Roundup: Syria, Regulation, Spending, Safe Spaces, Civil Asset Forfeiture

Defeating ISIS and bringing peace to Syria will require something that doesn’t yet exist: a non-Islamist, non-Russian-backed force that can fight effectively. Creating one, writes James Philips, will be a diplomatic challenge:

Washington has few reliable allies inside Syria. Syrian Kurdish militias tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are an effective military force, but close cooperation with them complicates relations with Turkey. Ankara has been fighting the PKK, which has been designated as a terrorist group by both the U.S. and the European Union, off and on since 1984. The Trump Administration should end U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish militias linked to the PKK. To stabilize Syria in the long run, Washington and Ankara must agree on which groups to support and cooperate closely in providing that support.

Non-Islamist rebel groups in northern Syria have been weakened by defections, in part due to a lack of external support, as Turkey threw its support behind the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia and Qatar favored even more radical Salafist groups. But in southern Syria, the Southern Front, a coalition of secular, moderate, and tribal militias supported by Jordan, France, and the U.S., may be more reliable allies, particularly in securing the Jordanian border and preventing ISIS infiltration.

Washington should press Turkey, other NATO allies, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf allies to contribute significant ground troops and special operations forces to defeat ISIS on the ground inside Syria. The U.S. could provide advisers, air support, logistical support, airlift, intelligence, surveillance, search and rescue support, and other enablers. Meanwhile, the U.S. should reassess its aid program for Syrian rebels and continue aid only to non-Islamist groups willing and able to fight ISIS effectively. It must also do a better job of vetting them to prevent arms from falling into the wrong hands. […]

Neither Russia nor Iran is a useful ally against ISIS and both actively undermine U.S. national interests and allies. Russia has paid lip service to the fight against ISIS, but has launched most of its air strikes against other rebel groups, including some supported by the U.S. Siding with Russia, which has been accused of committing war crimes in Syria, would discredit the U.S. in the eyes of most Syrians and many Sunni Arabs outside of Syria. The Trump Administration should not repeat either its predecessor’s overestimation of Moscow’s willingness to cooperate in Syria or its underestimation of Moscow’s interest in undermining U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Although most attention has been focused on Russia’s air campaign, Iran and its surrogates have spearheaded most of the Assad regime’s ground offensives. Tehran’s sectarian policies have made a bad situation worse by fueling Sunni Arab support for ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq. In the long run, Iran poses a much greater threat than ISIS or al-Qaeda. […]

Some of America’s Arab allies have supported Sunni extremist groups against the Assad regime and Iran, which they view as their greatest enemy. Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia continue to turn a blind eye to the activities of fundraisers for Islamist extremist groups seeking donations from private individuals in their kingdoms. The U.S. should press all of its allies to crack down on the flow of such funds and insist that rebel groups they support break all ties with [Jabhat Fateh al-Sham]. Washington also should ask its allies to deploy more military forces to attack ISIS and provide greater aid for Syrian refugees.

[James Phillips, “How President Trump Can Improve U.S. Syria Policy,” The Heritage Foundation, March 3]

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There’s no excuse for Congress not to roll back the regulatory state. Over the years, Congress has given administrative agencies a lot of power to determine national policy. Typically, Congress passes laws that set forth a broad goal while letting the agencies fill in the details with the regulations they write. Under this set-up, if agencies write rules that are too costly relative to any benefits, Congress gets to blame the bureaucrats for whom nobody voted. It turns out that Congress can reclaim its authority over—and accountability for—the regulatory state without rewriting all the laws that created it. Paul Larkin Jr. explains how:

Passed into law in 1996, the Congressional Review Act allows Congress to invalidate an agency rule by passing a joint resolution of disapproval, not subject to a Senate filibuster, that the president signs into law. Under the Congressional Review Act, Congress is given 60 legislative days to disapprove a rule and receive the president’s signature, after which the rule goes into effect. But the review act also sets forth a specific procedure for submitting new rules to Congress that executive agencies must carefully follow. If they fail to follow these specific steps, Congress can vote to disapprove the rule even if it has long been accepted as part of the Federal Register. In other words, if the agency failed to follow its obligations under the Congressional Review Act, the 60-day legislative window never officially started, and the rule remains subject to congressional disapproval. The legal basis for this becomes clear when we read the text of the Congressional Review Act. According to the statute, the period that Congress has to review a rule does not commence until the later of two events: either (1) the date when an agency publishes the rule in the Federal Register, or (2) the date when the agency submits the rule to Congress. This means that if a currently published rule was never submitted to Congress, then the nonexistent “submission” qualifies as “the later” event, and the rule remains subject to congressional review. This places dozens of rules going back to 1996 in the congressional crosshairs.

[Paul J. Larkin Jr., “This Little-Used Tool Could Help Congress Undo Years of Government Overreach,” The Daily Signal, February 14]

If the regulatory state is the Death Star, then the Congressional Review Act might be its thermal exhaust port.

