If you think Congress spends too much money …

Wait, there’s more! As Philip Klein reports for the Washington Examiner, the federal government is spending money associated with the Affordable Care Act that has no authorization from Congress.

The U.S. Treasury Department has rebuffed a request by House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wis., to explain $3 billion in payments that were made to health insurers even though Congress never authorized the spending through annual appropriations.

At issue are payments to insurers known as cost-sharing subsidies. These payments come about because President Obama’s healthcare law forces insurers to limit out-of-pocket costs for certain low income individuals by capping consumer expenses, such as deductibles and co-payments, in insurance policies. In exchange for capping these charges, insurers are supposed to receive compensation.

What’s tricky is that Congress never authorized any money to make such payments to insurers in its annual appropriations, but the Department of Health and Human Services, with the cooperation of the U.S. Treasury, made them anyway.

Health and Human Services spending on these cost-sharing payments is one of the issues named in House Speaker John Boehner’s lawsuit against the Obama administration’s executive actions on Obamacare.

In a Feb. 3 letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Ryan, along with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., asked for “a full explanation for, and all documents relating to” the administration’s decision to make the cost-sharing payments without congressional authorization.

In response, on Wednesday, the Treasury Department sent a letter to Ryan largely describing the program, without offering a detailed explanation of the decision to make the payments. The letter revealed that $2.997 billion in such payments had been made in 2014, but didn’t elaborate on where the money came from. Over the next decade, cost-sharing payments to insurers are projected by the Congressional Budget Office to cost taxpayers nearly $150 billion.

Striking a blow against Big Oil … or not

Nathan Leamer of the R Street Institute examines for the Daily Caller the practical implications of the president’s decision to veto Keystone XL pipeline legislation.

Many environmental groups and high-profile celebrities praised the president’s veto, claiming the pipeline would “pose an incredible risk to the health and safety of our families and a livable planet.”

While environmental concerns about the Keystone Pipeline’s construction may be genuine, they ignore the reality that oil production and transport will continue with or without this particular project. With the pipeline construction stalled, vast amounts of crude oil have been transported via trains. This is a significantly more dangerous and environmentally harmful method of transportation than a pipeline.

The real danger of crude-oil transport was experienced last week in West Virginia, as a CSX-owned freight train derailed and burst into flames. A state of emergency was declared, with local communities evacuated and an area water treatment facility shut down for fear of contamination.

This type of emergency has become all too common, as advances in drilling technology in North Dakota and Canada dramatically increase oil production. Completion of the Keystone Pipeline would streamline the process of shipping oil to refineries, reducing the amount of crude of oil transported via rail. …

… For those concerned about climate change, shutting down pipelines ultimately does nothing to advance the goal of controlling carbon emissions. The State Department itself concluded in its environmental review that approving the pipeline would have no significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions or future development of tar-sands resources.

Lileks is fed up with food police

James Lileks explores in a National Review Online column food nannies’ ridiculous interest in redesigning supermarkets.

I went to a supermarket that had a big sale on cheap potato chips and offered candy bars in the checkout lane that were the size of piano legs. I didn’t buy any of those, either.

How is this possible? You’re probably thinking, “You were focused on your task, and were not suffering from the type of decision fatigue that makes you unable to resist bricks of chocolate whose dimensions are similar to a toddler’s forearm.” If so, you will enjoy this article about the need to RETHINK THE SUPERMARKET.

Pull quote: “Most people do not recognize the risks they face from marketing strategies that promote decision fatigue and impulse buying.”

Today, an estimated 30 percent of all supermarket sales can be attributed to end-of-aisle displays. Retailers have placed more foods that increase the risk of chronic diseases in these locations, and we should not be surprised that more people are acquiring chronic diseases.

Endcaps are killing people. Grappling hooks shoot out and embed in the soft bellies of customers, yanking them toward the displays of potato chips. Fearing for their lives, people buy the bags, knowing they must go to their car and jam the desiccated spud slices into their mouths or hordes of hovering drones will descend and Taser them.

Or, people like potato chips on sale.

This, and the later block quotes, are from a recent Web article titled “Supermarkets Are the Problem”:

Even people who want to resist grabbing these low-nutrient items sometimes fail to do so because they suffer from decision fatigue, most prominent at the end of a shopping trip. After making so many decisions about what to buy and what not to, people’s cognitive capacity becomes overwhelmed, and subsequent decisions are often made impulsively and emotionally without consideration of the long-term consequences.

I know where everything is. I have never felt overwhelmed by the quantity of decisions I am required to make, because I have in my head a set of standards: price, quality, how the excesses in this item will be offset by the virtues in this other one, and so on. If anything I exult in the quantity of decisions. To live in a land with 17 types of canned corn! I have never been so frazzled by my corn options that I’ve said, “Okay, I’ll get this liter of high-fructose corn syrup to take the edge off.”

