The better alternative is for the Legislature to move proactively to update the law.

S.B. 609 and H.B. 1225 would repeal the corporation prohibition and five-store limit, bringing a level playing field to spirits licensing.

Periodic reforms like these are necessary to keep regulations from impeding innovation and business. Last session, the Legislature passed a major overhaul of the laws governing breweries that gave much more freedom for craft breweries to operate. While hardly perfect, the reforms have allowed microbrews to flourish and have opened more competition in the market. There’s no reason Texas shouldn’t similarly modernize its antiquated laws governing spirits.

The libertarian plan for saving the coastline

March 09, 2015, 8:27 AM

From National Journal:

The program should now be expanded, argues a 2013 paper by Lori Sanders of the R Street Institute, a libertarian-conservative think tank. R Street proposes several ways to do this: first, by upgrading the maps used to determine what areas are eligible for protection (this would require a small appropriation); and also by granting the Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees implementation of the law, more flexibility to alter protected zones based on new information. (In many cases, areas that should be protected by the law aren’t, due to outdated or inaccurate maps.) 

Most significantly, R Street recommends that Congress “create new subsidy-free zones that include other conservation criteria.” The Pacific Northwest, for example, has numerous wetlands that could be protected but that don’t currently qualify because they aren’t technically considered to be coastline…

…The law is an unusual environmental program. “It’s not a program,” says Eli Lehrer, president of R Street. “It’s the absence of a program. That’s why it’s so cheap.” Cheapness is the law’s great political selling point, but it’s also a potential political drawback for lawmakers: Unlike, say, the creation of a new national park, expanding CBRA wouldn’t provide economic stimulus or send extra money to the states.

Still, Lehrer says he has met with several Republicans who have expressed interest in backing legislation to expand the program. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon is a champion of expansion. And outside of Congress, CBRA enjoys backing from both sides of the ideological spectrum as well: The National Wildlife Foundation praised the concept in 2014, citing it in a report on hurricanes and floods as an “example of how removing pro-development subsidies reduce[s] high-risk development.”

For his part, Lehrer has a pithy argument for expanding the law—one that could perhaps win over even the most recalcitrant legislators. “Stupid rich people can do whatever they want with their money,” he tells me. “But they shouldn’t be subsidized.”

Missouri considers overly prescriptive TNC law

March 09, 2015, 8:00 AM

Governments are having a difficult time keeping up with changes in the culture and in the economy these days. One of the top issues for governments everywhere is how to deal with services that are partly clearly commercial in nature, but where personal elements also affect the transaction substantially. One popular service accruing particular attention are “transportation network companies” like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, which feature drivers who use their own vehicles to provide a ride.

Battalions of lobbyists are joyfully running up the charges in state capitols, thanks to the standoffs between TNCs, traditional taxi companies and auto insurers.   Since most of the nation’s personal injury lawsuits are related to auto crashes, striking a public policy balance between all forms of transportation and offering protection for those who use them is a high priority in many state legislatures this season.

Leaving aside the financial imperatives for each element of the transportation industry, we like to focus on the impact to the passengers. We at R Street have produced an interactive map on transportation friendliness for major cities across the country, available here, and published a paper on insurance principles for the ridesharing industry last fall.

The concern for passengers arises from several fights over coverage, and many more perceived fights going forward over coverage. Personal insurance carriers have maintained that carting passengers around for pay is a commercial activity which warrants commercial insurance. The area of confusion has been that drivers in their own cars are not always providing a commercial service, and it might frustrate their opportunity to have part-time employment if they had to bear a full-time cost burden equal to people who drive a cab, say, for a regular shift every day.

Much of the discussion has focused on the period of time that begins when a TNC driver has prepared to seek out passengers by turning on a smartphone application that broadcasts his willingness to pick up passengers for hire. It ends when a prospective passenger has summoned this driver for a ride. A proposed Missouri law, for instance, mandates that if there is more than one policy providing coverage during this period there, the driver’s own insurance cannot be primary. The TNC insurance would be primary and the driver’s personal insurance could only come in on an excess basis.

