DRIVE Act Enters Passing Lane

This is a follow up from our initial post, DRIVE Act: The Little Engine That Might 

Congressional action on transportation funding remains fluid as the Senate gears up to act in the shadow of a looming deadline July 31.

Congressional action on transportation funding remains fluid as the Senate gears up to act in the shadow of a looming deadline July 31.

The Senate last night secured enough votes to advance the 6-year transportation bill. The procedural vote, which passed 62-36, allows the Senate to debate the bill and consider amendments.
 
While funding for the overall STP program was increased and the allocation to local governments was increased to 55 percent from 50 percent, the bill includes a little sleight-of-hand feature that actually reduces STP funds to municipal governments. The bill requires that 15 percent of the STP suballocation for local governments go toward non-system bridges. In MAP-21, this 15 percent bridge funding came from the state’s allocation. In the DRIVE Act, it would come from the local government suballocation. Thus, funds to local governments overall will be reduced from $4.9 billion to $4.6 billion.
 
Local government advocates, including NACO, NLC, Conference of Mayors and T4A have caught on to this reduction and will be working together to increase the STP suballocation to local governments. An amendment is being drafted to reverse the cuts and increase STP for local governments.
 
If this STP amendment fails or is not allowed to be offered, it could lead local governments to oppose the bill. The Senate bill already faces some stiff challenges for other reasons and from different factions, including:

  • General opposition from Tea Party Republicans to transportation investment;
  • Presidential candidates in the Senate promising to hold up the bill to address their pet issues from abortion to the Iran nuclear deal; 
  • Concern over some of the pay-\fors, including revenue from reducing interest rates paid by the Federal Reserve to large banks, selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that is used to prevent energy crises and directing fees from the Transportation Security Administration and customs processing. Some Senators just oppose the pay fors, while others wanted to use these pay fors for their pet bills (ie pending Energy Bill and sequestration relief).
  • Concern over some of the environmental streamlining.

 
DRIVE Act highlights include:

  •  A new Freight Mobility Program will distribute $1.5 billion in FY16 and grow from there. Freight corridors throughout the country will see needed influx in resources. In FY 16, Washington and Oregon would receive $34.2 million and $25.3 million to build important infrastructure projects.
  • A new Major Projects Program will distribute $300 million in FY16 and grow to $450 million in FY21. The new initiative will fund large projects of regional and national significance throughout the country.
  • The bill increases funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program from $800 million to $850 million and gives local governments 100% control over the use of funds. TAP provides funding for trails, bike paths, safe routes to school and other local priorities. 
  • The Surface Transportation Program allocation to local governments is increased from 50% to 55%. However, the overall pot has shrunk, so local governments will actually see a reduction. There are efforts underway to offer amendments to increase local governments share of STP funds.
  • The bill increases the funding that must be spent on projects to maintain and repair bridges off of the National Highway System, as these bridges often struggle to find a reliable funding stream. These city and county owned bridges were neglected under MAP-21. The bill requires that states allocate at least 110% of the funds they allocated to bridges in FY 2014.
  • The bill restores funding for the FTA Bus and Bus Facility grant program and increases transit formula dollars for transit agencies in urban and rural areas.

DRIVE Act: The Little Engine That Might

The recent bridge collapse in California is fueling momentum in Congress to act on a transportation package.

The recent bridge collapse in California is fueling momentum in Congress to act on a transportation package.

The updated DRIVE Act cruised up to the Senate floor yesterday weighing in at 3.25 pounds and 1,030 pages. Ultimately, it ran out of gas shortly after the shiny new bill was driven off the lot.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave senators less than an hour to read the bulging bill before voting to proceed. Democrats wanted more time to read the bill, while some Republicans opposed the “pay fors.” Ten Republicans joined every Democrat in opposition to proceeding to the bill and we now await McConnell’s next jump start of the bill. 

While news of our crumbling infrastructure is not new, the recent bridge collapse in California is fueling momentum in Congress to act on a transportation package. Most in Congress believe our country is underinvesting in roads and bridges, but the urgency hasn’t spurred long term action or clever ways to pay for our infrastructure deficit.

The current transportation bill expires July 31 and the Highway Trust Fund is nearly broke. If Congress doesn’t act with at least a short-term extension by July 31, transportation projects around the country will grind to a halt and DOT furloughs will be issued. It’s unlikely Congress will let this happen, but there are a lot of obstacles to quick action on a transportation bill or extension.

The House has already passed an extension to December, along with $8 billion in funding offsets. McConnell doesn’t like that plan and has teamed up with Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer to push for a longer term solution that transportation stakeholders badly crave. McConnell wants to demonstrate the Republican controlled Senate can pass consequential legislation on his watch.

The DRIVE Act would reauthorize federal highway and transit funding at an increased funding level of about 3.3 per per year for six years, from FY 2016 through FY 2021. Highway funding would increase 19 percent over the six years of the bill. Transit funding programs would increase from $10.862 billion in the current year to $11.797 billion in FY 2016 and to $13.26 billion in FY 2021. 

Only three years of funding offsets have been identified. After the third year, additional funds would need to be raised to prevent a shutdown.  The complicated provisions of the bill leave many policymakers asking questions, while other senators are concerned about the pay-fors. 

How Is the Bill Paid For?

The multi-year highway bill includes approximately $47 billion in offsets from other areas of the federal budget to help pay for new highway funding over the next three years. The proposal relies largely on revenue from reducing interest rates paid by the Federal Reserve to large banks, selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and redirecting fees from the Transportation Security Administration and customs processing. The offsets are typical for Congress, they found three years’ worth of funding over a 10-year budget timeline. 

Many Democrats wanted simply to raise the gas tax to cover the cost of a long-term bill. However, nearly all Republicans and President Obama have expressed opposition to raising the tax, even though it hasn’t been raised since 1993.

DRIVE program highlights include:

  • A new Freight Mobility Program will distribute $1.5 billion in FY2016 and grow from there. Freight corridors throughout the country will see a needed influx in resources. In FY2016, Washington and Oregon would receive $34.2 million and $25.3 million to build important infrastructure projects.
  • A new Major Projects Program will distribute $300 million in FY16 and grow to $450 million in FY2021. The new initiative will fund large projects of regional and national significance throughout the country.
  • The bill increases funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program from $800 million to $850 million and gives local governments 100 percent control over the use of funds. TAP provides funding for trails, bike paths, safe routes to school and other local priorities. 
  • The Surface Transportation Program allocation to local governments is increased from 50 to 55 percent. However, the overall pot has shrunk, so local governments will actually see a reduction. There are efforts underway to offer amendments to increase local governments share of STP funds.
  • The bill increases funding that must be spent on projects to maintain and repair bridges off of the National Highway System, as these bridges often struggle to find a reliable funding stream. These city and county owned bridges were neglected under MAP-21. The bill requires that states allocate at least 110 percent of the funds they allocated to bridges in FY2014.
  •  The bill restores funding for the FTA Bus and Bus Facility grant program and increases transit formula dollars for transit agencies in urban and rural areas. 

