Tag Archives: U.S. Senate

Fixing the problem of NSA spying

There’s been lots of talk about the problem of NSA spying the last few days, and some partisan braying about it.  But the real question is: what do we do now?  The reality is that the majority of Congress stands overwhelmingly in favor of these programs, and Presidents of both parties have supported these programs, which makes it highly unlikely that they’re going to be stopped completely.  What are practical things that can be done to ensure that the privacy impacts of these programs are limited while still giving the government the data it needs to investigate potential terrorist plots?

Realistic policy options fall into two categories:  1.) reduce what data can be collected and 2.) improve transparency.

Reducing the data the NSA can collect

Changing the data the NSA can collect would require Congressional action to modify the relevant statutes in place (principally Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act), and three primary ideas for accomplishing this have come forward:

  1. Allow the data collection to continue but require a warrant based on probable cause to access any of the records for a U.S. citizen.  This approach was introduced as legislation by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and would raise the legal standard for accessing the collected data.
  2. Limit data collection to eliminate purely domestic calls.  Raised as an alternative to the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, this would limit the collection of data to calls where at least one of the callers was foreign, except in cases where a definitive connection to terrorist activity could result in a warrant to acquire that data.
  3. Limit data collection to a suspicion-based standard.  Instead of doing a dragnet of all calls made, data collection could only occur records based on a reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity — of someone suspected of being a terrorist or spy, someone called by a terrorist suspect, or potentially somewhat broader searches, such as calls made from a building where terrorist activity is suspected of taking place.

Improve transparency of current programs

If none of the options above are taken to limit the data collected, perhaps the least we could expect is a better understanding of what sort of data collection is being done in our name.  Here are some of the options available to accomplish this:

  1. Declassify Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) decisions interpreting Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.  Introduced today as a bill in the Senate by a bipartisan group of eight Senators, including Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, this bill would compel the release of these decisions, so the legal logic could be evaluated and debated.  President Obama could also choose to do this via executive order.
  2. Release more details about how these programs work.  Can the NSA listen in on calls?  If so, when and why?  What is the standard for accessing the collected call metadata?  How long is the data stored?  Has the data ever been accessed for “routine” police work, or is it access limited to solely terrorism/national security related issues?  How are the programs audited for potential abuse?
  3. Permit court challenges towards these programs to move forward.  Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the government over warrantless wiretapping and data collection, but all have failed to reach the trial phase.  This is because the government (under both the Bush and Obama Administrations) have fought these cases on a standing issue.  What this means is that the government has alleged that the persons bringing the lawsuit can’t prove that their data was collected or their calls listened to, so they can’t prove they were harmed by the activity.  With no harm, they don’t have standing to sue in court.  The Verizon allegations — which cover millions of Americans — may make it impossible for the Department of Justice to continue these sorts of claims going forward.  If the Administration feels they are on solid legal ground with these programs, they should allow these cases to go to trial and win them definitively.

None of these six ideas provide a definitive firewall between government and your personal data, but they are practical approaches that could work incrementally to improve the current situation.  Getting them accomplished, though, will require application of political pressure on politicians in both parties.  Calls and e-mails to your Senators and Representatives will help keep the ball moving forward.

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Watching the Watchmen: the bipartisan failure on privacy

The revelations about the NSA spying program have set off a firestorm of partisan finger-pointing (such as this from late last week).  The reality, though, isn’t terribly complex.  Both parties are responsible for selling your privacy down the river with these sorts of programs.  There have been five key votes since 2001 that have been responsible for these programs.

The pattern shows that it doesn’t matter who’s in charge of the Presidency or Congress.  Washington D.C. will vote to take away your privacy, while fighting to make more and more of their actions secret.  The solution to this issue can’t be solved by switching which party is in charge — but rather by a sustained effort to keep pressure on both parties to do the right thing.  We must remain vigilant.

Below is a chart that shows the bipartisan failure on this issue, including votes by Minnesota’s Congressional delegation.  Click on the chart to see a larger version.

bipartisanfailure

Data sourced from THOMAS.gov

Ortman faces uphill climb in potential race against Franken

Public Policy Polling released the first detailed polling on the 2014 U.S. Senate race today.  It shows that U.S. Senator Al Franken is — as of today, anyway — in pretty good shape 17 months out from the election.

Franken currently holds a +9 in his job approval ratings (51% approve vs. 42% disapprove) which is a solid rating for an incumbent heading into a re-election campaign.  Franken also currently holds at least a 15-point lead against any of the possible challengers polled.  Businessman Mike McFadden (the only potential candidate who has publicly expressed interest in the race) and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek trail Franken by 15 points, while State Senator Julie Rosen trails by 16 and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, radio talk show host Jason Lewis, and Chanhassen’s own State Senator Julianne Ortman trail Franken by 17.

