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Coalition letter on the USDA catfish inspection program

May 26, 2016, 11:56 AM

Dear Senator Ayotte,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

David Williams, President, Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Norm Singleton, President, Campaign for Liberty

Jeff Mazzella, President, Center for Individual Freedom

Tom Schatz, President, Council for Citizens Against Government Waste

Sabrina Schaffer, Executive Director, Independent Women’s Forum

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

Brandon Arnold, Executive Vice President, National Taxpayers Union

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

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

Steve Ellis, Vice President, Taxpayers for Common Sense

Interview with District 9 council candidate Sarah Saez

May 26, 2016, 10:54 AM

From San Diego Union-Tribune

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

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

May 26, 2016, 10:52 AM

From Reason

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

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

May 26, 2016, 9:33 AM

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

I would still say—get over it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One senator’s war on innovation

May 26, 2016, 9:32 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House takes a small step to make Congress great again

May 25, 2016, 4:44 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 25, 2016, 3:16 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Puerto Rico be saved?

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

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

May 24, 2016, 12:42 PM

Dear Representative,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Chad Berginnis, Executive Director, Association of State Floodplain Managers

Rob Moore, Senior Policy Analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council

Eli Lehrer, President, R Street Institute

Franklin W. Nutter, President, Reinsurance Association of America

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

May 24, 2016, 12:32 PM

Dear Chairman Burgess and Ranking Member Schakowsky:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respectfully,

Computer & Communications Industry Association

Fight for the Future

Internet Association

Public Knowledge

R Street Institute

TechNet

Yelp

Engine

Glassdoor

Media Law Resource Center

Public Participation Project

RealSelf

TripAdvisor

 

 

 

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

May 23, 2016, 2:37 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

R Street Institute

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

Turnabout is still foul play in politically motivated subpoena fight

May 20, 2016, 11:39 AM

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

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

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

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

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Reforming Fannie & Freddie: What can Congress do now?

May 20, 2016, 9:11 AM
05/26/2016 - 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
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    May 20, 2016, 9:07 AM
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  • The 21st Amendment continues to choke the drinks trade

    May 20, 2016, 9:06 AM

    Tennessee recently passed a law limiting any company from owning more than two liquor-store licenses. Why? Well, current holders of liquor licenses don’t want out-of-state grocery chains to enter the market and, gasp, sell more brands of liquor at lower prices.

    Would that this were an egregious exception, but such consumer-unfriendly policies are the norm. Consider some examples from around our great nation:

    • In Ohio, the only liquor that gets sold are brands approved by the government. If you are a distiller, you need to ask the state to allow your hooch to cross Ohio’s borders, and you need to ask that the state liquor authority purchase your product and stock it in the state-run stores. If the bureaucrats don’t think consumers want your booze, well, you’re out of luck. Ohio, it should be noted, is but one of the 17 control states.
    • The Texas Legislature has banned corporations from obtaining liquor licenses. Why? Well, as in Tennessee, the concern is that out-of-state grocers will outcompete current retailers. Texas, hypocritically, nonetheless permits in-state liquor chain stores to form by permitting family members to pool their liquor licenses.
    • Four states allow consumers to purchase wines made out of state directly only if their home state has a “reciprocal agreement” with the state where the winery is located.

    One could go on. Plainly, all these policies have nothing to do with public safety or well-being. Such protectionist measures are designed to enrich entrenched interests.

    The 21st Amendment is the well-spring for all this bad regulation. It has imposed huge costs and hassles and consumers and fostered all sorts of corruption.

    Done properly, the 1933 amendment should have struck down the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) and left it at that. But no. The amendment also decreed:

    The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

    At first glance, this looks like federalism. It isn’t. This is an invitation to mischief that has allowed states to erect all sorts of rules that inhibit the commercial drinks trade.

    This provision also is offensive to the Constitution on two counts. First, it runs directly contrary to the Commerce Clause (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3), which assigns the federal government –not states—the authority regulate commerce among the states. There’s a massive corpus of constitutional law that greatly curtails the authority of states to interfere in commerce. A state –say, Ohio – cannot protect its domestic manufacturers by forbidding out-of-state manufacturers from selling their gewgaws and widgets in Ohio.

    Second, the Constitution is wholly silent on the specifics of trade, leaving the regulation of specific goods and services to Congress to decide on a case-by-case basis. Quick civics quiz: what two types of commercial trade does the Constitution explicitly limit? Guns and drugs? Nope. Illicit drugs and prostitution? No. The correct answer is: the slave trade and the alcohol trade. How’s that for a moral equivalence?

