Spitzer’s Crack-Pot Tax

Governor Eliot Spitzer has already built himself quite the record in his first term running New York. He has conducted a politically-motivated investigation of his main opponent in the state legislature and then co-opted the man supposedly investigating him, and he briefly demanded that illegal immigrants get drivers licenses. Now he wants to raise taxes in order to help solve a massive deficit — but you’re not going to believe how he wants to do it:

If you can’t beat it, tax it.
That seems to be the axiom in New York these days, where Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D), struggling to close a $4.4 billion budget gap, has proposed making drug dealers pay tax on their stashes of illegal drugs. The new tax would apply to cocaine, heroin and marijuana, and could be paid with pre-bought “tax stamps” affixed to the bags of dope.
Some critics in the legislature are asking what the governor has been smoking.
“I guess if it moves, he’ll tax it,” said Republican state Sen. Martin J. Golden, who dubbed the proposal “the crack tax.” Some opponents said that because cocaine and weed would be subject to the new levies, it should more aptly be called “the crack-pot tax.”

On the other hand, Democrats in the state legislature … well, they can’t believe it either. One member from Harlem wondered how anyone could practically collect tax from dealers who operate mainly to support their own habit. Many of them steal just to afford the drugs; they’re not going to have a lot of extra cash lying around when the tax collector comes to garner the proceeds.
Other states have passed similar laws, but the intention in those cases was never to generate a reliable revenue stream. The laws got passed in order to have another set of charges to press when prosecuting drug dealers, making confiscations more palatable. In many cases, they have been thrown out or neutered for 5th Amendment reasons, ie, one cannot be required to admit to illegal activity to comply with another law.
Only Eliot Spitzer has seriously proposed that the state of New York could help make up its budget deficit through tax stamps on nickel bags. If he thinks that creating a new tax regime and enforcement mechanism on illegal drugs will bring in more money than it costs, then Spitzer must really be smoking something tax free at the moment.

Who Said It?

Yesterday, a member of the Senate stood and addressed his colleagues in both the upper chamber and the House in defending telecom immunity and the FISA reform legislation. Can you guess who said this?

Now, let me say something more. What people have to understand around here is that the quality of the intelligence we are going to be receiving is going to be degraded. It is going to be degraded. It is already going to be degraded as telecommunications companies lose interest. Everybody tosses that around and says: Well, what do you mean? I say: Well, what are they making out of this? What is the big payoff for the telephone companies? They get paid a lot of money? No. They get paid nothing. What do they get for this? They get $40 billion worth of suits, grief, trashing, but they do it. But they don’t have to do it, because they do have shareholders to respond to, to answer to.

Was it Mitch McConnell? John McCain? Joe Lieberman? No — it was Senate Intelligence Committee chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), explaining why passing the legislation was critical to our efforts to defend the nation.
The context of the remarks were that the Republicans should have assented to another extension. Rockefeller claims that the House Democrats were “jammed” by this bill. However, it was the Democrats who set the original deadline last summer, the Democrats who demanded a two-week extension in January, and the Democrats who kept this issue from a resolution over that entire period of time.
Why don’t they just do their job and meet their own deadlines — especially with the issue being as critical as Rockefeller states here? Why was a weeklong vacation more important than staying in session an extra few hours to give the bipartisan reform bill passed by a 2-1 majority in the Senate a floor vote?

I Guess This Beats Working On National Security

While the bipartisan Senate FISA legislation languished on the desk of House Democratic leadership, Henry Waxman had his sights focused on more important issues than national security. He grilled Roger Clemens on whether he had ever had human growth hormone (HGH) injected into his buttocks. Now even Waxman says his hearings were a colossal waste of time, and blamed Clemens for it (via Michelle Malkin):

A day after a dramatic, nationally televised hearing that pitted Roger Clemens against his former personal trainer and Democrats against Republicans, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said Thursday that he regretted holding the hearing in the first place.
The chairman, Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, said the four-hour hearing unnecessarily embarrassed Clemens, who he thought did not tell the truth, as well as the trainer, Brian McNamee, who he thought was unfairly attacked by committee Republicans. …
“I’m sorry we had the hearing. I regret that we had the hearing. And the only reason we had the hearing was because Roger Clemens and his lawyers insisted on it.”

