The Renewed Nuclear Arms Race We Aren’t Discussing

The threat of terrorist attacks is more top-of-mind for Americans than an accelerating nuclear arms race by Russia, China and the United States involving smaller, more precise nuclear weapons that could put the entire world on higher alert.

The threat of terrorist attacks is more top-of-mind for Americans than an accelerating nuclear arms race by Russia, China and the United States involving smaller, more precise nuclear weapons that could put the entire world on higher alert.

Americans worry about the threat of terrorism while being largely unaware of an accelerating nuclear arms race involving Russia, China and the United States.

To the extent nuclear weapons are discussed, it is in the context of the Iranian nuclear deal, North Korea’s relentless efforts to join the nuclear club and a fear that ISIS will grab nuclear material for a so-called dirty bomb. A reignited nuclear arms race between world powers, including the United States, remains in the shadows of a presidential election and public debate.

The topic was brought into the daylight by a recent New York Times article that reported, “The United States, Russia and China are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons.” 

The report added ominously, “The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half century.”

Sobering stuff. It underlines the need for a calm hand, not a twitchy finger in the White House. It also may be why GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump hasn’t repeated his seemingly off-the-cuff comments about helping Japan and South Korea secure nuclear weapons.

The new nuclear race has less to do with building larger bombs than the stealth of surgically delivering smaller ones. The Russians have topped big missiles with miniaturized warheads and are developing an undersea drone that can loft a city-smothering radioactive cloud. China is reportedly flight-testing a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a hypersonic glide vehicle, which would maneuver in space, then twist and careen toward its intended target on Earth. 

The Times report says the United States is also testing a hypersonic weapon and modernizing its nuclear arsenal with "small, stealthy and precise” weaponry that can evade nuclear missile defense systems and pinpoint targets. U.S. officials aren’t denying what’s going on, but they also aren’t playing it up.

After World War II, the Cold War race to stockpile ever-larger bombs on longer-distance missiles was based on the “grim logic” of mutual assured destruction, which meant if someone launched an attack, there would be a massive counterattack that would destroy great swaths of the planet. The outcome was so horrifying, it became its own effective deterrent.

Now, the prospect of less destructive and more precise nuclear weapons could tempt somebody to try them out. Some military experts say miniaturized nuclear weapons could deter terrorist groups, though nuclear arms critics would contend their use could feed the radical vision of ISIS for some kind of apocalyptic battle. 

Development of a new generation of nukes at the moment has more to do with geopolitical anxieties, such as Russia’s flirtation with Soviet-style aggression and China’s ambition to solidify its place as a world power. Russia’s expansion into Crimea and China’s land claims in the China Sea serve as present-day reminders of the tensions that underlie nuclear expansion and modernization and cause all three countries to point fingers as to who’s is responsible for a new nuclear arms race.

The Times report notes that Washington and Moscow have kept their respective nuclear forces on high alert to allow a rapid response if an incoming strike is detected. China is apparently on a path to upgrade its early warning system, raising the overall stakes of a “launch on warning” mistake that triggers a nuclear free-for-all.

Arms control advocates feel like middle managers in a modern, fast economy with little effective role in addressing a rekindled Cold War escalation. The Times quotes Mark Gubrud, a nuclear weapons expert, as saying, “The world has failed to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle and new genies are now getting loose."

The Paradoxical Presidential Power Shift

The Republican strategy of stonewalling President Obama has had the unintended effect of expanding power in the executive branch. As the Republican Congress has said no to his proposals at nearly every turn, Obama has instead turned to executive orders to see his plans through.

The Republican strategy of stonewalling President Obama has had the unintended effect of expanding power in the executive branch. As the Republican Congress has said no to his proposals at nearly every turn, Obama has instead turned to executive orders to see his plans through.

President Obama’s “creative use of executive authority” is a paradoxical power shift caused by a GOP-controlled Congress intent on blocking an “ideological enemy” at every turn, according to Zachary Karabell writing for Politico.

