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San Antonio regulations could run Uber out of town

December 11, 2014, 11:02 AM

From Breitbart:

The R Street Institute, a free market think tank, recently published a study on how America’s fifty largest cities are approaching the challenge of regulating TNCs. As Breitbart Texas reportedSan Antonio got the lowest score out of any city in Texas, a D-, and these new regulations are poised to drive that score even lower. “Make no mistake. This is not an ordinance to allow ride-sharing. It’s an ordinance to prevent ride-sharing,” Josiah Neeley, R Street’s Texas Director, told Breitbart Texas. “The regulation throws up so many anti-ride-sharing roadblocks, from millions in insurance to written exams, that it will effectively prohibit ride-sharing companies from operating in San Antonio.”

San Antonio passes anti-Uber regulations

December 11, 2014, 10:56 AM

From the Daily Caller:

Josiah Neeley, senior fellow and Texas director for the R Street Institute, said that these regulations are supported by established taxi companies to prevent competition. He said even with small changes to the regulations, they will still likely be too much for Uber.

“Frankly, I’m not sure that they would be able to function in the city if they wanted to try,” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Neeley said that this debate will come up again because the people want these services.

“It is one of those things where the public wants ride sharing, they want the alternatives,” he said. “I don’t think that the issue is going to go away.”

Taxi trouble in Texas

December 11, 2014, 10:00 AM

Texas has a well-deserved reputation for being a freedom-loving state. We like our regulations same as we like our steaks: rare.

That, at any rate, is the stereotype, and there is a lot of truth to it. But while the Lone Star state adheres to a hands-off approach to governing in many areas, it ain’t always so.

Consider ridesharing. Using smartphone apps to connect drivers with passengers, companies like Uber and Lyft have grown rapidly over the last few years in many big cities by offering a cheaper, higher quality alternative to traditional taxis. Many drivers work part-time, setting their own hours and making good money doing so.

Yet on Thursday, the San Antonio City Council is set to vote on an ordinance that would impose so many restrictions on ridesharing companies as to effectively ban the practice. Under the new regulations, before Uber or Lyft drivers are allowed to pick up fares, they must submit to a background check, fingerprinting, a driving test, a defensive driving course, a physical exam, an eyesight test, a drug test, written and verbal tests of English proficiency, and random vehicle inspections. Given that the individuals in question already have drivers’ licenses, many of these regulatory hoops are redundant or even pointless.

As if that wasn’t enough, the San Antonio ordinance piles on insurance requirements that far exceed any reasonable justification. Ridesharing drivers are required to have $1 million in comprehensive coverage from the moment they accept a fare. By contrast, a San Antonio taxi need only have the state minimum of $60,000 coverage per incident.

The San Antonio ordinance might not pass. Then again, it might. Last month, a Houston ordinance went into effect requiring a 40-step process for driver registration. Though much less onerous than the proposed San Antonio ordinance, the law was sufficiently burdensome that Lyft announced it was suspending operations in the city. Uber has likewise indicated that it will have to pull out of San Antonio if this ordinance is adopted.

San Antonio, and especially Houston, are relatively conservative for big cities. Republican Greg Abbott won both cities during his recent triumph over Democrat Wendy Davis for governor.

Yet even before these recent ordinances, these cities ranked near the bottom of the class on ridesharing regulation. Last month, the R Street Institute released a scorecard ranking America’s 50 largest cities in terms of how they regulate taxis, limos and other vehicle-for-hire companies. San Antonio received a grade of D- and ranked 47th out of 50, behind every other Texas city. Houston was only slightly better, with a grade of C- and a rank of 40. By contrast, the American city with the most “hands off” approach to ridesharing was Washington, D.C. And Austin, which is known for being the more liberal of Texas’ major cities, also passed a comprehensive ordinance legalizing ridesharing.

Now, Portland, which is as liberal as they come, is currently seeking a court injunction barring Uber from operating in the city. The issue isn’t that liberal cities are better on ridesharing; it’s why the most conservative, free market cities aren’t uniformly good on the issue.

Why are Texas cities lagging when it comes to ridesharing? Demographics and entrenched interests are two important factors.

In denser cities with more reliance on public transport, the benefits that come from ridesharing are all the more vital. Some cities have also been dealing with the issue longer than others, which helps public officials and the public at large gain a better understanding of the value alternative vehicle-for-hire companies can provide.

How a city regulates traditional taxi and limo services is also important. When a city puts caps on its taxi fleet this can create a powerful lobby against more competition, whether from traditional or alternative sources. By contrast, where entry into the taxi market is already relatively easy, there may be less resistance to new transportation models.

Whatever the reason, though, this trend cannot continue. Texas continues to urbanize, and its success depends on being able to continue to attract people to live and work in vibrant communities. Cities like San Antonio can’t afford to be seen as backward when it comes to technology and transportation.

‘Commemorative’ bills plunge in 113th Congress

December 11, 2014, 6:40 AM

For all the talk of congressional dysfunction, there is a bit of good news: Congress has spent less of its valuable time passing “commemorative” legislation. For this development, we can thank Republicans and leaders in the U.S. House.

