Congress

New African American Smithsonian Showcases Horror and Beauty

 The three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in the shadow of the Washington Monument and with a festival of Free Sounds. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

The three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in the shadow of the Washington Monument and with a festival of Free Sounds. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday, just before the first presidential debate in a contest in which charges of racial bigotry have been regularly tried.

President Barack Obama, America’s first black president, has openly encouraged GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump to visit the new Smithsonian museum before the November 8 election.

 This pair of shackles is one of many relics of slavery, America's darkest chapter, on display inside the museum.

This pair of shackles is one of many relics of slavery, America's darkest chapter, on display inside the museum.

Situated perhaps symbolically on the last available museum site on the National Mall in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the new museum traces the journey of a slice of America’s people who arrived in chains, suffered through segregation and still experience discrimination in the workplace and on the streets.

As the Museum celebrates its opening with a three-day Freedom Sounds Festival, protests continue in Charlotte and Tulsa over controversial police shootings of black men. Congress is hung up on a spending bill to keep the federal government running, in part because of a refusal to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, water users and Louisiana flood victims.

Backers were forced to raise private funds to build the museum because of congressional opposition. Senator Jesse Helms said if Congress funded a museum recognizing African Americans, other groups would demand equal treatment. Congress finally authorized the museum 13 years ago.

The building makes its own statement with a black-brown metal façade that contrasts sharply with the white marble sister Smithsonian museums surrounding it. The museum’s tiered design draws inspiration from African architecture, and the façade pays homage to the skill of black freemen metalsmiths in the Deep South. Architect David Adjaye, who designed the museum, said the architecture intentionally “speaks another language.

 Chuck Berry's shiny red Cadillac is one of many thousands of African American artifacts on display in the new museum. 

Chuck Berry's shiny red Cadillac is one of many thousands of African American artifacts on display in the new museum. 

The exhibits and 36,000 displayed artifacts center on the life of black Americans from tiny plantation cabins and punishing neck chains to pioneering jazz musicians and Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac. However, exhibit designers sought to make the museum appeal to a wider audience by showing how African American culture has become embedded in all American culture.

“It explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture,” the museum’s website declares. Designers also attempted to place the arrival of Africans in America as part of an ongoing global migration that at once has increased diversity and underscored human unity.

Another Government Shutdown Deadline Approaches

 Another federal government shutdown looms unless Congress can pass a spending bill before September 30 over the opposition of the 42-member House Freedom Caucus, which wants to make budget cuts before the November 8 general election.

Another federal government shutdown looms unless Congress can pass a spending bill before September 30 over the opposition of the 42-member House Freedom Caucus, which wants to make budget cuts before the November 8 general election.

If you think the presidential race seems repetitious, think about the prospect of another federal government shutdown. That might just happen on September 30 if Congress can’t pass legislation to fund continuing operations.

This potential shutdown has all the hallmarks of earlier ones – the right-wing faction of the House GOP caucus is balking at a short continuing resolution to push major budget decisions past the November 8 general election when a new president will be elected and Senate control could flip from Republicans to Democrats.

The 42-member Freedom Caucus wants to avoid an omnibus spending package in a lame-duck session of Congress. GOP House leaders, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have expressed support for approving a continuing resolution this month that would maintain existing spending levels until around Christmas.

If Freedom Caucus members hold firm, House Speaker Paul Ryan will be staring at the same dilemma that bedeviled and ultimately unseated his predecessor, John Boehner – turning to Democrats for the needed votes to approve a spending bill. Democrats have their own priorities and have stymied Republican proposals of late.

House Republicans are huddling to find a work-around after Congress returned earlier this week after a seven-week recess. Preventing a government shutdown is just one of many spending issues up in the air at this point.

Congress left town in July without approving a spending measure to combat the Zika virus, which has emerged as more of a threat in Miami and potentially other parts of the South than previously anticipated.

The presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is tightening up as the candidates seek to distinguish themselves on a range of issues, including national security, which will be the subject of an NBC-sponsored commander-in-chief forum tonight. Before the event, Trump said he favors releasing the Pentagon budget from the spending constraints that apply across the board to all federal agencies.

Some conservatives in Congress have echoed Trump's view, but they face the problem of what to cut to compensate for higher defense spending. Democrats, including President Obama, oppose selectively excusing defense spending from overall spending constraints.

Congressional Democrats and Obama appear in policy lock-step in support of a short-term spending bill that will push bigger budget questions beyond election day. That position is buttressed by the serious prospect that Democrats could regain control of the Senate though the GOP majority in the Senate hasn’t warmed up to the idea of closing down the federal government.