That’s news to Clemens and his attorney. Rusty Hardin had argued to have the entire matter dropped, wondering — rightly — why Congress needed to investigate Roger Clemens in the first place. They had asked Waxman to drop the matter weeks ago, but Waxman insisted on taking depositions in the case. Hardin explained that he wanted the hearings so that the House Oversight Committee couldn’t take the testimony out of context for their final report.
So, while FISA reform legislation that passed with a 2-1 bipartisan majority in the Senate couldn’t get addressed by Democratic leadership, Waxman instead investigated the ass of Roger Clemens. It puts “oversight” in a whole new context, doesn’t it?
At least Waxman has the grace to be embarrassed by the spectacle, albeit for the wrong reasons. Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, can’t be found to answer for the curious and prurient priorities of the Democrat-controlled House.

House Democrats Leave Security On The Table

Yesterday, I interviewed former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy about the fight over FISA reform on Heading Right Radio. McCarthy, who helped put Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and several others in prison for their role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, argued that the expiration of last year’s FISA reform will put the NSA in the unusual position of having to seek warrants for communications with both endpoints outside the US, not involving American persons at all. He explains this at Human Events today:

In 2007, a ruling of the court created by the ill-conceived 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) required the intelligence community to seek court permission before monitoring terrorists operating outside our country — that is, outside the jurisdiction of United States courts.

Actually, Andy and I disagreed on this; I’ll come back to it in a moment.

Let’s say al Qaeda operatives in Iraq captured a U.S. marine. In effect, our military and intelligence services, while desperately trying to rescue one of their own, would now have to seek court permission in order to eavesdrop on the foreign terrorists who carried out the capture — alien enemies who have no conceivable privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment. Such was the conclusion of an unidentified federal judge, in a ruling that radically altered three decades of FISA theory and practice, a ruling the American people have not been permitted to read. (Just imagine the hue and cry if George W. Bush had secretly reversed the foundations of surveillance law. Here, where the sea-change benefits al Qaeda rather than the American people, the silence is deafening.)
Democrats, of course, have fought every sensible national-security improvement since 9/11. Yet, so preposterous was the notion that the NSA should need a warrant from a judge in Washington in order to listen as, say, a terrorist in Pakistan gives directions to a terrorist in Afghanistan that even Democrats relented — or at least enough of them to enact last August’s “Protect Act.” This stopgap measure (the Left would not agree to more than six months of common sense) enabled our spies to continue spying outside the U.S. without court interference, just as FISA intended.

