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."

Remembering John McCain

September, 2018

Washington -- Today is John McCain's funeral and an occasion to reminisce. McCain's life intersected with mine several times.

The first was in the South China Sea in late July, 1967. His ship, USS Forrestal, crossed paths with mine, USS Rainier, during the night after the disastrous Forrestal fire that claimed 134 lives when a Zuni rocket accidentally discharged and hit McCain's bomb-laden aircraft on the flight deck. Forrestal was returning to Subic Bay in the Philippines for repairs; Rainier was outbound from Subic to resupply it and other ships operating in the Tonkin Gulf. Signalmen exchanged messages by flashing light. We advised Forrestal we would re-direct its many bags of mail via other ships.

McCain was shot down over North Vietnam soon thereafter, flying off USS Oriskany, and became a prisoner of war. In Hanoi, he joined my friend, NU classmate, and fellow Navy officer Dick Ratzlaff, who had been captured in 1966. They were both released in 1973. Dick Ratzlaff died in 1981, never fully recovering from his mistreatment at the hands of the North Vietnamese.

The next career-crossing was in the U.S. Senate in 1979, when McCain, now a Navy captain, staffed the Navy liaison's office in the Russell Senate Office Building. Senator Jim Exon, for whom I worked as legislative director, was a member of the Armed Services Committee. His legislative assistant for national defense issues, Greg Pallas, worked closely with McCain. I had recommended Greg* for the position partly because he had also been a Navy officer. He and McCain hit it off. From his Navy liaison position, McCain also developed close relationships with Senators John Tower, Gary Hart, William Cohen, John Breaux, Sam Nunn, Scoop Jackson and their staffs. Other key staff included Arnold Punaro (Nunn) and Richard Perle (Jackson).

Jim Exon considered himself a Scoop Jackson Democrat and usually followed Jackson's lead, until Jackson died in office in 1983. Greg Pallas succeeded me as legislative director for Senator Exon after I left the position in 1984. In 1986, McCain was elected Senator from Arizona.

In 1989, relationships were strained over the nomination of John Tower to be Secretary of Defense. Senators Nunn and Exon led the opposition; McCain supported Tower, who was defeated. Senator Exon retired in 1996.

I became congressional liaison for higher education at the U.S. Department of Education in the 1990s, but had little to do with Senator McCain officially. Greg Pallas remained a part of the bipartisan McCain-Breaux social circle; I was an occasional guest. Greg Pallas died in 2003 at the age of fifty-one. John McCain attended his funeral in Annapolis.

Senator McCain did not involve himself in higher education affairs much beyond advocating for the interests of the University of Phoenix. His efforts, in my opinion, were misguided, although perhaps understandable in the context of constituent services. McCain walked out** of a 2010 hearing chaired by Senator Tom Harkin, also a former Navy pilot, because he thought Harkin was being too hard on for-profit colleges.

Although McCain presented himself as a friend of veterans, he was notably absent when it came to protecting them from higher education fraud under the GI Bill. With others, I have been involved in setting up protections for veterans, especially with Veterans Education Success (VES); we could have used McCain's help.

But McCain rose to the occasion on other matters at least three times in his life, and for those he will be remembered as a hero. One was when, as a prisoner of war, he refused a North Vietnam propaganda move to release him as the son of the U.S. Commander in Chief of the Pacific (CINCPAC). Another was when, as a presidential candidate in 2008, he would not be drawn into race and religion baiting against his opponent. The third was his principled death-bed stand for America as a country based on values and ideals, not blood and soil tribalism.

McCain, a Republican, worked easily across political boundaries because at his core he was a follower of Alfred Thayer Mahan's geopolitical theories of sea power, as are many Democrats. He was an implacable foe of Russia, the heartland country destined under the theories of Sir Halford John Mackinder to dominate the world. His antipathy to Donald Trump was firmly rooted in geopolitical theory as well as personal dislike.

* A native Californian, Greg Pallas stood out in his 1978 employment interview with chief of staff Bill Hoppner and me. Among several defense experts, he was the only one who had done his homework on Nebraska. He went on to adopt Nebraska wholeheartedly, forging lasting relationships with close associates of Jim Exon like Norm Otto and Chuck Pallesen. When Jim Exon retired, Greg Pallas had the senator's office, including his desk, recreated as a small museum on South 27th Street in Lincoln.

** The moment is memorialized in the award-winning documentary movie "Fail State", which had its Washington premier on September 4, 2018.

Foreign Financial Account Reporting; Chemnitz Unrest

August, 2018

Berlin -- This week four members of American Voices Abroad (AVA) sat down for dinner in Berlin. One of our discussion topics was tax reporting of foreign financial accounts to the IRS.

We all have faithfully reported our accounts at German financial institutions, even when there has been no otherwise reportable need for it. This requires a separate form with a separate due date. The reported information can be used by the IRS to match up account reporting the U.S. requires of German institutions. The paperwork is sufficiently onerous that some German banks just refuse American customers.

But it was all worth it, we felt, in order to catch money-launderers and international criminals.

Then along comes the Paul Manafort trial. Indeed, his failure to report on the FBAR did him in, according to one juror who explained the jury's reasoning for convictions on eight counts of fraud. But the juror also said that Manafort would not have been discovered had it not been for the Robert Mueller investigation. She took a dim view of the Mueller probe and had actually hoped that Manafort could have been found not guilty.

So much for the little fish filling out all our paperwork to catch the big fish. Manafort brazenly flouted the law and the IRS let him do it. It's remarkable there was a conviction at all, given the presiding judge's rulings to prevent the prosecution from presenting evidence of Manafort's ostentatiously high-living. This does not inspire confidence in our tax-collection system.

Another discussion topic was the neo-Nazi uprising in Chemnitz and the role of Facebook in organizing it. Meanwhile, all over Berlin, in the streets and subways, Facebook is putting up posters that it is all about family and friends, not fake news. Events in Chemnitz, however, belie the advertising campaign. I wonder if those ads are appearing in Chemnitz as well.

It is no longer unthinkable to put controls on social media for national security purposes. Of course, more than neo-Nazis can use social media to organize. Around Hermannplatz in Berlin, thousands are gathering to protest the violence in Chemnitz. Good for our neighbors in Neukölln.


August, 2018

Berlin -- In the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt, the Elbe River at Barby is low because of drought. The ferry is not running, perhaps because of low water. Barby is one of the villages where, in 1945, Russian and American soldiers met at the Elbe, days before Berlin fell to end WWII in Europe. American forces remained on the left bank as German civilians and soldiers alike tried to cross the river to escape Russian attacks.

Westward the drought shows itself along the Autobahn as dust lowers visibility. Farmers working stubble fields for next year's wheat crop create huge dust clouds. (I hope the farmers are wearing masks.)

At Quedlinburg, at the foot of the Harz Mountains, a fountain in a town square is still. Up in the mountains, autumn is arriving prematurely as leaves are falling. One hopes that when the witches dance, they'll be careful with their fires.


August, 2018

Berlin -- It is cloudy today, and smoky from the wildfires that are burning south of the city. The summer has been extremely hot with no rain.

The forests surrounding Berlin are dry. The wildfires are difficult to fight because unexploded WWII ammunition poses a danger to firefighters on the ground. As fire progresses, explosions are set off.

Surely the fires will not reach Beelitz, a favorite place with a tree-top walkway over an abandoned sanitarium. But they could, and farther. Three villages have been evacuated.

Berlin's parks are brown and dusty. They are as hard as the cobblestone streets.

Germany and the Facebook Disease

August, 2018

Berlin -- An unsettling new research paper links Facebook usage in Germany with acts of violence against refugees. When Facebook usage is one standard deviation or more than average, such violence is fifty percent higher.

