Sunday, July 26, 2009

Morality and Charlie Rangel’s Taxes

Morality and Charlie Rangel’s Taxes. WSJ Editorial
It’s much easier to raise taxes if you don’t pay them.
WSJ, Jul 27, 2009

Ever notice that those who endorse high taxes and those who actually pay them aren’t the same people? Consider the curious case of Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, who is leading the charge for a new 5.4-percentage point income tax surcharge and recently called it “the moral thing to do.” About his own tax liability he seems less, well, fervent.

Exhibit A concerns a rental property Mr. Rangel purchased in 1987 at the Punta Cana Yacht Club in the Dominican Republic. The rental income from that property ought to be substantial since it is a luxury beach-front villa and is more often than not rented out. But when the National Legal and Policy Center looked at Mr. Rangel’s House financial disclosure forms in August, it noted that his reported income looked suspiciously low. In 2004 and 2005, he reported no more than $5,000, and in 2006 and 2007 no income at all from the property.

The Congressman initially denied there was any unreported income. But reporters quickly showed that the villa is among the most desirable at Punta Cana and that it rents for $500 a night in the low season, and as much as $1,100 a night in peak season. Last year it was fully booked between December 15 and April 15.

Mr. Rangel soon admitted having failed to report rental income of $75,000 over the years. First he blamed his wife for the oversight because he said she was supposed to be managing the property. Then he blamed the language barrier. “Every time I thought I was getting somewhere, they’d start speaking Spanish,” Mr. Rangel explained.

Mr. Rangel promised last fall to amend his tax returns, pay what is due and correct the information on his annual financial disclosure form. But the deadline for the 2008 filing was May 15 and as of last week he still had not filed. His press spokesman declined to answer questions about anything related to his ethics problems.

Besides not paying those pesky taxes, Mr. Rangel had other reasons for wanting to hide income. As the tenant of four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem, the Congressman needed to keep his annual reported income below $175,000, lest he be ineligible as a hardship case for rent control. (He also used one of the apartments as an office in violation of rent-control rules, but that’s another story.)

Mr. Rangel said last fall that “I never had any idea that I got any income’’ from the villa. Try using that one the next time the IRS comes after you. Equally interesting is his claim that he didn’t know that the developer of the Dominican Republic villa had converted his $52,000 mortgage to an interest-free loan in 1990. That would seem to violate House rules on gifts, which say Members may only accept loans on “terms that are generally available to the public.” Try getting an interest-free loan from your banker.

The National Legal and Policy Center also says it has confirmed that Mr. Rangel owned a home in Washington from 1971-2000 and during that time claimed a “homestead” exemption that allowed him to save on his District of Columbia property taxes. However, the homestead exemption only applies to a principal residence, and the Washington home could not have qualified as such since Mr. Rangel’s rent-stabilized apartments in New York have the same requirement.

The House Ethics Committee is investigating Mr. Rangel on no fewer than six separate issues, including his failure to report the no-interest loan on his Punta Cana villa and his use of rent-stabilized apartments. It is also investigating his fund raising for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at City College of New York. New York labor attorney Theodore Kheel, one of the principal owners of the Punta Cana resort, is an important donor to the Rangel Center.

All of this has previously appeared in print in one place or another, and we salute the reporters who did the leg work. We thought we’d summarize it now for readers who are confronted with the prospect of much higher tax bills, and who might like to know how a leading Democrat defines “moral” behavior when the taxes hit close to his homes.

Libertarian: Did Deregulation Cause the Financial Crisis?

Did Deregulation Cause the Financial Crisis?, by Mark A. Calabria
Cato Policy Report, July/August 2009

The growing narrative in Washington is that a decades-long unraveling of the regulatory system allowed and encouraged Wall Street to excess, resulting in the current financial crisis. Left unchallenged, this narrative will likely form the basis of any financial reform measures. Having such measures built on a flawed foundation will only ensure that future financial crises are more frequent and severe.

Rolling Back the Regulatory State?

Although it is the quality and substance of regulation that has to be the center of any debate regarding regulation's role in the financial crisis, a direct measure of regulation is the budgetary dollars and staffing levels of the financial regulatory agencies. In a Mercatus Center study, Veronique de Rugy and Melinda Warren found that outlays for banking and financial regulation increased from only $190 million in 1960 to $1.9 billion in 2000 and to more than $2.3 billion in 2008 (in constant 2000 dollars).

