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From the White House on down, the National Football League is getting a bad rap over anthem antics by some players. That is a shame, because the league, the game, and the players can teach valuable lessons, particularly for those in government.

If your daddy was governor of California, like Jerry Brown’s, or President of the United States, like George W. Bush’s, that provides easy entry for a career in politics. Not so in professional sports, particularly the National Football League.

No NFL team drafts a player because his father was politician, or because daddy owns the team or the stadium. Even those players whose fathers did play in the NFL, such as Peyton Manning, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Christian McCaffrey, earned their job on the basis of pure merit, like everybody in the NFL.

Ray Seals, Eric Swann, Sav Rocca, and Lawrence Okoye came to the league right out of high school. Many others left college early, rather than risking injury to play for no salary at all.

Nigerian track star Christian Okoye had never played football but quickly proved his worth in the NFL, where players know that raw talent is not enough.

Jerry Rice put himself through workouts that would challenge a Navy SEAL. That’s why he excelled. Larry Fitzgerald has balls thrown to him while hanging upside down, which helps him make catches on the field.

Off the field, NFL players also do things to make other people better. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt raised more than $37 million for relief following the disastrous Hurricane Harvey.

Politicians like to slide business to their cronies, but the NFL is not like that. The football field is level, not tilted in the direction of one team. The rules are the same for all players, and no special rule gives any player a first down for advancing only seven yards.

In the NFL, no runner has to slow down because some other player might not feel good about himself. In the NFL, all achievement is earned. The players, not the owners or league bosses, determine the winners and losers.

Penalties are the same for all players and the game does not proceed until the referees mark off the penalty. That is not always the case in government, where officials caught in criminal conduct are protected from prosecution and allowed to retire.

In the wake of the anthem protests, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said “we can’t have inmates running the prison.” He has since apologized and the statement was a stretch. Some NFL players have indeed run afoul of the law, but they are hardly unique in that regard.

As Mark Twain said, “there is no distinctly American criminal class – except Congress.” In California, some are calling for politicians to get two terms, one in office and one in prison.

The NFL, meanwhile, can be entertaining and instructive but nobody has to watch it. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. So in the big picture, politicians are a more appropriate target than football players, whatever their antics during the national anthem.

Despite Tea Party Settlement, IRS Remains Unaccountable

Tuesday October 31st, 2017   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 4:09am PST   •  

Back in 2012, Americans who sought smaller government, and believed that they were taxed enough already, geared up for the election. Trouble was, the Internal Revenue Service targeted them for harassment on the basis of their political beliefs. Last week, the Trump administration agreed to pay $3.5 million to the so-called tea party groups, but as Stephen Dinan of the Washington Times observes, there’s more to the story.

The settlement was announced by Attorney General Jeff sessions, who offered an apology to the 450 groups that had sued the IRS, the most powerful and intrusive agency in the federal government. The IRS itself did not issue an apology, and was not talking to reporters. A key player in the harassment was Lois Lerner, who destroyed evidence and endlessly took the Fifth. She was not fired and the government allowed her to resign. The previous administration claimed Lerner was trying to stop the harassment but as Dinan explains, the Justice Department and IRS “now say she failed to stop her employees and hid the bad behavior from her bosses for two years.”

Former IRS helmsman Stephen Miller said nobody had been targeted and that it was all a matter of “horrible customer service,” as though the IRS was a business producing products that people actually wanted. Miller incurred no penalty and the government brought in John Koskinen, a skilled prevaricator and a real piece of work. As we noted, Koskinen obstructed investigators at every turn, misleading Congress about the destruction of Lois Lerner’s emails. Koskinen was not fired then and he is not being fired now. As Dinan notes, he is “due to leave the agency early next month” with no penalty of any kind and no apology, official or otherwise.