We’d like to see markets provide choices here, because it is already obvious that auto insurance carriers are anxious to compete by offering products that address whatever their appetite for risk is, provided they are allowed to charge an appropriate price. To establish by government fiat that one kind of insurance will always predominate in a situation stifles both innovation and competition, and can lead to other distortions as well.

It seems clear that government has a good claim, in well-established public policy, to see that insurance coverage exists to protect those who are injured. But it is not a particularly good idea to establish that only one party can provide the underlying coverage to pay first.

The rule for us is that governments should insist on essentials, but not legislate preferences. This creates a lot of trouble and unintended consequences.

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

Rahm Emanuel and the trials of progressive payback

March 09, 2015, 7:00 AM

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is doing something very uncharacteristic to save his flailing re-election campaign: He’s being nice.

Mr. Emanuel, his acerbic personality muted by a pullover sweater, cut a 30-second ad this week in which he notes that he might “rub people the wrong way,” but that his no-nonsense attitude allows him to make the tough decisions necessary to clean up our fair city. He has a point: It takes a special breed of person to preside over a town whose top exports are, currently, terrifying stories of citywide violence and President Barack Obama .

The mayor might have turned on his charm too late, however. Mr. Emanuel is the first incumbent mayor to face a runoff election since the system was introduced 20 years ago. Chicago has a habit of electing its leaders for life, and few expected Mr. Emanuel to be an exception. But having failed to win a majority in the Feb. 22 election, the mayor will now face Jesus “Chuy” Garcia —a county commissioner, former alderman and former state senator—in an April 7 runoff. This is no pro forma challenge. A poll this week shows Mr. Garcia within single digits of the mayor. “Rahm could actually lose” ran a March 4 headline in Politico.

As far as success stories go, Mr. Emanuel’s could be better. One reason he is having such a hard time is that he has failed to inspire Chicagoans’ true belief. People like Mr. Emanuel, or at least they tolerate him. They might even be willing to forgive his plan to install speed cameras citywide—getting a ticket is known as “getting Rahmed”—if he can lower the rates on parking meters and snag Mr. Obama’s presidential library. But no one really loves Mr. Emanuel.

The opposition’s choice, Mr. Garcia, is a self-proclaimed progressive unmoored from the city’s Democratic machine but backed by powerful teachers unions. When Mr. Emanuel came into office, Chicago faced a $587 million budget deficit. The city’s contract negotiations with public-school teachers, who demanded a 30 percent pay increase and more money for failing schools, hit the skids, and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis led teachers in a citywide strike.

It ended with a compromise: Teachers received a 17.6 percent pay increase over four years and the promise that any teachers laid off would jump to the front of the line for new openings. Mr. Emanuel got a longer school day and tougher teacher evaluations. But the damage was already done, and the two factions have been at odds ever since.

The teachers unions are among the challenger’s main bankrollers, contributing roughly half of the estimated $1.5 million he has raised. Mr. Garcia has also tied his campaign to a plan that would take the power to appoint Chicago’s school board out of the hands of the mayor; those positions would be elected instead. This would allow the union to use its considerable largess to back school-board candidates sympathetic to its aims. The hilarious twist here is that Mr. Emanuel spent a lifetime burnishing liberal credentials, but has now acquired a Scott Walker-esque reputation for union busting.

Part of the mayor’s troubles stem from the dissatisfaction of progressives, who expected a better deal from President Obama’s former chief of staff. Before the first votes were even cast, MoveOn.org had lent Mr. Garcia its Chicago email list. Democracy for America, a group founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, is also sending emails for Mr. Garcia. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is raising money under the headline “Defeat Corporate Democrat Rahm Emanuel.” It seems as if every teachers union in the country is focusing off-year election efforts on Chicago to teach Mr. Emanuel a lesson.

