A 4-H'er Looks at the November Election

July, 2020

Lincoln – To all my good rural neighbors in Nebraska and elsewhere, let me share some thoughts on the choices coming up in the November elections.

I write this from my standpoint as the first president of the Rock Creek Ranchers 4-H Club, back in the 1950s, a Lancaster County club that has now lasted seven decades but which might not survive much longer unless times change for the better in rural America.  Sentiment aside, however, this is written not out of nostalgia, but out of clear-eyed realism.

It goes without saying that Donald Trump has been a disaster for American agriculture, so I would be supporting almost anyone in his stead this November.  Trump, by throwing taxpayer money at farmers to try to buy their votes, has attempted to turn proud farmers into hypocrites about beliefs they used to hold dear:  trade-not-aid, soil conservation, robust food chains, diversified farming, science in the public interest.

We are lucky not to have just "anyone" as a Trump alternative, but actually a decent person who knows the importance of rural America, Joe Biden.  (4-H taught us decency as well as farming.) I've looked in detail at the Biden plan for rural America.  There's much to like.

Let me distill a few essential points from his plan into thoughts to keep in mind as you talk to other neighbors and decide how to cast your vote.  Biden's rural plan fits nicely into his overall theme of "Build Back Better."

•  Topsoil as an infrastructure priority.  Any conversation about agriculture must start with soil health as a national security issue.  Some experts say America has only about 60 harvests left in its topsoil, given current depletion rates.  Many experts say restoring carbon to our topsoil is among the best ways to combat climate change.  I believe the experts.  The Biden plan would invest heavily in programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which I and many farmers know works well, from personal experience.  Trump's record is to cut and eliminate conservation programs and not to acknowledge topsoil loss or climate change.  So Build Back Better Topsoil.

•  Agriculture research and extension.  The Biden plan would invest heavily in the research agriculture needs right now to meet challenges inconceivable only a few years ago.  Our crops may be losing nutritional value, a sobering development.  Simultaneously, new advances in microbiome research offer exciting new possibilities to treat diseases like diabetes and obesity, scourges of 21st century American life and factors in coronavirus co-morbidity.  I have talked personally to leading researchers on both of these fronts and know that this work is essential.  Likewise, transferring new knowledge (especially about healthy food) to consumers through the Extension Service needs to be revitalized, which could be done under the Biden plan. (Yes, including through 4-H clubs.)  The Trump administration's record, on the contrary, is one of hobbling two important USDA agencies, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service, by relocating them and then joking about it.  So Build Back Better Ag Research.  

•  Restoration of a robust food chain.  The breakdown of America's food chain during the pandemic, when dairy farmers had to dump milk and hog farmers had to kill their pigs because monopoly-run slaughterhouses shut down, illustrates the need to develop much stronger local and regional markets for our food production and distribution.  This is one of the keystones of the Biden plan, and a source of significant job creation.  The Trump administration's record is one of ruining hard-won foreign markets by making America's farmers fight causes like Chinese infringement of intellectual property rights, which realistically can only be fought by multilateral international agreements.  So Build Back Better Local and Regional Markets and create the jobs that go with them. 

•  Broadband for rural America.  Put yourself in the position of a farmer who needs better broadband access for his or her crop production; of a rural family that needs better broadband for their children's remote learning, especially during pandemic shut-downs; of a rural medical clinic that needs good broadband for patient tele-medicine visits.  Rural America cannot thrive without hugely improved broadband.  If there is any hope to re-populate rather than de-populate rural America, broadband will be instrumental.  That is an essential feature of the Biden plan.  So Build Back Better Broadband and re-populate rural America.  

This is not a normal election year.  Some say that the country is hopelessly divided along partisan political lines as never before, but I don't see it that way.  This is an election not about party, but about decency, fundamental values, and the future of rural America.

Take it from a Rock Creek Rancher.    

"Under Penalty of Perjury"

July, 2020

Washington – When people testify before Congress under oath, they are admonished that they must tell the truth or face penalty of perjury.

A new report of the House Committee on Education and Labor explains that an official of the U.S. Department of Education, Diane Auer Jones, did not tell Congress the truth about her ill-fated involvement with a predatory for-profit school and an accreditation authority, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).  The details are available in excellent coverage by the Washington Post and by Republic Report, which first broke the whole unfortunate story months ago based on many whistleblower accounts.

