Democrats and Rural Voters

Washington -- The 2018 mid-term elections are nearly over (a few contests are still in doubt). The question that remains is whether the results constituted a Democratic blue wave or a more modest blue ripple.

My conclusion is that Democrats underperformed and will have to modify strategy for 2020 if they hope to take the the Senate and the White House. Democrats in 2018 did well in urban and suburban areas, but showed deep and persistent weakness in rural areas.

Democratic victories for governorships in Kansas and Wisconsin were exceptional, but attributable to voter aversion to Republican candidates Kris Kobach and Scott Walker more than a rejection of Trumpism. Democratic senators Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and Claire McCaskill all lost badly after Donald Trump went into their states and brought out the rural vote against them. Jon Tester survived in Montana only because he is a farmer himself and has a certain immunity from claims that he is out of touch with rural America.

I am far from alone in this reading of the election returns. David Leonhardt writes: "Democrats don’t need to win in most rural areas. But they do need to avoid losing by 50 or 60 percentage points....The Democratic Party simply cannot write off nonmetropolitan America — and try to overwhelm it with a rising urban and suburban coalition."

Michael Tomasky writes similarly: Democrats "need a rural policy...including an emphasis on exports, economic diversification and conservation." Not to mention opioids, nutrition, and broadband.

E.J. Dionne suggests this: "For the longer term, Democrats need...a new agenda for rural, small-town and small-city America. Confining opportunity to the large metropolitan areas will deepen national divisions and, by the way, foster long-term Republican control of the Senate."

The Guardian quoted
Tom Vilsack about the "failure of the Democratic party, particularly its national leadership, to offer a vision to rural voters who feel the party has little to say to them and is focused on urban supporters."

As if to hammer this lesson home for Democrats, there were a few House candidates who went after the rural vote and won. Lauren Underwood in Illinois went door to door to farmers who said politicians had not done that in years, and she won. Three Democrats in Iowa held their rural losses down by reminding voters of the effect of the Trump tariffs on commodity prices, and they won.

Contrast this with the Claire McCaskill debacle in neighboring Missouri. She went into rural areas actually campaigning against "crazy Democrats" and, to no one's surprise, was defeated badly. If she had had a Democratic platform for rural America, the outcome might have been different. Likewise, Iowa Democrats could almost certainly have defeated Kim Reynolds and Steve King had there been any national Democratic leadership on rural issues.

This is ironic because there is great discontent in rural America and Senate Democrats wrote a decent 2018 Farm Bill – blocked by Trump – that they could have campaigned on. It was an opportunity wasted.

There are voices counseling otherwise, of course. Some are saying that Democrats can win only by exciting the urban and suburban base to ever-higher turnout and that it is a waste of time to try to persuade rural America to give Democrats a look. This is foolish and will lead once again to Democratic underperformance. Why not both high turnout and persuasion?

Remembering Family on Armistice Day

Washington -- World War I touched all four of our paternal (Oberg and Zicafoose) and maternal (Spader and Bergstrom) families.

Ralph Zicafoose was wounded twice in the first fifteen minutes of combat. Herbert Bergstrom was also wounded and received the Purple Heart. Oscar Spader was gassed and never fully recovered. Charles and Fred Oberg died from influenza at Army Camp Funston (now Fort Riley).

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. To some of us, it will always be Armistice Day (what we called it as children) as well as Veterans Day.

In Paris today, the president of France gave a fitting memorial speech, reminding us of what it means to be patriotic.

Four Great Charities

Washington and Lincoln -- Soon upon us is the end of the year and time for thinking about responsible citizenship through charitable giving. Here are four of my favorite charities that will do wonders with donations.

Veterans Education Success (VES).

This charity was started by a former Senate staffer, Carrie Wofford, a few years ago to help veterans avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous post-secondary schools and predatory loan providers. VES now has dozens of veterans organizations that work closely with it to advise veterans and to protect taxpayers from misuse of GI Bill funds. As a veteran myself, I know the importance of VES's work.