President Obama might be getting the message. Though the president cut an 11th-hour ad for Mr. Emanuel before the initial election and made appearances across Chicago, the White House has nothing on the schedule for the runoff. The president remains popular enough in the right areas—among limousine liberals along the Lake Michigan waterfront and African-American voters—that his initial endorsement will have a long tail. But it won’t put Mr. Emanuel over the top. Even the promised presidential library rings hollow with voters who backed Mr. Garcia on the south and west sides. They want a trauma center, not a tourist attraction.

Chicago voters are left to pick between two unappealing candidates who are battling for the measly one-third of the electorate that hasn’t checked out completely. (Voter turnout in the first round was 34 percent). On one hand, there’s Mr. Emanuel, who admittedly inherited a financial mess created from the second Richard Daley to hold the mayoral title, but who seems as hapless now as the day he took control. On the other hand, there’s Mr. Garcia, a man who has many progressive dreams and no idea how to pay for them, and whose best quality is simply that he isn’t Rahm Emanuel.

Local Republicans—the few of us willing to admit our party affiliation in public—couldn’t script a more depressing outlook if they tried. In a city that is perilously close to bankruptcy, besieged by waves of violence and facing an uncertain future, the two factions fight it out over whether pension contracts should be extraordinarily generous or simply generous.

What will happen in the April runoff is anyone’s guess. The lesson for Chicago residents like me is that maybe it is time to move somewhere else.

Why gay marriage isn’t going to top the culture war agenda

March 09, 2015, 6:00 AM

Conservative “founding mother” Phyllis Schlafly is dead wrong to predict a conservative backlash against LGBT rights. It’s just not going to happen. While some people will remain opposed to same-sex couples getting married — just as a dwindling handful still oppose interracial marriage — every sign exists that marriage will go away as a political issue. Most conservatives, even dedicated culture warriors, will simply move on. The marriage issue isn’t going to turn into a replay of the abortion issue.

My own background is relevant here. I’m one of the (lesser) conservative leaders who signed an amicus brief supporting same-sex marriage, I serve on the board of a conservative gay organization and am pro-life. I also head a conservative think tank that has sometimes made common cause with the organization Schlafly heads. My personal social network includes dozens of people who lead conservative organizations. The overwhelming majority support gay marriage outright. And the polls back up my impressions. A year ago, when actual gay marriage was far less widespread, over half of younger conservatives said they favored gay marriage. More recent data show that even higher numbers of right-leaning people support gay marriage. History can also be a guide: The last major Supreme Court decision establishing marriage rights — Loving v. Virginia, which overturned laws forbidding interracial marriage — did presage the end of political controversy over that issue.

Gay marriage is simply a different kind of issue than abortion. No policymaker advocates for more abortions, and many people who favor an absolute right to abortion as a matter of law have significant moral misgivings about the procedure. On the other hand, huge numbers of people want more gays to get married. And marriage is good for gay people. Gay people get the same things — love, commitment, sex, economic benefits, a good setting to raise children — that straight people get out of marriage. Experience has not borne out any fears that allowing gays to get married will somehow diminish marriage between men and women.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that gay activists will get everything they want or that gay equality will be the rule in every case the moment the Supreme Court hands down its expected decision making marriage equality the law of the land. Religious institutions that have moral opposition to homosexuality will continue to preach against it, some people will say downright hateful things about gays, some religious colleges will expel students for being gay and some houses of worship will refuse to perform gay marriages. Some left-wing activists will cry “discrimination” and call for government to act even though the first amendment protects both free speech and free exercise of religion.

The Supreme Court’s upcoming decision on gay marriage may not change everything for gay Americans. But the facts on the ground indicate that it’s not going to spark a new culture war either.

House of Representatives places an order for legislative data transparency

March 08, 2015, 9:41 AM

When the House of Representatives adopted new rules for the 114th Congress, it took an unprecedented step forward. As part of the orders for the new Congress, the House committed to broadening the availability of legislative documents in machine-readable formats. As Joe Biden might say, this is a big freaking deal.

The Committee on House Administration, the Clerk, and other officers and officials of the House shall continue efforts to broaden the availability of legislative documents in machine readable formats in the One Hundred Fourteenth Congress in furtherance of the institutional priority of improving public availability and use of legislative information produced by the House and its committees.