The House Committee was able to come to its conclusion without the cooperation of the Department of Education, which withheld documents.  This poses another problem:  obstruction of Congress's legitimate oversight role.

The new report is hardly a surprise.  Diane Auer Jones has had a problem with the truth on other occasions as well.  I recall hearing her untruthful testimony on the matter of another accrediting agency, ACICS, which clearly, to anyone familiar with the facts, was perjury.  She twice told a House committee, under oath, that she was required by a court to reinstate ACICS when she knew it was not true.  She was under no court order to reinstate the agency, as she claimed, only to review its performance, a huge difference affecting millions of dollars and the fate of many students who became victims of fraud. 

As far back as 2007, this same politically-appointed official was willing to make public statements (albeit not under oath) excusing student loan lenders that had defrauded taxpayers.  She told the Washington Post that the amounts of fraud could not be determined, and therefore no attempt would be made to recover hundreds of millions of dollars, despite numerous Inspector General and internal audits to the contrary.  The episode is recounted in Dan Moldea's new book on corruption in higher education, p. 78.  This was clearly a harbinger of things to come.*

What is of more interest to me, rather than whether Diane Auer Jones is capable of telling the truth, is what happens when a person in her position doesn't.

If there is no actual penalty for perjury, it only encourages more perjury, from other officials.  If there is no penalty for obstruction, it only encourages more obstruction.

The conservative writer George Will has called the Trump Administration a "Gangster Regime."  That's an apt description.  The question is whether Congress will do anything about it, beyond reporting the obvious.

* One of the lenders, PHEAA, committed perjury itself when it denied the existence of a plan to increase certain loan holdings so as to claim higher government subsidies in an amount of $116 million, a scheme the Inspector General determined was illegal.  The actual plan was uncovered in 2017, in spite of PHEAA's determination to hide it, but to date nothing has been done to discipline PHEAA through the Department's Limitation, Suspension, and Termination (LS&T) authority, or through other measures to debar or suspend PHEAA from future contracts.  To the contrary, the Department has attempted to shield the contractor from borrower and consumer lawsuits alleging gross mismanagement, such as those against PHEAA initiated by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York.  To add insult to injury, the Department this month was about to award PHEAA a major student loan servicing contract, despite its manifest shortcomings, before the House Appropriations Committee began to ask questions and the Department backed off (probably temporarily) from its bid solicitation. 

My Congressman in the Role of the Noisy Duck

July, 2020

Lincoln, Washington – You remember the story of the Little Red Hen.  In the role of the noisy yellow duck, who doesn't help sow the wheat, grind the flour, or bake the bread, but who is eager to eat it, I recognize my local congressman, Mr. Fortenberry.

This week he was quick to take credit for delaying furloughs of USCIS employees, which the Lincoln newspaper reported:

"We have some good news. We have secured a delay in the furlough order for @USCIS until the end of August," Fortenberry Tweeted. "This gives Congress time to fully fix the problem, and I hope partly relieves the anxiety this problem caused for the good people at @USCIS."

But numerous other news sources attributed the delay to the sowing, grinding, and baking of Senators Pat Leahy and Jon Tester, with no mention of Mr. Fortenberry.  

The previous week the congressman said he made sure a local loan servicer had a chance to make its case to retain a contract from the U.S. Department of Education.  This was also reported in the Lincoln newspaper.  

I know something about servicer issues, based on several years of successful litigation experience.  Recently I wrote two blog posts on servicer contracting, both widely read in the Department and the industry, and spoke to the office of Wisconsin congressman Mark Pocan, who was prepared to stop the award of the servicing contract in question to a Pennsylvania-based servicer that I consider corrupt.  It was the imminent Pocan amendment in House Appropriations markup that caused the Department to cancel the bid solicitation and start over, according to several knowledgeable sources. 

If my congressman, Mr. Fortenberry, wants to be helpful, instead of playing the role of the noisy duck he can start draining the swamp of the Trump Administration, which has actually caused these and countless other troubles for Nebraska's First District.  I would welcome a congressperson to work shoulder-to-shoulder with me, a First District constituent, in cleaning up the nation's student loan mess, including, especially, the systematic defrauding of veterans by Secretary Betsy DeVos.  

Mr. Fortenberry had a chance actually to do something constructive (and bipartisan) recently by supporting dozens of veterans' groups, including the American Legion, in an effort to overturn a punitive DeVos decision against veterans.  He chose instead to support the Trump Administration, which put the interests of its political contributors ahead of those who served our country.  As a veteran myself, with knowledge of how veterans are defrauded by predatory schools, I was hugely offended by Mr. Fortenberry's vote, if not surprised by it.  