Last week, the New York Times’ Derek Willis reported that this Congress has enacted far fewer bills to name post offices than its recent predecessors. The 110th Congress (2007-2009) set the record, passing a whopping 109 of these laws. With hardly any time left on the clock, the 113th Congress has renamed only 23 post offices. (At the moment, 15 bills have been signed into law and another eight post office naming bills await the President’s signature.)

Commemorative legislation, a Congressional Research Service report explains, comes in many forms:

  • Naming post offices, other federal buildings and other federal structures
  • Creating postage stamps
  • Issuing commemorative coins
  • Bestowing congressional gold medals
  • Establishing monuments and memorials
  • Creating commemorative commissions and observances
  • Establishing federal holidays
  • Requesting presidential proclamations

Additionally, Congress issues charters. These honorific documents of incorporation typically do nothing more than slap an “endorsed by Congress” sticker on favorite nonprofit organizations.

The 113th Congress, to its credit, has passed only a small number of commemorative bills (seen in Table 1 below). The 46 commemorative bills enacted amount to 21 percent of the 218 total bills enacted in the last two years. To put this number in perspective, in recent Congresses, post office naming legislation alone constituted 20 percent of the total bills enacted. In the 113th Congress, postal naming bills amount to only 10.5 percent of the bills sent to the president (thus far).

Those who love these sorts of bills talk up their beneficence: commemorative legislation is nice because it honors someone, something or some place. It’s legislation that a party-torn Congress can work together to pass, and which might serve as the basis for collaboration on substantive policy-making.

Or maybe commemorative legislation usually is little more than an attempt to win votes back home. Regardless, commemorative legislation comes with significant costs: time and man-hours.

How much? Nobody knows, because the calculation of cost per bill enacted is so complex. But to get a sense of the magnitude, consider a typical post office naming bill. Should a member decide he or she wants to name a post office, one of his or her staffers must meet with legislative attorneys to draft the bill; do the research to choose a post office that is appropriate (preferably not one soon to be closed); get other representatives and senators from one’s home state to cosponsor the legislation; and work with the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction to get buy-in for the bill.

Then the legislation needs to be formally introduced into both chambers, entered into Congress.gov and CRS will need to write a bill digest. CRS librarians also may be asked by Congress to research the background of the individual for whom the post office is being named, so as to ensure he or she is not a lobbyist or disreputable figure. Then the legislation must be scheduled for action by both chambers (including the committees), voted upon, finalized and delivered to the president’s desk, after which it gets printed by the Government Printing Office and added to the U.S. Statutes-at-Large.

Thereafter comes the work of issuing self-congratulatory press releases by the bill’s sponsors, and actual implementation (whatever there is). And let’s not forget that added to all of this is that CRS has to devote the valuable time of Ph.D.s to writing reports about these types of bills and coaching Congress through the process.

In recognition that time was short and commemorations were not a high-utility use of it, Republicans, particularly in the House, cracked down on them. The leadership of the House made it clear that a 20-year old rule (Rule 28) curbing commemorative legislation would actually be enforced. Additionally, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to which post office naming bills are referred, adopted a rule stating:

The consideration of bills designating facilities of the United States Postal Service shall be conducted so as to minimize the time spent on such matters by the committee and the House of Representatives.

The committee, which spent an enormous amount of time in recent years working on postal legislation, saw little sense in spending its precious time on naming bills. The majority also likely sought to exert a little pressure on members to get behind their postal reform bill by going slow on moving post office naming bills. (No postal reform was enacted, alas.)

Critics, especially on the left, tar this Congress for not passing as many bills as other Congresses. Congressional productivity, plainly, should not be measured by legislative enactments alone. The institution has duties beyond that, like oversight. And when it comes to costly and mostly pointless commemorative legislation, passing fewer bills is a good thing.

Let’s hope the 114th Congress continues the trend. With the debt skyrocketing and the economy limping along, our nation’s highest legislature has better uses for its time.

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All hail the CRomnibus

December 10, 2014, 6:00 PM

After much hemming, hawing and belt-tightening, Congress finally unveiled their “pared-down” yearly budget, this year lovingly titled the “CRomnibus” because it is the product of the unholy union between a continuing resolution (CR) and an omnibus spending bill. The reason for the cute nickname is simple: the omnibus spending bill will keep the government funded through next September, when we have this same fight all over again. The continuing resolution will keep the Department of Homeland Security funded only until March, in the hopes that the Republicans can somehow pass an immigration bill that will keep Obama from declaring that everyone — including, but not limited to, various animals and inanimate objects — can obtain legal work permits.

While the two parties did spend much of last week cutting out unnecessary spending and negotiating the details of the bill in order to avoid a shutdown, the very best, lowest number they could come up with to keep the government rolling on is $1.1 trillion, because everything is terrible and we’ve lost all sense of reality.

The legislation is expected to pass in the coming days and will allow the incoming Republican-controlled Congress to clear the decks of lingering spending issues while setting the stage for a prolonged fight with President Obama over immigration policy.

