Federal Lobbying

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."

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.

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.

Americans Divided by Bipartisanship

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Americans voice support for bipartisan solutions, but evidence suggests they really want outcomes that mirror their partisan viewpoints.

Bipartisanship may be rare because Americans only pay lip service support to the idea while actually preferring compromises that favor their partisan perspective.

That's the conclusion of research out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business that suggests what Americans dislike is uncivil discourse. However, that dislike translates into hardened partisan views. "In politics, that kind of powerful party identification overrides any professed preference for the abstract concept of bipartisanship," according to the research.

Neil Malhotra, a professor in political economy, and his Stanford colleagues compare politics to sports. Fans may be shocked by athletes fighting or acting badly, but they still want their team to win.

Americans conflicted attitudes about bipartisanship aren't an isolated example, say the authors. There is broad support for civil liberties and free speech, but often intense intolerance for the exercise of those freedoms by groups that are unpopular or controversial. Americans want to see government shrunk, but not at the expense of programs they value or depend on.

The experiments Malhotra and his team conducted showed people recognize bipartisan solutions, but still favor outcomes that more closely mirror their views. That underlying reality may buttress resistance in Congress and state legislative bodies to resist calls for bipartisanship because it doesn't produce political attaboys.

“Our research demonstrates that even though citizens dislike the institution of Congress and profess abstract desires for bipartisanship, when it comes to the details, they prefer partisan fighting," Malhotra says. "Therefore, the behavior of members of Congress seems to be consistent with electoral incentives.”

"No matter what they say, people do not actually favor bipartisan policies over those that align with their personal political views – even though compromise is perceived as a virtuous quality," the study’s authors write. "In fact, when people become aware of the compromises made during the policy process, they are even less supportive of bipartisanship because they see it as a loss for their party."

The issues used in the Stanford research were relatively benign, not like the more emotion-charged issues that Congress faces. The research findings cast doubt on hopes that a spirit of bipartisanship will emerge in the halls of Congress for the ironic reason that it may be too politically risky.

The Intractable Trade Issue

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes debate over a major free-trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners and the rules by which the Obama administration will need to follow to negotiate the deal. Photo by  SenateEnergy .

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes debate over a major free-trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners and the rules by which the Obama administration will need to follow to negotiate the deal. Photo by SenateEnergy.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden finds himself in the middle of a major trade policy debate that could affect the ultimate fate of a Trans-Pacific trade agreement sought by the Obama administration.

Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes says Wyden, despite a history as a free trader, is the cause of a delayed hearing on so-called fast-track authority for the administration to negotiate a trade deal.

According to Mapes, the hang-up is over how many senators it would take to retract fast-track authority. Congressional Republicans want 67 senators, while Wyden wants 60. Wyden's view matters because he is the ranking Democrat on Senate Finance, the committee that would scrutinize any trade deals.

A free trade agreement with Asian Pacific partners is viewed as one of the major legislative opportunities this Congress for Republicans to work with President Obama in his final two years in office.

Wyden isn't retreating from his free-trade position, even though he has been pressured to do so from organized labor leaders, including Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain. Mapes says Wyden is trying to find middle ground.

For example, Wyden has agreed with opponents that trade pact negotiations are too secretive. "Transparency, congressional accountability ... and enforcement is really the key to coming up with a sensible, bipartisan trade agreement," Mapes reports Wyden as saying. Wyden says he wants a "good deal."

Senate Republicans seem less worried about how trade negotiations are conducted. That is somewhat ironic in light of the controversial letter 47 GOP senators sent this week to Iranian officials expressing their strong desire to approve any nuclear arms limitation deal negotiated by President Obama. 

Trade agreements have special importance to the West Coast and Oregon. The Port of Portland is one of the largest export platforms on the West Coast, which Wyden has acknowledged.

"People want to buy our wheat, they want to buy our computers, our wine," Wyden told Mapes. "The Oregon brand is just on fire all over the world and we ought to be able to get our exports, particularly, into Asia. ... If I could get in a sentence for my economic philosophy, it is  grow things in Oregon, make things in Oregon, add value to them in Oregon and then ship 'em somewhere."

However, Wyden, who is up for re-election in 2016, faces electoral pushback. Chamberlain, while crediting Wyden for working hard to reach out to both sides of the debate, said the senator's position for fast-track authority and a Trans-Pacific trade deal could cost him official labor backing next year.

Democracy for America has sent out a large mailing urging Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio to challenge Wyden. DeFazio said he has no interest in running against Wyden. 

Related Link: In free-trade fight, Ron Wyden emerges as key negotiating figure in Congress

Fight Big Campaign Cash with More Congressional Staff

Two government reformers say the way to combat floods of campaign cash is to bolster congressional staff so federal lawmakers get information and ideas from sources other than political donors.

Two government reformers say the way to combat floods of campaign cash is to bolster congressional staff so federal lawmakers get information and ideas from sources other than political donors.

While some government reformers are still trying to staunch the hemorrhaging of political cash, two men are suggesting that is a lost cause. The road to reform, they say, is to beef up Capitol Hill staff and the nonpartisan institutions that feed Congress information.

In a lengthy Washington Monthly article, Lee Drutman, a senior fellow with New America, and Steven Teles, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University, lay out an idea unlikely to spark bumper stickers in support. Adding staff and bolstering the General Accounting Office aren't ideas that readily shout "reform."