There’s not a lot of good news in the polling data for Ortman.  Ortman’s name recognition is low (80% didn’t know who she was), but among those who did know her, almost four times as many had an unfavorable opinion as had a favorable opinion.  Those numbers gave her the lowest favorability numbers among the potential candidates in the poll.  Worse, she had an unfavorable opinion among Republicans and self-identified conservatives who knew who she was.  Franken leads Ortman by 29 points among women and by four points among men (even though Franken polls -8 in job approval among men).  However, her low name recognition does give her the opportunity to introduce herself on her own terms to voters.

Numbers like these help explain why Ortman may have felt the need to take time from the end-of-session rush last week to try and blast Franken over the IRS investigations of Tea Party groups.  If she intends to run, she needs to drive name recognition and establish herself as a credible contender because based on the polling numbers and Franken’s formidable fundraising — it’s going to be an uphill battle.

Shooting Ourselves In The Foot: Breaking Down The Sequester

Barring a last-minute deal between President Barack Obama and Republican Congressional leaders, it appears that the sequester — $85.3 billion in spending cuts for this fiscal year (and a total of $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade) — will be implemented beginning March 1.

What will the sequester mean?  Let’s take a look.

Details of the cuts

$85.3 billion represents about 2.4% of total government spending.  But the impacts of the sequester will be far more impactful than that, because of the programs that are exempted from the spending cuts.  Additionally, five months of the federal fiscal year has already passed, meaning that the full year value of the cuts have to be taken in a seven-month timeframe.

Half of the spending cuts will come out defense.  $42.7 billion represents 7.8 percent of the defense budget on an annual basis, but compressing those cuts into seven months will result in a 13% cut in defense spending the rest of the year.  There are no significant exceptions to the defense spending cuts, meaning that essentially all items in the defense budget will get an across-the-board cut.  This includes operations in Afghanistan and military aid for Hurricane Sandy relief.  Additionally, President Obama has indicated he will protect soldiers from receiving pay cuts, which means all other programs will see yet larger cuts to make up the difference.  Finally, restrictions in the sequester language mean that the Administration is prohibited from cutting the pay of civilian defense employees and must instead reduce headcount.

The other half of the spending comes out of three categories:  domestic discretionary spending, domestic mandatory spending, and Medicare.  Together, these categories make up the remaining $42.7 billion.  Let’s talk about what is excluded from these three categories first — the list is long and includes Social Security, non-administrative expenses in the Veterans Administration, refundable tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit), Children’s Health Insurance Program, standard unemployment benefits, Medicaid, and most other programs supporting low-income families.  These programs represent over $2 trillion in annual government spending, meaning that all of the cuts are being taken against spending that represents about 40% of the federal budget.

Domestic discretionary spending cuts will total $26.4 billion, representing a 5.2% cut on an annual basis and an 8% cut over the next seven months.  These cuts will hit areas of the budget including education funding for programs like Head Start, will require closing the air traffic control towers at several state airports, federal funding for “Meals on Wheels” programs, and grants for environmental projects.

Domestic mandatory spending will be cut by $5.1 billion, also representing a 5.2% cut on an annual basis and an 8% cut over the next seven months.  These cuts will impact farm subsidies, extended unemployment benefits, and some federal health care programs, such as the Indian Health Care program.

Finally, Medicare will see $11.2 billion in cuts, representing a 2% cut.  Medicare cuts will not impact beneficiaries of the program, but rather reflect a cut in provider and Medicare Advantage reimbursement rates.

What Will Happen?

The budget cuts in the sequester are really just about the worst kind of cuts that could be made.  First off, they are arbitrary and across-the-board.  The President has no discretion on how to distribute the cuts, meaning that effective programs are cut at the same rates as programs that have less impact.  Second, there are too many exceptions.  The cuts, as noted above, represent a small portion of the total budget, but since a majority of the budget is excluded from the cuts, the programs that are hit are hit hard.

These cuts are also going to have major negative impacts on employment and economic growth.  The Bipartisan Policy Center projects a loss of 1 million jobs and 0.5% of gross domestic product.  Other estimates claim job losses in excess of 700,000.  Implementing the sequester is going to seriously damage a still fragile recovery and sluggish labor markets.

Worst of all, the combined effect of all of these impacts mean that we are unlikely to get any meaningful deficit reduction as a result of the sequester.  Slower economic growth means that the economy will produce less tax revenue, making the deficit situation worse than before.  As evidence of how this is possible, one need only look at what is occurring in Europe.  Following rounds of budget cuts, the United Kingdom (which is on the verge of a triple-dip recession), France, and Spain have all missed their deficit reduction targets.  Fed chairman Ben Bernanke warned of the same possibility before the House Financial Services Committee today.

