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.

Hasty Retreat on 529 College Savings Plans

The Obama administration dropped its plan to tax 529 College Savings Plans after detractors said it would hurt, not help middle-class Americans.

The Obama administration dropped its plan to tax 529 College Savings Plans after detractors said it would hurt, not help middle-class Americans.

The Obama administration beat a hasty and tactical retreat by yanking its idea to tax 529 College Savings Plan investment earnings. The proposal drew bipartisan barbs in defense of the popular college savings accounts available in most states.

Obama spokesperson said the 529 plan tax proposal was scrapped to allow the focus to remain on other parts of the President's higher education initiative, especially free tuition for two years of community college paid for by an increase in the federal capital gains tax. They also said the tax revenue from the proposal wasn't that large anyway.

However, the pressure to dump the idea was intense. Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, said eliminating the tax-preferred status of 529 College Savings Plans would hurt middle-class Americans. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said pretty much the same thing as she rode with President Obama on his Air Force One flight from India to Saudi Arabia.

529 College Savings Plans vary from state to state, but essentially allow contributors — usually parents and grandparents — to put money into an account for a student and receive a tax break. The earnings on money in the student's 529 account aren't taxable as long as they are withdrawn down the line for a qualified educational expense.

Data shows that 80 percent of the tax benefits from contributions to more than 7 million existing 529 plan accounts go to households with more than $150,000 of annual income and 70 percent to households earning more than $200,000. Defenders of 529 plans say 10 percent of contributions are attributed to households with $50,000 or less in annual income, which means the program also works as an incentive for lower-earning households.

Obama's proposal sought to redirect tax benefits associated with college expenses to an expanded American Opportunity Tax Credit, which started in the 2009 economic stimulus bill as a tuition credit aimed at helping families paying for college, even if they didn't earn enough to pay federal income tax. The Government Accountability Office ran estimates showing Obama's plan would drive more economic benefits for families with $100,000 or less in annual income than the current 529 plan benefits.

“It’s kind of baffling that people in the middle are convinced they are getting hit hard when virtually all of them are the winners,” Robert Greenstein, the president of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told the New York Times.

However, that was lost in the political furor Obama's plan ignited.

529 plans are popular in part because they are a fairly easy way to transfer wealth from one generation to another. Tax benefits aren't always the primary motivating reason for the contributions. Threatening these plans showed their broad-based acceptance and popularity by many middle-income families and households.

Picture of Gridlock

President Obama's State of the Union Address didn't appeal to Republicans, but may have been intended as the first salvo in the 2016 election.

President Obama's State of the Union Address didn't appeal to Republicans, but may have been intended as the first salvo in the 2016 election.

It was easy to spot who was who last night at President Obama's next-to-last State of the Union Address to Congress. The people standing up and cheering were fellow Democrats. The people sitting down were Republicans.

After the speech, GOP spokesmen said Obama needs a "reality check" because many of his proposals, such as raising taxes on wealthy Americans, won't fly in the new Congress controlled by Republicans. Democrats said Republicans can't admit that the economy is rolling and are unwilling to tackle issues such as wage stagnation that hobble middle and lower income Americans.

You could say the packed House chamber was the picture of gridlock in Washington, DC.

A close-up of that picture was visible as the TV cameras showed the respective reactions from Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner who were seated behind Obama during the speech. Biden nodded in agreement and rose repeatedly to applaud. Boehner clapped his hands tepidly a few times and mostly grimaced as Obama spoke.

Republicans say Obama failed to acknowledge voter repudiation of his policies that led the GOP to majorities in both the House and Senate. They also say he missed opportunities to identify areas of potential compromise, such as steps to strengthen Medicare.

Obama did cross swords with his own party by asking for fast-track authority to negotiate new international trade agreements in Europe and Asia, which many Republicans support. But he promised vetoes on legislation that tried to undo his executive actions on immigration.

Despite the closing section of Obama's speech where he said Washington is better than gridlock, there was little in his text or delivery to suggest he was willing to budge on his political priorities. Many observers called his speech the first salvo in the 2016 election.

When Obama mentioned he has no more election campaigns, some congressional Republicans applauded. Obama, with a smile on his face, shot back, "I know because I won both of them." The President also looked directly at the concentration of Republicans in the chamber when he ticked off positive economic indicators and said something to the effect of "That's good stuff."

For their part, Republicans invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak from the same podium as Obama did. Netanyahu has objected to the deal the Obama administration is trying to cut with Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. Boehner pointedly told reporters he extended the invitation to Netanyahu without notifying Obama.

The President's speech and Republican reactions follow what has become a political ritual. Now that political points have been made and battle lines drawn, it is still possible Obama and GOP congressional leaders can do some of the country's business.

NW Delegation Gains Clout

The congressional delegates from the Pacific Northwest, though largely Democrats such as freshly reelected Senator Jeff Merkley, hold key positions in the 114th Congress. 

The congressional delegates from the Pacific Northwest, though largely Democrats such as freshly reelected Senator Jeff Merkley, hold key positions in the 114th Congress. 

