Here’s What Congress Was Doing While You Were Watching the Kavanaugh Circus The passage of tax reform 2.0 blows a huge hole in the budget, and a much-touted opioid bill might just make the crisis worse.

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While much attention was diverted by the political circus surrounding Judge Brett Kavanaugh on Thursday and Friday, Congress passed a massive spending bill and another round of tax cuts that will combine to blow an even bigger hole in the federal budget. Lawmakers also found time to pass a bill restricting Americans’ access to prescription painkillers, something that’s likely to force people who are dependent on or addicted to opioids (a distinction seemingly lost on legislators) to seek out more dangerous alternatives.

Let’s start with the spending: Friday’s passage of the House Republican’s so-called Tax Reform 2.0 proposal will likely get heavy rotation in campaign ads over the next five weeks, even though the bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate. The bill does several things, but the key part of the proposal is the permanent extension of the individual and corporate income tax rate cuts enacted last year. Those lower rates are set to expire after 2025—reverting to their previous levels—but Republicans have been aiming for a permanent extension since before the final votes were cast on last year’s tax bill.

If Republicans still cared about deficits, Tax Reform 2.0 would be a non-starter. Having last year’s tax cuts expire in the middle of the next decade was a maneuver (or a gimmick, if you prefer) designed to limit the impact of tax reform on future deficits and the national debt.

Unsurprisingly, then, extending those tax cuts will add to the deficit. According to an analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan number-crunching agency within Congress, the bill will add $631 billion to the deficit over a decade. While the JCT says an extension of the tax cuts will cause the economy to grow by about 0.5 percent in the years immediately after 2025, additional revenue from that growth will cancel out a mere $86 billion of the tax cut’s impact on the deficit. Other analyses of the bill by the left-leaning Tax Policy Center and the right-leaning Tax Foundation make similar estimates about the long-term effect on revenue.

The bottom line? Even when accounting for increased economic growth, Tax Reform 2.0 comes with a price tag of more than $500 billion added to the deficit—an amount future taxpayers will have to cover.

The bill is not without its charms. A proposal to created so-called universal savings accounts would allow Americans to create tax-advantaged savings accounts where they could stash up to $5,000 annually without having to deal with all the restrictions and limitations that come with similarly structured 401(k) and IRA plans now. Encouraging savings—especially savings that are partially sheltered from the tax man—would be a positive step that helps families plan for the future.

But if you needed further evidence that Congress doesn’t give a damn about planning for the country’s future, look no further than the passage this week, in both houses, of a $853 billion spending bill. About $600 million of the spending is directed towards the Pentagon—boosting the military budget to levels not seen since the height of the Iraq War.

The bill is now on its way to President Donald Trump’s desk. He must sign it before October 1 to avoid a government shutdown, which might be complicated by the lack of funding for his border wall.

The spending bill has raised the ire of the few fiscally conservative Republicans who sit in Congress. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) encouraged Trump not to sign the bill and blasted his fellow lawmakers for being “far worse than the politicians they once derided.”

Justin Amash

This gigantic, wasteful, pathetic spending bill passed the House and Senate. @POTUS @realDonaldTrump said, “I will never sign another bill like this again,” about the last bill like this, the omnibus. He’ll now be put to the test.

$850 BILLION of spending in one year in one bill—and Republican leaders have been bragging to everyone about this massive spending increase. Vote is TODAY. The same Republicans who used to blast GWB’s spendthrift GOP have become far worse than the politicians they once derided.

While the Kavanaugh hearings devolved into partisan acrimony, Congress was also serving up reminders of what happens when nearly everyone agrees. The Tax Reform 2.0 vote went mostly party line, but spending an obscene amount of money was, once again, a bipartisan affair in both the House and Senate.

So, too, was the passage of the Support for Patients and Communities Act, a much-touted bipartisan effort to address the opioid crisis in the most congressional of ways: by throwing money and more prohibition at the problem.

The final version of the bill, which passed the House 393-8 on Friday and now heads to the Senate, will spend about $8 billion on state-run opioid treatment centers and research into non-opioid pain killers. It also beefed up border security in the name of stopping the importation of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other lab-made drugs.

