Government Shutdown Looms as Congress Returns from Break

Congress returns next week from its Easter break and will face an April 29 deadline to extend federal discretionary budget authority and avert a federal government shutdown, which could occur coincidentally on the 100th day of the Trump presidency. Photo Credit: AP

Congress returns next week from its Easter break and will face an April 29 deadline to extend federal discretionary budget authority and avert a federal government shutdown, which could occur coincidentally on the 100th day of the Trump presidency.

Photo Credit: AP

Discretionary federal budget authority expires at the end of April, and the GOP-controlled Congress will have just a few days to extend it when lawmakers return from their Easter recess to avoid a government shutdown. While daunting, what lies on the horizon is no less overwhelming. Congress and President Trump also need to start work on the FY18 budget and raise the debt ceiling. 

Complicating the situation, the White House says it wants the House to vote next week on a brokered version of Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation. Released today, the compromise would allow states to waive portions of the essential health benefits included in Obamacare if the waiver reduced premiums and expanded health insurance participation.

The federal budget consumes volumes, but this diagram sums up the major spending pieces.

The federal budget consumes volumes, but this diagram sums up the major spending pieces.

It’s possible a week-long continuing resolution could buy more time, but bipartisan compromise will be required at some point to push through what will likely be an omnibus spending bill for the rest of FY17. Earning Democratic support in the Senate is paramount to success, but easier said than done.
 
Trump threatening to take executive action to withhold subsidies for Obamacare individual market enrollees “to bring Democrats to the table” exasperated the minority party members as they began to dig their feet in the sand for a fiscal fight. The White House’s recent request to slash $18 billion in spending for the remainder of FY17, while increasing spending on defense and a border wall, further alienated Democrats, and a few Republicans, too. Some Republican appropriators view President Trump’s FY17 requests as too late, given that FY17 efforts began last year and the fiscal year is almost half over.
 
So far, Trump budget-writers have only released top-line descriptions of the President’s proposed budget for FY18. The 53-page “skinny” budget proposal leaves out a lot of detail that congressional appropriators need to consider before approving agency budgets. Administration officials say more details won’t come until next month. Meanwhile, agency heads haven’t been allowed to testify on Capitol Hill in any greater detail than the skimpy summary descriptions.
 
Many of Trump's proposals that exact deep cuts or zero out some programs have been dismissed as unrealistic by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Republicans are already feeling heat back home over the failed attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare and Trump’s continued refusal to release his income tax returns. Special elections in Kansas and Georgia show potentially surging Democratic support in the face of waning voter confidence in Trump,
 
Further complicating FY18 talks will be raising the $19.9 trillion debt ceiling that was reached in mid-March. The Department of Treasury is expected to have enough tools at its disposal to maintain borrowing capacity until at least September, but Congress will need to act before then to prevent a default. Several lawmakers in the past, including the current Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, have used looming debt ceiling deadlines as bargaining chips for additional spending cuts. 
 
Both the FY18 budget and the debt ceiling, however, will be put on the backburner next week while Congress finds a way to keep the government’s doors open through September. This will require the support of at least eight Senate Democrats and may need to proceed without the full support of the House GOP caucus. Highly conservative Republicans in the House remain committed to seeing their budget-slashing priorities enacted. In the Senate, 60 votes will be required to advance spending bills. Republicans only hold 52 seats.
 
News about the shelling of a Syrian air base, a mammoth bombing in Afghanistan and a stare-down with North Korea have drowned out whatever discussion is occurring in Washington, DC about the budget resolution and debt ceiling. That should change when Congress gets back to town and faces a short deadline to act on a budget extension.
 
The current budget resolution expires April 29, which is coincidentally the 100th day of the Trump presidency – a milestone that would not be best marked with a federal government shutdown.
 

Infrastructure Plan on Faster Track, But Hurdles Persist

The Trump administration, still smarting over the failure of Obamacare repeal, wants to speed up congressional action on a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. It may be as complicated as heath care.

The Trump administration, still smarting over the failure of Obamacare repeal, wants to speed up congressional action on a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. It may be as complicated as heath care.

Still smarting from the failure of Obamacare repeal, the Trump administration is accelerating its effort to produce an infrastructure bill that could win congressional approval with bipartisan support. But like health care, funding improvements for roads, bridges and transit is complicated.
 
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the Trump infrastructure plan could be unveiled as early as May, much earlier than the original White House timeline of later this fall and some even predicted a package wouldn’t be acted upon until next year.
 
In his campaign, Trump touted a $1 trillion billion infrastructure plan, which critics panned for relying heavily on tax credits to private-sector developers instead of direct federal spending. Now Trump officials are suggesting the package could be larger and contain as much as $300 billion in direct spending. They also hint regulations could be loosened to stretch construction dollars and shorten the time it takes to turn dirt.
 
Public-Private Partnerships, referred to as P3s, work best with highways or bridges with lots of traffic and no realistic alternate routes that can turn profits from tolls. Trump has said the plan would favor road and bridge projects that could start within 90 days, which gives preference to projects already in the pipeline.
 
Tolling is rare in the Pacific Northwest, but not unknown as a way to pay for bridges. The Oregon Department of Transportation has already started to lay groundwork to allow toll facilities.
 
Generally, P3s aren’t realistic for public transportation projects because transit agencies aren’t big profit centers. To their credit, Trump officials are looking for creative financing and streamlining ideas to include in the Administration’s infrastructure package.These options could even benefit transit projects, but it’s too early to tell how creative the Trump administration will get.
 
The overriding complication is how to fund the program. One idea floated by Trump’s team is to lower the 35 percent corporate tax rate to encourage repatriation of an estimated $2.5 trillion in overseas profits. At a 10 percent tax rate, that inflow of cash could generate up to $250 billion in federal tax revenue, which Trump would dedicate to infrastructure funding.
 
That concept isn't popular in the House or Senate tax-writing committees, whose leaders see taxes on repatriated profits as a way to fund a broad overhaul of the federal tax system.
 
The most obvious way to raise money for roads and bridges is to raise the federal gas tax, but congressional Republicans tend to view that as a political third rail.
 
Another complication the Trump Administration is mulling what should be included in the infrastructure package in addition to roads and bridges. Last week, Housing Secretary Ben Carson said housing would be included. Other Cabinet members have indicated water and sewer infrastructure, broadband deployment, electricity grid modernization, Veterans Administration hospitals and airport improvements could be in the mix. Ironically, many of the same programs that could be awash with cash in an infrastructure plan are at the same time being zeroed out or significantly reduced in Trump’s proposed FY 2018 budget.

To earn Democratic votes, Trump and congressional Republicans may need to live with labor protections on projects included in the plan
 
Public works projects generate jobs and goose the construction industry and their supply chains. They also provide distributed economic benefits throughout the country. The appetite for an infrastructure plan is strong, broad and bipartisan, but getting to the end of the road requires negotiating a lot of sharp curves and deep political potholes. It will be complicated.

Big Decisions Pose Big Dilemmas for GOP Leaders

 Unless Congress approves a budget bill, the federal government’s non-essential functions will shut down April 28. Congress also needs to raise the national debt ceiling, which was reached in mid-March. Passing both may require GOP congressional leaders to spurn their own conservative members, rebuff President Trump’s budget requests, including for a border wall, and cut deals with Democrats.

 Unless Congress approves a budget bill, the federal government’s non-essential functions will shut down April 28. Congress also needs to raise the national debt ceiling, which was reached in mid-March. Passing both may require GOP congressional leaders to spurn their own conservative members, rebuff President Trump’s budget requests, including for a border wall, and cut deals with Democrats.

The federal government has never shut down over a budget battle while one party controlled the White House, House, and Senate. With funding for the government set to expire April 28, President Trump and GOP leaders in Congress face a looming deadline – and big political decisions – to avoid making the wrong kind of history.

Legislation to keep open the government’s doors follows on the heels of the failure in the House to repeal and replace Obamacare because of defections from the conservative House Freedom Caucus. There is no guarantee House conservatives won't balk at voting for a government spending bill, which would force GOP leaders to turn to Democrats for the votes to win passage.

The federal government also reached its $19.9 trillion debt ceiling March 16, which has forced US Treasury officials to engage in makeshift money maneuvers. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has urged Congress to raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible. Conservative political defections are even more likely on this legislation.