The findings do not apply to general internet usage, only Facebook.

There is no suggestion in the paper that this is unique to Germany. In fact, Germany has been more welcoming of refugees than most other countries.

Chancellor Merkel, known for her support of an accommodating refugee policy, survives under duress in part because she has no obvious successor. As a local Kreuzberg resident expressed it, "Who? Not anyone from the SPD, they have nothing to offer," and as for the CSU and Horst Seehofer, "that's just impossible."

If only there were an immunization for the Facebook disease.

Humboldt amid the Hohenzollerns

August, 2018

Berlin -- This city is full of ironies and contradictions: war and peace, ugliness and beauty, superstition and science.

Add another contradiction as the new Humboldt Forum is being completed. It is the centerpiece of the reconstruction of the massive old palace of the Hohenzollern royalty on Unter den Linden, in the heart of Berlin. The Humboldt Forum will house antiquities and artifacts acquired by German expeditions and colonizations.

The irony is that Alexander von Humboldt, among the world's greatest scientists and a native of Berlin, was anti-colonialist. When he met Thomas Jefferson in 1803, in Washington, at the end of Humboldt's exploration of the Americas, they agreed that the colonial system was destructive of peoples and their habitats. Humboldt was appalled at what Spanish colonial governments were doing to South and Central America. He soon would meet with Simon Bolivar in Europe and inspire him to revolution.

Humboldt gave us a unified view of the natural world; he was the "inventor of nature," as the title of a new biography* of Humboldt suggests. He is, of course, honored in Berlin with the eponymous university and around the world with countless Humboldt-named places. But when the Humboldt Forum opens next year in Berlin, it would be well to remember his anti-colonialist convictions.

* The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf.

Germany, Turkey, Russia

August, 2018

Berlin -- The atmosphere here seems tense, and not just because the German government coalition could break apart at any moment. Added to the problem are new strains on the Turkey-Germany relationship, what with a popular soccer star enflaming the sport's fans about national loyalties and a drastic drop in the value of Turkey's currency. Will Berliners of Turkish heritage be called upon to send Euros to their relatives in Turkey? Will that be seen as propping up Turkey's leader Erdogan?

Then there is the meeting this weekend, just north of Berlin at Meresburg, between Chancellor Merkel and President Putin, hastily called. Surely one topic will be Turkey's financial condition. Merkel will press Putin not to make it worse; Putin will say he won't, if Germany relaxes sanctions against Russia. Sensible American guidance will not be forthcoming.

I remember less tense days, south of Berlin at Wünsdorf, when Russians, Germans, and Americans mixed easily at the Soviet Officers club. It was 1991; I was invited to lunch along with other members of a local historical club. Was Putin present? I've often wondered, since he was posted back then as a KBG agent in East Germany. The Russians were about to depart Germany, their relocation paid for by the German government.

Putin has said the breakup of the Soviet Union was a calamity, a humiliation. That will be the backdrop of the Meseburg meeting.

Iron Triangles: Part VIII

August, 2018

Washington -- The for-profit higher education sector's "Iron Triangle" grip at the U.S. Department of Education is squeezing ever tighter. Now the White House is overtly getting involved .

The key triangle individuals have been moving through the revolving door of interest groups and the Department for many years. Strada (formerly USA Funds) leader William Hansen was instrumental, as Deputy Secretary in 2002, in giving for-profit schools "safe harbors" against oversight, after which they experienced boom times. (Consumer fraud likewise soared.) Diane Auer Jones is closely associated with the for-profit sector and has not recused herself from Department decisions dealing with the for-profits.

The target of the new squeeze is the nation's higher education accreditation system. The integrity of federal programs under the Higher Education Act relies on a "triad" of enforcers: the federal Department of Education, the states, and accrediting bodies. The Department has already been captured by the interests it is supposed to regulate, and it is trying its best to emasculate the states through its policy of federal "preemption." Only the accrediting bodies remain to be dealt with.

Ordinarily, there would be two countervailing forces against this attempt to undermine accreditors.

One would be Congress, where majorities of both Democrats and Republicans would be bulwarks against diminishing the role of states and accreditors. Now, however, Republicans like Lamar Alexander, the Senate authorizing committee chairman, are eager to view integrity as just so much red tape that needs to be cut.

The other countervailing force would be higher education institutions themselves, public and non-profit, which need the confidence of students, families, taxpayers, and alumni in the value of their teaching, research, and public service. Accrediting bodies are creatures of these institutions. They will not welcome an attempt to undermine accreditation by having it taken over or replaced by people and companies who see billions in federal higher education spending as just another opportunity to cash in for themselves, although that is the driving force behind the tightening grip.

Lamentably, the higher education establishment has not distinguished itself historically in standing up for integrity over opportunism. Some of the weaker higher education systems in both the non-profit and public spheres have repeatedly welcomed lower standards; often they have prevailed over the interests of the nation's leading colleges and universities.

Another test is now upon the nation's higher education leadership.

William Jennings Bryan and Populism

August, 2018

Washington -- New York Times columnist (and Nobel prize winner) Paul Krugman has sent many of his millions of readers to look up William Jennings Bryan if they want to know who is and who is not a "populist."

The problem with Krugman's linked Bryan-bio is that, at the end, it disparages Bryan wrongly and gratuitously by alleging "shallowness and ignorance of science and archaeology."

Bryan was the founder of the modern Democratic party, of which there is little dispute. A progressive, he paved the way for the election of Woodrow Wilson and was the force behind constitutional amendments approving the federal income tax, direct election of U.S. senators, and women's suffrage. At the end of his life, he fought the teaching of evolution, memorialized in the play and movie Inherit the Wind.

It is the movie version of Bryan that seems to be the source of the "shallowness and ignorance" description.

Bryan was in fact quite well read on evolution and the science of the 1920s. Evolution at that time was understood to comprehend "social Darwinism" (survival of the fittest, including in economics) and eugenics. The textbook that Bryan opposed taught eugenics as science, including the hierarchical rankings of different human races, with Caucasians at the top, superior to all others. This was contrary to Bryan's lifelong work.

Bryan was a world-traveller and followed foreign affairs closely. He was Wilson's first secretary of state. His wife, Mary Baird Bryan, a lawyer and student of German, read German language newspapers to him. Bryan was well aware that the eugenics movement in the United States was being taken up by German institutions and political movements, and was alarmed by it.

Germany in the 19th century had given America its model* of higher education; America in the early 20th century gave Germany eugenics. We know what happened next.

This side of Bryan, his abhorrence of xenophobia, is seldom acknowledged. Progressives are calling for a remake of the movie.**

Bryan is also in the news as his statue, along with that of J. Sterling Morton, is being removed from the U.S. Capitol. It is a benign recall, at least in the case of Bryan, as the Nebraska legislature has chosen Willa Cather and Standing Bear to represent the state henceforth in the Capitol's statuary hall. As the statutes come back to Nebraska and are relocated, it would be a good time to review the legacies of Bryan and Morton, both Democrats but political enemies. Morton was a Bourbon Democrat, a southern sympathizer, a foe of Bryan, and is now becoming the subject of more scrutiny. It may have been only a matter of time before Morton had to go.

Krugman has the right person in Bryan to contrast with today's so-called populists, but it would be even better if the real Bryan was correctly portrayed.

* The University of Berlin model of teaching combined with research was first emulated by Johns Hopkins University, from which it spread rapidly across America.

** If there is a remake, it should also stick to Scopes trial testimony in which Bryan, speaking on archaeology, reveals himself not to be a biblical literalist, as he takes the offensive against Darrow's mistaken assumption that he is. Where Darrow got the better of Bryan was in ending the trial quickly with a guilty plea, preventing Bryan's attack on eugenics, which Bryan had planned for his closing. A remake could also make the point that evolution as now taught is more firmly grounded than it was in Bryan's time, as evolutionary theory has adapted to accommodate Mendelian genetics, is now accepting the emerging field of epigenetics, and has shed its ugly past association with "social Darwinism" and eugenics.