At 1,603 pages, the bill includes at least $1.2 billion for agencies to deal with the influx of unaccompanied immigrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. There’s also money to fight the rise of the Islamic State and $5.4 billion to fight the threat of Ebola. But there are also significant changes to campaign finance laws and potential cuts to retiree pension plans. Democrats were cheering bigger budgets for enforcement at agencies created after the 2008 economic collapse.

The magic of the CRomnibus is, that while it generally sucks all around, the only person who can shut the government down at this point is Barack Obama. And while he’s had quite the “let it burn” philosophy since suffering a crushing defeat in the midterm elections, vetoing the bill right before the Christmas holiday would ensure nothing but constant shutdown coverage, with only minimal interest from Congress in ending the standoff. The Obama Administration is masterful at engineering distractions for the media, but two weeks is a lot of airtime to fill. The president can only have so many sore throats and colonoscopies.

The other magical result of the CRomnibus is basically everyone hates it, which in D.C., usually means you’ve hit upon a fairly decent solution. If anyone were happy about it, it would be time to worry.

San Antonio goes too far with ridesharing insurance requirements

December 10, 2014, 5:52 PM

San Antonio, Texas appears to be on the verge of implementing one of America’s worst laws to regulate transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.

The current San Antonio bill—which has dozens of problems my colleague Josiah Nealey describes in The American Conservative—is particularly notable for its onerous insurance requirements. Texas itself has slightly-above-average minimum insurance requirements, with $30,000 per person and $60,000 per accident for bodily injury, and $25,000 for property damage. But in San Antonio, the bill would impose on ride-sharing drivers a $200,000 minimum, more than any state save Michigan; mandated uninsured motorist coverage, which required in only 14 states but not for other Texas drivers; and a requirement for comprehensive/collision insurance that is not required by law anywhere else.

The first two requirements are within the bounds of reason; indeed, there’s a decent public safety rational for requiring TNCs to carry uninsured motorist coverage even if other drivers in the state don’t have to. But the mandate for comprehensive/collision coverage seems particularly problematic and anti-market. There’s no public benefit whatsoever in forcing people to protect their own cars. Indeed, for people driving older cars –as many starting out as ridesharing drivers will do—it’s almost certainly a net loss to economic welfare to require it.

In the context of a generally reasonable framework for regulating ridesharing, it might be possible to overlook the problems with the mandate in favor of political expediency, particularly since so many new cars are going to have lienholders who require such coverage already. In the context of a San-Antonio-like law that, as Neeley says, imposes “a background check, fingerprinting, a driving test, a defensive driving course, a physical exam, an eyesight test and a drug test” the requirement needs to be considered in the same category: as an unwarranted and unjustified barrier to people earning a living.

In short, rather than making it easier for economic activity to take place by transferring risk, the insurance requirements are serving as part of a constellation of bad ideas that seem likely to harm a vibrant emerging industry. San Antonio’s ridesharing insurance mandates are threatening to make an already bad policy much worse.

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Fear and loathing at Columbia Law

December 10, 2014, 1:31 PM

It isn’t the “stupid American voters” that are the problem in this country, unless you count the crazies manifesting their unhappiness this week that the fellow who promised to get eaten by a large Anaconda snake has backed down.

It’s mostly the people in charge who are failing us and not behaving like competent adults. Let’s start with the criminal law, which catalogs offenses against the people. At the top of my list is the officer who arrested a Florida sixth grader on a felony weapons charge when a butter knife was found in her backpack. How about the school administration which attempted to justify this arrest, on the basis of a “zero tolerance” rule?

And now, of course, the tragic attempted arrest and death of a New York man who was suspected of selling loose untaxed cigarettes. Not rape, murder, armed robbery or even bilking seniors out of their life’s earnings, but an arrest for minor tax evasion, which is reportedly as common a crime committed by public officials as jaywalking.

Related is this week’s news that Columbia Law School is allowing its students to postpone their exams this month if they feel traumatized by the non-indictment of either the officer who administered the fatal choke hold on the man in the grasp of the law on the sidewalks of New York, or who fired the fatal shots in Ferguson. Of course, either situation could possibly prove to be a miscarriage of justice, and I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of these matters.

The interim dean of the law school was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying:

The grand juries’ determinations to return non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have shaken the faith of some in the integrity of the grand jury system and in the law more generally. For some law students, particularly, though not only, students of color, this chain of events is all the more profound as it threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality.

That’s right. The law school administration suggests that if you don’t agree with the outcome in a criminal proceeding under the criminal justice system — which has been developed and refined over time to protect fairness, due process and equality — you can behave as if you just lost a member of your family. In the Ferguson case, almost every spokesman for a group equated justice with indictment, and non-indictment with lack of justice.

There is a deeper problem here, and it will take a while to sort out. We have subcontracted out nearly all decisions about ethics and right and wrong to lawyers, who don’t obviously have a better innate moral compass or capacity for making those distinctions than the rest of us. They depend on the process we use today, a legal system built up literally over centuries in the United States and England. What we sometimes find is that it wasn’t the law that was the problem, it was the misapplication of the law by the people in charge.