It’s unclear what’s in store next for the DRIVE Act. The Senate was expected to take up the bill again today, but the bill has yet to make an appearance. If senators move to proceed, there will be a flurry of amendments and likely a rare weekend Senate session to complete the bill.

Even if senators pass the long-term measure, the House could reject the bill and opt for its short-term measure extension.

Oregon Delegation Splits Over Forest Fire Bill

The forest fire season started early because of extremely dry conditions and now there is a firestorm in Congress over how to pay for fighting those wildfires. Photo by Les Zaitz of The Oregonian. 

The forest fire season started early because of extremely dry conditions and now there is a firestorm in Congress over how to pay for fighting those wildfires. Photo by Les Zaitz of The Oregonian

Dry conditions on the West Coast have accelerated this year's wildfire season and set up a heated debate in Congress over how to pay for fire-fighting.

Fighting forest fires is an expensive proposition. In Oregon and Washington alone, forest fires cost the federal government $461 million in 2014. The total is already more than $17 million in 2015, including the 28,766-acre Corner Creek Fire near Dayville.

The House of Representatives  passed a forest management bill with a bipartisan vote of 262-167, but only two of four Oregon Democrats (Congressmen Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader) joined 17 Democrats, Republican Congressman Greg Walden and nearly all House Republicans to pass H.R. 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. The bill would allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fund wildfire expenses so the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have to borrow from other activities, reduces regulatory review of collaborative forest projects and requires legal challengers of those projects to post bonds covering the Forest Service’s defense costs. It also would limit the ability of government challengers to get their legal costs repaid if they win.
 
On the floor, Congressman Greg Walden thanked Schrader for his support. "My colleague from Oregon (Mr. Schrader) spoke eloquently about what our State faces and our rural communities face, and that is why this Resilient Federal Forests Act is so important to beginning to be a game changer, to getting us back into active management of our Federal forestlands, to reducing the threat of wildfire, the cost of wildfire, the destruction of wildfire, and the incredible pollution from wildfire. As we speak here today on the House floor, brave firefighters are still trying to contain the Corner Creek fire, which has already burned nearly 29,000 acres of forestland near Dayville, Oregon, in my district--29,000 acres already burned. And unfortunately, this fire season in the West has only just begun. Among the many strong provisions in this bill are streamlining planning, reducing frivolous lawsuits, and speeding up the pace of forest management. Several in particular are helpful to our great State of Oregon."
 
The legislation faces challenges in the Senate as Democrats have environmental concerns and President Obama opposes the bill. Obama's opposition comes despite U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell's comments that he was encouraged by the bill, noting that it didn’t override environmental laws.

Senator Ron Wyden prefers to address forest health in Oregon with his O&C lands bill (S.132), which he believes will double timber harvests in a sustainable way and also protect forest health. There is a hearing on Wyden's O&C lands bill this Thursday in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining.
 
Environmental groups generally oppose H.R. 2647 because of the environmental streamlining provisions and added burden to file a lawsuit.
 

Obama’s Best Week and Finest Hour

President Obama gave the eulogy for state Senator Clementa Pinckney, in perhaps the most stirring speech of his career. 

President Obama gave the eulogy for state Senator Clementa Pinckney, in perhaps the most stirring speech of his career. 

When I think about having a good week, it often involves time to write something worth reading, a good glass of wine and an Oregon Duck football victory.

That pales in comparison to the week President Obama just had. He won approval for fast-track trade pact negotiating authority, saw the Supreme Court validate a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, witnessed history in a court ruling on same-sex marriage and gave a stirring eulogy for one of the Charleston Nine murder victims.

For all I know, Obama may have had time to fit in a game of golf.

While I wish a good week for everyone (or most everyone), I’m glad to see Obama got his. He has put up with six pretty miserable years of congressional non-cooperation, stupid political claims and bad timing. He deserved a break.

It was a week that solidified the Obama legacy, which everyone had assumed was headed toward the dumpster. His eulogy, spoken in a cadence familiar to anyone who has attended African-American church services, was perhaps the most stirring speech of his presidency. It would be hard to imagine another president – even Bill Clinton – who could have given such a soaring and introspective speech with perfect pitch and timing.

Obama went far beyond flags and guns to talk about race realities in our country, the kind of everyday racism we know exists, but try to ignore – the return phone calls from job interviews to Johnny, but not Jamal. He traced today’s subtler forms of discrimination to years gone by when hangings and church burnings were the tools of oppression.

But this wasn’t a polemical piece of rhetoric. Obama touched a different nerve. He talked about grace. He even sang about grace. He said grace is unearned. He said grace was a gift from God.

Obama called grace the unanticipated response to an act of murder intended to spark a race war. The murders, as horrific as they were, sparked something else – a national awareness that hate and hateful symbols lead to violence, while forgiveness, even in the throes of grief, is the path to healing.

That Obama’s eloquent eulogy capped a week that included two Supreme Court decisions to retain a health care plan designed to extend coverage to more Americans and to recognize the equality of marriage made his remarks even more forceful. The eulogy may have transformed Obamacare from a political sling to a presidential signature.

In praising Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Obama talked of the slow march of justice and of the importance of seizing moments like the murders to push forward. And Obama warned against returning to comfortable silence when the headlines fade and other distractions claim our attention.

The Pinckney eulogy was in many respects represented the kind of  leadership that Obama’s supporters had expected sooner, and that his political opponents had feared. Obama towered above a despicable act and draped coffin to deliver a message all Americans needed to hear and heed. It was perhaps President Obama’s finest hour.

Senate Panel Approves 6-year, $278 Billion Highway Bill

the bipartisan committee vote on the DRIVE Act signals that lawmakers see political value in spending on transportation infrastructure.

the bipartisan committee vote on the DRIVE Act signals that lawmakers see political value in spending on transportation infrastructure.

A Senate committee unanimously advanced a 6-year, $278 billion highway bill amid lingering doubts the measure can actually be funded, let alone by July 31 when current highway spending authorization expires. A more likely next step is an extension until December.

If nothing else, the bipartisan committee vote on the DRIVE Act signals that lawmakers see political value in spending on transportation infrastructure. Whether the institutional obstacles can be surmounted to pass a bill and fund it, remains a big question. Chances are the eventual bill that passes will have a shorter timeframe.

Here is a recipe for how we get something other than a simple extension this year  – The 6-year DRIVE Act would need about $100 billion in additional funds to remain solvent through September 30, 2021. Even in DC, $100 billion is a lot of money. It's more likely the tax writing committees would come up with a smaller amount, something closer to $35 billion.

