Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trump Trumps Trump

With consistency a great soul simply has nothing to do. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, Self Reliance

One of DJT’s many virtues is that he does not slavishly adhere to positions he has publicly taken when he either (a) forgets that he took them or (b) is reminded by someone with whom he happens to agree at that moment that earlier positons were wrong. This was forcefully brought home on May 5, 2017, when DJT released his budget for 2018, an event that followed a DJT appearance that took place a few weeks earlier. (It is of course, also shown by the fact that he forgot how much he appreciated Jim Comey’s work prior to firing him, but that is for another time.)

On March 29, 2017, DJT took part in what was, without even a hint of irony, described as a “listening session” on Opioids and Drug Abuse. In welcoming his guests, DJT praised his Secretary of Defense and Homeland Security, John Kelly, who, DJT said, had done an amazing job. As proof, DJT said that: in terms of people and the drugs that are being stopped it is “down 61 percent at the border right now. . . . “That is an extraordinary result since at the time DJT spoke, Mr. Kelly had only been in office for eight weeks. Employing the enthusiastic, if incomprehensible rhetoric for which he is known (when speech replaces tweets), DJT said: “This is a total epidemic and I think it’s probably almost untalked about compared to the severity that we’re witnessing.” If ever there was a clarion call to action, that was it, and it was addressed for the next two hours by the participants in the meeting. At the end of the meeting, DJT was asked whether he was taking it (the drug issue) on the road. He responded, “Yes, we will. It’s a big issue-very very big issue.” When DJT got on the road, as it were, a strange thing happened. He got lost.

May 5, 2017, DJT’s support for greater activity with respect to what he had described as the “crippling problem throughout the United States” of drug abuse, disappeared. Its magical disappearance was effected by the release of DJT’s budget for 2018. The proposed budget cut funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy from $388 million to $24 million, a 95% reduction. If implemented, the office will lose 33 employees.

Rich Baum, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy who had been appointed by DJT, and attended the listening session, was blindsided, saying: “These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking and, if carried out, would cause us to lose many good people who contribute greatly to O.N.D.C. P’s mission and core activities. I don’t want to see this happen.” It is reported that if the funding cuts take place, the high-intensity drug-free communities support program would come to an end as would the high-intensity drug trafficking program.

Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is the co-author of a major opioids bill that was passed in 2016. He said of the proposed cuts: “We have a heroin and prescription drug crisis in this country and we should be supporting efforts to reverse this tide, not proposing drastic cuts to those who serve on the front lines of this epidemic.”

The cuts do not affect DJT’s approach to medical marijuana issues. Like his position on drug control, his approach to marijuana has undergone a transmogrification.

The budget bill that cut funding for the O.N.D.C.P. that DJT signed, also includes a provision known as the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment. That amendment bars the Justice Department from using any appropriated funds to interfere with implementation of state laws governing the use of medical marijuana. That provision is consistent with the DJT position as expressed by him during the 2016 campaign. He repeatedly said that dealing with marijuana legalization was up to the states. In one interview he said: “I do like it, you know, from a medical standpoint. . . it does do pretty good things. But from the other standpoint, I think that it should be up to the states.” Apparently seconding the DJT campaign position, Sean Spicer, DJT’s press secretary, spoke about DJT’s attitude towards medical marijuana in a press briefing. He said: “[I] think the president understands that [medical marijuana] can be a vital part of treatment, especially for terminally ill patients and people facing certain kinds of medical things. . . . but there is a big difference between the medical and the non-medical.”

At the signing of the appropriations bill on May 5th that includes the ban on using federal funds to block medical marijuana use in states, DJT had forgotten what he’d said a few months earlier and what Mr. Spicer said he believed. Referring to the Amendment that says federal funds cannot be used to block implementation of medical marijuana laws by various States and territories, DJT said that he had a “responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” thus suggesting that he might, (if he remembered), ignore the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment and permit the justice department to challenge states that permit the use of medical marijuana. That will please Attorney General Jeff Sessions who has said that marijuana is only slightly less awful than heroin, thinks “Medical marijuana has been hyped too much” and has said arguments for its medical use are “desperate.” It will disappoint the terminally ill and others, who only weeks ago, were described by DJT as benefitting from its use. Quite sad.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