    When the Supreme Court took up the matter of state policies inhibiting out-of-state alcohol shipments to consumers, it split five to four. The 2005 Granholm case curbed some of the most egregious state policies, but the justices could not wish away the 21st Amendment. The text is the text.

    Ideally, we would wipe the 21st Amendment’s offending provision from Constitution. This would remove any ambiguity about the extent of the Commerce Clause. Amending any part of our national charter is a heavy lift, but that does not mean it is not worth doing.

    The internet is making it tougher for states to maintain indefensible liquor traffic. Sites like InternetWines.com and others have ways to ship drinks licitly. Consumer expectations have risen, and states are going to have a hard time telling the public, “No you can’t have that beverage. Because.” Over time, more of these bad policies to will crumble, so long as voters keep telling state legislatures that we want better.

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    Elizabeth Warren’s next crusade

    May 19, 2016, 2:36 PM

    From New Republic

    Second, Warren endorses the idea of making benefits portable—an idea endorsed byNick Hanauer and David Rolf on the left and Ian Adams of the R Street Institute on the right. The Affordable Care Act does some of this work already; a freelancer can take that individual insurance coverage with them regardless of their job. Warren called on Thursday for “enhancing portability” in the ACA, a nudge toward putting employer-sponsored health care on the exchanges.

    Time for Congress to vote in the new Puerto Rico bill

    May 19, 2016, 1:53 PM

    A revised bill to address the intertwined debt, fiscal and economic crises of Puerto Rico has just been introduced in the U.S. House. H.R. 5278 proposes “to establish an Oversight Board, to assist the Government of Puerto Rico…in managing its public finances.”

    This “assistance” (read, “supervision”) is needed intensely. If all goes well, the House Natural Resources Committee will report the bill out promptly and it will proceed to enactment.

    As is well-known, the government of Puerto Rico is broke and defaulting on its debt. At $118 billion, by the committee’s reckoning (which rightly includes unfunded government pensions), that debt is six times the total debt and unfunded pensions of the City of Detroit as it entered bankruptcy. This is a truly big insolvency, which reflects long years of constant fiscal deficits filled in by excess borrowing. Moreover, as the committee points out, Puerto Rico’s “state-run economy is hopelessly inefficient.”

    There are three fundamental tasks involved in the complex and massive problems, and the bill addresses all three. These are:

    1. To establish an emergency financial control board to determine the extent of the insolvency, develop fiscal and operational reforms and put the government of Puerto Rico on a sound financial basis. The bill uses the more politic title of “Oversight Board,” but the tasks are the same. They will not be easy and are sure to be contentious, but are necessary.
    1. To restructure the unpayable debt and settle how the inevitable losses to creditors are shared among the parties. The bill gives the Oversight Board the authority, if necessary, to put forth a plan of debt reorganization and the legal framework to reach settlement.
    1. To move Puerto Rico toward economic success – that, is toward a market economy and away from its failed government-centric economy – and thus to give it the potential for future growth. These reforms will not be easy, either, but the bill sets out a process to start the required evolution.

    The discussion of the necessary steps has been long and full. Now it’s time for Congress to vote in the new bill.

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    This crowd believes it can run your life

    May 19, 2016, 10:24 AM

    There’s only one time I recall California officials significantly reducing regulations on anything. That was in 2012, when legislators voted to let physician assistants, midwives, nurses and plumbers provide “routine” abortions. I’m joking about the plumbers, but abortion clinics — and perhaps craft breweries — are the only areas where legislators favor taking a step back out of our lives, even minimally.

    There’s virtually no area of our lives where California legislators won’t insert themselves and tell us — usually in the most excruciating detail — how we must behave. If we don’t do as instructed, the state government has a plethora of enforcement agents at the ready.

    You’d think a group so capable of managing society would be a model for probity, I write with a chuckle. Yet over the past few years, the state Capitol has been awash in scandal. Some are garden-variety, but others would be unbelievable if they were in a work of fiction. The “best” one involves ex-Sen. Leland Yee, one of the Capitol’s most ardent champions of gun control, who is now serving a five-year prison term after pleading guilty to a corruption charge. He was accused, among other things, of being involved in a plot to traffic in arms.