There is little question the budget priorities of a President Clinton and a President Trump would differ substantially, which makes the looming stalemate over a stopgap continuing resolution even stickier. It also raises the question of whether an actual government shutdown would help or hurt Trump or Clinton.

Trump has positioned himself as a political outsider with the personal experience of knowing how the system works and what needs to change. Clinton has a hard time escaping the “insider” label, but can be expected to argue that now is not the time to threaten or shutter the federal government, given the precarious momentum of the economic recovery and a flurry of foreign threats.

The Freedom Caucus may be wary of Trump in the White House, but they worry more about a Clinton victory in November, combined with a Democratic takeover in the Senate. They may argue now is potentially the last time they have the leverage for major cuts in federal spending and a budget boost for the military. What will be interesting to watch in the next three weeks is whether the Freedom Caucus actually has the leverage it imagines.

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

The Arm of Congress That Doesn’t Sleep

 Behind every successful Member of Congress is a hardworking, usually out of-camera-range district staff that advises on local projects, helps people get lost Social Security checks and makes sure their boss arrives at his appointments. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio was a congressional staffer before he was elected.

Behind every successful Member of Congress is a hardworking, usually out of-camera-range district staff that advises on local projects, helps people get lost Social Security checks and makes sure their boss arrives at his appointments. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio was a congressional staffer before he was elected.

While Congress is on frequent recess and routinely at odds, congressional district staffers operate in a starkly different reality. Unencumbered by the dysfunction and partisanship in Washington, they play a critical role in the communities they serve.

While those inside the beltway may think they’re at the center of the universe, sometimes the most meaningful congressional action happens at the hands of a local staffer. Every day, far away from the news cameras lining the Capitol Rotunda, district staff members solve important problems for hometown constituents. In fact, a congressman representing his district often takes the shape of a field representative unraveling Social Security tie-ups or helping a constituent navigate bureaucratic red tape.

CFM represents clients in Washington, D.C., many of which are municipalities in the Pacific Northwest. As federal lobbyists for municipal clients, congressional district staff are our valued partners. After we identify local projects and priorities, we coordinate to make the case for federal funding in Washington. They help us nudge along federal agencies when they’re moving slow, weigh in with support for a client’s grant project and advise their boss to shed light on a local issue when appropriate.

They are also the full-time eyes, ears and mouth of a member in the communities they represent. They attend community events, local government meetings and meet face-to-face with constituents and local stakeholders on a daily basis. As such, we often rely on their local knowledge as a barometer.

Members of Congress are often required to be two places at once. In order to be effective, they must spend significant time in D.C. to build relationships and increasingly, raise money for their next campaign. However, the more time they spend in D.C., the harder it is to stay in touch with constituents and keep abreast of their concerns. District staff help alleviate this inherent dichotomy, providing the political linkage lawmakers themselves have a hard time sustaining. 

Paralyzing partisanship has plagued Congress in recent years, and the public has taken notice. Approval ratings for the institution as a whole are at record lows. However, it’s reasonable to assume that district staff play a role when many of those same voters – despite feeling fed up with Congress – think their local representative is still doing a good job. 

While the district office may not be as prestigious as the Capitol building, it’s fertile ground for political victories. District staff aren’t hamstrung by D.C. dysfunction, and can routinely achieve results, like helping a city mitigate congestion by securing a federal transportation grant, or issuing press releases to bring national attention to local issues.

So, as Congress members return to Washington after extended visits to their districts over this historically long recess, it seems apt to salute the men and women who spend each day working in those district offices – they're some of the hardest working, most productive people in Congress.

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

The Dids and Didn’ts of Congress

  Congress is currently in the midst of one of its longest summer breaks in U.S. history. Before leaving, Congress managed to make several big accomplishments, but a number of other key spending issues were left unresolved. 

Congress is currently in the midst of one of its longest summer breaks in U.S. history. Before leaving, Congress managed to make several big accomplishments, but a number of other key spending issues were left unresolved. 

Due to earlier than usual presidential nominating conventions, federal lawmakers are in the middle of a seven-week recess – one of the longest summer breaks in the legislative branch’s history. With Congress out of town for another month, here is a look at some of the things it did and didn’t accomplish, and what to expect when it returns in September.

Congress Did:

Get Out of the Gates Early

The House typically kicks off the appropriations process, but that was held up by a GOP intraparty dispute over top-line spending levels. So the Senate took the wheel and got off to the fastest start in the modern budget era when the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its first spending bill in mid-April. The full Senate made more history when it passed the first appropriations bill on May 12, the earliest official start to the appropriations process in the chamber’s history.