There is no way to hide the GOP political rift that hinders the party's ability to move major legislation despite controlling both houses. Trump may have aggravated the rift by politically threatening Freedom Caucus members who refused to vote for the American Health Care Act.

Relations between Democrats and Republicans aren’t exactly cozy, either. Trump has Democrats for a “witch hunt” on his and his team’s potential ties to Russian interests that sought to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Democrats universally dislike Trump’s budget outline that calls for deep cuts in a wide range of discretionary federal spending while beefing up the Pentagon budget and paying for Trump’s border wall.

Senate Democrats are lining up to filibuster the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with the backing of Trump, has threatened to change Senate rules to allow a simple majority up or down vote on Grouch’s nomination, which could sour any bipartisan negotiations on budget reconciliation or the debt ceiling. Left-leaning Democrats are spoiling for a showdown to demonstrate Republicans hold the levers of power, but have no consensus on how to use them.

Senate leaders are working on an omnibus spending bill to fund government through the end of September and could be voted on by April 24. But this is the kind of take-it-or-leave-it measure House conservatives hate and are unlikely to support.

Senate Republicans also have to juggle Trump’s last-minute request for supplemental funding, with $3 billion for additional border security, including $1.5 billion to start construction of the border wall. Trump also wants $30 billion for defense programs and proposed partially offsetting those increases with $18 billion in cuts to popular domestic programs. This would be toxic to gaining Democratic support for an omnibus spending bill.

That puts Republicans in the political bind of rebuffing their President and appealing to enough Democrats in the Senate and House to prevent a government shutdown or acceding to Trump’s request and letting the chips fall where they may. The latter strategy would allow Trump and GOP congressional leaders to blame Democrats for the shutdown, but that could seem lame for a party in control of government.

Congressional Republicans may choose to work with Democrats, ignore Trump’s budget requests and let Trump rail at Democrats, recognizing that a political dust-up over the budget could make approval of a debt ceiling increase even more politically challenging. Signs that GOP leaders will look to Democrats include House Speaker Paul Ryan’s statement that defunding of Planned Parenthood would not be part of a budget bill.

The debt ceiling bill raises other big-ticket policy questions, such as a major tax cut and a $1 trillion infrastructure package Trump has pushed. Democrats have political reasons to find middle ground on both tax and infrastructure measures, but they are unlikely to support what Trump wants, which means GOP leaders might be forced to choose between Trump and the Democratic support they need to raise the debt ceiling. 

All this is occurring while pressure is intensifying to get to the bottom of Trump’s Russian connections amid daily drips that raise more suspicions and contribute to declining favorability ratings for Trump himself.

On the political campaign stump, Trump bragged about his deal-making ability. The political dynamics converging on Capitol Hill on budget, debt ceiling, taxation, infrastructure spending and even a Supreme Court nominee could mean big decisions will be made in a room while Trump is left cooling his heels in the hallway.
 

After Health Plan Failure, Tax Reform Next Up

Expectations are high, especially in corporate board rooms and on Wall Street, for Trump-backed tax cuts, but it’s not clear where he gets the votes for his plan that promises to benefit the well off while ballooning the deficit.

Expectations are high, especially in corporate board rooms and on Wall Street, for Trump-backed tax cuts, but it’s not clear where he gets the votes for his plan that promises to benefit the well off while ballooning the deficit.

Tax reform appears to be next up in Congress following the failed repeal of Obamacare, but messing with taxation promises to be highly more complex and politically complicated.

Congressional Republicans appear to be in the middle of a civil war and corporate America seems restive after their expectations of a tax bonanza fueled a Wall Street run-up since the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

Some insiders in the President Trump camp wish Republicans had tackled tax reform before health care, but that’s easy to say before a tax reform bill is hatched. In health care, you can pretty much identify the teams. When it comes to tax reform, it’s pretty much every man for himself.

The GOP’s American Health Care Act languished because it threatened to cast millions of Americans into the uninsured pool, while dooming state budgets in red and blue states because of steep Medicaid cuts. The battle lines for tax reform are more nuanced and personal. Everybody expects a slice of the tax cut, and that’s hard to deliver.

Add to that the procedural hurdles Congress must navigate to cut taxes while not adding to the deficit, otherwise facing a tax reform-killing Senate filibuster. The Trump tax reform plan, as sketched during the presidential campaign, would reportedly add trillions of dollars to the federal deficit, something even more conservative GOP members of Congress may oppose. One idea to offset the deficit from tax cuts is imposed a border adjustment tax, which would essentially transfer a tax cut to consumers buying imported products.

If the AHCA could be scuttled by a thousand local news stories of people in distress losing their health insurance, imagine what can be written in local newspapers about the plight of average joes eking out a living while the 1 percent gets a huge tax break. It doesn’t conform to the populist narrative, or the American sense of fair play. Cutting the federal government down to size should benefit little guys, not just the big guys.

This storyline was a subplot of the Obamacare repeal story, though it never got the biggest media play. But $1.2 trillion in federal spending on health care minus $880 billion in tax cuts to wealthier Americans equals only a $339 billion deficit reduction over 10 years just didn’t light many fires. Put that same equation forward in tax reform and you just might get a political explosion.

Few disputed the need to make changes to the Affordable Care Act, just as there could be broad agreement on some tax changes. But the Trump administration and congressional Republicans haven’t teed up either topic as a bipartisan exercise. After the flameout on the AHCA, Democrats have less political incentive to team up with Republicans on any major legislation that could become a wedge issue in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Despite the obstacles, Republicans may be able to ram through a major tax cut on grounds it will stimulate economic growth. But the spending cuts that may coincide with a deficit-raising tax cut could put a damper on state and local spending, creating a drag on that economic growth. And the Federal Reserve, already convinced that the economy is running a near full bore, may try to put on the brakes by raising interest rates in the name of preventing inflation. All that could diminish whatever stimulative effect tax cuts might have.

The first 100 days of a presidency goes by a blink of the eye. April 29 will mark the 100th day of the Trump presidency, and it is now only a mere month away. There is little reason to expect in the next month the Russian interference in the US election investigation will conclude, Trump’s approval rating will suddenly surge or the AHCA fiasco will be forgotten. 

Tax reform may look like the next shining sea to conquer, but may instead only be yet another political mirage.

EPA Funding Cuts To Have Concrete Effects in Oregon

Deep EPA funding cuts proposed by the Trump administration could have concrete effects in Oregon, such as slowing progress on the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup, reducing already thin air monitoring and impacting Oregon State University research on climate change.

Deep EPA funding cuts proposed by the Trump administration could have concrete effects in Oregon, such as slowing progress on the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup, reducing already thin air monitoring and impacting Oregon State University research on climate change.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality provided a very concrete look at the local effect of President Trump’s proposed 31 percent cut in spending for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In an internal report obtained by Oregon Public Broadcasting, DEQ analysts say the agency may be forced to let go of 14 employees who study and regulate water quality, 11 who monitor air quality and issue air discharge permits and three who oversee handling of hazardous waste.

EPA grants total about $30 million annually and make up 10 percent of DEQ’s budget. DEQ also borrows EPA equipment to monitor air quality.

Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general whom Trump nominated to head EPA, has accused the federal agency of overreach and blamed it for job losses in energy, industrial and agricultural sectors. Pruitt’s fingerprints are on the Trump budget ax for EPA.

If such a severe spending cut in EPA makes it through Congress, the impact may not be felt locally until next year. However, for states such as Oregon that pass 2-year budgets, lawmakers will need to consider whether and how to backfill the anticipated loss of EPA grant dollars. Lawmakers are likely to raise fees for air and water permits to cover at least part of the loss.

DEQ has been under assault for failing to monitor air toxic emissions from Portland glass makers and for lengthy delays in issuing air and water permits. Budget cuts could aggravate both problems. Cutbacks at EPA could complicate and slow down progress on the $1 billion cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund site, as well as other Superfund cleanup efforts such as the one near Klamath Falls. Even though cleanups are largely paid for by responsible parties, EPA oversees them.

Governor Brown raised the specter that DEQ staff cutbacks could ultimately hamper Oregon’s ability to meet federal air and water quality mandates.