If that happens, the EPW authors will be forced to downsize the bill. The result would be a mini-DRIVE Act that funds transportation for two fiscal years and keeps the policy changes from the DRIVE Act intact. This two-year timeline is similar to MAP-21, the previous transportation bill that passed in 2012. 

If these pieces come together quickly, there is a slight chance the mini-DRIVE Act could pass by July 31. If they can't pull all the pieces together by then, but still show good progress, it's possible a very short-term extension will give leaders some breathing room and we could see a 2-year bill pass in the fall.

A simple extension through December would cost somewhere between $8 and $11 billion, so it seems plausible the tax writing committees could find another $20 billion or so to fund a 2-year bill, satisfy some transportation stakeholders and prove the Congress can actually govern. If they can't find more money, a simple extension of current law through December is the most likely scenario. 

The DRIVE Act

Components of the bill include the following: 

Fully-funds highway programs for 6 years

The bill reauthorizes the Federal-aid highway program at an increased funding level for six years, from FY 2016 through FY 2021. Funds are increased by 3% each year over the six years. Transit programs aren't included in this draft as FTA is under the jurisdiction of the Senate Banking Committee.

Increases support for core formula programs and more local control

The existing consolidated core highway program structure from MAP-21 is maintained, including: the National Highway Performance Program; the Highway Safety Improvement Program; the Surface Transportation Program; and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.

The local MPOs share of Surface Transportation Program (STP) dollars are increased from 50% to 55%, with the state DOTs share reduced from 50% to 45. 

Also funding for the Transportation Alternative Program is increased from $800 million to $850 million and state DOT's are required to distribute funds to MPOs based on the proportionate share from FY2009 - Pre-MAP21 levels. This should provide significantly more money to local governments through TAP.

Funds major projects - A Return to Congressionally Directed Spending

Funding for Projects of National Significance starts at $300 million in FY16 and grows to $450 million in FY2021. Grant requests in urban areas must be at least $50 million to be eligible. 
This section is sure to get the most play in the press. The legislation tasks the Administration with compiling a list of eligible projects. However, the Administration is then directed to send a list of projects to Congress which includes "at least 2 times, but not to exceed 4 times, the authorization level for each fiscal year." This wish list will be sent to the Senate EPW Committee and House T&I Committee, where they will select the final awards. I guess it was only a matter of time. Basically, the Administration will send a big list of possible projects that are eligible and scored well and Members of the Committee will whittle it down and make the final selections. 

The program includes a set-aside for rural areas (20%) and ensures an equitable geographic distribution of funds.

Prioritizes bridges and large, nationally-important facilities 

The bill increases the funding that must be spent on projects to maintain and repair bridges off of the National Highway System, as these bridges often struggle to find a reliable funding stream. These city and county owned bridges were neglected under MAP-21. The bill requires that states allocate at least 110% of the funds they allocated to bridges in FY 2014. This will ensure more funds go to local bridge projects.

The bill also shifts additional revenue towards the Interstate System and the National Highway System to address the significant maintenance backlog on those facilities.

Provides substantial new funding to focus on freight and goods movement

The bill establishes a formula-based freight program, which will provide funds to all states to improve goods movement, reducing costs and improving performance for business. Funds for the freight program start at $2 billion in FY16 and increase to $2.5 billion in FY2021. 

It expands flexibility for both rural and urban areas to designate key freight corridors that match regional goods movement on roads beyond the Primary Highway Freight System.
The legislation improves efforts to identify projects with a high return on investment through state freight plans and advisory committees established under MAP-21.

Other important program funding levels

The bill funds the Federal Lands Access Program at $255 million in FY16 up to $280 million in FY21.

University Transportation Centers are funded at $72.5 million each year of the bill. 
TIFIA is funded at $675 million/year from FY16-FY21.

Accelerates project delivery and increases flexibility

Building on the reforms in MAP-21, the bill continues to accelerate the project delivery process. 
New reforms would improve collaboration between the lead agency and the participating agencies, allow for greater reliance on documents prepared during the planning process, and reduce duplication between agencies involved in the federal environmental review and permitting process.

America Drifting Back to Cold War Paradigm

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade, transportation and immigration legislation languishes in Congress, the nation seems to be drifting back into a Cold War mentality.

While trade and transportation bills languish in Congress, the United States seems to be slipping into a multi-front cold war as it returns to troops to Iraq, sends heavy arms to Baltic states bordering Russia and fends off cyberwar attributed to China.

The House spectacularly derailed fast-track trade authority legislation last week and House and Senate leaders have tried for months without success to find common ground on a long-term transportation funding measure. President Obama has pushed both. He says a trade pact with Asian countries will prevent China from ultimately writing the rules of commerce in that critical region. Obama says transportation investments are essential to support 21st century commerce and job creation.

However, foreign affairs keep drawing attention away from those priorities and toward a familiar destination. Islamic State gains in Syria and Iraq have sharpened sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Obama's attempt to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran has shaken long-time alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is now engaged in its own military conflict with Houthi insurgents in neighboring Yemen.

Russian moves to seize Crimea and sponsor armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has made former Soviet states jittery, causing the United States to promise heavy military hardware. That prompted an escalation by the Russians who have put some of its remaining nuclear capability on alert.

Special operations forces and unmanned drones continue to carry out attacks to kill high-value targets, such as a top Al Qeada official in Yemen, as part of an effort to degrade terrorist organizations' abilities to attack the United States.

Meanwhile, Chinese computer hackers keep breaking into public and private databases to steal proprietary data and amass huge online personal information data banks.

By just about any definition, it seems like a world at war.

Recent polls suggest Americans may be willing to see troops dispatched to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS, which a majority views as a threat to the United States. GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker has said he would entertain sending ground forces back to Iraq.

The mood swing is very different from the atmosphere leading up to the 2008 election when Obama succeeded in drawing a sharp distinction with Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and Republican opponent John McCain in the general election over ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senate hawks such as McCain and GOP presidential candidate Lindsay Graham have pummeled Obama for failing to respond more decisively and engaging more deeply in removing Bashar al-Assad as Syria's ruler and arming Ukrainians to fend off Russians in the besieged eastern part of the country. There hasn't been a rush to support their views, but public opinion appears to be sliding in their direction.

The latest Gallup Poll shows Americans have very low confidence in Congress, which may influence their resignation at the institution's inability address major issues such as trade, transportation funding and immigration reform. The same poll showed Americans have the greatest confidence in the military.  

