Small Blessings

What We Need Is a Seinfeld Congress

The GOP Congress can make three small but meaningful improvements to our national life, and all it has to do is what it does best: nothing.

We often make New Year’s resolutions to improve our lives over the next twelve months. Regardless of the magnitude of the changes we desire, the best way to go about making progress is to commit to attainable goals rather than sweeping ones that we will likely abandon after a few weeks.

The same principle is true for policymakers. Now that the New Year has started and the new Congress has been sworn in, it would be wise for our elected officials to commit to three easy resolutions. To be sure, the changes I propose will not fundamentally alter the untenable fiscal course our federal government is on. And they are relatively small compared to the changes that I usually call for from lawmakers.

They are, however, low-hanging fruit because all that is required is for Congress do nothing! In addition, each of the changes would send a significant signal that—unlike the previous Republican-controlled Congress—the new Republican Congress is serious about reining in our overgrown federal government.

Let the Export Import Bank’s charter expire. The Export-Import Bank is the epitome of the unhealthy marriage between large, politically connected corporations and the government. Ending this boondoggle has received the support of pundits and economists from both sides of the political spectrum and it is as easy as doing nothing, since the Bank’s charter is set to expire in June. Besides, it should a no-brainer for Republicans who claim to believe in free markets.

In addition, and contrary to the claims of Ex-Im advocates, the bank doesn’t promote overall U.S exports. Export credit schemes redistribute prosperity away from unsubsidized firms and funnel profits toward subsidized firms, many of them being giant well-connected firms. The bank is not the net job creator it claims to be either. Nor is it a savior of small businesses, even if the Bank manipulates the data to make it look like it does. The arguments in favor of the Bank keep changing, but one thing has stayed the same: They all amount to public cover for pure cronyism.

Let the sequester caps return as scheduled. Although the sequestration measures—which imposed spending caps and across-the-board cuts to defense and non-defense spending as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011are imperfect, they are arguably the only fiscal policy victory in a very long time. Apart from being mostly reductions to the growth in spending over 10 years, the American people have gotten to see that the alarmist predictions that the caps would devastate the economy were hot air.

However, back in December 2013, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan made a deal with Democratic Senator Patty Murray to lift the sequester caps for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. By law, the caps are scheduled to return for fiscal year 2016. The effect is that if Congress does nothing this year, fiscal 2016 spending on defense and non-defense discretionary should remain virtually flat. Congress should sit on its hands and leave the sequester caps alone.

Let expiring sections of the Patriot Act go away. In the wake of 9/11, policymakers passed several pieces of legislation that made changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). The result was that many of the safeguards against unwieldy surveillance of foreigners suspected of often ill-defined activities—and the Americans who dare to communicate with them—were significantly weakened.

As my Mercatus Center colleague Andrea Castillo is documenting in an upcoming paper, three major amendments to FISA that were passed in the post-9/11 are set to expire automatically on June 1, 2015. Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act amended FISA by lowering the standard required to seize physical materials of foreigners suspected of terrorist activities while expanding the range of items that could be seized. Section 206 of the Patriot Act, the “roving wiretap” provision, amended FISA to provide intelligence agencies with more flexibility in attaining multipoint wiretaps by allowing wiretaps to target people instead of specific places.

Finally, Section 6001(a) of a later anti-terrorism bill, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), also known as the “lone wolf” provision, permits intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance on foreign nationals suspected of terrorism even if there is no evidence linking the suspect to a known terrorist organization.

Revelations of modern surveillance abuses from whistleblowers like Edward Snowden suggest that it is time again to reign in the power of U.S. intelligence agencies. Even if they faithfully performed their duties by following every letter of the law, these provisions theoretically allow sweeping surveillance of innocents and potentially even U.S. citizens who aren’t suspected of criminal behavior.

However, the history of international surveillance and modern leaking of agency oversteps dispels any hope for this already tenuous best-case scenario. Civil liberties groups on the left and the right agree: allowing these provisions to expire would be a good first step to restoring our cherished rights as Americans and impose a starting measure of accountability on intelligence agencies that often exceed their authority. And all it would take is for Congress to do what it does best: nothing!

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Clearly, much more could—and should—be done, like normalizing our relationship with Cuba, not engaging in new wars, and reforming immigration and Obamacare. However, this is a good start.