The full-on assault by Trump’s team against funding for climate change science could harm research efforts at Oregon State University involving carbon sequestration strategies, ocean temperature monitoring and climate change impacts, such as more intensified storms. Apparently Pruitt has ordered that EPA’s website be scrubbed of climate change references and data. Reportedly, DEQ employees downloaded some of the data before it was scrubbed.

Oregon Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli said reduced EPA and DEQ spending could result in relaxed regulations, which would save industry money. The Trump administration has promised to roll back many regulations, but some of his proposed rollbacks require legislative changes that may be difficult to get through the US Senate.

Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley is leading an effort to block the EPA budget cuts, which he says would “devastate America’s clean air and water.” In his statement, Merkley pointed to cuts that would eliminate the Energy Star program, defund the Clean Power Plan, hobble screening that detects chemical exposures posing harm to human health and drop funding to clean up the Columbia River Basin and Puget Sound.

The dilemma facing DEQ and Oregon budget writers is shared by environmental protection agencies in most other states. The only consolation may be misery likes company.

Medicaid Cuts Will Impact Women’s Reproductive Health

One in five American women of reproductive age are now covered by Medicaid. Increased coverage under the Affordable Care Act of reproductive-age woman has coincided with a drop in rates of abortions and teen pregnancies.

One in five American women of reproductive age are now covered by Medicaid. Increased coverage under the Affordable Care Act of reproductive-age woman has coincided with a drop in rates of abortions and teen pregnancies.

Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson may have connected the dots that could terminate the viability of the Republican plan in Congress to replace Obamacare for political conservatives who oppose abortion and abhor teen pregnancies.

Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson says the US House GOP replacement of the Affordable Care Act could knock 13 million American women of reproductive age off of Medicaid.

Oregon House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson says the US House GOP replacement of the Affordable Care Act could knock 13 million American women of reproductive age off of Medicaid.

Citing statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, Williamson says the uninsured rate for American women of reproductive age dropped by a third from 2013 to 2015. At the same time, the US abortion rate fell to a historic low and teen pregnancy rates reached their lowest level in four decades. She claims there is a connection.

"The repeal of the Affordable Care Act,” Williamson says, "means more than 13 million women of reproductive age on Medicaid are in danger of losing access to family planning services and maternity care.’

"Medicaid is indispensable for ensuring that low-income people have coverage for family planning, pregnancy-related care, STI testing and treatment and other reproductive health services,” writes Adam Sonfield in the Guttmacher Policy Review.

Critics will point out the Guttmacher Institute’s former connection to Planned Parenthood, which is also on the GOP chopping block. According to the Institute’s website, Guttmacher hasn’t received funding from Planned Parenthood since 2010, when it received a contribution of $75,000, which accounted for less than 1 percent of the Institute’s total budget.

The Institute was founded in 1968 as the Center for Family Planning Program Development to address the issue of unplanned and unwanted childbearing in the United States and across the globe. The Center’s mission, which the Institute says it still follows, was to integrate nonpartisan social science research, policy analysis and public education to create “a factual basis for the development of sound governmental policies and for public consideration of the sensitive issues involved in the promotion of reproductive health and rights.”

Just about everything involving reproductive health and rights is sensitive – and politically explosive. Those sensitivities were in full display during the 2016 presidential election as many on the religious right looked the other way on Donald Trump’s moral failings because of his pro-life stances against abortion and promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices.

Some may dismiss the Guttmacher findings as merely a cover story to oppose the GOP health plan’s proposed funding cut for Planned Parenthood, but rising levels of health care coverage and declining numbers of abortions and teen pregnancies seem more than purely coincidental.

In its report about Medicaid, Guttmacher makes these points:

  • One out of five women of reproductive age are covered by Medicaid. Almost 50 percent of poor reproductive-age women are under Medicaid. In states such as Oregon and Washington that expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the proportion of uninsured reproductive-age women dropped by 45 percent between 2013 and 2015.
  • The expansion of Medicaid has increased access to primary care, expanded use of prescriptions medications and increased rates of diagnosis of chronic conditions for new enrollees.
  • Medicaid accounts for 75 percent of all public dollars spent on family planning in the United States. It is estimated family planning efforts helped avoid nearly 2 million unintended pregnancies in 2014, which prevented thousands of abortions, unplanned births and miscarriages.
  • Under federal law, Medicaid must cover maternity care, including prenatal care, labor and delivery and 60 days of postpartum care. Copayments for pregnancy-related care are strictly limited.
  • Medicaid covered 51 percent of all births in the United States – and 68 percent of unplanned births.
  • Medicaid enables patients to address serious health conditions such as HIVs, STIs and breast and cervical cancer
  • Massive federal spending reductions on Medicaid would shift costs to states and, in all likelihood because of their budget distress, to patients and health care providers – and, ultimately, to private insurance premiums.

Washington, DC is Swirling Dervish of Controversies

Louise Mensch, a former member of the British Parliament who started an American digital outlet aimed at conservative audiences, appears to be the original source of the story that morphed into President Trump’s tweet storm about alleged wiretapping by his predecessor. Photo Credit: Olivia Harris/Reuters

Louise Mensch, a former member of the British Parliament who started an American digital outlet aimed at conservative audiences, appears to be the original source of the story that morphed into President Trump’s tweet storm about alleged wiretapping by his predecessor.

Photo Credit: Olivia Harris/Reuters

It is hard to know which bouncing ball to watch in the nation’s capital – the just released GOP replacement for Obamacare, a new and narrower immigration order signed by President Trump or the tweeter-in-chief’s charge that his predecessor illegally bugged Trump Tower.

And that doesn’t count continuing calls for an investigation – and maybe a special prosecutor – into potential ties between the Trump campaign team and Russian agents, and the recusal of the Attorney General from any role in an investigation because of his own contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Or rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea dispatched five ballistic missiles, four of which landed in the Sea of Japan, to protest annual joint US-South Korean military training exercises. There were news reports that the United States has deployed its Thaad anti-missile defense system in South Korea in response to the missile launches.

Lost in the swirl of charges, counter-charges and conspiracy theories is that just a week ago Trump delivered what a huge swath of Americans viewed as a presidential address to a joint session of Congress. Some observers called it a reset for Trump after his tumultuous first month in office. That may have been a premature judgment.

The Republican Obamacare replacement surfaced from a locked cabinet in the Capitol and drew immediate, expected fire from Democrats – and even from liberal and conservative Republicans. There was even an argument over whether the GOP bill repeals Obamacare or just amends it.

The main features of the bill, which the Trump team says it supports, are eliminating the individual health insurance mandate, replacing subsidies with refundable tax credits, raising the annual contribution limits on health savings accounts and axing taxes on high-income taxpayers. Popular Obamacare provisions remain such as barring pre-existing conditions as a reason to deny insurance coverage and allowing children to stay on a parent’s health plan until they turn age 26.

The most likely Achilles heel of the GOP proposal is what it does – or doesn’t do – to Medicaid. The proposal allows the Medicaid expansion for people just over the poverty line to continue until 2020, then shifts more of the burden and decision-making onto states to pay for health care coverage for lower-income people, families and children. Protests and fiery rhetoric have already begun.

Protestors hit the streets to object to what some refer to as Trump immigration order light. Administration spokesmen say the new order, which Trump signed with little fanfare, was crafted to respond to successful court challenges that blocked implementation of the original executive order. However, the changes are unlikely to deter new legal challenges.

The Trump tweet storm over the weekend seemed to arise out of media commentary involving an allegation last October that a FISA warrant was granted to monitor select transactions between Trump Tower and entities linked to the Russian government. Trump interpreted that to mean former President Obama wiretapped his phones. Obama spokesmen denied the explosive charge. The person who originally reported the existence of a FISA warrant said she never said Trump was wiretapped.

Apparently caught off guard by the tweets, White House spokesmen said the White House would have nothing more to say about the claim, but demanded that Congress investigate it, apparently as part of the just starting congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and Trump campaign ties to the Russians.

Some observers speculated Trump’s tweet storm was sparked by his disapproval of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the investigation. Apparently Sessions made the decision without letting his boss know first.