Focusing specifically on the Securities and Exchange Commission—the agency at the center of Wall Street regulation—budget outlays under President George W. Bush increased in real terms by more than 76 percent, from $357 million to $629 million (2000 dollars).

However, budget dollars alone do not always translate into more cops on the beat —all those extra dollars could have been spent on the SEC's extravagant new headquarters building. In fact most of the SEC's expanded budget went into additional staff, from 2,841 full-time equivalent employees in 2000 to 3,568 in 2008, an increase of 26 percent. The SEC's 2008 staffing levels are more than eight times that of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, for example, which reviews thousands of consumer products annually.

Comparable figures for bank regulatory agencies show a slight decline from 13,310 in 2000 to 12,190 in 2008, although this is driven completely by reductions in staff at the regional Federal Reserve Banks, resulting from changes in their check-clearing activities (mostly now done electronically) and at the FDIC, as its resolution staff dealing with the bank failures of the 1990s was wound down. Other banking regulatory agencies, such as the Comptroller of the Currency —which oversees national banks like Citibank—saw significant increases in staffing levels between 2000 and 2008.

Another measure of regulation is the absolute number of rules issued by a department or agency. The primary financial regulator, the Department of the Treasury, which includes both the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision, saw its annual average of new rules proposed increase from around 400 in the 1990s to more than 500 in the 2000s. During the 1990s and 2000s, the SEC issued about 74 rules per year.

Setting aside whether bank and securities regulators were doing their jobs aggressively or not, one thing is clear—recent years have witnessed an increasing number of regulators on the beat and an increasing number of regulations.


Central to any claim that deregulation caused the crisis is the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. The core of Gramm-Leach-Bliley is a repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act's prohibition on the mixing of investment and commercial banking. Investment banks assist corporations and governments by underwriting, marketing, and advising on debt and equity issued. They often also have large trading operations where they buy and sell financial securities both on behalf of their clients and on their own account. Commercial banks accept insured deposits and make loans to households and businesses. The deregulation critique posits that once Congress cleared the way for investment and commercial banks to merge, the investment banks were given the incentive to take greater risks, while reducing the amount of equity they are required to hold against any given dollar of assets.

But there are questions about how much impact the law had on the financial markets and whether it had any influence on the current financial crisis. Even before its passage, investment banks were already allowed to trade and hold the very financial assets at the center of the financial crisis: mortgage-backed securities, derivatives, credit-default swaps, collateralized debt obligations. The shift of investment banks into holding substantial trading portfolios resulted from their increased capital base as a result of most investment banks becoming publicly held companies, a structure allowed under Glass-Steagall.

Second, very few financial holding companies decided to combine investment and commercial banking activities. The two investment banks whose failures have come to symbolize the financial crisis, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, were not affiliated with any depository institutions. Rather, had either Bear or Lehman possessed a large source of insured deposits, they would likely have survived their short-term liquidity problems. As former president Bill Clinton told BusinessWeek in 2008, "I don't see that signing that bill had anything to do with the current crisis. Indeed, one of the things that has helped stabilize the current situation as much as it has is the purchase of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America, which was much smoother than it would have been if I hadn't signed that bill."

Gramm-Leach-Bliley has been presented by both its supporters and detractors as a revolution in financial services. However, the act itself had little impact on the trading activities of investment banks. The off-balancesheet activities of Bear and Lehman were allowable prior to the act's passage. Nor did these trading activities undermine any affiliated commercial banks, as Bear and Lehman did not have affiliated commercial banks. Additionally, those large banks that did combine investment and commercial banking have survived the crisis in better shape than those that did not.

Did the SEC Deregulate Investment Banks?

One of the claimed "deregulations" resulting from the mixing of investment and commercial banking was the increase in leverage by investment banks allowed by the SEC. After many investment banks became financial holding companies, European regulators moved to subject European branches of these companies to the capital regulations dictated by Basel II, a set of recommendations for bank capital regulation developed by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, an organization of international bank regulators. In order to protect its turf from European regulators, the SEC implemented a similar plan in 2004.

However the SEC's reduction in investment bank capital ratios was not simply a shift in existing rules. The SEC saw the rule as a movement beyond its traditional investor protection mandates to one overseeing the entire operations of an investment bank. The voluntary alternative use of Basel capital rules was viewed as only a small part of a greatly increased system of regulation, as expressed by SEC spokesman John Heine: "The Commission's 2004 rule strengthened oversight of the securities markets, because prior to their adoption there was no formal regulatory oversight, no liquidity requirements, and no capital requirements for investment bank holding companies."