This weekend on Carolina Journal Radio

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week in its second case targeting Obamacare. Katherine Restrepo analyzes the court case for the next edition of Carolina Journal Radio.

You’ll hear from a chief sponsor of the N.C. House’s proposed constitutional amendment on eminent domain, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, along with legal analysis of the eminent domain issue from Jon Guze.

Nick Dranias of the Compact for America shares his group’s streamlined process for approving a federal balanced budget amendment, and you’ll hear from reformers targeting the method North Carolina uses to draw congressional and legislative district maps.

New Carolina Journal Online features

This week’s Carolina Journal Online Friday interview features Donna Martinez’s conversation with Terry Stoops about the controversy surrounding a redesigned Advanced Placement U.S. history course.

Jon Guze’s Daily Journal focuses on a court ruling that challenges the N.C. Department of Transportation’s use of the state Map Act.

FCC not content to stop with Net Neutrality


While most of the Internet-related headlines today will deal with the Federal Communications Commission’s ruling (along party lines) to treat Internet Service Providers like regulated utilities, another party-line ruling also hits close to home: The commission voted to overturn laws in North Carolina and other states limiting the ability of cities to expand broadband access beyond their jurisdictions. (Already-operating services such as Greenlight were exempted from some of the restrictions in the 2011 law but not allowed to operate outside their jurisdictions.)

The challenge to North Carolina’s law was brought by Wilson, which wanted to expand its government-owned Greenlight service beyond Wilson County limits. A law passed by the 2011 General Assembly banned cities from doing this, and from issuing debt to expand service unless first getting the approval of voters (muni broadband services previously could go into debt by using Certificates of Participation, which don’t require a vote of the people).

A 2009 John Locke Foundation report noted the folly of allowing local governments to compete with private companies in the dynamic broadband industry, pointing out that the technology Wilson used for Greenlight was likely to be obsolete before it was fully operational, let alone paid for.

CJ contributor Sam Hieb explained the current controversy last week, noting that the 2015 General Assembly is likely to step in if the FCC issued such a ruling.

Two licensing-board overreaches put on ice

(A little snow-day headline humor. OK, granted, a very little.)

My newsletter today discusses the case against occupational licensing and the conclusions of two long-running disputes over actions by occupational licensing board in NC. A snippet:

This newsletter wrote last October of a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision over the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners actions excluding non-dentists from offering cosmetic teeth-whitening services. This week the justices announced their decision. Carolina Journal reports:

In a decision released Wednesday, a 6-3 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners violated federal antitrust laws by engaging in self-dealing in ordering service providers that do not have dental licenses to cease and desist from whitening teeth.

The ruling is hailed by some as a victory for free market enterprise, turning back regulatory overreach. …

Here is how the tooth-whitening exclusion benefited licensed dentists and harmed consumers and competition. Costs ranged from $400 to $1,300 at dentist offices, as opposed to $75 to $125 at day spas, mall kiosks, salons, etc.

Also, this month the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition adopted new guidelines that will allow people to give “ordinary diet advice without a government license.” The change puts an end to diet blogger Steve Cooksey’s free-speech lawsuit against the board, first reported by Carolina Journal in 2012.

The Cooksey case provided the background for my Carolina Cronyism report on occupational licensing

Such anticompetitive overreach and protectionism — serving the interests of the licensees and not the general public — is commonplace. As the justices wrote, “Professional and occupational licensing requirements have often been used in such a way.”

The General Assembly could help consumers, excluded competitors, and the cause of freedom and job creation by (1) greatly reducing licensing boards and licensed job categories, (2) putting in sunset provisions with periodic review on the remaining boards, and (3) resisting the self-interested pleas from other industries for new occupational licenses.

Re: Freeing up N.C. Distilleries to Sell Some of Their Product

As we learned at a recent Shaftesbury Society talk, there are efforts afoot to change NC law to allow distilleries to sell samples of their product as part of a tasting tour, much like wineries already do.  Senate Bill 24 was filed earlier this month and sits in the Senate Rules Committee. A companion bill, House Bill 107 will be introduced in the House tomorrow.

The bills would allow distilleries to sell one bottle of their product per year to a person participating in a tasting, not to be consumed on the premises.  All applicable taxes, etc have to be paid.  It would also expand where tastings can take place, not just at the distillery, but also at trade shows, conventions, shopping malls, beverage festivals, street festivals, holiday festivals, agricultural festivals, ballon races, local fundraisers. All of this would fall under the oversight and control of the ABC Commission.

This is not the first time the General Assembly has considered whether to allow product purchase at distilleries.  The House attempted to send it to a study committee in 2013 but efforts to even look at it failed in the Senate.  Then a House bill was proposed in 2014 for a pilot program in Asheville but that never made it out of committee. 

Alcohol sales are legal and highly regulated in North Carolina. It’s time to allow consumers more freedom in their choice of where and when to purchase distilled products.