TPA’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2018

David Williams

December 29, 2017

With binge eating, gift giving, and frenzied traveling out of the way, it’s finally time to make way for the New Year.  When it comes to embracing 2018, there’s bound to be no shortage of (ill-fated) resolutions, ranging from cutting down on snacks to taking up mountain climbing.  Now that taxpayers have received the gift of tax reform, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) is urging Congress to get in on the fun, and resolve to get their fiscal house in order. We’re aware that our previous resolutions for Congress didn’t go exactly to plan, but there’s always hope that lawmakers can be like these people and turn things around.  The first resolution should be obvious: get rid of the deficit and begin to pay down the debt. 

Defense

It’s appropriate to start with the Department of Defense (DoD) since it is alphabetically the first and also the largest agency.  As per usual, lawmakers had a difficult time thinking straight about defense spending this year. Congress at least pays lip service to cutting spending in other agencies, but DoD’s sacred cow status means that many members of Congress refuse to reign in even the most egregious waste.  In the fiscal year (FY) 2017 Defense Appropriations Act (still waiting for FY 2018 to be passed), TPA uncovered 406 earmarks totaling $14.5 billion (click here to see the full list) that were not requested by the Pentagon and inserted by members of Congress. This was an 11 percent increase in the number of projects and a one percent decrease in total dollars from FY 2016. 

Now, as the New Year approaches, Congress seems poised to pour even more money into failed “defense” programs prone to cost overruns. Rather than continuing to fund boondoggles like the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, lawmakers should curtail Pentagon spending in 2018 and move to a cost-effective multi-year procurement system. 

 

Energy

This year was already better than last, as tax reform legislation opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil exploration.  This monumental move will mean lower prices at the tank and help lessen the country’s dependence on unpredictable foreign oil cartels.  The President and Congress should look for more fracking and oil exploration opportunities to further  energy independence and turbocharge the economy.

 Unfortunately, funding initiatives propping up “renewable” projects continued unabated in 2017. Through the SunShot Initiative, the Department of Energy (DOE) continues to spend $270 million per year to “induce companies to lower production and installation costs associated with photovoltaic solar panel systems and reducing the price of solar power.” In practice, the initiative allows organizations to routinely promote rooftop solar with public monies. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), which received millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies over the past nine years, advocates for onerous net-metering subsidies at the state level and provides technical assistance on panel installations. This shameful status quo bilks taxpayers, while contributing to energy price hikes across the country. 

On a state level, governors and lawmakers continue to siphon ratepayer money to failing nuclear projects with expensive bailouts. Recipient companies like Exelon, which pulls in tens of billions in revenue, should be cut off from the spigot of ratepayer and taxpayer funds in 2018.  

Innovation

The government must embrace innovation in 2018. For example, the FDA should approve pending applications for smokeless heat tobacco products such as IQOS. These products contain a far lower dosage of harmful chemicals compared to cigarettes, and surveys suggest that cigarette users are willing to embrace the product on a wide-scale.  

Embracing innovation, however, needn’t involve governmental support. TPA has documented throughout the year how “innovation initiatives” ranging from Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy to NASA’s telescope endeavors failed to live up to expectations at a large price tag.  In 2018, Congress should promise to take a closer look at budget-busting projects hiding under the banner of “innovation.” 

International

As we head into 2018, United States (US) relations with the United Nations (UN) are growing increasingly strained. With a $10 billion annual taxpayer contribution to the UN, taxpayers deserve an accountable UN that works in the US’ interest.   

The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has been a hub for many misguided policies, both on the intellectual property front (Plain Packaging) and through increased taxation around the world. As TPA and Stop Child Predators pointed out in November, plain packaging policies are contributing to sex trafficking worldwide while failing to make a dent in tobacco consumption. Cigarette taxes have similar impacts, while shifting consumption toward more dangerous, tar-intensive products.  The plain packaging debacle in Australia should have be evidence enough that plain packaging is an abysmal policy failure.

The UN and WHO simply do not work in the interest of the American taxpayer. It is time for Congress to defund the UN and WHO.

Taxation

With the recent signing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act by President Trump, TPA stopped the tax reform clock on our website at 31 years, 2 months, 0 days, 20 hours and 7 minutes. Rates will be cut across the board, with sizeable individual, small business, and corporate savings. Deductions will be sharply curtailed, ensuring that distortionary write-offs are only available to those that need them the most. 

But let’s not crack open the champagne bottle just yet; far more work needs to be done over the coming year. In order for tax reductions to be made permanent, lawmakers need to ensure that spending is kept on a tight leash. In light of the continuing resolution battles, lawmakers can look to Sen. Lankford’s (R-Ok.) Federal Fumbles report for ideas on cutting out waste. Additionally, Congress needs to be vigilant in opposing taxes by another name. Talk of trade tariffs is growing in the Administration, and only Congress can ensure that these crippling taxes don’t impact American customers. 