The harassed groups may welcome the $3.5 million settlement but it’s too little and too late. Here’s the deal. IRS bosses can deprive Americans of their constitutional rights, subject them to harassment, then walk away unharmed and not even have to say they are sorry. Taxpayers can be forgiven for believing that the Internal Revenue Service is unaccountable to the people and essentially unreformable.

EPA to End Corrupt, Costly Sue-and-Settle Practice

Monday October 30th, 2017   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 5:49am PST   •  

40579635 - close-up of a bureaucrat handing money to a political activist in front of justice scale During the last two presidential administrations, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bureaucrats seeking to increase their regulatory power would often engage in secret collusion with political activists to either deliberately throw court cases where the EPA was being sued or to settle them without contest to achieve that end. Michael Bastasch of the Daily Caller News Foundation reports on the estimated cost to the U.S. economy stemming from that unusual form of bureaucratic corruption:

The right-leaning American Action Forum found 23 regulations stemming from “sure and settle” lawsuits “resulted in a total cost burden of $67.9 billion, with $26.5 billion in annual costs.”

AAF looked at 23 major regulations imposed by EPA from 2005 to 2016, and found they resulted in hefty economic price tags. Settlements reached during the Bush and Obama administrations resulted in some of the costliest rules on the books.

“With billions of dollars in economic costs at stake, it makes sense to more thoroughly scrutinize sue and settle rules to ensure they meet the basic rigors of the Administrative Procedure Act and sound cost-benefit principles,” AAF’s Dan Bosch wrote in a new report.

Earlier this month, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt officially put an end to this secretive, backdoor process for increasing the regulatory power of the EPA without going through the legitimate regulatory process established by the U.S. Congress. Bloomberg‘s Jennifer Dloughy has the story.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said he is ending a “sue-and-settle” practice that has resulted in closed-door agreements committing the agency to regulating greenhouse gas emissions or mercury pollution from power plants.

“It’s very important that we do not engage in rulemaking through litigation,” Pruitt told reporters at a briefing Monday. “As of today, with this directive and the memorandum, we’re no longer going to be involved in that practice.”

Pruitt vowed to avoid “regulation through litigation” in an address to EPA employees in February and later instructed agency staff to limit the practice. Separately, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has barred federal attorneys from negotiating settlements that result in payments from companies to third-party organizations, such as environmental groups.

But Pruitt’s new directive makes it formal. Under the policy, the agency will publicize petitions targeting the EPA, include states and regulated entities in settlements that affect them and publish proposed agreements so that the public has 30 days to comment. The EPA also won’t agree to issue rules quickly through the settlement process, Pruitt said. Under the new policy, the agency will also exclude paying attorney fees.

No matter what side of the political aisle you might be, this reform represents a step forward in achieving greater transparency and integrity in how the U.S. government’s regulations on Americans are established.

Who Lent $20 Trillion to the U.S. Government?

Friday October 27th, 2017   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 6:23am PST   •  

Political Calculations tallies up the most recent accounting of the amount of money that the U.S. government owes to its major creditors:

The U.S. government’s 2017 fiscal year officially ended on 30 September 2017. From the end of its 2016 fiscal year (FY2016) a year earlier, the total public debt outstanding of the U.S. government increased by $671.5 billion, rising from $19,573 billion (or $19.6 trillion) to $20,245 billion (or $20.2 trillion) during FY2017.

The following chart shows the major breakdown of who the U.S. government has borrowed that total $20.2 trillion from:

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. government spent some $665.7 billion more than it collected in taxes during its 2017 fiscal year. The difference between this figure and the $671.5 billion that the total national debt actually rose can be attributed to the government’s net borrowing to fund things like Federal Direct Student Loans, which collectively account for nearly $1.1 trillion of the government’s $20.2 trillion debt, or 5.4% of the total public debt outstanding.

Put differently, the U.S. national debt would be 5.4% less at roughly $19.1 trillion if not for the federal government’s takeover of the student loan industry from the private sector in March 2010. Since that time, approximately $1 of every $10 that the U.S. government has borrowed has been for the purpose of funding its student loan program.