Elections bring change and the biggest change after last year's election was the demotion of Senate Democrats to the minority. Here is a quick look at how the Pacific Northwest delegation stacks up in the just convened 114th Congress:

Senator Patty Murray has been given immense responsibility by her Democratic Caucus, including co-chairing the Super Committee, heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and chairing the Veterans Committee and the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray and GOP Budget Chairman Ryan crafted the budget compromise that avoided deep domestic spending cuts and set a framework for a bipartisan roadmap to address longer-term challenges. In the 114th Congress, Murray takes on possibly her most challenging assignment. She gave up her chairmanship of both the full Budget Committee and Transportation/Housing Appropriations Subcommittee to take over the most powerful domestic discretionary issue, health care. Murray will now be the lead authorizer and appropriator on health care, education and workforce development. She is the Ranking Member of the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee and the full Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee.

Senator Ron Wyden will continue as the lead Democrat on the powerful Finance Committee.  Even in the minority, Wyden will wield significant power on the tax writing committee in a year when tax reform may finally percolate to the surface.  The Committee also will have a significant role in financing a transportation reauthorization bill, crafting a Trade Promotion Authority bill, addressing online sales tax and passing a host of tax extenders.

Senator Jeff Merkley, who joined the Appropriations Committee in the last Congress, was recently selected to be the Ranking Member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. Merkley is the beneficiary of a number of retirements and departing colleagues on the Appropriations Committee and is probably overjoyed to start his second term as the lead Democrat on the subcommittee. Agriculture is huge in Oregon, including the exploding wine industry, and Merkley will be well positioned to promote research and development of key agricultural products. Since coming to Congress, Merkley has been frustrated with the obstructionist tactics of the Republican minority. He led the fight for filibuster reform. It will be interesting to see if Merkley continues to champion the cause now that Democrats are in the minority.

Senator Maria Cantwell will serve as the lead Democrat on the Small Business Committee and remain a member of the Finance and Commerce committees. She will continue to advocate for domestic trade, access to capital for small businesses and renewable energy. Cantwell has shown a keen interest and is well positioned to address the booming oil-by-train shipments that are flowing through Washington State.  Cantwell also will play a key role in the transportation reauthorization bill as she fights to fund freight corridors to facilitate trade and manufacturing. 

Congressman Greg Walden will maintain his position on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and his subcommittee chairmanship of Communications and Technology where he will lead discussions surrounding the broadband spectrum and innovative communication technologies to drive the economy. Walden also will lead the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the political arm of the Republican Party devoted to maintaining and increasing the GOP majority in the House. Walden is widely praised for giving House Republicans the biggest majority since 1931. Speaker John Boehner and Walden are good friends and the Speaker is quick to give the Oregon Republican credit for the 2014 rout.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has shot up like a rocket in terms of congressional influence and committee assignments.  The powerful Appropriations Committee is typically reserved for seasoned members of Congress, but Herrera Beutler fought for and won a coveted spot on the committee as a sophomore member. She wasn't able to lock down a gavel on a Subcommittee this Congress, but she will continue to accrue seniority. Congressional leaders will find ways to elevate the Congresswoman’s public profile as a rising leader in the party. She was featured this week in the GOP's 10 Questions series. You can find the link here.

Congressman Peter DeFazio surrendered his leading role as Ranking Member of the House Resources Committee in favor of taking over as the lead Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. With the likelihood of a transportation reauthorization bill set to move this Congress (the current bill expires in May), DeFazio will have a unique opportunity to shape the massive transportation bill. One surprise the Oregon Democrat didn't expect last week was receiving a vote for Speaker of the House. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a close friend of DeFazio's and a fellow Democratic member of the T&I Committee, shocked everyone when he impulsively shouted out DeFazio's name. DeFazio quickly distanced himself from the situation and said he had no idea Lipinski would do it.  Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi lost the vote of three other Democrats while Boehner lost 25 of his fellow Republicans. If Boehner had lost 29 votes, it would have been a long day.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, will be one to watch as Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform. Blumenauer is expected to drive continued sustainable investment, green energy and look for ways to integrate these concepts into the tax code. As Congress addresses transportation reauthorization, look for Blumenauer to advocate for a gas tax increase and push for piloting a vehicle-miles-travelled program. 

Congressman Kurt Schrader secured an impressive victory on Friday and is now a member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Schrader said he wanted to use the new committee position to address health care issues that plagued the Cover Oregon website, focus more attention on renewable energy and reduce overly burdensome government interference in the marketplace.  Because of the A-level assignment, Schrader has to leave his posts on the House Agriculture, Budget and Small Business committees.  It's likely Schrader, a moderate with an independent streak, received the coveted prize because a couple fellow Blue Dog Democrats on the Committee lost their seats.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, a rising leader in the Democratic Party, will continue to serve on the House Education and Workforce Committee and influence policy decisions through her Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. Bonamici will keep her position on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, including her Ranking Member position on the Subcommittee on Environment. Here, she will be considering issues related to the EPA, environmental regulations and aspects of the broader climate change debate. 

Congressman Denny Heck will continue to serve on the Financial Services Committee and promote his New Democrat agenda. Heck was just named as chair of the DCCC Recruitment Committee, where he will work with Democratic candidates from around the country to try and rebuild the party. Heck is facing an uphill battle as the Democrats took a beating in 2014. To retake the majority, Democrats need to win a net of 30 seats. It's not impossible. In the 2016 presidential election, 26 House Republicans will occupy districts that President Obama won in 2012. Freshmen Members of Congress typically focus squarely on the needs of their districts and that is what Heck did. Recognizing the significant impact of Joint Base Lewis McCord on his district, Heck made military housing, veterans care and transportation infrastructure his top priorities. Heck is also a consummate legislator. Even as a freshman, he was successful in passing a bill that addresses underwater mortgages by giving additional flexibility to the Federal Housing Administration. Getting a bill passed in this dysfunctional Congress as a freshman in the minority is a testament to Heck's ability to navigate the legislative process.