Meanwhile, be prepared for more in the local newspapers from the noisy duck.

More on Norris and Calhoun

July, 2020

Lincoln, Washington – The idea of replacing, in the U.S. Senate Reception Room, the portrait of pro-slavery Senator John C. Calhoun with that of legendary Nebraska Senator George W. Norris has picked up supporters.

I was pleased to hear from former Senate workers from other states who wished it had been done long ago, as they knew the story behind a petty snub to Senator Norris.  They knew that Norris had been selected for the honor in the 1950s, as the first choice of a distinguished group of scholars and historians for the prominent portrait placement.  But Nebraska senators Carl Curtis and Roman Hruska, one-time Norris rivals, opposed it, so no Norris portrait is to be seen at this historic entrance to the Senate floor.

A lively group of Nebraskans who participate in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) have also expressed interest.  Thanks to them for circulating the idea further.

Last week a statue of Calhoun was removed from elsewhere in the U.S. Capitol, as part of an effort to clear the building of Confederate and pro-slavery figures.  That's progress, but the Calhoun portrait has another reason to go as well, because it is long past time to recognize the great Nebraskan George Norris for his remarkable career and inspiration, and this is an opportunity to do it.

Below is the existing portrait of Calhoun in the Senate Reception Room, where that of Norris should be instead.  Perhaps it escapes notice because this is not a room that is as accessible to the public as it once was.  Is Calhoun the person senators should see as they go into the chamber to vote?

Time to Shift from Protest to Advocacy

July, 2020

Washington – It's time to turn the energy generated by the BLM and similar protests toward working for positive, long-lasting changes.

Not that the protests haven't already achieved some of that, what with getting rid of Confederate statutes and namings (long overdue).  But there's always a risk of losing control of movements to provocateurs who want to create a backlash and to those who like destruction for its own sake, as in toppling statues of Union soldiers and even U.S. Grant.

What positive ideas might people rally around?  What causes are good enough to take not only into the streets, but into the halls of government?  Here are three suggestions:

1.  Wage Ratios.   Growing economic inequality (the root of many of our problems) can be reversed by applying wage ratio eligibility standards to most, if not all, federal grants, contracts, tax credits, and tax deductions.  A wage ratio is the ratio in an organization between those with the top compensation and those with the lowest.  In the 1950s, the ratio was about 20:1.  It is now many times that; the  inequality gap has become dangerously wide, such that American social cohesion itself is at risk.

We already apply such ratios for some programs.  For example, 401(k) pension plans, to be eligible for federal tax preferences, must not reward the top ranks at the expense of the bottom.  If we adopted such standards for all federal programs, we would strike a major blow for narrowing the nation's inequality gap.  Federal spending would be a force for reducing inequality, with no new programs or expenditures involved.  Putting more money in the hands of those at the bottom rather than the top will unleash economic activity and opportunity.

2.  Medical Care.  Name about any developed country in the world for an example of medical care financing that is superior to ours in America.  Universal coverage must be our goal, regardless of the specific means to achieve it.  Access to medical care is essential to alleviating the appallingly bad conditions many Americans must deal with to survive.

Obviously this now means control of pandemics as well, which strike disproportionately at those who face racial discrimination.

3.  Climate Threats.  The disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus are only a prelude to what might soon be upon us resulting from climate change.  Reducing carbon emissions must move to the top of the national agenda.  Both our energy and food production systems need overhaul not only to cut carbon emissions but to sequester carbon in our plants and soils.

The Farm Bill is not ordinarily what people take to the streets about, but a completely new one focused on healthy food and healthy, carbon-storing soils, is desperately needed.  Poor nutrition is associated with diseases that weaken resistance to pandemics.*  Agricultural practices that enrich the soil must become the norm rather than the exception.

Are these causes that can excite people enough to turn them from marching protesters into marching advocates?  I can't think of anything more anti-racist; now is the time to do it.

