Both Parties Lack Middle-Class Confidence

Political pundits have spun a lot of spitballs to explain voter anger in this year’s presidential election. The Pew Research Center may have the answer in data that shows voters question both political parties' commitment to rescue America’s struggling middle class.

Rejection of “status quo” solutions and “establishment” economics by large blocs of voters in the Republican and Democratic parties have been attributed to concerns about job security, inability to put aside money for retirement and rising college student debt.

Pew Research findings suggest another reason – "62 percent of Americans say the federal government does not do enough for middle-class people.” That view, Pew says, has persisted since 2011, which may account for the simmering resentment and political disenchantment evident on the campaign trail.

Respondents to the Pew poll conducted in early December say Republicans tilt more toward the rich and Democrats care for the poor, but they don’t see much difference in Republican and Democratic policies toward the middle class.

That lukewarm assessment of both parties parallels the decline over the last four decades of middle-income Americans as a percentage of the population along with a shift of aggregate household income to upper-income families.

Providing more help to the middle class isn’t just a middle-class concern. It is a view shared by older people, children and poor people. The only cohort that disagrees, according to the poll, are wealthy people who believe the middle class gets too much help.

Seventy-seven percent of Democrats and 61 percent of non-aligned voters believe wealthy people get too much help from the federal government, as do 44 percent of Republicans.

As the Democratic and GOP presidential races tighten heading into New Hampshire next week, it is worth noting that nominees who don’t win on the first ballot of their party convention are more likely to lose the general election.

As the Democratic and GOP presidential races tighten heading into New Hampshire next week, it is worth noting that nominees who don’t win on the first ballot of their party convention are more likely to lose the general election.

Self-assessments within economic classes have generally improved as the United States has climbed out of economic recession. People who identify as part of the middle class and say they are in financially good shape has ticked up 12 percent over a similar financial self-assessment in 2011.

Despite improving economic conditions, 48 percent of the middle class describes themselves as “staying even” and 43 percent say they are “falling behind.” Lower-income Americans have a gloomier outlook, with 66 percent feeling they are “falling behind.”

As presidential campaigns tighten as they head into next week’s New Hampshire primary, Pew Research offers another cheery note – nominees who fail to win on the first ballot in their party conventions are more likely to lose the general election. Pew reached that conclusion by looking at presidential elections between 1868 and 1984.

Staying the Course May Be Off Course

Hillary Clinton may be the most experienced and well-versed candidate in the presidential field, but she faces the unpredictable headwinds of an electorate that has given up on the status quo and gone in search of political outsiders.

Hillary Clinton may be the most experienced and well-versed candidate in the presidential field, but she faces the unpredictable headwinds of an electorate that has given up on the status quo and gone in search of political outsiders.

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton painted herself in the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses as the candidate who would defend President Obama’s legacy. That message faces stiff headwinds in this election cycle where voters on the political right and left have lost patience with the status quo.

The evidence is in the strength in the GOP presidential primary of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who thumb their noses at anyone in the political mainstream, including members of their own party. The surge of support for Bernie Sanders, who calls for a political revolution and makes unvarnished attacks on big banks, big drug companies and big campaign donors, suggests voter unrest resides in both major parties.

In the space of a week, anyone paying attention was treated to three pictures of America, which could easily be described as three alternate realities.

Obama’s final State of the Union address to Congress touted his administration’s achievements in health care, the economy and diplomacy. The Republican presidential debate was coated with an apocalyptic tone that depicted American leadership as feeble, feckless and failing. The Democratic presidential debate walked through a host of specific issues, leaving an impression that progress had occurred, but nearly enough, especially on health care reform, breaking up big banks and curbing the power of billionaire political donors.

Allowing for typical political hyperbole in an election season, the chasms between the three visions were stark and startling.

It fell to Hillary Clinton to add perspective, noting that the largest abyss is between the Democrats and Republicans running for President. She characterized her candidacy as one of building on Obama’s achievements, not tearing them down and starting over, especially the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.

However, defending the status quo may make Clinton vulnerable in an election year where reality and facts matter less than fiction and fear.

By almost any measure, Clinton is the most experienced and well-versed presidential candidate in either party. When asked about the big issues, she gives the most specific answers, often laced with personal involvement in the issue as a former First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. Though appealing in most elections, that kind of knowledge runs counter to the current mood.

Vox published a piece last week titled, “The GOP debate described a terrifying world that doesn’t actually exist.” Examples it points to included the Cruz plug for “13 Hours,” the new movie that depicts the 2012 Benghazi attacks based on a debunked conspiracy theory, exaggerated descriptions of ISIS and the threat of domestic terrorism.

“For perspective: The number of Americans killed per year by terrorism is the same as the number crushed to death by their own furniture,” noted Vox reporter Zach Beauchamp. That contrasts, he added, with 33,000 deaths caused by firearms, which GOP candidates failed to mention in their zeal to defend the 2nd Amendment.

Sanders’ call for a political revolution centers on reversing the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which paved the way for Super PACs and large individual and corporate campaign donations. While many Democrats agree with him, old political hands don’t see that happening soon – or at all.

Breaking up big banks, which Sanders says control a huge proportion of the U.S. gross domestic product, has been discussed and, according to Clinton, is possible under existing provisions of Dodd-Frank. Moving to a single-payer universal health care system, as Sanders advocates, has been debated, too. Neither idea passed when Democrats held the presidency while maintaining control of the House and Senate. They are less likely to get anywhere under the split government control of today.

Manufactured threats or overblown ambitions haven’t dissuaded voters. They flock to rallies for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Trump’s supporters tend to be angry white people who see their security slipping away, while Sanders appeals to restless young people who worry about inheriting an uncertain future.

Political convulsions, while painful to watch and experience, can produce momentous change. That appears to be what many Americans from across the political spectrum want. And even though Hillary Clinton might be the best prepared to navigate major change, she may be viewed as too wedded to the past to be given the chance.

The Search for an Obamacare Alternative

Congressional Republicans have failed so far to offer a comprehensive alternative to Obamacare, but there is a surge of support on the campaign trail to look at a single-payer health care system.