This all played out as Trump faces the first international threat of his presidency in the form of North Korean belligerency. To put teeth behind his pledge to stand with South Korea and Japan, Trump ordered installation of an anti-missile defense system, despite severe warnings from the Chinese. Ordinarily, this kind of standoff would command top-of-page headlines, but the story has been buried under the banter over health care, immigration orders and presidential insults (including one aimed at Arnold Schwarzenegger, who quit after one year as the top terminator on Celebrity Apprentice.)

The political banter focused on Trump’s tweets also has obscured a wave of administration actions to roll back regulations, especially ones related to climate change, implemented by the Obama administration.

Walden in Crosshairs of Congressional Push to Repeal Obamacare

Representing a blue state with a track record of health care coverage and cost innovation, Oregon Congressman Greg Walden finds himself in the political crosshairs of repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something better.

Representing a blue state with a track record of health care coverage and cost innovation, Oregon Congressman Greg Walden finds himself in the political crosshairs of repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something better.

Oregon GOP Congressman Greg Walden, who represents a large red district in a very blue state, will be the point man on replacing the Affordable Care Act if it is repealed in whole or part. His main job will be to balance politics with policy, and that won’t be easy.

A case in point: Walden’s Republican colleagues, many of whom he helped win election to the U.S. House, want to move ahead quickly on repeal of the individual mandate to have health insurance coverage. However, a map, conveniently posted online by Governor Brown, shows that rural areas Walden represents receive the largest amount of federal subsidies to pay for that coverage.

As the Obamacare repeal efforts heats up on Capitol Hill, Governor Brown posted a website that shows the average federal subsidies to Oregonians enrolled in private health insurance through the Oregon Marketplace. The chart no-to-subtly shows rural policyholders get a substantially higher health insurance subsidy than their counterparts in Multnomah County.

Walden also represents rural Oregon counties with as many as a third of their residents who are on Medicaid. Walden’s GOP congressional allies want to curtail federal spending on Medicaid, which could put states such as Oregon that expanded its Medicaid coverage in an even greater financial bind. The website www.95percentoregon.com says 1.1 million Oregonians are covered by Medicaid or the Oregon Marketplace.

Serving in his 10th term, Walden’s challenging political predicament captured the attention of Robert Pear, long-time health care reporter for The New York Times.

"As a former chairman of the committee responsible for electing Republicans to the House, Mr. Walden knows the politics of health care as well as anyone,” Pear wrote. "But in his new role, he must reconcile the political goals of his party, which is committed to repealing the 2010 health law, and the interests of his state, where officials say the law has been a big success. In 2010, nearly one in five Oregonians lacked health coverage. Today, state officials say, 95 percent of Oregonians have coverage.”

Unlike some of his colleagues, Walden’s town hall meetings have been respectful, if forceful about the importance of retaining viable health insurance for individuals and families not covered by policies paid for by their employers. Walden has responded by telling constituents he will ensure pre-existing conditions cannot be used to deny coverage and complimenting the strides Oregon has made in terms of coverage and addressing the cost of health care through coordinated care organizations (CCOs).

“Our state of Oregon has had quite a bit of innovation over the years,” Mr. Walden told Pear. “We’ve got the coordinated care organizations in place that have actually brought better health care outcomes at lower cost. There are great ideas out there among the states, but right now, they have to come back and beg permission from a federal bureaucrat to be able to do much of anything innovative.”

Nevertheless, Walden has consistently called for and voted for repeal of Obamacare. Some of his constituents he is more discriminating in what replaces Obamacare.

Pear interviewed Dennis Burke, president of the Good Shepherd Health Care System in Germiston, who said, “Medicaid [expansion] did better than expected and subsidized commercial insurance did worse.” Even though people participating in the federally subsidized individual health insurance market “proudly present an insurance card,” Burke said premiums and deductibles have sharply increased, driving health people from the marketplace,

Burke’s advice to Walden: “I think [Obamacare] could be fixed. We need more of a retooling.” That may be advice Walden has a hard time convincing his Republican colleagues to accept.

A Timely Primer on Transporting Crude Oil

As North American oil production has increased, so has demand for more pipeline capacity and railcars to move crude to refineries or export facilities. While energy independence is a national goal, the specter of more pipelines and unit trains carrying crude oil has spooked a large part of the American public.

As North American oil production has increased, so has demand for more pipeline capacity and railcars to move crude to refineries or export facilities. While energy independence is a national goal, the specter of more pipelines and unit trains carrying crude oil has spooked a large part of the American public.

Crude oil pipelines and railcars are frequently in the headlines. The Trump administration has waved the green flag for the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Members of Congress, including Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington, are pushing for tougher federal laws governing crude oil by rail to protect communities along major rail lines

Unless you believe that the demand for gasoline and other products derived from crude oil will disappear soon, a fair question to ask is what is the safest way to transport crude oil. Not surprisingly, there is no easy answer.

James Conca, who is an environmental scientist, energy consultant and long-time member of the Sierra Club, wrote an informative piece for Forbes in 2014 that remains relevant today. Tellingly, his article is titled: “Pick Your Poison for Crude – Pipeline, Rail, Truck or Boat.” Which transportation mode is safest, he says, depends on what you value the most.

If human death and property destruction have the highest value, then it is “truck worse than train worse than pipeline worse than boat.” For spills, it is “truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat.” If environmental impact is the primary concern, then it’s “boat worse than pipeline worse than truck worse than rail.”

How crude oil is shipped may depend on the logistics of where it originates. Crude oil moves out of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota by rail in the absence of existing pipeline capacity. The Dakota Access pipeline will relieve some of the pressure to use rail, but not necessarily for crude oil intended for export to Asia Pacific markets, which still will need to make its way to West Coast trans-shipment facilities, such as the one proposed at the Port of Vancouver.

Conca said the vast majority of crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products in the United States and Canada are transported by pipelines. In 2014, crude-by-rail shipments accounted for less than 5 percent of all shipments. Undoubtedly that percentage has sharply increased, and so has the size of the trains.  For example, crude oil rail capacity in the Great Plains tripled in size in 2011, roughly equaling one third of the capacity of the Keystone pipeline.

Conca cites statistics showing From 1975 to 2012 there were shorter trains and fewer spills. Big spills were extremely rare. In 2013, he says, “more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents than was spilled in the previous 37 years.”

Because trains go through cities and towns – and their water sources, there has been growing concern and resistance to new facilities that refine, process or trans-ship crude oil. That resistance has spilled over to other fossil fuels as well.

Other factors influence whether crude oil is shipped by rail or pipeline. Because the number of U.S. refineries has shrunk in the wake of stricter environmental regulations, crude oil producers may have to choose the transportation mode that connects the source with the processor.

One of the main arguments for the Keystone pipeline was to connect the heavy tar sand crude oil from Canada to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries that were capable of handling it. But railroads are more flexible with 140,000 miles of track compared to 57,000 miles of crude oil pipelines.

Economics play a big role. The Congressional Research Service says pipelines are much cheaper than rail to transport crude oil, costing as much as a third less per barrel. At the same time, it may be less expensive and take less time to build a crude-by-rail trans-shipment facility than permitting and building a major interstate pipeline.

Conca’s conclusion, which may unsettle people on all sides of the fossil fuel debate, is that, “Crude oil is moving around the world, around our country, around pristine wilderness, around our cities and towns. It’s going to keep moving and will undoubtedly increase during our new energy boom.” Put another way, you can’t have energy independence, at least in the immediate foreseeable future, without more crude oil pipelines and railcars.

Crude oil can be a big mess when spilled. Spills and leaks are inevitable and statistically impossible to eliminate. Human impact, environmental degradation, property damage and public health effects will occur. The economic cost is significant, if incalculable. 

“In the end,” Conca says, “all of these transportation modes can be made safer if stricter regulatory controls and modern technologies are emplaced.”  It also means equipping local communities with the tools to deal quickly and effectively with crude oil spills and conflagrations. That will take increased public education, continuous citizen pressure and relentless political perseverance. It would be worth the effort.

 

Walden, Wyden Flex Their Congressional Muscles

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden and Senator Ron Wyden are playing major roles in high-profile federal issues. Walden is pushing to streamline Medicaid while Wyden pushes for financial disclosure by President Trump before his administration negotiates new or revised trade deals.