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Yes, we can balance the federal budget. It’s as simple as holding the growth in expenditures below the growth in the economy, says Daniel Mitchell:

Under current law, tax revenues over the next 10 years are projected to grow by an average of 4.2 percent each year.

If left on autopilot, the burden of government spending will rise by an average of 5.2 percent each year.

If that happens, the federal budget will consume 23.4 percent of economic output in 2027 compared to 20.7 percent of GDP in 2017.

Under that do-nothing scenario, the budget deficits jumps to $1.4 trillion by 2027.

But what happens if there is a modest bit of spending restraint? What if politicians decide to comply with my Golden Rule and limit how fast the budget grows every year? […]

[I]f GOPers actually decide to do the right thing, the grim numbers in the CBO’s new report quickly turn positive.

If spending is frozen at 2017 levels, there’s a budget surplus by 2021.

If spending is allowed to grow 1 percent annually, there’s a budget surplus by 2022.

If spending is allowed to grow 2 percent annually, there’s a budget surplus by 2025.

If spending is allowed to grow 2.63 percent annually, the budget is balanced in 10 years.

If spending is allowed to grow 2.63 percent annually, the budget is balanced in 10 years.

With 2.63 percent spending growth, the burden of government spending drops to 18.4 percent of GDP by 2027.

[Daniel J. Mitchell, “New CBO Numbers and the Simple Formula for Good Fiscal Policy, Part I,” Cato Institute, January 25]

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Where did the campus safe space culture come from, anyway? Mitch Pearlstein finds a clue in the work of Neil Gilbert, the Milton and Gertrude Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and Social Services at the University of California, Berkeley. Pearlstein sums up Gilbert’s argument in his article “Institutionalized Discontent,” (Society, August 2016) this way:

“Over the last several decades federal regulations and funds have created an alternative bureaucracy within universities that is devoted not to the core academic mission of teaching and research, but to improving the social climate of university life.” The “legitimacy and power” of this new bureaucracy, he writes, “depend on heightening the perception that academic life involves a dangerous environment, from which students need protection.” This perceived need, he continues, has led to campaigns for “safe spaces”; efforts to help students “recognize micro aggressions”; educating and training them in “sexual assault prevention”; and demanding faculty participation in “sensitivity training.” Among other rote requirements.

How big is this new bureaucracy? Neil reports that between 2000 and 2015, “the number of full-time, ladder-rank teaching faculty at Berkeley increased by 1%, while the number of full-time staff providing student services and health care increased by more than 100%, at which point they outnumbered the teaching faculty by 13%.”

[Mitch Pearlstein, “Political Correctness and Alternative Bureaucracies,” Center of the American Experiment, March 24]

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Thieves keep better books. If the police suspect that your property has been used to commit a crime, they can typically seize it through civil asset forfeiture. They don’t have to charge you with a crime; they don’t even have to suspect that you’ve committed a crime. They merely have to suspect that somebody has committed a crime with your property. The way it works is that you have to prove your property is innocent in order to get it back. A variety of conservative and libertarian organizations argue that the practice violates property rights and have been working to convince legislators to eliminate it. Increasing the challenge of holding law enforcement agencies accountable for their use of the practice is the paltry state of official records tracking the practice and the property seized. Angela C. Erickson, Jennifer McDonald, and Mindy Menjou write:

[Thirteen states] do not appear to require any form of property tracking, leaving in doubt even such basic questions as what was seized and how much it was worth, who seized it, when it was seized, where it was seized, and why it was seized. Without such information, agencies may have trouble tracking what they have, returning property to rightful owners, and meeting legal deadlines and obligations. […] [A]gencies in just 11 states, as well as the [Department of Justice], record whether forfeitures happen under civil or criminal procedures, and only six states track whether an individual whose property was seized was ever charged with a crime. Just three states and the DOJ record who, if anyone, filed a claim to retrieve seized property. […]

[Thirty-two states require] no reporting at all on how agencies use forfeiture proceeds. […]

Nearly half of states do not produce statewide [forfeiture] reports at all […] . And most of the remaining states produce reports that are missing critical information. In particular, too few states—just 17—and the U.S. Department of Justice provide agency-level data, and only eight states and the U.S. departments of Justice and the Treasury include data about expenditures. […]

Nineteen states keep agency-level forfeiture records but neither publish them online nor officially declare them public records, meaning that records may be difficult to identify—and that law enforcement agencies may try to deny freedom-of-information requests for their release. […]

[Thirty-five] states never require financial audits of agency forfeiture accounts […] .

Currently, only six states and the U.S. departments of Justice and the Treasury [require] annual independent financial audits of forfeiture accounts—the gold standard for ensuring that audits are regular and timely, and for avoiding conflicts of interest.

[Angela C. Erickson, Jennifer McDonald, and Mindy Menjou, “Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability: State-by-State and Federal Report Cards,” Institute for Justice, January 16.]