Free Markets, Free People


Congress and the coming lame duck session

If you want to know why we get stuck with bad law, the conduct of the 111th Congress might provide the perfect case study on the subject. On the surface you’d think, with Democratic majorities in both chambers and a Democratic president, that it would work like a well-oiled machine.

But that’s not been the case. While Democrats have consistently tried to blame the problems of Congress on Republicans, most Americans understand that the GOP comes in for only a small part of the blame. Most of the problems with its lack of accomplishment fall directly in the lap of Democratic infighting and disagreement.

Even when Democrats had filibuster proof margins in both chambers, they only passed a portion of their agenda.  Part of it is because they spent so much time and political capital on the health care reform abomination.  That sort of sucked the air out of everything else.  And, the election of Scott Brown to the Senate finally put Democrats there in a position that required they finally consider the opposition when crafting their legislation – a distasteful but necessary added requirement (they’d much rather fight among themselves and blame the Republicans who had absolutely no power to stop anything prior to Brown’s election).

After wasting most of two years, the Democratic leadership is faced with two realities – the probability that they’ll lose their House majority in the upcoming elections (as well as some seats in the Senate) and only a lame duck session remaining to pass legislation they deem critical to their agenda.  That leaves them with about 6 weeks to jam pending legislation through the Congressional process (at the end of the session, any legislation not acted upon is in effect “killed” and must be introduced again in the next Congress).  In the Senate that means these Democratic priorities:

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) wants the Senate to consider a package of tax-relief extensions he has been working on all year.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is intent on passing a renewable electricity standard.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, says his cybersecurity bill should also come up for a vote, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has called for ratification of the New START arms-control treaty with Russia.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) says he intends to hold Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to a promise to schedule a vote on legislation that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from taking action to curb carbon gas emissions for two years.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, told reporters Friday that leaders would also bring up a bill to address Chinese currency manipulation.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, hopes Congress will pass food-safety legislation Reid tried to bring to the floor last week. Democratic leaders pulled the bill even though they could have had enough votes to stop a Republican filibuster.

And, of course there’s the Defense Appropriations bill to which Reid has added the contentious DREAM act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, assuring quick passage won’t happen.  None of the legislation listed is “minor”.  All deserve extensive review and debate.  Neither of those things will happen as the Senate leadership tries every parliamentary trick in the book to limit both and push the legislation through before the end of the lame duck session.  The House is no better and actually would add to the legislative backlog in the Senate if it does manage to pass its education bill.

Also remember that this Congress, for the first time in anyone’s memory, will not be passing a budget, but has punted that responsibility (or shirked it if you prefer) to the next Congress.  They have cobbled together and passed a CR (continuing resolution) which will keep government functioning and spending that 7 million dollars a minute it has become so used to spending.

This Congress has been, in my estimation, one of the worst in history.  Not because they didn’t pass megatons of legislation – I’m actually fine with fewer laws and less intrusion.  Instead its about what they did pass and how they passed it.  Additionally its about what they didn’t do (they’re responsible to present a budget but didn’t because of political consideration – that’s shirking your duty where I come from) and what they’re about to do (try to cram mountains of legislation through in a 6 week funnel which will most likely be ill considered, undebated, costly and poor in quality – although if ObamaCare is any indication, not lacking in quantity.

This isn’t how it is supposed to work. It is, however, all the reason you need to change the leadership and majority party.  I remember Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi charging that George Bush was “incompetent”.  Their leadership of the 111th Congress has redefined the word.



The GOP’s temporary strategy to block Obama admin legislation

In a few words it can be summed up by "deny funding".

Republicans will try to block money requested by the Obama administration to implement Democrats’ signature Wall Street and healthcare reforms in a stopgap spending measure expected to clear Congress next week. The GOP is seizing on the administration’s funding request as an opportunity to send a message to voters that it wants to reduce government spending and provide a check on President Obama.

Given they don’t have the votes to repeal it and override the presidential veto which is sure to follow any such attempt, this is about their only choice. How effective it would be – both politically and in reality – remain unknown. As one might imagine, the blowback potential is significant.