Time to Restrain the U.S. Department of Education

July, 2018

Washington -- The time has come to restrain the U.S. Department of Education from its course of systematically undermining consumer and taxpayer interests in higher education.

Having gutted the "borrower defense" rule, which protects defrauded students against unscrupulous institutions, the Department is now about to eliminate the "gainful employment" rule, which requires institutions to demonstrate that their graduates can get jobs, or face loss of institutional eligibility for taxpayer-supported student financial aid.

All of which means more financial ruin for many students and families who will be victimized, and more taxpayers who will be simultaneously cheated.*

The best way to restrain the Department is to restore the integrity of the "triad" that determines institutional eligibility, which includes accreditation bodies and state governments as well as the federal government.

Excessive reliance on federal standards has led us to this sorry situation. Why would we think that federal officials are not subject to conflicts of interest and corruption? The recent exposé in The Atlantic should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching the Department for the past two decades.

The links in the triad that can restore integrity most quickly and effectively are state governments. Consider this: if state governments had been required to put up matching funds of their own to qualify institutions in their states for federal student aid eligibility, would we now have the interest-group ("iron triangle") takeover of the Department that has taken place? No. State governments approve shoddy schools when it costs them nothing, when all the aid is federal.

The time has come -- actually it is long past due -- for Congress to restore and reinforce the original checks and balances in the Higher Education Act, to engage the states as was originally intended through the mechanisms of cooperative federalism. The original Campus-Based aid programs and the State Student Incentive Grant (SSIG) program all had matching requirements, so as to engage the states through their own budget processes.

It is all well and good that many state attorneys general have now stepped up through their consumer protection divisions to try to protect their citizens from fraud and abuse perpetrated through federal student aid. But this is no remedy compared to getting integrity back into the programs in the first place.

The Higher Education Act is before Congress right now, for reauthorization. To me, there can be no higher priority than restraining the Department through the mechanisms of federalism. Democrats should not wait for the 2020 election to sweep corrupt officials out of power, which election may not go their way in any case. Republicans should be put on the spot about their principles: do they believe in federalism or do they approve of a Department that tries to undermine federalism at every opportunity – witness Secretary Betsy DeVos's attempt to pre-empt jurisdiction over student loan servicers.

James Madison, in Federalist 51, wrote: "In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people."

Has Madison's vision come and gone?

* The cost of repealing the gainful employment regulation is estimated by the Department of Education itself at $4.7 billion. This represents federal money that will be spent on Pell grants at institutions that would otherwise lose their eligibility, and in defaulted federal student loans.

Decision Time on the Cooperative Extension Service

July, 2018

Lincoln -- Let me preface this post with a few kind words about the Cooperative Extension Service, because a few paragraphs down there will be unkind words.

Extension is an important part of my life. I was a charter member of the Rock Creek Ranchers 4-H Club (its first president, actually), made up of farm boys around Davey. We're still in touch six decades later and the club is still going. I remember unloading cattle for the county and state fairs at the north dock of the old 4-H barns at the fairgrounds in Lincoln, with the help of county agents Emery Nelson and Cyril Bish, and later with Allan Boettcher. My father's farming methods were admired by county agents, who brought foreign visitors to our farm to demonstrate good Nebraska farming practices. My mother was a leader of a county home extension club, as was my aunt, who graduated from the original NU "School of Agriculture" in 1922. Home extension agents and graduate students visited our family as part of their nutrition research, circa 1949. Growing up, I seldom missed a Tractor Power and Safety Day demonstration at the Ag Campus in Lincoln.

Later, in my professional work, I came to admire the funding model of the Cooperative Extension Service: a combination of federal, state, and local funds, with policy input from each level. This is "cooperative federalism" at its best. Many other government programs could benefit from adopting this model.

But in more recent times, I've heard grumbling about the Extension Service, that its role has been taken over by agribusiness salespeople who know more about their subjects than do Extension agents. I've experienced disappointment along these lines myself, when I consult Extension NebGuides that parrot a manufacturer's line and even refer readers to the company. One farmer asked me why he should be paying taxes for a service that others are providing free, if it's all the same information. The same is happening in other states, too.

There is no better analysis of what is happening to the Extension Service than a 2015 paper written perceptively from the inside. It tackles these and other difficult questions. It makes a case that Extension agents are needed to train the salespeople, but notes honestly that the company reps are out to make profits, not to watch out for broader public goods that range all the way from environmental protection, to rural health and nutrition, even to the economic viability of the agriculture sector. Not to mention that the salespeoples' services are not really free. The paper even looks at the possibility of ending Extension as we have known it, or putting it on a fee basis, or privatizing it.

The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, now in conference committee to iron out differences between House and Senate versions, will give the Extension Service a reprieve. The Senate version (a bipartisan product) is the better of the two, by far, but its fate is uncertain due to ideological warfare and unprecedented political positioning in the House.

Neither the Senate nor House bill offers a vision for the Extension Service to meet the challenges of the times. Some of us working on the bills as citizens have tried to advance the idea of unleashing the Extension Service to combat the nation's obesity and diabetes epidemic, and to lend a hand in developing jobs and businesses in local and regional food markets that are poised to take off with the right direction and support.* Growing demand for healthy food can help repopulate rural America.

These suggestions have been politely applauded, then ignored in the rush to address issues more politically salient and more amenable to immediate monetizing by those who feed at the farm bill trough.

One of the strengths of Extension, however, is that it does not depend entirely on federal leadership. The State of Nebraska itself could step up and unleash the Extension service, with its formidable infrastructure, to tackle Nebraska problems that current agribusiness, health care, and non-profit interests can't or won't.

The next governor should convene a summit, within state government, of the state's Economic Forecasting Advisory Board, the Tax Commissioner, the directors of Agriculture, Health, and the Budget Division, the Vice Chancellor for IANR, and the Dean of Extension to develop a vision for the Extension Service and a budget to support and deliver it. The summit would deal with realities such as the need for agricultural diversification in view of the loss of international markets for traditional Nebraska products; and with the largely unacknowledged fact that exported U.S. processed foods have spread an obesity and diabetes crisis across the globe.

Here's one summit discussion topic: “Feeding our nation well, not the world badly.” This would require an integrated view of Extension's nutrition and production mandates, now sorely lacking; and require getting the Nebraska farm economy positioned to maximize comparative advantage, where it is now not. The decline of the agriculture economy in the state is beyond serious; it is an imminent crisis.

Three decades ago my friend and former colleague Hans Brisch,** then an NU vice president, convinced the state to invest $50 million in new state support for NU research. He got a conservative governor's attention and the funds sailed through the legislature because it was seen as essential to the future of Nebraska. Something similar could be done again with the right leadership, because the need is even greater.
* We also have been advocating for increased conservation and soil health measures, and to consider topsoil loss a national infrastructure priority.

** Dr. Brisch (1940-2006) went on to become Chancellor of the University of Oklahoma, where he left a great legacy.

Declaring Russia an Enemy

July, 2018

Lincoln and Washington -- My U.S. Senator, Ben Sasse, has suggested that President Trump declare Russia an enemy of the United States.

That would be a good idea but it won't happen, as the senator knows. It would trigger the clause in the Constitution that defines treason as giving aid and comfort to an enemy. This the last thing the president would do.

Rather, Senator Sasse and other senators should introduce a concurrent resolution* for Congress to declare Russia an enemy. Passage of such a resolution would clarify grounds for impeachment. It would constrain the president from giving further aid and comfort to Russia, which has tampered in our elections and is surely doing so again, threatening our very democracy.