White House Visitors

A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom it will never be anything but bad. . . . — Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death

A number of readers have written me asking me to explain why those particular leaders were selected by DJT to be among the first heads of state to be invited to the DJT White House, when so many others were hoping for invitations. The invitees whose invitations prompt the question, are Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte. Each of the visitors would seem at first blush to have more in common with each other than, the casual observer would at least hope, with DJT. The similarities between the three leaders are palpable. ,

President el-Sisi became president of Egypt by means of a coup, after citizens in Egypt had voted for Mohamad Morsey to be their president in a 2012 election. On July 3, 2013, President Morsey and his closest advisors were arrested on orders from General el-Sisi and General el-Sisi has been Egypt’s president ever since. Mr. el-Sisi’s method of acceding to power cannot have been the reason he was invited to the White House since DJT got there through an honest election process (except insofar as Russia might have meddled a tiny bit as hinted at by fake news.)

President Erdogan proposed an amendment to Turkey’s constitution that was approved by a slim majority in an election in mid-April. That amendment virtually guarantees that the winner of the 2019 presidential election, who will almost certainly be President Erdogan, will have full control of the government. Since the election, President Erdogan has fired 4,000 public officials. Those are in addition to the 50,000 who were removed by him immediately after an attempted coup that took place in July 2016.

President Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines in an election in May 2016, winning by an overwhelming majority. Since becoming president he has sponsored an anti-drug campaign in which more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers or users have been killed. More than 2000 have died in police operations and 4,000 have been killed in vigilante or extra-judicial operations. After he was elected President, President Duterte said he would have the drug problem in the Philippines cleaned up in 6 months, but in an interview in January, 2017, he said the problem was more difficult than he had anticipated and it would take longer than he had hoped.

From the foregoing it is obvious that none of the actions taken by the three visitors to the White House would explain why DJT invited them to the White House. What inspired the invitations (and President Duterte has not yet accepted his), was DJT’s appreciation of the attitudes towards the free press that the three presidents have. They mirror, to a remarkable degree, DJT’s own feelings.

In rally in Pennsylvania, on April 29th, DJT enthusiastically repeated his condemnation of the press, referring to the “failing New York Times” and saying that CNBC and CNN were incompetent and dishonest. He said: “If the media’s job is to be honest and tell the truth, the media deserves a very, very big fat failing grade” and described reporters as “very dishonest people.” Each of his visitors has expressed remarkably similar sentiments.

A law in Egypt passed in December 2016 with President Sisi’s support, creates a council that will be headed by people appointed by the president. It will oversee the media and insure that the media comply with “national security” requirements. The council is to investigate media funding and is empowered to fine or revoke permits of media groups that threaten “national security.” In early December 2016, an al Jazeera journalist was arrested on suspicion of fabricating news, a sort of “fake news” scenario similar to the fake news DJT sees lurking around every newsstand. The Committee to Protect Journalists has described Egypt as a “leading jailer of journalists.”

Like DJT and President al-Sisi, President Erdogan has little use for the press. Since the coup attempt in 2016, President Erdogan has jailed more than 144 journalists and taken control of, or closed, more than 150 media companies. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has surpassed China as the world’ biggest jailer of journalists.

President Duterte is troubled by a free press. March 30, 2017, he said that The Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN had hired “shameless” journalists. He said the entities were “garbage” and used a variety of expletives to describe them. He has said they “slant” stories. The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines said: “The virulence and viciousness of his [Duterte’s]language are an abuse of power, a stain on the freedom of our public forum.”

The foregoing is a sort of good news-bad news scenario. The good news is that DJT did not invite his new found friends to the White House because he approves of how they govern their respective countries. The bad news is he shares their opinions of the press. Guardians of press freedom in the United States may want to keep, for future reference, the responses of the media watchdogs, to the actions against the press taken by DJT’s new found friends. We can all hope they will never be needed.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Senator and the Tax Collector

I . . . content myself with wishing that I may be . . . not of that number who are ignorant in spite of experience.
—William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, Speech in House of Commons (1741)

Someone has to get to Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and explain to him the facts of Republican life and the Internal Revenue Service. No one is more qualified to do that than Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa.

