How to Break the House Impasse

Washington -- To break the current impasse over the debt ceiling and the continuing resolution to fund the government, House Republicans who would vote to end the crisis need to assert themselves. To do this, they should caucus as "Independent Conservatives" whose platform would be to negotiate a grand bargain with President Obama, after the government has been reopened with a bipartisan vote and the full faith and credit of the United States restored.

The President should agree to negotiate with these Independent Conservatives, giving them the first invitation among Republicans to set the agenda for such talks. This would strengthen their hand and provide a way out of the crisis.

The great stateman George Norris of Nebraska led such a group of House Republicans in 1910. Norris and his followers broke the power of Speaker "Boss" Cannon to hold legislation hostage. Latter day Republicans who want to reopen the government are said to fear primary challenges if they don't toe the line of Speaker Boehner. But not only was Norris re-elected after overthrowing Speaker Cannon, he went on to serve in Congress another thirty-three years.

As for primary challenges, such Independent Conservatives should (1) put their country ahead of their own careers and (2) be ready to take yes for an answer if President Obama agrees (as he has before) to put entitlements on the table in the negotiations. They would then have a record of conservative accomplishment to show voters, as opposed to the nihilism that has currently captured the Republican party and threatens America's international credibility.

Comparisons Across Capitals

October, 2013

Lincoln -- Trying to keep track of developments in three capitals provides a perspective to make comparisons.

Berlin is dealing collegially with the results of last month's elections, putting together a coaliton of its leading political parties. A CDU/SPD grand coalition, which ruled from 2005-2009, is again a possibility.

Washington is at an impasse, the government shut down for several days and counting. The credibility of Washington at home and especially abroad has taken an enormous beating. No foreign enemy or terrorist organization could do the damage that Washington is doing to itself.

The choices Washington faces are fundamentally ethical: is it ethical for a minority (of either party) to shut down the government to try to get its way on an issue for which it does not have the votes? Is it ethical to give in to such tactics? Should the Speaker of the House continue to have the power to prevent an up-or-down vote of the entire House to re-open the government? Is it ethical that national security should be put at such risk?

In Nebraska, has anyone thought to ask the state's congressional delegation if they remember what George Norris, a Nebraska Republican congressman, did in 1910 in the face of a similar dilemma? Norris led a group of fellow Republicans to challenge the power of Speaker Joseph Cannon to dictate what legislation could be voted on. Norris prevailed; Boss Cannon was stripped of such power.

George Norris went on to be re-elected to the House and later elected to the Senate, serving until 1943. He is a political legend in Nebraska and in Washington, profiled in JFK's Profiles in Courage. He was among the first elected to Nebraska's Hall of Fame.

German friends note with sadness that America has fallen so far, and with irony that it was primarily America, after WWII, that set up their own government, which continues to function comparatively smoothly. In Germany, conservatives have accommodated liberals, and vice versa, to create a country where the economy is robust, where the gap between rich and poor is narrow, where health care is effective and affordable, and where education and opportunity abound.

Historic Opportunity, No Legislation Required

October, 2013

Washington -- Many college admission directors and business officers across the country are worried about the sustainability of their enrollment models, strategic plans, and the future of the institutions themselves. Old enrollment management schemes, like "merit aid" discounts based on the high-tuition-high-aid model, may have run their course. Overall, higher education enrollment is down this year and, at several colleges, seriously down.

This means many institutions have excess capacity and could handle more students at low marginal costs per student. The institutions should be happy to enroll students who bring in revenue that covers marginal costs, namely those bringing federal aid, like Pell students and veterans. These students, if more aggressively recruited, could keep up necessary enrollments where the alternative might be a downward spiral of slashing programs and faculty until the institution is faced with demise.

This is where the Secretary of Education could be helpful, not only in pushing for more affordable access for Pell recipients and veterans, but also in reversing the exhausted merit aid model. He could offer colleges a carrot for opening up access to the lower income in ways that do not burden them with loans.

Under current law, the Secretary has wide discretion to establish "experimental sites"; he could invite several willing colleges starting next year to rework their strategic plans and models away from futile chases after rankings and prestige, toward affordable access for populations that are now being squeezed out financially or poorly served by exploitative, proprietary institutions that sink students into unconscionable levels of debt. The reward could be a substantial relaxation or waiving of regulations for a college, as an experimental site.

This could be done under current law with no additional appropriations. The Department could put an invitation in the Federal Register for proposals. The current situation of excess capacity, exhausted tuition gimmickry schemes, fearsome student debt burdens, and a widening lower-income access gap presents a historic opportunity for action.