It would also provide the special counsel in the Russia probe with more options. The president would not have to be indicted for a criminal act, as some people believe is necessary, in order to face impeachment. The special counsel would not have to put the president before a grand jury, always a messy situation; the House would not have to wrestle with the meaning of high crimes and misdemeanors, but only look at what constitutes aid and comfort.

Most of all, passage of such a resolution now would deter the president from giving even more aid and comfort to Russia. It would be a way for Congress to assert itself meaningfully and constructively, in our system of separation of powers and checks and balances.

* Concurrent resolutions are not subject to veto by the president.

How Vulnerable are these Four Senators

July, 2018

Washington -- Senators Manchin, Donnelly, Heitkamp, and McCaskill, if they were entertaining the notion of voting for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, just got a splash of cold water in the face from the estimable Jane Mayer, who suggested they might be more vulnerable for voting for Kavanaugh than voting against him.

Look what happened to Senators Dixon and Fowler, who voted for Clarence Thomas in a similar situation. They were defeated at the next election.

Moreover, surveys* of voters in the applicable red states suggest that narrow majorities would approve a Democratic senator opposing Kavanaugh so as to provide a check on presidential power. This is before such a position has even been well articulated.

If Kavanaugh's "originalism" is unmasked as contrary to Madison's and Jefferson's views of the Constitution, those majorities will increase substantially. A key element of originalism, the idea that unenumerated rights are not protected, is blind to Madison's explicit Ninth Amendment** in the Bill of Rights itself. As I suggested in the previous blog, no one has ever gone down in an election by being too closely associated with James Madison.

We Americans take our checks and balances seriously. What with the American president's questionable – some will say treasonous – performance alongside the Russian president, more and more people will want to take a step back on the Kavanaugh nomination. The nominee is well known for his position that a president should not be bothered by an investigation until his term is over. That matter could soon come before the Supreme Court.

There is also every reason for the four senators in question to wait until hearings can be held on the nomination. It is well known that Brett Kavanaugh was instrumental in providing, on behalf of Kennent Starr, selective information to selective press during Starr's Clinton investigation. Red state voters may not be pleased to learn that this typical Washington swamp behavior is his background.

* "The survey shows that fifty-four per cent of voters polled in these states said they would approve of a Democratic senator opposing Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court if it protected the independence of the Court as a check on Presidential power."--Jane Mayer

** Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Originalism Indeed: Madison Versus Trump

July, 2018

Washington -- If history is any guide, Democratic senators are preparing questions for the Supreme Court nomination hearings that may make for good television but for bad political strategy.

The nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, will surely be well prepared for Roe and Fisher and wedding cakes, likely targets of Democratic inquiry.

He will not be so well prepared for questions of political theory, of Montesquieu* and Madison,** of constitutional checks and balances. If he is only asked.

If no one has noticed, the country is on the verge of being taken over by one-party government with all the danger that entails. Republicans hold power in all three branches at the national level, weakening the separation of powers; the same goes for a wide majority of states, weakening the division of powers provision in the federal system.

Survival of our checks and balances is shaping up to be the issue of our time. It is also the issue where Kavanaugh and his fellow "originalists" are weak. Judicial activism in several cases and timidity in others by so-called originalists are emasculating the true original genius of the Constitution.

Appropriate questioning will draw attention to this situation in the confirmation hearing. Democrats should be ready to go nouveau-originalism one better in citing Madison, to show how judicial activism in Citizens United and Shelby County stepped over the line of legislating from the bench, and how Hawaii dangerously empowers the executive. These are concerns of conservatives and liberals alike. Activist judges are now much more a problem from the right than from the left. See Justice Kagan's comment about "black-robed rulers overriding citizens choices" in Janus.

The nominee could say, of course, that the remedy is at the polls. But that particular check and balance is also being closed off by the Supreme Court because of its indifference to the 14th Amendment's requirement for equal protection in the gerrymandering cases. Such is the refinement of the science of gerrymandering that a party can win widely at the polls but lose badly in the struggle for representation.

Moreover, it has become decidedly murkier as to just what policies and parties voters are to choose among in elections. Historic Republican positions on trade, foreign affairs, fiscal policy and so many other areas have been victims in a through-the-looking-glass rush to one-party power. Voting now is becoming up or down on a cult leader.

Especially troubling with this nominee is his tying the judiciary to the executive power, as Montesquieu warned against, in the nominee's view that the executive should be immune from legal prosecution while in office.

Voters of all ideological persuasions hold our constitutional principles dear and, if Democrats ask the right questions, voters in red states with Democratic senators will be patient with their senators as they deliberate their senatorial check and balance, the power to confirm or deny confirmation to a Supreme Court nominee. In my recollection, no elected official has ever gone down for being too Madisonian.

If the matter becomes, for all forty-nine Democratic senators, one of Madisonian originalism versus Trumpian originalism, it's possible the nomination could go down, or at least be held over to the next Congress, if the Republicans splinter on other issues. I am not predicting this, as most senators and their staffs these days care only about the news cycle and social media, and little of the Enlightenment. They are the product of colleges that increasingly teach political management over political theory, so I'm not holding out hope.

* "When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
"Again, there is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.
"There would be an end of every thing, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals."

--Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book XI

** "A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State."

-- Madison, The Federalist, No 51

Memories of SOJ Operations off North Korea

July, 2018

Washington -- It being the Fourth of July, patriotism is a good subject to consider. And North Korea.

An image is sticking in my mind, a photo from the Singapore summit three weeks ago. Kim Jong-un is shepherding Donald Trump into a room; his hand is on the middle of Trump's back, guiding him, a show of who's in charge. Trump is about to get taken, it seems. Trump will lower military readiness for a Kim promise to de-nuclearize North Korea. Within days, however, satellite photos will show North Korea enhancing its nuclear facilities.

Perhaps somehow it will all work out. Diplomacy has risks worth taking. Doubtless it was wise to step back from the brink of a senseless and catastrophic war.

Some of us on this Fourth of July must be excused if we turn our eyes away from the summit spectacle and look instead to photos of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2), a Navy ship still in commission and held in a North Korean port. Its crew was captured in 1968 by North Korea, tortured for a year, then released.

I was in the Navy at the time, between ships. My orders were to join the USS Arlington (AGMR-2) in Sydney, Australia. When I got to the Philippines, suddenly the orders were changed, as I was somehow to get to the ship in the Sea of Japan (SOJ), operating off the North Korean port of Wonsan. I flew to Okinawa, then to Tachikawa Air Base outside Tokyo, then to the Naval Air Facility at Atsugi, where I boarded a COD (carrier onboard delivery) flight to the USS Enterprise, which had just been rushed to waters off the North Korean coast.

It was snowing when we reached the big aircraft carrier; the deck was white and slippery. The pilot missed the arresting wire four times. Each time he missed, he went full throttle out over the sea to circle and try again. We landed on the fifth attempt. If that one had not succeeded, a cable net barrier would have been put across the flight deck to crash-land us. I spent the night on the Enterprise. The next morning, I was helicoptered over to the Arlington, which was on the scene to provide communications between Washington and the U.S. Navy ships off Wonsan.

Our ships were there to invade the port and rescue the crew of the Pueblo, if the signal was given to do so. It was not given, mostly out of concern that the crew would immediately have been killed by their captors, if we even knew where they were being held. Sixty-eight days later, Arlington steamed back into Yokosuka, Japan.

What are those who have served to deter North Korean totalitarianism supposed to think about new bonhomie with the brutal North Korean leaders? It certainly puts a damper on this Fourth of July for some of us.