Overall, 69% of the U.S. government’s total public debt outstanding is held by U.S. individuals and institutions, while 31% is held by foreign entities. China has resumed its position as the top foreign holder of U.S. government-issued debt, with directly accounting for 6.9% between institutions on the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.

Beyond that, China likely has additional holdings that are currently being shown as being held in the international banking centers of Belgium and Ireland, which together account for 2.0% of the U.S. national debt, where China’s holdings are believed to represent a significant portion of the amounts currently being credited to both these nations.

The largest single institution holding U.S. government-issued debt is Social Security’s Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which is considered to be an “Intragovernmental” holder of the U.S. national debt, and which holds 13.9% of the nation’s total public debt outstanding. The share of the national debt held by Social Security’s main trust fund is expected to fall as that government agency cashes out its holdings to pay promised levels of Social Security benefits, where its account is expected to be fully depleted in just 17 years. Under current law, after Social Security’s trust fund runs out of money in 2034, all Social Security benefits would be reduced by 23% according to the agency’s projections.

The largest “private” institution that has loaned money to the U.S. government is the U.S. Federal Reserve, which accounts for nearly one out of every eight dollars borrowed by the U.S. government. It lent nearly all of that total since 2008, mainly through the various quantitative easing programs it operated from 2009 through 2015 in its attempt to stimulate the U.S. economy enough to keep it from falling back into recession. In September 2017, the Fed announced that it would begin reducing its holdings of U.S. government-issued debt.

An important question to ask is “how fast is the national debt accumulating?” To find out, we pulled data from the U.S. Treasury Department, where we find that since being sworn into office nine months ago, the U.S. government’s total public debt outstanding has increased by nearly $484 billion.

By contrast, during President Obama’s first nine months in office, the U.S. national debt increased by nearly $1,326 billion (or $1.326 trillion), about 2.7 times the rate under President Trump. During President Obama’s last nine months in office, the U.S. national debt increased by nearly $732 billion, one and a half times faster than the rate seen during President Trump’s first nine months in office.

The observation we’re making here is that it is the rate at which the national debt is increasing that most affects the behavior of politicians. Under President Obama, that rate was viewed as unacceptable in his first years in office, which resulted in President Obama’s party losing control of the U.S. Congress. That event, more than any other, did more to slow the growth of the U.S. national debt during the rest of President Obama’s tenure in office, where presumably, by the end of that tenure, most politicians were comfortable with the rate at which the U.S. national debt was growing.

Now in 2017, the rate at which the U.S. national debt is increasing is slower than at any time outside of periods where it ran into the national debt ceiling during President Obama’s occupancy of the oval office. Politicians of both major political parties who came to be comfortable with that rate of national debt growth now see opportunities to both reduce taxes and to allow higher levels of spending, which would increase the rate at which the national debt is growing today.

Perhaps a better question to ask is whether those same politicians should be so comfortable with that point of view?

Time to Eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Thursday October 26th, 2017   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 8:25am PST   •  

Corey Lewandowski, an outside advisor to Donald Trump, wants the president to fire federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau boss Richard Cordray. Lewandowski doesn’t like CFBP rules that make it easier to sue finance companies, but firing Cordray will not be easy. He can only be fired for cause, and that entails a burden of proof. Like the boss, the CFPB itself enjoys special protection.

As a federal agency, it should be funded by Congress, but it isn’t. The CFPB is funded by the Federal Reserve, which is obviously improper. The CFPB has no board to oversee its affairs and Cordray basically calls all the shots. That too is unacceptable, and no surprise that, according to former employees, the CFPB is secretive, partisan and obstructionist. Taxpayers can’t be blamed for seeing the CFPB, the brainchild of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as bad idea in the first place.