Find Success in Committee

Each chamber moved all 12 (24 total) annual spending measures out of committee for the second straight year and onto the full Senate and House floors for consideration. Things were looking good early on, however, much of their committee success is attributed to unofficial agreements to hold off on controversial policy riders until the spending bills reach the floor. Unsurprisingly, just eight of the 24 bills approved by appropriations committees have made it past a floor vote to date.

Address the Opioid Epidemic

Both the House and Senate, with overwhelming bipartisan support, cleared the final version of legislation aimed at combating opioid prescription and heroin abuse, which President Barack Obama quickly signed into law. In addition to a few policy provisions, the bill creates a number of new grant programs to be administered by the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services. However, it may take some time for this new money to find its way to local health departments and law enforcement agencies. Funding for the bill’s grant programs is dependent on appropriators designating money for them. Although some spending bills include money to address opioid addiction as a whole, only the House measure to fund the Justice Department includes specific money for those programs.

Reauthorize the FAA

After months of negotiation and just two days before expiration, both chambers eventually came together on a package to reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) programs at current funding levels through September 2017. This measure is the result of both chambers abandoning their original, more wide-ranging and controversial FAA bills in favor of a short-term continuation. In addition to continuing current FAA programs, the bill contains a variety of policy measures that aim to increase airport security while easing security lines and further regulating drone use. 

Congress Didn’t:

Return to ‘Regular Order’

With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, party leadership vowed to restore “regular order” to the appropriations process and expected to spend this summer touting their successes to constituents. Unfortunately, there were too many partisan and intraparty hurdles to clear in fiscal year 2017 and “regular order” was nowhere to be seen.

One of the biggest obstacles from the start was the refusal of certain House Republicans to embrace the bipartisan budget agreement reached last December that set the top-line spending level at $1.07 trillion for FY 17 defense and domestic discretionary programs. Conservatives voted against the compromise measure in December, but the agreement passed because former Speaker John Boehner relied on Democratic votes to win passage. Conservatives still oppose the plan and spent recent months pressing the Republican Caucus to present a plan that reduces mandatory spending by at least $30 billion.

Without a budget agreement in place, House appropriators were procedurally allowed to move forward in May and began marking up spending bills at the $1.07 trillion level. Unfortunately, that turned out to be just the first obstacle. Repeated attempts by members of both parties to attach controversial policy riders to spending packages after they cleared committee proved to be the demise of the fiscal year 2017 appropriations process. Lawmakers spent days and weeks engaged in contentious debate over spending levels and policy issues, all while the White House issued veto threats on multiple measures should they eventually pass.

With time running out before the new fiscal year begins on October 1, “regular order” is now a fond memory. When lawmakers return in September, they’re expected to abandon the normal appropriations process and seek a continuing resolution to avoid another government shutdown.

Address the Zika Virus

Months ago, the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion from Congress in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus domestically. Congress did not promptly comply. After weeks of partisan bickering and disagreement, negotiations finally fell apart in June and Congress left town without approving any funding for the mosquito-borne virus. Now, both Democrats and Republicans have spent most of the summer blaming each other for the failure and remain no closer to an agreement.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has since shifted $589 million, most of which came from Ebola resources within the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State/USAID, for Zika-related prevention and treatment.

Pass Gun Control Legislation

Following the Orlando massacre, House and Senate Democrats persistently demanded action to address the recent spate of gun violence. Their frustration culminated in an extraordinary sit-in on the House floor, refusing to yield until House Speaker Paul Ryan promised floor votes on a myriad of gun control measures.

Keeping in line with the theme of the 114th Congress, there was ultimately no legislative action taken. However, it may not be the end as some Democrats have promised to keep introducing gun-related amendments to future legislation until a version is passed.

Fill Supreme Court Vacancy

Republican leadership decided not to hold confirmation hearings on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the American people should  “appoint” a nominee by voting for a new president this fall. If Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the White House, McConnell may be tempted to allow confirmation of Garland to proceed in a lame-duck session.

What to Expect:

A Continuing Resolution

Congress is slowly coming to terms with the reality that the fiscal 2017 appropriations process is a goner and a continuing resolution (CR) will be needed to avoid a government shutdown on October 1. This will be lawmakers’ number one priority when they return in September, but there are a few things that could get in the way of a timely agreement.

A CR is a stopgap funding measure meant to fund the government temporarily in the absence of appropriated funding levels. Thus, the primary battle will likely take place over how long the CR will last. For the last two years, lawmakers have agreed on CRs extending to December 11, giving them enough time to put together a final omnibus appropriations package. That may not be an option this year as conservatives would rather push a CR push spending decision into March 2017 to bypass the lame-duck session and avoid a trillion-dollar omnibus.