* From the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee:  "As more is learned about infection by SARS-Co V-2 and the development of COVID19, it is clear that it has significant nutritional implications. These parallel epidemics, one noninfectious (obesity and diet-related chronic diseases) and one infectious (COVID-19), appear to be synergistic. Those at most risk for the most serious outcomes of COVID-19, including hospitalization and death, are people afflicted by diet-related chronic diseases (obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease). Finally, throughout the world, the consequences of physical isolation and financial disruption by the threat of COVID-19 infection has led to significant increases in food insecurity and hunger, further increasing susceptibility to both infectious and diet-related chronic diseases. Thus, these interrelationships between chronic diseases, COVID-19, and social determinants of health, emphasize the critical importance of improving dietary patterns. These parallel epidemics demonstrate the central role of nutrition and healthy dietary patterns in susceptibility to both infections and diet-related chronic diseases and these relationships should be further examined in future dietary guidelines."

Lincoln's Mask Requirement

July, 2020

Lincoln –  For those who may miss watching well-executed football plays in Lincoln this year, there's an alternative.  Lincoln mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird just called the signals to require masks in the fight against the coronavirus.  She lined up blocking for the play from the county medical society, representing 600 physicians, from the UNL chancellor, from local school administrators, and from the head of the Chamber of Commerce.  She scored.

The score may hold up against the virus, as masks are likely to be the most effective method to contain its spread.  Masks may save the day to protect businesses, schools, and colleges from having to shut down.  The mayor's call will doubtless have a beneficial effect if the momentum can be kept up and Lincoln residents comply.

The play called by the mayor was set up by the failure of an earlier play to persuade Governor Pete Ricketts to re-open carefully, so as to prevent a virus resurgence. That didn't work; he did not heed her advice.

Governor Ricketts, who has repeatedly said the virus cannot be stopped (despite much evidence to the contrary in other jurisdictions), is urging officials to throw a flag and call the play back.  He prefers voluntary mask-wearing.

This time, the mayor has stronger legal authority behind her.  Not only does the Lincoln-Lancaster health department have historical legal powers to take such action to protect the health and safety of its residents, it is questionable whether the like powers of the governor may be used in effect to reverse the mayor, so as to endanger, rather than protect residents.  That would be a bizarre use of the state's police powers. 

It this goes to court, I hope a judge will not give the governor any injunction he wants against mandatory masks, but will place the equity interests of saving lives ahead of any claim that mandatory masks, like mandatory speed limits or mandatory seat belts, are the issue.  Let that question be sorted out later, in a year or two.

Let the well-called, well-blocked, score stand. 

If Governor Ricketts wants to be useful, he can call the President and advise that Nebraska and all other states need a coordinated, nationwide effort to supply Covid-19 testing materials and to expedite turn-around times to get results into the hands of contact tracers.  The President has the power to do this under the Defense Production Act and other emergency authorities.  It is utter foolishness to make states compete against each other when a national effort, under competent leadership, is obviously necessary. 

If the Lincoln business community, which recognizes the urgency of avoiding another shut-down, wants to make a real impact, it will advise the Governor and the whole Nebraska congressional delegation that it will not support incompetence, no matter what the political party label.

Rage and Coronavirus Solutions

July, 2020

Washington and Lincoln –  It seems to be dawning on people what a catastrophe we have brought upon ourselves.  As one commentator put it:

"How can you look at what has happened to us and not be enraged?"

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has finally spoken out as well, as a Republican taking on his own President while he watches the Maryland death count go up:

"So many nationwide actions could have been taken in those early days but weren’t. While other countries were racing ahead with well-coordinated testing regimes, the Trump administration bungled the effort."

Even these are mild words compared to my own reaction.  In May, 2016, after the Nebraska primary election, I asked, incredulous, how Nebraskans could possibly have voted for Trump.  In November, 2016, I predicted a "colossal crisis" if he took office and suggested it was time for Hamilton electors to employ the Constitutional provision (12th Amendment) to send the election to the House, which could investigate foreign interference, as Hamilton warned against, before choosing a president.  Few took heed; the crisis is upon us.    

It is not enough to rage against what has happened.  Solutions must be offered.  

The fight against Covid-19 can only be led by competent people, by scientists and logistics experts.  That must be impressed upon Trump in no uncertain terms, with consequences if he doesn't permit it.  I'd suggest Republican senators, led by two Nebraskans, resign from the Senate Republican Conference if Trump does not act accordingly and either step aside completely (as did Nixon) or put the authority of the Defense Production Act and other emergency laws into the hands of those the American people can trust to act in their interest.  

If a few Senate Republicans told the president he cannot count on their support, and that he will lose a majority in the Senate immediately (including possible votes on censure or even new articles of impeachment), he will be forced finally to face the coronavirus threat.  