The enhanced requirements gave the SEC broader responsibilities in terms of the prudential supervision of investment banks and their holding companies.

Derivatives as Financial Mischief

After Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the most common claim made in support of blaming deregulation is that both Congress and regulators ignored various warnings about the risks of derivatives, particularly credit default swaps, and chose not to impose needed regulation. In 2003, Warren Buffett called derivatives "weapons of mass financial destruction," and warned that the concentration of derivatives risk in a few dealers posed "serious systemic problems." Buffett was not alone in calling for increased derivatives regulation.

But would additional derivatives regulation have prevented the financial crisis?

During her chairmanship of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Brooksley Born published a concept paper outlining how the CFTC should approach the regulation of derivatives. Her suggestions were roundly attacked both by members of the Clinton administration, including Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, and by the leading members of the CFTC oversight committees on Capitol Hill.

Foremost among Born's suggestion was the requirement that derivatives be traded over a regulated exchange by a central counterparty, a proposal currently being pushed by Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner. Currently most derivatives are traded as individual contracts between two parties, each being a counterparty to the other, with each party bearing the risk that the other might be unable to fulfill its obligations under the contract. A central counterparty would stand between the two sides of the derivatives contract, guaranteeing the performance of each side to the other. Proponents of this approach claim a central counterparty would have prevented the concentration of derivatives risk into a few entities, such as AIG, and would have prevented the systemic risk arising from AIG linkages with its various counterparties.

The most basic flaw in having a centralized counterparty is that it does not reduce risk at all, it simply aggregates it. It also increases the odds of a taxpayer bailout, as the government is more likely to step in and back a centralized clearinghouse than to rescue private firms. In the case of AIG, Federal Reserve vice chairman Donald Kohn told the Senate Banking Committee that the risk to AIG's derivatives counterparties had nothing to do with the Fed's decision to bail out AIG and that all its counterparties could have withstood a default by AIG. The purpose of a centralized clearinghouse is to allow users of derivatives to separate the risk of the derivative contract from the default risk of the issuer of that contract in instances where the issuer is unable to meet its obligations. Such an arrangement would actually increase the demand and usage of derivatives.

Proponents of increased regulation of derivatives also overlook the fact that much of the use of derivatives by banks is the direct result of regulation, rather than the lack of it. To the extent that derivatives such as credit default swaps reduce the risk of loans or securities held by banks, Basel capital rules allow banks to reduce the capital held against such loans.

One of Born's proposals was to impose capital requirements on the users of derivatives. That ignores the reality that counterparties already require the posting of collateral when using derivatives. In fact, it was not the failure of its derivatives position that led to AIG's collapse but an increase in calls for greater collateral by its counterparties.

Derivatives do not create losses, they simply transfer them; for every loss on a derivative position there is a corresponding gain on the other side; losses and gains always sum to zero. The value of derivatives is that they allow the separation of various risks and the transfer of those risks to the parties best able to bear them. Transferring that risk to a centralized counterparty with capital requirements would have likely been no more effective than was aggregating the bulk of risk in our mortgages markets onto the balance sheets of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Regulation will never be a substitute for one of the basic tenets of finance: diversification.

Credit Rating Agencies

When supposed examples of deregulation cannot be found, advocates for increased regulation often fall back on arguing that a regulator's failure to impose new regulations is proof of the harm of deregulation. The status of credit rating agencies in our financial markets is often presented as an example of such.

Credit rating agencies can potentially serve as an independent monitor of corporate behavior. That they have often failed in that role is generally agreed upon; why they've failed is the real debate. Advocates of increased regulation claim that since the rating agencies are paid by the issuers of securities, their real interest is in making their clients happy by providing the highest ratings possible. In addition they claim that the rating agencies have used their "free speech" protections to avoid any legal liability or regulatory scrutiny for the content of their ratings.

The modern regulation of credit rating agencies began with the SEC's revision of its capital rules for broker-dealers in 1973. Under the SEC's capital rules, a broker-dealer must write down the value of risky or speculative securities on its balance sheet to reflect the level of risk. In defining the risk of held securities, the SEC tied the measure of risk to the credit rating of the held security, with unrated securities considered the highest risk. Bank regulators later extended this practice of outsourcing their supervision of commercial bank risk to credit rating agencies under the implementation of the Basel capital standards.