As we noted back in 2012 in Financial Crisis and Leviathan, the CFPB was created during the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, not a good time to expand government. The previous administration failed to consider that any government or policy, such as the Carter-Era Community Reinvestment Act, with its lax lending standards, could have played any role in the crisis. The CFPB was based on the assumption that even educated and informed consumers were unable to look out for themselves without help from federal bureaucrats. The CFPB duplicated the work of existing bank regulators and amounted to pure government building, larding up Leviathan through a crisis government played a major role in causing.

As Milton Friedman observed, creating new agencies and programs is easy but eliminating them is practically impossible. Now is the time to show that it can be done. President Trump should fire CFPB boss Cordray and Congress should eliminate the CFPB at the earliest opportunity. That will trim waste and help restore accountability in government.

Bullet Train Tunnels a Deeper Hole for Taxpayers

Tuesday October 24th, 2017   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 4:31am PST   •  

Two years ago, as we noted, California’s high-speed rail project was facing 36 miles of tunnels through the mountains north of Los Angeles, a tectonically complex area abounding in earthquake faults. As independent experts observed, these tunnels would have been the most ambitious tunneling project in U.S. history, with 90% odds of massive cost overruns. Bullet train bosses claimed they had not yet picked the exact route through the mountains, and the project was behind schedule on land acquisition, financing, permit approvals, and still facing multiple lawsuits. None of that diminished the rail bosses’ tunnel vision.

As Ralph Vartabedian reports in the Los Angeles Times, according to current plans, “a crucial part of the journey will be a 13.5-mile tunnel beneath the winding peaks and valleys of Pacheco Pass,” which will be “the nation’s longest and most advanced transportation tunnel.” Trouble is, the best tunnel experts peg the cost at “anywhere from $5.6 billion to $14.4 billion,” and the route “also requires a 1.5-mile tunnel just east of Gilroy, itself a major infrastructure project.” As UC Berkeley civil engineer William Ibbs told Vartabedian, “This is not good news for taxpayers of California.” That also applies to the entire project.

As California’s state auditor has noted, the rail project has been handing out sweetheart no-bid contracts. The rail “Authority,” has no building experience but has already established four offices, a Sacramento headquarters and three regional offices. The bureaucratic structure provides a soft ride for ruling-class retreads such as Lynn Schenk, former congresswoman and chief of staff for governor Gray Davis. The project also runs roughshod over property rights. As Hedley Lamarr said in Blazing Saddles, one thing stands between the rail authority and the land they want: “the rightful owners.”

Last year Lawrence McQuillan gave the bullet train the Golden Fleece Award for the government program “guilty of egregiously fleecing taxpayers.” And this is all before a single rider ever stepped aboard. If it ever was built, the $98 billion rail project would still be slower and more expensive than air travel. On the other hand, the bullet train is not really about transportation.

It’s a hereditary project for governor Jerry Brown and a great way for government to spend money without providing value for taxpayers. As High-Speed Rail Authority, chief engineer Scott Jarvis explained about the $14.4 billion Pacheco Pass tunnel: “We don’t see any problem.”

Over-Arming the Bureaucracy

Monday October 23rd, 2017   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 6:10am PST   •  

30540452 - man shooting in weapons training outdoor shooting range In 2015, the nonpartisan government spending transparency advocate OpenTheBooks began tracking the U.S. government’s purchases of firearms and ammunition down to the department and agency level, where one of the most surprising things they uncovered back then was that civilian government agencies that you would never think would have a legitimate need for semiautomatic rifles were in fact buying them in bulk.

Two years later, OpenTheBooks has mined through an additional two years worth of federal government purchase requisitions and has updated their counts of both guns and bullets that have been bought by agencies within the federal government. Writing at Forbes, Open The Books’ CEO, Adam Andrzejewski, reviews the new information they found.

We live in a dangerous world. For the 70,000 officers at Homeland Security and the 40,000 officers within the Department of Justice, proper training and equipment are vital to their daily law enforcement duties. Over a nearly two-year period – the last years of the Obama administration (FY2015 – FY2016), these law enforcement agencies spent $138 million on new guns and ammunition. That seems reasonable.