“The long-run effect of Obama enmity,” Karabell says, “has been to enable this president to expand the power of the executive branch, perhaps permanently.” The author of “The Leading Indicators, A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World,” says expanded presidential power has raised the stakes on who Americans elect to the position.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today on the latest challenge to Obama’s authority, which involves his decision to grant temporary work permit status to some four million undocumented parents of U.S.-born children. Obama’s executive orders also have dealt with student loans, workplace leave, minimum wage, deportations, gun violence and environmental regulation.

Republican critics have accused Obama of abusing and overstepping his constitutional powers as President, but Karabell says Obama has filled the vacuum left by GOP inaction. “Republicans are hardly passive victims of an overweening executive,” he writes. “They are, in fact, paying for their own unilateral surrender.”

Unable to repeal or pass an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, congressional Republicans have settled for obstructing Obama-backed legislation. However, Karabell says Republicans “also relinquished much of its primary tool, the power of the purse.” “Congress and the White House have not agreed on a budget since 2009 and only at the end of 2015 was an actual budget passed by the House,” he notes.

Karabell speculates Obama may become even more daring as the clock ticks down in his final term in office. Senate GOP leadership’s decision not to hold hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland could lead to appointment without the advice and consent of Congress. Some constitutional scholars believe the power to appoint a Supreme Court justice resides with the President, not the Senate. Such an appointment, if made, would be a political explosion in an already incendiary election year. 

While GOP presidential contenders have wailed about Obama’s executive orders in domestic policy, the real expansion of power, Karabell suggests, has been in national security and foreign military engagement. “The broad implementation of drone warfare (hundreds of strikes over the past five years) would have been stymied were it not for judges and tribunals that have given the executive, CIA and military wide latitude.”

Fear of executive power is hardly new in America. Founding Fathers fretted about it, which led to the creation of checks and balances aimed at preventing it. Of course, those checks and balances only work if they are used. 

Republican presidential candidates haven’t exactly shied away from the notion of unilateral action. Ted Cruz has described a first day in the Oval Office as tearing up Obama’s executive orders, the Iran nuclear deal and Obamacare. Donald Trump has suggested pulling out of major international trade deals and forcing the CIA to carry out waterboarding and even more extreme interrogation tactics on terrorists.

“Obama bears his share of responsibility for taking power where he could,” Karabell concludes, “but had the Republican Congress attempted to do more than thwart him, he would not have been able to.”

The upshot of Obama’s two terms in office is to make “who we elect now more important than ever,” Karabell says. “And perhaps Congress will think twice in the future about surrendering more power to the president."

A Day for Frontrunners to Forget (Except UConn)

Except for the UConn women’s basketball team, it was a bad day for frontrunners as Donald Trump’s march to the GOP nomination got trickier and the cloud grew grimmer over Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as the Democratic nominee.

Except for the UConn women’s basketball team, it was a bad day for frontrunners as Donald Trump’s march to the GOP nomination got trickier and the cloud grew grimmer over Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as the Democratic nominee.

The only frontrunner to win Tuesday was the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, which captured its historic fourth straight national championship. Meanwhile, the Republican and Democratic presidential frontrunners lost in Wisconsin, and not by buzzer beaters.

Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders each racked up more than 50 percent of the vote in the Wisconsin Republican and Democratic primaries, respectively. Their wins on Tuesday mean more intrigue in the nominating process, which already has had more twists and turns than whodunits.

The Cruz victory could be the turning point for the “stop Trump” movement. The delegates Cruz won in Wisconsin make it that much harder for Donald Trump to accumulate the required delegates to capture the GOP nomination before the national convention in Cleveland this summer.

The Sanders victory – his sixth straight triumph over frontrunner Hillary Clinton – may not derail the Clinton locomotive to the nomination, but it raises questions about how high her campaign can fly in the fall general election, especially if the young voters activated by Sanders skip voting.