The FISA court ruling relied on the actual language of the 1978 FISA law. Congress defined domestic communications as those passing through American telecommunications switches — which, at the time, was true. Phone calls passing through American equipment meant that at least one endpoint of the call was in the US and almost certainly involved a “US person” by FISA’s definition. That hasn’t been true for at least a decade, though, as globalization has allowed American telecoms to expand to the point where they carry almost all global communications through their switches.
Still, Congress never updated FISA to reflect this reality. The FISA judge, in what should be considered an act of judicial modesty (Andy McCarthy disagrees on this point), followed the law and pointed back to Congress to get it fixed. Congress did so last year in its FISA reform legislation, after several months of the NSA being in the position to require warrants for strictly foreign communications. However, they stuck a six-month sunset clause on it and promised to deliver a long-term fix before the patch expired.
Now, with the Senate passing just such a bill by a 2-1 bipartisan majority, the House’s Democratic leadership plans to allow the patch to expire out of spite. They won’t take up the bill passed by both Democrats and Republicans in the upper chamber until after they take their Presidents Day holiday. Meanwhile, according to the ruling from last year, the NSA will once again be required to get warrants to intercept foreign-to-foreign communications, something FISA never intended to do.
The 4th Amendment does not apply to foreign enemies of the nation. FISA intended to protect Americans from unwarranted government surveillance. In fact, it intended to preserve the ability of the intelligence community to conduct surveillance without undue hindrance on foreign communications in order to protect the nation. The House has a bill on the table that would restore FISA’s original intent and give the intel community the power they need to watch for signs of attacks from foreign sources.
The House should ensure that the bill gets addressed before they take their break from reality. I can assure them that our enemies will not be on vacation for the next week.
UPDATE: I’ll address two Democratic talking points that have come up in the comments. First, there’s no reason to strip telecom immunity from the Senate bill, since it passed on a 2-1 bipartisan majority. It would pass in the House if Pelosi brought it to the floor, too. Why should a bipartisan solution have to be jettisoned, especially if it would win a floor vote in the House?
Some commenters here blame Bush for not agreeing to an extension, but that’s also hogwash. The expiration date for the FISA reform was imposed by Democrats last summer. They have had six months, plus a two-week extension signed by Bush in January, to resolve this. The House has had the Senate bill since Tuesday. The issue isn’t time — it’s Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to consider the bipartisan Senate bill sitting on her desk, and an extension doesn’t resolve that issue.
If the Democrats can’t meet even their own deadlines, then their incompetence runs much deeper than anyone ever imagined.

House GOP Walk Out Over FISA

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor blogged about the walkout here:

Our intelligence agencies need the tools necessary to listen in on terrorists who threaten and plot to do harm to our country. The Senate worked together in a bipartisan fashion earlier this week to accomplish this goal, but the House Democrat Leadership refuses to do the same. It Al-Qaeda is talking, we should be able to listen. Today, House Republicans stood up and demanded that Washington work for the people again.

I’ll be talking with Andrew McCarthy about the FISA issue on today’s Heading Right Radio. Be sure to catch it live.

The Terrorist Group Renaming Program

The House will allow the current FISA legislation to lapse rather than address the differences between the their version of the extension and the one passed by the Senate on Tuesday. Democrats wanted yet another three-week extension to kick the can down the road again, and petulantly dropped consideration when both opponents and advocates of the Senate plan refused to agree. Now they’re saying the lapse in the FISA legislation will have no effect — as long as no new terrorist groups arise (via Memeorandum):

Democrats insisted that a lapse would have no real effect.
The expiration of the powers “doesn’t mean we are somehow vulnerable again,” said Representative Silvestre Reyes, Democrat of Texas and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
The lapsing of the deadline would have little practical effect on intelligence gathering. Intelligence officials would be able to intercept communications from Qaeda members or other identified terrorist groups for a year after the initial eavesdropping authorization for that particular group.
If a new terrorist group is identified after Saturday, intelligence officials would not be able to use the broadened eavesdropping authority. They would be able to seek a warrant under the more restrictive standards in place for three decades through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

It would have a greater effect than that. They would have to revert to the old language about American switches, which means that foreign-to-foreign intercepts attained through telecom equipment in the US would have to have warrants as well. That decision by the FISA court precipitated the original FISA reform language, in which the Democrats put the sunset rule that has now been extended numerous times while Congress gets its act together.
As for the notion that somehow nothing will change because we can still track all of the existing groups in the same way we have (which is not true anyway), all that does is encourage terrorists to form new groups to exploit a very, very stupid loophole. What if al-Qaeda just splinters into completely new groups? Why not reorganize so that none of the existing groups technically exist after Saturday, forcing the NSA to waste time on new findings for each of the new groups?
Congress has played around with this long enough. The Democrats saw fit to limit the last legislation; they now have a Senate bill with plenty of time for perusal, analysis, and debate. We’ve been debating this for months, and now it’s time to take the vote and get it done. If the Democrats would rather play games than protect the United States from terrorists, then they can pay the price for that in November, while the rest of us hope we don’t pay a much higher price for it before then.
UPDATE: Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy:

This is a game of roulette with our national security, spearheaded by the Democratic leadership in the House, which is following the lead of the party’s two presidential contenders, Sens. Obama and Clinton. Both of them voted against the emergency authorization last summer, and Obama voted against the Senate bill on Tuesday (Clinton did not bother to vote). Make no mistake. The MoveOn.org crowd is calling the shots on that side of the aisle.
President Bush has to keep pounding this, as does Sen. McCain. This is not politics, folks. For grown-ups, this is life and death.