The SEC, in designing its capital rules, was concerned that, in allowing outside credit rating agencies to define risk, some rating agencies would be tempted to simply sell favorable ratings, regardless of the true risk. To solve this perceived risk, the SEC decided that only Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations would have their ratings recognized by the SEC and used for complying with regulatory capital requirements. In defining the qualifications of an NRSRO, the SEC deliberately excluded new entrants and grandfathered existing firms, such as Moody's and Standard and Poor's.

In trying to address one imagined problem, a supposed race to the bottom, the SEC succeeded in creating a real problem, an entrenched oligopoly in the credit ratings industry. One result of this oligopoly is that beginning in the 1970s, rating agencies moved away from their historical practice of marketing and selling ratings largely to investors, toward selling the ratings to issuers of debt. Now that they had a captive clientele, debt issuers, the rating agencies quickly adapted their business model to this new reality.

The damage would have been large enough had the SEC stopped there. During the 1980s and 1990s, the SEC further entrenched the market control of the recognized rating agencies. For instance, in the 1980s the SEC limited money market funds to holding securities that were investment grade, as defined by the NRSROs. That requirement was later extended to money market fund holdings of commercial paper. Bank regulators and state insurance commissioners followed suit in basing their safety and soundness regulations on the use of NRSRO-approved securities.

The conflict of interest between raters and issuers is not the result of the absence of regulation, it is the direct and predictable result of regulation. The solution to this problem is to remove the NRSROs' monopoly privileges and make them compete in the marketplace.

Predatory Lending or Predatory Borrowing?

As much of the losses in the financial crisis have been concentrated in the mortgage market, and in particularly subprime mortgagebacked securities, proponents of increased regulation have argued that the financial crisis could have been avoided had federal regulators eliminated predatory mortgage practices. Such a claim ignores that the vast majority of defaulted mortgages were either held by speculators or driven by the same reasons that always drive mortgage default: job loss, health care expenses, and divorce.

The mortgage characteristic most closely associated with default is the amount of borrower equity. Rather than helping to strengthen underwriting standards, the federal government has led the charge in reducing them. Over the years, the Federal Housing Administration reduced its down-payment requirements, from requiring 20 percent in the 1930s to the point today that one can get an FHA loan with only 3.5 percent down.

The predatory lending argument claims that borrowers were lured into unsustainable loans, often due to low teaser rates, which then defaulted en masse, causing declines in home values, which led to an overall decline in the housing market. For this argument to hold, the increase in the rate of foreclosure would have to precede the decline in home prices. In fact, the opposite occurred, with the national rate of home price appreciation peaking in the second quarter of 2005 and the absolute price level peaking in the second quarter of 2007; the dramatic increase in new foreclosures was not reached until the second quarter of 2007. While some feedback between prices and foreclosures is to be expected, the evidence supports the view that initial declines in price appreciation and later absolute declines in price led to increases in foreclosures rather than unsustainable loans leading to price declines.

Normally one would expect the ultimate investors in mortgage-related securities to impose market discipline on lenders, ensuring that losses stayed within expectations. Market discipline began to breakdown in 2005 as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac became the largest single purchasers of subprime mortgage-backed securities. At the height of the market, Fannie and Freddie purchased over 40 percent of subprime mortgage-backed securities. These were also the same vintages that performed the worst; subprime loans originated before 2005 have performed largely within expectations. Fannie and Freddie entering this market in strength greatly increased the demand for subprime securities, and as they would ultimately be able to pass their losses onto the taxpayer, they had little incentive to effectively monitor the quality of underwriting.


The past few decades have witnessed a significant expansion in the number of financial regulators and regulations, contrary to the widely held belief that our financial market regulations were "rolled back." While many regulators may have been shortsighted and over-confident in their own ability to spare our financial markets from collapse, this failing is one of regulation, not deregulation. When one scratches below the surface of the "deregulation" argument, it becomes apparent that the usual suspects, like the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, did not cause the current crisis and that the supposed refusal of regulators to deal with derivatives and "predatory" mortgages would have had little impact on the actual course of events, as these issues were not central to the crisis. To explain the financial crisis, and avoid the next one, we should look at the failure of regulation, not at a mythical deregulation.

Mark A. Calabria is Director of Financial Regulation Studies at the Cato Institute.

Clinton and Geithner: A New Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China

A New Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China. By HILLARY CLINTON AND TIMOTHY GEITHNER
Few global problems can be solved by either country alone.
WSJ, Jul 27, 2009

When the United States and China established diplomatic relations 30 years ago, it was far from clear what the future would hold. In 1979, China was still emerging from the ruins of the Cultural Revolution and its gross domestic product stood at a mere $176 billion, a fraction of the U.S. total of $2.5 trillion. Even travel and communication between our two great nations presented a challenge: a few unreliable telephone lines and no direct flights connected us. Today China’s GDP tops four trillion dollars, thousands of emails and cellphone calls cross the Pacific Ocean daily, and by next year there will be 249 direct flights per week between the U.S. and China.

