What's an Elector of Conscience (and Patriotism) To Do?

December, 2016

Washington -- As I write this, there are only five days left before the Electoral College convenes. Some of the Electors have grouped themselves into what they call "Hamilton Electors," indicating they will be voting in accordance with Alexander Hamilton's explanation of their responsibilities in Federalist #68, which allows them considerable discretion. Specifically, that includes taking into consideration the qualifications of the candidates and whether the preceding general elections may have been tainted by foreign involvement. In Hamilton's exact words, "the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils."

So far, only one among the Hamilton Electors is an Elector for Donald Trump. It would take about 12% (or only about one in eight) of the remaining Trump Electors to deny him the presidency in the Electoral College. The rest are Hillary Clinton Electors, whose votes may be symbolic but of no practical consequence.

Although the goal of the Hamilton Electors seems to be denying the presidency to Trump, there is, to me, another reason for Electors to deny any candidate an Electoral College majority. Without a majority, the selection of the president would be left to the House of Representatives. This is the procedure set up by the Constitution. The House presumably would select Trump, but not without first having the opportunity to determine the involvement of foreign powers in the general election. This would actually help legitimize Trump, if he is chosen. He would then be the properly chosen president under the Constitution, taking Federalist #68 into consideration.

Using this procedure would have other advantages:

• Electors would have a clear conscience, knowing that they acted responsibly as the founders of the country intended. The choice of president would not forever be disputed, for example, on whether the CIA adequately divulged what it knew before the general election.

• It would provide more time to look into the involvement of foreign powers before the House votes. The House could compel the production of relevant documents.

• It would signal, for future elections, that tampering with the general election, as may have been done in 2016, is not necessarly a formula for victory, because the Constitution provides checks and balances on both the popular vote and on the Electoral College.

• It would ease the consciences of many, many voters who, as it now stands, may have to acknowledge that they were duped. Consider, for example, veterans who voted for Trump not fully aware that he was the candidate of a foreign power against which they once risked their lives, and against which they may have lost compatriots directly or indirectly. Consider any voter who would have voted for Trump under any circumstances, but would feel better with validation through the workings of the Constitution.

Better to have the House take a vote. It would very likely not change the outcome but the process would be cleansing and cathartic for our republican form of government.

A Reply to Tom Vilsack

December, 2016

Lincoln -- Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is scolding his fellow Democrats: "Stop Writing Off Rural America."

He is half right. He points to his own success in Iowa, based on extensive travel and campaigning in rural areas. He was elected governor twice; his fellow Democrats controlled the Iowa Legislature after he was governor. But he is wrong if he thinks Iowa will vote Democratic again if only Democrats will wear down more shoe leather. The real problem is that Democrats lack a message for most Iowans.

A few years ago, Thomas Frank looked at his home state of Kansas, bewildered about why Kansas turned so far right politically. In What's the Matter with Kansas, he concluded that the Democratic Party had nothing to offer a rural state like Kansas, that the party essentially wrote Kansas off.

And now big losses in rural states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio have cost the Democratic party not only the presidency, but sent the Democratic party into a tailspin at all levels and branches of government.

What could and should Tom Vilsack's Democrats have offered for states like Iowa?

• For starters, a decent farm program that did not tear down Iowa's precious topsoil in order to provide China with bargain-priced food. Federal subsidies have been structured to pay Iowa farmers to overproduce, driving down commodity prices for buyers like China. This does not make intuitive sense, and many midwesterners know it.

• An alternative to the myth "Got to Feed the World" as propagated by the agribusiness industry, which profits from overproduction. Almost all our agricultural exports go to developed countries, not to impoverished ones. In a generation or two, we may indeed need to feed the world's hungry, which is why it is not good policy to use up our topsoil resources prematurely.

• A farm program that would allow farmers the freedom to farm responsibly as they know how to do, rather than taking instructions from their bankers. Admittedly, bankers have little choice other than to require farmers to engage in overproduction, but this is a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped.

• Incentives to farm sustainably and to take marginal land out of production, rather than the other way around. Tax policy is one vehicle to do this. The federal tax deductibility of local property taxes against income is inadequate when income is low or even negative. Make it a means-tested credit and pay for it with cuts to overproduction subsidies. Make good farmers' balance sheets work without dictates from bankers. And save the pollinators in the process.

• Real support for "Know Your Farmer" and other USDA programs that support the production of healthy food, but in reality have been only window dressing for programs that encourage production of unhealthy food. High fructose corn syrup is a major cause of diabetes. Why do we have a current farm policy that makes our people sick?

Tom Vilsack and the Democratic party's lack of a vision for rural America that is different from that of the agribusiness lobbyists is a problem greater than faulty Democratic campaign strategies. Tom Vilsack probably could have been on the ticket as vice president himself had be not been a Monsanto "Governor of the Year," which made him anathema to many in the party. Although Vilsack is right to condemn his Democratic party for writing off rural America, he is in no position to blame others for the party's rout in the elections.

Topsoil as Infrastructure

December, 2016

Lincoln -- It's likely Congress will pass infrastructure legislation in the coming year to rebuild roads, bridges, railways, airports, harbors, power grids, and the like. Without doubt, the nation's infrastructure has been neglected and has deteriorated over decades of increasing demands. Infrastructure improvements are also an important source of jobs.

But rebuilding the nation's deteriorating topsoil will not be on the list of infrastructure improvements because, as most any politician will tell you, that's a matter for the farm bill, not an infrastructure bill.

