Exploiting Veterans and the Military

May, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

The effort succeeded. Impact Aid survived intact.

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

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

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

Don Bacon's Farm Bill

May, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iron Triangles: Part VII

May, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farm Bill in Trouble, As It Should Be

May, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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