Editorial April 15, 2016

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

HR 2666 – Protecting Who Against Rate Increases?

Cutting federal regulations is the mantra of those on the Hill who believe that many regulations stifle business growth. Many bills aim specifically at rolling back or prohibiting rules affecting the environment are seen as regulatory burdens to businesses struggling to survive in a difficult economic environment.

If you visualized the problem as seen by the de-regulators in Congress you would see small and large businesses struggling to grow but are held back from growing because of unnecessary regulations imposed by overbearing previous Congresses that levied those profit-killing regulations upon them.

With HR 2666, prohibiting the FCC from regulating the price providers charge for a broadband internet connection, the de-regulation efforts have entered a new phase that should raise concern because it is not about curtailing a regulation in place but rather prohibiting a regulation in the first place. The problem with that is that FCC regulations are developed for consumer protection; a primary responsibility of the Commission. A regulation protecting consumers from being over-priced on a commodity that has become essential for health and safety would seem to be in order considering another mantra Congress frequently refers to; that Americans are struggling in a shaky economy (due to the Administration.) But that should translate to lawmakers as a need for consumers to spend less.

The outcome of this effort to stop a regulation before there even is a regulation will allow broadband providers the opportunity to raise rates for broadband access whenever and however they want such as for data usage on their personal computers as Comcast is now attempting. If you have a problem with that this bill takes away any help from the FCC.

It is in the code the FCC follows that consumer protection is a primary responsibility of the commission and it has shown an interest in protecting consumers with recent decisions to block various money-making efforts by internet providers but the agency does not now recognize its authority to regulate rates. The clear statement supporters are saying about this bill is that the ability to make even more money than telecoms are already making is essential to their desire for sustainable growth increases. The reality is that telecoms are doing just fine. It is the consuming public that is having problems.

That opportunity that to increase profits is more important to those lawmakers than the affordability of a service that is no longer just an entertainment option but a resource critical to safety and security and doing business with banks, utilities, and even State and Federal governments. Prices for broadband are already high and with the introduction to that market by AT&T and lesser company competition, nobody is charging less and they will never have to charge less due to this bill.

The committee report offers that HR 2666 does sustain the FCC truth-in-billing rules as “an important consumer protection” But, you know, big deal. Truth in billing is pretty much insignificant if you are removing protection from rate hikes which would be the main concern of most subscribers. Rates will go up no matter how well explained.

The committee report for the bill wants us to believe that  prohibiting rate increases by the FCC will stimulate competition and the market will dictate and provide wonderful cost savings to subscribers. That view is nonsense since competition in the broadband market is nearly non-existent. This bill does not increase competition. What competition there is in the broadband market doesn’t offer the pricing relief the bill says will protect consumers from being gouged. Established providers like Comcast and Time-Warner are challenged by companies that essentially offer the same service but of a lesser quality and of the same insulting overcharge for, for example, bundling services.

While Congress wants to allow telecoms to raise broadband rates without resistance from the FCC making Internet users subject to paying higher cost for the connection it also passed HR 1567 to spend $1 billion to improve access to food in foreign countries. That effort will cost the taxpayers $1 billion yearly. The $1 billion requested is not subject to pay-as-you-go rules so will add to the deficit.

The final contradiction HR 2666 presents us is seen in a Congress that has continuously complained about and tried to repeal the mandatory purchase of health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, Republicans and Democrats supporting the bill have no problem making unacceptably high internet connection rate increases mandatory. The contradiction is with President Lincoln’s conclusion of a government of, by, and for the People. HR 2666 is not ‘for the People’.

Hamilton on Congress

By Lee H. Hamilton

There’s Too Much Secrecy in Government

Hamilton

Hamilton

We have a secrecy problem. This may seem odd to say during an era in which the most intimate details of individuals’ lives are on display. Yet government is moving behind closed doors, and this is definitely the wrong direction.

In fact, I’m dismayed by how often public officials fight not to do the public’s business in public. And I’m not just talking about the federal government.