WSJ, Wyden Spar over Cybersecurity

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden responded to a Wall Street Journal editorial invitation to exchange views on cyber security, cyber war and individual privacy. The exchange is enlightening.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden responded to a Wall Street Journal editorial invitation to exchange views on cyber security, cyber war and individual privacy. The exchange is enlightening.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and the Wall Street Journal editorial board engaged this week in an enlightening exchange about privacy, cybersecurity and computer hacking by foreign nations.

It began with an editorial titled "The Chinese Have Your Numbers," which was written after Chinese hackers grabbed personnel files from 2.1 million federal employees. The editorial said the hack is "one more confirmation that China is waging an unrelenting if unacknowledged cyber war against the United States."

The editorial openly invited Wyden and Senator Rand Paul, who played lead roles in replacing the Patriot Act with less intrusive metadata collection rules, to offer "suggestions for countering this privacy threat." Wyden responded to the invitation on his own website.

"The way to address this threat…is to ensure federal agencies receive the funding and expertise to develop and implement robust security programs…and the technical and administrative controls they need to combat a wide variety of cybersecurity threats," Wyden said.

"It also is important for the United States to invest in the education of the next leaders in cybersecurity and to recruit and retain a strong federal cybersecurity workforce by ensuring cybersecurity professionals can find opportunities and career paths in government that are as rewarding as those in the private sector."

Wyden added, "Mass surveillance of law-abiding Americans will not prevent data breaches. Weakening encryption technologies or stockpiling users' encryption keys will not prevent data breaches. And making it harder for individuals to sue large corporations inappropriately sharing their data will not prevent data breaches."

Wyden voiced opposition to pending legislation that he said would allow private corporations to share information with the federal government with legal immunity to actions brought by individuals who claim their privacy was violated.

"In the case of both NSA mass surveillance and the Office of Personnel Management data breach, Americans are rightly worried that their personal information is not secure and that it can be accessed without their knowledge or consent," Wyden said.

The WSJ editorial urged the Obama administration to move more forcefully to "punish Chinese institutions that continue to steal American secrets. "That won't end the threat," the editorial said, "but it might give the governments that underwriting these hackers some pause."

"The United States is already in a cyber war," the editorial concluded. "The problem is that the Obama administration doesn't want to admit it."

Wyden countered with: "Cyberattacks represent a serious threat to fundamental American interests, including national security, economic competitiveness and individual privacy. These security breaches can be caused in a variety of ways by a variety of actors, with varying knowledge and resources. The solutions to the problem are just as diverse.

"Responses to aggressive actions by foreign government should include the full range of U.S. power, from multilateral diplomacy to economic sanctions to law enforcement action. It is a mistake to lump the many aspects of this problem into a single cyber threat that can be solved by a single cybersecurity bullet."

 

Lessons from Reagan’s 1982 Gas Tax Hike

In the fall of 1982, President Reagan’s opposition to a gas tax increase couldn’t be more clear. When he was asked at a September 28 press conference, “Can you assure the American people that you’ll flatly rule out any tax increases, revenue enhancers or specifically an increase in the gasoline tax?” Reagan responded, “Unless there’s a palace coup and I’m overtaken or overthrown, no, I don’t see the necessity for that.” 

Well, it didn’t take a palace coup. It took a mid-term election in which Republicans lost seats and rising unemployment, which cracked double digits for the first time in decades. Three months later, in December 1982, President Reagan signed a groundbreaking transportation bill that more than doubled the federal gas tax from 4 cents to 9 cents and increased transit funding.

The measure's incredible journey offers lessons for today’s leaders who face a similarly troubled landscape  – crumbling infrastructure, a highway trust fund on the verge of bankruptcy and divided government. 

Eno Trans Jeff Davis researched the provocative tale of the 1982 transportation bill and revealed how one of the most important public infrastructure bills of the 20th century became law. With his new report, “Reagan Devolution: The Real Story of the 1982 Gas Tax Increase,” Davis unearths a roadmap for how leadership, pragmatism and relationships can be leveraged to move past ideology. You can read the report for yourself here. Below are some reflections on what I think are the most relevant components for today’s debate.

1.  Under the Guise of Devolution: President Reagan understood well the nation’s infrastructure gap, but he also didn’t want to grow the size of the federal government. Initially, Reagan supported a plan that would transform the federal transportation framework by giving significant control back to the states. If Reagan was going to support a gas tax increase, the authority to spend every penny of the new increase would ultimately be given back to the states – a concept called devolution. The feds would thus retain spending authority over the current 4 cent per gallon gas tax to focus on the federal highway system, but over time, the 5-cent increase would be devolved to the states. While devolution was ultimately left on the cutting room floor, the ideological framework would give transportation supporters in the Administration the space they needed to keep the option of a gas tax on the table. These architects knew full well it was unlikely the Congress would go along with devolution, but they were appealing to Reagan’s conservative values. Ultimately, their persistence paid off.  

Today, devolution supporters point to Reagan’s efforts to return control of transportation spending authority to states but often fail to acknowledge that Reagan acquiesced in favor of pragmatism. While devolution never materialized, it was a big part of feeding Reagan’s conservative, reform minded ideology as the package was being devised. Legislators today could consider a similar approach. While devolution is not a realistic nor prudent option in my opinion, leaders could try to appease conservative devolution advocates. Congress could consider adding elements of local control of federal resources without jeopardizing the health of the nation’s interconnected network of roads. 

2.  User Fee and Shock Absorbers: Reagan was vehemently opposed to raising general income taxes, but he understood the need for increasing the gas tax because those who paid directly benefited. He always preferred to use the term user fee over gas tax.

This is how Reagan framed the discussion in his November 27 radio address. “So, what we’re proposing is to add the equivalent of 5 cents per gallon to the existing Federal highway user fee, the gas tax. That hasn’t been increased for the last 23 years. The cost to the average motorist will be small, but the benefit to our transportation system will be immense… The program will not increase the Federal deficit or add to the taxes that you and I pay on April 15. It will be paid for by those of us who use the system, and it will cost the average car owner only about $30 a year. That’s less than the cost of a couple of shock absorbers.” 

Today, the same argument could easily be restated. The gas tax hasn’t been increased in 22 years – back in 1993 – and the impact to the average driver would still cost less than the price of a couple shock absorbers. The shock absorber argument was effectively and brilliantly used often by the Administration. Because a driver would likely need to replace their shocks more frequently if the government didn’t fix the roads and potholes in disrepair, you might as well fix the roads. That logic still holds up today.

3.  Leadership: In 1982, the country was still in the grips of one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. Unemployment had just surpassed 10 percent.  Passing a gas tax increase was just as toxic back then as it is now. After Democrats had picked up seats in the mid-term election, the President and his team knew action was needed on the jobs front. There were leaders in both the Executive and Legislative branches that had strong working and personal relationships. This trust was critical to the Democratically controlled House and Republican Senate. The transportation bill was portrayed as a “jobs” bill by both parties and the President understood the Congress was going to act. 