The storylines in the two parties are comically different. The GOP presidential primary has careened from reality show to peep show. The Democratic primary has resembled a coronation disrupted by a grumpy janitor with an agenda.

However, in many ways the nomination process in both parties is eerily similar. “Outsiders” such as Trump, Cruz and Sanders have drawn more votes than anyone would have predicted before the Iowa caucuses in January. Yet, the unpredictability of the outsiders has added an element of suspense that has largely been absent in recent presidential primaries. 

Cruz may block Trump’s march to the nomination, but he may not be the beneficiary of his success. There is rampant talk of a white knight – AKA Speaker Paul Ryan – riding into a contested convention and leaving with the prize in his saddlebag. Even the conservatives who are bent on denying Trump the nomination don’t have much faith in Cruz as a viable national candidate. Lindsey Graham endorsed Cruz, after saying "if you killed Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.”

Sanders’ insurgency has a different effect on Clinton. His outsider campaign emphasizes her insider connections. His plainspoken criticisms of Wall Street, big business and drug companies has underlined her cozy relationships. His bluntness contrasts sharply with her finesse.

Sanders' at times wobbly command of details, as reflected in his interview with the New York Daily News, gives some of his supporters pause. Even though the policies Sanders advocates seem unachievable to most observers, he still comes across as more honest than Clinton. In fact, exit polling shows Clinton failing the honesty test for a hefty chunk of Democratic voters.

Despite the mathematical improbability of Sanders winning enough delegates to elbow aside Clinton at the convention, his string of victories poses more than an inconvenience for the Clinton camp. Sanders only netted a 10-delegate gain from his win in Wisconsin, but that isn’t the real significance of his victory – or victories to come in other states. Democrats have to wonder whether Clinton is too bruised to win in November.

The way the races are shaping up in both parties, Oregonians may be treated to an actual primary contest in May. Sanders has set up a campaign office in Portland and others are likely to follow. We may actually see the candidates and shake their hand while eating an ice cream cone instead of catching a glimpse as they limo in from the airport to a closed-door fundraiser.  

All this means the craziness of the 2016 campaign season will continue into the foreseeable future. There will be more Trump tweets and perhaps even more positions he adopts on the abortion issue. Cruz will step up his crusade against Trump, even as his pessimistic supporters push a “Lose with Cruz” meme. Clinton will have to keep answering questions about a slow-motion FBI investigation into her private email server while secretary of state. Sanders will have to keep explaining how he will turn America into Norway with Medicare and free college tuition for all.

It is a rollercoaster ride that just won’t stop.

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 and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

Revolution at the Capitol

Congress was in recess and a shooter was in the Capitol when the revolution occurred. A potentially serious crisis was reported in real time by ordinary people wielding smartphones.

A lockdown prevented news crews from wheeling in cameras to the Capitol Monday afternoon as a lone gunman began firing shots in the Capitol Visitor Center. News organizations improvised by relying on video shot with smartphones by tourists and Capitol staffers who were “sheltered in place” as police closed in and arrested the man. Despite the lack of media access, the result was robust, timely reporting with footage directly from the scene. D.C. Police even joined the revolution by posting their own real-time updates on Twitter.

OK, we know what you’re thinking: The use of smartphones for real-time newsgathering had already become common over the past several years. But believe it or not, the situation highlights many continuing shifts in how we gather, report and consume the news today.

•  Not that long ago, video equipment was large, obtrusive and less conducive to real-time reporting. Lugging around bulky cameras, tripods and mics made it especially difficult for news crews to rush in to the scene of a crisis as police closed off access. Today, all of that equipment is often replaced by a single pocket-sized device that nearly two-thirds of Americans own and carry at just about all times of the day.  

•  Video cameras record images, but they aren’t organically connected to a news delivery channel. That’s never been a problem for smartphones.

•  Smartphones can capture video, transmit the footage quickly and provide access to social networks, blog sites and numerous other online platforms to report the news and add commentary. 