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden and Senator Ron Wyden are playing major roles in high-profile federal issues. Walden is pushing to streamline Medicaid while Wyden pushes for financial disclosure by President Trump before his administration negotiates new or revised trade deals.

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden is pushing federal agencies to disclose examples of waste and fraud, while Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is introducing legislation that would require President Trump to disclose his financial interests in foreign countries before negotiating new trade deals.

Walden’s request carries the weight of new his position as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Even though he is a member of the minority in the US Senate, Wyden’s bill can’t be dismissed because he is the ranking Democrat on Senate Finance that oversees trade relations.

Walden based his request on a previous Pentagon study that unearthed millions of dollars of wasteful spending. Walden believes similar findings in other federal agencies could be a way to trim federal spending without affecting government services in programs under the committee; jurisdiction.

Walden isn't waiting for a response as he pushes two bills through his committee to “modernize America’s health care laws by making what’s best for patients our top priority.” Walden says his bills “go after bad actors…who shield their income and deprive people  the services they need."

While few may argue with the premise that government should run more cost effectively, there is likely to be less partisan agreement with Wyden’s bill.

“Americans have a right to know if the President is looking out for the good of the country or just his own bottom line when he negotiates a trade deal, decides whether or not to enforce our trade laws or decides whether to cut tariffs on imports from a developing country,” Wyden said in a statement. “Trump has business interests around the world, but he continues to keep the full nature of those ties secret.”

Wyden’s GOP Senate colleagues may not be eager to open up another battle front with Trump, whom they are already battling over his administration’s and his own ties to Russia. The revelations involving private conversations with a senior Russian official that led to the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn poured gasoline on an already simmering fire.

However, conflict of interest questions keep bobbing up and exploding, too. Kellyanne Conway has been hit with an ethics allegation when she pitched Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. Trump’s two sons are attending the opening of a Trump-branded golf course in Dubai. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was hosted at Trump’s Florida resort.

USA Today’s story about Wyden’s legislation included other examples that highlight the awkward tangle of Trump’s businesses with his public duties as president – Trump’s tweets about his daughter’s apparel business; Melanie Trump’s libel lawsuit that claims false allegations about her could jeopardize her ability to strike profitable business relationships; and Eric Trump’s business trip to Uruguay that cost the government  $100,000 to pay for hotel expenses for his Secret Service and Embassy entourage.

Trump’s team has argued his business empire is too vast and branded for him to abandon totally. He said he has turned over the reins of his business to his two sons, with assistance from an internal compliance counsel and an outside ethics adviser. That hasn’t been enough to quell skeptics such as Wyden.

 An Oregon inmate is one many plaintiffs who has filed suit against President Trump.

 An Oregon inmate is one many plaintiffs who has filed suit against President Trump.

There is stirring outside Congress as well to force financial disclosures by Trump. A group of leading attorneys is exploring different ways to show Trump is violating the “emoluments” clause in the US Constitution, which prohibits a president from accepting gifts or money from foreign governments. A short-term goal is to force disclosure of Trump’s federal income tax returns, which Trump has declined to release, citing an ongoing IRS audit.

The Los Angeles Times reports that more than 60 legal actions have been filed against Trump since he took office. One, McNair vs. Trump et al, was filed by an Oregon inmate, alleging Trump was elected illegally and is violating the emoluments clause. Most of the lawsuits pertain to the now suspended Trump travel ban executive order.

The Uncharted, Choppy Waters of Obamacare Repeal

Repealing Obamacare sounded so easy, but replacing the health insurance measure has proven more complicated and politically challenging and may wind up morphing into a repair job on the health care plan that some hate and others have vowed to fight to protect. Photo Credit: Brennan Linsley/AP

Repealing Obamacare sounded so easy, but replacing the health insurance measure has proven more complicated and politically challenging and may wind up morphing into a repair job on the health care plan that some hate and others have vowed to fight to protect.

Photo Credit: Brennan Linsley/AP

Repeal of Obamacare has slipped from a task on Day One in the White House for President Trump to a repair job that may stretch into 2018. As Trump and congressional Republicans have disconcertingly discovered, replacing Obamacare may be more popular than repealing it. 

Over the weekend, Trump signaled the timetable for repealing and replacing Obamacare has slipped and is likely to morph into something closer to an extensive repair job on the highly politicized national health insurance program, which includes an individual health insurance market and expanded Medicaid coverage.

The lengthier timeline isn’t all that surprising. Since Republicans took up the chant to repeal Obamacare six years ago, they have been hard pressed to reach consensus on an alternative strategy, not to mention an actual replacement plan. Town hall meetings for congressmen have turned into angry forums about what will replace Obamacare if it is repealed. Some congressmen have canceled town halls as a result.

It is unclear whose playbook Republicans will follow. The move to repeal Obamacare and come up with a replacement later apparently has been stripped from the playbook. Trump, in his first press conference after his inauguration, predicted Obamacare would be repealed and replaced more or less simultaneously soon after Tom Price was confirmed as his secretary of Health and Human Services. Price has yet to be confirmed by the Senate and Trump told Bill O’Reilly in a Super Bowl halftime interview that repeal-and-replace may not happen until next year.

Congressional Republican leaders have signaled action is possible as soon as this spring, even though a firm set of actions hasn’t been publicly presented. Oregon Congressman Greg Walden told constituents in Southern Oregon any replacement plan would retain the ban on denying health insurance coverage to people based on pre-existing conditions. As chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Walden will play a leading role in shaping an Obamacare replacement. The major stumbling block for moving ahead, Walden acknowledges, is finding a way to pay for the Obamacare provisions that will be retained.

There are a lot of interrelated parts in Obamacare that complicate coming up with a replacement, let alone a replacement that is less costly and ensures the same level and quality of care. Congressional politics play a role, too. Republicans can use the budget reconciliation process to lop off financial aspects of Obamacare, but not to enact replacement features. The replacement ultimately will need 60 votes to pass in the Senate, where Democrats have promised to fight anything that eviscerates Obamacare in the name of replacing it.

This is where the idea of repairing Obamacare comes in. Two GOP senators have already introduced a bill that would let individual states the option of preserving Obamacare as an alternative to whatever Congress settles on as a replacement health insurance mechanism. Called the Patient Freedom Act of 2017, the measure, according to its principal sponsor, Senator Bill Cassidy, R-LA, would eliminate the individual and employer health insurance mandate, but leave the consumer protection provisions of Obamacare in place.

Cassidy’s bill would allow states such as Oregon to retain Obamacare individual health insurance exchanges and expanded Medicaid coverage, but federal support would be trimmed by 5 percent. That cut would be in addition to the phased-down subsidy to states that was part of the Obamacare legislation and goes into effect this budget biennium.

A related health care action by Trump also has taken a U-Turn. During his campaign, Trump said he would push pharmaceutical companies to drop prices on prescription drugs and after his election promised strong action, such as negotiating drug prices for Medicare and Medicaid. However, after meeting with drug industry officials and lobbyists, Trump suddenly changed course and expressed sympathy for the pharmaceutical industry, which says the uncertainty of clinical trials and the short time frames when drugs can be patented are the real drivers behind prices.

Many states, including Oregon, are trying to address the cost of drugs, which is a significant factor in rising health insurance premiums.

Trump Puts Final Nail in TPP Coffin

President Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership without identifying any new initiative to expand US trade in the Asia Pacific and as China stepped in to lead new rounds of talks on regional economic collaboration that don’t include the United States.

President Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership without identifying any new initiative to expand US trade in the Asia Pacific and as China stepped in to lead new rounds of talks on regional economic collaboration that don’t include the United States.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership has been a corpse since both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton opposed it in the presidential campaign. In one of his first executive orders, President Trump kicked dirt on the TPP by withdrawing the United States from the deal the Obama administration negotiated.

While the fate of the trade deal hasn’t been in doubt, business interests in the Pacific Northwest that rely heavily on exports into Asia are wondering what impact its death will have. There also are questions about what, if anything, will take the place of what would have been the largest regional trade deal in history.

In his inaugural speech, Trump fired a warning round about trade pacts, saying US policy would be “America first,” which may not be the best opening line for regional or even bilateral trade talks. Trump is seeking meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to broach renegotiation of the 22-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The first head of state Trump will meet in person is British Prime Minister Theresa May, who faces her own challenge of orchestrating an exit from the European Union.