But the bill may unintentionally increase demand for fentanyl and other drugs used by opioid addicts who can’t get a legal fix. Several provisions in the proposal would restrict access to prescription painkillers; other aspects of the legislation would increase penalties for drug manufacturers and doctors deemed to have over-sold and over-prescribed opioids.

As J.J. Rich, a policy analyst for the Reason Foundation (which publishes this blog) notes in the November issue of Reason, previous crackdowns on prescription drugs have actually made the opioid crisis worse.

“It’s clear that the black market has claimed the economy ceded by restrictions on the legal market,” Rich notes, citing Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that pain reliever abuse rates have been flat since 2002. “When government restricts access to something people want, it drives demand to the black market. In this case, as opioids have become increasingly difficult to obtain legally in the last decade, users have switched to “diverted” prescription medications and illicit alternatives, including heroin. And just as Prohibition pushed bootleggers to switch from beer to potent bathtub gin, traffickers are increasingly adulterating their narcotics with potent synthetic opioids such as sufentanil—a substance that can be up to 500 times stronger than morphine.”

By Eric Boehm/Reason

Posted by The NON-Conformist

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Stuart Varney Hits GOP Over Inflated Budget: ‘What on Earth’ Are They Thinking?

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Fox Business Network host Stuart Varney took a shot at Republicans Monday morning, for their abandonment of “financial restraints” — asking “what on earth” is going on with the party.

While the GOP often pushes the idea that they are the side of financial conservatism and limited government spending, their latest budget proposal gives off an entirely different message. Rather than focusing on that message of frugality, President Donald Trump and Republicans are spending trillions more dollars with no hope of cutting the national deficit over the next decade.

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Children’s Health Insurance Program is set to go bust

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If you’re waiting and wondering what the future holds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the answer most likely depends on where you live.

CHIP is a popular, bipartisan program that provides a safety net for nearly 9 million kids in low- and mid-income families. It’s the latest pawn in the Congressional wrangling over health care. Both the Senate and House are debating bills to reauthorize CHIP funding, and both are considering these bills after the Sept. 30 deadline for reauthorization has passed.

“CHIP has always had bipartisan support since it started 20 years ago,” said Jesse Cross-Call, senior policy analyst at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). “So it has really been a surprise that it’s taking this long to get it funded. Congress has never blown past the deadline before, so we’re in uncharted territory.”

Missing the deadline means an estimated 11 states will run out of federal CHIP money by the end of this year, and 32 states are expected to run out of money by March 2018, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Mattis rips Pentagon officials for $28M wasted on Afghanistan camouflage

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Defense Secretary James Mattis ripped Pentagon officials for their “cavalier” spending following a recent report that the Defense Department spent $28 million on camouflage uniforms for Afghan soldiers that don’t match up with the country’s terrain.

In a July 21 memo released to reporters on Monday, Mattis addressed a June Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report. The document found that DOD began buying the forest-patterned uniforms in 2007, after a former Afghan defense minister saw them online and liked them.

The uniforms were purchased without testing to be used in a country that’s just 2 percent woodland.

“Buying uniforms for our Afghan partners, and doing so in a way that may have wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars over a 10-year period, must not be seen as inconsequential in the grand scheme of the Department’s responsibilities and budget,” Mattis wrote in the memo that was addressed to the undersecretaries for policy, comptroller and acquisition, technology and logistics.

“Cavalier or casually acquiescent decisions to spend taxpayer dollars in an ineffective and wasteful manner are not to recur,” Mattis continued in the memo.

More from The Hill

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The Trillion-Dollar ‘National Security’ Budget

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You wouldn’t know it, based on the endless cries for more money coming from the military, politicians, and the president, but these are the best of times for the Pentagon.  Spending on the Department of Defense alone is already well in excess of half a trillion dollars a year and counting.  Adjusted for inflation, that means it’s higher than at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s massive buildup of the 1980s and is now nearing the post-World War II funding peak.  And yet that’s barely half the story.  There are hundreds of billions of dollars in “defense” spending that aren’t even counted in the Pentagon budget.