NBC correspondent Luke Russert tweeted about the Capitol lockdown and posted a picture of Capitol employees evacuating the building 30 minutes before the D.C. Police alerted the public to the incident. Meanwhile, MSNBC gave viewers a live-stream glimpse of the unfolding scene based on video shot by smartphones inside the Capitol. 

In essence, smartphones have turned average people into reporters. They can capture breaking news at any time and share it from anywhere with a signal.  

Instead of resenting the rise of citizen journalism, news organizations are embracing the growing trend as frontline reporting assistance because it can give them a scoop or at least a head start on covering a major story. After all, video shot on smartphones often has legitimacy that some news reporting lacks. 

Seeing smartphones in action at the Capitol, where most news is staged, underscores that the revolution of news coverage is in full swing. As news crews and citizen journalists alike embrace the omnipresence of smartphones, viewers will increasingly get more than press conferences and orchestrated events. They will get on-the-spot video and firsthand accounts of actual events that are shared widely across the Internet moments after they occur. This is nothing short of revolutionary.

While this revolution may not have changed attitudes toward the news media, it has changed the public’s perspective on newsgathering and the spread of information. Today, the news is less the detached reality it traditionally became over decades of nightly network broadcasts modeled on the style of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. Instead, it’s more like something you can view – or capture and share with the world – through the lens of your own smartphone. 


Curbing Monopolies Could Boost Economy

Teddy Roosevelt earned a reputation more than a century ago as a trust-buster and now there are stirrings in Congress for more aggressive antitrust enforcement to give the economy an injection of competition.

Teddy Roosevelt earned a reputation more than a century ago as a trust-buster and now there are stirrings in Congress for more aggressive antitrust enforcement to give the economy an injection of competition.

President Teddy Roosevelt broke up 44 monopolistic trusts in the early 1900s and now congressional leaders think it may be time again to address “creeping monopolization” at its impact on consumer prices and income inequality.

Roosevelt’s trust-busting occurred in a time similar to today when distrust of institutions was high and a few men accumulated enormous wealth. In his Square Deal, Roosevelt imposed regulations to tamp down free market excesses, such as railroad rate-setting and safety requirements for foods and drugs.

Last week, A Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on antitrust oversight, which revealed a bipartisan interest in doing more to block “cartel behavior and pricing abuse,” according to David Drayden, writing for New Republic.

Drayden calls antitrust regulation the “most important 2016 issue you don’t know about."

“The merger policy of our nation simply has failed,” Senator Richard Blumenthal said at the hearing. “As a national initiative we need to rethink the approach we have taken.” Blumenthal pointed to the airline industry, which has four carriers serving 80 percent of the U.S. Market, but also because some shareholders hold significant interests in more than one carrier.

Senators Orrin Hatch and Al Franken questioned Internet platform monopolies that “stifle competition and inhibit the free flow of ideas." Senator Charles Grassley discussed consolidation in the market for seed that has implications for the food-supply chain and food safety. The Albertsons-Safeway merger was singled out as a regulation failure after Haggen Food and Pharmacy bought 168 stores that the chain was soon required to sell, only to go bankrupt and sell back some of the stores to the merged company.

"We’ve seen plenty of economic issues discussed in this presidential election: the proper level of financial regulation, the high cost of prescription drugs, the clustering of wealth at the very top,” Drayden writes "But all of these things, and many more, boil down to one problem: Practically every major American industry has become extremely concentrated, and this creeping monopolization has increased inequality, created economic hazards where they previously didn’t exist, and heightened public anxiety." 

"We need competition because it benefits consumers on price and quality – there’s no incentive for a monopoly to deliver good service if consumers have no options,” he explains. "We need it because consolidation creates a few winners economically amid many losers, and they use that power to influence politics and take even more gains. We need it because any problem with one big bank or one big food distributor magnifies when the company is one of a precious few.”