Congressional Republicans have failed so far to offer a comprehensive alternative to Obamacare, but there is a surge of support on the campaign trail to look at a single-payer health care system.

While congressional Republicans continue to look for an Obamacare replacement, others are stepping up with alternatives they may like even less but may appeal to a significant segment of the U.S. population.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been a consistent voice for a single-payer national health care system, which could be a simple as having everyone enrolled in Medicare. His support for a single-payer health care system is credited by some political observers for his strong showing in early Democratic presidential polls as he challenges Hillary Clinton, who also has a reputation for health care reform.

The single-payer system Sanders has supported on the presidential stump is estimated to cost $15 trillion over 10 years. But Sanders and like-minded supporters say a single-payer system would eliminate $5 trillion in “administrative waste" in that same period. The plan would be paid for by what is described as a “progressive” payroll tax

A Colorado group has placed Initiative 20 on that state's 2016 general election ballot to create ColoradoCare. Under this universal health care coverage proposal, people who live or earn money in Colorado could choose their providers, but medical bills would be paid by the state.

Backers of the Colorado initiative would pay for ColoradoCare through a 10 percent payroll tax, which would generate an estimated $25 billion per year. Under the plan, employers would pay two-thirds of the 10 percent payroll tax and employees the remaining one-third. Self-employed individuals would pay the entire 10 percent on their net income, according to The Denver Post.

The concept of a national single-payer health care system has been floated before and generally beaten back because of fears of an even larger federal bureaucracy, increased health care costs and higher taxes. Hillary Clinton’s proposed health care reform measure stopped short of a single-payer system, as does the Affordable Care Act, which tries to reduce the number of people without health insurance by creating a government-managed marketplace.

While it is easy to point at warts in Obamacare, it is much harder to come up with a plan to replace it, which is why congressional Republicans have voted scores of times on repeal and zero times on a substitute. One reason for the difficulty is that the U.S. health care system has lots of parts. There is the part where workers and their families receive health insurance offered through their employer. Then there is Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, Indian Health, federally funded clinics, school clinics, psychiatric care and alternative care such as naturopathy and chiropractic.

The complex health care system and health insurance coverage only partially overlap, which sometimes leads to awkward and expensive health care delivery, such as children from low-income families being forced to seek care in a hospital emergency room instead of a school clinic or people suffering from mental illness receiving prescriptions for psychotropic drugs from primary care physicians.

One of the underlying appeals of a single-payer system is its promise to consolidate the silos in the health care delivery system and eliminate (or at least shrink) the disparity between health care delivery and health insurance.

Skeptics question whether a single-payer health care system would live up to its promise in the United States, where many people are accustomed to a broad range of choices in providers and some providers decline to serve patients in a public health program because of lower fees. Skeptics also doubt Americans are willing to pay higher taxes and hand over more control of their lives to the federal government.

While those arguments have prevailed in the past, progressives such as Sanders and the Initiative 20 backers in Colorado are saying that tinkering with the health care system is not enough to stem rising health care costs and ballooning insurance premiums. They say if you want an alternative to Obamacare, here’s one to consider.

In the absence of another comprehensive alternative, the single-payer system appears to be gaining some momentum as a policy option.

Congress Reaches $1 Trillion Spending, Tax Deal

New House Speaker Paul Ryan turned a "crap sandwich" into a $1.1 trillion spending and tax deal that both Republicans and Democrats can point to with provisions they support.

New House Speaker Paul Ryan turned a "crap sandwich" into a $1.1 trillion spending and tax deal that both Republicans and Democrats can point to with provisions they support.

Congressional negotiators have reached an agreement on a $1.15 trillion federal spending bill that will carry through until Sept. 30, 2016. Most of the contentious policy "riders" were dropped in the final package.

The House is expected to vote Friday on the 2,009-page measure. Senate action will follow. Because the short-term spending extension expires tonight, Congress is expected to rush through another extension until Dec. 22 to allow time for the in the House and Senate on the omnibus package, which consists of 12 appropriations bills.

The deal also involves a 233-page bill that extends various tax provisions, including a five-year extension of tax credits for the wind and solar industries and a two-year delay of the so-called "Cadillac" tax on health insurance plans. The measure locks the research and development credit and Section 179 small business expensing deduction into law.

Reaching a spending agreement was a heavy lift for new House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called the job a "crap sandwich."

To reach a deal, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were forced to drop provisions Democrats opposed to defund Planned Parenthood, block funding for the 10,000 Syrian refugees that President Obama has agreed to accept, blunt an Obama administration clean water rule and peel back portions of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul legislation.

Ryan and McConnell hope to attract as many Republican votes as possible through tax extenders, an end to a 40-year ban on U.S. oil exports and a reformed visa waiver program that no longer will apply to anyone who has travelled to Iraq or Syria. The omnibus package also stops what GOP critics call an Obamacare "bailout" of health insurers.

Democrats mostly played defense on the spending bill, but achieved policy goals on the tax measure, including expansion of the child, earned income college tuition tax credits. The measure also indefinitely extends state and local sales tax deductions and a deduction for teachers' out-of-pocket expenses. New York Senator Charles Schumer successfully inserted a provision to provide a tax benefit to mass transit riders that parallels an existing exclusion for employer-paid parking.

Provisions of particular interest to CFM clients include the following:

•  CDBG: $3 billion (equal to FY15 enacted level)

•  HOME: $950 million ($50 million increase over FY15 enacted levels)

•  Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants: $347 million (slight increase over FY15 enacted levels)

•  Economic Development Administration, Public Works Programs: $100 million (increase over FY15 enacted levels)

•  FEMA Assistance to Firefighter Grants: $690 million — $345 million for AFG and $345 for SAFER (increase over FY15 enacted levels)

•  TIGER: $500 million (equal to FY15 enacted level), although the bill does not provide funds for planning grants. 

While the omnibus spending and tax extender bills are expected to pass, most likely with bipartisan support, there is sure to be sniping about items buried in the bowels of the mammoth legislation, especially given the little amount of time Members of Congress will have before votes begin.