To keep up with these changes that affect our citizens and our planet, we need to update our official ties with Beijing. During their first meeting in April, President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao announced a new dialogue as part of the administration’s efforts to build a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with Beijing. So this week we will meet together in Washington with two of the highest-ranking officials in the Chinese government, Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo, to develop a new framework for U.S.-China relations. Many of our cabinet colleagues will join us in this “Strategic and Economic Dialogue,” along with an equally large number of the most senior leaders of the Chinese government. Why are we doing this with China, and what does it mean for Americans?

Simply put, few global problems can be solved by the U.S. or China alone. And few can be solved without the U.S. and China together. The strength of the global economy, the health of the global environment, the stability of fragile states and the solution to nonproliferation challenges turn in large measure on cooperation between the U.S. and China. While our two-day dialogue will break new ground in combining discussions of both economic and foreign policies, we will be building on the efforts of the past seven U.S. administrations and on the existing tapestry of government-to-government exchanges and cooperation in several dozen different areas.

At the top of the list will be assuring recovery from the most serious global economic crisis in generations and assuring balanced and sustained global growth once recovery has taken hold. When the current crisis struck, the U.S. and China acted quickly and aggressively to support economic activity and to create and save jobs. The success of the world’s major economies in blunting the force of the global recession and setting the stage for recovery is due in substantial measure to the bold steps our two nations have taken.

As we move toward recovery, we must take additional steps to lay the foundation for balanced and sustainable growth in the years to come. That will involve Americans rebuilding our savings, strengthening our financial system and investing in energy, education and health care to make our nation more productive and prosperous. For China it involves continuing financial sector reform and development. It also involves spurring domestic demand growth and making the Chinese economy less reliant on exports. Raising personal incomes and strengthening the social safety net to address the reasons why Chinese feel compelled to save so much would provide a powerful boost to Chinese domestic demand and global growth.

Both nations must avoid the temptation to close off our respective markets to trade and investment. Both must work hard to create new opportunities for our workers and our firms to compete equally, so that the people of each country see the benefit from the rapidly expanding U.S.-China economic relationship.

A second priority is to make progress on the interconnected issues of climate change, energy and the environment. Our two nations need to establish a true partnership to put both countries on a low-carbon pathway, simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions while promoting economic recovery and sustainable development. The cross-cutting nature of our meetings offers a unique opportunity for key American officials to meet with their Chinese counterparts to work on the global issue of climate change. In the run-up to the international climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, it is clear that any agreement must include meaningful participation by large economies like China.

The third broad area for discussion is finding complementary approaches to security and development challenges in the region and across the globe. From the provocative actions of North Korea, to stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the economic possibilities in Africa, the U.S. and China must work together to reach solutions to these urgent challenges confronting not only our two nations, but many others across the globe.

While this first round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue offers a unique opportunity to work with Chinese officials, we will not always agree on solutions and we must be frank about our differences, including establishing the right venues to have those discussions. And while we are working to make China an important partner, we will continue to work closely with our long-standing allies and friends in Asia and around the world and rely on the appropriate international groups and organizations.

But having these strategic-level discussions with our Chinese counterparts will help build the trust and relationships to tackle the most vexing global challenges of today—and of the coming generation. The Chinese have a wise aphorism: “When you are in a common boat, you need to cross the river peacefully together.” Today, we will join our Chinese counterparts in grabbing an oar and starting to row.

Mrs. Clinton is the U.S. Secretary of State. Mr. Geithner is Secretary of the Treasury.

Micheletti: The Path Forward for Honduras

The Path Forward for Honduras. By ROBERTO MICHELETTI
Zelaya’s removal from office was a triumph for the rule of law.
WSJ, Jul 27, 2009

One of America’s most loyal Latin American allies—Honduras—has been in the midst of a constitutional crisis that threatens its democracy. Sadly, key undisputed facts regarding the crisis have often been ignored by America’s leaders, at least during the earliest days of the crisis.
In recent days, the rhetoric from allies of former President Manuel Zelaya has also dominated media reporting in the U.S. The worst distortion is the repetition of the false statement that Mr. Zelaya was removed from office by the military and for being a “reformer.” The truth is that he was removed by a democratically elected civilian government because the independent judicial and legislative branches of our government found that he had violated our laws and constitution.

