There's something about holding the reins of power that induces amnesia. So it's a safe bet that when the 114th Congress convenes on Capitol Hill in January, Republican pre-election commitments to small government, civil liberties, and bureaucratic reform will quickly yield to the inevitable squabbles of a classic gridlock scenario: a lame-duck Democratic president, a newly empowered (but not veto-proof) GOP majority in the House and Senate, and a grumpy electorate that seems to be voting against politicians instead of for them.
But even with the added distraction of a presidential primary season already wheezing into gear, there are several concrete and long-overdue steps that lawmakers can take to expand the scope of human freedom and prosperity. So in the New Year's spirit of helpfulness, reason is offering the new Congress a 10-point list of passable policies that would help make the country more free, fair, and fun:
1. Restore "fast track" trade promotion authority: Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said after Election Day that his caucus seeks to push more free trade agreements. Happily, in the wake of the more trade-phobic Democratic Party slipping back into minority status, President Barack Obama mouthed similar sentiments. Fast-track trade authority would grant the president power to make trade deals, which Congress can then vote up or down without amendments or filibuster.
The last such authorization expired when the Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007, leaving the president less able to negotiate reductions in trade barriers, complete the Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks, finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and move forward with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Reducing global trade barriers is one of the most effective ways to increase prosperity at home and abroad.
2. End blanket NSA surveillance: The USA FREEDOM Act, which would have ended the National Security Agency's ability to engage in bulk metadata collection under the legal fig leaf of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, fell just two votes shy of a Senate supermajority in the lame duck session of Congress.
However, Section 215 expires in June, and surveillance advocates are already panicking about the possibility that their favorite legal theory for blanket surveillance might disappear overnight. Civil libertarians should take the opportunity to either pass a new version of the bill—preferably with tougher rules, such as requiring the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to make public all of its rulings—or have the courage to let the controversial and much-abused PATRIOT Act clause die.
3. Curtail civil asset forfeiture: Right now, as crazy as it seems, law enforcement agencies across the land are not just able but incentivized to seize and liquidate property suspected of being involved in a crime, even if the property owner is not being charged. The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), would amend the federal criminal code to increase government's burden of proof in forfeiture proceedings. The FAIR Act would also make it illegal for states to "federalize" investigations in order to circumvent state laws designed to stop the practice. And rather than going to Department of Justice coffers, seized assets would now go into the Treasury's general fund, making it harder for Justice to promise and deliver kickbacks to state agencies.
The federal government currently seizes more than $2 billion a year in civil assets from citizens who have little recourse to fight back. The practice, embraced by Obama's attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch when she headed the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, turns cops into robbers and justice into a joke.
4. Kill the renewable fuels mandate: In 2005, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act, which mandated the addition of up to 36 billion gallons of ethanol to the nation's transport fuel supplies by 2022. The lame justification behind the mandate was that it would reduce oil imports and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, we've learned that increasing the supplies of shale gas and oil by means of fracking are much more effective at both.
Any ethanol-based reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are negligible at best. In addition, the mandate has encouraged farmers to plow up land that was once set aside for conservation and pump it full of nutrients whose runoff into the water table has helped create annual low-oxygen dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. At a time when so many in the world are going hungry, requiring that food be converted into unnecessary and expensive fuel is a moral outrage. In December 2013, Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) jointly introduced the Corn Ethanol Mandate Elimination Act, indicating that eliminating the corn ethanol mandate once and for all might have some bipartisan appeal.
5. Lower the drinking age: The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which withheld federal funds from states that refused to raise the drinking age to 21, was one of President Ronald Reagan's worst ideas. Approved with public safety in mind, the law actually promotes binge drinking by encouraging teens to drink excessively in secret, fuels reckless behavior among college students, and worsens the problem of campus rape. Repealing the law would mitigate those bad consequences and at least begin the process of rehabilitating a federalist approach to social policy.
6. Audit the Fed: The Federal Reserve Transparency Act, a pet project of former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), would task the Government Accountability Office with reviewing the Fed's monetary policy decision making. The bill passed the House for a second time in September, with a growing amount of support from Democrats. It wouldn't end the Fed, and it might not do much overnight to change the bank's practices, but the bill would be a first necessary step in basic democratic transparency, allowing the citizenry a peek at what's on the Federal Reserve balance sheet.
7. Fix government worker pensions: Congress should help reform state and local pension systems, which have amassed more than $4 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Useful changes to policy would include amending the Internal Revenue Code to allow government workers to switch to 401(k)-style defined contribution retirement plans if their employers create them (like the federal government did decades ago), prohibiting "double dipping" of both pay and pension benefits, requiring transparent reporting of pension costs and payments, and denying access to federal tax-exempt bonds to state and local governments that borrow in order to make pension debt payments. These changes would help prevent more pension system abuse by government workers and support state and local governments trying to reform the mistakes of the past.
8. Implement sentencing reform: The Smarter Sentencing Act has bipartisan support and was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2014. The bill would allow retroactive application of the crack cocaine sentence reductions enacted by Congress in 2009, cut federal mandatory minimums for various drug offenses in half, and expand the "safety valve" that lets certain low-level, nonviolent offenders escape mandatory minimums altogether. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has introduced an even better (though less politically viable) bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would effectively eliminate federal mandatory minimums by allowing judges to depart from them in the interest of justice. Either one of these bills would be a considerable improvement to the illiberal status quo.
9. Let federal education funds follow kids: Federal education funding, which should (but won't) be eliminated, comes with a lot of strings attached. Instead of its currently elaborate allocation formulas, the $15 billion federal Title I program should imitate the model of the Pell grant system, with money following students to whatever schools they choose.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was signed into law in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty." But there is little evidence that Title I has led to any significant improvement in the academic outcomes of the low-income students it is intended to serve. Tying funds to kids would reduce the administrative burden on schools, promote school choice, and give principals more autonomy.
10. Respect marijuana federalism: The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act, a simple but far-reaching bill introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in 2013, would make the federal ban on marijuana inapplicable to people acting in compliance with state law. It would effectively abolish marijuana prohibition at the national level, allowing each state to go its own way.
Congress should also pass the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act, introduced in 2013 by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), which would protect financial institutions that serve state-licensed cannabusinesses from criminal prosecution, regulatory penalties, and loss of deposit insurance. Such legislation is necessary to address the lack of banking services that forces most marijuana businesses to deal exclusively in cash, which creates severe security and logistical problems.