Under the circumstances, laying all this out in grisly detail—and believe me, when you dive into the figures, they couldn’t be grislier—is the only way to offer a better sense of the true costs of our wars past, present, and future, and of the funding that is the lifeblood of the national security state.  When you do that, you end up with no less than 10 categories of national security spending (only one of which is the Pentagon budget).  So steel yourself for a tour of our nation’s trillion-dollar-plus “national security” budget. Given the Pentagon’s penchant for wasting money and our government’s record of engaging in dangerously misguided wars without end, it’s clear that a large portion of this massive investment of taxpayer dollars isn’t making anyone any safer.

1) The Pentagon Budget: The Pentagon’s “base” or regular budget contains the costs of the peacetime training, arming, and operation of the U.S. military and of the massive civilian workforce that supports it—and if waste is your Eden, then you’re in paradise.

The department’s budget is awash in waste, as you might expect from the only major federal agency that has never passed an audit.  For example, last year a report by the Defense Business Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, found that the Department of Defense could save $125 billion over five years just by trimming excess bureaucracy.  And a new study by the Pentagon’s Inspector General indicates that the department has ignored hundreds of recommendations that could have saved it more than $33.6 billion.

The Pentagon can’t even get an accurate count of the number of private contractors it employs, but the figure is certainly in the range of 600,000 or higher, and many of them carry out tasks that might far better be handled by government employees.  Cutting that enormous contractor work force by just 15%, only a start when it comes to eliminating the unnecessary duplication involved in hiring government employees and private contractors to do the same work, would save an easy $20 billion annually.

And the items mentioned so far are only the most obvious examples of misguided expenditures at the Department of Defense.  Even larger savings could be realized by scaling back the Pentagon’s global ambitions, which have caused nothing but trouble in the last decade and a half as the U.S. military has waged devastating and counterproductive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  An analysis by Ben Friedman of the conservative Cato Institute estimates that the Pentagon could reduce its projected spending by one trillion dollars over the next decade if Washington reined in its interventionary instincts and focused only on America’s core interests.

Donald Trump, of course, ran for president as a businessman who would clean house and institute unprecedented efficiencies in government.  Instead, on entering the Oval Office, he’s done a superb job of ignoring chronic problems at the Pentagon, proposing instead to give that department a hefty raise: $575 billion next year.  And yet his expansive military funding plans look relatively mild compared to the desires of the gung-ho members of the armed services committees in the House and Senate.  Democrats and Republicans alike want to hike the Pentagon budget to at least $600 billion or more.  The legislative fight over a final number will play out over the rest of this year.  For now, let’s just use Trump’s number as a placeholder.

Pentagon Budget: $575 billion

2) The War Budget: The wars of this century, from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, have largely been paid for through a special account that lies outside the regular Pentagon budget.  This war budget—known in the antiseptic language of the Pentagon as the “Overseas Contingency Operations” account, or OCO—peaked at more than $180 billion at the height of the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq.

As troop numbers in that country and Afghanistan have plumetted from hundreds of thousands to about 15,000, the war budget, miraculously enough, hasn’t fallen at anywhere near the same pace.  That’s because it’s not even subject to the modest caps on the Pentagon’s regular budget imposed by Congress back in 2011, as part of a deal to keep the government open.

In reality, over the past five years, the war budget has become a slush fund that pays for tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon expenses that have nothing to do with fighting wars.  The Trump administration wants $64.6 billion for that boondoggle budget in fiscal year 2018.  Some in Congress would like to hike it another $10 billion.  For consistency, we’ll again use the Trump number as a baseline.

War Budget: $64.6 Billion

Running Total: $639.6 Billion

3) Nuclear Warheads (and more): You might think that the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal—nuclear warheads—would be paid for out of the Pentagon budget.   And you would, of course, be wrong.  The cost of researching, developing, maintaining, and “modernizing” the American arsenal of 6,800 nuclear warheads falls to an obscure agency located inside the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. It also works on naval nuclear reactors, pays for the environmental cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities, and funds the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, at a total annual cost of more than $20 billion per year.

Department of Energy (nuclear): $20 Billion

Running total: $659.6 billion

4) “Other Defense”: This catchall category encompasses a number of flows of defense-related funding that go to agencies other than the Pentagon.  It totals about $8 billion per year. In recent years, about two-thirds of this money has gone to pay for the homeland security activities of the FBI, accounting for more than half of that agency’s annual budget.