Bikes for the World.

This Washington-area charity was led for many years by Keith Oberg (no relation that we know of). It collects used bicycles, repairs and refurbishes them, and ships them to impoverished areas around the world. It works closely with knowledgeable people in many countries to learn exactly what is needed for the local populations.

Growing Home.

This charity, long and capably led by Harry Edwards in Chicago, takes vacant lots in run-down urban areas, converts them to organic agriculture, and trains local residents in how to grow healthy food and market it successfully. It has a remarkable record in changing lives.

Double Up Bucks.

This is an effort currently led by Vanessa Wielenga of the University of Nebraska Extension Service. It makes SNAP recipients' resources go further when they buy healthy, local food in Nebraska. In so doing, it helps grow local and regional food markets. Donors get a double bang for their own bucks in that they are helping needy citizens as well as helping local farmers.

Think about these four charities in the days ahead. Click on their titles for donation information.

Congress: No Clue, No Surprise

Washington -- Three political scientists got much attention this week with their study, written up in the New York Times as "Congress Has No Clue What Americans Want," subtitled "People in the U.S. House and Senate Have Wildly Inaccurate Perceptions of Our Opinions and Preferences."

The three academics polled voters in congressional districts on certain topics and then surveyed the respective congressional offices' senior staffers, only to find huge differences in how the two groups viewed the issues. Republican staffers were most out of touch with their constituents, but Democratic staffers were not far behind.

This is not a surprise. Some of my colleagues and I have been working for over a year on rural issues in the Farm Bill, attempting to help Congress improve conditions in rural America. We prepared a list of six issues reflecting what we believed were real needs and concerns in areas touched by the Farm Bill. We intentionally avoided use of hot-button partisan and ideological language and tailored our solutions so that they could be viewed as pragmatic and acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans. We tested our ideas with both liberal and conservative rural advocacy groups and generally got plaudits for identification of issues and creativity of solutions.

Mostly we approached Democratic staff on Capitol Hill, whose senators and members were working on the 2018 Farm Bill. Often we got a cool reception, if we could get in to see anyone at all. It was obvious that staff were more attuned to issues as presented to them by interest group lobbyists. They were not so accustomed to citizens coming to them with ideas that reflected the needs of their constituents.

For example, for the Farm Bill's largest program, SNAP (food stamps), we recommended that nutrition standards be raised, either by giving recipients incentives to purchase more nutritious foods or by using the higher WIC program standard for SNAP. Currently, much of SNAP goes to purchase of sodas and junk foods. We found little interest on the Hill in nutrition, because this year's SNAP battle was going to be fought politically over work requirements. We felt vindicated when a major study showed nutrition could be improved and billions of tax dollars could be saved through the kind of solutions we offered, but we were disappointed that Congress showed no interest.

Likewise, we offered Democratic staffers the joint analyses of USDA and the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis about how to create jobs and economic development in rural America through more attention to local and regional food markets. We passed around copies of the recommendations as compiled in the book "Harvesting Opportunity" because no staffers we talked to had ever heard of it or were familiar with the ideas in it.

We also offered options on crop insurance reform, soil health and conservation, assistance to young farmers, and revitalization of the Extension Service to fight obesity and diabetes epidemics.

There were occasional exceptions in our visits when we found sympathetic ears. Two staff were particularly welcoming and leveled with us as to what was going on. The Democratic political leadership in Congress had decided soon after the 2016 elections that Democrats would not offer any "Washington" initiatives on rural America. Democrats up for election in 2018 would be on their own. In other words, the national Democratic leadership had already conceded that the party was perceived to be out of touch on rural issues and was choosing not to compete for the rural vote.

This was ironic, we thought, because if there is anywhere Democrats need to be offering constructive ideas to get votes, it is rural America. It turns out to be doubly ironic because Senate Agriculture Committee Democrats, under ranking member Debbie Stabenow, actually produced a respectable 2018 Farm Bill with many good features for rural America – far better than the House version – and achieved Senate passage on a bi-partisan 86-11 vote, no small accomplishment.