Congress Launches Nation into New Era for Public Education

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is part of a bipartisan coalition behind the new education proposal. Murray, a former preschool teacher, says the bill will help close the achievement gap between the highest performers and traditionally marginalized students. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is part of a bipartisan coalition behind the new education proposal. Murray, a former preschool teacher, says the bill will help close the achievement gap between the highest performers and traditionally marginalized students. 

Congress swiftly propelled America’s K-12 education system into a new era Wednesday, laying the groundwork to put the highly criticized No Child Left Behind Act to rest. 

In its place stands a bill that would hand over control of student and teacher assessments to the states, a historic move that would loosen the federal government’s grip on the public education system. Behind the plan is a coalition of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The bill easily passed the House last week before mustering an 85-12 approval vote in the Senate Wednesday. President Obama is expected to sign the measure – known as the Every Student Succeeds Act – into law on Thursday.

By name, it sounds like a rehash of No Child Left Behind. But the proposal represents a fundamental shift in how teachers, students and schools are evaluated and the funding they receive in turn.  

No Child Left Behind was ushered in 14 years ago with similar enthusiasm from Congress. Since then, it has devolved into a symbol of America’s stunted growth in education reform. Critics argue the act puts too much emphasis on standardized test performance at the cost of building crucial skills and fostering a deeper understanding of course material.

The new law would sever the tie between student test results and federal funding – a system that has long left the lowest performing (and usually poorest) schools with fewer resources to fix their problems. Parents, teachers and other critics of No Child Left Behind considered that response an unfair punishment for schools facing the most daunting struggles.

Under the new system, the federal government would be barred from directing states on how to assess school and teacher performance. Instead, that job would fall to the states, which would also be required to take action to buoy their lowest performing schools.

If you think of states as the perfect testing grounds for developing federal law, this shift presents an endlessly fascinating opportunity for experimentation.  

The new law does preserve some aspects of No Child Left Behind, though, like annual standardized testing requirements in reading and math for grades three through eight. However, it also urges states to cut down the time spent on testing overall.

In maintaining that provision, Murray said she and her cosponsors are protecting critical “guardrails” designed to fix ailing schools. Meanwhile, she is confident the changes will help narrow the gap between the highest achievers and traditionally marginalized groups – children living in poverty, racial minorities, special education students and English-language learners.   

"It takes away the high-stakes testing, which makes sure we know how our kids are doing, but allows us to creatively think and smartly think of better ways to make sure our kids are achieving what we want them to," Murray told Seattle media Wednesday.

On an international level, the U.S. ranks nowhere near the top in math and science testing scores. The picture is improving, but few Americans rate the country’s public education system as above average or among the best in the world.  

No Child Left Behind has been slated for renewal for the last eight years. Efforts to renew or reform the law stalled, though, as the country debated the federal government’s role in education. 

Transportation Bill Finally Moving

Congressional conferees reached agreement on a 5-year, $305 billion transportation bill that will hike funding for public transportation.

Congressional conferees reached agreement on a 5-year, $305 billion transportation bill that will hike funding for public transportation.

House and Senate conferees have agreed on a transportation bill that funnels more money to local government, boosts funding to improve highway freight corridors, increases spending on buses and enhances safety for crude oil rail shipping.

The 1,300-page, five-year, $305 billion transportation authorization compromise is expected to land on President Obama's desk as early as Friday, the day the current authorization bill expires. If the process slows in the House or Senate, another short-term extension may be likely and will push the bill signing to next week.

In addition to transportation provisions, the so-called FAST Act revives the Export-Import Bank, which was effectively mothballed Oct. 1, and removes a restriction on financing large water projects.

While observers are still looking at the fine print, here are several highlights in the conference agreement: 

•  More money in the Surface Transportation Program is allocated for local government. The allocation will grow from 50 percent to 55 percent, which could mean an average increase of $300 million annually for local transportation projects.

•  Funding also increased for the Transportation Alternative Program. States and local government use this money for economic development, trail and other access projects.

•  Bus funding increases by 89 percent over the life of the bill. This provides both stable formula funding and a competitive grant program to address bus and bus facility needs.

•  A brand new National Highway Freight Program will focus on funding critical urban and rural freight corridors across the country. The new program is funded at $1.15 billion in 2016 and rises to $1.5 billion in 2020.  

•  The Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects, a new competitive grant program, will start at $800 million in FY16. After that, it increases by $50 million each year for a total of $1 billion. The program will reduce the impact of congestion, generating national and regional economic benefits and facilitating the efficient movement of freight.

•  Crude oil shipments will be required to move in railcars with a thermal blanket and other safety features. Local governments have demanded these additional measures along rail routes.

•  Conferees jump started the Water Infrastructure Finance & Innovation Act  (WIFIA) program. They made this possible by removing the restriction that disallows use of municipal bonds as the local match. The EPA designed the program to reduce the financing costs of large scale water projects. It's estimated that the WIFIA program could save an estimated 20 percent on the cost of construction.

Different Reactions to Foreign, Domestic Shootings

The Paris terrorist attack has drawn calls for swift action by many political figures who were largely silent in the wake of the shootings at Umpqua Community College.

The Paris terrorist attack has drawn calls for swift action by many political figures who were largely silent in the wake of the shootings at Umpqua Community College.

The terrorist attack in Paris has prompted demands for swift action by American political figures who were largely silent after recent shootings at Umpqua Community College.

GOP presidential candidates, such as Marco Rubio, said the United States should refuse to accept any Syrian refugees because "they are too hard to vet." Several Republican governors said they wouldn't let Syrian refugees into their states. Jeb Bush advocated for only allowing in refugees who are Christians.

Others called President Obama's strategy too timid and urged stronger military measures, including in a few cases putting U.S. ground forces into the Syrian fray. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump publicly toyed with the idea of closing mosques.

Ironically, most of the Republican officials expressing outrage over the Paris incident were largely silent in the wake of the domestic attack at UCC and other shootings that involved the deaths of American citizens.

Catastrophic events generate outrage and windbaggery. Political finger-pointing follows, too. But that doesn't fully justify the sharp difference in response to foreigners killing Frenchmen as opposed to Americans killing Americans.

People who follow U.S. politics understand the reason for reticence in addressing domestic gun violence – the National Rifle Association and its major sponsors, gun manufacturers. As best we can tell, the NRA has no qualms if politicians rail against gun violence overseas.