A Plea for Pro-Manufacturing Policies

Manufacturing jobs have been the bread and butter for many U.S. families and now an advocate says it's time to invest in what it takes to create and retain those jobs.

Manufacturing jobs have been the bread and butter for many U.S. families and now an advocate says it's time to invest in what it takes to create and retain those jobs.

Gallup says Americans think now is a good time to find a good-paying job. A spokesman for the Alliance of American Manufacturing says now is a great time to invest in jobs that involve making something. 

The U.S. economy is humming along, with many positive indicators. However, one not-so-good metric is the disappearance of so-called middle income jobs, the kind of jobs traditionally found in the manufacturing sector.

Scott Paul, president of the Alliance, says this is a critical time to invest in programs that promote job growth, especially in manufacturing. His suggestions, which are aimed at the new GOP-controlled Congress taking office in January, include:

  • Take advantage of low gas prices to raise the revenue to boost lagging investment in roads, bridges, water and sewer systems and the electricity transmission grid. Paul says 21,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion in infrastructure investment.
  • Reform the federal tax code to encourage domestic manufacturing and discourage outsourcing.
  • Address currency manipulation by China, which gives an advantage to its manufacturers at the expense of U.S. manufacturers.
  • Push for more open markets, but enforce fair-trade rules. 
  • Make smart investments in worker training to create better alignment with high-paying technical jobs that stay vacant for lack of qualified candidates.
  • Foster innovation in technology and processes to keep U.S. production on the cutting edge.
  • Expand and leverage the U.S. energy advantage with growing sources of low-cost oil and natural gas production.

Paul says Americans across the political spectrum consistently express support for pro-manufacturing policies. He sees no reason for the next Congress not to set aside partisan gridlock to inject a shot of growth in a sector that has generated living-wage jobs over most of America for decades.

The Shape of Government to Come

Gov2020 attempts to predict the future of government, which turns out to look much like today but with even more technological innovation.

Gov2020 attempts to predict the future of government, which turns out to look much like today but with even more technological innovation.

Predicting the future is tricky business, but Deloitte and Touche LLP gave it a whirl in painting a picture of government in 2020. It turns out to be not that much different than government today.

Governments will still be puzzling over how to finance a growing backlog of infrastructure investments, health care will become even more ubiquitous with technological innovations and we still will be debating over personal privacy, increased convenience and the need to snoop to protect us from terrorists.

Through in-depth research and interviews with experts on each topic, Deloitte provides analysis on 39 drivers that will impact government operations and 194 trends that represent the shifts that may result by 2020. The results are posted on its new website, Gov2020.

Gov2020 is designed to be a one-stop shop for leaders in the private and public sectors to analyze how changing demographic, societal, economic and technological trends may impact the future. William Eggers, the leader of Deloitte’s public sector research department, compares the website to a “Wikipedia on the future of government.” However, Eggers also hopes the creation will spur an interactive discussion among its users about what is possible in the future.

For instance, it’s no surprise that investing in infrastructure will remain critical to economic competitiveness in 2020. As with today’s ongoing debate, the challenge for governments will be finding a way to pay for these investments. More electric and fuel-efficient cars on the road will continue to have a significant impact on the gas tax.

Gov2020 predicts this will lead to revamped infrastructure pricing models to account for efficiency and meet consumer demand. Governments will need to contemplate mileage-based user fees, which generate revenue based on how much one drives rather than on gasoline purchased. This also is likely to lead to increased efficiency. For example, when travelling on a toll road, we may notice a more dynamic system where rates depend on the time of day or amount of traffic.

When predicting health care service and delivery in 2020, Deloitte simply says “healthcare will be everywhere.” Physicians will increase the use of telemedicine, enabling those living in rural areas to have access to care. We may encounter more remote-monitoring practices through creations like an ingestible “smart pill.” Using smart phones to transmit health conditions to providers will mean more precise information and better treatments for patients.

Gov2020 forecasts that society will be debating the clash between individual privacy, convenience and the information exchange. With advancements in technology such as increased presence of drone police, online government transactions and self-driving cars, we will be forced to contemplate individual independence. What do our smart phones report back and to whom? Governments will be required to walk a fine line between navigating this new world of emerging technologies while maintaining ethical practices.

Based on just this brief sample, the common theme is technology and innovation. Governments, private companies and individuals alike must be prepared to participate and be competitive in this emerging reality. The question is, are you ready?

A Lame Duck Congressional Cromnibus

A lame duck Congress is reduced to passing a tax bill that expires almost as soon as it passes and a spending bill that seeks to single out the Department of Homeland Security.

A lame duck Congress is reduced to passing a tax bill that expires almost as soon as it passes and a spending bill that seeks to single out the Department of Homeland Security.

The lame duck Congress appears on the verge of passing a tax bill that would expire January 1, 2015 and considering something called a "cromnibus," a plan to keep the federal government's doors open while placating conservative Republicans.

The tax bill, which would extend 50 expiring tax benefits, was once a promising measure. But the omission of an earned income tax credit, the threat of a presidential veto and the looming GOP congressional majority in the next Congress left negotiators little wiggle room. They chose the lowest common denominator – extending the tax provisions through 2014, but ending January 1, 2015.