The first test – since Democrats haven’t passed a budget – is a continuing resolution (CR) necessary to keep government funded beyond Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.  It is needed to prevent a government shutdown.  Republicans are planning to target those parts of the spending request which apply to funding parts of the new legislation:

The Obama administration has asked appropriators crafting the CR to include roughly $20 billion in new spending, according to GOP appropriators.

That request includes $250 million for doctors, nurses, physician assistants and other primary-care health workers. In asking appropriators for the money, the administration said the increase in health workforce funding is needed to meet the demands of the newly insured under the Democrats’ healthcare act.

The administration also requested $14 million for the Treasury Department so it can carry out the new Wall Street reforms.

Says Sen. Lamar Alexander:

“If the question is whether to approve money to fund certain parts of the healthcare law, that’s certainly one way to try to limit its impact,” he said.

Indeed, without majorities or the White House, this is the only avenue that’s really open to the GOP.

Of course that’s brought the usual obstructionist charges from Democrats:

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) blamed Republicans for the need to resort to a stopgap spending measure in the first place.

“I’d much prefer doing individual bills, but with the Republicans blocking everything, that’s hard to do,” Leahy said.

Yeah, bi-partisanship is a bitch, huh Senator – especially when you can’t just ram things through with an filibuster proof majority as you once could.  Someone get him a little cheese for that whine.

In the meantime this is the best way for the GOP to lessen the impact of the bad legislation this administration has passed, until they can gain the majorities and the White House and work toward repeal.



Let’s see how savvy the GOP really is …

POLITICO points out that the House Republicans are planning to announce their election agenda within the next two weeks.  That ought to be an interesting exercise.  This is supposedly a result of their “America Speaking Out” initiative, an online, grass-roots effort to build ideas from voters across the country. 

Two things that have leaked out sound great but most likely will have about the same impact as PAYGO:

One of the GOP proposals would require bills to have a specific citation of constitutional authority, on the heels of criticism that Democrats breached their constitutional limits in Congress with big-ticket bills like health care reform. If a member questioned whether the House had constitutional authority to pass a bill, that challenge would receive debate and a vote.

The second major initiative would encourage — though not require — members of Congress to read bills before they vote. According to a senior House GOP source, Republicans plan to push for a new rule that would require the House to publish the text of a bill online at least three days before the House votes on it, also giving the public an opportunity to review legislation.

The first is like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.  That nag fled decades ago.  Obviously I’d like to see the Constitution followed as it should be, but I find it highly unlikely that a body of lawyers would have any trouble rationalizing almost anything they come up with as “Constitutional”.  I mean, look around you.

The second is, well, window dressing.  While it sounds great, I have little confidence that a 2,500 page bill posted on line for 3 days allows anyone enough time to read it much less understand and react to it.  I cannot think of any bill that Congress considers and debates that couldn’t wait a month for enactment (other than perhaps some funding for a natural disaster, etc).  In that time a real reading could be done, and the appropriate debate among “the people” could take place.  What effect even that would have on the House is unknown, however, it certainly would raise the visibility of the debate to much different levels than now and provide a little accountability so sorely missing. 

We’re still digging horse apples out of the ObamaCare law.  It was passed in haste precisely because of the crap it had hidden inside.  Yet there is no reason whatsoever that bill couldn’t have been available on line for 30 days prior to House action.  None.  Making that a requirement (and if there’s a schedule that the House feels it must keep on certain reoccurring items like the budget – adapt.  Move the House work schedule for that bill back a month) would certainly go a lot further to keeping House members honest and between the ditches than anything.

The rest of the agenda remains veiled in generalities:

Other bills and initiatives that are likely to be launched alongside the agenda include tax policy proposals, health reform proposals and jobs-related measures, though GOP aides involved declined to release any specifics ahead of the unveiling.