Outrage at the indiscriminate carnage in Paris is near universal. It is hard to quarrel with French President Francois Hollande's declaration that the attacks we're an "act of war." It is also hard to dispute that tougher measures may be required to defeat ISIS, which took credit for the Paris massacre.

However, the rage aimed at Syrian refugees seems misplaced. Yes, one of the assailants in Paris apparently smuggled himself into Europe masquerading as a refugee. There well could be other ISIS operatives who have entered Europe under the same guise. But the vast majority of refugees really are refugees, trying to escape from a place where their national leader drops barrel bombs on them and insurgents who enslave and behead them.

Major events in the past, such as the 9/11 attacks in New York City, have unified political leadership. That doesn't seem to be the fashion now. Republicans have blamed Obama for the rise of ISIS. Obama has responded defensively and basically said Republicans have no workable plan to stop ISIS.

New House Speaker Paul Ryan got a taste of political venom when Mike Huckabee called him out for not being strong enough in blocking Syrian refugees, even after Ryan gave an interview saying, "What matters to me is not only do we prevent people from coming in, but we don't bring them in. We've got to make sure we're protecting ourselves."

Where was all that energy when American blood was spilled? Where was the concern about vetting bad actors with guns on our own soil?

Get Ready for Speaker Paul Ryan

Congressman Paul Ryan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

Congressman Paul Ryan speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

After weeks of speculation and uncertainty on Capitol Hill, the Republican House majority finally appears to have its next speaker in sight: Congressman Paul Ryan. 

Remember him? The conservative budget guru from Wisconsin who would have been vice president three years ago if Mitt Romney had won. He’s set to be selected for the position on Thursday, and now it looks like he has enough Republican votes to win the job.  
 
Ryan initially seemed disinterested in replacing Speaker John Boehner, who is retiring to avoid more infighting in his caucus and after he realized his dream of having a Pope address Congress.

Ryan's reluctance isn't surprising. Trying to run the House with his own troops in revolt is a tough job, especially for a guy who says he will only take the job if he still can go home to Janesville every weekend to be with his family.
 
Despite pressure from Boehner and Romney, Ryan said he was perfectly happy holding onto his dream job as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. But that changed late last week after it became clear no one else had a remote chance of stitching together a majority of the Republican caucus.
 
Ryan became a household name after rising to the top of the House Budget Committee in 2007. Since then, he’s proposed several budget plans with bold social service cuts, such as replacing Medicare with a voucher system and repealing the Affordable Care Act. 
 
Two years ago, Ryan emerged as the key Republican negotiator in a budget deal co-authored by Democratic Senator Patty Murray. It was a rare example of bipartisanship in a time increasingly marred by political polarization.  
 
A famously devout fan of controversial novelist Ayn Rand and heavy metal bands, Ryan stands in sharp contrast to the man he’s poised to replace. And maybe that would be a good change for Congress, but don’t get your hopes up that Ryan’s latest rise in the ranks will do much to sew the Republican Party back together. 
 
With 247 members today, House Republicans hold their largest majority in decades, and Ryan’s ascent makes him the de facto leader of a splintered party conference, which includes the centrist Tuesday Group, the larger, very conservative Republican Study Committee and the radical, anti-establishment Freedom Caucus.
 
Ryan, a member of the Republican Study Committee, initially struggled to gain the approval of the Freedom Caucus, which consists of a few dozen representatives who have generally put in less time on Capitol Hill. Last week, about two-thirds of them came around, cautiously giving Ryan their blessing, but not promising to make his job any easier than Boehner’s.
 
Comprised of many members of the Tea Party movement, the Freedom Caucus refused to support any spending bill that did not strip all federal funding away from Planned Parenthood. In cases like that, the faction’s opposition can be just enough to bring the legislative process to a halt.  
 
Ryan's path appears to be easier than expected, thanks to Boehner, who managed to push through a debt ceiling and spending deal Wednesday. Congressional leaders struck the crucial two-year budget deal Monday night following negotiations with the Obama Administration.

Leaders hope to move the proposal along for a vote in the Senate, getting the dirty work out of the way just in time for Ryan’s entrance to the speakership. The deal has already met some resistance from Sen. Rand Paul, who vowed to filibuster the proposal.   
 
Chances are good the Freedom Caucus will remain a thorn in the side of any Speaker. Chances also are good that Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, who is in charge of fundraising for House Republicans, will take on an expanded role since Ryan won't hit the road like Boehner did.

The challenge for Ryan will be to figure out clever ways to negotiate with the White House, a more stable GOP majority in the Senate and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pushing for more job security, Ryan hopes to change a rule that allows a single member of the House to move for a vote to remove the speaker. In Boehner’s time, the rule has posed a constant threat to his hold over the speakership. That may be the only way to neuter the Freedom Caucus enough to get on with the business of legislating.

Growing Momentum for Mental Health Reform

While other issues face political gridlock, bipartisan momentum is growing in Congress for mental health reform, including improved access to care, early intervention and involvement by caregivers in treatment plans.

While other issues face political gridlock, bipartisan momentum is growing in Congress for mental health reform, including improved access to care, early intervention and involvement by caregivers in treatment plans.

Congress last passed mental health legislation in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act.

However, bipartisan momentum is building to finally reform our nation’s mental health system to provide more comprehensive and effective treatment and support for individuals and their families.

According to the National Association of Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. (43.7 million) experience mental illness each year, and one in 25 adults (13.6 million) are affected by a serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Mental illness impacts nearly every aspect of a person’s life, yet those with a disease often face tremendous difficulties receiving treatment.

The lack of diagnosis and treatment can lead to homelessness, substance abuse or even violence in some cases. Furthermore, a stigma surrounds the disease causing those affected to feel inadequate and even embarrassed, so the disease is kept a secret adding more barriers to receiving proper treatment.

At the National Journal's briefing, Mental Health Reform: Improving Access to Care and Reducing Incarceration, Congressman Tim Murphy, R-PA, said, “No more moments of silence. We need moments of action.”