Why is it so easy to believe that with the entire nation and civilized world looking on, the two grand juries neglected their sworn duty to look at all the evidence in the two cases, including the protocols for law enforcement engagement with citizens? Columbia Law chose to question “the integrity of the grand jury system and the law generally,” but it offered no thoughts on what we we use to replace that system. Mob rule and lynchings? An eye for an eye? We’ve tried all that, and we thought we had made improvements. But every legal system created is only as good as the people in charge.

For that matter, why has Columbia Law not granted days off to its student-lawyers who are traumatized by scary new uses of the Internal Revenue Service to silence people the administration doesn’t like? Or by the specter of an American president ignoring his constitutional authority and oath of office to execute the law of the land?

I guess the lesson Columbia is teaching is that respect for the law depends on one’s sensitivities.

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Uber sued by San Francisco, Los Angeles for misleading riders

December 10, 2014, 11:22 AM

From the San Jose Mercury-News:

The DA’s actions are the latest in a long line of controversies and kerfuffles swirling around the ride-sharing world, particularly in the intense rivalry between Uber, the largest company, and second-place Lyft. Companies have been accused of trying to steal each other’s drivers, while critics blast the industry as out-of-control capitalism and some passengers complain about being gouged. This latest move by authorities trying to come to grips with a burgeoning and brand-new industry is par for the course, says Andrew Moylan, executive director of the The R Street Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C.

“Yes, we’re seeing creative destruction as these companies disrupt the taxi industry,” he said. “But we’re also seeing creative destruction on the regulatory side as cities try and find out what the boundaries are and what problems they might run into as this new industry evolves.”

Moylan said that while the public is entitled to transparency, for example, in how the ride-sharing companies charge their passengers, “at the same time we’re seeing a knee-jerk anti-competition sentiment, much of it driven by a taxi industry that wants to take its competitors down a notch.”

Will San Antonio welcome or reject ridesharing?

December 10, 2014, 11:12 AM

When talk turns to cultivating a local high-tech economy, Internet companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and other Silicon Valley giants tend to come to mind. Certainly these companies provide high-paying jobs that call on science, technology and engineering skills.

But consider another tier of companies that take technology and connect them to everyday needs, creating something new that has immediate benefits for everyone. Examples are Uber and Lyft, who are seeking to bring their Internet-based transportation networking companies, also known as ridesharing services, to San Antonio.

When policymakers talk about the benefits of the digital economy to the community, this is what they mean. All the good intentions about promoting high tech will mean nothing if the city’s first reaction is to erect barriers to anything that threatens to disrupt comfortable enterprises which depend on the status quo.

Already active in a number of cities in the United States and internationally, TNCs fill an important need in areas where there is little or no public transportation or where consumers are underserved by conventional taxi and limousine services. By way of a smartphone application, Uber, Lyft and companies like them connect individuals seeking a ride with a network of available cars and drivers. Prices are set by time of day and traffic conditions, and users know the cost of the fare before they are picked up. The app allows them to give immediate feedback on the driver, the car and the overall service. Passenger feedback is amalgamated and contributes to an overall score for the driver that is displayed to future users.

Wherever Uber and Lyft have entered the market, the consumer response has been positive and welcoming. But that attitude doesn’t always extend to city governments, and San Antonio has proved no exception.

Although initially hostile, cities like Austin ultimately listened to residents, recognized the value TNCs offer the community and chose to regulate them in line with existing taxi services. Certainly, some regulations are needed to ensure passenger safety. Unfortunately, there are others – such as limits on fleet size, or different rules and rate schedules for medallion taxis and executive limo services – that are designed to protect the profitability of each group.

The San Antonio City Council’s taxi regulations already contain these provisions. Its proposed TNC regulations, scheduled to be discussed at its Dec. 11 meeting, appear to be more of the same.

The ordinance before the City Council creates an entirely separate set of rules and requirements for TNCs that, if enacted, will serve to all but bar them from the market. The paperwork alone is daunting: the proposed regulations would require an individual seeking to be a TNC driver to acquire documentation from six separate sources and meet at least 10 city requirements. In addition to the time involved, the process would cost at least $300, including $175 in fees to the city, plus a $150 fee to the airport for the right to pick up and deliver passengers there.

Many of these requirements apply only to TNC drivers. For example, drivers will be required to undergo an eye exam before being approved by the city, even though an eye exam is already required for a driver’s license. Applicants also are required to be tested for drug and alcohol use, which is somewhat pointless, because the test only determines if a controlled substance is in the body at the time of the test. TNC apps allow a passenger real-time reporting of an impaired driver, who, under terms of their contract, would be suspended immediately pending an investigation.

The proposed insurance rules are also tilted against TNC drivers. Conventional taxi drivers in San Antonio must carry the same total primary liability as all Texas drivers–$115,000. TNC drivers would have a primary requirement of $175,000 plus an additional $200,000 in excess—before picking up a single passenger. TNC drivers must be insured for at least $1 million when carrying passengers, carry $1 million in uninsured motorist coverage and $50,000 in collision coverage. None of these provisions would apply to conventional cab drivers.