Tackling the Student Loan Cancellation Dilemma

July, 2018

Washington -- This blog post will throw caution to the wind and take on the issue of wholesale student loan cancellation as a way to help the economy and simultaneously get millions of borrowers out of financial trouble. The Levy Institute has recently looked at cancellation's effect on the economy and finds considerable merit in the idea; and it is abundantly clear that student loans are the cause of unending financial distress for wide swaths of the U.S. population. To an alarming extent, the mess is attributable to fundamental consumer protection failures.

The idea of student loan cancellation came up before in the aftermath of the Great Recession, as a way to put money into the economy to aid recovery. No one advanced an acceptable plan. The proposal came up again in the 2016 election but quickly was dropped in favor of airy candidate promises for "free" college sometime in the distant future. This naturally built resentment among those with current debt.

Now some political candidates are talking about it again but with little substance as to hows and whys.

A major problem that must be overcome is "equity." It seems unfair to cancel the large existing debt of one person but to do nothing for another person who has struggled mightily and just paid off debt. It seems unfair to cancel a large debt of a person who chose to attend an expensive college but cancel only a small debt for someone who chose a low-cost, and perhaps lesser quality, institution. It seems unfair to students who worked two or three jobs and took extra years to graduate so as to avoid debt. Inherent perceived inequities will likely sink any universal loan cancellation plan.

A different way to approach the problem would be to address equity concerns first, above other considerations. The amount of debt relief would not be based on amount borrowed or debt remaining, but would be based on other criteria that are more fundamental to the creation of the problem in the first place.

The increase in student loan debt has been due in significant part to dimished public support for higher education. There was once a consensus* that individual students should pay about one-third the cost of higher education, public tax support should provide another third, and the remaining third would come from charitable efforts and miscellaneous grant, contract, and enterprise receipts. That was understood to be a rough split of support based on the idea that whoever benefited should pay proportionately.

But by the beginning of this century, individuals were often picking up much more than a third, and borrowing heavily to do it.

A solution would be to have society step back in to equalize between generations. Consider a simple illustration: if the cost of education (instruction and related) was an inflation-adjusted $21,000 per year, under the old consensus the individual would be responsible for $7,000 and others for $14,000. But as we moved into this century, the responsibility became more the reverse.

So why not provide a tax credit of $7,000 per individual per year of post-secondary education (using the example above) with the rationale of generational equity, to make up for the unfairness of abandoning the old consensus? The credit would provide look-back up to thirty years. Its actual amount in any year would be calculated on national averages of cost and share. Claiming the credit would require only proof of attendance in credit hours (available in transcripts) at a HEA Title IV participating post-secondary institution, not an amount borrowed, paid, or due.

This would help many individuals immensely and allow them to get on top of their debt quickly. It would not be "forgiveness" of the debt, in the sense that the term is often used interchangably with other debt relief measures. The forgiveness involved would be society's own asking for it, from a generation of individuals it wronged and for which we are all paying, individual and society alike. Even the Federal Reserve chief has expressed concern about student loan debt's drag on the economy.

Yes, the tax credit would be refundable if taxable income was too low to take full advantage of the credit, but the refund would be paid first to reduce principal loan balance. There should also be a means test for so-called vertical equity. Those with high incomes and high debt are not the issue that needs to be addressed. Bankruptcy relief should become available as it was before 1998** for those with intractable problems. To forestall price-gouging by institutions, Congress should put a moratorium on the collective amount of loans any institution can put into students' financial aid packages, enforced through HEA Title IV gatekeeping.

These measures would enhance a sense of urgency to replace them with broad post-secondary finance reforms and move the U.S. toward better models, like Australia's for example.

This approach could also be considered a "tax cut" due the lower and middle classes, which did not benefit much if at all from the 2017 federal tax cut, as it largely benefited corporations and individuals at the higher income levels.

I would not be surprised if this idea, or something like it, quickly gained popular support as a way of dealing with the nation's crippling student debt crisis. It would have many of the same positive effects on the economy as described in the Levy study; it would avoid many of the inequities of earlier proposals that doomed them; it would save countless families from continued financial ruin brought about by foolish, counterproductive federal student loan policies. (Not to mention inept and sometimes fraudulent student loan administration.)

It gives me pause to suggest any plan that would increase the federal deficit, but the Levy Institute's study ameliorates that concern substantially.

* The consensus is best explicated by the Carnegie Commission, 1973.
** 2005 for private student loans

Test of Leadership in Nebraska

June, 2018

Lincoln -- The best thing that could happen right now to help Nebraska's faltering agricultural economy would be for our three congressmen – Bacon, Smith, and Fortenberry – to tell their Republican House leadership to support the just-passed Senate farm bill and consign the terrible House farm bill to history.

The House version is a partisan, divisive bill that wastes money needlessly and counterproductively; it cuts conservation programs to do so; it futher squeezes farmers at a time of low commodity prices and high property taxes. The bill's farm policy provisions are adamately opposed by left, center, and right. Its transparent purpose is to create an election-year wedge issue over food stamps; in other words, farmers' need for a decent farm bill will be held hostage to demagogic attacks on the poor.

The Senate version is a bi-partisan effort that maintains programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, much used by Nebraska farmers. The House version zeros it out in favor of giving taxpayer help to more CAFO developments (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), which citizens in many Nebraska counties are vehemently opposing.*

The Senate version limits the number of non-farm managers who can benefit from farm subsidies, in the form of the Grassley Amendment. Excessive subsidies to non-farmers drive land prices upward and keep them there, not only burdening real farmers with high property taxes but limiting the entry of young farmers into agriculture. (Unfortunately, the similar Durbin-Grassley amendment was not included in the Senate bill, which would have means-tested crop-insurance subsidies to further take pressure off property taxes.**)

The Senate bill also gives support to local and regional agricultural programs, where there is huge potential for job development according to the St. Louis Fed in its encouraging report, Harvesting Opportunity. Nebraska could be in the forefront if the Senate bill passes.

All Nebraska eyes should be on Senator Deb Fischer, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee which produced the Senate-passed bill, to see if she will try to unite the Nebraska congressional delegation in favor of the bi-partisan and clearly superior Senate bill. So far, her record both as a state and U.S. senator leaves much to be desired in terms of Nebraska agriculture. She now has a chance to remedy at least part of that unfortunate legacy by telling her Nebraska colleagues in Washington not to sacrifice the future of the state to a shameless scheme that is now unfolding in all its ugliness.

This could also be a test of Governor Rickett's leadership. Will he advise the Nebraska House delegation to drop their support of the House bill, and also weigh in for our state with the Speaker and the President?

* Colfax, Washington, and Lancaster counties are the latest to witness citizen uprisings against CAFOs. If you want to see what goes on in a pountry CAFO, watch the new documentary movie "Eating Animals." Despite its unfortunate name, it is worth a watch. (My own family – Oberg Hatcheries – goes way back in the poultry industry, when chickens were raised on small farms as a part of diversified farming.)

** Senator Durbin had too little company from his fellow Democrats on the farm bill, as their strategy is to be bi-partisan at all costs and not put forth a Democratic vision of what rural America needs. I think this is a big mistake. Rural America is hurting in so many ways; the farm bill would have been a chance for Democrats to get back into winning in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania (and holding Minnesota), where rural voters hold the balance of power. Many of these voters would be attracted to Democratic initiatives on conservation, nutrition, opioid control, diversified farming, and jobs from the growing local and regional food markets. Yet the Democrats' "Better Deal" is silent on all these issues, giving the impression that Democrats are content in doubling down on their failed 2016 bi-coastal, popular-vote strategy and conceding the heartland and the electoral college to the other party, perhaps in perpetuity.