That means tax credits, such as the one that benefit electric motorcycle manufacturers like Brammo in Ashland, Oregon, won't be unplugged, at least for now.

The cromnibus has a similar political lineage.

Just last month, House and Senate Appropriations staff were well on their way to negotiating framework for a 2015 omnibus spending bill. Thanks to a bipartisan deal crafted last December by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), domestic and national security spending levels were set for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. The deal gave Congress a funding road map for fiscal 2015 and allowed House and Senate Appropriations panels to write nearly all of their fiscal 2015 bills with comparable top-line spending levels, leaving less to negotiate.

Unfortunately, optimism for an omnibus measure faded after President Obama issued an executive order on immigration to protect five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Many Republicans insist the executive actions are an abuse of constitutional power and are turning to the appropriations process to block Obama's efforts. 

To appease these members of the GOP, House Appropriation Chair Harold Rogers (R-KY) is crafting a "cromnibus" package. This measure would fund all of government operations and spending through the end of fiscal 2015, except for Homeland Security. A separate three-month continuing resolution would be provided for the agency, buying time for the GOP to determine how to block the executive orders in the new Congress.

Still, a group of vocal conservatives is pushing House GOP leaders to attach a policy rider to the cromnibus that explicitly prevents funding for executive actions on immigration. Such a move would be dead on arrival in the Senate. For now, the clock is ticking as appropriators race to finalize a plan that will pass both chambers by December 11 and prevent a government shutdown. 

Ultimately, the outcome of the lame duck session will give the best indication of how well the new Republican majority will work with President Obama. If Republicans prefer to play hardball with a possible government shutdown on December 11, the stage will be set for a tumultuous two years of governing.

Members of Congress returned to DC with a hefty to-do list that includes the National Defense Authorization Act, which has a strong history of bipartisan support and is on track to pass again this year.

Democrats Miss Chance to Tell Success Story

Democrats had a great story to tell, but they failed to tell it and lost their majority in the Senate. 

Democrats had a great story to tell, but they failed to tell it and lost their majority in the Senate. 

Republicans nearly swept all competitive Senate races to take control of the Senate. In the House, the GOP majority enlarged to 243 members, giving Republicans the biggest majority since Harry Truman – and, as returns are still tabulated, possibly the biggest majority since 1930. So the results are clear. What's less clear is how Democrats flubbed in telling their story.

Why did Democrats run away from arguably some of the most compelling domestic successes for which they could claim a share of responsibility?

In any other decade, if I were to tell you:

  • The stock market has more than doubled and continues to push all-time highs;

  • Gas prices have plummeted to the lowest level in a decade;

  • The country is closer to energy independence than at any time in 40 years;

  • Unemployment has fallen from 10 percent to less than 6 percent;

  • Crime is relatively low; and

  • Welfare, food stamps and unemployment benefits are quickly coming back to normal levels, you would think that the economy was moving in the right direction.

Add to this, the number of uninsured has fallen from 18 percent before the Affordable Care Act was implemented to 13.4 percent and budget deficits have been cut by two-thirds from $1.5 trillion to $500 billion. This seems like an incredible record to run on.

While the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats can't take credit for all of these indicators, it's dumbfounding that they would not scream these figures from the rooftops. Nearly every economic indicator suggests our country is heading in the right direction, yet no politician seems to have the guts to say it.

Why is that? The counter-argument to touting these numbers is you don't want to seem out of touch and a lot of Americans are still hurting. By referencing these positive numbers, it could highlight that one doesn't understand the obstacles that average Americans are facing on a daily basis. That is certainly true and Democrats could have qualified these messages by saying more needs to be done. However, ignoring these positive indicators seems like political malpractice.

By and large, Democrats ran on increasing the minimum wage and gender equality — and ran away from the President who was their partner in achieving economic and social policy success.

Looking back, it seems like these two issues pale in comparison to what could have been an extremely powerful message. Democrats won't be able to say two years from now, "We told you so," because they didn't.

NW Delegation Continues to Move On Up

Senator Patty Murray is just one of many NW congressional delegates growing in influence on the national political scene.

Senator Patty Murray is just one of many NW congressional delegates growing in influence on the national political scene.

While there may be a lack of close, competitive federal races in the Pacific Northwest, there is something to keep an eye on. 

The increasing seniority of Members of Congress from Oregon and Washington will continue to grow in the next Congress and the region’s influence may be nearing an all-time high. Here is a quick snapshot of the opportunities facing our region’s most influential policymakers.

Senator Patty Murray's rise to power is one of the most underreported stories in politics. Murray has been given immense responsibilities by her Democratic caucus, including co-chairing the Super Committee, heading the DSCC and chairing the Veterans Committee and the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray and GOP Budget Chairman Paul Ryan crafted the budget compromise that avoided deep domestic spending cuts and set a framework for a bipartisan roadmap to address longer-term challenges.

Because of Senator Tom Harkin's (D-IA) retirement, Murray could take over as chair or ranking member on the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which is responsible for the largest domestic spending bill by far and funds the Department of Health and Human Services, Education and Labor. Murray would have to give up her top spot on the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, but the opportunity will likely be too good to pass up.