You would never know that on the hustings, however. There is no coherent Democratic platform on rural America. There is little to show that Democrats listen to rural constituents or care about the Farm Bill. There is everything to show that the study by the political scientists is largely on target in its conclusion that "Congress Has No Clue as to What Americans Want." That was certainly our first-hand experience as well.

Perhaps it is for the better that the Farm Bill has not yet passed Congress in final form and will have to be reconsidered either in the upcoming lame duck session or next year, in a new Congress that can start over on it. Perhaps next time around, if lessons are learned from the coming election returns and from insightful political science research, as cited above, there will be more attention given to actual constituent opinions and preferences.


Berlin and Lincoln -- I've been in both cities in the past sixty days, concerned and saddened by electoral developments.

German elections in Bavaria and Hesse have signaled understandable displeasure with the national ruling coalition of CDU/CSU/SPD. The coalition's days are numbered. The SPD especially took a heavy hit, mostly undeserved in my opinion. The SPD was forced into the coalition when the FDP refused to help form a government after the 2017 elections. Someone had to act responsibly, and SPD leaders did. They have paid a heavy price for trying to do the right thing.

A glimmer of good news shone through after the Bavarian election when voters rejected the divisive politics of CSU leader Horst Seehofer. The CSU lost badly and more of its defectors moved to the Greens than to the even more divisive AfD. But in Hesse, two weeks later, it was the CSU's sister party, the CDU, that lost voters with largely the same pattern of defection. So much for taking solace in Seehofer's bad showing, unfortunately.

It is not in America's interest to see instability in German governments, especially the growing tilt toward the extreme politics of the AfD. Does anyone remember why we fought WWII? It was against fascism in all its ugly and murderous varieties. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis does, but he may soon be out because he is a voice of reason and stability in an administration that craves disruption at any cost, even at the risk of confusing our friends with our enemies, and even losing sight of who we are and what we stand for.

Which leads to thoughts of upcoming elections in Nebraska, where voters seem pleased with the Trump Administration's foreign policy, even as farm income is being hurt badly by Trump's backfiring tariffs. Nebraska has just approved a new self-deprecating tourist slogan ("Honestly, it's not for everyone") and now is about to vote for self-destructive government policies at probably every level. Even high property taxes, especially in the agriculture sector, will not be enough to make Nebraskans think twice about whom they put and keep in office. My alternative slogans: "Nebraska: Formerly Known as The Good Life" or "Nebraska: Great Downhill Voting."

The most interesting race in Nebraska might be the one for state auditor, where the incumbent Charlie Jansen is the heavy favorite despite his practice of spending his working hours at a local tavern, drinking with others also on the taxpayer's payroll. Thanks to the Omaha World Herald for letting voters know. And thanks to the Lincoln Journal Star, especially reporter JoAnne Young, for her revelations about the dismal state of affairs in the governor's code departments. Not that voters seem to care.

A difference between current German and Nebraskan voting is that Germans seem more inclined to throw out the party that governs badly. Or perhaps Nebraskans are simply okay with what they vote for, expecting little. A possible, all-too-true headline and slogan on the day after elections: "Nebraska: Resigned to Its Fate as a One-Party State."

Democrats Haven't Learned

October, 2018

Washington -- Three weeks out from the mid-term elections, it looks increasingly certain that Democrats are going to fall short. Short of performing as they should, at least. Whether that means not taking the Senate, or even the House, is not clear but there will not be the kind of decisive Democratic victory that should be in the offing given the chaos, ineptitude, and scandals of the other party.

The reason for this is a failure of Democrats to compete for votes where elections are increasingly decided: rural America. That should have been the lesson of 2016 for Democrats, but the party has been slow to learn. Once again, Democrats are not showing up and not aggressively pursuing voters in rural areas with policies and passions to prove their bona fides with this critical population.