AVA Colleagues in the News

June, 2018

Washington -- How good to open the New York Times today electronically and see an op-ed from the German entertainer-activist Wolf Bierman, writing on the difficult decisions of Angela Merkel. I especially liked that the newspaper gave us the original German version as well as English, so we can compare the two.

How daunting it must be for the translator to know that millions of bilingual people may be second-guessing him or her while reading the paper over their morning coffee. Bierman himself is a lyricist, so turning a phrase of a phrase-maker is a challenge.

Then I saw who did the translation: Isabel Cole, none other than our fellow member of American Voices Abroad (AVA) in Berlin. Well done, Isabel.

Isabel Fargo Cole has recently written a novel, Die grüne Grenze, which won notice from German reviewers not least for the idea that an American could write it so well.

Another AVA member also has published a new, important book in German, Worauf wir stolz sein dürfen. That would be our friend, the indomitable Gretchen Dutschke, who is now on tour around Germany discussing it.

Isabel and Gretchen are both midwesterners, from Illinois.

Remorse and Ranked Choice Voting

June, 2018

Washington -- Maine has now approved ranked choice voting (RCV). The RCV victory may have been helped by a strong New York Times editorial in its favor.

Australia and Ireland use this voting method, as do several local governments in the United States. Bills have been introduced in nineteen states to replace winner-take-all elections with ranked choice voting.

The reason I favor RCV is that it deals with often legitimate voter complaints. Many voters feel they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Even if their favorite candidate is on a multi-candidate ballot, in a winner-take-all election voting their actual preference can be a "wasted" vote. Voters often feel manipulated by spoiler candidates who split popular candidates' support, resulting in victories by candidates that most voters actually reject. Many voters stay home because they don't like the choices presented to them, or they think their votes make no difference if their spouses vote differently, cancelling each other out.

Many voters want to "send a message" with their vote, but can't for some or all of these reasons. And if they do vote, their desired message is often misinterpreted or deliberately twisted.

With RCV, each voter is invited to send several clear, unmistakable messages through thoughtful voting. Dislike a candidate intensely? Place that candidate last. Really like a minor candidate and want to send a message of encouragement? Place that candidate first and mark a major candidate you can tolerate second. Dislike candidates who sling mud? Reward those who don't by ranking them higher.

Once more people understand that RCV is message-voting in spades, more states will adopt it. It could also be called no-more-excuses voting.

Now is the time to give RCV* a try. There many voters who are experiencing remorse or even shame at the turn of events resulting from the 2016 national elections. Conservative voters especially sent their messages but did not want or expect outcomes to include trade wars, the breakup of the Western Alliance, cozying up to dictators, and forceably taking children from parents who legally seek asylum. Their excuse for enabling all this? That they had no choice, as it was unthinkable to vote for the other side. Leaving aside the thought that they were duped by Russian manipulation of social media, they have a point. They voted (or chose not to vote) in a system that can produce such outcomes, and it did.

Perhaps these voters will lead the charge for RCV voting. They should.

* RCV has its detractors, and not just those who benefit from the current system of electing by mere pluralities. Some voting experts and mathematicians demonstrate that different ways of counting can result in different RCV outcomes. These almost never happen, however, and hardly outweigh all the RCV advantages. Where RCV has been used, the usual result is higher voter turnout, election of more candidates who can compromise on issues, and encouragement for outsiders who can test their ideas with voters and prevail over time.

Loss of a Friend

June, 2018

Washington -- Last month I lost a friend, Harold, in Maryland. No, he didn't pass away. Rather, he acted in such a manner that friendship between us henceforth is unlikely if not impossible.

Harold (not his real name) and I had shared several good times over the years around Chesapeake Bay, including at least two Thanksgiving dinners at the home of mutual friends. I thought he was a decent fellow, always doing the right thing despite challenges from within a troubled family.

But at a gathering last month he gravely insulted his former Thanksgiving hostess with vulgarities and obscenities. Knowing she held a dim view of our country's current president, he let her know he was a strong supporter. Among his reasons: he likes how the president speaks – crudely – which gives license to people like himself to do so as well.

When his former hostess tried to change the conversation to a happier subject, the British royal wedding, Harold let loose with a stream of invective about how terrible it was that British royalty was allowing n-----s into it. (Apparently he was unaware that Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, was partly of African descent.)

What is our country coming to when an American president is encouraging behaviors such as Harold's? I was surprised and disgusted when I learned of Harold's actions. He is college educated, a retired former federal employee. I inquired of a witness to these outbursts if Harold had ever served our country in the military. He had not. Often such service, in my experience, knocks nonsense like Harold's out of people. It also makes those who serve reflect on what kind of a country they are risking their very lives for: one founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, with unalienable rights, or a country of blood and soil, ruled by despots committed to the very opposite.

Are we a country full of Harolds, who put their own prejudices, grievances, and unexamined fears above the heritage passed down from the Declaration of Independence? Is the president's bestowed license more important to them than (1) two centuries of ongoing work toward a more perfect union and (2) a decent respect to the opinions of mankind? Increasingly, it seems so.

Germany's Options to Save the Western Alliance

June, 2018

Berlin -- Western Europe is looking to save itself from a rogue U.S. president who seems bent on disrupting if not destroying the defense and economic alliances that have served our common interests so well since World War II.

European leadership in this crisis must come from the German government in Berlin.

Germany could do as Gaullist France did in 1966: assert itself by removing U.S. troops from the country. Or Germany could embark on a trade war. But these options only weaken all parties and make the alliances even more vulnerable.

A move that would make Western Europe's point and actually strenghten all the parties in our alliances would be for Germany quickly to fulfill its pledge to increase its defense spending to 2% of GDP. Currently it is at about 1.3%.

But the increased spending would not be for conventional NATO purposes; it would be for increased cybersecurity, to fend off hacking and social media threats from both the east (Putin) and the west (Trump).

In addition to increasing spending for security measures along an east-west axis, Germany should also be prepared to spend more to defend itself and Western Europe along a north-south axis. This will require investments and new defense and economic alliances with the countries of North Africa, to stem the flow of dispossessed peoples into Europe.

Such bold moves by Germany would make an indelible impression around the world. They would be welcomed by its Western European partners and by many if not most Americans, who likewise are troubled by the crisis needlessly fomented by our own president.

One Reform to Save America

June, 2018

Washington -- The conservative pundit David Brooks and I would not agree on everything, but I can't say enough good about his recent column on how voting reforms are the most promising cure for our increasingly destructive two-party polarization.

Ranked-choice voting and multimember congressional districts have much to offer. Maine voters are leading the way on ranked choice voting this month. Let this adage once more come true: As Maine goes, so goes the nation.

Eight years ago I wrote in favor of voting reforms that would bring the advantages of proportional representation into our national politics. There is nothing in our Constitution that mandates political parties and winner-take-all voting. These matters are under the jurisdiction of states. In fact, many local governments already utilize ranked choice (instant run-off) voting and multimember districts, so these concepts are hardly new.

Brooks' column is titled "One Reform to Save America." This is not hyperbole. We should get on with it.

Exploiting Veterans and the Military

May, 2018

Washington and Lincoln -- It's Memorial Day and a time to think of veterans past, present, and future.

The New York Times led off the day with a harsh but truthful look at how veterans are being exploited by predatory colleges. It is shameful; it is corrupt, there are no other words for it. As a veteran myself, I assist as much as I can those who are in the fight to protect veterans, but it is a difficult struggle when so much of the country willfully turns a blind eye to it.

Then there is the news that my U.S. senator, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, supports taking money out of the federal Impact Aid program to support private elementary and secondary schools for the children of those in the military. Impact Aid now supports public schools to make up for the loss of taxable property in locations where there are large military bases. Bellevue and Papillion in Nebraska are examples of school districts where there are many military schoolchildren but a small tax base due to the presence of Offut Air Force Base.

