Iron Triangles: Part IX

November, 2018

Washington -- A formidable iron triangle is buckling and may be about to break. As described* in earlier posts, its three corners consist of an industry that profits from the exploitation of federal student aid programs, the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Several successful lawsuits have weakened the triangle and others are pending. The suits have been brought by student loan borrowers, state attorneys general, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and non-profit consumer protection organizations.

Those benefiting from the triangle are fighting back by moving key people through the triangle's revolving doors to shore up House and Department of Education staff, by delaying implementation of court orders, by suppressing audit and program review findings, by cutting off inter-agency agreements, and by attempting to preempt state consumer protection laws.

The newest threat to the iron triangle's grip is the upcoming shift in majority control of the House of Representatives. Newly energized Democrats, if they choose to do so, can hold oversight hearings with subpoena powers to look at the nation's student loan mess, especially to see how the Department of Education's corner of the iron triangle contributed to it.

The oversight hearings will likely be led by the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Other committees may also conduct oversight, as the student loan crisis extends to committee jurisdictions involving veterans, financial services, and appropriations.

The hearings should be conducted before, or at least in conjunction with, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. A goal of the hearings should be to determine whether the problems at the Department of Education can be fixed or if the Department is so irreparably broken that Congress must look to other countries, as many are suggesting, for more workable student aid models.

A first question must deal with the cause of the dysfunction. There can be no dancing around the role of corruption and racketeering.** Why, when fraud and perjury are discovered, does nothing happen to remedy it? Indeed, this should be the focus of oversight hearings.

I have worked at many different positions in higher education: in the institutions, in the states, in the associations, in the Senate, in the Department of Education. My work has extended to eleven years of litigation leading to the successful precedent that has enabled several of the aforementioned lawsuits. It is my sad conclusion, after all this, that the Department of Education has been captured, through corruption and racketeering, by the industry it is supposed to regulate, and that there is no alternative but to start over.

I'll be ready to assist however I can in oversight first, then reauthorization.

*See Iron Triangles, Parts I - VIII

** Racketeering has previously been alleged in student loan lawsuits brought by borrowers, but without the particularity that may now become available through oversight hearings. The hearings will afford an opportunity to look at patterns of racketeering that link revolving door conflicts of interest to fraud and perjury over a period of years, for which there is ample evidence. Another area ripe for racketeering oversight is obstruction of justice, which comes into question when the Department of Education terminates information sharing agreements essential to prosecution of fraud, seeks to obstruct state consumer protection law enforcement through federal preemption, and defies court orders to implement student loan forgiveness and cancellation.

Democrats and Rural Voters

November, 2018

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

November, 2018

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

November, 2018

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 Rhodes 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

November, 2018

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.