Further, intraparty disputes over the top-line spending limit and partisan scuffles over Zika and gun control are also expected to complicate the CR discussions come September.

Criminal Justice Overhaul

Last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced he will take up legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system this September. The Speaker has identified a number of bills being marked up by the Judiciary Committee as part of the package that will see the floor next month. These individual measures will come together in a package to change everything from sentencing requirements to federal criminal procedures.  

Zika Funding

Despite their failure before recess, recent Zika cases in the United States will surely highlight congressional inaction and may force some kind of political agreement. House and Senate Republicans agreed on a $1.1 billion conference report, but Senate Democrats ultimately blocked the measure citing controversial “poison-pill” amendments. Among them are provisions that would ease EPA regulations and prevent Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving any Zika money.

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

Clinton Joins in Zika Finger-Pointing

 After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

After a newborn child died from a Zika-related illness in Texas, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of critics bashing Congress for not yet providing money to fight the disease.  

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton joined the Zika blame game as she condemned Congress for failing to provide funding to combat the deadly disease after a Texas infant died from Zika-related complications.

In Februrary, President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to respond to the spread of the Zika virus abroad and prepare for its feared arrival in the United States. Despite multiple proposals from both chambers in the following months, Congress left town in July without an agreement on Zika funding. 

Negotiations came to a screeching halt when Senate Democrats blocked a last-ditch, $1.1 billion package to fight the virus. Democrats were on board with the funding level, but pulled their support when provisions were added in conference to relax EPA regulations, protect the flying of the Confederate flag and prevent Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving money to fight the virus.

With Congress in the middle of its seven-week summer recess, a newborn baby in Texas with Zika-related birth defects has died. The news comes alongside four new Zika cases reported in Florida.

While both parties have spent the past few weeks blaming one another for inaction, Democrats have taken a new approach. Several top Democrats, including President Obama, have urged Republican leadership to cut the recess short and return to Washington to pass a bipartisan measure at the funding level requested by the administration.

After the news in Texas broke, Clinton joined the blame game. In a speech in Florida, Clinton urged Republicans to come back to Washington and “pass the bipartisan funding package the Senate passed.” Clinton was referring to the original $1.1 billion compromise package reached by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Patty Murray (D-WA), absent the controversial policy riders that emerged in the conference report.

Republicans have yet to budge and repeatedly point to the proposals Democrats rejected. In a recent op-ed, House Speaker Paul Ryan writes, “[Democrats] blocked our plan not once, but twice – a blatant ploy in an election year.” The Speaker added, “Because of their actions, this funding is in limbo. It shouldn’t be.”

Although the recent Zika cases may not cause Congress to trim its recess, Zika funding will certainly remain a hot topic when members return.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has shifted $589 million, most of which came from Ebola resources within the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of State/USAID, to be used for Zika-related prevention and treatment.   

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

 

The Trade Lesson the Wine Industry Taught

 Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave an impassioned speech on economic togetherness at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It was a lesson she may have learned from the wine industry, which challenged legislation that gave her wineries a home field advantage.

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm gave an impassioned speech on economic togetherness at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It was a lesson she may have learned from the wine industry, which challenged legislation that gave her wineries a home field advantage.

Before last week's Democratic National Convention, Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, was best known for defending the auto industry and trying to give her in-state wineries an online edge.

At the convention, Granholm gave one of the most under-reported speeches of the week in which she identified herself with the frustration of dislocated manufacturing workers, but said they need a champion with plans, not promises.

Critics panned the part of her speech where she re-imagined lyrics from music legend Carly Simon with, "You're so vain, you probably think this speech is about you." But that missed the heart of the speech, which touched the national nerve about how to address the many people left behind by economic progress.

"I'm a fierce Democrat. But I know there are Democrats and Republicans across the country who want to create jobs in America. Liberals and conservatives. Public sector and private industry. Because we're not in this alone – we're all in this together."

Granholm recalled how Michiganders like her resented how globalization shifted good-paying manufacturing jobs to low-paying nations overseas. Her response: Quit bitching and start pursuing advanced manufacturing opportunities.

Then the Great Recession hit and the U.S. automobile industry went into a death spiral. "In 2008, we elected a Democratic President for us to work with," Granholm said. "And you know what he did? He saved the American auto industry. And then that renewed auto industry paid America back in full. And that's what we can do when we work together."

In simple terms, the former governor of Michigan spelled out the plan to address the impact of global trade, international financial flows and technological innovation. Stop complaining. Don't yield to fear-mongering. Trust people with real plans and the guts to implement them.