When I worked in the U.S. Senate many years ago, Impact Aid was targeted for cuts by Ronald Reagan. The cuts had no real rationale behind them other than that Nebraska should be happy to have the presence of Offut and that state, not federal, taxpayers should be responsible for equalizing property tax bases among districts.

Bellevue and Papillion school boards approached Nebraska Senator Jim Exon about fighting the cuts to Impact Aid. He was a member of the Armed Services Committee and well-positioned to lead the fight. And lead he did, organizing a hearing at which he was joined by his committee colleagues Sam Nunn of Georgia, John Warner of Virginia, John Tower of Texas, and others to keep Impact Aid intact.

If memory serves (I assisted with the testimony), John Chafee of Rhode Island, a former Secretary of the Navy, and James Abnor of South Dakota also fought the cuts vigorously. Abnor was particularly concerned about the effect of the cuts on South Dakota counties with Indian Reservations.

The effort succeeded. Impact Aid survived intact.

How times change. Now my Nebraska senator would take funds from Impact Aid with the rationale that military families will choose to take their children out of public schools, so districts like Bellevue and Papillion will have fewer pupils and therefore need less support.

If I were still writing testimony on Impact Aid, I would raise another question. Is it good to promote, with federal funds, an educational system in which military families are incentivized to leave the the public schools? The public schools are institutions that bring communities together, where civilians and military families mix and learn from each other. The public schools are places where our common heritage and common values are taught. Increasingly, non-public schools and home-based schools are teaching their own versions of our country, promoting nativist and sectarian ideologies. Many military children go into military service themselves. Is it for support of such ideological causes our future military is being prepared?

Looking at these matters from a veteran's viewpoint, I think we are on dangerous ground here at all levels of education, from elementary school through college. What are we becoming as a nation, when veterans and those in military service are not so much to be honored as exploited?

Don Bacon's Farm Bill

May, 2018

Lincoln -- On April 30, 2018, a dust storm swept across central Nebraska. Visibility was so bad that traffic on Interstate 80 was halted after a twenty-nine vehicle pile-up that caused one fatality. The source of the dust? Blowing farm fields, inadequately protected by conservation measures.

On May 18, Nebraska Republican Congressman Don Bacon, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, voted for a farm bill that kills the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the nation's largest conservation program for working farms. Nebraska, moreover, has been the nation's largest beneficiary of CSP in terms of acres covered, almost eight hundred thousand in 2017. But clearly not enough.

This could not have been an easy vote for Don Bacon, hurting Nebraska so hard, assuming he understood what he was voting on.

Historically, farm bills have been developed on a bipartisan basis with the needs of different parts of the country taken into account. This one, however, was a partisan product of the Republican leadership, for which conservation is a low priority. Congress being what it is these days, Don Bacon saw no option but to put partisanship above soil health. Let the fields blow.

Fortunately, the bill did not pass. It is widely seen as the worst farm bill in memory. Conservative organizations such as the Cato Institute, the Club for Growth, and Heritage Action oppose it. So do many farmer-led organizations. Conservation and natural resource groups are dead set against it to the point of outrage.

Unfortunately, Speaker Paul Ryan will try to bring the bill up again, to force it through the House on a party-line vote. The Republican leadership wants political talking points about putting more work requirements on food stamp (SNAP) recipients, sensing (perhaps correctly) that it can take rural America voters for granted and need not address rural America's needs. The major media seem happy to play along, as there has been scant coverage of anything that is actually in the farm bill beyond the SNAP issue.

Apologists for the bill say some of the savings from killing CSP will be redirected to other conservation programs, such as EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. This is good if you want taxpayer dollars moved from land stewardship to helping feedlots and huge chicken farms expand across the countryside, as is now happening around Fremont. Maybe that's the future Don Bacon sees for the remaining rural areas of Douglas County.

Adding insult to injury, the bill does not modernize and reform crop insurance as it should, to encourage farmers to plant cover crops to protect the soil. Instead, it wastes $3.4 billion (over ten years) in unnecessary subsidies (according to CBO scoring) and even retreats from the crop insurance reforms that were enacted in the 2014 Farm Bill. Think what $3.4 billion could have done for soil conservation.

Cogent reviews of the House farm bill and its conservation issues have been written by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Rural Advancement Foundation International.
For a broader look, check out Farm and Food File; if you can stand to be really appalled about what is happening to the Great Plains, read "Kansas Is Dying."

Because this is not a partisan blog, I should note that Democrats are hardly being helpful in bringing the farm bill's shortcomings to public attention. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi visited an Iowa farm on May 7 and said nothing about how the troubling provisions in the bill are hurting rural America. Although Democrats have pointed out the bill's lamentable attempt to end bipartisan farm bill cooperation over food stamp issues, at the national level they have been silent as to what they stand for in the rest of the bill, if anything.

It remains a mystery as to how Democrats think they can win elections in rural America by ignoring it. Rural voters may develop suspicions about whether the Don Bacons of the world are watching out for their interests (clearly not), but they will ask Democrats what they are for, and Democrats need to be ready with answers, rather than silence.

Iron Triangles: Part VII

May, 2018

Washington -- Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has twice this year admonished Education Department employees that they must not communicate with others outside the department. The first was a crackdown of communications between budget and appropriations officials. The second is more general warning that employment at the department is a "public trust" and all outside communications must be cleared, even by departmental attorneys if necessary.

All I can say is that if there is any breach of the public trust going on, it is being committed by the Secretary and her appointees, who are rife with conflicts of interest and whose policies are inimical to the very concept of public trust. The latest violation of such a trust is the disestablishment of the office to police fraud by for-profit colleges. As one victim of the DeVos reign put it, “Those people who are in those high positions — they need to look at themselves....I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”

Viewed historically, however, this behavior is typical of what happens when outside interests capture the government and turn it to their own ends through establishment of an iron triangle. Currently the for-profit college industry has its people in control at both the Education Department and at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. They are dismantling consumer protections everywhere they find them.

It is not the first time. From 2002-2006 the House committee was led by Congressmen John Boehner and Buck McKeon. McKeon owned stock in a for-profit college (Corinthian) when he presided over higher education policy. The Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education at the time, Sally Stroup, had been a lobbyist for the for-profit college industry as well as a former member of the committee's staff. Together, they pushed through repeal of a previous consumer protection statute known as the fifty-percent rule.

The rule had been put in place after Senator Sam Nunn's hearings on corruption in the for-profit sector in 1990. The idea was that a college could not offer more than fifty percent of its programs online, in order to discourage fly-by-night online operators. When McKeon and Stroup got the consumer protection repealed, the for-profit industry boomed.

In 2012, Senator Tom Harkin opened more hearings on fraud in the for-profit college industry. Two years later, McKeon left the House, but not before had taken advantage of the iron triangle to recover from his California western-wear store's bankruptcy, in part by using political campaign contributions from the for-profit college industry to pay his wife to be his campaign manager. In the meantime, after Stroup's departure from the Education Department, she went back to work for McKeon in the House and eventually returned to her position as a very well paid lobbyist for the industry through 2015.

The DeVos threats against Education Department employees who speak up against iron triangle behavior of any kind will likely succeed, I'm afraid. One reason is that federal employees are kept in the dark about the Lloyd-Lafollette Act, under which they may legally and properly share their concerns about waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement with Congress and its agencies. It would be good to see Education Department employees take the "public trust" argument and turn it right back against iron triangle behavior wherever and whenever it occurs. The DeVos administration is nothing if not a gross abuser of programs intended to help students and families, not to ruin countless lives with worthless degrees and unmanageable student debt.

