Health workers in Guinea. (photo: European Commission DG ECHO)
31 December 14
f we had to sum up 2014 in four words, they would be: “bold new policy ideas.” We needed them, and we didn’t get them. To be fair, though, some of them were actually new. And some of them were bold. But most of them barely qualified as ideas. Now, we don’t like to be nattering nabobs of negativism here at Wonkblog, but we do want our policymakers to do better. Or at least try harder. So, in the spirit of learning from our mistakes, here are the times when our leaders failed to answer the call in the most spectacular way possible. We invite you to add your own nominees in the comments, and without further ado, present the abbreviated version of the year that was in terrible policy.
Ebola quarantines for health-care workers
The first-ever cases of Ebola in America — timed with the midterm elections — prompted some notable fear-based policy prescriptions, such as suggestions that the United States shut off travel to the affected West African nations. But the strict, mandatory quarantines of health-care workers returning from Ebola’s front lines stands out among the worst policy response to the deadliest outbreak in the history of the virus.
On its face, the policy doesn’t sound too unreasonable: that health-care workers stay out of the public for 21 days upon returning from these countries. But the policy adopted by the governors of New York and New Jersey completely ignored how Ebola is spread, and it drew scorn from the medical community, who warned that the quarantines would threaten the ability to fight the virus at its source. “If we add barriers making it harder for volunteers to return to their community, we are hurting ourselves,” the New England Journal of Medicine wrote in a scathing editorial. Gov. Chris Christie’s office, in a New York Times story this past weekend, claimed the quarantine policy as a bipartisan accomplishment, and he earlier refuted that the quarantines would hurt the Ebola response.
Pilot’s licenses for drones
The Federal Aviation Administration is considering a rule that would require certification that can cost as much as $10,000 to operate a three-pound, battery-operated drone. The rule, as Drew Harwell wrote last month, would potentially add “a big new burden onto the first generation of small businesses using drones to cheaply shoot video, map land or monitor crops.” And it could place on a wedding photographer or farmer rules reminiscent of those used to govern massive, manned aircraft. As Harwell writes:
The rules, drone experts said, could potentially crush a high-tech, wide-ranging industry still in its infancy. In a survey of drone-related business owners, Colin Snow, the founder of Drone Analyst, said the market for small drones “would basically die” if regulators demanded rules like pilot licensing.
Banning fluoride in your water
The science is clear: Fluoride in water is a very good thing, because it prevents the decay of your teeth. The CDC heralds public water fluoridation campaigns as “one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century.” Nonetheless, 2014 was another year in which anti-fluoridation campaigners scored some victories. The Fluoride Action Network lists a number of U.S. localities that rejected public water fluoridation this year, including the village of Wellington, Florida, in Palm Beach County, home to some 60,000 people. Earlier this year, Wellington’s city council voted to end fluoridation 14 years after the practice initially started. Dentists who stood up to defend fluoridation were, sadly, unable to stanch the flow of disinformation. “You can find all kinds of things on the Internet,” one of them observed, according to the Palm Beach Post.
Scapegoating Colorado for your state’s drug problems
Coming up with the Worst Drug Policy Idea of 2014 was tougher than we expected, in part because there were so many smart policy changes this year. From marijuana legalization to the reduction of sentencing requirements in California, the drug policy landscape was largely characterized by victories of common sense.
Still, a handful of politicians didn’t get the memo and continue to wage the Drug War like it’s 1984. Chief among them is Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who is leading a crusade against D.C.’s marijuana liberalization.
But the award for worst policy goes to the attorneys general of Nebraska and Oklahoma, who are so fed up with the hassle of arresting and jailing people for possessing small amounts of weed that they’ve sued their neighbor Colorado in the hopes of overturning its recreational marijuana market. Never mind that the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to save money on low-level pot offenses would be to simply, you know, stop throwing people in jail for low-level pot offenses.
Drug-testing welfare recipients
This isn’t a brand-new idea in 2014, but it’s gaining steam, particularly among Republican governors. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has argued that he wants to prepare welfare recipients for a labor market that will require them to be drug-free. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has argued that drug tests will save the state money by denying benefits to people who can’t pass them. Other proponents argue that testing will help ensure that poor children have drug-free parents, that taxpayers aren’t left aiding unworthy drug users, and that tax dollars aren’t spent — through cash assistance — on drugs themselves.
The problem? Drug testing is expensive (so is litigating over it). Itstigmatizes welfare recipients (who are no more likely to use drugs than people who don’t need welfare). It threatens to block benefits from needy families (including people who refuse drug testing on principle). The number of peoplecaught failing drug tests has been miniscule. And the whole idea has questionable legal merit. A few weeks ago, a federal appeals court struck down Florida’s 2011 law, which required drug testing of all welfare applicants even if officials had no reason to suspect drug use.
“Pension smoothing” to fund highways
The Highway Trust Fund, which helps states pay for vital infrastructure, has been running out of money for years (here’s a quick explainer on why). This summer, Congress needed to find about $10 billion dollars to temporarily prop up the fund (in the absence of a long-term solution, that is). So what did Congress do to generate that money? Raise the gas tax? Create a better road user fee? In a rare act of bipartisanship, Congress found more than half that money instead through “pension smoothing,” which is widely derided by everyone outside of Congress as a mere budget gimmick.
