Democrats and Rural Voters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Family on Armistice Day

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

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

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

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

Four Great Charities

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

Veterans Education Success (VES).

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

Bikes for the World.

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

Growing Home.

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

Double Up Bucks.

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

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

Congress: No Clue, No Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democrats Haven't Learned

October, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two Documentary Films on Higher Education

September, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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









Sasse's Options on Kavanaugh

September, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








Farm Bill Now In Doubt

September, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet that is the situation.

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* 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.

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* Professor (and former USDA assistant secretary) Bruce Gardner recounts the Zorinsky move in his NBER chapter at http://www.nber.org/chapters/c8722:

"...[A]s the 1985 farm bill deliberations began...farm 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.

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* 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.



Drought

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.

Wildfires

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.

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* 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 statues 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.

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* 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?

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* 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.
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* 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.

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* 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.

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* "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.

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* "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.

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* 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?

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* 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.