What is lacking in the 2018 Democratic election strategy is an understanding that Democrats do not need to win the rural counties and precincts outright, only to be competitive so that an overwhelming rural vote for Republicans does not cancel out Democratic strengths elsewhere.

Who are these voters who should be targeted? Rural voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but switched to Trump in 2016. Getting them back should be the highest priority.

Have Democrats even noticed, let alone pounced on the fact that the President and Congressional Republicans have already set the table for Democrats to eat the Republicans' lunch in the heartland? Consider:

• Falling commodity prices caused by the Trump tariffs
• Rejection of farm groups' pleas for "trade not aid"
• Hostility toward soil conservation programs, even attempting to kill the nation's largest conservation program (CSP) for working farms
* Slashing of USDA programs important to rural America, including a USDA reorganization to weaken agriculture's voice in Washington
• Holding the entire 2018 Farm Bill hostage to cynical politics over SNAP work requirements, which already exist

Simultaneously, remarkable work by Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and her Democratic committee members and staff, have produced an unexpectedly good, bipartisan Farm Bill widely praised throughout rural America, which is getting desperate for passage of a bill before current programs expire and throw rural economies into turmoil. Consider the bill's

• Assistance for local and regional healthy food markets, creating jobs
• A focus on nutrition to combat the epidemics of obesity and diabetes
• Farm income safety-net reforms to help young farmers
• Expansion of topsoil conservation programs
* Broadband access for the heartland
• Bipartisan support, including that of Republican chairman Senator Pat Roberts
• Senate passage, 86-11

In short, through the work of Senator Stabenow and her Agriculture Committee colleagues, Democrats have set an inviting table for themselves to compete throughout rural America.

But you'd never know any of this by looking at the Democratic National Committee's web page on rural America, which makes it seem as if the last interest Democrats had in the heartland was creation of the Rural Electrification Administration back in the 1930s. One looks in vain among thin gruel platitudes for even a single mention of the 2018 Farm Bill and its urgency.

New election analyses by pundits likewise show that Democrats have a curious, wrongheaded strategy. Democrats are trying in vain to win congressional districts that are at best a long shot, on issues that ignore the tables set before them, while neglecting the rural vote within districts that are competitive. While it is good to compete everywhere, it must be on issues voters care about most.

There is a lesson to be learned from just a few weeks ago: the special election loss of Democrat Danny O'Connor in Ohio's 12th district. All O'Connor needed to win were a few more votes in his rural precincts, which he could have gathered with a little more presence and more passion about rural issues. Had he simply hammered on the Conservation Stewardship Program – farmers really care about topsoil – or on nutrition or regional markets, he would have won. He still can win in November, but he needs to show he cares about what concerns his rural voters.

Huge numbers of heartland voters are disgusted with the president but want to be able to vote for something positive, not just against the negatives. They need a reason to vote Democratic. So far, the Democratic Party is slow to offer it, and looks headed toward another election of underperformance, all for lack of presence and passion about the concerns of rural America.

Two Documentary Films on Higher Education

September, 2018

Washington -- Recently I've been asked for my views on two different documentary films dealing with higher education. One is "Fail State," about for-profit colleges and how they take advantage of students. The other is "Looking Back to Move Forward: A History of Federal Student Aid," a series of mini-documentaries produced to explain the current state of federal higher education law and policy.

Actually, I was approached to appear in each, but declined. For "Fail State," I was in court against a student loan lender at the time of the filming and did not want to appear as if I was somehow attempting to try the case outside the courtroom. For "Looking Back..," I was uneasy with the very premise of the project.

"Fail State" is an excellent documentary, especially how it reveals for-profit college recruitment techniques and their disastrous consequences for unwitting victims. My only regret about the film is that it limited itself to the for-profit colleges and did not go on to link the issues with public policy failures in the student loan industry. That subject will have to wait for another documentary.