The budget blueprint that was released by DJT in mid-March, proposed reducing IRS funding for the upcoming fiscal year by $239 million. At his confirmation hearing on January 19, 2017, Mr. Mnuchin observed that the IRS had suffered staff reductions of 30% over the last few years, a reduction in staffing not matched in any other agency. He said that such a decrease in staffing “for an agency that collects revenues, this is something that I’m concerned about.” Here is why he should pay a visit to Senator Grassley.

Senator Grassley would explain to Mr. Mnuchin that Republican members of Congress also think collecting taxes is very important, but they have come up with a new old way to do that even with reduced IRS staffing. The Congressional solution involves taking advantage of the skills of the private sector. In order to help Mr. Mnuchin understand what Congress has done, the senator will put it in historical perspective.

He will explain that in 1996 and 1997, at Congress’s behest, the IRS turned over collection of past due taxes to private collection agencies known as PCAs. The program only lasted for two years because it generated no revenue and instead cost the government $17 million. To make matters worse, the PCAs were also violating provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act in their contacts with delinquent taxpayers. That was the end of that program. But, Mr. Grassley will explain, the Republican dream of tax collection by the private sector did not die.

Senator Grassley would tell Mr. Mnuchin that in 2004, Congress passed the American Jobs Creation Act. That act created jobs by, among other things, handing out collection of delinquent taxes to PCAs. Republican members of Congress projected that the PCAs would be able to collect $1.3 billion in back taxes at a cost of $350 million. The net recovery for the IRS would be eight times greater than if the IRS were undertaking the collections. In 2008, the House Ways and Means Committee held hearings to determine how the program was faring after four years. Mr. Grassley would explain that the committee learned that 85% of the people PCAs contacted owed no back taxes and, accordingly, neither the IRS nor the PCA benefitted from those contacts. He would explain that the PCAs’ cost of collection was $.24 for every dollar collected, whereas the IRS costs were only $.07 for every dollar collected. Mr. Grassley would explain that the IRS had an 11% collection success rate, whereas the PCAs had a 4% success rate. And finally, he would explain to Mr. Mnuchin that the total amount received by the IRS from the PCA efforts was $4.6 million instead of $1.3 billion. He would explain that confronted with those facts, President Obama ended the program and that he, Mr. Grassley, was outraged at the cancellation. He will give Mr. Mnuchin a copy of what he said when the program was canceled. He said that Mr. Obama was cutting “a program that provides jobs to hundreds of people during the middle of a recession, including 60 in Iowa.” He didn’t say anything about the failures.

Mr. Grassley will then explain that the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act that was passed in 2015, included a mandate that the IRS hire PCAs to collect back taxes to help fund road improvement projects provided for in the Act. He will give Mr. Mnuchin a copy of his remarks following the passage of that Act. In those remarks he attributed the end of the program in 2009 not to its lack of success, but to the IRS caving in to politics by cancelling the program. Mr. Grassley will then tell Mr. Mnuchin that, responding to the 2015 mandate, the IRS recently hired four companies to collect back taxes. He will tell Mr. Mnuchin that one of the four companies the IRS has hired is Pioneer, a subsidiary of Navient.

Navient is the nation’s largest servicer of student loans. In January 2017, Navient was sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). In its suit the CFPB said Navient created obstacles to repayment by borrowers by providing them with bad information, processed payments incorrectly, didn’t act when borrowers complained, misallocated payments, and cheated borrowers out of their rights to lower repayments. Mr. Grassley will explain to Mr. Mnuchin that Navient denies all the allegations set forth in the lawsuit and will do as good a job for collecting back taxes as other PCAs have done in the past, when helping out the IRS.

After Mr. Grassley finishes his history lesson, Mr. Mnuchin will marvel at the ability of Senator Grassley and his Congressional colleagues to shun empiricism, apparently preferring the bromide that “the third time is a charm.” He will be joined in his bemusement by the American taxpayers who will not only be bemused, they will suffer the consequences of this inexplicable behavior. Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at For political commentary see his web page at