As a pragmatic politician, the President got on board and ultimately pushed for the bill. As Jim Baker, the President’s chief of staff said at the time, “If Reagan told me once, he told me fifteen thousand times – I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flags flying.”

Today, there is a serious lack of leadership in DC and trust between the Executive and Legislative branches is nearing all-time lows. As the transportation proposal moves through Congress, this may be the most challenging obstacle to overcome. If the transportation bill can be reframed as a jobs bill, like in 1982, maybe both parties can pull another rabbit out of the legislative hat and come up with a compromise that both parties could tout. 

4.  The Grease – Demonstration Projects: When the Reagan Administration got on board and started lobbying for a transportation bill, agency officials started reaching out to wavering Members of Congress. The Administration promised federal funding for pet projects across the country. Not only were “Demonstration Projects” explicitly written into the bill, but DOT officials would call wavering Members to assure certain construction projects would be funded by the DOT. Runway extensions, control towers, roads and bridges were all used to grease the congressional wheels and quiet opposition to raising the gas tax. 

Earmarks are prohibited in the current Congress. Members have little incentive to support a gas tax increase because they can’t point to projects in their states and districts. While earmarks may be out of favor with the public broadly, Congress could come up with a way to ensure enough states and districts receive their fair share of federal spending to construct key infrastructure projects that benefit the daily lives of commuters.

Winnowing Presidential Wannabes

Candidates are spending more time talking about airing their dirty laundry than issues.

Candidates are spending more time talking about airing their dirty laundry than issues.

This is the time in the election cycle when presidential candidates spend less time talking to voters than to donors, as well as less time talking about issues than skeletons in their closets.

Viability is determined by how much money you can bank and whether you can withstand blowback from past indiscretions, missteps or wayward relatives.

Take Hillary Clinton, for example. She is weathering attacks about donations from foreign interests to the Clinton Foundation, her use of private email as secretary of state and influence peddling by her younger brother. Mixed in there is the weirdly timed revival of Monica Lewinsky's involvement with Bill Clinton. All this baggage has taken a toll in Hillary Clinton's confidence level, but not her electability. She still leads the field by solid margins.

Clinton isn't alone in vetting political laundry, though in some cases, the vetting doesn't appear intentional. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee flubbed Sunday news show questioning about his endorsement of a diabetes drug that health professionals claim has no proven value. Huckabee, who entered the GOP presidential race last week, also faced questions about his ethics as governor when he purportedly asked friends to shower him with gifts.

Senator Marco Rubio is under the microscope because of his relationship to a political super daddy in Florida. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has received scrutiny for some of his business associations. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina has been criticized for her performance as the top dog at the high tech giant, for running a bungling campaign for the U.S. Senate and not ever holding elected office.

Then there is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson who has won right-wing disciples, but raised the eyebrows or just about everyone else for some of his political comments, such as one that coupled homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality. He also called Obamacare the "worst thing to happen" since slavery.

Carson's jaw-dropping comments have poached on political space normally occupied by Senator Ted Cruz, who once compared Obamacare to Nazism, but now has enrolled in the national health insurance exchange, and former Senator Rick Santorum, who proudly told the National Rifle Association he gave ammo to his wife for her birthday.

For voters straining to find out what presidential wannabes plan to do about issues such as fighting Islamic State jihadists here and abroad, negotiating international trade deals or reducing income inequality, they will have to wait. This isn't the time to promise what you will do; it is time to air out what you have done. And raise money, piles of money.

This is the American way of winnowing the field of hopefuls. Air dirty laundry early while asking big donors for millions in donations. The candidates who can land on their feet and bag the most campaign cash will be the ones we ultimately get to vote on, whether we like it or not.

Treasurers Seek Light for Dark Money Contributions

State treasurers in Oregon and Washington urge federal regulator to require publicly traded corporations to disclose their dark money campaign contributions.

State treasurers in Oregon and Washington urge federal regulator to require publicly traded corporations to disclose their dark money campaign contributions.

State treasurers may seem like an improbable force to staunch the flood of corporate cash that is flowing into political campaigns following the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case.

But five state treasurers, including Oregon's Ted Wheeler and Washington's James MacIntire, have urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to require stricter disclosure of corporate campaign contributions. The idea is to put those contributions under greater scrutiny by shareholders, public pension funds managers and the general public.

“This issue is critical for decision makers working for institutional investors such as pension funds," Wheeler said. "Our decisions about what stock is worth purchasing affects the financial interest of many others. We can't do our job effectively without transparency about how corporations are spending their client's money.”

“I believe public corporations have an obligation to disclose to their shareholders their political and lobbying expenditures," MacIntire added.  "While they may have legitimate needs for these expenditures, there is no excuse for not being transparent about them.  We invest in these companies on behalf of beneficiaries and taxpayers, and we should have the opportunity to gauge the risks they may engender to the firm’s integrity and market reputation as they seek to influence public decisions.” 

More disclosure in and of itself may not discourage corporate campaign giving, but it could make it less comfortable in some circumstances. The treasurers want to bring "dark money" political contributions into the light.

A press release accompanying the letter to the SEC cites data from the Center for Responsive Politics indicating dark money contributions spiked to $170 million in the 2014 elections and are expected to increase even more in a presidential election year in 2016.

The SEC has received more than a million supportive comments of a petition asking the regulatory agency to require disclosure of campaign expenses. Treasurers who signed the letter to the SEC said this addition has been the number one demand of shareholders in U.S. corporations. More than 60 percent of publicly traded corporations voluntarily disclose their campaign contributions.

The treasurers, including officials from North Carolina, Rhode Island and Vermont, represent public funds with $300 billion under their management.

Tax Day 2015: Where Your Money Goes

It's a common misconception the federal government spends a significant portion of its budget on foreign aid. According to a recent Pew poll, a majority of Americans believe 28 percent of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. This number is way off. It's so far off that most people don't believe me when I tell them the actual percentage is 1 percent of a $2.3 trillion budget.

So what the heck is our government doing with our money?
 
For tax day, the Committee for a Responsible Debt put together three useful charts outlining where our tax money goes, who pays the most and maps out the history of our deficit spending ways. 

Federal entitlement programs far and away take the cake in terms of percentage of federal spending. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance and interest on the debt make up more than 55 percent of our annual spending. Once defense is added to the shopping list, 76 percent of the budget percent already been spent. Thus, all other domestic programs make up less than 24 percent of the government's budget. You'll see foreign aid at the bottom, barely making the list.

According to the report, we have a pretty progressive tax code. The top 20 percent of households pays almost 70 percent of the nation's taxes, while the bottom 20 percent pays .6 percent. The tax rates were made more progressive in recent years due to the fiscal cliff deal and the Affordable Care Act that raised taxes on the wealthy.