"Looking Back..." is not so good. Its purpose was to help inform policy-makers, like Congress, about how current policies and programs came about, by interviewing those who had had a hand in creating and administering them. The result is a rapid-fire juxtaposition of explanations from a myriad of legislative staffers, Department of Education officials, and interest group lobbyists. Sometimes the film is edited such that the talking heads seem to finish each others' sentences. It must be dizzying to viewers. I know almost all of those interviewed – many are personal friends – and I know the history of the Higher Education Act well, but I was left bewildered as to what the viewer is supposed to retain from it all, other than perhaps a message that federal higher education policy is a mess. After all, what we have to show for it is $1.5 trillion in student loan debt that is out of control and growing.

I should also hasten to note that some of the people interviewed do not belong in this film alongside those who have been faithful public servants. I know I would not want my sentences to be finished by those who are responsible not just for program and policy failures, but for debasing the whole federal effort. One talking head led an association whose members were scandalized by taking bribes. Another sold legal opinions to enable several student loan lenders to defraud taxpayers. Several talkers lament the failure of programs, but in fact were happy to see them go down and were instrumental in their demise. Some have profited handsomely from program and administrative dysfunction. Many in this documentary deserve a big "viewer beware" asterisk by their comments.

The fundamental problem with "Looking Back..." is that it takes a how-a-bill-becomes-a-law approach to the subject, which we all remember from fourth or eighth grade civics classes. In this view, federal policies are conceived; they are shaped into a legislative bill; senators and representatives debate them; they are passed and signed by the president, and then implemented. All the film lacks is a little scroll of parchment, with arms and legs, named "Bill."

A better way to look at all this, I think, would have been through the lens of legendary political scientist Harold Lasswell, who wrote Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How. Federal higher education spending is huge; competition for it is cut-throat, both inside and outside the confines of the law. If there has been any one single driving force shaping higher education policy over the last few decades, it is money. "Looking Back..." effects a gauzy, hubris-filled altruism over it all, which does a grave disservice to students, families, and taxpayers who have been victims of outright waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, and corruption. For all the good federal spending on higher education has done, it has also left a vast amount of wreckage in ruined lives that will never recover from the predators who have come to dominate the federal student aid endeavor.

To illustrate, look at events that have shaped this landscape just as much, and often even more, than the formal legislative record offered by "Looking Back...." Sallie Mae was created in 1972 as a government sponsored enterprise (GSE) to serve as a national student loan secondary market, but in the mid-1990s its leadership decided there was a great money-making opportunity and convinced Congress and the Clinton White House to allow it to put the profit motive ahead of its educational mission. "Reinventing government" was the guise for the change. Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Wolanin, among those who appear in the film, resigned rather than be a party to it. The story of his resignation could and should have been a part of the film. Sallie Mae, now re-named Navient, has become a deeply troubled loan servicer and is currently the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), joined by state attorneys general, on behalf of victims.

An even bigger conversion of formerly non-profit educational entities to money-making corporations took place in the 1990s after Senator Ted Kennedy slipped in a last minute, non-debated amendment to an unrelated bill allowing a switch for Massachusetts-based secondary market Nellie Mae. The amendment did not limit the provision to Massachusetts, and soon secondary markets throughout the country were converting to proprietary corporations. This happened on the heels of 1992 legislation that greatly expanded student loan volume, applauded by at least some of the film's talking heads who pushed student loans as "good debt." Within a decade, new for-profit corporations in Arizona, Texas, South Dakota, and elsewhere were engaged in behaviors so outrageous newspaper editorials from coast to coast demanded that Congress act, which it did. This is not part of "Looking Back...."

In 1998, another non-debated and glossed-over change entered federal law when Congress took away bankruptcy protections for student loan borrowers except for undue hardship, an extremely high bar in practice. It happened in conference committee when conferees needed savings to score to pay for other provisions in the bill. Closing off bankruptcy options has since doomed many defaulted borrowers for life. Never able to repay their loans, they will be unable clear their credit records, to have normal homes and families.

Such lapses happened under Democrats. When Republicans came into power in 2001, it got much worse.