The new Trump administration may not have the bandwidth or even interest in working on a different approach in the Asia Pacific region while focused on NAFTA and a bilateral deal with Britain. Veteran trade negotiators warn that trade deals don’t materialize overnight. For example, it could take two years for Britain to negotiate the terms for its exit from the EU., which would be necessary before the United States and Britain could entertain a detailed negotiation on a bilateral trade deal.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has already seized the moment by touting the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific negotiations, which some think could be the next big trade game and one of the first since World War II not piloted by the United States. China was not included in the TPP.

The prospect of the United States being on the outside looking in on an emerging Asian regional economic partnership concerns business leaders in the Pacific Northwest. Sandra McDonough of the Portland Business Alliance, which supported the TPP, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that 500,000 jobs in Oregon rely on international trade, much of it with Asia.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on Senate Finance that oversees international trade, gave a blunter assessment in a prepared statement: “There is as much transparency into Trump’s trade policy as there is into his conflicts of interest with foreign governments.”

The demise of the TPP works a particular hardship on New Zealand and Vietnam, which lack any bilateral trade deal with the United States. Many exporting businesses had counted on the TPP to increase market access in Japan, lend greater protection to intellectual property and regulate cross-border data flows.

An irony of tossing TPP in the trash can is that state-owned enterprises in Asia will remain largely unregulated and a source of competition that hinds U.S. Job growth. It’s also possible that some of the TPP’s provisions could resurface on the agenda of the World Trade Organization.

There are business and union allies that support Trump’s TPP position and reopening NAFTA.  The Washington Post quoted Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, as saying tougher stands could create leverage to address currency manipulation and result in rules that dictate how much domestic production must occur to qualify for free trade status.

Trump to Inherit Partisan Foreign Policy Perspectives

Pew Research shows incoming President Donald Trump will inherit a sharply divided citizenry over threats posed by climate change and immigrants living in America.

Pew Research shows incoming President Donald Trump will inherit a sharply divided citizenry over threats posed by climate change and immigrants living in America.

As Donald Trump is inaugurated Friday, the new President will inherit a citizenry with polarized views on major threats to the United States. Democrats view climate change as a major threat, while Republicans believe immigrants living here represent a major threat.

According to Pew Research, there is more partisan agreement on threats posed by ISIS, North Korea and cyberattacks.

The new national survey conducted among 1,502 adults nationwide the first week of January noted an uptick from a year ago in concerns over Russian, as more than half of all Americans express concern about “Russia’s power and influence.” In the last year, Pew researchers said public concern over refugees from the Middle East has declined from 55 percent to 46 percent.

Perhaps the biggest partisan split centers on climate change, which 77 percent of Democrats see as a threat to US well-being contrasted with only 25 percent of Republicans.

On the flip side, 63 percent of Republicans believe Iraqi and Syrian refugees are a threat to the United States as opposed to 30 percent of Democrats.

Republicans and Democrats also vary on their views about Russia as a global threat. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats, but only 41 percent of Republicans call Russia a threat. However, “as recently as last April, the allegations that Russia hacked Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, Republicans were somewhat more likely than Democrats to view tensions with Russia as a major threat (46 percent to 37 percent). The flip-flop on partisan concerns over Russia extends to views of US sanctions imposed on Russia by President Obama.

Another trending divide involves Israel and Palestinians. Support for Israel has been a mainstay of Democratic politics since President Harry Truman played a role inc reading the modern state of Israel. Now, Democrats are more ambivalent, according to Pew research, with 33 percent sympathizing with Israel, 31 percent siding with the Palestinians and 35 percent favoring both or expressing no opinion.

Sharp partisan divisions exist over threats to US security, including climate change and immigrants and increasingly over sympathies in the Middle East.

Sharp partisan divisions exist over threats to US security, including climate change and immigrants and increasingly over sympathies in the Middle East.

Democrats are more optimistic (60 percent) about a so-called two-state solution will bring peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors. Republicans are more skeptical as just 44 percent agreeing a two-state solution would work. Pew notes that the partisan gap in Mideast sympathies is the widest since 1978.

There is much closer agreement over the threat posed by cyberattacks Democrats (75 percent; Republicans 67 percent). This reflects a minor shift in relative concerns. Previously, this was a larger fear for Republicans than Democrats.

The survey also found Americans still hold a favorable view of the United Nations and an unfavorable view of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While there is little partisan disagreement over threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and ISIS terrorism, there are mixed feelings as to whether China is a threat. China’s power and influence is viewed by Republicans as a greater threat than by Democrats.

Pounding the Bully Pulpit into Tweet Shares

Tweets by President-elect Donald Trump have proven to be much more than just chirps.

Tweets by President-elect Donald Trump have proven to be much more than just chirps.

There is a lot to discover about the pending presidency of Donald Trump, but one thing seems certain – Trump has pounded the presidential bully pulpit into tweet shares.

Tweeting has proven to be an invaluable way for Trump to communicate directly to people. He is unlikely to surrender his smartphone when he takes over the desk in the Oval Office, especially in light of the response he gets.

His most recent tweet success was to chide House Republicans for proposing changes in ethics rules, which Trump warned would divert attention from more important political priorities. Trump’s tweet turned prophetic as controversy swirled over the proposed rules change, causing the House GOP caucus to reverse itself.

As Trump predicted, the kerfuffle over ethics overshadowed what congressional Republicans hoped would be a strong first-day impression of getting to work on making America great again.

Ford Motor Company’s decision to scrap an investment in Mexico and invest in a U.S. manufacturing facility instead prompted more Trump tweets, including one aimed directly at GM for its Mexican manufacturing facilities.

Earlier Trump tweets castigated the high cost of new Air Force One planes and prescription drugs. Boeing’s president showed up at Trump Tower to discuss ways to trim costs and the market read the tweet leaves and punished pharmaceutical stocks.

Trump also has aimed his tweet gun at China, an Indiana union leader, U.S. intelligence agencies and, in a New Year’s tweet, his political “enemies.”

For supporters, all this tweeting is Trump being Trump. For the news media, Trump’s tweeting has become a successful way to circumvent traditional news channels. For the targets of Trump’s tweets, it has become an uncomfortable moment in his rising sun.

When Trump actually takes office, his unorthodox style may frustrate his GOP colleagues in Congress who move in something slower than real-time. Congressional procedures, especially in the Senate, don’t accommodate rapid action, even if it is called for in a tweet from the most powerful man in the world.

The first test for the tweeter and the slowpokes will be repealing and replacing Obamacare. Day-one priority for both, but unlikely to happen that quickly for either. The inconvenient thing about laws is that it takes more than a tweet to repeal them and more than slogans to replace them.

What is clear, however, is that Trump can maintain his political momentum through tweeting, achieving successes here and there, while the wheels of Congress grind along on the agenda of the GOP majority. It will be interesting to see whether Trump’s tweet-inspired momentum can goad Congress into quicker action or just lead to frustration by congressional egos on Capitol Hill.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Opioid Epidemic Leaves Mark on Campaign Trail

Researchers at Penn State University found a correlation between communities hard hit by the opioid epidemic and support for Donald Trump who promised radical change.   - Illustration by Javier Maria Trigo

Researchers at Penn State University found a correlation between communities hard hit by the opioid epidemic and support for Donald Trump who promised radical change.   - Illustration by Javier Maria Trigo

Amid all the post-election analysis, one story sticks out – the correlation between areas suffering most severely from the opioid epidemic and support for Donald Trump.

Researchers from Penn State University made the connection, noting that high mortality rates from drug overdoses coincided with communities hardest hit economically and, in turn, with Trump’s over-performance on election day.

The researchers speculated Trump’s strong performance was effectively a cry for help from people suffering “diseases of despair," much like in 2008 when many of the same communities voted for candidate Barack Obama and his message of hope and change.

Shannon Monnat, an assistant professor of rural sociology and demography who oversaw the study, found the correlation held nationally, but was most prominent in the Rust Belt and New England.

“Even when using statistical models that include 14 demographic, economic, social and health care factors,” Monnat wrote, “the drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rate remains a significant and positive predictor of Trump over-performance nationally.”

