Friday News Roundup — March 15, 2019: Congress Tries to Reassert Itself; Aviation Safety & American Leadership; Admissions Scandals & Higher Ed Incentives; plus News You May Have Missed.
Good morning. Like many of you, we are still trying to come to terms with the tragic news from New Zealand that broke overnight with almost 50 dead in attacks on mosques carried out by suspected right-wing extremists. As details about the attackers and their ideology become clearer in the coming hours, it will be important to remember the lives lost and families shattered due to hate and bigotry. Just weeks ago, we covered the growing threat of right wing extremism, both here and around the world. We can extend our thoughts and prayers to victims of violence, but we must also resolve to make the words “never again” reality — not rhetoric.
In looking at this week’s events, Michael leads off with how Congress is trying to reassert its authorities, and how that is difficult considering how much prerogative they’ve ceded to the Executive; Dan looks beyond the technical debate surrounding the grounding of new 737 models to examine the ramifications for U.S. leadership — particularly in regulatory affairs; and Chris covers how the scandal regarding college admissions fraud might be a wake up call that leads to a contrarian solution for fixing higher ed. As always, we wrap with some stories you may have missed.
Taking the Power Back Is More Difficult than Granting Power in the First Place
In the next few days, for the first time in his presidency, Donald Trump will veto two acts of Congress, both of which represent bipartisan rebukes of Trump administration policies. On Thursday, the Senate passed the House’s resolution (H.J.Res.46) to terminate the national emergency at the southern border that the president declared on February 15. All 47 Democratic Senators (including both independents who caucus with the Democrats) and 12 Republicans voted for the measure after a last minute effort to find a compromise between Congress and the White House fell apart. The day before, the Senate voted 54–46 to order the president to end the employment of U.S. forces in the conflict in Yemen except for strikes against al Qaeda and associated forces. In both of these cases, Congress is trying to wrest back powers that have been given to the president in previous legislation, which demonstrates one of the great dangers of the trend of ever-greater executive power: once granted, the Constitution makes revoking power legally given to the president very difficult.
One of the most persistent elements of American policy-making since the end of the Second World War has been the migration of authority from Congress to the Executive Branch. Article I of the Constitution says that Congress “shall have the power … to declare war,” but has not done so since 1942 despite five major international conflicts since then and many more smaller incidents. In particular, after 9/11, Congress passed two very broad authorizations of the use of military force that successive presidents have used to conduct operations against groups that were not envisioned by the authors of those bills and did not even exist at the time of its passage. Similarly, the authority to “regulate commerce with foreign nations” rests with Congress, but Congress has delegated certain tariff-related authorities to the president, especially those directly related to national security.
Every time Congress chooses to give the president more power, there are good reasons behind it. The Executive Branch has legions of employees in the agencies who can focus on a particular issue as their full-time jobs, developing decades worth of expertise in the nuances. Members of Congress do not have the bandwidth to do that on a single issue, let alone every issue that they or their constituents care about. The Executive Branch can also speak with a single voice — the president’s — which allows it to make decisions far more quickly than a deliberative body like Congress. It makes good sense that the president should have the ability to take aggressive action to respond to a breakdown of public order or a major disease outbreak, but it exposes Congress to what economists call a principal-agent problem: the president and the executive agencies that collectively implement these authorities do not necessarily do so in the fashion that Congress would choose.
This is the problem that Congress now faces: they would like to undo some of those grants of authority since they feel that the president is misusing them. A Supreme Court case from 1983, however, makes this more difficult. That case, INS v. Chadha, found that using a concurrent resolution, which could not be vetoed, to revoke a delegated authority represented a “legislative veto” and violated the separation of powers. As a result, any attempt to claw back power from the president requires either the president’s assent or enough support in Congress to overturn a veto. That is unlikely to happen in these cases and — as Dan and I discussed last year in Defense One — there are many in Congress who prefer, for reasons of partisanship or moral midgetry, to let other people make the hard choices.