What soon developed was a revolving door between the student loan industry, the Department of Education, Congressional staffs, and higher education lobby groups, fueled by the scent of easy money. President Bush installed industry lobbyists in top Department of Education jobs, who lost no time in devising ways to move taxpayer money to their friends in both the for-profit colleges and in the student loan industry. The personnel and the money circulated in classic "iron triangle" pathways. Taxpayer money came back in the form of industry political contributions so as to extract yet more taxpayer money. By 2003, U.S. News and World Report outlined the situation in "Big Money on Campus." It reported, not surprisingly, that political contributions from higher education interests was topping sums from even Big Oil and Big Pharma.

Meanwhile, the appetite for student loans, to which colleges and universities of all kinds were becoming addicted, grew ever greater as students and families, in order to pay for college, were increasingly required to sign for private loans in addition to maxing out on federal loans. Many colleges routinely put private loans in their students' financial aid packages. Some financial aid officers at prestigious institutions received kickbacks for endorsing certain lenders. In 2005, at the behest of the loan industry, Congress even closed off bankruptcy protection for borrowers of private student loans.

In 2007, after the Department's Inspector General identified vast false claims by multiple lenders against taxpayers, reaching into the billions, Secretary Margaret Spellings accepted the findings but relieved the lenders of any obligation to pay the funds back. This created a moral hazard, as it showed lenders and loan servicers that there was little risk of government sanction for such behavior.

In 2010, Congress shut off one of the subsidy spigots to the lenders, but only because the Great Recession had required a federal bailout of the lenders and Congress came to the realization that much taxpayer money could be saved by using Treasury capital for all federal student loans. It was a rare bright spot* in the history of federal higher education programs in the 21st Century. Savings in the federal loan program were deployed to provide a welcome increase student grants.

But even this did not stop or even slow the growth of student loan debt, so adept had institutions become in gaming the federal financial aid system through tuition increases, institutional merit aid, and other contrivances that were geared more toward increasing their prestige rankings than helping needy students. Nor did the 2010 action cut out federal support for the largest players in the student loan industry, as they became servicers and collectors of the ever-growing volume of loans. This year has witnessed a new low: the Department of Education has taken action ("preemption") to try to prevent state attorneys general from protecting their citizens from corrupt and abusive student loan servicing and collecting practices. This audacious move came on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court decision** that took away the "sovereign immunity" protection of one of the largest and most abusive servicers, subjecting it to state and borrower class action suits.

Unlike many of my friends and colleagues who appeared in "Looking Back..," I don't believe the federal student financial aid system can be saved by simplifying the FAFSA aid application form, harmonizing the different income-based repayment options, or even increasing grant funding, although I support those and many other reforms. The nation is losing confidence in higher education itself because of all the bad outcomes perpetrated on far too many students and their families. My recommendation: look to see how other countries do a much better job, and start over.

As to the two documentary films, watch "Fail State" and skip "Looking Back to Move Forward." Especially if you are in Congress.

* Even this was a mixed outcome for financially needy students. Congress had long realized that lender subsidies could be cut and the proceeds moved to student grant programs, but there was insufficient political imperative to do so. That imperative came about when Congress needed $10 billion to make passage of the Affordable Care Act revenue neutral. So it put student loan provisions into the ACA, with the net result that only part of the subsidy savings went to students. This was not surprising in that borrowers have long been tapped for resources to offset costs elsewhere, whether through excessively high interest rates, origination fees, guaranty agency fees, or, most recently, outright denial of benefits earned.

** Full disclosure: the case is Oberg v. PHEAA (2017)

Sasse's Options on Kavanaugh

September, 2018

Washington -- The Kavanaugh hearings are now over. Senator Ben Sasse (my Nebraska senator) has captured headlines with his condemnation of the confirmation process. He blames Congress for not doing its job of legislating, forcing the Supreme Court to be politicized over issues that should rightly be dealt with by the legislative branch.

That is a valid criticism. Sasse also correctly notes that Congress has been giving away its powers to the the executive as well as the judicial branch.