Before joining Congress, Murphy spent three decades as a psychologist. Using this experience, he is spearheading efforts in the House to comprehensively reform the mental health system through his bill, H.R. 2646, The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Across the Capitol, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy (CT) has introduced similar legislation, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015.

While these proposals have some important differences, the overall goal is to establish meaningful reforms, like early intervention programs and amending provisions of the HIPPA privacy laws to meet the needs of all patients. Here is one key contrast between the two plans: The House version provides incentives for states that implement assisted outpatient treatment while the Senate version does not.

One of the biggest problems with the current system is lack of access. In 1950, the country had more than 500,000 psychiatric beds, but that number has drastically fallen in the last 65 years. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of beds decreased by 14 percent to fewer than 45,000, a statistic Sen. Murphy highlights.

Today, experts say the country has a shortage of nearly 100,000 beds. The proposed legislation seeks to address this problem. The House measure would provide additional beds for patients with acute mental health crises and allow them to receive immediate inpatient care for less than 30 days. Additionally, both bills repeal current Medicaid law that prevents patients from receiving treatment for both physical and mental health in the same day.

Early intervention is critical for those who suffer from mental illness. In fact, the National Alliance of Mental Illness finds that 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24. By establishing early intervention grant programs, as offered in both House and Senate bills, professionals could learn and implement best practices and intervene before an illness progresses.

Though medicine and professional therapy are important, parents and caregivers play a vital role. They can offer insight into an individual’s medical history and life experiences, which is critical information for medical professionals.

However, certain aspects of the HIPPA privacy rule prevent caregivers from assisting in the treatment plan. This is especially important for parents who are caring for a mentally ill child living at home. The House and Senate offer differing degrees of this provision, but amending current law is a priority in both measures.

Unlike a government funding package and other time-sensitive issues in Congress, reforming the mental health system does not have a hard deadline. Congressional leaders acknowledge that tragedies -- including the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., Sandy Hook Elementary and most recently at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg -- rally momentum and help spotlight the need for action.

But the shootings also stress the importance of reform, whether or not gun violence is involved, and these two congressmen hope that the grassroots movements and bipartisan support will grow and that Congress will pass comprehensive reform in 2015.

Opponents Line Up for Pacific Trade Pact

Negotiators wrapped up a framework for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, but the trade deal may face substantial opposition in Congress in an election year from a loose coalition of labor, environmentalists and disgruntled industry. (Communication Workers Union)

Negotiators wrapped up a framework for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, but the trade deal may face substantial opposition in Congress in an election year from a loose coalition of labor, environmentalists and disgruntled industry. (Communication Workers Union)


Negotiators have agreed on the framework of a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which if approved could give President Obama a second major international achievement following the Iranian nuclear deal.

Obama touted the trade pact as a policy tool to strengthen U.S. influence in the high-growth Asia Pacific region, as well as a way to box in the rising economic ambitions of China. The TPP was a central element in Obama's pivot to the Pacific strategy, which has continually been interrupted by turmoil in the Middle East, Russian moves against Ukraine and the rise of ISIS.

Even though a GOP-led Congress gave Obama so-called fast track authority to negotiate the TPP and limit Congress to an up or down vote, the treaty's prospects appear uncertain. While there is a lot for various groups to like in the trade treaty, strong objections persist from labor, environmental and industry groups. Because the vote on TPP won't occur until next spring, opponents will have ample time to make their case.

The Washington Post provided a sampler of discontent. U.S. automakers, it reported, complain the TPP doesn't prevent currency manipulation by Japan that suppresses its car prices in the American market. Drug manufacturers wanted intellectual property protection for their biologic medicines to last for 12 years, but TPP only extends protection for eight years.

Environmentalists worry about investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions, which they say could "empower big polluters to challenge climate and environmental safeguards in private trade courts." On the flip side of that coin, tobacco companies are upset they are apparently excluded from the TPP settlement provisions, a similar form of which they used successfully to block anti-smoking rules in Australia.

The most fervent opposition to the trade deal comes from organized labor, which says prior trade deals have cost American jobs. Labor officials, who opposed fast-track negotiating authority, complain that TPP negotiators made "problematic concessions" to gain approval of the treaty.

The previous high-profile vote on fast track authority may or may not prove a reliable guide to how the up-or-down vote on the treaty will look. The shakeup in House GOP leadership, which could produce a rocky road in the next six weeks on major policy issues, could have undetermined impacts on the political alignment for the trade deal. Fast track authority prevents the Senate from filibustering the trade deal, which could force senators running for re-election against formidable opposition to pause on how they vote.

Glass-half-full observers say a potential defeat of the treaty in Congress could actually strengthen Obama's hand at the negotiating table, winning concessions he failed to get in the just concluded negotiations.

The lineup of issues this year in Congress, amid a still swirling presidential primary in both political parties, probably means the TPP won't attract much media attention. That's a plus for treaty detractors who can work in the shadows.

That could obscure a principled debate on key TPP provisions, such as ISDS. A separate Washington Post analysis offers useful background about prior investment treaties with settlement provisions similar to the one in the TPP. It notes, for example, that ISDS procedures allow corporations to sue governments in international courts, but governments aren't allowed to sue corporations, which some criticize as "one-way rights"  and a threat to the legal and regulatory sovereignty of nations.

Corporations have prevailed in some filings, though none have been upheld against the United States, but that political defense may not be enough to fend off arguments from Democrats such as Senator Elizabeth Warren. Labor officials say this will lead to increased "nationality shopping," with pressure on countries to weaken regulations to hold onto or recruit job-producing industry.

Another factor in the ISDS debate will be the sheer number of international investment treaties (3,200 at last count) with varying standards and rules that tend to favor corporations. 

Tags:    Trans-Pacific Partnership, fast track authority, ISDS, trade deal opposition, President Obama, second international achievement, nationality shopping, free trade, CFM Federal Affairs

 

Boehner Bombshell Shifts Capitol Landscape

Speaker John Boehner's bombshell resignation announcement shifted the political ground on Capitol Hill, making short-term issues easier to resolve, but creating some longer term obstacles that may be harder to move.

Speaker John Boehner's bombshell resignation announcement shifted the political ground on Capitol Hill, making short-term issues easier to resolve, but creating some longer term obstacles that may be harder to move.