This is not without precedent.  Senate Democratic leader Alben Barkley was so upset with President Roosevelt in 1944 that he resigned from the Democratic leadership.  FDR pleaded with him not to, but he did so anyway, with an emotional speech on the Senate floor.  Congress then backed Barkley to override an FDR veto on a revenue bill, chastening the president. 

Barkley sacrificed his chances of being on the ticket in 1944, as FDR then chose Harry Truman to be his running mate.  

What would Senators Fischer and Sasse sacrifice by announcing their intention to leave the Republican Conference?  Nothing.  They both know that Trump is a danger to the country and an embarrassment to anyone who voted for him.  They might even gain respect as well as prevent thousands of deaths, to prevent the country from sliding further into third-world chaos.     


Nine Mile Prairie Environs Master Plan

July, 2020

Lincoln – On the outskirts of this city is a state and national treasure, unfortunately under-recognized and under-appreciated.  Perhaps that is about to change, thanks to several University of Nebraska and local public agency leaders.

Nine Mile Prairie is one of the last remaining tallgrass prairies on the continent.  It has been spared the plow and carefully maintained for the past few decades by the University.  It is a marvel of bio-diversity and a scenic wonder.

But it is more than that.  For a century it has been a site for University teaching and research by faculty botanists, ecologists, and agronomists who earned world-class reputations for their scientific work.

All of this is laid out in a new document that notes the past but is pointed toward the future.  The Nine Mile Prairie Environs Master Plan, prepared for the University by the Flatwater Group, seeks to protect the site for future teaching and research by recognizing potential threats in the prairie's immediate neighborhood and outlining how they can be addressed. 

Currently, most of the environ's properties are in compatible uses and are, in a scientific sense, part of the greater NMP ecosystem.  One of the strengths of the Master Plan is that it quantifies the importance of neighboring properties in terms of plant and animal corridors, recognizing the need for overall connectivity in the environs' watershed.  Some of the neighboring properties contain unplowed tallgrass relicts themselves, which must stay connected to NMP.

The importance of following through on this Master Plan cannot be overstated.  Bird and insect populations are down alarmingly, including all-important pollinators.  Grassland systems everywhere are being altered rapidly.  The Master Plan lays out the stakes in an admirable description of the "Land-Grant University Role in Tallgrass Prairie Protection and Preservation."  See excerpts from the plan, in italics below.

Much credit for the Plan is due Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Vice-Chancellor Dr. Michael Boehm, former dean of the College of Agriculture and director of the Center for Grasslands studies Dr. Steven Waller, and agronomy professor Dr. David Wedin.

The Plan is carefully coordinated to be part of the larger Salt Valley Greenway, already established through local comprehensive planning.  It also involves local, state, and federal agencies to recognize their efforts and programs, especially those designed for grasslands and wetlands. 

It is fitting that a current Public Art Lincoln project extolls the word "resilient" in billboards across the city.  The symbols pictured are birds and prairies, as noted in a newspaper editorial about a message of hope for The Nation's Prairie Capital in a challenging time. 

The NMP Environs Master Plan is a way forward to demonstrate just how resilient we can be when faced with even the most daunting adversity.


5.2 Land-Grant University Role in Tallgrass Prairie Protection and Preservation

As part of its mission as a land-grant university, UNL’s Center for Grassland Studies will continue to work beyond the formal boundaries of NMP with public and private neighbors. Part of the approach outlined in this planning document addresses each of the core mission areas of a land-grant university: teaching, research, and outreach (extension).

Teaching. The newly created UNL undergraduate program “Grassland Systems” within CGS trains students broadly in both the conservation of prairie heritage and the stewardship of working grasslands and rangelands. Furthermore, the capstone Grassland Conservation course for seniors 1) demonstrates the tools in the grassland management “toolbox”..., 2) introduces students to diverse agency partners (NRCS, City of Lincoln Parks and Recreation, NGPC, TNC, Prairie Plains Research Institute, Pheasants Forever), and 3) has students develop management plans that go beyond individual fields and address grassland conservation challenges at the landscape scale.

Research. Regarding ongoing research needs, the scientific community points to global changes for climate, invasive species, altered nutrient cycles and an expanding human population. Conservation strategies used on small prairie preserves 50 years ago are arguably no longer adequate today. Research will play a key role in determining how grasslands can continue to provide ecosystem services for themes such as pollinator habitat, clean water resources and carbon sequestration in a time of increasing demand from society.