There is a remedy, of course, and that is for Congress to exercise its Constitutional powers rather than to shrink from them vis-a-vis both other branches.

By pointing all this out, Sasse has either built a powerful case for his no vote on Kavanaugh or painted himself into a corner as to why not. Sasse's no vote would simultaneously strike a blow against a nominee who champions the expansion of executive power and a blow for Congress's assertion of its advice and consent powers over judicial nominees.

Sasse has essentially asked himself to put up or shut up. Could a no vote from Sasse be in the offing?

Beyond the Sasse disquisition on the failures of Congress, there are other reasons why traditional conservatives – if Sasse is one – would vote against Kavanaugh. He is an activist judge who has shown minimal respect for stare decisis and has demonstrated scant regard for Madisonian checks and balances. I am not the first to note that Kavanaugh was a late addition to the list of potential nominees with more traditionally conservative credentials, likely because his expansive view of executive power could be the deciding factor in the struggle of the President against the Special Counsel.

There is another reason Sasse might vote no, and be joined by one or two other Republicans. That is to put the Kavanaugh nomination in the hands of Democratic senators from red states, forcing their hands to support the Trump nominee or face defeat at the polls. (It is the conventional wisdom that Senators Manchin, Heitkamp, Donnelly, and McCaskill are in trouble if they do not vote for Kavanaugh.) This scenario could come to pass even without political chicanery behind it, so it is worth exploring. I am inclined to think that these senators' votes for Kavanaugh would be more likely to spell their demise than their votes against him, as they would lose Democratic votes and enthusiasm. So it is not beyond the pale to think that devious minds (like Senator McConnell's) are thinking of how both to confirm Kavanaugh and hold the Senate in Republican hands through the Kavanaugh vote.

That might be too much for Sasse. His record shows he talks a good line but seldom, if ever, follows through with action, either on principle or on politics.

Farm Bill Now In Doubt

September, 2018

Washington -- Congressional Farm Bill conferees met September 5th to see if enough House-Senate compromises had been made over the summer so as to pass the bill before the September 30th deadline, when previous farm program legislation (from 2014) expires.

Unfortunately, big roadblocks remain. The situation was not helped by coordinated tweets on the day of the meeting from the President, Vice-President, and Speaker trying to politicize the Farm Bill over work requirements for SNAP (food stamp) recipients. They know the Senate will not pass such a bill. Most SNAP recipients are already subject to such requirements and the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, has already rejected the idea.

The coordinated tweets from the nation's three top elected officials signaled, however, that trying to rile up the Republican base before the mid-term elections is more important to them than passing a Farm Bill.

The conferees are also far apart on the conservation title. House Republicans want to kill the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation's largest conservation program for working farms.

There is still no progress on adopting the Grassley (R-Iowa) Amendment, a bipartisan effort in the Senate that would put limitations on farm subsidy payments. The amendment would fight waste, have the effect of lowering farm property taxes, and allow more young farmers to enter agriculture, but House Republicans want to move in the opposite direction, to remove subsidy limitations.*

It is hard to believe that farm state Republicans in either house want to miss the deadline for a Farm Bill at a time when the President's tariff policies are hurting crop prices and when agricultural income, percentage-wise, is forecast to decline this year by double digits. It is hard to believe that farm state Republicans are turning deaf ears to pleas from rural America for "trade not aid" but are in thrall to presidential tweets trying to politicize the Farm Bill, historically a bipartisan effort.

Yet that is the situation.

* Current law contains substantial waste in the farm safety net. See this GAO analysis.

Potential Roadblocks for Kavanaugh

September, 2018

Washington -- This week hearings begin on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court. Conventional wisdom suggests that there will be party line votes and he will be confirmed.

We're not there, yet, for two reasons.

First, Kavanaugh has a troubled background, having been a partisan leaker of substantive grand jury information for the Office of Independent Counsel under Kenneth Starr. By conveniently moving between the OIC and a private law firm, he has avoided making sworn statements that he did not provide grand jury leaks to reporters. He may also have to overcome embarrassing information about his personal conduct and judgment. There is also the matter of some 100,000 documents that are being kept under wraps, not to mention his prominent role in turning the Starr investigation into salaciousness.