Senator Ron Wyden will continue to lead the powerful Finance Committee as chair if Democrats stay in power or ranking member if the GOP controls the Senate. Even if he is in the minority, Wyden will continue to wield significant power on the tax writing committee in a year when tax reform may finally percolate to the surface.  The Committee also will have a significant role in financing the transportation reauthorization bill, crafting a Trade Promotion Authority bill, addressing online sales tax and passing a host of tax extenders.

Senator Jeff Merkley, who joined the Appropriations Committee this past Congress, could ascend to become an Appropriations subcommittee chair or ranking member in the next Congress. Because five or six senior Democratic appropriators are either retiring or will lose their races, Merkley could be catapulted to one of the more senior members of the Appropriations Committee. As a member of the Banking Committee, Merkley has championed banking reform measures to ensure financial institutions are held accountable for bad decisions and also tried to separate the banking and investment arms of financial institutions. Merkley has been frustrated with the obstructionist tactics of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and has led the fight for filibuster reform. It will be interesting to see if Merkley continues to champion the cause should Democrats lose control of the Senate. There will be plenty of fellow Democrats who will want to employ the filibuster as often as it was used against them.

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Small Business Committee and member of the Finance and Commerce committees, will continue to advocate for domestic trade, access to capital for small businesses and renewable energy. Cantwell has shown a keen interest and is well positioned to address the booming oil-by-train shipments that are flowing through the Northwest. Cantwell also will play a key role in the transportation reauthorization bill as she fights to fund freight corridors to facilitate trade and manufacturing.

Congressman Greg Walden will maintain his position on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and his chairmanship of Communications and Technology Subcommittee where he will continue to lead discussions surrounding the broadband spectrum and innovative communication technologies to drive the economy. Walden also will continue to lead the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the political arm of the Republican Party devoted to maintaining and increasing the GOP majority in the House. There has been some speculation that a few fellow GOPers are vying for the position, largely due to the NRCC’s low fundraising numbers. However, Walden has friends in high places, namely Speaker John Boehner, and it’s likely the GOP will pick up nearly a dozen seats this election, cementing his tenure for another two years. Boehner is quoted saying that Walden is working “tirelessly” on behalf of Republican candidates and that he is a “big reason” the GOP has the opportunity to increase its majority.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has shot up like a rocket in terms of congressional influence and committee assignments. The powerful Appropriations Committee is typically reserved for seasoned members of Congress, but Herrera Beutler fought for and received a coveted spot on the committee as a sophomore member of Congress. It’s unlikely she will be able to chair an Appropriations subcommittee, but she will accrue seniority. Congressional leaders will continue to find ways to elevate her public profile as a rising leader in the party.

Congressman Peter DeFazio could face an interesting choice after the election. DeFazio is the ranking member of the House Resources Committee, an important committee for the Congressman’s district that has a wide swath of federal lands. However, it’s likely Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), the lead Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will lose his House seat in the upcoming election. DeFazio would be next in line to take over the top transportation post. With the likelihood of a transportation reauthorization bill set to move in the next Congress (the current bill expires in May), DeFazio would have an opportunity to shape the massive transportation bill if he were to take up the mantle for Democrats on the Transportation Committee. However, under Democratic Caucus rules, you can’t lead two committees, so DeFazio would have to make a choice between Resources and Transportation. Heading the Transportation Committee may be an opportunity the Congressman can’t pass up.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, as a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, will be one to watch as Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform. Blumenauer is expected to drive continued investment in sustainable, green energy and look for ways to integrate these concepts into the tax code. As Congress addresses transportation reauthorization, look for Blumenauer to advocate for a gas tax increase and push for piloting a vehicle-miles-travelled program.

Congressman Kurt Schrader is expected to maintain his posts on the House Agriculture, Budget and Small Business committees. On these committees, Schrader will play a role in the continued debate over the national debt and remain influential over USDA and rural development policy. Schrader’s position on the Agriculture Committee will be critical as he works with fellow delegation members DeFazio and Walden to advocate for a responsible solution to the O&C lands issue.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, a rising leader in the Democratic Party, will likely continue to serve on the House Education and Workforce Committee and influence policy decisions through her Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. Bonamici is also safe to keep her position on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, including her ranking member status on the Subcommittee on Environment. Here, she will be considering issues related to the EPA, environmental regulations and aspects of the broader climate change debate.

Congressman Denny Heck is seeking his second term in the House. As freshman, members of Congress typically focus squarely on the needs of their districts and that is what Heck has done. Heck recognizes the significant impact of Joint Base Lewis McCord on his district and has made military housing, veterans care and transportation infrastructure his top priorities. Heck is also a consummate legislator. Even as a freshman, he was successful in passing a bill that addresses underwater mortgages by giving additional flexibility to the Federal Housing Administration. Getting a bill passed in this dysfunctional Congress as a freshman in the minority is a testament to his ability to navigate the legislative process. Heck will likely continue to serve on the Financial Services Committee and promote his New Democrat agenda.

An Election All About Obama

In many ways, the November 4 general election will be a referendum on President Obama, even though his name won't appear on any ballot.

In many ways, the November 4 general election will be a referendum on President Obama, even though his name won't appear on any ballot.

The mid-term election has seen congressional races turn into contests of how much disagreement or distance candidates can achieve from the President who faces slumping approval ratings over intensified terrorist threats abroad and the specter of the Ebola virus spreading here.