What’s curious, however, is that traditionally administrative agencies spent more than $20 million. Four notable examples:

1) The 2,300 Special Agents at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are allowed to carry AR-15’s, P90 tactical rifles, and other heavy weaponry. Recently, the IRS armed up with $1.2 million in new ammunition. This was in addition to the $11 million procurement of guns, ammunition, and military-style equipment procured between 2006-2014.

2) The Small Business Administration (SBA) spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to load its gun locker with Glocks last year. The SBA wasn’t alone – the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service modified their Glocks with silencers.

3) The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a relatively new police force. In 1996, the VA had zero employees with arrest and firearm authority. Today, the VA has 3,700 officers, armed with millions of dollars’ worth of guns and ammunition including AR-15’s, Sig Sauer handguns, and semi-automatic pistols.

4) Meanwhile, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) agents carry the same sophisticated weapons platforms used by our Special Forces military warriors. The HHS gun locker is housed in a new “National Training Operations Center” – a facility at an undisclosed location within the DC beltway.

It will be interesting to find out if the Department of Health and Human Services is arming itself the way that it is to conduct the same kind of stealthy, offensive operations that the U.S. Army’s special forces divisions are most famous for conducting. For an agency whose oversight extends to the administration of subsidized health care and welfare programs, we’re curious to see what kinds of missions that they might perform that requires M9 pistols and M-4 Carbines to name just two examples among the “top-of-the-line gear” currently used by Special Forces Soldiers.

Will Supreme Court End Confiscation Con?

Friday October 20th, 2017   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 3:10am PST   •  

While Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees awaits a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, developments in California may clarify the issues involved. The California Association of Psychiatric Technicians, a government employee union with more than 6,000 members, will levy a monthly charge of $6.50 to fund political activities. Union bosses are alarmed over “the election of Donald Trump,” as one told reporters. What about union members who are not alarmed by the election of Donald Trump? The union would still hit them up with the levy, so their own money would be used against them.

In similar style, government employee unions are currently able to slap “agency fees” on workers who are not members of the union. This practice forces workers to subsidize a union as a condition of working for their own government. In Janus, the high court will decide whether that confiscation continues, or whether employees have a right to work without joining a union. The default position of union bosses is that non-members are “free riders,” who benefit from the union without paying for it. This assumes that the worker has no merit beyond what union bosses negotiate for her with politicians.

The political spending of government employee unions is decidedly one-sided. The National Education Association, for example, favors Democrats by 93 percent. And government employee unions are not like unions in the private sector. They exist to implement government policy, which is why politicians cut them sweet deals, and union bosses claim the legislature is “our house.” CalTrans pays more than 3,000 members of Professional Engineers in California Government just to sit around. Those are the real “free riders.”

Meanwhile, with Neil Gorsuch in place, the high court could well rule in favor of the right to work, and against union confiscation. But whatever the decision in Janus, government employee unions are a bad deal for taxpayers and non-members alike.

Veterans Flee VA’s Failing Socialized Health Care

Thursday October 19th, 2017   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 6:23am PST   •  

Veterans Choice Program Reference Card It may come as a surprise to many Americans, but the U.S. government operates at least two fully socialized health care systems, for which it both pays the cost of health care and also directly provides it: the Veterans Health Administration for military veterans and the Indian Health Service for Native Americans.

Both can be considered to be gross failures when it comes to providing timely, quality medical care for the populations they are responsible for serving.

Those failures, and the secret wait list health care rationing scandal that centered on the VA’s practices, are the reason why the U.S. Congress pushed through the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act back in 2014, which was later extended in April 2017. The new law allows veterans who would otherwise face long wait times to receive care from the VA or who live more than 40 miles away from a VA health care facility to obtain medical care from providers outside of the VA-run system through its Veterans Choice Program.