Farm Bill in Trouble, As It Should Be

May, 2018

Lincoln -- Today the U.S. House of Representatives voted down the 2018 Farm Bill, but for the wrong reason: the House Freedom Caucus wanted a vote on immigration first.

Republicans have now gone on record that they would rather play politics on immigration than pass the Farm Bill for rural America. Apparently it is a calculation that Democrats are so weak in rural America that Republicans can neglect heartland voters with impunity, and get by with it. They may be right, as Democrats have shown no savvy in crafting their own version of the legislation that would signal a return to political competitiveness in the heartland.

This particular Farm Bill, let it be noted, deserves to be voted down on its own accord, politics aside. It is a remarkably bad bill. The non-partisan National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition offered this:

“This bill is an insult to the American family farmers and rural communities who are responsible for putting food on our families’ tables each night,” said Greg Fogel, NSAC Policy Director. “For over 30 years, our coalition has been fighting for a stronger, more sustainable and equitable food and farm system – and we’ve seen real progress being made. Congress has advanced many important issues in recent years, including efforts to strengthen working lands conservation and increase support for beginning farmers and ranchers. The farm bill before the House today, however, will go down in history as being one of the most anti-farmer bills ever seen.It is a shame that the bill drafters have thrown away the bipartisan legacy of the farm bill, and instead chosen to provide unlimited subsidies to mega-farms, undermine rural entrepreneurship and make it more difficult for farmers to access new markets, and decimate our natural resources by cutting support for working lands conservation programs and eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program completely. We sincerely hope that Members will do the right thing this week, and vote on this bill."

NSAC is right, which raises the question of how Nebraska House members Don Bacon, Adrian Smith, and Jeff Fortenberry could have voted for it. It should be an albatross around each of their necks in November.

I expect Kara Eastman, the new Democratic nominee in Nebraska's second congressional district, will be all over Bacon for his vote for this insult to farmers. Bacon beat Brad Ashford in 2016 with strong support in rural areas around Omaha, but is this the Farm Bill those rural voters will support? Not if they know what's in it.* Bacon has no excuse for it, as he is even a member of the committee that brought the bill to the floor.

*H.R. 2 has also been panned by a multitude of conservation and rural-advocacy organizations, including the National Farmers Union and the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. Organizations on the right of the political spectrum don't like it either: Heritage Action for America, The Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks said in a letter, “The House Agriculture Committee farm bill, which is expected to be debated on the House floor in May, is unacceptable." Religious groups have also weighed in: “Providing food for those suffering from hunger is central to our Christian faith. The United Methodist Church understands this call not simply as a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice,” said the Rev. Dr. Susan Henry Crowe, general secretary of the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.

Academic Program Cuts at UNL

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The UNL chancellor has announced cuts to several academic programs in response to the Nebraska legislature's reductions in university appropriations. The fact that the reductions could have been much worse should not take attention away from the implications of the new rollbacks.

In a previous post, I suggested that the governor and the legislature should be demanding more from the university to help the state's agriculture sector, as opposed to trying to cut appropriations as a way to prosperity. The UNL college of agriculture should be a particular focus.

It is therefore not a good signal that the chancellor's first cut is to eliminate the Rural Futures Institute, launched in 2012 to considerable fanfare. Unless, of course, the RFI interdisciplinary approach to reviving rural Nebraska has not measured up and indeed should be on the chopping block. My sense of RFI is that it has had an impossible task given national and state trends in agriculture. On top of that, its approach was too much cheerleading and not enough sober assessment of the fundamentals of rural economies as they now exist given failing national agriculture policy.

Another cut that raises eyebrows is the downsizing of the Survey Research and Methodology Program and a concomitant re-arrangement of funding for the department of statistics. At a time when the integrity of academic research is threatened as never before by funding sources who want to skew findings favorable to their interests, universities need strong efforts in research methodology and statistics.*

The other cuts are more understandable. Universities must constantly update, which requires cutting as well as adding. Sometimes funding pressures can actually be good for institutional renewal.

The chancellor doubtless was tempted to cut the English department, as it has been attacked by a few in the Nebraska legislature who do not approve of its curriculum. Commendably, he did not succumb.

I must relate an anecdote about English teachers from two days ago, when I attended the annual Ron Ridenhour awards ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, sponsored by the Project on Goverment Oversight. Ridenhour was a courageous Vietnam veteran and reporter who first chronicled the My Lai massacre, fifty years ago. His eyewitness source was Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who stopped the massacre by use of force against his fellow servicemen who were committing it. After Hugh Thompson left the Army he sought guidance about whether he should participate in a cover-up of the massacre. His old Boy Scout leader and his old football coach advised him to stay quiet. His English teacher told him of his moral duty to speak up. We are a better country for that English teacher.

* If any statistics faculty are losing their jobs, they could get a measure of poetic justice on their way out the door by instructing the chairman of the board of regents and the president of the university about how to calculate and describe percentages. Both the chairman and the president, during this year's budget battle with the legislature, claimed that UNL administrative costs were "125% lower" than such costs at peer institutions in other states. Meaning what, exactly? That they were less than zero? The actual numbers, it turns out, are these: UNL, $52 million; peer group, $117 million. The former is not "125% lower" than the latter. Correctly expressed, one can say the peer group is 125% higher than UNL, or UNL is 44% of the peer group. The same error was made in describing UNO against its peer group, claiming that it was "100% lower." Again, meaning what, that UNO had no administrative costs whatsoever? What was meant, apparently, is that UNO costs are 50% of its peer group, or its peer group is 100% higher than UNO; that is, twice as high. UNO is not "100% lower." This is embarrassing for a research university.

Two 'Debficits'

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Legislature is adjourning without providing property tax relief, further stressing the hard-pressed agriculture sector. The state budget simply can't sustain even the paltry amount half-heartedly offered by the governor. Now the state is facing a voter referendum on property taxes that may throw the state into fiscal chaos not seen in decades.

At the federal level, the Congressional Budget Office has just projected this year's federal deficit to exceed one trillion dollars, with many more such deficits projected far into the future. This is a huge reversal in the fiscal condition of the federal government, which in recent years had actually been cutting deficits.

These two dangerous conditions would not have developed had elected officials – one in particular – only abided by basic tenets of fiscal responsibility.

At the state level, when times were momentarily flush for agriculture, and when state revenues were growing nicely in 2011 and 2012, the legislature took a portion of the sales tax base and dedicated it to highway construction. This was a risky move as it violated a commonly accepted principle of public budgeting and finance: user taxes should pay for roads and sales taxes for general government. Rather than raising gas taxes, which for many years had been declining as a percentage of gas prices and construction needs, the legislature took tens of millions of dollars annually away from sales tax revenue, a textbook source of local property tax relief. The predictable happened: the farm economy faltered, land prices did not decline commensurately, and the state became crippled, unable to respond to the property tax crisis squeezing Nebraska's all-important agriculture sector.

At the federal level, Congress passed an unfunded tax bill in December of 2017, followed by a huge spending bill in early 2018. The combination is sending the federal deficit to unprecedented and dangerous levels.

One elected official has been instrumental in all three acts of breathtaking fiscal irresponsibility: Deb Fischer. As a state senator, she led the raid on the state sales tax base, which should have been preserved for property tax relief. As a U.S. senator, she voted for both the tax bill and the spending bill, sending the annual federal deficit over a trillion dollars.

Her name is now synonymous with deficits at both state and federal levels. Henceforth in Nebraska the word "deficit" should be called "Debficit."

It is no wonder that Deb Fischer has many challengers this election year, and that her re-election chances have been declining somewhat. Particularly in the Third District she may be weaker than many people assume. Nebraskans in this district especially want property tax relief and want their candidates to support federal fiscal responsibility, if not outright balanced budgets. Deb Fischer has a terrible record on both.