Better Debate Questions, Please

Washington -- For the final presidential debate of 2016, could we please have better questions for the candidates? We need questions that would help us discover what knowledge the candidates have about actual problems facing the country. Many of the questions in the first two debates were at the fourth-grade level. We need a few questions that require candidates to deal with subjects at least at the college undergraduate level, if they presume to be president.

How about questions on:

• Federalism. What are the current problems in federalism and how can they be solved?
• Nuclear Triad. Is it obsolete?
• Food. Describe the connections between federal agriculture policies and the health of our citizens.
• Industrial Policy. Do we need the tools of industrial policy to revitalize manufacturing?
• Congressional Branch. Why is it broken and how can it be fixed?
• Bipartisanship. Identify areas of common interest that the two parties could unite on without compromising party principles.

Sorry if this reads like a mid-term exam in a sophomore year college course, but perhaps that's what's needed to get the candidates beyond glib, one-sentence answers or laundry lists of talking points. Give the candidates five minutes per question, including moderators' detailed follow-up questions, to let us see what the candidates actually know beyond the lines they have memorized to get cheers and headlines.

Historical Papers from the U.S. Senate, 1978-84.

Lincoln and Washington -- Last week I packed up two banker's boxes and sent them to our records room in Lincoln. One was full of working papers from my dissertation. The other contained many files from my years working in the U.S. Senate, 1979-84. It is the latter box that might be of interest to anyone who comes across this blog while looking for a research topic on Congress for a senior thesis or a graduate paper. I'll gladly open up the files for such a purpose.

One of the Senate files contains records from the time I was a Task Force Investigator for the Senate Budget Committee. In 1979, the House and Senate Budget Committees attempted, for the first time ever, to employ the so-called budget reconciliation process to cut the federal deficit. This process is more common now, and it is highly political. But the first time it was used, Senate Budget Committee chairman Edmund Muskie, Democrat of Maine, was actually aligned in support of the process with Republican minority leader in the House John Rhodes. House Budget Committee chairman Robert Giaimo, Democrat of Connecticut, opposed the use of reconciliation, which was highly unpopular with other committee chairmen in both chambers who saw the upstart process as a threat to their powerful domains. Among other contemporary papers, I collected letters of opposition to reconciliation from dozens of interest groups; they are in these files.

When I was legislative director for Senator J. James Exon of Nebraska, I retained many working papers on a variety of legislative initiatives, which are also in these files. One was the Exon-Bradley tax trigger amendment of 1981 which, while it failed on a Senate floor vote, nevertheless presaged what Congress had to do soon thereafter: adjust the Reagan tax cuts to cut the deficit. Another was a bill to create for state governments a federal categorical grant "trade in" process, through which states could forgo certain federal grants in favor of increased federal revenue sharing. The bill actually passed as a pilot program but was never implemented.

There are also papers in these files relating to successfully stopping the Norden Dam on the Niobrara River and a number of other such Nebraska issues. There are several drafts of speeches showing the process of revision, many internal office notes on a wide variety of matters, and lists of staff. The earliest file dates from late 1978; it contains orientation materials on how to set up Senate offices.

I'll be working on these papers but would gladly share them with others as I do so, before they are donated to the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Educational Courses for Prisoners: Remembering a Huge Success

Lincoln and Berlin -- The passing of the German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher reminds us of the value of bringing education programs into prisons. We are indebted to Bracher, a former German POW in WWII, for writing a clear-eyed, comprehensive history of the Nazis and their evils. He taught in universities in Berlin and Bonn.

Bracher was a prisoner at the POW camp in Concordia, Kansas. He took courses there as offered by the University of Kansas. KU offered 300 courses to POWs, for academic credit. Others who took KU courses at the camp were the architect Harald Deilmann (who later designed the school my children attended in Berlin-Zehlendorf) and Reinhard Mohn, who built Bertelsmann into a multinational publishing empire. The return from the investment in such courses for prisoners has been enormous.

What a contrast to today. Higher education institutions now offer few if any programs in prisons, as I noted in a previous post. Nebraska has unprecedented problems in its Department of Corrections, due to lack of educational programming for prisoners and severely overcrowded facilities. But until riots broke out and prisoners began attacking guards on a regular basis, Nebraska's elected officials seemed not to care. In 2014, the Nebraska attorney general (who failed to supervise Corrections attorneys, resulting in many premature prisoner releases) campaiged for the office of governor on a do-nothing platform: "We can make people share rooms. I mean, if you don't like that you have to share a room, don't get yourself sent to prison,” Jon Bruning said. The question of educational programming was invisible in the campaign.

After nearly two years of further inaction, the Ricketts Administration is finally moving ahead with facility planning and has initiated at least some new programming, although it appears as if Defy Ventures is more like a rally at an Amway convention than a serious educational turnaround.

It's appropriate to remember that the Concordia camp was constructed in only 90 days, and included a 177-bed hospital. The camp operated only two years, from 1943-45. A state university conducted 300 courses in that time, some of which set prisoners on the way to making futures for themselves and significant contributions to society. That history should be an inspiration to us.