City and town councils regularly go into executive session to discuss “personnel issues” that might or might not truly need to be carried on outside public view. And let’s not even talk about what can go on behind closed doors when it comes to contracting.

At the state level, lawmakers exempt themselves from public records laws, underfund public watchdogs, and exempt lobbying expenditures from sunshine laws. “While every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions,” the Center for Public Integrity reported last year. “In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws.”

In case you’re wondering whether this has an impact on real people’s lives, it’s worth remembering that thousands of emails released in the wake of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis revealed “what appears to be an active effort by state employees to avoid disclosure of public records under [freedom of information laws],” according to Governing magazine.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of efforts to keep the public from learning all sorts of details about how the federal government conducts business.

Campaign contributors increasingly manage to avoid disclosure of their political activities. Government contractors are not subject to most of the transparency rules that affect federal agencies – even as more and more business is being done through contractors.

The 72 federal inspectors general who are appointed to ensure the efficiency and accountability of the agencies they oversee face constant efforts to limit their access to records. Routine information is classified and kept secret; members of Congress joke that what they’ve just read in a top-secret document was taken from the front page of the New York Times. Yet they themselves increasingly rely on omnibus spending bills – which are put together behind closed doors by a handful of leaders and congressional staff with no public scrutiny.

Most notably, of course, secrecy extends to national security issues. There are some government secrets that are necessary to protect, and a balance has to be struck between protecting national security and openness. But the presumption should be in favor of openness. Those who favor secrecy should make their case in public and not rely on the old adage, “Trust me.”

Take the question of the U.S. drone program. The overall program may be necessary, and technical means, operational details, intelligence methods are all rightfully classified. But that should not be an excuse for hiding information from the American people about what we’re doing with drones. Do we want our resources spent on targeted killing programs? Who determines who gets killed? What’s the evidence on which we base who gets killed? How many innocent people have been killed? The American people have a right to know what’s going on. But we’re being kept in the dark.

Openness is not a panacea, but it makes good government more likely. Representative democracy depends on our ability to know what’s being done in our name. We cannot exercise the discriminating judgment required of citizens about politics, policies and politicians if we do not know what they’re doing. Nor is it possible to maintain the checks and balances required under our Constitution without openness and transparency. We have to shine a bright light on the actions of public officials so that it’s more likely they’ll act with integrity. Justice Louis Brandeis gave perhaps the most famous formulation of this requirement in his 1913 statement, “[S]unlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”

But Judge Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals put an exclamation point on the idea in a 2002 ruling that the government could not carry out secret deportation hearings without proving the need for secrecy. “Democracies,” he wrote, “die behind closed doors.”

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.


 

Quotes on the Issues

Who’s Responsible for Legislative Dysfunction?

“Once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity, it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor.” David Brooks – New York Times

Where’s the Budget Process?

“House and Senate appropriators are set to barrel ahead with spending bills over the next few days, even as House Republican leaders seem unable to win passage of a budget resolution because of opposition from hard-line conservatives.” David M. Herszenhorn – New York Times

The Supreme Court Pick

“The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee sat down for breakfast with President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Tuesday as a courtesy meeting, to tell the judge there would be no confirmation hearing or vote.” – Lisa Mascaro – Los Angeles Times.


 

Foreign Affairs

Syria

The Syrian opposition will attend a new round of U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva even as a the regime of Bashar al-Assad wages a bloody offensive in the rebel city of Aleppo. John Hudson – Foreign Policy

Iraq / ISIS

‘Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Army soldiers are trying to claw their way northwest to the Islamic State’s stronghold of Mosul, roughly 50 miles away. Nasr is no more than a couple dozen houses perched on a hill…’ Cengiz Yar – Foreign Policy

Yemen

‘The United States and United Nations strongly welcomed a Yemen cessation of hostilities that went into effect early April 11, and urged all the warring parties to find a political resolution to the year-old conflict…’ Al Monitor – Laura Rozen.


 

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