POLITICO says some of them will be designed to appeal to the Tea Party vote.  The first is obviously designed to do that – but is it really something which can and will be enforced?  And if it is, will it actually have an effect.  Again, you’re asking a body of lawyers to vote on their interpretation of what the Constitution says, and most are going to fall back on “precedent”, i.e. the fact that in the past what many say is an unconstitutional expansion of government – see Commerce clause – has been upheld by the Supreme Court.  How in the world would this change that?

Anyway, given my dissatisfaction with the first two, the GOP does indeed need to roll out reasons to vote “for” them, rather than just against Democrats.  And most importantly, if they’re able to successfully appeal to the voters to vote “for” them, they better damn well execute.



Harry Reid’s desperate gambit

As everyone knows, Harry Reid is in the fight of his electoral life in Nevada.  The Republican senate candidate, Sharon Angle, is within the margin of error on most polls looking at the race.  So Harry needs something to attract more votes, obviously.

Hey, when you’re the Senate Majority Leader, you get to set that body’s legislative agenda and decide what bills considered by the Senate will or won’t contain and how they’ll be scheduled on the floor for votes.

So why not use that power to at least attempt some things which, while they may not succeed, will at least give one the “hey I tried, but it was the nasty Republicans, like my opponent who killed it”.

With that in mind, Reid has decided that the DREAM act needs to be a part of the defense authorization bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday he will add the DREAM Act, a controversial immigration measure, to a defense policy bill the Senate will take up next week.

The decision means the defense bill, which often passes with bipartisan support, will be home to two major, thorny political issues – the other being the repeal of the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.

Reid called the DREAM Act "really important" and said it should be passed because it provides a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military. DREAM is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act.

"I know we can’t do comprehensive immigration reform," Reid said at a news conference. "But those Republicans we had in the last Congress have left us."

This, again, is one of the reasons we have the mess we have now.  This is an obvious and transparent attempt at vote buying.  It is calculated to appeal to a bloc of voters who’ve been dissatisfied with Reid’s performance on their behalf.  It is pure special interest politics that gives an incumbent like Reid an advantage.  And if it goes down to defeat, he can at least point to it and say “I tried”.  If it manages to be passed, he can point to it and take credit. Maybe that will get him just enough votes to slide by.

Pure short-term, electoral politics – a consistent problem with our system. 

And I love how “serving in the military” is the equivalent of “going to college”.  Why, do they have minefields in the college square.  PKM’s in the admin building sweeping the quadrangle?  IEDs in the parking lots?

Yeah, that’s an aside, but you get my drift.  As usual, legislation cobbled together with no real thought except short-term gain and haphazardly thrown into another bill which has absolutely noting to do with immigration.  That’s how you get this morass of bad law we endure that features contradictions and unintended consequences galore.

We all have to hope that Harry Reid becomes a second Tom Daschle – a sitting Senate Majority Leader shown the door by his constituents.  He embodies everything that’s wrong with today’s politicians.  Let Harry enjoy his golden years in forced retirement.



HHS Secretary threatens insurers with “exclusion” if they don’t toe the government line

America’s new “Health Care Czar”, aka Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, has issued a letter to the insurance industry telling them not so politely to shut up or pay the consequences.

The letter, sent to Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans — the chief lobbyist for private health insurance companies – makes it clear in no uncertain terms that any complaints that ObamaCare is causing insurance premiums to rise is unacceptable:

"There will be zero tolerance for this type of misinformation and unjustified rate increases."

But that’s not the real problem, that’s just the warning.  Then there’s the threat:

"We will also keep track of insurers with a record of unjustified rate increases: those plans may be excluded from health insurance Exchanges in 2014."

One has to wonder though, whether Sebelius will also track the misinformation put out by the administration and her department.  Such as the implication that no such increases are caused by the law or that any such increases are “minimal”, i.e. in the 1 to 2% range.

That’s just poppycock.  

As Time magazine’s Karen Pickert points out, Sebelius ignores the fact that individual insurance plans cover different types of populations. So that government and "some" industry and academic experts think the new law will justify increases averaging 1 percent or 2 percent, they could justify much larger increases for certain plans.