If Congress does want to reassert leadership in these areas, it will take more than a handful of protest votes. In the future, grants of potentially dangerous authorities are more likely to come with sundown clauses, forcing Congress to choose to reauthorize action instead of letting it continue indefinitely. This comes with its own problems since, as we have seen many times in recent years, members of Congress will sometimes hold these must-pass bills hostage for concessions in other policy areas (like the debt ceiling) or Congress points the gun at its own head like Sheriff Bart from Blazing Saddles … but then pulls the trigger (like the Budget Control Act).
Since at least 2013, The Atlantic’s, libertarian-leaning columnist Conor Friedersdorf has been banging the drum on presidential power. “To an increasing degree, we’re counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils.” The president is not supposed to be an American prime minister; his party-members are supposed to be interested in preserving their own constitutional prerogatives even as they are focused on promoting the policy goals they share with the president. Reestablishing that balance will require broad bipartisan agreement and a comprehensive reimagining of how authorities are delegated and clawed back. Some days it is hard to even imagine such a thing.
Until that day arrives, Congress should at least give itself the ability to play in the big leagues on more policy issues by ending the auto-lobotomization of Capitol Hill that has continued for decades. Congressional offices are so thinly staffed that, aside from a very select number of topics, there is no time to dive deeply into the issues. Congressional staffers who begin to develop expertise can usually find bigger paychecks — and often greater ability to affect policy outcomes — in the executive branch or in lobbying shops.
Bolstering these capabilities will reduce some of the pressure on Congress to cede power for lack of available attention and allow for better oversight of the authorities that already rest with the Executive. It may not be as sexy as a grand bargain that resets our constitutional balance, but it will begin the process to realign it.
When American Leadership Hits Turbulence
Much of the week’s news was focused on the debate whether or not to ground the Boeing 737 MAX series of aircraft following the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on Sunday. Coming just over four months after the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 off the coast of Java, investigators have focused on the automated control systems that Boeing has installed in the new 737 models to make their flight profile similar to previous 737 models — making the transition from earlier versions of the aircraft quicker and less expensive as opposed to forcing pilots to be recertified, which is key to remaining competitive with the Airbus A320 family aircraft.
Discussion of the technical aspects of the crash and the investigation are best covered by licensed pilot and columnist James Fallows over at The Atlantic, as he provided both a rundown of what investigators will be looking at regarding the crash and detailed analysis of the technical concerns that pilots had anonymously reported to NASA about their experience with the 737 MAX series. As Fallows points out, it is worth noting that pilots’ issues are anonymously reported to NASA, which avoids the issue of reporting concerns directly to the FAA — which is the body that has the power to revoke a pilot’s license. Remember this as you read further.
First and foremost, this is a tragedy for both flights’ passengers, crew, and their families. Second, the safety and reliability of air travel is of the utmost concern throughout the commercial aviation industry. That said, what we saw about the debate regarding the global grounding of the 737 MAX series tells us a lot about geopolitics, American leadership on the global stage, and the impact of ill-functioning government.
Traditionally, with incidents regarding Boeing and other American-manufactured aircraft, the world has looked to the FAA to determine whether a safety issue had arisen requiring the grounding of a type of aircraft. Notable examples that have taken place were the grounding of the Boeing 787 series aircraft due to battery fires in 2013 and the grounding of the entire DC-10 fleet in 1979 following the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 just after takeoff at Chicago O’Hare airport that killed 279 — still the deadliest air accident in U.S. history. This time, the rest of the world led the way in grounding the affected 737s, rather than waiting for U.S. regulators.
One could understand the moves by the Europeans and Chinese to ground the 737 in their airspace. The rivalry between Airbus and Boeing explains the former, while the Chinese efforts to build Comac into a competitor for the Boeing-Airbus duopoly explain the latter. Boeing, as America’s largest industrial exporter, is also a useful target during a time of trade tensions with both the EU and China.