Michelle Malkin reminds us to use our voices by calling Senators at 202-224-3121. It might be better to call Representatives at the same number.

Identity Politics Fun Continues For The Democrats

So far, we have seen a number of flash points in the Democratic primaries for the presidential nomination over ethnic and gender politics. Now we have racial and anti-Semitic politics in a Congressional primary — and once again, it involves Democrats. Steve Cohen wants to run for re-election in Tennessee’s 9th District, but supporters of his opponent think he’s too pale — and too much of a Joooooooo:

If you thought race was an uncomfortable issue in the Democratic presidential primary, wait ’til you get a load of what’s going on in the Democratic primary in the Memphis area’s 9th District of Tennessee, where a shockingly worded flier paints Jewish Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) as a Jesus hater.
“Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and the JEWS HATE Jesus,” blares the flier, which Cohen himself received in the mail — inducing gasps — last week.
Circulated by an African-American minister from Murfreesboro Tenn., which isn’t even in Cohen’s district, the literature encourages other black leaders in Memphis to “see to it that one and ONLY one black Christian faces this opponent of Christ and Christianity in the 2008 election.”
Cohen’s main opponent in the August 5 Democratic primary in his predominantly African-American district is Nikki Tinker, who is black. The Commercial Appeal wrote an editorial in Wednesday’s paper condemning Tinker for not speaking out against the anti-Semitic literature.

Plenty of Democrats made cracks about Mike Huckabee and his supposed predilection for theocracy over the past few months. Where are those same critics now? Will they stand up and condemn the insistence that a black Christian represent TN-09, and will they call out Tinker for her tacit support for such tactics?
Once again, the Democrats find themselves in the position of playing racial, ethnic, and now anti-Semitic politics. We have seen it at the grassroots level now, and at the highest levels of the party, especially from the Clinton campaign. Small wonder that a relatively low-level officeseeker feels comfortable in using these tactics in 2008, given the example Bill Clinton has provided already this year.
We’ve listened to insults from Democrats for years for far less than this.

Senate Approves Telecom Immunity

The Senate handily defeated an attempt to strip immunity for telecommunications providers from their version of FISA reform this morning, and approved the overall legislation. The amendment to strip telecom immunity only garnered 31 votes, far short of even a simple majority. The bill now goes to the House, which has resisted the immunity provisions:

The Senate voted Tuesday to shield from lawsuits telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on their customers without court permission after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
After nearly two months of stops and starts, the Senate rejected by a vote of 31 to 67 an amendment that would have stripped a grant of retroactive immunity to the companies. President Bush has promised to veto any new surveillance bill that does not protect the companies that helped the government in its warrantless wiretapping program. …
In a separate voice vote Tuesday, the Senate expanded the power of the court to oversee government eavesdropping of Americans. The amendment would give the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court the authority to monitor whether the government is complying with procedures designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans whose telephone or computer communications are captured during surveillance of a foreign target.

This seems like a good and productive compromise. The Democrats had a legitimate point about handing a blank check to the NSA and other intel agencies in regards to warrantless surveillance. We need to give the maximum amount of flexibility and responsiveness to our front-line efforts, but we also need to ensure that they follow the rules and do not abuse their power. Congress should provide for as much oversight as possible without interfering with gathering of intelligence from terrorists.
Telecom immunity should have never taken this long to approve. The immunity covers companies who received assurances from the Department of Justice that their cooperation broke no laws, and they cooperated to help defend the US from attack. Their reward for trust and assistance should not be billion-dollar class-action lawsuits, which would have been nothing more than a back-door attempt to kneecap intelligence operations that kept this nation safe for more than six years after 9/11.
The House has to put this bill into motion now, and the clock is ticking. The Democrats set up these sunset provisions as a means to pressure the White House, and once again they have had the opposite effect. Faced against bipartisan agreement in the Senate on immunity, expect the House to quietly acquiesce.