Second, the timing of the nomination may become more of an issue. The country is headed into a Constitutional crisis over executive powers. Confirming a justice whose views show little appreciation for the Madisonian checks and balances that restrain such powers may strike many voters as the wrong thing to do. That includes traditional conservative voters, who are looking for one or two Republican senators with sufficient backbone to call for a slowdown to assess what is at stake.

Hearings may bring out a better understanding that the "originalism" jurisprudence favored by Kavanaugh is hardly conservative. It has been responsible for much recent judicial activism, as it has been used to undermine stare decisis, fundamental to judicial restraint. As the conservative writer George Will has suggested, originalists have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, let alone other matters.

If Kavanaugh is to be stopped, it will likely be that voter sentiment will start to inform senators that he is the wrong man at the wrong time. One Constitutional crisis at a time, please, voters may well tell their senators. The country does not need a cheerleader who sees the president above the law while in office, while at the same time re-writing the meaning of equal protection clause so as to undo voters' ability to throw the rascal out.

There was a time, not so long ago, when prudent Republican senators would have intervened. John Chafee would be appalled at what a Kavanaugh appointment would do to his lifelong work for responsible environmental protection. Robert Stafford, after whom the federal student loan program is named, would think it utter nonsense that a nominee supported by the Federalist Society would countenance stripping states of consumer protection in the case of student loans. (That would be a good question for the hearings.) Nancy Kassebaum, who bolted from her party over the nomination of John Tower for Secretary of Defense, would be a voice of caution about moving too quickly on Kavanaugh.

If backbone is lacking among today's senators, whatever happened to old-fashioned leverage? A Nebraska citizen has publicly asked in a letter to an editor why the state's two Republican senators don't demand a more responsible trade policy to save their state's farmers as a condition of their support of Kavanaugh? It isn't as if there are not at least a dozen other potential nominees cleared for the nomination, without Kavanaugh's baggage. There is a clear precedent: Nebraska Senator Ed Zorinsky* broke with the Democratic Party in 1985 over the vote on the federal budget resolution. He used his leverage to cast the deciding (50-49) vote in favor of the Republican resolution after securing funding for a trade policy that would benefit Nebraska farmers.

May the Kavanaugh hearings explore all this, and more, with the hope that senators will put country and Constitution ahead of party.

* Professor (and former USDA assistant secretary) Bruce Gardner recounts the Zorinsky move in his NBER chapter at

"...[A]s the 1985 farm bill deliberations groups had refined their general support for export promotion to more concrete proposals, and U.S. wheat exports had declined still further while the EC’s grew. In this situation the administration’s desire to continue ad hoc export subsidies without binding legislation was no longer politically tenable.

"...In May 1985, the administration (represented by the Office of Management and Budget [OMB] and the USDA) and the Senate leadership (principally Dole and Senator Edward Zorinsky [D-Nebraska]) agreed to implement, under existing USDA authorities, an Export Enhancement Program.

"Politically, the EEP was given the breath of life by a conjunction of interests...: Senator Zorinsky’s strong desire, as the ranking Democrat on the agriculture committee and representative of Nebraska, for a substantial export subsidy program; [and] budget director David Stockman’s need for Democratic votes on key economic legislation....

"Stockman agreed that the administration would implement an export subsidy program, in exchange for Zorinsky’s vote on the budget resolution containing the Reagan administration’s fiscal proposals, with the subsidies to take the form of unwanted CCC surplus commodities with a zero budget score.

"The agreed-upon program committed $2 billion worth of CCC-owned commodities to be made available as a bonus to U.S. exporters to expand sales of U.S. agricultural commodities in targeted markets. The objectives stated were to increase U.S. farm exports and to encourage trading partners to begin serious negotiations on agricultural trade problems."