Speaker John Boehner's surprise announcement to retire at the end of October has shifted the landscape on Capitol Hill and may presage an even more dramatic shift later this year.

No longer beholden to the "Freedom Caucus"  – the far right flank of the GOP, Boehner has the flexibility to push more moderate legislation through the House over the next 32 days. The question is, how much can he really get done and what are the short- and long-term implications for the next House Speaker?

In the short-term, the retirement announcement has provided breathing room for the Speaker. The chances of an October 1 government shutdown have nearly evaporated, bipartisan passage of a drama-free debt ceiling bill is more likely and there is hope for a compromise on a transportation/tax reform package. Without the constant threat of a motion to "vacate the Speaker," other bills could hitch a ride on a fast track, including reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.

Don't get too optimistic. It's also clear the next Speaker will have to deal with the consequences of an unhinged Boehner. Next in line to the Speakership is Boehner friend and ally, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy from California. The more bipartisan legislation that moves in October, the higher the level of conservative frustration later in the GOP caucus. To be elected Speaker, McCarthy can only lose 29 votes from the GOP ranks – 24 of whom already voted against Boehner in January. Thus, McCarthy can only lose five more Republicans to avoid an all-out scramble for the Speaker's position. 

If McCarthy is tied to the Speaker's actions over the next month, his ascension to Speaker could be put in jeopardy. So Boehner is still going to have to balance the risks and rewards of moving legislation in his final days. Bipartisan action would continue to stoke tensions within the Republican Party and could bring the confrontation past the boiling point to a full revolt. Boehner is a master politician though, so he may manage to clear the decks of some of the most contentious issues and leave the institution he loves on a high note.

Here is some quick analysis on how key provisions could be impacted by the Speaker's departure:

September 30 Budget Showdown/Shutdown – Boehner is no longer beholden to the far right and word from GOP leadership is the Speaker will offer up a clean Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded through December 11. The CR will not contain the controversial repeal of funding for Planned Parenthood. Without the Planned Parenthood funding repeal, the GOP will lose 30-50 votes for the CR and Republicans will need to rely on Democrats to pass the bill. The measure will likely pass by Wednesday evening, just in time for the September 30 end of fiscal year deadline.

Debt Limit Increase – Another casualty of Boehner's departure could be a showdown over the debt limit. With an historic debt of $19 trillion, the country needs to increase its credit limit once again before it defaults. Unfortunately, the debt limit increase is becoming an annual affair. 

The timeline for default is not exact, but will likely happen in November. It's expected Boehner will try to act before he leaves office to clear the decks for the next Speaker. Typically, the Freedom Caucus has been steadfast in its opposition to raising the debt limit without a dollar-for-dollar cut in spending. The Obama Administration meanwhile has said the debt limit is not a tool for negotiation, even though in 2011, that's how we got the Super Committee and Sequestration. 

Transportation and Tax Reform– The fate of the transportation bill also could benefit. Word out of leadership and the House T&I Committee is that Chairman Bill Shuster and Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan have a six-year package that is ready to be unveiled. With the blessing of the Speaker, a transportation/tax reform package could receive an expedited path to the floor of the House. Many Freedom Caucus members have opposed additional federal spending on transportation. October could be the perfect time to get a popular bipartisan bill through the House.

Sequestration Cap – Without another 2013 Murray/Ryan type of agreement, the two-year sequestration relief bill will expire October 1. Both Republicans and Democrats want to lift the cap, but for different reasons. Republicans generally want more defense spending, while Democrats want more non-defense spending. It is hard to be optimistic that the Speaker can reach a deal to lift the spending caps before he leaves. However, there will certainly be pressure on him to expedite negotiations and resolve the issue.

December 11 – The likelihood of a government shutdown on December 11 has gone up significantly. An emboldened Freedom Caucus, a lame duck President Obama and presidential politics are could conspire to make this a tumultuous December. It will take  fancy footwork from both sides to come together on the FY16 spending package.

The Shadow of Government Shutdowns

Political conservatives, egged on by GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz, want to shut down the federal government in an effort to defund Planned Parenthood. The last shutdown Cruz helped engineer reduced U.S. economic output by $24 billion.

Political conservatives, egged on by GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz, want to shut down the federal government in an effort to defund Planned Parenthood. The last shutdown Cruz helped engineer reduced U.S. economic output by $24 billion.

GOP presidential candidates, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are batting around the idea of a federal government shutdown as a means to defund Planned Parenthood. If they succeed, it would be the 19th partial closure of federal agencies since 1976.

The shutdowns don't typically last long – the longest was 21 days in a stand-off between President Bill Clinton and a GOP-led Congress over a budget.

The most recent shutdown, which lasted 16 days, occurred in 2013, resulting in furloughs of 800,000 non-essential federal workers and the closure of national parks and memorials. Cruz was the ringleader of an effort to prevent passage of a spending resolution as leverage to defund parts of Obamacare.

Cruz has equated shutting down the federal government with carrying through on campaign promises to repeal Obamacare. He has blamed "establishment Republicans," including GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for undermining efforts to win conservative ideological victories.

Campaigning for President, Cruz has a new target – Planned Parenthood. The leverage this time is a resolution to raise the debt limit, which the Treasury Department says is needed sometime early this fall, perhaps as soon as a couple of weeks from now.

McConnell and GOP House Speaker John Boehner have repeatedly said the nation's credit shouldn't be put at risk over political battles. Boehner's stance contributes to festering disaffection in the right wing of his House Republican conference and could even lead to a challenge to his Speakership.

The build-up to the debt ceiling vote has been muted in part because of media attraction to the more raucous debate over the Iran nuclear deal. Just before the congressional deadline to act last week, the air went out of that debate when enough Democratic senators refused to end a filibuster. The House took votes, but they were most symbolic and largely overlooked.

General political wisdom indicates that forcing a government shutdown, regardless of the principle involved, isn't a winning electoral strategy. A new report issued this week shows why.

"Government Disservice,"produced by the Partnership for Public Service, suggests that shutting down the federal government – and threatening to shut it down – have become a way of life in Washington, DC.