The study doesn’t carry a political punch line, other than to recognize Trump’s ability to project himself as a hopeful change agent.

As James Hohmann wrote in The Washington Post, “This really ought to be one of the biggest storylines that everyone takes away from 2016. One big reason that elites were so caught off guard by Trump’s victory is that they’re so insulated from the stomach-churning scourge of addiction and cycle of brokenness.”

Hohmann culled out several communities that undercover the study’s finding. One was Mingo County in West Virginia where "the drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rate spiked from 53.6 in 1999 to 161.1 in 2014,” which was the seventh highest rate in the nation. Trump’s share of votes from this coal mining area was 19 percent higher than what Mitt Romney pulled in the 2012 presidential election.

In Scioto County in Ohio, Trump exceeded Romney’s 2012 vote total by 33 percent in a community that had transformed from a “once-thriving manufacturing base to become the pill-mill capital of America.”

Noting that life expectancy in the United States is declining, Hohmann observes, “The statistics are staggering. All told, over the past decade, 400,000 Americans died from drug overdoes, another 400,000 committed suicide and about 250,000 died from alcohol-induced diseases. While these numbers are painful to see on paper, they are even more heart wrechnzng when you consider the individual stories behind them.”

The people directly or indirectly affected by those stories may have been the tipping point in the 2016 election.

Washingtonian Only Bridesmaid for Interior Post

Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers was reportedly on track to become the Secretary of Interior for the incoming Donald Trump administration, but the president-elect chose someone else, continuing the Pacific Northwest’s dearth of Cabinet appointees.

Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers was reportedly on track to become the Secretary of Interior for the incoming Donald Trump administration, but the president-elect chose someone else, continuing the Pacific Northwest’s dearth of Cabinet appointees.

Presidents don’t typically look to the Pacific Northwest to fill Cabinet posts, which made the rumored nomination of Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers as Interior secretary a big deal. But it didn’t happen. Chances now seem slim anyone from the Pacific Northwest will be part of the Trump Cabinet.

Media reports indicate the Interior job was offered to freshman Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, who has Oregon ties, playing for the Oregon Ducks football team as a lineman from 1980-83. There was no immediate confirmation Zinke accepted the nomination.

The last Northwestern to serve as a Cabinet secretary was former Washington Governor Gary Locke who served as Commerce secretary under President Obama from 2009 to 2011. The last Oregonian to hold a Cabinet post was Neil Goldschmidt who served as Transportation secretary from late 1979 to January 1981 when President Carter left office after losing the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan.

According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, McMorris Rodgers met with President-elect Donald Trump in Trump Tower on Monday. She called her meeting with the incoming president “exciting,” but remained mum about her nomination, which was first mentioned in media reports last week.

The Trump team has spread out the announcement of Cabinet appointments to capture maximum media coverage, with the biggest announcement this week of Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, as his choice for secretary of state. Trump also announced he will nominate former Texas Governor Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy.

McMorris Rodgers, 47, an Oregon native, has represented an Eastern Washington congressional district since 2005 and since 2013 has chaired the House Republican Conference. She is political conservative that gets high marks from groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Family Research Council and American Conservative Union and low marks from the League of Conservation Voters public employee unions and Americans for Democratic Action.

Word of her possible appointment sparked sharp criticism from the environmental community. League of Conservation President Gene Karpinski called her selection the equivalent of “for sale sign on our public lands.” The Sierra Club also blasted McMorris Rodgers for voting to open public lands to drilling, mining and logging.

Industry officials were more bullish on her nomination, saying the United States needs to be proactive in achieving energy independence as OPIC has agreed to limit supply and push up gas prices. McMorris Rodgers served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will be chaired in the Congress by Oregon Congressman Greg Walden.

Politico reported that McMorris Rodgers, who is popular among congressional Republicans, was not Trump’s first choice for the Interior job. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, Politico said, was his first choice, but her hopes faltered after a bad interview. The interview didn’t appear to be a problem for McMorris Rodgers, by the Trump team instead tabbed Zinke, a former Navy Seal commander and a likely challenger to Democratic Montana Senator Jon Tester in 2018.

A new Politico report published today said “top Trump aides weren’t sold” on McMorris Rodgers and encouraged a wider search. Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador reportedly was also interviewed for the job.

McMorris Rodgers' record in Congress of voting "to limit or repeal Obama administration climate and environment regulations, expand offshore drilling and stop Interior Department from regulating hydraulic fracturing in states with their own fracking rules” would seem to be the credentials Trump’s team wanted. She endorsed Trump and, despite criticizing him for his crude live-mic comments about women, didn’t withdraw her endorsement.

Walden Becomes Northwest’s Go-To Republican

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden’s tireless work in the political trenches paid off as he leaped over more senior members to become chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and emerge as the Pacific Northwest’s go-to Republican.

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden’s tireless work in the political trenches paid off as he leaped over more senior members to become chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and emerge as the Pacific Northwest’s go-to Republican.

Greg Walden, Oregon’s lone GOP Member of Congress, has won the coveted chairmanship of House Energy and Commerce, making him one of the most important go-to Republicans in the Pacific Northwest.

Walden, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee – the campaign arm of House Republicans, defeated Illinois Congressman John Shimkus, who has more seniority than Walden and had been campaigning for the chairmanship for months while Walden was on the stump helping fellow Republicans.

Two key influencers of his victory were House Speaker Paul Ryan and Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the House GOP Conference and also sits on House Energy and Commerce. Their endorsements of Walden were in effect a reward for his campaign work that extended through the 2016 election. Ryan’s endorsement was especially noteworthy because he previously has backed colleagues with the most seniority for committee chairmanships.

When the next Congress convenes in January, Walden will wield the gavel of one of the most powerful committees in Congress outside the appropriations and tax-writing committees. The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s sprawling jurisdiction, which includes health care, telecommunications, consumer protection, food and drug safety, energy delivery and interstate and foreign commerce, is the handiwork of former long-time Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich. Dingell also famously used the committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee to great political advantage, often shaming CEOs in public.

Walden, whose family business is owning radio stations, has chaired the Telecommunications and Technology Subcommittee. He now will be to expand his influence on the committee’s broader agenda. That broad agenda is likely to raise his public visibility greatly.

The Health Subcommittee is a key stop for legislation to replace Obamacare. The Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee will be in the bullseye of Trump administration efforts to alter international trade deals, block U.S. outsourcing of jobs overseas and promoting increased domestic manufacturing. The Energy and Power Subcommittee will play a role in GOP efforts to block Obama administration climate change efforts perceived as anti-coal and anti-fossils fuels.

The committee also has a select subcommittee to look at Planned Parenthood funding.

Walden was elected to represent Oregon’s sprawling 2nd District in 1998 after serving eight years in the Oregon legislature, where he also rose to leadership positions because of his affable, even-handed approach to politics.

He won a seat on House Energy and Commerce in 2001 and gradually has moved up the committee’s seniority ladder. Walden served four years as deputy chair of the NRCC before becoming its chair for four years. Walden graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism and his family home is in Hood River.

 

GOP Conference Restores Hope for Earmark Return

Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner banned congressional earmarks, which critics called political pork barreling. Now Republicans realize decisions they used to make in appropriations bills are made by federal agencies.

Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner banned congressional earmarks, which critics called political pork barreling. Now Republicans realize decisions they used to make in appropriations bills are made by federal agencies.

House Speaker Paul Ryan stifled a move by a House GOP conference last week to restore the use of direct congressional spending, known as earmarks, by promising his colleagues a vote on the matter early next year. 

Ryan’s move appears to have ended, for now, discussions around whether to roll back the five-year-old earmark moratorium. 

Support has been building for years among Republicans to restore the use of earmarks, which former Speaker John Boehner notoriously brought to in end in 2010 in an effort to curb government spending. At the time, Boehner and his colleagues argued that earmarking appropriations bills bred corruption and lead to wasteful spending for congressional pet projects. However, proponents of earmark revival argue that the ban has simply ceded the “power of the purse,” as provided to Congress in the Constitution, to the executive branch.

Although several attempts to lift the ban over the last five years have proven fruitless, last week’s conference is the most significant indication to date of widespread support for an earmark revival. 