"Some people are worried. Some people are angry. I get that," Granholm said. "But the answer isn't to tear our country down, it's to build our country up. Not to build walls that keep the rest of the world out but to keep building the industries and universities that the rest of the world wishes they could get into."

Hillary Clinton has stumbled in her attempts to deliver the message that Granholm capsulized in a paragraph. It was perhaps the best testimonial Clinton could have received.

Granholm learned about economic togetherness the hard way. During her governorship, Michigan enacted legislation to allow Michigan wineries to ship wine directly to Michigan residents, but it also prohibited out-of-state wineries from the same privilege. Wineries challenged the law, and one like it in New York, which eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was ruled unconstitutional.

Attorneys representing Michigan and New York argued in Granholm v. Heald that states had carte blanche authority to regulate liquor sales and distribution. A majority of the Supreme Court disagreed and said the dormant Commerce Clause prevents unfair restraint of trade between states.

The chastened former governor who appeared on the DNC stage in Philadelphia bore the scars of trying to give the home team an even greater home field advantage. "Our great country spans a continent," she said, "but we're all connected to each other, no matter where we live. When a miner in Virginia has the dignity of a new job in the advanced steel industry, we all have dignity.... When the autoworker in Detroit builds the electric vehicle, that drives all of us forward.”

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.

Michelle Obama’s Breakthrough Speech

 (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tom Williams) First Lady Michelle Obama gave a breakthrough speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was beautifully crafted, delivered with polish and resonated far beyond the political battlefield for the presidency.

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Tom Williams) First Lady Michelle Obama gave a breakthrough speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was beautifully crafted, delivered with polish and resonated far beyond the political battlefield for the presidency.

Presidential nominating conventions are runways for politicos to show off their stories and styles. Occasionally, there are breakthrough speeches that launch political careers or send them to new heights.

Ronald Reagan went from revered actor to governor of California and serious presidential timber with his speech to the GOP National Convention in 1964. Barack Obama emerged from the relative obscurity of an Illinois state senator in 2004 to become a U.S. senator and a serious presidential contender in 2008.

Michelle Obama may have scored a breakthrough moment Monday at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Some commentators rank her remarks as among the best convention speeches in decades. While Hillary Clinton’s nomination broke through the penultimate glass ceiling in America, Michelle Obama’s speech broke through to reach the hearts of millions of Americans.

Poynter broke down the First Lady’s speech and credited its strong appeal to Obama’s use of the first person, touching anecdotes and a narrative built around “kids.” These qualities gave her speech universality and made it much more than a stump speech in support of Hillary Clinton.

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”

Obama set the tone in her first paragraph: "You know, it's hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be President. Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace — the traits that we've seen every day that he's served our country in the White House."

She kept her central narrative personal. "I also told you about our daughters — how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world. And during our time in the White House, we've had the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls into poised young women — a journey that started soon after we arrived in Washington, when they set off for their first day at their new school."

And about the first morning the Obamas were in the White House, she recalled, “I will never forget that winter morning as I watch our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."

"I will never forget that winter morning as I watched our girls, just 7 and 10 years old, pile into those black SUVs with all those big men with guns."

Perhaps her most memorable line was, “Our motto is, when they go low, we go high” and the most touching anecdote was about the young black boy who wondered whether President Obama’s hair felt like his, prompting the President to bend over and let him find out for himself.

Apart from the technical skill, beautiful writing and polished delivery, Michelle Obama’s speech transported listeners far beyond the current political battlefield into what it means to lead a nation and the stakes of presidential decision-making.

"What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life. And when I think about the kind of President that I want for my girls and all our children, that's what I want. I want someone with the proven strength to persevere." 

Whether Michelle Obama elects to pursue a political career of her own after the Obamas leave the White House, her speech turned fertile groundwork. She will be known for planting a vegetable garden, pushing for school lunch nutrition and supporting the families of military veterans, but perhaps she will be best known for the speech she gave on a platform in Philadelphia in 2016 that wrapped up to its conclusion with:

"So don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth."

'Obamacare’s Kindest Critic'

 Obamacare has been assailed from the political right and left, but its namesake took an unusual step in publishing a critique that suggested ways his legacy achievement could be perfected and expanded.

Obamacare has been assailed from the political right and left, but its namesake took an unusual step in publishing a critique that suggested ways his legacy achievement could be perfected and expanded.

Republicans are convening in Cleveland this week and can be expected to bash Obamacare nonstop, but constructive criticism of the Affordable Care Act came last week from an unanticipated quarter – Barack Obama.

Signing his critique as Barack Obama, J.D., the President described how his legacy achievement could be perfected by adding a public health insurance option and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug rates, which is currently prohibited.