Rather than circle the wagons on behalf of the city’s taxi companies, the San Antonio City Council should use the occasion of Uber and Lyft’s entry to revisit and overhaul the city’s taxi and limousine regulations from the ground up. Recent data shows the need. San Antonio received a D-minus grade in the 2014 Ridescore Report published by the R Street Institute, a Washington-based free market think tank. The full report measured 50 U.S. cities on how well their regulatory frameworks promoted market entry, diverse business models and greater competition in their livery markets. Lackluster as Texas cities were (Fort Worth earned the best score, a B-; Austin, Dallas and Houston received C+, C and C- grades, respectively), San Antonio came in dead last.

The council this week can determine if it wants to stay in last, or if it wants to recognize how technology is giving residents new transportation choices. It not only has a chance to respect those new citizen choices, but to send a broader message that San Antonio is open to the next generation of Web-based entrepreneurial talent and the ideas they will spawn.

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Congress and public opinion: Five things you may not know

December 10, 2014, 10:28 AM

As anyone with an iota of awareness has already heard, Congress is exceedingly unpopular these days. A mere 14 percent of the public approve of the job Congress is doing.

A new report by the Congressional Research Service, the legislature’s nonpartisan think tank, provides deeper explication of the problem and its causes. As indicated by its title, “Understanding Congressional Approval: Public Opinion from 1974 to 2014,” the report offers a four-decade overview of public sentiment. Deeply sourced in political science literature and loaded with data, but the report is nonetheless easy to read, with five key points that are especially striking.

1. The public has been down on Congress for 40 years.

The report, written by Dr. Jessica C. Gerrity (a former colleague of mine), points out that “[c]ongressional approval has been greater than 50 percent only four times in the past 40 years—1985, 1987, 2001 and 2002.” On average, in any given, only about 32 percent of the public approve of the work Congress is doing.

2. Recent public disdain for Congress has been especially intense for the past four years.

Public approval of Congress has dropped below 20 percent seven times in the past 40 years, and four of those were in the past four years. As far as we know, that’s unprecedented.

3. The public rarely adores Congress, but the loathing is becoming personal.

It is the norm for congressional approval to be below 60 percent. In fact, Congress’ Gallup approval rating has exceeded 60 percent for only three months (January 2002 to March 2002) since 1974. (It peaked at 63 percent.)

Throughout much of this period, John Q. Public tended to think well of his own member of Congress, despite his generally low esteem for the institution as a whole. That, the CRS report finds, is changing. Individual members are increasingly un-loved by their constituents.

4. The media is partially to blame. But so is Congress.

The media rarely publish stories describing congressional achievements. Instead, it regularly focuses on lawmakers’ worst behaviors: personal scandals, corruption accusations and trash-talking between the parties. Actual congressional achievements, including the humdrum work of oversight and constituent service, get little ink.

But Congress also is to blame. The public is turned off by partisanship and bickering. And that is exactly what Congress has been serving up by the ladle-full.

The report notes that “the legislative process, as of late, has been characterized by increasingly partisan conflict as polarization in Congress has increased.” Social scientific research, CRS points out, strongly suggests “the more conflict is observed or perceived in Congress, the less the public approves of Congress.”

5. Congress can raise the public’s esteem for it.

Doing more to improve the economy also could bolster public satisfaction. The CRS report points out the public tends to be happiest with the national legislature during good economic times.

Beyond that, Congress should deal with its public relations problem, which is borne partially of a collective action problem. Congress has 535 members and two parties, each trying to aggrandize themselves, frequently at the expense of one another. New members frequently have earned their spots in Congress by running campaigns against it. Discord, then, almost is inevitably associated with Congress in the popular mind.

It is thus almost inevitable that the president, whoever he or she is, will enjoy higher approval ratings. In part, this is because the president has a team who can help him or her sculpt positive, coherent narratives that emphasize achievement and project dignity.

Congress could lift its positives with the public if it more frequently spoke collectively about the things it gets done. This would require far more coordination from congressional leadership, which has sullied the institution through constant mudslinging.

Interestingly, the report’s data also indicate that Congress might help itself by trashing the President less. As the above figure shows, the approval of Congress rises and falls with the public’s esteem for the President. Disagreement between the branches is normal and healthy, but relentlessly bitter rancor makes both branches look contemptible.

Finally, the report suggests that Congress should devote “more time and resources to informing the public about core tenets of the legislative process.” The public needs to be reminded that debate is not bad. Disagreement is a part and parcel to democracy, and arguing can produce smarter policy.

While it goes beyond the text of the CRS report, it also seems plausible that Congress would benefit from making its operations more cognizable to the public. Presently, the institution operates under fantastically baroque procedures that seem inextricably tied to policy-making paralysis. That a single Senator can, for example, kill legislation that was approved by committee, and supported by the House and most Senators, is baffling and infuriating. (CRS, by the way, has a team of experts in legislative process who advise Members themselves on how the legislative process works.)