The Pacific Northwest is no exception. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, thought at one point to be the most vulnerable member of the region's delegation, invited Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren to barnstorm for him, not Obama. And recent polls show Merkley has a double-digit lead in his re-election bid.

Here is a quick overview of the election:

Election 2014 - A Presidential Referendum

While the economy has improved and the unemployment rate is below 6 percent nationwide, the President's approval rating is in the toilet – 41% approve, 54% disapprove. As a reference point, Obama's rating is worse than Bill Clinton's (43/48) in 1994, the year Newt Gingrich sailed into power with his Contract with America. Facing these sturdy headwinds, the Democratic Party will likely pay a heavy price next Tuesday losing control of the Senate and approximately 10 seats in the House. If the GOP picks up nine seats, they would control the biggest majority in the House since the Truman Administration.

Turnout is the key and Republicans are angrier and more motivated this cycle. The barrage of negative news ranging from the rise of ISIS, another war in the Middle East and the mismanagement of the Ebola outbreak at the CDC are not the type of October stories Democrats want on the front page of newspapers or trending on social media.

The Obama Administration has done a poor job promoting its policy successes, framing the generally positive jobs numbers and avoiding missteps on domestic and foreign policy fronts. Add to the equation Senate GOP candidates are more mainstream than 2010. As you may remember the Witch from Delaware and Todd Akin's comments that women can somehow block unwanted pregnancies sunk the GOPs chances of two likely pickups. Lastly, Democrats are defending a number of deep red state Senate seats.

Republicans need six seats to take control of the Senate. Today, six Senate seats held by Democrats are polling "likely" Republican pickups, including Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, West Virginia, Louisiana and Montana. Iowa and Colorado are leaning Republican so it's plausible the GOP would have a three-seat majority. At this point, Democrats are hoping for a surprise upset in Georgia and hitching their wagon to an Independent in Kansas who is threatening incumbent Senator Pat Roberts. In the end, there are more paths for Republicans to take over the Senate and Democrats chances are dwindling. Nate Silver of the 538 blog puts the Republican's chances of a Senate takeover at 64.5 percent.

Politics in the Northwest

Even though results of the 2014 election will have a tremendous impact on the country, the lack of competitive races in the Northwest is notable. Merkley, who was supposed to be the most vulnerable incumbent in the region, is touting a 17-point lead in the polls. It's likely ballot initiatives in Oregon such as the legalization of recreational marijuana and GMO labeling will increase turnout in Merkley's favor. Despite millions of dollars in ads from outside groups such as the Koch brothers, missteps by the Monica Wehby campaign seem to be insurmountable.

In Oregon House races, Congressman Peter DeFazio is being inundated with last-minute third-party spending, but he has weathered similar storms in the past and will likely prevail in the contest. DeFazio, a populist Democrat with an independent streak, has squabbled with the Obama Administration over a number of items from transportation to forest management. DeFazio seems to fit his district very well and has maintained strong support since his first election nearly 30 years ago.

Congressman Kurt Schrader, who is typically on the wrong end of third-party expenditures, seems to have avoided the distinction this go round and should defeat his opponent, Clackamas County Commissioner Tootie Smith, with a comfortable margin.

In Washington House races, with little likelihood of an incumbent loss, most of the attention is on the open seat to be vacated by retiring Congressman Doc Hastings. There is no chance of a Democratic pick up as the "top two" candidates are both Republicans, but the contest is getting nasty and pitting tea party activist and former Washington Redskin Clint Didier vs. state Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse. The race symbolizes the intra-party feud between moderates and those staunch Constitutionalists willing to stick to a cause without compromise.

Rising Influence in the NW

While the politics may be quiet, the increasing seniority of Members of Congress from Oregon and Washington will continue to grow in the next Congress. My next update will focus on the roles and responsibilities of the Northwest's leading senators and congressional representatives.

Lewinsky Scandal Tipped Presidential Approval Ratings

The spike in partisan presidential approval ratings can be traced to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

The spike in partisan presidential approval ratings can be traced to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

President Obama's approval ratings have continued to droop under the weight of criticism about his handling of the Ebola crisis as he has steadfastly refused, as critics have demanded, to close the U.S. border to anyone traveling from West Africa.

Curiously, Monica Lewinsky, now in her 40s, has resurfaced to talk about her love affair with President Bill Clinton. A Washington Post political blogger sees a connection.

Presidential approval ratings have taken on a partisan flavor, just as other aspects of political life. Gallup generated data showing the most polarized viewpoints of Presidents over the last 50 years have occurred since 2000 with the contested election of George W. Bush.

The gaps between Republicans and Democrats is astounding. Approval ratings for Obama in 2012-2013 and for Bush in 2004-2005 showed a 76 percentage point spread among partisans.

President Bill Clinton's approval rating in 1996-1997 was 85 percent by Democrats, but only 23 percent by Republicans — a 62 percentage-point spread.

President Ronald Reagan's approval rating in 1984-1985 was 89 percent by Republicans and 29 percent by Democrats — a 60 percentage-point spread.

Chris Cillizza, writing "The Fix" political blog in The Washington Post, says the Clinton scandal involving Monica Lewinsky was what cemented polarized perspectives on Presidents.

"Democrats came to view the whole Lewinsky saga as a personal foible that, while awful for the Clintons, meant nothing as to whether or not Bill Clinton was — or could be — and effective President," Cillizza wrote. "Republicans, on the other hand, viewed Clinton's initial lies about the relationship as fundamentally disqualifying."