Tom Lantos, RIP

Rep Tom Lantos (D-CA) has died this morning, apparently from esophageal cancer. The 80-year-old Democrat came to the United States as a refugee of the Holocaust, becoming the only such person elected to Congress:

Rep. Tom Lantos of California, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, has died, his spokeswoman said Monday. …
Lantos, who referred to himself as “an American by choice,” was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary, and was 16 when Adolf Hitler occupied Hungary in 1944. He survived by escaping twice from a forced labor camp and coming under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who used his official status and visa-issuing powers to save thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Lantos’ mother and much of his family perished in the Holocaust.
That background gave Lantos a moral authority unique in Congress and he used it repeatedly to speak out on foreign policy issues, sometimes courting controversy. He was a strong supporter of Israel and a lead advocate for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war, though he would come to be a strong critic of the Bush administration’s strategy there. In 2006 Lantos was one of five members of Congress arrested in a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy over the genocide in Darfur.

Lantos chaired the House Foreign Relations Committee. While I have found plenty about Lantos’ efforts to criticize, he has provided the Democrats with one of their saner voices on national defense and foreign policy. Whatever opinions the man brought to Congress, no one could accuse him of generating them in a reality vacuum.
A few of my Lantos links:
* Approving of his efforts to withhold aid to Lebanon until they addressed the problem of Hezbollah
* Approving of his approach to UN reform, as an interim step
* Disapproving of his opposition to earmark transparency
Lantos served his nation well, and he will be missed on both sides of the aisle.
UPDATE: Michelle Malkin recalls his scolding of Europe over Guantanamo Bay.

It Keeps Growing, And Growing, And Growing, And ….

The White House has submitted its budget request for 2009, and it gives everyone a mixed bag. It increases military spending and attempts to cut some programs and reduce others. However, its total spending puts the US above $3 trillion for the first time:

President Bush submitted a federal budget of $3.1 trillion on Monday, declaring that the spending plan would keep the United States safe and prosperous and, despite its record size, would adhere to his principle of letting Americans keep as much of their own money as possible.
“Thanks to the hard work of the American people and spending discipline in Washington, we are now on a path to balance the budget by 2012,” the president said in an introductory message. “Our formula for achieving a balanced budget is simple: Create the conditions for economic growth, keep taxes low and spend taxpayer dollars wisely or not at all.”
The spending package for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 included no big surprises, especially since its key elements had already been reported in detail in recent days. The Pentagon’s proposed budget, for instance, is $515.4 billion, an increase of 7.5 percent over this year, meaning that military spending would be the highest in inflation-adjusted terms since World War II. And the White House’s plans for trimming Medicare and Medicaid have also been previewed. ….
Mr. Bush said he would cut or terminate 151 programs, saving $18 billion in 2009. One agency, the Education Department, accounts for 47 of the terminated programs and three of the programs to be cut. But he would increase spending in areas that fall under the umbrella of “national security.”

Clearly, we will not see a reduction in the reach of the federal government under this president, but at least we see some glimmers of hope. The entitlement reforms attempt to prod Congress into taking the coming crises in Medicare and Social Security more seriously. Eliminating 151 programs reminds one of the joke about lawyers at the bottom of the ocean — it’s a good start, but one suspects it to be a drop in the bucket. Certainly $18 billion is a drop in the bucket, a grand total of 0.6% of all federal spending in the fiscal year.
The overall direction of government spending still has not changed, though. We shouldn’t have been passing $3 trillion; we should be moving back towards $2 trillion, where we were in FY2002. In that year, we spent $732 billion in non-defense discretionary programs. Three years later it rose to almost a trillion dollars, and now we’re well over that mark.
In six years, the budget has grown 33%. Do you feel better served by that increase?