Outreach. Nebraska is a grassland state with over 50% of its land area in grasslands (rangelands, pastures, prairies) but the overwhelming proportion of the land (>95%) is privately owned. A challenge for Nebraska’s grassland management in the 21st century will likely be conserving its grassland biodiversity and diverse ecosystem services on working lands.... The mission of extension and outreach of UNL’s IANR will address these working grassland challenges. The work with stakeholders outside the NMP boundary is arguably just as central to UNL’s land-grant mission as protecting and preserving NMP itself.

Swamp Recedes Temporarily from Lincoln

July, 2020

Washington and Lincoln –  Thanks to the House Appropriations Committee, the U.S. Department of Education has cancelled a student loan servicer contract solicitation that gave every appearance of political favoritism and corruption.

The heavy lifting was done by Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who were prepared to challenge the award process in this week's markup session.  Secretary DeVos backed away and cancelled the process instead.

It is gratifying to see my earlier blogs on the matter read by so many people.  If it saves jobs in Lincoln, so much the better but the main focus must be on good servicing and protecting borrowers, wherever the servicing is done.

The question now is whether a new, fair competition can be held or if President Trump and Secretary DeVos will try to circumvent the House and proceed in some other way.   It would be appropriate for the House to investigate the whole affair so as to prevent a recurrence.

A Chance to Drain the DeVos Swamp

July, 2020

Washington – Coming up next Monday, July 13, is an opportunity to strike a blow against U.S. Department of Education corruption, which has thrived under Secretary Betsy DeVos.

That is the day the House "Labor H" appropriations bill will come to the Appropriations Committee for full committee markup.  Potentially at issue will be the opaque DeVos plan, called Next Gen, to award student loan servicing contracts to politically-connected entities with demonstrably poor records, at the expense of those with better records.

DeVos has already made five new awards to servicers that have worse (or no) records compared to the best of the current servicers.  Although some of these awards can be justified depending on the criteria used to grade performance (MOHELA, for example, scores high or low depending on the criteria chosen), the awards also look as if politics played an outsized role in the selection.

Perhaps the most important contract yet to be awarded is the one for the common portal all borrowers will use to interact with the complicated, horribly error-prone student loan repayment system.  How many applicants remain in contention is unclear, but DeVos has eliminated one by a joint effort of two experienced servicers.  Others have apparently dropped out, seeing the political handwriting on the wall.

A servicer that looks poised to get the huge contract is PHEAA, also known as FedLoan or AES.  PHEAA is the subject of lawsuits against it for poor servicing by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York.  It is also a frequent subject of Dan Moldea's new book on corruption in U.S. higher education, for which I gave a lengthy interview based on first-hand knowledge of perjury and obstruction involving PHEAA.

PHEAA may be in line to get the contract because its Washington lobbyist, David Urban, in 2016 was head of the Trump campaign in Pennsylvania, where PHEAA is headquartered.  Its director of federal relations is Kathleen Smith, a former top aide to DeVos at the Department of Education and textbook case of revolving-door conflict of interest.  Smith, also a former employee of PHEAA, was instrumental at the Department in cutting off record-sharing between servicers and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and in orchestrating a legal strategy known as "preemption" to try to protect PHEAA from borrower lawsuits and from state government regulation.

It was on the latter point that the State of Connecticut came into conflict with PHEAA, which may lead to trouble for the servicer.  The chair of the House "Labor H" subcommittee is Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who may well use her position to challenge what looks like a Trump-DeVos set-up to award a huge contract, and all its jobs, to Pennsylvania right before the election.

My interest in this is three-fold:

•  Borrowers deserve better.  PHEAA's record on programs such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness and TEACH has been condemned repeatedly by GAO and the Department's Inspector General.

•  Corruption must be challenged, not rewarded.  The Department of Justice, compromised as it is under Attorney General William Barr, will provide no remedies.

•  Lincoln, Nebraska, my domicile and the home to another student loan servicer, will lose hundreds of jobs under the Trump-DeVos scheme, as it is engulfed by the rising Trump swamp.  Local congressman Jeff Fortenberry, like the rest of the all-Republican Nebraska delegation, is terrified of tweets from the head of his party so he can only hope that Rosa DeLauro or other Democrats on the Appropriations Committee will come to Lincoln's rescue.  This should be a lesson to voters always to diversify congressional delegations by party.