This is a mistake for multiple reasons:

• The enormous loss of topsoil is arguably more severe than the deteriorations in any other category. The United States loses an average of three tons per acre per year. It may sound alarmist, but responsible estimates suggest that, at current rates of loss, the world has only sixty years of topsoil left.

• The current farm bill and its funding have been a disappointment, cutting soil and water conservation programs while encouraging agricultural overproduction. This depresses prices and farm income but increases federal spending on subsidies. The economies of states like Nebraska are in trouble.

• Unmitigated topsoil erosion presents a huge cost to other infrastructure improvements. If soil and water were retained better on the land, consider how much longer roads and bridges would last, how less frequently rivers and harbors would require dredging, how cities would save on stormwater infrastructure, and how cleaner water would result from better natural filtration, lessening costs of water treatment facilities. Consider as well how hydroelectric plants would generate electricity more efficiently, and how much healthier our off-shore reefs and fisheries would be.

• "Green infrastructure" involves construction projects much the same as other infrastructure efforts. Examples: aquifer recharge structures, bio-swales, wetlands restorations, terraces and waterways, small watershed dams, pervious pavements, and rainwater harvesting facilities, just to name a few. No one should forget the substantial infrastructure effort (shelterbelts and cover crops) put forth in the 1930s to combat the Dust Bowl; all that has largely disappeared.

• Infrastructure improvements have health and safety implications, with concomitant economic benefits. Safer transportation systems are an obvious example. Likewise, topsoil is a health and safety issue. Chemical fertilizer and pesticide run-off is a major problem all the way up and down the food chain.

So what is stopping Congress from addressing topsoil deterioration as an infrastructure issue? Lack of imagination, for one thing. Silo thinking ("it's a farm bill issue") for another. Congressional rules also can get in the way. However, Congress increasingly turns to so-called reconciliation bills to get around jurisdictional problems and filibusters. The infrastructure bill could be handled through reconciliation.

Maybe Nebraska's congressional delegation would step up for topsoil? It should, not only for the good of the country but also to get a share of federal infrastructure spending for the country's heartland.

Deep Regrets and Narrowed Opportunities in Higher Education

December, 2016

Washington -- Those who work in higher education policy, who care deeply about the well-being of students, families, and taxpayers in the administration of federal higher education programs, are surely feeling dismayed at the prospect that the Trump Administration will roll back well-intentioned efforts to protect these vulnerable and often-neglected constituencies. I know I am.

These efforts over recent years have resulted in regulations and program adaptations that aim to protect student loan borrowers, student victims of illegal for-profit college practices, and students who suffer under all manner of civil rights violations.

But there should also be a feeling of deep regret that more was not done, when there was plenty of opportunity, to work these protections into law and into the fabric of the federal system through which higher education is organized and managed in this country. Why wasn't more of an effort made to:

• Reduce student loan borrowing by requiring states and institutions to keep up their financial support, in exchange for federal dollars, through state and institutional matching and maintenance of effort requirements? It has been clear for many years (indeed, decades) that federal aid increases have been undermined, especially by reductions in state support.

• Protect for-profit college students by requiring states to share the responsibility against financial ruin of students and families who were duped by false advertising and illegal recruiting? Such a requirement would have complemented the federal Gainful Employment regulations and served as a fail-safe backup against the weakening or elimination of the regulations. If states had been required to put up funding as match or as insurance in the first place, the problems never would have grown as they did. Most state legislatures would never fund dubious enterprises like many of the for-profit colleges; they are almost entirely a federal government creation.

• Advance civil rights protections through state attorney general offices? Although some AGs have stepped up, many have not and the whole subject is fraught with problems of jurisdiction, mishandling of due process, and concerns of federal overreach.

I'd like some answers, or at least a discussion. Why did so many people think 100% federally funded programs, accompanied by ever-increasing regulations to try to control the inevitable abuses that occur with such programs, would work on their own without being simultaneously woven into our national/state/local system of federalism? One answer is hubris among those who placed their faith in a benevolent federal government over their fears for the constituencies they presumably were out to protect. As we should have seen from past experience, the power of the national government is not always exercised toward good ends.

There is an opportunity to salvage some protections for students, families, and taxpayers through the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. But success will depend on the outcome of a struggle within the Republican Party between those who sincerely believe that federalism can tame crony capitalism, and those who want to use the Department of Education as a giant piggy-bank to reward corporate interests and their associated political campaign beneficiaries who stand to gain billions of dollars from exploiting these constituencies. The stock market has already placed its bets on the latter, guessing that for-profit colleges will be unharnessed to return to their anything-goes days, and that the financial services industry will somehow get back the income stream or other largess from federal student loans.

I'm thinking the stock market has it right. Federalism of any kind, let alone progressive federalism, has not had much of a foothold in federal higher education policy for decades. Students, families, and taxpayers: prepare for difficult times.

On the other hand, the reauthorization of the HEA has a history of being a bipartisan effort. Several Republicans are amenable to injecting "skin in the game" provisions into the HEA, which are the essence of federalism. Conservative think tanks like AEI have creative ideas that could replace student loans with an IRS line of credit. Some Republicans may still be repulsed by the waste, fraud, and abuse that ensued with the last round of crony capitalism that ran rampant for years and still has not been eradicated from the Department of Education. Democrats have an opportunity, albeit a narrow one, to carve out a higher education agenda for the HEA that protects students, families, and taxpayers. The question is, will they pursue it?