Drayden says there appears to a political consensus to become more aggressive in blocking and breaking up monopolies, which could be the single biggest action government could take to address rising prices, boost consumer choice and begin to level the income playing field. “Aggressively enforcing antitrust laws,” Drayden says, “would be one of the best ways to reinvigorate our economy.”

Paul Ryan: Designated Relief Pitcher

A desperate GOP establishment has tried pinch hitters and pinch runners to prevent Donald Trump from winning the Republican presidential nomination and now may turn to its successful designated relief pitcher, Paul Ryan.

A desperate GOP establishment has tried pinch hitters and pinch runners to prevent Donald Trump from winning the Republican presidential nomination and now may turn to its successful designated relief pitcher, Paul Ryan.

A move is afoot to draft Paul Ryan as a GOP presidential candidate, which would confirm the Wisconsin Republican’s role as his party's designated relief pitcher.

Ryan, with seeming reluctance, saved the day by agreeing to serve as House Speaker after conservatives drove John Boehner out of the game and objected to other candidates. Ryan was cast as the only Republican that all factions could support.

That’s the thinking behind the Draft Speaker Ryan movement. The Republican Party is in disarray. Donald Trump is leading the presidential pack, but a faceless GOP establishment cabal is desperately trying to block him from winning the nomination. The party’s 2012 standard bearer has called out Trump as a con man and a phony. Marco Rubio has said Trump wet his pants and has tiny hands.

Beyond a distrust and dislike for Trump, Republican establishment figures worry that another Democrat will succeed President Obama. Some have concluded the only viable alternative to defeat this fall is Ryan.

Ted Cruz has made inroads on Trump’s march to the nomination, winning in Kansas and Maine over the weekend and inching closer to Trump’s delegate total. But Cruz could be the only GOP figure detested more than Trump.

Earle Mack, a former ambassador to Finland under President George W. Bush, spearheaded a $1 million Super PAC to draft Ryan. As he did to importuning to become House Speaker, Ryan has dismissed the draft movement and disavowed the SuperPac in a letter to the Federal Election Commission.

It is hard for Ryan to deny an interest in the nation’s top job. He was Romney’s running mate in 2012 and in the eyes of many political observers outshone the top guy on the ballot. Ryan has injected himself into the presidential primary by deploring Trump's racially charged statements.

As Speaker, Ryan has quieted the conservative rebellion, even as he pushed through controversial budget bills. Conservative members said they still disagree with compromising and relying on Democratic votes, but they support Ryan because he has reached out to them and listened.

Ryan has pushed the conservative agenda, but also promised more than just red meat, including a comprehensive health care plan to replace Obamacare.

The 2016 presidential election has been anything but normal, with insults dominating policy discussions, a billionaire activating citizens who feel economically disenfranchised and a socialist seriously challenging the inevitability of Hillary Clinton’s nomination.

A brokered GOP presidential convention could be the perfect setting for a relief pitcher to trot in from the bullpen. Nobody has stronger credentials to become the party’s closer than Paul Ryan.

The Unraveling of Politics

Belligerence and brute force are supplanting politics as the way America addresses issues and Americans address each other.

Belligerence and brute force are supplanting politics as the way America addresses issues and Americans address each other.

The “cancer of our time” is the unraveling of politics and the emergence of belligerence and brute force as political principles, says New York Times columnist David Brooks.

"We live in a big, diverse society,” Brooks writes. " There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society – politics or some form of dictatorship. Either through compromise or brute force. Our founding fathers chose politics.”

Brooks cited Bernard Crick’s line from his book In Defence of Politics, "Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.”

Politics has become increasingly unpopular. Voters disdain “politics as usual.” “Establishment politicians” are derided. Anger has become a campaign rallying cry.

Those who preach anti-politics, Brooks says, have turned to political outsiders, delegitimized compromise and trampled customs. “They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine,” he says. 

Politics at its best is messy, Brooks explains. "Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.”