Finally, the chart above shows that we have made some progress since 2010 when our annual deficit was $1.5 trillion. Between the increase in taxes and budget sequestration, our annual deficit has dropped by $1 trillion (although our overall debt is still $18 trillion).
We certainly have more work to do. This leaves us with the question, how are we going to balance our books? Well one answer is obvious, we can't do it by simply eliminating foreign aid. 
 

Bumper Crop of Candidates for Satire

Hillary Clinton wheeling around Iowa in her Scooby van is just the tip of the satirical iceberg for the latest bumper crop of presidential wannabes.

Hillary Clinton wheeling around Iowa in her Scooby van is just the tip of the satirical iceberg for the latest bumper crop of presidential wannabes.

People choose political candidates for lots of reasons, including how well they can be parodied on shows like Saturday Night Live. This year's presidential field looks like a bummer crop of candidates who will provide the ridiculous comments and embarrassing moments that brighten up late-night TV.

Hillary Clinton's official entrance into the presidential sweepstakes over the weekend touched off a wave of negative blasts from political conservatives. But the writers at SNL were licking their chops as the former First Lady headed to Iowa to campaign in a van named "Scooby." You can see the skit take shape.

Clinton faces no serious Democratic challenger so far, so may have to run a shadow-boxing campaign against make-believe opponents. That will be funny to watch on Saturday nights.

Rand Paul entered the race last week and immediately engaged in a series of testy media interviews. This may be a ploy by Paul and his team to "expose" the liberal news media, even though some fellow Republicans thought it "exposed" Paul as an angry candidate. SNL couldn't be happier. It hasn't had a candidate this petulant to parody since Ross Perot.

Ted Cruz was the first candidate to dive officially into the presidential waters. Shunning his home state of Texas as a backdrop, Cruz made his announcement at Liberty University, where, as he often does, Cruz took liberties with facts. His candidacy will excite both SNL and its satirical sister, Fox News.

The latest to join the fray is Marco Rubio, who chose a historic setting in Miami to emphasize his roots from Cuban immigrants. Rubio was one of the key Senate brokers on an immigration reform bill that is anathema to a large chunk of the GOP voters he must now try to woo. The skit almost writes itself of Rubio speaking Spanish to a clump of Iowa farmers.

Soon Jeb Bush is expected to declare his candidacy, unless he plans to turn his sizable campaign warchest into a private hedge fund. The prospect of a Bush III versus Clinton II campaign next fall will inspire all sorts of satire from just about every segment of the political spectrum.

Lindsey Graham, the just re-elected senator from South Carolina who often appears like an aide-de-camp of former GOP presidential nominee John McCain, is exploring a presidential run. It will be too tempting, if he does run, not to spoof him as the grizzled McCain's youthful protege – think Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

And these are just the big rollers. There are dark horses roaming around the countryside that could add even more comic fizz to the mix. Voters may rue that the presidential election has started, but people who love comedy can wait for the satire to start.

Food Fights for Political Office

British Prime Minister David Cameron invited reporters to watch him eat a hot dog with a knife and fork further fueling a food fight for political office, which could spill over to the U.S. presidential election next year. (Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP)

British Prime Minister David Cameron invited reporters to watch him eat a hot dog with a knife and fork further fueling a food fight for political office, which could spill over to the U.S. presidential election next year. (Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP)

As candidates for President in 2016 begin to line up, it is time to note the big election news of British Prime Minister David Cameron who is running now. The big news involves how he eats his hot dog.

Among the most pressing issues of the day, how to eat a hot dog ranks high up. Cameron eats his hot dog with a knife and fork. According to his critics, this proves Cameron is an elitist and cannot be trusted.

Cameron cannot deny eating his hot dog with a knife and fork because he allowed reporters and cameramen into his backyard while he was eating one – with a knife and fork. His attempt to showcase he is just a regular guy and create a photo op for his Conservative Party's work on pension reform was overshadowed by his use of cutlery.

Presidential candidates have begun to hit the hustings where they will be asked – and expected – to munch on all manners of local culinary delights. Their handlers would be well advised to find out how to eat whatever is offered or see their boss embarrassed in front of flashing cameras and iPhones.

Cameron's caution in how he eats a hot dog is well-founded. His Labour Party opponent Ed Miliband was caught on film a year ago unflatteringly gobbling down a bacon sandwich. He is reminded of the picture at every whistle stop, which led him to quip that if voters want someone from central casting, it's his opponent. This is probably not the kind of messaging his PR people have coached.

Clips of parliamentary powerhouses nibbling on food have emerged as a major theme in the current election, which led Cameron to define himself as everyman in his backyard eating a hot dog. It's not like Cameron has never eaten a hot dog with his fingers. He did so back in 2012 while meeting with President Obama, but his fingers got sticky, which made for the wrong kind of lasting impression when he and the President shook hands.

Lest any presidential wannabes dismiss this British cautionary tale, don't forget the recent controversy involving New York Mayor Bill de Blasio who was filmed eating a piece of pizza with a fork, a New York no-no, according to some.

Even though there are other issues that possibly could be discussed on the campaign trail, controversies over eating habits is a lot more fun. Voters can relate to sticky fingers and mustard on their shirts.

While British politicians may be presented with delicacies unfamiliar to most Americans such as haggis, American presidential candidates will be confronted with an astounding array of food with local and global origins. Stuffed tubes, gloppy soup and icing rich pastries will be proudly presented and candidates will be expected to choke them down with a smile on their smudgy face to prove they are just a regular guy or gal.

Since GOP presidential candidates appear in this cycle to be vying for Jewish votes, so they can anticipate bowls of borscht and heaping plates of gifeltefish. Let the cameras roll.

More Than Pawns of Oil

The world's Muslim population is growing and may equal the number of Christians by 2050 and exceed it by 2070, which is sure to lead to new balances of power abroad and possible even at home.

The world's Muslim population is growing and may equal the number of Christians by 2050 and exceed it by 2070, which is sure to lead to new balances of power abroad and possible even at home.

Pew Research has answered the question of why the United States devotes so much energy to the Middle East and the rising tide of radical Islam. Yes, it's about the oil. But it's also about the unrelenting growth of the global Muslim population.

An analysis released today by Pew Research shows the world's Muslim population will equal the number of Christians by 2050 and could be the largest religious group as early as 2070. By 2050, some 40 percent of all Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the United States in the same time frame, Christians will go from representing 75 percent of the population to two-thirds. Muslims will outnumber people who identify themselves as Jewish. The religiously unaffiliated population could top 25 percent.

These are the kind of trends that shake up the political order.

For the last decade, Republicans in Congress and in border states with Mexico have railed about illegal immigration from the south and what to do about the 12 million undocumented people living in America now. But Latinos represent far less of a cultural shock to the United States. They share the same religion and family values as many Americans.