All that said, it seems inarguable that Congress could improve its standing with the public by seeing to it that its debates more often culminate in tangible take-aways. It is difficult to imagine John Q. Citizen much heralding a legislature that seldom is in session, rarely passes a budget, does not contend with the skyrocketing debt, and generally shirks its duties.

 

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R Street strongly urges San Antonio to reject new ridesharing regulations

December 10, 2014, 10:02 AM

AUSTIN, Tex. (Dec. 10, 2014) – New ridesharing regulations currently before the San Antonio City Council could force transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to leave the San Antonio market, the R Street Institute warned.

Under the proposed rules, which the council is set to take up tomorrow,  TNC drivers would be required to get a full physical and eye exam before driving; be certified as able to read and speak English; and subject to random checks of their vehicles.

“There are so many objectionable features of this proposal that it’s hard to single out any one of them,” said R Street Texas Director Josiah Neeley.  “The ordinance throws up so many roadblocks in front of potential drivers that it seems designed to make sure that no one will be able to comply with its requirements.”

In a recent study by the R Street Institute, which graded 50 of the largest U.S, cities on the market friendliness of their driver-for-hire regulations, San Antonio scored near the bottom, earning a grade of “D-.” This was due to an already overly hostile regulatory environment to TNCs.

“San Antonio would do well to follow the example of other cities, like Washington, which have recognized that residents deserve the benefits of vigorous competition both within and between sectors of for hire drivers,” said Neeley.

 

Congressional Data Coalition joins ‘Free Law Founders’

December 10, 2014, 9:06 AM

The Congressional Data Coalition is pleased to join the Free Law Founders, a nationwide organization that shares resources and expertise around opening up laws, legislation and the lawmaking process online.

From their website:

The Free Law Founders is a nation-wide, collaborative effort open to all people who want to improve how laws and legislation are produced and presented to citizens of American states and cities. Our goal is to modernize how democracy works in the United States from the ground up. To get there, we’re creating open source tools and open data formats government workers need to get their jobs done efficiently, effectively and accountably. And we’re building digital democracy platforms so citizens can finally access legislative information online in user-friendly, interactive formats that make sense. And we’re making all of our work available on the Internet for any community to reuse at no cost.

More information about Free Law Founders is here.

R Street says House terror insurance bill is short on reform

December 09, 2014, 3:58 PM

WASHINGTON (Dec. 9, 2014) – The R Street Institute expressed disappointment at newly introduced U.S. House legislation that would extend the federal Terrorism Risk Insurance Program for six years with few changes to its underlying structure.

The legislation, which is expected to be taken up by the full House this week, would raise the level at which the $100 billion federal terrorism insurance backstop is triggered from current $100 million to $200 million, phased in over the course of the extension. Legislation approved by the House Financial Services Committee this summer could have raised the trigger for conventional terrorism attacks to $500 million.

In November 2013 testimony to Congress, R Street Institute Associate Fellow Ernst Csiszar, a former president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, said data from the market for industry loss warranties suggests the private market could absorb raising the trigger level to as high as $20 billion.

Created in 2002, TRIP would expire Dec. 31 if not extended by Congress.

“Given the burgeoning private market for terrorism insurance, this extension should have been an opportunity for real reforms that take risk off the backs of taxpayers,” R Street Senior Fellow R.J. Lehmann said.  “We supported extending the program in a way that would continue to phase out the government’s role, rather an abrupt expiration that could have had unpredictable effects, particularly on workers’ compensation market. The reforms included in this bill do not go nearly far enough.”

In addition to a significantly higher trigger level, Lehmann argued that Congress should have heeded the call for deeper and broader reforms to the program, including phasing out coverage altogether for commercial liability insurance and charging insurers a premium for the reinsurance the government provides.

“In each of its two prior reauthorizations, Congress moved to shrink the terror insurance program and the market has responded by offering more private coverage at reasonable prices,” Lehmann said. “Leading into this expiration, we already were seeing reinsurers offering even more capacity, in some cases dropping exclusions for terrorism coverage altogether. It is a disappointment that lawmakers wouldn’t take advantage of those trends by moving more forcefully to reform TRIP and better protect taxpayers.”

More folly from the NY Times on snus

December 09, 2014, 12:44 PM

The New York Times has added more fuel to the anti-tobacco harm reduction fire with a Dec. 4 editorial rehashing the somewhat slanted reporting that appeared in the paper’s news pages on Nov. 30. In two stories that day, the Times explored issues surrounding Swedish Match’s FDA application to change the warnings on its snus products. As I noted, “the Times and their quoted experts did a major disservice to their audience; they failed to report the simple truth, that mouth cancer risk for Swedish snus is next to nil.”

The original warning labels that Congress ordered for tobacco product packages in 1986 were factually wrong and fatally misleading to smokers, chewers and dippers. Congress didn’t make the warnings more accurate when it ordered the FDA to regulate tobacco in 2009. It just made them cover more of the package – an action it didn’t take with cigarettes.