"There's no question that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal – and by that I mean the whole thing, including how the media covered it, how politicians reacted to it and how technology turned it into a worldwide sensation — was a pivot point in American politics, a time when things changed and haven't changed back."

Ebola Scare Elbows onto Political Stage

Fear of the spread of Ebola has taken center stage, pushing other political issues and concerns to the side as a national election approaches.

Fear of the spread of Ebola has taken center stage, pushing other political issues and concerns to the side as a national election approaches.

The arrival of the Ebola virus in the United States has claimed a lot of attention that otherwise would have gone to a stepped-up war on terror and the looming election November 4.

The death of a Liberian man in a Dallas hospital and the resulting exposure of two health care workers who treated him have spiraled into questions as large as whether the United States should close off its borders to anyone who has been in West Africa where Ebola has become an epidemic.

The Obama administration ordered tighter checks at major U.S. airports where most flights from West Africa land and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is busily trying to train health care workers in protocols for treating persons with Ebola virus symptoms.

However, Americans have grown concerned after a series of missteps at the Dallas hospital where Thomas Eric Duncan died after he was initially sent home. The chief clinical officer for the hospital has apologized for mistakes that were made.

Those mistakes have extended to improper procedures and equipment that led to healthcare workers Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson contracting Ebola. Another nurse has turned whistleblower about protective gear that she said failed to cover someone's body around the throat and could expose a health care worker. The nurse said she would ask to be sent to another hospital if she came down with the Ebola virus.

The CDC has admitted to blame for being too cavalier about the readiness of hospitals to handle Ebola patients. Its judgment also was called into question after Vinson was allowed to go on a flight despite having a temperature.

The apparent bungling of Ebola care in Dallas and statements by nurses and others that most hospitals lack the training and equipment to deal with an Ebola outbreak has fed fears nationwide that the deadly disease could spread here just like in West Africa.

Like so many other issues, there is a partisan divide on the federal government's ability to respond effectively to Ebola here. An ABC/Washington Post poll revealed 76 percent of Democrats are confident of the federal government's ability, while only 54 percent Republicans share that confidence. More Republicans than Democrats worry that the Ebola virus could affect them personally.

Gone is the pride and relief Americans felt when the first two American health care workers who contracted Ebola in West Africa recovered successfully in the care of a Atlanta hospital. Pride and relief have been replaced by concern and, in some cases, fear-mongering that has made a lot of other bogeymen fade into the background.

Returning the Joy to College

Mounting student debt and elusive job prospects have made some young adults wonder if college is worth the price and effort, even when they know it is.

Mounting student debt and elusive job prospects have made some young adults wonder if college is worth the price and effort, even when they know it is.

The joy of college has turned distinctly dour these days as the high price of tuition and the elusiveness of post-graduation jobs are plunging some students into depression. The problem is especially severe for graduate students with sky-high debt and limited prospects.

Getting into college may be a gigantic headache for the more than half of high school graduates that the College Board says are unprepared for the academic rigors to earn an undergraduate degree. In some states, such as Delaware, only a quarter of students who took the SAT scored high enough to be considered college-ready. Oregon beat the national average, but still hovers below the 50 percent readiness mark.

In San Francisco, city officials are managing a campaign to give kindergarteners a starter donation for a college savings account. Each child gets an initial $50 deposit. Children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program receive $100.

The early-start on a college savings account rests with a study that shows even small amounts set aside for college create expectations the student will attend college. For students from low-income families, even small amounts of savings prove a strong motivation, as they are three times more likely to attend college and four times more likely to graduate.

Postsecondary education in America has played a critical role in the nation's development and remains the gold standard for much of the world. However, U.S. universities and colleges are showing stress fractures as federal and corporate basic research funding has shrunk, state tuition support has declined and student service demands have increased. The result is higher costs and more student and parental debt, which transfers a lot of the stress onto individuals and families.

States such as Oregon are pressing to have more students graduate from high school and take at least two years of postsecondary training to earn a degree or professional or technical certification. State officials on the vanguard of recruiting businesses hear repeatedly the importance of a skilled, motivated and educated workforce. Existing businesses routinely complain about their inability to find certain kinds of skilled workers ranging from computer engineers to welders.

This quagmire of issues has left many students wondering whether college makes sense, even though study after study demonstrates the lifetime earning potential for college graduates is exponentially higher than for those with just a high school diploma. But lifetime earnings is a hard concept to ponder when students have a hard time landing their first job related to their field of study, making it difficult to pay off their student loans, buy a car or live on their own.

There are a lot of public and private efforts to address the strains on going to college. Many states provide tax incentives for college savings accounts. There is federal legislation to sweeten college savings account incentives, as well as to curb the interest rates on student loans. Starbucks has offered to foot the bill for two years worth of college for its employees. Some colleges have explored alternate ways to take classes and earn a degree.

None of these ideas rises to the level of a master stroke or a galvanizing plan to reinvigorate U.S. postsecondary education. Top students with strong career motivations will always do well, but it is the student who is less sure about his or her future that may fall by the wayside. And people just scraping by in high school, with low self-expectations and few financial resources, may simply look past college, at least until later when they realize they are trapped in a no-win situation.

The stakes are too large to ignore. America's colleges have been credited with powering the U.S. economy, winning a world war and spurring waves of innovation. Anything that important deserves more attention than it is getting.