Additionally, the fact that health care and entitlement programs are essentially left off the chopping block means that these cuts do practically nothing to change the long-term debt picture, because that is where the majority of spending (and spending growth) will happen over the coming decades.

The upshot here is that the failure of our political system to take the right path regarding our financial future has us on the verge of a serious self-inflicted blow to our economy.  One might think that the risks here would be enough to get folks looking beyond their own narrow political interest.  But apparently not.  There’s a reasoned approach to be had here, maintaining levels of spending today to preserve the economic recovery while instituting reforms in the medium- to long-term in order to bring debt levels down to a sustainable level.  Who’s going to set aside their party’s political interests to protect the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Americans?

General Sources:

Bipartisan Policy Center (explainer)

Washington Post (state-by-state impacts)

With logic like this, he can’t go wrong

I took some time today to visit the web page of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe Arwood.  Here’s a sample of what is posted there:

We can no longer afford the price tag of ineffective leadership, we shouldn’t have to pass a balanced budget amendment to get a balanced budget.  This is why I support a balanced budget amendment, to keep those in Washington accountable to us.

We shouldn’t have to pass the amendment to balance the budget, which is why he supports the amendment?  My head hurts.

It’s a wonder he hasn’t been able to raise more than $10,000 so far…

 

Republicans driving the car over a cliff

When he was White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel famously said “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.”  Republicans in Washington D.C. have certainly learned that rule, and learned it well.  So much so that they are in the process of manufacturing a crisis in order to create the opportunity to get reforms they feel are necessary.

Let’s leave aside for the purposes of this post the sheer absurdity of the notion that after having passed a budget that increases the amount of the national debt over the debt ceiling that Congress then has to re-approve spending to that level.  What Congressional Republicans are doing right now is even more reckless than how Minnesota Republicans handled budget negotiations over the last few months.

President Obama has offered significant spending cuts and pared back his tax increases to the bare minimum.  In fact, what President Obama has offered as part of these negotiations is well to the right of Alan Simpson-Erskine Bowles Bipartisan Deficit Commission, the Senate  “Gang of Six”,  and the Alice Rivlin-Pete Domenici Deficit Commission.

President Obama has offered a plan that is almost 4:1 spending cuts to revenue increases.  The revenue increases consist of eliminating loopholes, subsidies, and deductions — many of which Republicans have supported in the past.  The tax code should not be used to pick winners and losers, but rather to ensure a level playing field and to provide the necessary resources for government to perform its functions.  They would be accompanied by a lowering of rates overall to make the changes generate far less revenue than they otherwise would.  This used to be a core Republican value.

Normal people would jump at such a deal — a chance for real entitlement reform ($650 billion in savings over the next 10 years), real cuts in discretionary spending ($1 trillion over the next 10 years, taking such spending back to pre-WWII levels), and rational tax reform that generates about 20% of the overall solution.

But today’s Republicans aren’t normal.  They are devoted to “no new tax” ideology at any cost.  They are willing to drive the car off the cliff as opposed to forcing their wealthy and corporate patrons — who have benefitted the most over the past decade while the labor market and median incomes for the rest of us have stagnated — to chip in just a little bit more.

If Congressional Republicans can’t come to an agreement on the debt ceiling and the country goes into default, they will effectively raise the taxes of every American through increased interest rates.  Our stock market will feel the impact of lost confidence of investors.  There could even be a run on the banks.  This is not a risk we should even be considering, but Republicans are still — even at this late date — still holding out for complete capitulation from the President.

We shouldn’t also fail to point the rank hypocrisy of many of the Congressional Republicans at the heart of this crisis today.  During the Bush Administration, these same leaders voted seven times to raise the debt ceiling — from $5.95 trillion to $11.315 trillion.  They also voted for policies that destroyed our financial future.  As the New York Times pointed out over the weekend, if you take out the impacts of the recession and only look at policy changes, what happened in the Bush Administration caused far more damage than anything that has happened under President Obama (even extending out the impacts of the Obama policy changes to 2017).  Note that the cost of the Bush tax cuts alone is more than all of the policy changes under President Obama combined.

It’s time to stop the false equivalency.  There is a very real difference between Democrats and Republicans — both in Washington D.C. and in St. Paul.  Democrats aren’t willing to put their partisan goals ahead of the well-being of the American people.  Republicans are seemingly content to “take hostages” — including the American economy — to fulfill their ideological goals.

Compromise isn’t a dirty word.  Compromise isn’t weakness.  Compromise is necessary in a divided government, and it’s time Republicans started getting back to doing the serious work of the people instead of being led around by their special interest groups.


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