The Times editorial acknowledged that snus is “is less harmful than smoking tobacco,” but it painted Swedish Match’s application as a marketing ploy. That ignores the critical need to terminate government’s lie about products’ health risks.

The editors echoed tobacco prohibitionists in denying that snus played a role in the Swedish experience. Said the Times, “reduced smoking rates and lower rates of tobacco-related diseases such as lung and oral cancer” in Sweden since the 1970s “is debatable,” attributing the successes to “various bans, restrictions and public health campaigns.” The editors failed to consider that the reductions are exclusively seen in men – who use snus and have the lowest lung cancer rate in Europe – not in women, who rank fifth in Europe for lung cancer.

The Times acknowledged that their reporters had “cited independent experts who found that snus is not nearly as lethal as cigarettes,” but it added the qualifier “[snus] is not risk-free either, especially for users who also smoke.” It is patently obvious that smoking is risky for anyone, including snus users. It should also be obvious that a smokeless tobacco can labeled “this product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes” encourages smokers to stick with their habit.

The Times editors revisit the discredited gateway theory (“the danger is that snus might lead some nonsmokers and former smokers to…progress on to cigarette smoking”), but they ignore substantial evidence that this has not happened in Sweden or in the United States.

Summing up, the Times observes: “abstention would be the safest approach.” That might work in Neverland, but in the United States, abstention was impossible for the 8 million smokers who died in the 20 years since I first described our government’s warnings as bogus. That is no one’s definition of safe.

EPA’s uncertain FIP power drives competing lobbying on state ESPS plans

December 08, 2014, 3:13 PM

From InsideEPA:

Also, the free-market R Street Institute says in a Nov. 24 paper that the ESPS will fail due to state resistance.

Concerns about EPA’s overreach “have resulted in a number of state legislatures adopting laws that would actually forbid pursuing compliance methods ‘outside the fence,'” the institute says. “Next year, that list of states will likely grow, as state officials become more aware of the threat posed by EPA. . . . Many of these states will fall short of EPA compliance. Other states may simply refuse to provide plans to the agency.”

House bill would let states choose tax to comply with power plant rule

December 08, 2014, 11:23 AM

From Energy & Environment News:

The idea of allowing states to use a levy has gained some traction among a small group of economists and policy experts, including Washington, D.C.’s conservative R Street Institute. Experts from R Street, the Brookings Institution, the Stanford University Law School and elsewhere signed joint comments outlining changes the agency could make to grant states that freedom. They advised EPA to broaden the rule’s definition of an emissions standard to include a levy.

Dismantling government shutdown politics may improve GOP’s advantage responding to Obama’s immigration actions

December 08, 2014, 9:46 AM

In politics, seeing the bigger picture is more of a challenge than understanding the specifics of the moment. Funding the federal government past Dec. 11 in the middle of a clash over Obama’s immigration actions is no exception.

Because of congressional failure to adhere to the normal budget process, federal legislators have maintained government operations through large spending bills, also known as continuing resolutions. The most recent spending bill will expire this month. Congress must decide what areas of government it wishes to fund and for how long.

President Obama’s actions on immigration have significantly complicated those political considerations. Several Republican lawmakers — such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Steve King of Iowa and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — have called on House Speaker John Boehner to include language in the upcoming funding legislation that would prevent federal spending on the president’s intended immigration plans. Such language would likely be removed in the Senate and potentially lead to another government shutdown if the House and Senate were unable to reach a subsequent agreement.

To avoid a shutdown, Boehner and current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are reportedly mulling over a compromise measure that would finance most of the government through the end of the fiscal year, while funding the Department of Homeland Security for only a few months. That deal would avoid a shutdown and give Republicans the ability to push back on President Obama’s immigration plan when they have control of the Senate. Reid suggested that such a proposal would be “a big accomplishment.”

In response to Reid’s comments, Jay Saxon, a lawyer in Birmingham and personal friend, succinctly posed a question that many Americans should be asking: “Since when is it a ‘big accomplishment’ to agree not to shut down the government?”

The answer is obvious and simultaneously disappointing. Congress, even a divided one, is constitutionally charged with the responsibility of funding the operations of government. Doing so should be an expectation, not a reason for applause.

Yet America finds many of its political leaders debating whether they should shut down the whole government over an inability to compromise on one policy area.

If Congress, charged by the Constitution with actually making laws, wants the president’s signature on an immigration reform measure, compromise will be required. If the president would truly like to receive a bill from Congress that he would sign, he needs to work with them. Those realities are not failures of leadership or evidence of political weakness; they are critical aspects of the Constitution’s required system for enacting law.

Sadly, political “leadership” at the federal level has devolved into the ability to win a high stakes game of chicken by successfully ensuring that the political opposition takes the blame for the damaging collision. By rolling the funding of the entire government into essentially one vote, important and legitimate policy disputes like immigration have been steamrolled by a winner-take-all approach.