Plagiarism and Politics

Monica Wehby finds herself in a controversy over "borrowed" campaign material, which should could address by sharing her own views written in her own hand.A Twitter exchange about candidate plagiarism raises a good question about how to judge authentic candidate thinking.

The exchange on Twitter centered on Oregon GOP Senate challenger Monica Wehby's embrace of Republican white papers on health care and the economy as her own on her campaign website. In addition to plagiarism, the fudged positions were embarrassing for someone who is a pediatric neurosurgeon and has a campaign slogan that says "Keep Your Doctor/Change Your Senator." Wehby is trying to unseat Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley.

The Democratic Challenge from Within

Liberal democracy may be the only socio-economic system left standing on the modern world stage, but that hardly insulates it from serious challenges from within, according to Francis Fukuyama.

Communism has receded as an economic challenger and even states such as China that offer expanding economic opportunity to its people in return for obedience to one-party rule are finding it harder to retain control. Liberal democracy is in the global wind. 

However, in his new book, "Political Order and Political Decay," Fukuyama explores how you can lose while winning. He suggests America's political development is going in reverse — and not in ways that the federal government's sharpest critics allege. 

Fukuyama describes the decline with an American government that is weaker, less efficient and more corrupt — not bigger. The evidence of decline, he says, can be seen in a government unable or unwilling to tackle major challenges, while submitting itself to the will of well-heeled special interests at the expense of a population experiencing widening income inequality. 

In his earlier work, "The Origins of Political Order," Fukuyama said liberal democracy rests on three pillars – fair, multiparty elections; political accountability; and the rule of law. His latest work suggests that elections alone don't guarantee a liberal democracy and that their value can be undermined by resulting political dysfunction and chipping away at who actually can vote.

Beheadings May Unite a Divided Nation

Maybe it took the beheading of American journalists to unify a national divided on almost everything to confront the newest danger to world security.Most pundits predicted it would take a miracle to unsnarl partisan gridlock in DC. Maybe it will take something very non-miraculous, like the beheadings of two American journalists by Islamic radicals.

As Congress wanders back to the nation's capital, pressure is building on President Obama to take action against what is viewed as the fast emerging threat posed by ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The threat is fresh enough, there is even disagreement over what to call it. Obama and others refer to the group as ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Poll Reflects a Seething, Alienated Public

Americans aren't happy. They see the country headed on the wrong track. They aren't satisfied with the economic recovery. They have low opinions of the President and Congress. They think America is in decline. They believe a widening gap in incomes undermines the idea of opportunity for all.

Those are some of the findings from a poll conducted this month by Hart Research Associates for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Hart interviewed 1,000 American adults, including 350 respondents who only have a cell phone, which yielded a broad spectrum of participation, including 11 percent from adults between the ages of 18 and 24. 

The public rarely has an opportunity to see raw poll results from a credible pollster. Hart Research was founded by Peter Hart in 1971. In addition to work for Democrats, Hart Research has conducted surveys for nonprofits and social causes. Since 1989, Hart has teamed with a leading Republican pollster to conduct polls shared with the public. 

Some of the findings in the latest poll aren't surprising and don't veer from recent trends. The last time Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction was April 2009 and even then it was a 43-43 percent tie.

Much is made of declines in approval ratings for President Obama, but they aren't as severe as some suggest. The August poll showed 42 percent of respondents approved of Obama's handling of the economy, compared to 53 percent disapproving. However, the low-water mark for Obama came in May 2011 when his approval rating was just 37 percent. It was 39 percent as recently as last December.

The Transportation Investment Conundrum

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer is preparing to push a legislation to raise the federal gas tax by 15 cents per gallon and lay the groundwork for a transition to what he terms a more stable source of funding for U.S. transportation infrastructure.

In the current congressional climate, it doesn't seem as if Blumenauer's ​"Update, Promote and Develop America's Transportation Essentials Act" has much of a chance to see the light of day, let alone pass a sharply divided Congress.

Blumenauer spent time in Oregon during the congressional break to tout the legislation. He says added gas tax revenue will help catch up on lagging transportation investment and relieve pressure on the federal general fund, which has been tapped to supplement the Federal Highway Trust Fund that is running on empty.

Congress grabbed $50 billion from the federal general fund to sustain projects underway as part of the federal transportation bill that expires at the end of 2014.

As vehicles have become more fuel efficient — and some have stopped using gas or diesel altogether — federal and state highway trust funds have felt the squeeze of declining revenues relative to road miles they must maintain, upgrade or expand. 

Lobbying Okay; Lobbyists Not So Much

New survey data indicates Americans don't mind lobbying; they just don't like lobbyists. 

The 2014 Public Affairs Council survey shows support for lobbying has grown since 2012, despite the seeming dysfunction in Washington, DC that has led to fewer bills being passed by Congress. 

[New York Times columnist Charles Blow consulted the Library of Congress website to compare the productivity of Congress in the first 19 months of each term from the 104th Congress (1995-1996) to the 113th Congress (2013-2104). The 113th Congress has passed the fewest bills (108) of any Congress in the last two decades. Its closest rival was the 112th Congress with 110 bills.]

According to the nonpartisan Public Affairs Council, strong majorities of Americans favor lobbying to protect jobs (84 percent), open new markets (79 percent), create a level playing field (74 percent) and reduce business costs (68 percent).