    The San Francisco Democrat was running for secretary of state when he was caught up “in charges alongside some of the city’s most notorious characters, notable among them Chinatown gangster Raymond ‘Shrimp Boy’ Chow,” wrote the Washington Post. “It was one thing for the public to learn that Chow, a known convict, may have become embroiled in more objectionable schemes. But it was quite another to hear that Yee, a respected public figure… was being accused through the same undercover FBI investigation.”

    Yes, it was quite a thing. And it wasn’t the only thing going on in the state Senate. Sen. Rod Wright was found guilty of perjury and seven other felonies related to his place of residence. Unlike with U.S. congressional districts, California legislative seats must be held by people who actually live in the district. Prosecutors said the Los Angeles-area Democrat didn’t really live in down-market Inglewood, but in tony Baldwin Hills. The 62-year-old lawmaker received a 90-day sentence and was banned from public office for life.

    This hardly amounts to an arms-trafficking scheme. But legislators should know the rules about their “domicile.” A number of legislators were also open to questions about where they actually live, which made the legislative response embarrassingly self-serving.

    Wright was one of the Senate’s most-popular members, so the leadership portrayed the charges against him as a great affront to justice. It was nice to see then-Senate Majority Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, find something that sparked concern about overly oppressive government. (Steinberg now is running for Sacramento mayor. Its current mayor, Kevin Johnson, isn’t seeking re-election following sexual-related allegations.)

    Also that year, Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, “surrendered to authorities after being indicted on bribery charges,” as the San Jose Mercury News put it. Calderon pleaded not guilty in a case that awaits trial. Steinberg assured the Mercury News the three men’s alleged actions were aberrations. The Senate voted 28-1 to suspend all three men from the Senate.

    The problem, however, was they were suspended with pay. Steinberg refused to hold a vote on whether to expel the three senators. Unlike a suspension, expulsion would be permanent. Legislators said it undermined due process to expel members until their cases were complete. Given the time it takes for criminal cases to wind through the appeals process, this means these legislators could potentially hang on until term limits forced them out.

    The one “no” vote was Sen. Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon. The San Diego-area lawmaker complained the suspended legislators’ constituents would have no representation in the meantime. It’s a fair point. Instead of stepping up ethics training, Anderson said the Senate should start by removing all members convicted of felonies. He mysteriously found himself removed from a plum committee — a coincidence, according to leadership.

    Steinberg also introduced a face-saving statewide initiative that presumably would help the Legislature deal with future bad behavior. Proposition 50, which will appear on the June primary ballot, would assure that when similar instances occur, the Legislature can suspend members and force them to forfeit their pay. Such a suspension would require a two-thirds vote.

    It is the “weirdest measure on the ballot” given there’s no one spending any money supporting or opposing it, according to CALmatters. It has a no-brainer populist appeal, which earned it some editorial backing. “What the option of docking pay does is allow lawmakers to remove an element of public outrage when corruption is alleged,” opined the Mercury News. “Lawmakers should have the authority to suspend without pay.”

    Unfortunately, though, the measure reminds the public about why we should always look carefully at any of this Legislature’s ethics reforms. Anderson believes nettlesome political foes are more likely to be targeted by the new power, rather than legislators facing legal problems. “The people didn’t put this on the ballot, the Legislature did,” he said. “The Legislature doesn’t have a great record of putting things on the ballot that will hurt them. … Now, (the leadership) can take people like me and suspend (us.) … It’s given them the ability to steal my pay.”

    That may seem unduly cynical, but consider what current Senate Majority Leader Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, did this month. Following the above-mentioned scandals and a separate one involving a lobbyist, the Senate instituted a blackout period for fundraising during budget negotiation. De Leon just eliminated that rule, given that it is putting one of his favored senators at a political disadvantage this election season. That senator faces a challenge from a current member of the Assembly, where the blackout rule is not in force.

    That’s par for the course. Only the naïve would expect anything different. Meanwhile, other scandals fester. Democratic Assemblyman Roger Hernandez of West Covina, now running for Congress, faces domestic-violence allegations as part of a divorce. He denies the allegations. Even Gov. Jerry Brown was embroiled in a scandal, after the Associated Press reported he “directed state oil and gas regulators to research, map and report back on any mining and oil drilling potential” at his family ranch. In response, the department laughably claimed that service would be available to any Californian.

    It’s all the usual shenanigans in Sacramento (and every other capitol, too). I’ve read enough Menckento expect elected officials to behave this way. But I can’t understand why the public is so willing to let these folks try to run our lives, too.