"The negative effect on the ability of the agencies to fulfill their missions has often seemed to be of little concern to many lawmakers, some of whom are focused on the appropriations process to win specific policy battles or to control spending or reduce the federal budget deficit," the report concludes.

In addition to disrupting actual governmental services, shutdowns or threatened shutdowns demoralize federal employees, especially ones who live paycheck to paycheck and face financial stress when they aren't working. Some employees say they have become pawns in political chess games that waste taxpayer money planning for, carrying out and recovering from shutdowns.

The report's findings says congressional oversight of federal agencies is more focused on headlines, than improvements. The report calls for a biennial budget to "reduce the disruption that stems from dysfunctional budget and appropriations processes." On a more practical level, the report suggests members from both side of the political aisle get to know each other and spend time learning what federal agencies do and how the legislative process works.

Shutting government down over issues related to abortion is not new either. There was a 12-day shutdown in the fall of 1977 related to Medicaid abortion coverage, followed by a pair of 8-day shutdowns later in the same year dubbed Abortion Shutdown II and Abortion Shutdown III. There was an 11-day shutdown in the fall of 1979 that included a dispute over abortion funding.

More recent shutdowns have tended to center on spending priorities and deficit reduction. However in 1984, after a 2-day shutdown over quarrels involving crime fighting, civil rights and water projects, there was a 1-day continuation of the shutdown because the temporary measure Congress passed to end the shutdown didn't do the trick.

Related Link: The looming shutdown is ‘government disservice’ to U.S. taxpayers and employees

Untypical, Unelectable Politicians Prospering

Anti-candidates and unconventional politicians once thought unelectable now are dominating political polls, suggesting politics as usual and traditional American optimism may be in for a vacation.

Anti-candidates and unconventional politicians once thought unelectable now are dominating political polls, suggesting politics as usual and traditional American optimism may be in for a vacation.

Politics-as-usual has never been popular. In the coming election year, it may be lethal.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll reveals 72 percent of Americans believe politicians can't be trusted and 66 percent think the country's political system is dysfunctional. Not exactly a solid foundation to run for re-election. Twenty-one percent want a President who will tear down the current system and start over.

This perhaps explains voter attraction to anti-candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson and unconventional politicians such as Bernie Sanders. Policy positions matter less than style. Deliberate thought takes a back seat to brash talk. Compromise is scorned and anger is rewarded.

The mood has shivers running down the back of incumbents. Even establishment outsiders have felt the chill. Jeb Bush is still treated in the media as the likely winner, even though 60 percent of Republicans prefer someone from outside the political establishment. South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham has been stonewalled in his home state. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has gone from pack leader to a camp follower in the Republican presidential primary.

The non-politicians are playing to this electoral discontent with dark rhetoric, as laid out in a story in the Sunday New York Times.  Trump calls America a "hell hole" run by "stupid" leaders who are steering the nation toward becoming a "third world country." Texas Senator Ted Cruz sees menaces from without and within, as evidenced by the "lawlessness" of jailing a Kentucky county clerk for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples under "authority from God."

The trend is confounding GOP pollsters who have pushed candidates to follow Ronald Reagan's example and stress optimism. Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich have generally optimistic messaging, but they are drowned out by strains of negativism.

"Today, conservatism is much more mean spirited, angry, not optimistic and much more viscerally divisive," according to Matthew Dowd, a former top strategist for President George W. Bush.

Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, told the New York Times, "I know everyone should be optimistic, should be sunny and cheerful. And there's something weird and wrong if you're not. But really? Is the country on the right track or the wrong track?"

The Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the wariness of voters has taken its toll on Hillary Clinton's credibility as her private email soap opera has continued. According to poll results, less than 50 percent of Democrats want Clinton as the party's nominee and the largest defections from her earlier support are among white women. The beneficiary of Clinton's decline has been Sanders, who pushes his liberal economic agenda in convincingly earnest tones that seems to connect with disaffected Democrats.

For the first time, Clinton finds herself neck-and-neck with Trump in a prospective general election battle, which challenges mainstream logic about Trump's electability. That same belated realization about who is electable and who isn't could give Sanders another bump, pushing him into the lead.

For those who still believe the 2016 presidential election will pit the family dynasties of Clinton versus Bush, there is the overwhelming election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain's Labour Party. Corbyn's far-left agenda may not appeal to rank-and-file Labour Party members, but their voices were swamped by more than 100,000 new voters who weighed in on the choice. Not long ago, Corbyn was considered too liberal to gain power. But politics as usual seem to be out of favor in a lot of ways and a lot of places.

Nuclear Fallout and a Looming Shutdown Threat

House Speaker John Boehner returned to DC from summer recess to discover yet another rank-and-file revolt that could have repercussions on later voters and his political survival as Speaker.

House Speaker John Boehner returned to DC from summer recess to discover yet another rank-and-file revolt that could have repercussions on later voters and his political survival as Speaker.

The Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration looks like a done deal, which makes it all the more puzzling why House Republicans are arguing over how to vote to oppose it.

Politico.com reports that House GOP leaders returned from summer recess to discover a rank-and-file revolt. Every House Republican opposes the Iran nuclear deal, but some resist voting on a simple resolution of disapproval. That has forced the House leadership to come up with a plan, which will be shared with caucus members today, to quiet the discontent.

The agitation in the House has led political observers to wonder whether Speaker John Boehner can survive or whether he can steer some course on a debt ceiling vote later this fall to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Congress left town in August anticipating a high-octane advertising and lobbying campaign could sway Senate Democrats from supporting the Iran nuclear deal. However, a coordinated campaign led by the White House kept up pressure to support the deal, calling it the only deal Congress would see.

By the time Congress returned, more than 40 senators, including all four senators from Oregon and Washington, had come up publicly in support of the deal, ensuring that a presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval could not be overridden.

The specter of a clear path for the deal prompted House Republicans to call for other ways to express opposition. One idea was a resolution declaring Obama administration officials failed to send all parts of the deal, including side deals, to Congress. Another idea is to frame the House vote as a resolution of approval, which would force Obama allies to vote for the deal, not just against a resolution disapproving it.