Still, as aviation authorities throughout the world grounded 737 MAXes, the FAA remained a holdout. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren raised the question whether the Trump administration was protecting Boeing at the expense of air safety. At the same time, it was reported that, behind the scenes, President Trump was denigrating the 737 in favor of the 757 — the same model as his personal plane that he used as an effective prop during the 2016 campaign. Publicly, he had weighed in via Twitter with his thoughts about the growing technological complexity of aircraft.
If the software update on the 737 MAX series is to blame for the incident, as speculation increasingly focuses on it, then the solution would be to fix the software system. In fact, just such a fix is underway by Boeing, with guidance from the FAA, but was delayed five weeks by… wait for it… the government shutdown.
Note too that NASA — which, I hope you remember, was collecting pilots’ complaints about issues with the 737 MAX — was also furloughed during the government shutdown. Nevermind the fact that the FAA remains without a confirmed administrator, after President Trump’s push to place his personal pilot in charge of the FAA ran into opposition.
Once again, this is another reminder that the functioning of government and its use as a political football has real consequences for American leadership. In Europe, China, and beyond, regulators will be able to point to the dysfunction in U.S. governance as a reason to break from their American counterparts. This will create further uncertainty for U.S. business, and empower their competitors. The American standard will no longer be seen as the gold standard, but one merely vying with the rest. Certainly, some of these trends are inevitable, given a multipolar, globalized world, but we need not help them along.
A Bad Case of the Varsity Blues
This week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation revealed a college admissions conspiracy that captured the public’s attention and raised their ire. Dozens of wealthy parents were indicted as part of the scheme, in which, according to the FBI, celebrities, high-powered lawyers, financiers, and others engaged the services of an “admissions counselor” in California who committed illicit activity on their behalf. This apparently included bribing test proctors to correct test answers and athletics coaches to “recruit” students with no high-level ability in those sports (giving them an advantage in the admissions process).
This not only paints a picture of privilege reinforcing privilege that is shocking to the average American who has undergone the grueling admissions process, but also reveals an outgrowth of a system in which everyone perceives a 4-year degree from a prestigious university to be the ticket to success in the job market — even for students who have little interest in the career fields that are well served by a comprehensive degree program. Only by addressing this underlying issue can we fix the admissions issues in higher education.
In our society, the pressure to pursue a college degree can be overwhelming to many; they stumble into the admissions process as it seems like the only viable path. Many of these students have little desire to attend college, and may be interested in careers where there is little practical need for a university education. However, since the pressure to attend college is so great, the proportion of college-educated job seekers expands rapidly, and those who can afford it become increasingly desperate to differentiate themselves. Whereas before wealthier people may have been content to attend a school of high prestige, they now feel that they must attend only the most prestigious schools, and will go to great lengths to do so. Thus, Operation Varsity Blues (the FBI’s name for the admissions scandal investigation) was born.
But it is not enough to simply point out a perceived trend, especially one as complex as this. What is more useful is to find what is driving the issues, so that we can arrive at an eventual solution. Since the flood of students into the higher education market is an issue of perverse incentives, let’s look at structure creating these incentives. In the modern era, it is relatively easy in the short term to finance a university education. If parents have decent credit, they may request a PLUS loan from the government on behalf of their children in an unlimited amount. Stafford Loans are available specifically for low-income (families with income under roughly $50,000 annually) students, making an attempt to equalize the playing field for individuals with fewer financial advantages.
While the system is commendable in its aim (and one that I personally utilized), it creates a culture of excessive borrowing and runaway prices for an education. While economically disadvantaged but academically achieving students should leverage their gifts and invest in their education, it simply may not be the advantageous approach for those with little desire or practical need for a college degree. Since the government has made it relatively easy to attend college, many jobs that formerly did not require a degree — because it proves unnecessary — now require one simply because it has become the norm. Essentially, a system once created to advance opportunity has created four additional years of essentially compulsory education.