In effect, Congress allowed corporations to underfund their future pensions to create the semblance of more tax revenue today. A succinct NPR explainer of the trick:
It allows employers that offer traditional pensions to set aside less money for future retirees. That makes the companies appear more profitable in the short run so they — or their employees — pay more money to the government in taxes.
Blocking cities from selling their own Internet
Call it a public option for the Internet. Fed up with limited choices, high prices and shoddy service, many cities want to turn their back on large Internet providers by building their own municipal broadband service. Standing in their way are state legislatures, lobbyists for the telecom industry and even federal lawmakers who believe states should have control over what projects their cities invest in. Nearly two-dozen states have laws on the books that either ban municipal broadband outright or make it tremendously difficult for cities to gain permission to lay down public fiber optic cables. Kansas tried passing such a law this January with a bill written by the cable lobby. A few months later, Republicans pushed through a budget amendment that would explicitly prohibit federal regulators from siding with cities on the issue.
But some local jurisdictions are beginning to fight for their right to choose — and they’re winning. This year, seven Colorado communities collected enough votes to get past the state’s law designed to thwart muni broadband. And two towns, Chattanooga, Tenn. and Wilson, N.C., have asked the Federal Communications Commission to intervene against those state restrictions. The FCC is still weighing whether to do so, but the agency’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, seems inclined to do so.
Cutting the IRS budget
The spending bill Congress passed earlier this month slashes the budget for the IRS by $346 million. That means we’ve effectively cut money for the very people responsible for collecting money for public programs and services. This is bad policy, and bad math. As Max Ehrenfreund explained at the time:
This is deeply counterproductive.
When the IRS doesn’t have enough money to conduct audits of tax returns, it’s easier for cheaters to get away without paying their fair share. Extra money spent on enforcement is well worth it from the perspective of the country’s bottom line. By one estimate, every dollar cut from the IRS budget increases the deficit by roughly $7. It’s free money. Congress is throwing it away, choosing instead to increase the budget deficit and national debt at the expense of people who are playing by the rules.
Two-week tax extenders
Congress passed a $42 billion tax bill just before closing out this session that extended — for two weeks only — a mishmash of special tax breaks for owners of race horses and second homes in foreign countries, and business credits that do little to stimulate investment. Congress has never been able to agree on how to reform this set of breaks, known affectionately as “tax extenders.” Instead, lawmakers keep reauthorizing them every year, hoping they’ll find a compromise at some point in the future. As a result, tax extenders have become a kind of holiday tradition on the Hill.
This year’s bill retroactively extended tax breaks that technically expired at the end of the 2013, then authorized them only through New Year’s Eve. And so the next Congress will likely go through this same exercise again next year. Meanwhile, as Sen Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) complained this time around, “The well-heeled and the well-connected are the ones that get the tax extenders.” Instead of revisiting the extenders yearly, Congress could make them a permanent, regular portion of the tax code and find a way to pay for them. But confronting how much they really cost would be embarrassing for everyone involved.
Civil asset forfeiture
Police departments around the country have been using millions of dollars in assets seized from people who were never charged with a crime to fund purchases of everything from coffee machines to surveillance equipment to military-grade weapons. The money amounts to “a slush fund,” as one former Department of Justice official told The Washington Post this year. The practice isn’t new — in fact, critics have been decrying it for years. But the policy, known as civil asset forfeiture, has drawn renewed criticism this year amid heightened scrutiny of police tactics and equipment.
Police can seize property on little more than suspicion, and the suspects are often never charged — only 81 percent of the money is seized from people who are indicted, according to The Post’s analysis. In St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located, police seized property from 98 people last year. Only 23 of them were charged with a crime. In 2012, the department seized property from 88 people, filing charges against only seven. The federal civil asset forfeiture law, which allows local police to keep up to 80 percent of the assets they seize, was originally created to combat drug organizations. Instead, the Post found, “it has been used as a routine source of funding for law enforcement at every level.”
Forcing the Fed to follow the Taylor rule
For six years, conservatives have warned that the Federal Reserve’s unconventional policies will spark 1970s-style inflation. And for six years, they’ve been wrong. Oh so wrong. Headline inflation has averaged just 1.4 percent over that time, the lowest since the 1960s.
But conservatives haven’t let reality get in the way of their concerns—buy overpriced gold!—about inflation. Instead of ending the Fed, though, they settled for just trying to control it. Specifically, they tried to force the Fed to pick a mathematical rule for setting interest rates, the idea being that this would rule out the Bernanke-era Fed’s foray into bond-buying and other, at least in the staid world of monetary policy, exotic policies. Not only that, but Congress would have gotten to audit the Fed’s decision-making, basically becoming the 13th member of the Federal Open Markets Committee. And if you think that’s a good idea, well, remember that some Republicans have fallen for the conspiracy theories about the government hiding all the inflation in Area 51 (or is it a FEMA camp?).
Monetary policy is boring, but important. Let’s leave it in the hands of the people who actually know things about the economy.