Muslim traditions and values don't fit in, at least at this point, as comfortably. And as the Muslim world wrestles with its past and its modern-day stresses, including a growing jihadist movement, that fit isn't likely to grow more comfortable any time soon.

The focus today is on containing the most extreme Muslim radicals through military force and trying to achieve some sort of geopolitical stasis through negotiations that have the character of walking on broken glass. For whatever reason, there seems to be a Muslim reawakening, fueled in part by economic and social alienation in some parts of the world, but also by a vision of past Islamic glory.

It is easy to forget that European (and Christian) ascension began just as an inward-focused Islam went into what became a centuries-long eclipse. We may be witnessing the end of that eclipse. Islamic-Jewish quarrels could become more predominant in our own American backyard.

Much of the Muslim growth is in Africa and the subcontinent. India, for example, is expected to have more Muslims than Hindus by 2050. Muslims are predicted to represent 50 percent or more of the population in 51 countries. Meanwhile, overall population growth is expected to decline in Europe, which will see its Christian population shrink from 553 million to 454 million by 2050. Christians will number less than 50 percent of the population in the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. 

The data provides a dramatic backdrop to today's diplomatic and military activity, which in no small way can be seen as an adjustment for a new reality where Islamic territories are more powerful chess pieces than pawns of oil. 

The Longest Wait

Loretta Lynch will become the first African-American women to be the U.S. attorney general, but only after setting a contemporary record for her delayed confirmation, which has stalled because of politics. Photo by United States Mission Geneva.

Loretta Lynch will become the first African-American women to be the U.S. attorney general, but only after setting a contemporary record for her delayed confirmation, which has stalled because of politics. Photo by United States Mission Geneva.

Much of what goes on in the Capitol is opaque to most Americans, including the lengthy delay in confirming a presidential cabinet nominee.

Loretta Lynch is close to becoming a record. President Obama's choice to become the next attorney general − and the first African American woman to hold the job is approaching the 147-day record of Togo West, a President Clinton appointee for Veterans Affairs. Republicans delayed West's confirmation because of concerns Clinton gave Arlington Cemetery plots to campaign donor, allegations that were later called unfounded.

John Bryson, Obama's nominee for Commerce secretary, stalled for 142 days. Republicans held up his conformation until free-trade deals were passed.

Lynch is in limbo because Republicans, who control the Senate, are using her confirmation as political leverage to pass an anti-abortion provision as part of a human trafficking bill that enjoys bipartisan support. Some Democrats have charged that Lynch, a Harvard law graduate with impeccable prosecutorial credentials, has been left waiting in the wings for 137 days so far because she is black. Some Republicans were enraged because she defended Obama's executive order on immigration.

The Washington Post assembled a chart showing the longest confirmation delays over the last three presidencies. It shows that the average confirmation time for Obama appointees is 56 days, compared to 44 days under President George W. Bush and Clinton.

Lynch is likely to be confirmed at some point. Her delayed approval is also likely to deepen partisan feelings that already run pretty deep. Her appointment and confirmation is a case study on how political parties wrestle for advantage, using whatever holds they can.

Related Link: Which Clinton, Bush or Obama Cabinet nominee waited longest to be confirmed? Soon it will be Loretta Lynch.

Americans Divided by Bipartisanship

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Bipartisanship may be rare because Americans only pay lip service support to the idea while actually preferring compromises that favor their partisan perspective.

That's the conclusion of research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business that suggests what Americans dislike is uncivil discourse. However, that dislike translates into hardened partisan views. "In politics, that kind of powerful party identification overrides any professed preference for the abstract concept of bipartisanship," according to the research.

Neil Malhotra, a professor in political economy, and his Stanford colleagues compare politics to sports. Fans may be shocked by athletes fighting or acting badly, but they still want their team to win.

Americans conflicted attitudes about bipartisanship aren't an isolated example, say the authors. There is broad support for civil liberties and free speech, but often intense intolerance for the exercise of those freedoms by groups that are unpopular or controversial. Americans want to see government shrunk, but not at the expense of programs they value or depend on.

The experiments Malhotra and his team conducted showed people recognize bipartisan solutions, but still favor outcomes that more closely mirror their views. That underlying reality may buttress resistance in Congress and state legislative bodies to resist calls for bipartisanship because it doesn't produce political attaboys.

“Our research demonstrates that even though citizens dislike the institution of Congress and profess abstract desires for bipartisanship, when it comes to the details, they prefer partisan fighting," Malhotra says. "Therefore, the behavior of members of Congress seems to be consistent with electoral incentives.”

"No matter what they say, people do not actually favor bipartisan policies over those that align with their personal political views – even though compromise is perceived as a virtuous quality," the study’s authors write. "In fact, when people become aware of the compromises made during the policy process, they are even less supportive of bipartisanship because they see it as a loss for their party."

The issues used in the Stanford research were relatively benign, not like the more emotion-charged issues that Congress faces. The research findings cast doubt on hopes that a spirit of bipartisanship will emerge in the halls of Congress for the ironic reason that it may be too politically risky.

The Intractable Trade Issue

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes debate over a major free-trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners and the rules by which the Obama administration will need to follow to negotiate the deal. Photo by SenateEnergy.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes debate over a major free-trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners and the rules by which the Obama administration will need to follow to negotiate the deal. Photo by SenateEnergy.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a major trade policy debate that could affect the ultimate fate of a Trans-Pacific trade agreement sought by the Obama administration.

Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes says Wyden, despite a history as a free trader, is the cause of a delayed hearing on so-called fast-track authority for the administration to negotiate a trade deal.

According to Mapes, the hang-up is over how many senators it would take to retract fast-track authority. Congressional Republicans want 67 senators, while Wyden wants 60. Wyden's view matters because he is the ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, the committee that would scrutinize any trade deals.

A free trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners is viewed as one of the major legislative opportunities this Congress for Republicans to work with President Obama in his final two years in office.

Wyden isn't retreating from his free-trade position, even though he has been pressured to do so from organized labor leaders, including Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain. Mapes says Wyden is trying to find middle ground.

For example, Wyden has agreed with opponents that trade pact negotiations are too secretive. "Transparency, congressional accountability ... and enforcement is really the key to coming up with a sensible, bipartisan trade agreement," Mapes reports Wyden as saying. Wyden says he wants a "good deal."

Senate Republicans seem less worried about how trade negotiations are conducted. That is somewhat ironic in light of the controversial letter 47 GOP senators sent this week to Iranian officials expressing their strong desire to approve any nuclear arms limitation deal negotiated by President Obama. 

Trade agreements have special importance to the West Coast and Oregon. The Port of Portland is one of the largest export platforms on the West Coast, which Wyden has acknowledged.