In plain English, the House will do more to make sure information about what it does is available to journalists, nonprofits and the general public. As it turns out, most people get information about Congress from third parties, so this will greatly expand access to information about Congress. It also is the latest in a series of moves to expand smart publication of legislative information.

Of course, we at the Congressional Data Coalition have recommendations on what the House should do. In our testimony to appropriators for FY 2016, we recommend the House:

  • Extend and broaden the Bulk Data Task Force
  • Publish the Congressional Record in XML and eliminate electronic publication gaps
  • Publish a complete and auditable archive of bill text, in a structured electronic format
  • Publish a contemporaneous list of widely distributed CRS reports that contains the report name, publication/revision/withdrawal date and report ID number
  • Release widely-distributed CRS reports to the public
  • Publish the House rules and committee rules in a machine-readable format
  • Publish Bioguide in XML with a change log
  • Publish the Constitution Annotated in a machine-readable format
  • Publish House office and support agency reports online
  • Publish House expenditure reports in a machine-readable format

It’s a bit wonky, but all of these things have a real impact on whether people learn what government is doing.

In the new few weeks, we will also make some recommendations for the Senate as it works on its appropriations bills. Stay tuned.

Public policy groups urge U.S. SC to limit ‘needless’ patent infringement-inducement cases

March 08, 2015, 9:30 AM

From Legal Newsline:

The R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit public policy research organization that supports free markets and limited government, said in an amicus brief filed last week that the nation’s high court should interpret patent law to limit “needless” infringement-inducement cases against technology companies, products and services.

R Street filed the 23-page brief in support of Cisco Systems Inc. Feb. 24. Joining in the brief are: Public Knowledge, American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries, Association of College and Research Libraries, and the Center for Democracy and Technology.

…“We know that patent and copyright protection are rooted in the same clause of the our Constitution, and we’ve seen their legal doctrines shape each other in the past,” said Mike Godwin, director of innovation policy and general counsel for R Street.

“That’s why it’s vital for the court to apply the same liability standards for ‘inducing infringement’ in patent law that have been applied in copyright.”

Cisco supporters argue otherwise. R Street and the other public policy groups noted in their brief that copyright inducement requires a showing of “culpable conduct” demonstrating an intent to induce acts known to be infringing.

“Mere knowledge or notice of possible infringement does not suffice to prove inducement,” they wrote to the Supreme Court. “Such a clear statement of the intent requirement for proving copyright inducement should apply correspondingly to the patent context — indeed the Court has drawn such an analogy in the past.

“Yet petitioner Commil takes a far-reaching position beyond the original question presented, contending for the first time that inducement liability should attach upon mere notice of possible infringement.”

The groups argue that that view has been expressly disfavored in copyright, and the court should disfavor it in patent as well.

“People should not be held automatically responsible for infringing someone else’s patent if there’s no evidence of culpable, guilty expression and conduct,” Godwin said.

Lawmakers try to weed out federal crop insurance

March 08, 2015, 9:27 AM

From the New American:

Such subsidies, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly benefit Big Agriculture. Lori Sanders, an analyst at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank, wrote in the American Conservative

Conflicts of interest exposed, FDA reorganizes tobacco advisory panel

March 06, 2015, 2:16 PM

A range of obvious conflicts of interest has led to the replacement of several FDA Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee members.

Federal judge Richard Leon ruled last July that the “presence of conflicted members on [TPSAC] irrevocably tainted its very composition and its work product” and “the committee’s findings and recommendations…are, at a minimum, suspect, and, at worst, untrustworthy.”

This week, Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, announced that:

As a result of the expanded [conflict of interest] criteria outlined in Judge Leon’s ruling, each voting TPSAC member was rescreened and four members – Chairman Jonathan Samet, Claudia Barone, Joanna Cohen, and Suchitra Krishnan-Sarin – have resigned or their terms on TPSAC have been terminated.