The New York Times called Obama “Obamacare’s kindest critic” and said his suggestions have the appearance of a memo to his hoped-for Democratic presidential successor, Hillary Clinton.

“Presidents usually wait until their memoirs to review their work,” the Times editorialized, but in this case Obama used the sixth anniversary of the act to make observations about his handiwork in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Health care costs are still too high, he wrote, and 29 million people still lack coverage.”

One of Obamacare’s “failings” is an incomplete expansion of Medicaid in 19 states that chose not to accept federal financial assistance to pay for expanded coverage.

But Obama points to the actual failure of providing coverage for 9.1 percent of the U.S. population. Obamacare reduced that total from 16 percent, but there are still people who can’t afford health care, often because they lack the money for co-pays and deductibles in addition to health insurance premiums.

Unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigned hard on a Medicare-for-all health insurance plan that captured a lot of attention and rekindled interest in a single-payer system. Obama’s recommendation to add a public option to the health insurance exchange is a more targeted version of the idea, which possibly could win bipartisan support if aimed at rural areas with few private-sector health insurance choices, the Times said.

Clinton has expressed support for a public option. The Times notes Clinton has also voiced interest in allowing Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 to enroll in Medicare.

The Obama view on Obamacare is that it isn’t going away any time soon, but it should be improved and perfected as part of a continuing drive to put a blanket of health insurance coverage over all Americans.

Not everyone agrees. Leading Republicans continue to call for repeal of Obamacare and replacing it with something else, which has largely been ill-defined. The Obamacare health care exchanges are under pressure as costs continue to rise and some insurers lose money. Efforts in Oregon and elsewhere to promote coordinated care and integration of physical and mental health care have registered some positive results, but are still in an extended trial stage. Employers have largely retained private health insurance coverage for employees, but have blunted cost increases by opting for plans with higher deductibles and co-pays and trimmer provider networks.

“What Mr. Obama has done is unusual – asking someone else to burnish a legacy of which he is personally proud,” the Times said. “If the candidates (and Congress) pay attention, his request may also do a world of good for millions of Americans for whom decent health care remains out of reach."

Hoyer Lays Out Congressional Reform Agenda

 House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says reforms are needed to restore voter confidence in Congress, which many believe is dysfunctional and corrupt.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer says reforms are needed to restore voter confidence in Congress, which many believe is dysfunctional and corrupt.

Lack of confidence in Congress is one of the biggest problems in the country that gets little attention on how to fix. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer has offered up an agenda to address the perception that Congress is dysfunctional.

“It’s not an ideological agenda,” Hoyer says. “It’s a pragmatic agenda.”

In a speech to the Georgetown University Law Center, the Maryland Democrat called for an overhaul of the campaign finance system, enhanced voting rights, changes in the redistricting process and improvements in government technology.

“We can’t fully tap into our economic opportunities,” Hoyer said, “if we don’t make sure government works, too.”

A recent Rasmussen Report on national telephone and online poll revealed only 11 percent of respondents think Congress is doing a “good or decent job,” while 57 percent believe it is a doing a poor job. One reason for the lack of confidence is a prevalent view that most congressional representatives “sell their votes."

Hoyer pointed to the success in attracting large numbers of small donors by the Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders campaigns as a model for campaign finance reform that places limits on how individuals can contribute and includes a discussion of public financing of campaigns. In addition to restoring voter trust in elected officials, Hoyer said campaign finance reform will result in a wider diversity of candidates.

Enhanced voting rights should include automatic voter registration, expanded early voting, vote-by-mail options and tools to combat voter suppression. “Every American who is eligible to vote should be able to vote. Period,” Hoyer said.

He said too much political influence in the redistricting process has led to a majority of safe Democratic and Republican House seats, which in turn has fueled increased polarization. Hoyer recommended “national redistricting standards” that reduce partisanship in drawing the lines of congressional districts.

Joining the 21st century in terms of technology would help federal agencies be as “connected and adaptive as possible,” Hoyer said, to create an “inclusive system of civic engagement.” Hoyer touted his bipartisan Information Technology Modernization Act, which would receive a one-time $3 billion investment to stimulate a wide range of technology improvement projects based on best practices in the private sector.

Hoyer added that more advanced digital systems must be “protected against cyber threats” so Americans have confidence government is “protecting their private data.” And he said a robust online presence by the federal government could allow for direct taxpayer rankings, like a “Yelp for government."

Hoyer lobbed in a couple of additional suggestions that include restoring congressional funding earmarks and removing the ability of a senator to put a hold on an executive branch nomination.