Let’s review some fundamental facts that cannot be disputed:

• The Supreme Court, by a 15-0 vote, found that Mr. Zelaya had acted illegally by proceeding with an unconstitutional “referendum,” and it ordered the Armed Forces to arrest him. The military executed the arrest order of the Supreme Court because it was the appropriate agency to do so under Honduran law.

• Eight of the 15 votes on the Supreme Court were cast by members of Mr. Zelaya’s own Liberal Party. Strange that the pro-Zelaya propagandists who talk about the rule of law forget to mention the unanimous Supreme Court decision with a majority from Mr. Zelaya’s own party. Thus, Mr. Zelaya’s arrest was at the instigation of Honduran’s constitutional and civilian authorities—not the military.

• The Honduran Congress voted overwhelmingly in support of removing Mr. Zelaya. The vote included a majority of members of Mr. Zelaya’s Liberal Party.

• Independent government and religious leaders and institutions—including the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Administrative Law Tribunal, the independent Human Rights Ombudsman, four-out-of-five political parties, the two major presidential candidates of the Liberal and National Parties, and Honduras’s Catholic Cardinal—all agreed that Mr. Zelaya had acted illegally.

• The constitution expressly states in Article 239 that any president who seeks to amend the constitution and extend his term is automatically disqualified and is no longer president. There is no express provision for an impeachment process in the Honduran constitution. But the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision affirmed that Mr. Zelaya was attempting to extend his term with his illegal referendum. Thus, at the time of his arrest he was no longer—as a matter of law, as far as the Supreme Court was concerned—president of Honduras.

• Days before his arrest, Mr. Zelaya had his chief of staff illegally withdraw millions of dollars in cash from the Central Bank of Honduras.

• A day or so before his arrest, Mr. Zelaya led a violent mob to overrun an Air Force base to seize referendum ballots that had been shipped into Honduras by Hugo Ch├ívez’s Venezuelan government.

• I succeeded Mr. Zelaya under the Honduran constitution’s order of succession (our vice president had resigned before all of this began so that he could run for president). This is and has always been an entirely civilian government. The military was ordered by an entirely civilian Supreme Court to arrest Mr. Zelaya. His removal was ordered by an entirely civilian and elected Congress. To suggest that Mr. Zelaya was ousted by means of a military coup is demonstrably false.

Regarding the decision to expel Mr. Zelaya from the country the evening of June 28 without a trial, reasonable people can believe the situation could have been handled differently. But it is also necessary to understand the decision in the context of genuine fear of Mr. Zelaya’s proven willingness to violate the law and to engage in mob-led violence.

The way forward is to work with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. He is proposing ways to ensure that Mr. Zelaya complies with Honduras’s laws and its constitution and allows the people of Honduras to elect a new president in the regularly scheduled Nov. 29 elections (or perhaps earlier, if the date is moved up as President Arias has suggested and as Honduran law allows).

If all parties reach agreement to allow Mr. Zelaya to return to Honduras—a big “if”—we believe that he cannot be trusted to comply with the law and therefore it is our position that he must be prosecuted with full due process.

President Arias’s proposal for a moratorium on prosecution of all parties may be considered, but our Supreme Court has indicated that such a proposal presents serious legal problems under our constitution.

Like America, our constitutional democracy has three co-equal and independent branches of government—a fact that Mr. Zelaya ignored when he openly defied the positions of both the Supreme Court and Congress. But we are ready to continue discussions once the Supreme Court, the attorney general and Congress analyze President Arias’s proposal. That proposal has been turned over to them so that they can review provisions that impact their legal authority. Once we know their legal positions we will proceed accordingly.

The Honduran people must have confidence that their Congress is a co-equal branch of government. They must be assured that the rule of law in Honduras applies to everyone, even their president, and that their Supreme Court’s orders will not be dismissed and swept aside by other nations as inconvenient obstacles.

Meanwhile, the other elements of the Arias proposal, especially the establishment of a Truth Commission to make findings of fact and international enforcement mechanisms to ensure Mr. Zelaya complies with the agreement, are worthy of serious consideration.

Mr. Zelaya’s irresponsible attempt on Friday afternoon to cross the border into Honduras before President Arias has obtained agreement from all parties—an attempt that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appropriately described as “reckless”—was just another example of why Mr. Zelaya cannot be trusted to keep his word.