What anti-politicians serve up are "soaring promises" that "raise ridiculous expectations.” Inexperienced anti-politicians thwart the political process, making government appear even more dysfunctional and generating ever-deepening voter cynicism. That disgust, in turn, leads to stronger demands for outsiders who are even more unbendable and politically reckless.

That downward spiral of politics breeds a pandemic that infects officeholders open to deal-making and compromise. They fear looking open to a deal will be a sign they have become part of the political establishment.

"We’re now at a point where the Senate says it won’t even hold hearings on a presidential Supreme Court nominee, in clear defiance of custom and the Constitution,” Brooks observes. "We’re now at a point in which politicians live in fear if they try to compromise and legislate. We’re now at a point in which normal political conversation has broken down. People feel unheard, which makes them shout even louder, which further destroys conversation.”

"And in walks Donald Trump. People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means."

Brooks says, "Trump represents the path the founders rejected. There is a hint of violence undergirding his campaign. There is always a whiff, and sometimes more than a whiff, of 'I’d like to punch him in the face.’”

Politics is in retreat around the world and authoritarianism is on the rise, Brooks contends. For America, "The answer to Trump is politics. It’s acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements.”

Politics works, he says, when people "recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.”

That’s the beauty of politics, Brooks argues. "It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.” 

Rubio Courts Suburban Voters to Dethrone Trump

Marco Rubio is banking on suburban voters to give him the political momentum to derail Donald Trump en route to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Marco Rubio is banking on suburban voters to give him the political momentum to derail Donald Trump en route to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Donald Trump is appealing to fed-up voters. Ted Cruz is wooing religious conservatives. Jeb Bush tried to appeal to establishment Republicans. Now Marco Rubio is pursuing a strategy to court suburban voters.

As time is running out in the GOP presidential primary to derail a Trump nomination, Rubio hopes to coalesce all Republican primary voters who haven’t or don’t want to vote for the New York billionaire. So far in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Rubio’s best headline has been that he is “surging.” Pretty quickly, he will have to surge into first place somewhere. 

In a contest seemingly dominated by political segmentation, Rubio and his campaign advisers have chosen to chase suburbanites. Instead of seeking out enclaves of self-identified evangelical voters, Rubio is on the hunt for support in places like Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. He also is campaigning in suburban areas of Denver, Atlanta, Boston, Birmingham and Nashville in the lead-up to major primaries.

According to The Washington Post, Rubio’s “Ankeny Strategy” – Ankeny is a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa – is aimed at voters who relate to the Florida senator. “They can identify with his modest background, his young children and the student loans he had to pay off,” the Post reports. “There are Ankenys all over the country,” says Rich Beeson, Rubio’s deputy campaign manager.

Rubio's campaign points to the candidate’s strong showing in South Carolina’s two most populous counties, which delivered Rubio a narrow second-place finish over Cruz, thanks to successful outreach to suburban voters.

Rubio isn’t the first politician to see the value of suburban voters. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed Rubio this week, followed that strategy to win the statehouse in a typically blue state.

The underlying Rubio message is that Trump’s appeal is limited, topping out at perhaps 35 to 40 percent of the GOP base. Rubio argues he has conservative credentials to win over Trump and Cruz partisans, while still appealing to swing voters in the suburbs.

Not that long ago, suburban areas such as Beaverton and Hillsboro were reliable Republican strongholds. But the political ground has shifted, making it harder for Republicans to hold on to legislative and congressional seats. Rubio eyes these potential swing areas as the real battleground for the White House this fall.

The Rubio suburban strategy appears to have more political leg than Bush’s failed approach of appealing to the so-called Republican establishment. This strategy also hints at why Rubio has been reluctant to joust publicly with Trump – he believes he can overtake Trump and weld together a broad coalition that includes his backers, many of whom have returned to the political conversation because of Trump.