That intended-to-be-temporary program has been in the news during the last few weeks because it is facing another funding crunch, just weeks after receiving $2.1 billion in emergency funding, where it is once again at risk of running out of money before the end of the year.

The funding crunch has led to moves by U.S. politicians to call for reforms in how the VA manages its finances for the program, where the department has significantly underestimated its budget requirements on several occasions in the last year, with each requiring additional emergency funding to resolve.

While the program has made it onto the U.S. General Accountability Office’s high risk list because of its administrative and fiscal issues, at its core, one of the main reasons that the Choice program keeps running out of money sooner than VA management has been projecting is because an increasing number of veterans are turning to it to receive needed medical treatment that the VA itself is not capable of providing in a timely manner. And that is even with the Veterans Choice Program’s “cumbersome authorization and scheduling procedures” and delays in payments to private medical service providers that have resulted in veterans being billed for their treatment, which would discourage them from using the program to seek care outside of the VA’s fully-socialized system.

That an increasing number of veterans are seeking care through the poorly-managed Veterans Choice Program despite its ongoing issues is an indication that the VA’s fully-socialized system for providing health care for America’s veterans must be performing even worse in its core mission of providing needed medical care in a timely fashion. If it were succeeding in achieving that mission, we would see the number of veterans seeking to escape it dwindle over time. That is something that is not happening, where having the safety valve of the temporary Veterans Choice Program is perhaps making it appear as if the regular VA system is working better than it really is, which is a really scary prospect.

The bottom line is that even with new management, the VA still needs a lot of reform. Veterans voting with their feet to seek out medical care provided through practitioners in the private sector are telling us the direction in which that reform needs to move. That direction for reform is something that can also benefit the Native Americans who still don’t even have the choice of going outside of the U.S.’ government-run socialized health care systems for better and more timely service.

At the very least, providing that same basic opportunity to be able to choose whether to stay within the Indian Health Service’s socialized health care system or to go outside of it for their medical care would be a good place to begin that reform.

Down with the Czars!

Wednesday October 18th, 2017   •   Posted by K. Lloyd Billingsley at 10:24am PST   •  

Rep. Tom Marino, Pennsylvania Republican, has withdrawn his name for consideration as President Trump’s drug czar. By some accounts, Marino backed legislation that restricted enforcement of opioid laws. Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, who called for Marino’s withdrawal, said “we need a drug czar who has seen the devastating effects of the problem.” Actually, we don’t, and President Trump should consider whether we need a drug czar at all.

The federal government already deploys the Drug Enforcement Administration, with an annual budget of nearly $3 billion. So in effect, the DEA boss renders a drug czar redundant. Don’t forget the Food and Drug Administration, whose budget has ballooned to $5 billion. Plenty of drug czars in that massive bureaucracy, and in recent years czars have been surging all over the federal government.

President Obama appointed 45 czars, and as Judicial Watch noted, “Many of these ‘czars’ are unconfirmed by the Senate and are largely unaccountable to Congress. Further, their activities are often outside the reach of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), creating a veil of secrecy about their precise role in the administration.” As we noted, a day after Washington state allowed the sale of medical marijuana in the style of Colorado and California, drug czar Michael Botticelli sought to spend $25 billion in the war on drugs.

President George W. Bush deployed some 33 czars, including one for bird flu. Franklin Roosevelt appointed at least 11 czars, including one to deal with rubber. These actions imply that unelected appointees with the title of Russian kings can solve all problems. They can’t, but they do waste taxpayers’ money. President Trump, who wants to drain the swamp, should not appoint any drug czar and would be wise to eliminate all czars in government.

Meanwhile, a historical note. A century ago the Bolshevik Revolution was going on, but the Bolsheviks did not overthrow Czar Nicholas. He abdicated the throne and the Bolsheviks toppled the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky, the closest Russia ever came to liberal democracy.

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