Explosive Reaction to a Webinar

July, 2020

Lincoln, Washington – On July 2, 2020, four panelists appeared on an agricultural trade webinar moderated by Libby Schneider of the Democratic National Committee: DNC Chairman Tom Perez, Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, Minnesota NFU President Gary Wertish, and Ambassador Darci Vetter.  The webinar had hundreds of attendees via Zoom.  You can see it rebroadcast on youtube.

Look for Nebraskan Darci Vetter at 28:40.  She has a remarkable ability to explain agricultural trade issues.  Ambassador Vetter would make an excellent Secretary of Agriculture.

After the webinar, the attendees exploded with comments, praising the panel but asking why the DNC and the Joe Biden campaign were not competing more aggressively for votes in rural America.  The votes for a competitive rural showing are there if Biden will only go after them. 

Indeed, if Joe Biden offered positive ideas for rural Americans to rally around, he could put the election away.  If not, he could still lose it.  Rural America is the key. 

If Biden opened up a wide national lead this summer and the coronavirus continues its march across America unopposed by Donald Trump, the political landscape would rapidly change.  Politicians would abandon Trump to try to save themselves, forcing him to resign, like Richard Nixon, or to announce that he would not be a candidate again, like Lyndon Johnson.  Trump at this moment is a cat about to be belled.

If Donald Trump were out of the way, other leadership at the national level could step up to fight the coronavirus.  For example, NIH and CDC could be given the authority to coordinate the response under the Defense Production Act to supply the country with adequate testing supplies, PPE materials, and to coordinate a national mask requirement strategy.  America could emulate other democracies that have successfully combated the Covid-19 scourge.

What may seem to be two unrelated issues — rural voters and the spread of coronavirus — are actually intertwined at this crucial moment in American history.   These are life and death matters.

There is a faction within the Biden campaign that does not want to hear the word rural or compete for the Obama-Trump voters.  That is a huge mistake.  Joe Biden needs to compete in rural America with a positive platform as if our lives depended on it, which they may. 

Coronavirus: Inept U.S. Leaders Should Resign

July, 2020

Washington, Lincoln, Berlin – Previously I've compared responses to the coronavirus pandemic in each of these three capitals.  This blog is another in that series.  All numbers are from the NYT as of July 6, 2020.

Berlin:  Germany is recovering with a rate of 237 cases and 11 deaths per 100,000 population.  Berlin is doing slightly better than the country as a whole, at 232 and 6.  Success is due to early and decisive action plus aggressive masking, testing, and tracing.  The latest virus reproduction rate, R, which Germany uses as one of its leading indicators of trouble, is 1.03, suggesting that Germany will again be taking quarantine actions to drive the rate down below 1.00 to reduce the infection's spread.

Washington:  The United States as a whole is at 897 cases and 40 deaths per 100,000 population.  R is 1.28, showing disturbing national growth.  For comparison, Canada is at 285, 23, and its R is .73.  Maryland, adjacent to D.C., is above the U.S. national average with 1161 and 54.  Its R shows decline at .97 but has been increasing.  Montgomery County, Maryland, is worse than the state average with 1447 and 72.  The county has employed stay-home and masking orders, but the rising R suggests it moved too quickly to reopen.  Like many jurisdictions, the county fudged its numbers to meet reopening standards.  The county was hit early and hard by travelers returning from Europe in February and March, but the virus was in decline in April and May.  That progress is disappearing, as the county has had no response to the virus resurgence.  Ironically, NIH is headquartered in Montgomery County.

Lincoln:  Nebraska is above the national average on cases, with 1031 per 100,000, but lower on deaths, at 15.  Nebraska's R has risen to 1.05.  Kansas, by comparison, is 583 and 10, much better, but the Kansas R is 1.17, likely reflective of recent resistance to Governor Kelly's mask order.  Lancaster County, Nebraska, is at 585 and 4, relatively good in view of Nebraska's high case count.

What accounts for the wide differences?  Why can't Nebraska be like Germany or Canada, and Lincoln like Berlin or Ottawa?  Political leadership is lacking, without doubt.  President Trump never grasped the problem, denied scientific evidence, and essentially gave up; he is now aiding the infection's spread. Governor Hogan of Maryland has been largely invisible.  Governor Ricketts of Nebraska has made a succession of wrong calls, based on using wrong measures, and has even praised Trump for his handling of the pandemic.  Ricketts has made himself a national laughingstock by cutting off federal funds to local offices that require masks, to compound his earlier mistake of not allowing Hall County a stay-home order as its medical community and mayor requested at a key moment in the infection's spread.  He has also continued to look at hospital capacity, a trailing indicator, as his "North Star" rather than the number of cases, which he said cannot be limited.*  Who is advising this man?  Why can't he acknowledge others' success against the virus? 