He admitted bringing back earmarks isn’t popular, but he said resumption of the practice would restore congressional decision-making over spending decisions that affect local communities. Hoyer cited an editorial by the Houston Chronicle that said, “A Congress without earmarks doesn’t spend less money. It just means that the executive branch has more control over taxpayer dollars."

The 2016 Political Season Just Gets Whackier

 A Virginia man who supports Donald Trump for president swears he saw his candidate’s face on a bathroom floor while sitting on his toilet. It wasn’t the weirdest thing in the whacky world of politics.

A Virginia man who supports Donald Trump for president swears he saw his candidate’s face on a bathroom floor while sitting on his toilet. It wasn’t the weirdest thing in the whacky world of politics.

Just when you thought the political season couldn’t get weirder, it did. House Democrats staged a sit-in over gun legislation, an Iowa congressman implied replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill was racist and a Donald Trump supporter said he saw his candidate’s face on his bathroom floor tile.

Somehow, that last story may be the least bizarre of these three.

Sit-ins were ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s as a preferred form of non-violent protest. In an ironic revival, House Democrats, led by Congressman John Lewis -- a veteran of sit-ins of yore -- employed the technique to protest congressional inaction in the face of continuing gun violence. Some 40 participating congressional protesters chanted, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The sit-in followed late-night votes in the Senate on four separate gun bills, all of which failed to get enough votes, even though two of them involved denying access to guns for people on terrorist watch lists.

Congressman Steve King blamed President Obama for a “divisive” proposal to place a black woman, who is one of America’s most famous abolitionists, on U.S. Currency. He said it would be “unifying” to leave the $20 bill alone. The House GOP leadership dismissed King’s idea.

A Virginia man sitting on his toilet swears he saw his man Trump’s face on his bathroom floor. Trump images apparently are everywhere. According to The Huffington Post, a Google engineer vacationing in California saw Trump in the image of a deep-fried churro with yellow frosting. And a series of pictures of droop-mouthed pooches sporting Trump gear are circulating on social media. They're called "Dogald Trumps." 

Ultimately, the sit-in, King’s proposal to scratch Harriet Tubman and The Donald floor tile are mostly sideshows to even weirder stuff. Such as the paltry $1.3 million the Trump presidential campaign has in the bank after a full month as the presumptive GOP nominee. Or spending records that show Trump has paid 10 percent or more of his campaign cash to his own companies. The records also reveal Trump’s campaign bought up $208,000 worth of hats in May, while spending just $48,000 on data management and $115,000 on online advertising.

Weirder still, after withering media coverage that Trump’s businesses have stiffed contractors, sent manufacturing jobs overseas, used bankruptcies to turn losses into gains and profited from huge debt, more Americans trust Trump to run the U.S. economy than Hillary Clinton.

An online group polled 1,000 adult Americans and discovered a majority of men and women wouldn’t sleep with Trump for $1 million. In Trump’s case, the average it would take to convince a woman to have sex with him was $1.35 million. Men only wanted close to $1.1 million. The numbers were a little better for Clinton but not much. Her average price for sex with women was $1.26 million and $1.16 million with men. Bernie Sanders didn’t have a lot of takers either for a mere $1 million.

The weirdest thing of all is that this all occurred outside of a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch. SNL definitely will have to up its game.

Toasting the Men from the North

 President Obama hosted the heads of government from the five Nordic nations, which are valued American allies and where citizens by and large trust their governments.

President Obama hosted the heads of government from the five Nordic nations, which are valued American allies and where citizens by and large trust their governments.

When you mention Scandinavia, you think of saunas, Volvos and Scarlett Johansson. You don’t picture some of the most steadfast U.S. Allies on the planet.

For geographically-challenged Americans, the Nordic nations include Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.

Contemporary Viking ancestors are less inclined to conquest as they enjoy a lifestyle, public services and political stability that are the envy of most of the world’s people. One of the most desired destinations for refugees from the war-torn Middle East is Sweden. Bernie Sanders has lionized Nordic universal health coverage. Surveys show Scandinavians are some of the happiest people outside of Bhutan.

All of which contributed to the unusual sight last week of a White House state dinner for five national leaders. In a welcoming ceremony earlier in the day, President Obama praised the five Nordic nations for “punching above their weight.”

“I really do believe the world would be more secure and more prosperous if we just had more partners like our Nordic countries,” Obama said. "There have been times where I’ve said, ‘Why don’t we just put all these small countries in charge for a while, and they could clean things up.’”

The President added on a more serious note, "Sometimes we have a tendency to take our best friends for granted, and it’s important that we not do so."

There is a striking amount of common cause between the Nordic nations and the United States. We share a suspicion of Russian intentions, especially in Ukraine, and concern over climate change and its effects on the Arctic. We agree on the need to combat terrorism and sustainably manage fisheries.