 

Telecommunications/Technology

Email Privacy 

Early this year, the House passed the Email Privacy Act, in an attempt to safeguard citizens from outdated provisions in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. While the Reagan-era law was meant to safeguard emails from wonton searches, it was written at a time when “clouds” referred only to liquid droplets and not storage for information. The new legislation would upgrade America’s digital privacy laws by establishing protections against warrantless searches of private emails. Requiring warrants would considerably beef up the lax legal standards currently in place to prevent bureaucrats from seizing emails on a hunch. 

In 2018, it’s up to the Senate and the President to ensure that citizens across the country can go about their digital business without snooping from the federal government. 

FCC

In the aftermath of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) vote to rollback onerous Title II regulations on December 14, Congress needs to address Title II and ensure that a permanent legislative fix is put into place. Congressional action can ensure that Title II never gets applied to the internet again.

There is also much work to be done with spectrum to ensure an open internet. Internet service providers’ (ISPs) newfound freedom to offer better pricing plans to customers can’t be fully realized without robust competition across the country. Unfortunately, though, many rural areas face a shortage of ISPs, leaving providers with little incentive to come up with innovative data arrangements. 

But there’s a straightforward way to expand rural access, and ensure that ISPs face competition across the country.  First, 5G deployment must be encouraged by the FCC.  Also, by reserving three unlicensed “white space” channels nationwide for internet access, the FCC can allow millions of citizens with few internet choices to finally take advantage of another way to connect. Tweaking spectrum policy will prove a game-changer for millions, without forcing taxpayers to hand over billions of dollars for failed government deployment programs.

Government Broadband

TPA continued to fight hard in 2017 to expose the continuing failures of government broadband in states like Tennessee, Utah, and Kentucky. Our interactive map continued to point out projects across the country that flush billions down the drain without making a dent in the digital divide. A University of Pennsylvania study released earlier this year shows that the vast majority of municipal broadband projects fail to recoup costs, despite repeated promises from politicians. 

Next year will prove pivotal in stomping out these ill-advised projects, and TPA will continue to document failed ventures across the fifty states. States like Ohio and Colorado will prove to be key battlegrounds, and state lawmakers would be wise to shield taxpayer dollars from flowing to failed endeavors. 

Federal and state legislators need to explore solutions like White Spaces and 5G deployment to make rural broadband a reality without taxpayer funding.

Trade and Tariffs

With the demise of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Congress and the President need to resist the urge to implement protectionist policies.

Unfortunately, the United States International Trade Commission has been gung-ho on proposing steep tariffs to undermine “unfair competition” from abroad. Earlier this year, United States International Trade Commission (USITC) officials have proposed imposing a 50-percent tariff on large residential washing machines imports in response to complaints by Whirpool. Further, USITC proposed slapping steep tariffs on foreign solar panel and cell manufacturers. 

The President has until the end of January to evaluate these tariff proposals, and must reject these misguided recommendations from the Commission. And then, in response to a strong signal from the Administration, Congress should resolve to enter more trade agreements with tariff reductions and strong intellectual property protections.  

Transparency

TPA has always been a champion of making all levels of government more transparent.  The latest revelations about the taxpayer-funded harassment settlements shows that taxpayers have little insight into a nefarious system that discourages victims from coming forward. Despite $17 million in public funds doled out since 1997 to settle Congressional workplace disputes, there is no complete, reliable breakdown as to the type and severity of these cases. While anonymity for the individuals involved is important, citizens across the country should at least be made aware of the extent of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. On this timely issue, Congress should resolve to be far more  transparent in 2018. 

United States Postal Service (USPS)

The USPS, a protected government monopoly, can’t seem to get their finances in order. In addition to over $50 billion in losses over the past decade, a report released in May by the USPS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) examined the large retirement liabilities that lie at the heart of the USPS’s burgeoning debt. For FY 2015 (latest studied), combined retirement fund assets totaled $338.4 billion, only 84.3 percent of the $401.6 billion in unfunded liabilities. In the Postal Service Reform Act of 2017, reintroduced earlier this year, the Postal Service’s retirement debt would be shifted onto Medicare, a program with already-shaky finances. 

In 2018, mailing costs will increase and Congress and the USPS have no plan to save the beleaguered agency. Congress must continue to stand firm against efforts by the USPS to dump their debt on others, and hold the Service accountable for costly fleet acquisitions. 

The resolutions list may be large and weighty, but Congress can make the lives of millions of taxpayers and consumers easier by tackling just a few of these issues. TPA hopes that Congress will get the message, and continue the momentum in the aftermath of tax reform. Unified control of Congress makes for a unique opportunity to make good on these resolutions and lay the groundwork for more to come. From all of us at TPA, have a safe and happy New Year!