“Other Defense”: $8 Billion

Running Total: $677.6 billion

The four categories above make up what the White House budget office considers total spending on “national defense.”  But I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that their cumulative $677.6 billion represents far from the full story.  So let’s keep right on going.

5) Homeland Security: After the 9/11 attacks, Congress created a mega-agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  It absorbed 22 then-existing entities, all involved in internal security and border protection, creating the sprawling cabinet department that now has 240,000 employees.  For those of you keeping score at home, the agencies and other entities currently under the umbrella of DHS include the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, the Transportation Security Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), and the Office of Intelligence Analysis (the only one of America’s 17 intelligence agencies to fit under the department’s rubric).

How many of these agencies actually make us safer?  That would be a debatable topic, if anyone were actually interested in such a debate.  ICE—America’s deportation force—has, for instance, done far more to cause suffering than to protect us from criminals or terrorists.  On the other hand, it’s reassuring to know that there is an office charged with determining whether there is a nuclear weapon or radioactive “dirty bomb” in our midst.

While it’s hard to outdo the Pentagon, DHS has its own record of dubious expenditures on items large and small.  They range from $1,000 fees for employees to attend conferences at spas to the purchase of bagpipes for border protection personnel to the payment of scores of remarkably fat salaries to agency bureaucrats.  On the occasion of its 10th anniversary in 2013, Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) excoriated the department as “rife with waste,” among other things, pointing to a report by the DHS inspector general that it had misspent over $1 billion.

DHS was supposed to provide a better focus for efforts to protect the United States from internal threats.  Its biggest problem, though, may be that it has become a magnet for increased funding for haphazard, misplaced, and often simply dangerous initiatives.  These would, for instance, include its program to supply grants to local law enforcement agencies to help them buy military-grade equipment to be deployed not against terrorists, but against citizens protesting the injustices perpetrated by the very same agencies being armed by DHS.

The Trump administration has proposed spending $50 billion on DHS in FY 2018.

Homeland Security: $50 Billion

Running Total: $717.6 Billion

6) Military Aid: U.S. government-run military aid programs have proliferated rapidly in this century.  The United States now has scores of arms and training programs serving more than 140 countries.  They cost more than $18 billion per year, with about 40% of that total located in the State Department’s budget.  While the Pentagon’s share has already been accounted for, the $7 billion at State—which can ill afford to pay for such programs with the Trump administration seeking to gut the rest of its budget—has not.

Military Aid at the State Department: $7 Billion

Running Total: $724.6 Billion

7) Intelligence: The United States government has 16 separate intelligence agencies: the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); the National Security Agency (NSA); the Defense Intelligence Agency; the FBI; the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research; the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence Analysis; the Drug Enforcement Administration Office of National Security Intelligence; the Treasury Department Office of Intelligence and Analysis; the Department of Energy Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; the National Reconnaissance Office; the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; Army Military Intelligence; the Office of Naval Intelligence; Marine Corps Intelligence; and Coast Guard Intelligence. Add to these the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which is supposed to coordinate this far-flung intelligence network, and you have a grand total of 17 agencies.

The U.S. will spend more than $70 billion on intelligence this year, spread across all these agencies.  The bulk of this funding is contained in the Pentagon budget—including the budgets of the CIA and the NSA (believed to be hidden under obscure line items there).  At most, a few billion dollars in additional expenditures on intelligence fall outside the Pentagon budget and since, given the secrecy involved, that figure can’t be determined, let’s not add anything further to our running tally.

Intelligence: $70 Billion (mostly contained inside the Pentagon budget)

Running Total: $724.6 Billion

8) Supporting Veterans: A steady uptick of veterans generated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has dramatically increased the costs of supporting such vets once they come home, including the war wounded, some of whom will need medical care for life.  For 2018, the Veterans Administration has requested over $186 billion for its budget, more than three times what it was before the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan.

Veterans: $186 billion

Running Total: $910.6 Billion

9) Military Retirement: The trust fund set up to cover pensions for military retirees and their survivors doesn’t have enough money to pay out all the benefits promised to these individuals.  As a result, it is supplemented annually by an appropriation from the general revenues of the government.  That supplement has by now reached roughly $80 billion per year.