Given diplomatic hierarchy, it is unlikely the prime minister from any single Nordic nation would be feted with a state dinner. However, Obama keenly saw an opportunity to recognize reliable partners as a group. The only thing awkward about the situation was the quick-stepping of the color guard to change flags when each country’s prime minister rolled into the White House portico. 

Not surprisingly, there is disagreement over why the Nordic nations enjoy the prosperity they do. Some say it is because they loosen the reins of government on the free market; others claim it is because government controls the eccentricities and abuses of the free market. It could be both.

But one startling fact is the relatively high level of trust Scandinavians have in their government. The trust isn’t blind. Scandinavians demand transparency. Official records are viewed as public records that anyone can review. Politicians must meet public expectations in the way they behave. They can’t slip off their bikes into official limos.

One analyst said Scandinavians have figured out how to combine right-wing pragmatism and left-wing idealism into a tough-minded, constantly evolving government model. They don’t view government as an obstacle, but as an instrument. Modesty is considered a virtue, but it is born out of necessity. The population of Nordic nations is small, which amplifies citizen engagement.

A former Swedish prime minister compared Nordic economies to honey-laden bumblebees. They have heavy bodies, tiny wings and yet still manage to pollinate plants and produce honey.

Naturally at the state dinner for Nordic officials, the White House was decked out with wooden farm tables and ice sculptures. The men from the north were served braised beef short ribs from Nebraska.

The Unsettled Presidential Election

 Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have their respective party presidential nominations sewn up, but their general election campaigns face a lot of uncertainty and unfamiliar political terrain.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have their respective party presidential nominations sewn up, but their general election campaigns face a lot of uncertainty and unfamiliar political terrain.

By default or delegate count, the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations appear set. However, the campaigns and party unification processes are anything but settled.

Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump faces high-profile defections from prominent Republican leaders and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton keeps losing primary elections to Bernie Sanders.

Trump meets this week with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has withheld his support from Trump. For Trump’s part, he claims he is ushering in a new-look Republican Party that may make party unity efforts a nice, but not necessary sidelight. That new look also may not include conservatives who say they won’t vote for Trump or Clinton.

Clinton has turned her political guns on a general election showdown with Trump, despite a still vigorous challenge by Sanders. However, just when it appeared Clinton would trounce Trump in a landslide, a poll by highly regarded Quinnipiac shows Clinton is in a dead heat or losing to Trump in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Sanders’ double-digit win in West Virginia this week added further doubt to whether Clinton can attract votes from disaffected white voters and political independents.

Trump and Clinton have the shared distinction of being the two most disliked presidential candidates in recent history. As such, both are having trouble appealing to their respective party bases.  Trump has shaky support on the conservative right and Clinton on the progressive left.

The Trump-Clinton race may come to a battle of identity politics. Trump scores with male voters, while Clinton does well with women and minority voters. Trump does poorly with establishment Republicans. Clinton flunks with younger Democratic voters.

In previous presidential elections, the candidates' experience and what they stood for counted most. In 2016, not so much. Trump touts his lack of political experience and has lurched around on issues like a bumper car driver. Clinton has been criticized for her experience and her wonkish policy views.

After Ted Cruz and John Kasich bowed out following Trump’s decisive primary win in Indiana, Trump told NBC News he looked forward to a principled general election campaign centered on policy. The next day, Trump returned to form and resumed his “Crooked Hillary” refrain. He hasn’t let up since.

Clinton immediately put up attack ads pointing out Trump’s outlandish statements and dubious policies, only to be warned by supportive political observers that getting into a gutter fight with Trump was a losing strategy. Strategists said Trump methodically disposed of GOP opponents who attacked him,  who famously noted that he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t cost him a vote.

Perhaps a more troubling concern in the Clinton camp is the political viability of “outsider” messaging, especially when it comes to international trade and “rigged” systems. A West Virginia voter told a reporter after he voted in his state’s primary that he cast his ballot for Sanders because he “spoke the people.” The only other person running for president he would vote for is Trump.

One Democratic pollster said the problem boils down to a good “origin story.” Trump and Sanders pinpoint what and who is to blame. Clinton tells a more complex and conflicted story. Trump has mastered sloganeering. Sanders has powerful sound bites. Clinton has nuanced, detailed policy papers.

Presidential nominating conventions are more than a month away and there are still a few primaries left, including contests in Oregon and Washington. The eventual nominees are clear. How their campaigns will unfold and the odds on either’s ultimate success remain as unsettled as ever.

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."

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. 

 

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.” 

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.

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.