The president picked the lame duck session after being handed a national political defeat to act unilaterally on immigration. He could have just as easily initiated his plan at any time during his term in office. President Obama knew his actions would be controversial, he knew Republicans and Democrats would not pass any immigration reforms in the lame duck and he likely suspected that Republicans might be baited into a repeat of 2013’s 16-day shutdown.

Many conservative Republican politicians may have concerns that their party’s leadership may be unwilling to undertake a battle over executive immigration action after funding most of the government. As a consequence, legislators like Cruz, King and Bachmann are willing to take on the president at every possible occasion, including next week.

If Republicans do plan to challenge the president in the next Congress and are able to strike a deal to split Homeland Security support from the remainder of federal funding, the president’s veto in 2015 would only have the ability to hold up funding for a relatively small portion of the government. By breaking the winner-takes-all approach to federal finance, Republicans have more political leverage and less exposure to being blamed for impacting unrelated federal programs.

While a few months delay in confronting the president’s immigration actions might be hard for conservatives to stomach, it could radically change their tactical advantage giving them a better chance at success.

How dangerous is Swedish snus? Don’t ask the New York Times

December 08, 2014, 9:31 AM

The New York Times has published a reasonably accurate portrayal of the Swedish snus experience that I have chronicled for more than a decade. Reporters Matt Richtel and David Jolly examined Swedish Match’s FDA application to remove the federally mandated “mouth cancer” and “not-safe-alternative” warnings from snus products.  I have discussed this landmark filing previously here.

In a companion piece, the paper tried to answer two important questions about snus and mouth cancer: “How accurate is the current warning? How dangerous is Swedish snus?”

Despite a wealth of available information, the Times unfortunately failed to nail the answers, even after acknowledging that ‘Many studies have been done on the question (sic)…” but fretting that “…but as in many fields that involve complex questions and human subjects, the research is imperfect.”

How is the research imperfect? “For instance, some research concluding virtually no oral cancer risk from snus was funded by Swedish Match itself.” The Times fell back on the old canard – the funder influenced the finding, despite total disclosure and high-quality peer review. The paper failed to note that numerous studies, regardless of funding, show “virtually no oral cancer risk” for Swedish snus and American chew and dip.

The Times asked Kristin L. Sainani, a Stanford epidemiologist not involved in tobacco research, to examine the science. She was remarkably indecisive:

‘The weight of the evidence suggests a small increase’ in the risk of oral cancer with snus. In Sweden, users of Swedish snus see virtually no increase in the rates of lip and oral cancer.

In the end, she made the correct call: virtually no increase.

Dr. Sainani attempted to provide an anti-snus slant using double negatives: she said that “it is inconsistent with the evidence” to suggest that there is “absolutely no harm to an individual” from snus.  In essence, she repeated the no-win argument that snus can’t be proven absolutely safe. That’s an irrational standard that many common foods couldn’t meet.

Dr. Sainani was asked by the Times to resolve the mouth cancer question, yet she is quoted on an entirely different matter: “In fact, she said, Swedish snus users face a doubling of risk of pancreatic cancer.” It appears that Dr. Sainani exclusively used a 2008 review by Boffetta et al., which has been exposed as relying on cherry-picked data.

Is a snus pancreas cancer risk real? No. Five years ago, I detailed how Boffetta fabricated the risk in 2008, and, in 2011, Boffetta acknowledged that his earlier finding was wrong. Sainani would have discovered this if she had compared the faulty Boffetta analysis with the most authoritative and comprehensive meta-analysis by Peter Lee and Jan Hamling, which found no pancreas cancer risk, in addition to no mouth cancer risk.

The Times article ended with Dr. Deborah Winn, deputy director of the division of cancer control at the National Cancer Institute. Readers of this blog know that Dr. Winn launched the smokeless tobacco mouth cancer scare in 1981. While she is the NCI’s top authority on smokeless tobacco and cancer, she demonstrated an appalling disregard of facts in a 2010 congressional hearing. In the Times article, her obfuscation continued:

[Winn] considered Swedish snus to be ‘a form of smokeless tobacco,’ which, in general, she said, is generally ‘linked to mouth cancer…Swedish snus in the past has given you cancer, and at the current low levels, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘There could be some risk there.’

The one data point Winn provided to the Times is false. “She said studies done in the 1990s showed that users of Swedish snus in the 1970s faced a twofold increase in the risk of oral cancer.” There were two studies of Swedish snus and mouth cancer published in 1998.  They concluded:

  1. [Snus] was not found to be a risk factor for oral cancer in our study.”
  2. No increased risk [for head and neck cancer, including oral cancer] was found for the use of Swedish [snus].

The Times and their quoted experts did a major disservice to their audience; they failed to report the simple truth, that mouth cancer risk for Swedish snus is next to nil.

A Public Forum Leading on Climate

December 07, 2014, 7:00 AM
R Street senior fellow Ian Adams will be a featured speaker at an upcoming panel discussion of climate policy.

Fighting Poverty: Solutions from the Center-Right

December 06, 2014, 4:45 AM
R Street senior fellow Lori Sanders will be a featured speaker at a panel on poverty policy.