Pebbles Fagan, Gary A. Giovino and Thomas E. Novotny are new committee members; the chair remains vacant.

Judge Leon ruled that Samet was conflicted because he “received grant support from [pharma giant] GlaxoSmithKline at least six times, including in 2010. He also led the Institute for Global Tobacco Control, funded by GSK and Pfizer. Dr. Samet also testified for lawyers suing tobacco-product manufacturers…he was designated to testify in two pending tobacco cases.” I have noted that Claudia Barone also had a conflict of interest because of a Pfizer grant in 2013 that preceded her 2014 TPSAC appointment.

Dr. Samet and Krishnan-Sarin also had conflicts due to their having received substantial grants from the anti-tobacco NIH ($8 million in 2014 for Dr. Samet, $5.8 million for Krishnan-Sarin). Current TPSAC members with major NIH funding include Kurt Ribisl ($9.2 million in 2014), Thomas Eissenberg ($3.9 million), Richard O’Connor ($0.5 million) and Warren Bickel ($0.4 million).

Experts can be influenced by substantial financial support from organizations committed to a tobacco-free society, a euphemism for the obliteration of the tobacco industry (an objective that is at odds with the principle of regulation). To avoid even the appearance of impropriety, those who are funded by the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation should be ineligible for TPSAC membership.

San Antonio must continue to revisit rideshare ordinance

March 06, 2015, 1:16 PM

Ridesharing reform is coming to San Antonio, but so far it’s been a bumpy road.

In December, the San Antonio City Council voted 7-2 to impose a set of unnecessary and burdensome rules on ridesharing companies. The new regulations imposed a litany of requirements on drivers before they were allowed to pick up fares. Drivers had to submit to a variety of background checks, including fingerprinting and drug testing, as well as random vehicle inspections and other redundant or even pointless regulatory hoops.

The San Antonio ordinance also imposed wildly disproportionate insurance requirements. Ridesharing drivers are required to have $1 million in comprehensive coverage from the moment they accept a fare. By contrast, someone driving a San Antonio taxi is only required to have the state minimum of $60,000 coverage per incident.

The regulations were so unwieldy that ridesharing pioneer Uber announced it would suspend operations in the city. Uber was soon joined in this by its chief rideshare competitor, Lyft.

In response, an ad hoc working group led by the council’s newest member, Roberto Trevino, worked to craft revised ridesharing ordinance that is more accommodating of the growing practice. That revised ordinance passed on March 5, but the changes, while positive, were not enough to alter Uber and Lyft’s plans to “pause” operations in the city once the regulations go into effect on April 1.

In the last few years, ridesharing companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar have become increasingly popular across big U.S. cities. These companies, which use smartphone apps to connect drivers and riders in real time, provide a service that often is cheaper and more convenient than traditional taxis.

Unsurprisingly, people who use these services tend to be big fans. City governments, on the other hand, started out more wary. Ridesharing did not always fit comfortably into existing 20th century regulations, and existing taxi monopolies were an entrenched interest opposed to reform.

But over the last few years, there has been a remarkable turnaround in how some of America’s biggest cities deal with alternative transportation. From Washington to Austin, cities have implemented sensible regulatory frameworks that allow ridesharing companies to provide an alternative to traditional taxis, while still addressing legitimate safety concerns. San Antonio’s restrictive ordinance was out of step with this trend.

San Antonio long has lagged when it comes to vehicle-for-hire regulation. According to a 2014 report by the R Street Institute, San Antonio ranked 47th out of America’s 50 largest cities in terms of how they regulate taxis, limos and other vehicle-for-hire companies, earning a grade of D-.

The new working group is a sign the San Antonio council is waking up to the risk that it will be left behind if it continues to obstruct ridesharing in the city. But more needs to be done. San Antonio can try to limit competition in its taxi market, but it can’t limit competition between cities. With Austin just down the road and more people moving to the city who are rideshare users, the demand to remove regulatory obstacles is only going to grow over time.

The best way to deal with regulatory mistakes is to fix them early. Hopefully this is a lesson the council is learning.

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