In a closed-door meeting, the House Republican Conference met to adopt GOP rules for the new Congress. The conference was expected to  vote on two amendments concerning the use of earmarks on appropriations bills. The first amendment would have allowed Members of Congress to direct appropriations to federal, state or local government projects. The second would have modified the moratorium to allow lawmakers to direct Army Corps of Engineers funding for projects. 

Allegedly fearing a populist backlash just one week removed from Donald Trump being elected on the promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, Ryan urged his colleagues not to act on either amendment. Ryan’s efforts suggests there was enough support in the room to lift the moratorium. Since the original ban was only adopted by the House GOP as its rule, not as a House rule, a simple majority vote in the conference would have been enough.

In return for pulling the amendments from consideration, Ryan promised his members a more thorough review of earmarks and a vote on the measure by the end of the first quarter of 2017.

While significant, any effort to revive earmarks will likely face a wall of powerful opposition. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a former Indiana congressman, have all been staunch critics of the funding strategy at one point or another. 

Nevertheless, earmarks may well be on their way back – even in a Republican-controlled Congress. 

Previous CFM Posts On Earmarks

http://www.cfm-online.com/federal-lobbying-blog/just-dont-call-it-an-earmark.html?rq=Congressional%20earmarks

http://www.cfm-online.com/federal-lobbying-blog/2016/7/12/hoyer-lays-out-congressional-reform-agenda?rq=Congressional%20earmarks

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com

 

Rebuilding Nation’s Infrastructure on the Cheap

Decaying infrastructure could reduce U.S. economic output and jobs in the next decade. President-elect Donald Trump has a $1 trillion investment plan, but his plan doesn’t involve any new federal spending, which could be a big problem.

Decaying infrastructure could reduce U.S. economic output and jobs in the next decade. President-elect Donald Trump has a $1 trillion investment plan, but his plan doesn’t involve any new federal spending, which could be a big problem.

Candidate Donald Trump promised massive investment to modernize decaying American infrastructure. He reiterated that promise in his post-election acceptance speech, attracting applause from Democrats who see such investment as common ground with the new Republican president-elect. 

However, when you look at the devilish details of Trump’s infrastructure investment plan, its most startling provision is the absence of any new federal spending. That’s right, a $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan with no new federal spending.

The Trump plan rests on the belief that $140 million in federal tax credits will entice private contractors to invest the remainder through what are called Public/Private Partnerships or PPPs.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “PPPs are agreements that allow private companies to take on traditionally public roles in infrastructure projects, while keeping the public sector ultimately accountable for a project and the overall service to the public. In PPPs, a government agency typically contracts with a private company to renovate, build, operate, maintain, manage or finance a facility. Though PPPs are not optimal for many transportation projects, they have been shown to reduce upfront public costs through accelerated or more efficient project delivery. PPPs don’t create new money, but instead leverage private sector financial and other resources to develop infrastructure.”

That description probably doesn’t match what many state and local officials wanted to hear to address their long lists of infrastructure projects. Experts estimate there is a $3.32 trillion backlog of infrastructure projects inAmerica

Business leaders may not be happy either. The American Society of Civil Engineers predicts decaying roads, bridges, waterways and airports could reduce the U.S. gross domestic product by $4 trillion between now and 2025, which could equate to 2.5 million fewer American jobs.

The Pros and Cons

The private side of PPPs require a revenue source to pay off the balance of the investment. For roads and bridges, this typically means tolls. For water infrastructure, this means higher rates. While not a new idea in Washington DC, this model of financing is not typical in the United States. However, the PPP movement has gained steam, particularly with Republicans in Congress who oppose raising taxes.

PPPs have a mixed record in this country. PPPs have been given credit for expediting project delivery, lowering costs and delivering projects that never would have gotten off the ground. However, while there have been examples of success, some PPPs have gone bankrupt leaving taxpayers and local governments holding the bag.

Recent failures include Texas Route 130, the Pocahontas Parkway in Virginia and the South Bay Expressway in San Diego. Failures typically arise from faulty toll modeling or changing traffic dynamics over time. 

It’s rumored that PPP was a model originally considered for the Columbia River Crossing Project. However, the project didn’t pencil out for private contractors because they couldn’t prevent motorists from avoiding tolls by using the I-205 bridge. This is not an uncommon problem for PPP investors. 

One example from Orange County required the State of California to pay more than $200 million to get out of a non-compete clause with a PPP developer. Traffic in the area got so bad that Caltrans wanted to add capacity in the region, but the non-compete with the PPP prevented capacity expansion projects.

In addition, PPPs can’t solve most transportation problems. Transportation PPPs can only be undertaken in highly populated areas with the traffic to generate enough consistent toll revenue to finance the cost of the project. Adding tolls to new or existing roads is not a popular concept in Oregon and Washington. Also, PPPs generally don’t work well for public transit projects.

Today, 75 percent of all PPP projects are concentrated in five states – California, Colorado, Florida, Texas and Virginia. Massive transportation projects in Oregon or Washington might benefit from PPPs, such as the proposed Salem Crossing. They probably won’t work that well in rural and sparsely populated areas – the places where Republicans dominate.

You can expect Democrats, and perhaps suburban Republicans, to push for an equally robust investment, but using a mix of more traditional tools, such as matching grants.

As Vice President, Federal Affairs, Joel brings to CFM broad public policy experience as a senior Congressional aide and successful private sector lobbyist.

 

Trump Stages Stunning Upset to Win Presidency

Donald Trump pulled off a stunning upset in the 2016 presidential race as Republicans retained control of Congress, giving the political party a clear path to move an agenda that includes repeal of Obamacare and major tax cuts.

Donald Trump pulled off a stunning upset in the 2016 presidential race as Republicans retained control of Congress, giving the political party a clear path to move an agenda that includes repeal of Obamacare and major tax cuts.

America woke up to news of a stunning victory by Donald Trump, who gained the White House because of a sneaker wave of white, rural and anti-establishment voters. One commentator equated the Trump win to a primal shout from America’s heartland.

Hillary Clinton called Trump to concede well after midnight and before Trump had attained 270 electoral votes. Trump called on the country to come together and said the “forgotten people” in America wouldn’t be forgotten during his administration. He also pledged to help America reclaim its destiny, build world-class infrastructure and achieve stronger economic growth.

Tuesday's primal shout was greeted by plummeting futures in U.S. financial markets and dire predictions about Trump policies on trade, international relations and taxes. Republican congressional leaders, who managed to hold onto to control of the House and narrowly in the Senate, now must find a way to govern in partnership with their iconoclastic party leader after spending much of the campaign running from his shadow. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory message to Trump.

Despite pre-election predictions, Trump flipped the electoral firewall Hillary Clinton’s team anticipated as he won narrow victories in the battleground states of Florida and North Carolina, rolled to strong Rust Belt wins in Ohio and Iowa and captured nail-biter wins in blue states Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Exit polls indicated that undecided voters who showed up at the polls went 2 to 1 for Trump. 

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin attributed Trump’s success to his commanding TV persona that “created a direct link with American voters,” almost regardless of what he said or what policies he advanced

Other commentators noted that Trump has political doppelgängers in other countries who espouse nationalistic, nativist views and kindle political kinship through social media. A Republican commentator wryly observed that Trump is the first presidential candidate to defeat both major political parties.

Democrats, who were salivating just days ago about keeping the White House and regaining control of the Senate, now face a grim reality of being shoved to the side aisle as Republicans have a clear path to repeal Obamacare, gut Dodd-Frank financial reforms and select conservative Supreme Court judges.

Clinton came close to busting through the glass-ceiling of the presidency, but her failure to excite elements of the Obama coalition, including African-Americans and Millennials, may have denied her the edge she needed to win key states such as Michigan and North Carolina.

There was evidence that Latino voters turned out in strong numbers, giving Clinton a victory in Nevada, holding Trump’s victory over Clinton in Texas to single digits and making Arizona a late-night projection. You could see the fingerprints of Latino voting in the apparent defeat of controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The higher turnout was linked to Trump’s call to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and his unflattering characterizations of Mexicans.

Massachusetts and California voted to legalize recreational marijuana use and Arizona didn't. California  voters rejected repeal of that state’s death penalty.