While it will hurt people like me in the short term, reducing government’s role in the higher education market is the appropriate long-term solution to this problem. Encouraging people to attend community college and vocational training by decreasing the availability of non-merit based college loans will shift the curve toward those with requisite skills but no college degree. This will force employers to once again consider individuals with the appropriate skill level rather than solely those with an expensive sheet of paper. This change will not only decrease perilous borrowing by those that cannot afford it and do not need it, but will also force universities to compete for a smaller pool of applicants by decreasing prices and bolstering quality of services. The lack of government subsidies will also push colleges to lower their sticker prices or be more generous with scholarships, since they will no longer be able to rely on federal largesse to help the students they truly want to matriculate make up the difference.
In the United States, prestigious universities are at once the subject of great romanticization and profound suspicion. Over the years, they have become a lofty aspiration for some and an ivory tower with a golden ladder for others. This trend has seldom been illustrated in starker terms than it was this week, and the desire for rapid retribution is irresistible to many. Rather than pursuing that course, perhaps this is an opportunity for Americans to transform the broken incentive structure due to government’s involvement in the higher education market. We must channel our dissatisfaction toward constructive ends rather than shaking our fists and shouting into the void.
Stories You May Have Missed
On Thursday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a $10 billion climate change resiliency plan for lower Manhattan. The project will extend the coastline of lower Manhattan 500 feet into the East River to protect homes and businesses from rising waters. The area’s low elevation makes the area difficult to protect from rising sea levels that will result from climate change, and especially from extreme weather events that occur once the sea levels have risen. Many coastal municipalities will need to make preparations for dealing with rising waters and Mayor de Blasio is adamant that federal funds will be essential to protecting some of the most valuable and productive real estate in the country.
Francesco Cali, a boss in the Gambino crime family, was gunned down this Wednesday in front of his Staten Island home. Cali was a successor of John Gotti, the “Dapper Don,” whose flashy, over-the-top style made him an American mafia icon of the late 1980s. The 53-year-old mobster was shot six times, with neighbors reporting a total of seven gunshots fired in the quiet neighborhood around 9:20PM. The lifeless body sprawled out on the ground was reminiscent of a Godfather-style assassination, which has been exceedingly rare in the past few decades.
The U.S. Air Force, alongside contractor Kratos Defense, has conducted its first test flight of the new XQ-58A Valkyrie, an unmanned “sidekick” drone. In combat, the drone would accompany manned aircraft to destroy enemy air defenses (among other things), as part of the Air Force’s human-machine combat team plan they call the “loyal wingman.” The Valkyrie, which is reported to cost around $3 million each, would expand the capabilities of the Air Force’s existing arsenal and could, in a combat situation, be lost without endangering an extremely expensive aircraft or highly trained human operator.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is probably not dead, but he has not spoken in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. His allies in government and the military, known collectively as “The Power,” however, wanted him to be a North African El Cid, leading them one last time. The Algerian people took to the streets to oppose this thinly veiled palace coup and Bouteflika “announced” that he would not, in fact, stand for election, but that the election would be postponed until a new constitution could be drafted and a peaceful transition of power take place. The Power will presumably take this time to try and coalesce around a new leader and it remains to be seen whether the protestors in the street have the strength and cohesion to fight for real political liberalization.
In February of this year, ten individuals forcibly entered the North Korean embassy in Madrid and held eight staff members while ransacking the place for electronics. The perpetrators questioned the embassy personnel and allegedly beat them in the process. When one woman managed to break free and call for help, the police arrived and found two of the embassy’s cars speeding away from the scene. From the investigation, the Spanish government believes that two of the suspects have links to the CIA, who were allegedly looking to gather information on Kim Hyok Chol, the former North Korean ambassador to Spain and currently Kim Jong-un’s chief negotiator with the United States. The CIA has denied involvement, but Spanish investigators have found the response, “unconvincing.”