Senate Republicans shrugged their shoulders at House proposals and appear on track to put forward a resolution of disapproval, which all Senate Republicans and a few Democrats are expected to support. If there is nothing comparable in the House, then no legislation may ever reach Obama's desk for him to veto. Congress only has until September 17 to act.

With the Iran deal more or less sewed up, the maneuvering in the House now seems more like a dress rehearsal for the looming debt ceiling vote last this fall. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have dismissed any effort to force a government shutdown, but conservative activists may not give up. Boehner has little choice but to find ways to placate his restive conservative wing.

"Foreign Affairs" published an online article examining what might happen after the 15-year period covered by the Iran nuclear deal comes to an end. At a minimum, there will be new leadership in Iran, plus the effects of rapidly changing demographics that could make the post-pact period a very different ballgame.

The Growing Price of Congestion

Many commuters have had to double the amount of time they allot to get to work. 

Many commuters have had to double the amount of time they allot to get to work. 

A rebounding economy has led to more sluggish traffic commutes, highlighting the need for increased investments in roadways and public transit, according to the latest Urban Mobility Scorecard. The 20th iteration of the scorecard comes just before Congress returns to take up stalled federal transportation legislation.

Some of the data in the scorecard, which relies on traffic speed data to calculate delays, is staggering. The annual delay per commuter is 42 hours and is expected to grow to 47 hours by 2020. Total delay nationwide will grow from 6.9 billion hours to 8.3 billion hours in the same period. The cost of congestion, which is borne by motorists and businesses that depend on moving goods on highways, will jump from $160 billion to $192 billion.

Commuting delays subsided during the Great Recession, but a stronger economy has returned mind-numbing delays. The U.S. Department of Transportation cites data indicating Americans drove more than 3 trillion miles in the last 12 months.

Slowing traffic hasn't gone unnoticed by increasingly exasperated motorists. According to the scorecard's authors, many commuters have been forced to double the amount of time they allot to get to work. Others have worked out arrangements with employers to adjust when they arrive or leave from work, or to skip commuting altogether and tele-commute.

“Our growing traffic problem is too massive for any one entity to handle – state and local agencies can’t do it alone,” says Tim Lomax, a report co-author and Regents Fellow at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “Businesses can give their employees more flexibility in where, when and how they work, individual workers can adjust their commuting patterns, and we can have better thinking when it comes to long-term land-use planning. This problem calls for a classic ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach.”

The all-hands-on-deck approach includes substantial road and transit improvements. Scorecard authors say it is smart economics to make those investments. Drivers stuck in traffic waste 3 billion gallons of fuel and 7 billion hours of non-productive time, which adds up to $960 per commuter annually.

Portland isn't among the worst congested cities in America, but the cost of congestion is still notable, even though vehicle miles travelled has decreased from what it was in 2011. In 2014, the average congestion cost for a peak-time auto commuter was $1,273, which includes the price of 29 gallons of wasted gasoline. 

The average cost of congestion for a peak-hour commuter in Seattle, who wastes 63 hours each year in a highway parking lot, is $1,491.

The scorecard observes that traffic congestion is no longer just a big-city problem. Smaller urban areas face mounting congestion. For example, delays in Salem in 2014 cost $175 million, which worked out at $876 per peak hour commuter.

A Presidential Race with Unexpected Suspense

The ranks of Democratic presidential candidates could soon swell, making the the 2016 election more suspenseful than expected with a Clinton and a Bush in the running.

The ranks of Democratic presidential candidates could soon swell, making the the 2016 election more suspenseful than expected with a Clinton and a Bush in the running.

The GOP presidential primary field now totals 17 candidates, but suddenly there are signs the Democratic candidate list might swell as well.

There were hints Vice President Joe Biden might honor his dying son's request to make a bid for the White House. And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd tossed the hat into the ring of the Lord of Lattes, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

Rekindled interest in the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination follows polls that show frontrunner Hillary Clinton's favorability ratings dropping, especially in critical swing states that she would need to win election next fall. [Clinton will be in Portland this week for a small-group "conversation" with supporters.]

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has demonstrated unexpected appeal on the political stump as he espouses a more full-throated defense of stronger government action to address issues such as income inequality and climate change. Few observers believe Sanders can win the nomination, but his strong showing will push Clinton and perhaps other Democratic candidates more to the political left. Last week, Clinton called for a "fairness economy" that pushes up wages for middle and lower income workers and closes corporate tax loopholes.

Biden's decision to enter the race would have an emotional tag. On his deathbed, Beau Biden urged his father to run. Biden is no stranger to campaigns tinged with personal tragedy. His first wife and a 13-month-old daughter were killed in a car accident a few weeks after he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972. He considered resigning, but was persuaded to serve. Biden was sworn in at a ceremony attended by Beau Biden, who was injured in the accident.

In a weekend column, Dowd touted a Schultz candidacy because of his passion as a CEO to repair what he calls the "fraying American dream." She says colleagues have urged Schultz, who grew up in Brooklyn housing projects to enter the race. Schultz wrote a book about the treatment of U.S. veterans that carried the message of making government work again and finding "authentic, truthful leadership."

The burst of candidates on the Democratic side comes on the eve of the first GOP presidential debate this Thursday. There will actually be two debates to accommodate all the candidates, with a prequel for the candidates whose poll numbers are lacking and the main stage for the top 10 challengers, led by Donald Trump.

Trump's brash statements have generated a lot of feedback, both pro and con, and appears to have incited other candidates to amp up their rhetoric. Trump has shown little hesitation to trash-talk others in the field, which could lead to a debate that is more like a food fight than a discussion of policy issues.

Trump managed to suck more air out of the GOP balloon by reserving the right to mount a third-party candidacy if he fails to win the GOP nomination. Pollsters and columnists seized on that possibility to predict Trump would siphon off enough votes to guarantee a Democratic victory in 2016.

However, the actual caucuses and primary elections that count are still a fair distance off. It is not unheard of that candidates emerge from the back of the pack or political obscurity to take command. Barack Obama emerged by surprising the Democratic frontrunner in 2008 – Hillary Clinton – in Iowa caucuses.

If the Democratic field for the 2016 nomination expands, there may be a lot more suspense than anyone could have predicted or expected with a Clinton and a Bush in the race.

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.