Howard Gleckman for the Tax Policy Center’s TaxVox: Between Oct. 1 and the end of the calendar year, President Obama and Congress will battle over the debt limit, fiscal 2014 spending and a fistful of expiring tax provisions.

A dwindling few see this depressing confluence of fiscal deadlines as an opportunity to reach the long-awaited Grand Bargain. But in reality it is just the opposite, an excuse to avoid the tough choices of tax and entitlement reform. After all, it is easier for Washington to battle over self-made, short-term crises than resolve structural tax and spending challenges.

If you are a Republican, it is easier to demand that the Affordable Care Act be defunded than to back tough, specific cuts to Medicare. If you are Democrat, it is easier to rail against the inequities of the sequester than kill government programs that don’t work. And if you are a politician of either party, it is much easier to embrace the vague concept of tax reform than to cut specific popular tax preferences.

But having raised the profile of the great budget debate, lawmakers can’t just walk away from it. This is especially true for Republicans, who must somehow satisfy their Tea Party wing. But Democrats have something of the same problem with their left, weakened as that faction is these days. So they need a distraction from the tough choices. What better diversion than a good headline-generating brawl?

While a handful of lawmakers seem serious about remaking fiscal policy, most have a different agenda: Saving face without doing much at all.

Thus between now and New Year’s Day, Washington will focus on trivia.



Leslie Grimard at Heritage’s The Foundry: After all manner of campaigns against smoking, it turns out that civil society has some sway in the matter. A recent Gallup poll found that regular church attendees are three times less likely to pick up a cigarette.

While the group that has the highest concentration of smokers — young, single men — is also the least likely to attend services, Gallup controlled for these factors and found that church attendance was still significantly related to whether an individual smoked.

The influence that church attendance can have on health highlights how the impact of religion can extend far beyond weekend services. Religious practice is generally not limited to an hour a week. For many, religious faith influences a core set of beliefs about the world that guides their day-to-day actions.



Doug Bandow at the Cato Institute’s Cato at Liberty: Kenneth Bae is a 44-year-old Christian missionary who was arrested last November while leading a tour of North Korea’s Rason special economic zone. He wanted to spread the gospel, but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea views religion as a particularly serious threat.

Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. His letters home, said his sister, Terri Chung, “contained the same message — Kenneth’s health is failing, and he asked us to seek help from our government to bring him home.” He urged Washington to send an envoy for him. …

It’s a tragic situation. But it isn’t the U.S. government’s responsibility to win the release of American citizens who knowingly violate the laws of other nations .…

The U.S. government has called for Bae’s humanitarian release. The DPRK almost certainly wants to use him to win one concession or another. In the past, that has meant a high-level visit to Pyongyang: Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both have played that role. But the administration is sending an envoy and Pyongyang might want more this time.

An unofficial visit would be a small price to pay. However, Washington shouldn’t get into the business of buying the release of official hostages. ... As I point out in my latest article on American Spectator online:

In general, the more the U.S. invests in releasing prisoners in foreign lands, the more valuable they will come to be seen — thus creating a greater incentive to grab Americans in the future ... It’s why Washington takes the tough but sensible position of refusing to ransom kidnap victims, unlike many other governments. Refusing to buy hostages’ freedom seems harsh, but groups ranging from the Taliban to Somali pirates have helped fund their activities with money earned by Westerners. Americans would be particularly vulnerable because of their government’s promiscuous intervention around the world.