Regardless of what happens, the worst thing the U.S. can do is to impose economic sanctions that would primarily hurt the poorest people in Honduras. Rather than impose sanctions, the U.S. should continue the wise policies of Mrs. Clinton. She is supporting President Arias’s efforts to mediate the issues. The goal is a peaceful solution that is consistent with Honduran law in a civil society where even the president is not above the law.

Mr. Micheletti, previously the president of the Honduran Congress, became president of Honduras upon the departure of Manuel Zelaya. He is a member of the Liberal Party, the same party as Mr. Zelaya.

CNN: 5 freedoms you'd lose in health care reform

5 freedoms you'd lose in health care reform. By Shawn Tully, editor at large
If you read the fine print in the Congressional plans, you'll find that a lot of cherished aspects of the current system would disappear.
CNN, July 24, 2009: 10:17 AM ET

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In promoting his health-care agenda, President Obama has repeatedly reassured Americans that they can keep their existing health plans -- and that the benefits and access they prize will be enhanced through reform.

A close reading of the two main bills, one backed by Democrats in the House and the other issued by Sen. Edward Kennedy's Health committee, contradict the President's assurances. To be sure, it isn't easy to comb through their 2,000 pages of tortured legal language. But page by page, the bills reveal a web of restrictions, fines, and mandates that would radically change your health-care coverage.

If you prize choosing your own cardiologist or urologist under your company's Preferred Provider Organization plan (PPO), if your employer rewards your non-smoking, healthy lifestyle with reduced premiums, if you love the bargain Health Savings Account (HSA) that insures you just for the essentials, or if you simply take comfort in the freedom to spend your own money for a policy that covers the newest drugs and diagnostic tests -- you may be shocked to learn that you could lose all of those good things under the rules proposed in the two bills that herald a health-care revolution.

In short, the Obama platform would mandate extremely full, expensive, and highly subsidized coverage -- including a lot of benefits people would never pay for with their own money -- but deliver it through a highly restrictive, HMO-style plan that will determine what care and tests you can and can't have. It's a revolution, all right, but in the wrong direction.

Let's explore the five freedoms that Americans would lose under Obamacare:

1. Freedom to choose what's in your plan

The bills in both houses require that Americans purchase insurance through "qualified" plans offered by health-care "exchanges" that would be set up in each state. The rub is that the plans can't really compete based on what they offer. The reason: The federal government will impose a minimum list of benefits that each plan is required to offer.

Today, many states require these "standard benefits packages" -- and they're a major cause for the rise in health-care costs. Every group, from chiropractors to alcohol-abuse counselors, do lobbying to get included. Connecticut, for example, requires reimbursement for hair transplants, hearing aids, and in vitro fertilization.

The Senate bill would require coverage for prescription drugs, mental-health benefits, and substance-abuse services. It also requires policies to insure "children" until the age of 26. That's just the starting list. The bills would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to add to the list of required benefits, based on recommendations from a committee of experts. Americans, therefore, wouldn't even know what's in their plans and what they're required to pay for, directly or indirectly, until after the bills become law.

2. Freedom to be rewarded for healthy living, or pay your real costs

As with the previous example, the Obama plan enshrines into federal law one of the worst features of state legislation: community rating. Eleven states, ranging from New York to Oregon, have some form of community rating. In its purest form, community rating requires that all patients pay the same rates for their level of coverage regardless of their age or medical condition.

Americans with pre-existing conditions need subsidies under any plan, but community rating is a dubious way to bring fairness to health care. The reason is twofold: First, it forces young people, who typically have lower incomes than older workers, to pay far more than their actual cost, and gives older workers, who can afford to pay more, a big discount. The state laws gouging the young are a major reason so many of them have joined the ranks of uninsured.

Under the Senate plan, insurers would be barred from charging any more than twice as much for one patient vs. any other patient with the same coverage. So if a 20-year-old who costs just $800 a year to insure is forced to pay $2,500, a 62-year-old who costs $7,500 would pay no more than $5,000.

Second, the bills would ban insurers from charging differing premiums based on the health of their customers. Again, that's understandable for folks with diabetes or cancer. But the bills would bar rewarding people who pursue a healthy lifestyle of exercise or a cholesterol-conscious diet. That's hardly a formula for lower costs. It's as if car insurers had to charge the same rates to safe drivers as to chronic speeders with a history of accidents.

3. Freedom to choose high-deductible coverage

The bills threaten to eliminate the one part of the market truly driven by consumers spending their own money. That's what makes a market, and health care needs more of it, not less.