Governors all over the U.S. are now backtracking, reimposing new protections, realizing their mistakes.  Of course economies must reopen, but they first must have the necessary political leadership and courage to beat back the virus and not cater to the know-nothing, do-nothing crowd.  The U.S. simply has not had what it takes, compared to many other countries.  That is a painful admission to make.

What is surprising is the lack of demand for the President to resign.  Nixon was forced to resign for much less.  That goes for governors, too: Ducey, Abbott, Reynolds, Noem, DeSantis, Stitt, Lee, and others. At least West Virginia Governor Justice, as he reversed himself, said the last thing he wanted to do was to mandate masks, but he said "it is the very thing I want to do the most because I know in my heart if we don’t we are going to have funeral after funeral."
*To “the people who say, 'I don’t want any infections', that’s just not realistic, because it’s a virus. You can’t stop it." – Pete Ricketts 

A Frightening Election Scenario

July, 2020

Washington – At last! Finally! Someone else, with much larger circulation than this blog, has described how the election of the next president might come down to who is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives this November. It is a frightening but totally plausible, even predictable scenario.

Former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth and Tom Rogers have described, in a Newsweek op-ed, a Trump strategy to stay in office despite a loss not only in the popular vote, but potentially in the electoral college as well, unless he is able to bypass the electoral college to set up a vote to select the president in the House, as provided in the Constitution.

The House is now in Republican control for purposes of a presidential election, as each state has one vote. All Trump needs to do is to hold that advantage, tie up the electoral college in litigation – which his attorney general is prepared to do – and he has another four year term.

So all eyes must be on the House elections, to see who controls the House for a presidential vote.

Of course if Democrats gain control of the House, they would potentially be in a position to bypass the electoral college as well, should key battleground states not be able to conduct free and fair elections, another real possibility. This is a scenario I have outlined previously.

So I am delighted to have eminent company in pointing out why the House elections are more important this year than ever.

Now, which House races could be key to selection of the next president? Democrats should look to House races in Michigan, Florida, and Montana for places to flip a district and simultaneously flip a state, all else being equal. Flipping a district in Kansas, Utah, and Wisconsin would result in tied state delegations.

Like most everyone, I get a lot of political fund-raising pleas for one cause or another. So far, I have yet to see one that even mentions why House races might be the key to the presidential election.

Which is why I was also so glad to see Wirth and Rogers argue that all of these frightening scenarios should be more widely known and analyzed, to make them less likely to happen. That is what I've been saying, too.

Here is what Wirth and Rogers recommend:

We must "out" this scenario—and do so loudly and consistently. We have an imperative to build a "people's firewall" that reaches deeply across the country and reflects public revulsion at the potential for Trump to undermine our entire democratic system of governance.

Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, should immediately ask the Judiciary, Commerce, Armed Services and Intelligence Committees to hold hearings on how steps can be taken to safeguard against this scenario, especially how to confront any invocation of emergency powers by the president.

There needs to be an outpouring at all levels of society that this will not be tolerated—from government officials and lawmakers at all levels; to civic associations and civil rights groups; to business groups and trade associations, who have to recognize the economic chaos that would result from this kind of coup; to lawyers, academics and student groups practiced in resisting government policies; and, of course, to the editorial voices of the press, both local and national.

How to Celebrate this 4th of July, 2020

July, 2020

Washington –  Stay at home this 4th of July, that's the patriotic thing to do. 

Instead of watching fireworks, listen to some.  Here's a suggestion: Charles Ives' Second Symphony, as explained and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. 

In this youtube offering, Bernstein is near the end of his life and you have to wonder if he didn't have one too many before this performance.  But he is ever the great teacher.  He was the one who rescued the symphony and gave it its first performance a half century after it was written. 

It is now regarded as perhaps the greatest American symphony ever written.

How many tunes can you pick out?  Many are wonderfully disguised; others are blasted out as a joke.  It is hard not to laugh.  By the last movement, the listener will be befuddled unless the symphony is understood as a work made to amuse as well as to celebrate Americana.

Do children these days grow up with such wonderful tunes in their ears?  I hope so.  I did.