Or as Ignagni, the recipient of the letter, says, "It’s a basic law of economics that additional benefits incur additional costs."

In other words, mandated coverage – with which the law is loaded – costs money.  Whether or not you want it isn’t the point.  You’re going to get it and as expected, that means the cost of your insurance premium will go up.  If, for instance, you’re carrying a minimal coverage policy with fewer benefits than those mandated by ObamaCare, your insurance coverage is about to change dramatically and so is the cost.

But insurers better shut up about the increased cost or, at least, not blame it on ObamaCare or, per the HHS Secretary’s threat, they’ll be “excluded” from the government takeover underway.

As Michael Barone notes today in his Townhall column:

The threat to use government regulation to destroy or harm someone’s business because they disagree with government officials is thuggery. Like the Obama administration’s transfer of money from Chrysler bondholders to its political allies in the United Auto Workers, it is a form of gangster government.

"The rule of law, or the rule of men (women)?" economist Tyler Cowen asks on his blog. As he notes, "Nowhere is it stated that these rate hikes are against the law (even if you think they should be), nor can this ‘misinformation’ be against the law."

That, however, doesn’t apparently stop an administration with increasingly totalitarian tendencies from threatening insurers with the loss of their business if they don’t comply and keep their explanations to themselves.

This is outright thuggery.  As Barone points out, this certainly isn’t the first example we’ve seen, nor is it most likely to be the last.  This is pure and blatant intimidation.  There’s no place for this sort of nonsense in democratic republic one of whose founding principles is freedom of speech.

Secretary Sebelius should withdraw the letter immediately and apologize for the threat she issued to the industry as a whole.  She should also understand that she doesn’t get to decide what is or isn’t “misinformation” or how insurance companies choose to present the inevitable premium increases driven by ObamaCare to their customers.

If she feels there is misinformation out there that is actionable, then she has a court system on which to rely.  My guess is she knows she hasn’t a case and thus is reduced to threatening insurers instead, hoping they’ll be cowed into compliance.

Your “hope and change” government at work.  



Is Financial Regulation imperiled with Byrd’s death?

In a word, ‘yes’.  Byrd was a yea vote.  And Senator Russ Feingold has just announced he’s a nay vote.  It also appears Sen. Scott Brown is heading toward the nay side of things.  And Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, has been against the bill for some time.

This has all left Kevin Drum unamused:

But seriously: WTF? This is the final report of a conference committee. There’s no more negotiation. It’s an up-or-down vote and there isn’t going to be a second chance at this. You either vote for this bill, which has plenty of good provisions even if doesn’t break up all the big banks, or else you vote for the status quo. That’s it. That’s the choice. It’s not a game. It’s not a time for Feingold to worry about his reputation for independence. It’s a time to make a decision between actively supporting something good and actively supporting something bad. And Feingold has decided to actively support something bad.

What’s more, his reasons for doing this don’t even make sense. This bill won’t prevent another crisis? No it won’t, but voting for the status quo does even less. It doesn’t break up the big banks? The status quo does even less. It suffers from too much lobbyist influence? Well, Wall Street lobbyists are far more enthusiastic about the status quo than they are about this bill. There are only two choices available here, and on virtually every level Feingold is voting in favor of the alternative that does less of what he says he wants.

The old “principle vs. pragmatism” argument.  When Feingold does this when a GOP bill is on the floor, it’s principle.  But when something left is wanting is imperiled by Feingold’s principled stand (whether you agree with his principles or not), they argue for pragmatism, the old “something is better than nothing” bit.

Well, most of the time something isn’t better than nothing.  That’s one of the reasons we’re in the legal hell we suffer under now.  Because bad law has been championed – by both sides – as something which is better than nothing.  Me?  I’ve always been in favor of the “get it right the first time or don’t do it” argument.

That’s not to say I’m in favor of this bill or any of the other attempts to regulate the financial end of things (I’d much rather see the government get its house in order first – probably an impossible task).  But it is instructive to watch the legislative sausage making process proceed and to understand that within that process, “principle” is more of an excuse than a guiding light.