Regardless of the merits of Rubio’s suburban strategy, he still has to win a primary somewhere, certainly in Florida, his home state, but somewhere else, too. It would seem, based on suburban demographics, his best chances are in Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Colorado and Minnesota. Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia hold their primaries March 1, as part of the so-called SEC Primary. Colorado and Minnesota hold caucuses the same day. If Rubio doesn’t snag a win in one or more of those states, his suburban strategy may have hit a fatal roadblock on Trump’s road to the nomination.

The Curious and Contentious Constitutional Debate

It didn’t take long for the untimely death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to erupt into a partisan battle and curious, contentious debate over the constitution.

It didn’t take long for the untimely death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to erupt into a partisan battle and curious, contentious debate over the constitution.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has triggered a curious and contentious constitutional debate about his replacement.

Before Scalia’s corpse had turned cold, Senate Republicans served notice to President Obama not to bother sending up a nomination. They want to wait so the next President, who won’t be sworn in until early next year, can make the selection. Obama fired back that he plans to nominate a qualified replacement, and he expects the Senate to hold confirmation hearings and a vote. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cited an 80-year-old precedent for presidents to demur on filling Supreme Court vacancies in the final year of their term in office. A media fact checker disputed such a precedent, noting that President Reagan’s nominee, Anthony Kennedy, was confirmed in 1988, a presidential election year, on a unanimous vote by a Democratically controlled Senate. Kennedy was confirmed after the Senate rejected the earlier nomination of Robert Bork. 

Obama, who taught constitutional law at Columbia University earlier in his career, said it was his duty to nominate someone to fill a Supreme Court vacancy and the Senate’s duty to consider and vote on the nominee. He said there were no exceptions or limitations noted in the Constitution that apply to the final year of a presidential term.

The irony in this debate is that whoever succeeds Scalia will be the swing vote on a divided court that will decide whether Obama exceeded his constitutional authority in issuing executive orders.

The net effect of the tussle over whether there will be a vote or not has been to add another rancorous layer of politics to an already inflamed political environment. Some Obama haters went so far as to speculate on social media that Obama was responsible for murdering Scalia. Medical reports indicate Scalia died of a heart attack while at a remote hunting lodge in Texas.

No question that stakes are high on who will ultimately replace Scalia, who was a towering figure among conservatives who liked his legal reasoning and his colorful writing style. For now, the court has four liberal-leaning justices and four conservative-leaning justices with no ability to break a tie. In case of ties, the Supreme Court issues in effect no ruling, which would let stand lower court decisions, even if they conflict.

One legal scholar said Scalia’s untimely death will affect cases that already have been argued before the court. Scalia’s vote on those cases, the scholar said, can’t be counted if he isn’t still on the high court bench.

The issue of a lame-duck year Supreme Court nomination instantly became fodder on the presidential campaign trail, with all Republicans except Jeb Bush, urging no Senate vote and Democrats calling a GOP-imposed delay a constitutional affront.

There was an unexpected, though perhaps unsurprising, trickle down effect of the argument on races for the Senate this year. Twenty-four Republicans face re-election this year, and they may be uneasy pledging to stonewall a presidential Supreme Court nomination before finding out who is actually nominated. Supreme Court watchers have identified at least two potential nominees who were vetted in recent Senate confirmation hearings and voted in as federal judges on unanimous Senate votes.

One of the most curious pieces of speculation that bubbled up in the rough-and-tumble follow-up to Scalia’s death was that a delay in replacing the former Justice could paradoxically lead to Obama getting the nomination if a Democrat is elected President.

Both Parties Lack Middle-Class Confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying the Course May Be Off Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Search for an Obamacare Alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress Reaches $1 Trillion Spending, Tax Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Provisions of particular interest to CFM clients include the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress Launches Nation into New Era for Public Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transportation Bill Finally Moving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Reactions to Foreign, Domestic Shootings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Ready for Speaker Paul Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Momentum for Mental Health Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opponents Line Up for Pacific Trade Pact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Boehner Bombshell Shifts Capitol Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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