Hundreds of companies now offer Health Savings Accounts to about 5 million employees. Those workers deposit tax-free money in the accounts and get a matching contribution from their employer. They can use the funds to buy a high-deductible plan -- say for major medical costs over $12,000. Preventive care is reimbursed, but patients pay all other routine doctor visits and tests with their own money from the HSA account. As a result, HSA users are far more cost-conscious than customers who are reimbursed for the majority of their care.

The bills seriously endanger the trend toward consumer-driven care in general. By requiring minimum packages, they would prevent patients from choosing stripped-down plans that cover only major medical expenses. "The government could set extremely low deductibles that would eliminate HSAs," says John Goodman of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a free-market research group. "And they could do it after the bills are passed."

4. Freedom to keep your existing plan

This is the freedom that the President keeps emphasizing. Yet the bills appear to say otherwise. It's worth diving into the weeds -- the territory where most pundits and politicians don't seem to have ventured.

The legislation divides the insured into two main groups, and those two groups are treated differently with respect to their current plans. The first are employees covered by the Employee Retirement Security Act of 1974. ERISA regulates companies that are self-insured, meaning they pay claims out of their cash flow, and don't have real insurance. Those are the GEs (GE, Fortune 500) and Time Warners (TWX, Fortune 500) and most other big companies.

The House bill states that employees covered by ERISA plans are "grandfathered." Under ERISA, the plans can do pretty much what they want -- they're exempt from standard packages and community rating and can reward employees for healthy lifestyles even in restrictive states.
But read on.

The bill gives ERISA employers a five-year grace period when they can keep offering plans free from the restrictions of the "qualified" policies offered on the exchanges. But after five years, they would have to offer only approved plans, with the myriad rules we've already discussed. So for Americans in large corporations, "keeping your own plan" has a strict deadline. In five years, like it or not, you'll get dumped into the exchange. As we'll see, it could happen a lot earlier.

The outlook is worse for the second group. It encompasses employees who aren't under ERISA but get actual insurance either on their own or through small businesses. After the legislation passes, all insurers that offer a wide range of plans to these employees will be forced to offer only "qualified" plans to new customers, via the exchanges.

The employees who got their coverage before the law goes into effect can keep their plans, but once again, there's a catch. If the plan changes in any way -- by altering co-pays, deductibles, or even switching coverage for this or that drug -- the employee must drop out and shop through the exchange. Since these plans generally change their policies every year, it's likely that millions of employees will lose their plans in 12 months.

5. Freedom to choose your doctors

The Senate bill requires that Americans buying through the exchanges -- and as we've seen, that will soon be most Americans -- must get their care through something called "medical home." Medical home is similar to an HMO. You're assigned a primary care doctor, and the doctor controls your access to specialists. The primary care physicians will decide which services, like MRIs and other diagnostic scans, are best for you, and will decide when you really need to see a cardiologists or orthopedists.

Under the proposals, the gatekeepers would theoretically guide patients to tests and treatments that have proved most cost-effective. The danger is that doctors will be financially rewarded for denying care, as were HMO physicians more than a decade ago. It was consumer outrage over despotic gatekeepers that made the HMOs so unpopular, and killed what was billed as the solution to America's health-care cost explosion.

The bills do not specifically rule out fee-for-service plans as options to be offered through the exchanges. But remember, those plans -- if they exist -- would be barred from charging sick or elderly patients more than young and healthy ones. So patients would be inclined to game the system, staying in the HMO while they're healthy and switching to fee-for-service when they become seriously ill. "That would kill fee-for-service in a hurry," says Goodman.

In reality, the flexible, employer-based plans that now dominate the landscape, and that Americans so cherish, could disappear far faster than the 5 year "grace period" that's barely being discussed.

Companies would have the option of paying an 8% payroll tax into a fund that pays for coverage for Americans who aren't covered by their employers. It won't happen right away -- large companies must wait a couple of years before they opt out. But it will happen, since it's likely that the tax will rise a lot more slowly than corporate health-care costs, especially since they'll be lobbying Washington to keep the tax under control in the righteous name of job creation.

The best solution is to move to a let-freedom-ring regime of high deductibles, no community rating, no standard benefits, and cross-state shopping for bargains (another market-based reform that's strictly taboo in the bills). I'll propose my own solution in another piece soon on For now, we suffer with a flawed health-care system, but we still have our Five Freedoms. Call them the Five Endangered Freedoms.