Military Retirement: $80 Billion

Running Total: $990.6 Billion 

10) Defense Share of Interest on the Debt: It’s no secret that the U.S. government regularly runs at a deficit and that the total national debt is growing. It may be more surprising to learn that the interest on that debt runs at roughly $500 billion per year.  The Project on Government Oversight calculates the share of the interest on that debt generated by defense-related programs at more than $100 billion annually.

Defense Share of the Interest on the Debt: $100 billion

Grand Total: $1.09 Trillion

That final annual tally of nearly $1.1 trillion to pay for past wars, fund current wars, and prepare for possible future conflicts is roughly double the already staggering $575 billion the Trump administration has proposed as the Pentagon’s regular budget for 2018.  Most taxpayers have no idea that more than a trillion dollars a year is going to what’s still called “defense,” but these days might equally be called national insecurity.

So the next time you hear the president, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or a hawkish lawmaker claim that the U.S. military is practically collapsing from a lack of funding, don’t believe it for a second.  Donald Trump may finally have put plutocracy in the Oval Office, but a militarized version of it has long been ensconced in the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state.  In government terms, make no mistake about it, the Pentagon & Co. are the 1%.

 

By William D. Hartung / TomDispatch

Posted by The NON-Conformist

 

NC’s Final budget delivers hits to legal services, emergency judges, Department of Justice

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It’s only been a little over 24 hours since the North Carolina General Assembly introduced its final budget and its already well on its way to a House vote after passing the Senate on Tuesday.

There is plenty to read in the 438-page document and plenty to get confused about. Below are a few highlights from the Justice and Public Safety budget:

Raise the Age

Lawmakers have finally agreed to raise the juvenile age of prosecution from 16 and 17 years old to 18 years old. The final budget allocates $519,600 the first fiscal year toward “Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act Planning” and $478,000 the second fiscal year.

The budget policy decision mandates that 16- and 17-year-olds who are accused of committing misdemeanors and two classes of felonies no longer be automatically prosecuted in the adult criminal system.

The policy decision also increases the information available on juveniles to law enforcement and establishes a juvenile jurisdiction advisory committee to help with implementation. You can read more about the decision beginning on page 309 of the budget.

The proposed budget would cut $1.7 million in legal services programs across the state, affecting those most in need and almost assuredly creating unequal access to justice.

The Access to Civil Justice Act funds all traditional legal services programs, including Legal Aid Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC), Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services.

As written in the final budget, the provision means that $1.50 of every court fee imposed in District and Superior Courts would no longer be distributed to the North Carolina State Bar for legal services. It could also mean reducing LANC staff across the state by 50 to 60 or more positions.

More from NC Policy Watch

Posted by Libergirl

US Eyes $1.1 Trillion National Security Budget for 2018

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Even With State Dept Cuts, Overseas Spending Continues to Rise

The most recent figures related to President Trump’s proposed increases in Pentagon spending, along with cuts at the State Department, show the general national security budget of the United States rising once again, with the 2018 proposal in the ballpark of $1.1 trillion.

Needless to say, that’s the biggest military budget on the planet by a far measure. As the figures are broken down into their component parts, however, it becomes particularly shocking just how money is disappearing not just into the general war-fighting budget, but into related costs of having such a massive military for so long.

For interest, Veterans Affairs is expected to eat up $183.5 billion, which by itself comes very close to being the second largest military budget on the planet, just behind China’s $200 billion overall cost for its vast military. Figuring in other retirement costs, the cost of retirees is even bigger.

This $1.1 trillion also includes over $112 billion that just represents the interest on the military’s share of America’s massive national debt. This interest alone would be more than the cost of NATO’s next two largest member nations’ militaries, Britain and France.

Even cuts in international affairs don’t really put a debt into how much the cost of everything else is rising, and with plans for a massive modernization scheme related to America’s massive nuclear weapons arsenal, the $21.8 billion nuclear weapons expenses for 2018 could easily explode manyfold, with the expectation that they’ll dump well over $1 trillion just in the modernization scheme over the years to come.

The costs of retirees and debt are likewise things that could rapidly grow out of control, as increases in the amount being spent on fighting in the present inevitably leads to even more retirees and an even vaster debt to service.

By Jason Ditz/AntiWar

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