"People want to buy our wheat, they want to buy our computers, our wine," Wyden told Mapes. "The Oregon brand is just on fire all over the world and we ought to be able to get our exports, particularly, into Asia. ... If I could get in a sentence for my economic philosophy, it is  grow things in Oregon, make things in Oregon, add value to them in Oregon and then ship 'em somewhere."

However, Wyden, who is up for re-election in 2016, faces electoral pushback. Chamberlain, while crediting Wyden for working hard to reach out to both sides of the debate, said the senator's position for fast-track authority and a Trans-Pacific trade deal could cost him official labor backing next year.

Democracy for America has sent out a large mailing urging Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio to challenge Wyden. DeFazio said he has no interest in running against Wyden. 

Related Link: In free-trade fight, Ron Wyden emerges as key negotiating figure in Congress

Fight Big Campaign Cash with More Congressional Staff

Two government reformers say the way to combat floods of campaign cash is to bolster congressional staff so federal lawmakers get information and ideas from sources other than political donors.

Two government reformers say the way to combat floods of campaign cash is to bolster congressional staff so federal lawmakers get information and ideas from sources other than political donors.

While some government reformers are still trying to staunch the hemorrhaging of political cash, two men are suggesting that is a lost cause. The road to reform, they say, is to beef up Capitol Hill staff and the nonpartisan institutions that feed Congress information.

In a lengthy Washington Monthly article, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow with New America, and Steven Teles, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University, lay out an idea unlikely to spark bumper stickers in support. Adding staff and bolstering the General Accounting Office aren't ideas that readily shout "reform."

Drutman and Teles say a Congress awash in political contributions, largely from corporate interests, has become dependent on the information channels of donors. Republican leadership in Congress has shrunk its own staff resources in the name of smaller, leaner government and now must rely more heavily on the information resources of the people and organizations that got them elected.

The pay gap between what Congress pays staffers and special interests pay lobbyists, they add, encourages talented people to leave Capitol Hill for K Street, leaving Members of Congress with relatively young, inexperienced staffs who may or may not be able to smell something fishy in information fed to their bosses.

Their idea is double the number of congressional committee staffers and triple the amount available for salaries. The highest-paid positions would go to the most qualified individuals, regardless of who their boss was or which party was in control.

"Because individual staffers would be employed by the committee, their jobs would not depend on whether individual members won or lost their seats," wrote Drutman and Teles. "This would free them up to think more about the long-term policy implications, instead of being so tied to electoral fortunes of individual members. By rotating between different members and working solely for the committee, staff would build broader networks, but their core network would remain the committee. This would help to build a strong and lasting community."

"A more expanded version of the rotation system could create an exchange program between the relevant executive branch agency and the congressional committee," they explained. "This would also have the benefit of increasing the networks of congressional staff that allow them to engage in serious oversight, and also increase the belief in executive branch agencies that their counterparts in Congress are trustworthy and knowledgeable."

As insiders know, there is a version of this rotation system in place between the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Internal Revenue Service. Staff members have toggled back and forth for years. Unfortunately, the current federal tax code may not stand as a great example of the result.

Drutman and Teles admit that some congressmen and senators may continue to take their information and orders from the "extreme ideological wing" or rich campaign donors. But they say the presence of a well-paid, balanced congressional staff can help federal lawmakers separate the wheat from the chaff. They speculate, perhaps too hopefully, that the presence of skilled congressional staff may prompt talented people to seek political office in hopes they can legislate, not just dial for dollars.

Criticism of the current congressional set-up eclipses partisanship. In 2010, then House Minority Leader John Boehner said Congress "does not function, does not deliberate and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas — the lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent." House Speaker Boehner has not found the remedy for the problem he identified five years ago.

Drutman and Teles say GOP moves to cut staff and geld nonpartisan congressional advisory bodies may be out of touch with some of their own most conservative instincts. They say Congress has crippled its own ability to stand toe-to-toe on issues with the executive branch and legislate with discernment on issues such as taxation, health care and immigration.

In 2013, Congress spent about $2 billion on its own operation. Drutman and Teles said that is roughly equal to a Pentagon cost overrun.

"Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community. For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies."

Obama Links Climate Change, National Security

The Obama administration says climate change could be as treacherous to U.S. national security as terrorists, Russia and pandemics.

The Obama administration says climate change could be as treacherous to U.S. national security as terrorists, Russia and pandemics.

The Obama administration is linking climate change to national security, which may not have much immediate impact on a GOP-controlled Congress, but is likely to become a major debating point in the 2016 presidential election.

In a report released today, the White House put climate change on par with terrorism and pandemics as threats to U.S. security. “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows and conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” according to Obama's 35-page strategy document. 

The President has made fighting climate change a major emphasis of his second term, perhaps as much to elevate it on the political radar screen as to register actual accomplishments. At least one specific recommendation — to diversify the sources of energy for the U.S. military — may have a chance to move forward.

A key theme in the report is the connection between energy security and national security. “Seismic shifts in supply and demand are underway across the globe,” it says. “Increasing global access to reliable and affordable energy is one of the most powerful ways to support social and economic development and to help build new markets for U.S. technology and investment.”

The report calls for actions to increase the nation's resiliency in the face of climate change challenges. That includes more and perhaps different kinds of investment in infrastructure. “The present day effects of climate change are being felt from the Arctic to the Midwest. Increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure and property. In turn, the global economy suffers, compounding the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure.” 

Buttressing America against challenges caused by climate change, the Obama administration report claims, will increase the country's national security.

Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill Unites Congress

In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity, Congress okays legislation aimed at preventing the rising number of suicides by military veterans.

In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity, Congress okays legislation aimed at preventing the rising number of suicides by military veterans.

Congress showed rare unanimous bipartisan support for legislation aimed at addressing the disturbing rise in military veteran suicides, which totals 8,000 deaths annually.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for a Marine who took his life after serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, passed both the House and Senate without a single dissenting vote.

The legislation calls for external audits of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention programsadd a pilot program to pay the student debt of doctors who psychiatric medicine and commit to working with the VA, The bill also authorizes creation of a website that highlights mental health services available through the VA.

There is a $28 million price tag attached to the legislation, but Senate supporters said that amount could be found within the existing VA budget, which itself has been the subject of criticism as being inadequate to handle the growing caseload of returning veterans.

If people wonder what it takes for Congress to act in unison, they now know — more soldiers killing themselves than being killed by enemy fire.

Critics say it shouldn't have take this long for Congress to tackle a problem that has gained increased publicity for the rise in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. They also contend more needs to be done than a website, audit or student debt repayments. Many charitable organizations, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, have stepped in to help, attracting contributions from businesses and private citizens and bringing fresh resources to the battle.