Drutman and Teles say a Congress awash in political contributions, largely from corporate interests, has become dependent on the information channels of donors. Republican leadership in Congress has shrunk its own staff resources in the name of smaller, leaner government and now must rely more heavily on the information resources of the people and organizations that got them elected.

The pay gap between what Congress pays staffers and special interests pay lobbyists, they add, encourages talented people to leave Capitol Hill for K Street, leaving Members of Congress with relatively young, inexperienced staffs who may or may not be able to smell something fishy in information fed to their bosses.

Their idea is double the number of congressional committee staffers and triple the amount available for salaries. The highest-paid positions would go to the most qualified individuals, regardless of who their boss was or which party was in control.

"Because individual staffers would be employed by the committee, their jobs would not depend on whether individual members won or lost their seats," wrote Drutman and Teles. "This would free them up to think more about the long-term policy implications, instead of being so tied to electoral fortunes of individual members. By rotating between different members and working solely for the committee, staff would build broader networks, but their core network would remain the committee. This would help to build a strong and lasting community."

"A more expanded version of the rotation system could create an exchange program between the relevant executive branch agency and the congressional committee," they explained. "This would also have the benefit of increasing the networks of congressional staff that allow them to engage in serious oversight, and also increase the belief in executive branch agencies that their counterparts in Congress are trustworthy and knowledgeable."

As insiders know, there is a version of this rotation system in place between the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Internal Revenue Service. Staff members have toggled back and forth for years. Unfortunately, the current federal tax code may not stand as a great example of the result.

Drutman and Teles admit that some congressmen and senators may continue to take their information and orders from the "extreme ideological wing" or rich campaign donors. But they say the presence of a well-paid, balanced congressional staff can help federal lawmakers separate the wheat from the chaff. They speculate, perhaps too hopefully, that the presence of skilled congressional staff may prompt talented people to seek political office in hopes they can legislate, not just dial for dollars.

Criticism of the current congressional set-up eclipses partisanship. In 2010, then House Minority Leader John Boehner said Congress "does not function, does not deliberate and seems incapable of acting on the will of the people. From the floor to the committee level, the integrity of the House has been compromised. The battle of ideas — the lifeblood of the House — is virtually nonexistent." House Speaker Boehner has not found the remedy for the problem he identified five years ago.

Drutman and Teles say GOP moves to cut staff and geld nonpartisan congressional advisory bodies may be out of touch with some of their own most conservative instincts. They say Congress has crippled its own ability to stand toe-to-toe on issues with the executive branch and legislate with discernment on issues such as taxation, health care and immigration.

In 2013, Congress spent about $2 billion on its own operation. Drutman and Teles said that is roughly equal to a Pentagon cost overrun.

"Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community. For those concerned about the malign influence of corporate power on our democracy, increasing government’s in-house nonpartisan expertise is almost certainly a more promising path forward than doubling down on more traditional reform strategies."

Obama Links Climate Change, National Security

The Obama administration says climate change could be as treacherous to U.S. national security as terrorists, Russia and pandemics.

The Obama administration says climate change could be as treacherous to U.S. national security as terrorists, Russia and pandemics.

The Obama administration is linking climate change to national security, which may not have much immediate impact on a GOP-controlled Congress, but is likely to become a major debating point in the 2016 presidential election.

In a report released today, the White House put climate change on par with terrorism and pandemics as threats to U.S. security. “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows and conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” according to Obama's 35-page strategy document. 

The President has made fighting climate change a major emphasis of his second term, perhaps as much to elevate it on the political radar screen as to register actual accomplishments. At least one specific recommendation — to diversify the sources of energy for the U.S. military — may have a chance to move forward.

A key theme in the report is the connection between energy security and national security. “Seismic shifts in supply and demand are underway across the globe,” it says. “Increasing global access to reliable and affordable energy is one of the most powerful ways to support social and economic development and to help build new markets for U.S. technology and investment.”

The report calls for actions to increase the nation's resiliency in the face of climate change challenges. That includes more and perhaps different kinds of investment in infrastructure. “The present day effects of climate change are being felt from the Arctic to the Midwest. Increased sea levels and storm surges threaten coastal regions, infrastructure and property. In turn, the global economy suffers, compounding the growing costs of preparing and restoring infrastructure.” 

Buttressing America against challenges caused by climate change, the Obama administration report claims, will increase the country's national security.

Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill Unites Congress

In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity, Congress okays legislation aimed at preventing the rising number of suicides by military veterans.

In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity, Congress okays legislation aimed at preventing the rising number of suicides by military veterans.

Congress showed rare unanimous bipartisan support for legislation aimed at addressing the disturbing rise in military veteran suicides, which totals 8,000 deaths annually.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for a Marine who took his life after serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, passed both the House and Senate without a single dissenting vote.

The legislation calls for external audits of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention programsadd a pilot program to pay the student debt of doctors who psychiatric medicine and commit to working with the VA, The bill also authorizes creation of a website that highlights mental health services available through the VA.

There is a $28 million price tag attached to the legislation, but Senate supporters said that amount could be found within the existing VA budget, which itself has been the subject of criticism as being inadequate to handle the growing caseload of returning veterans.

If people wonder what it takes for Congress to act in unison, they now know — more soldiers killing themselves than being killed by enemy fire.

Critics say it shouldn't have take this long for Congress to tackle a problem that has gained increased publicity for the rise in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. They also contend more needs to be done than a website, audit or student debt repayments. Many charitable organizations, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, have stepped in to help, attracting contributions from businesses and private citizens and bringing fresh resources to the battle.

Hasty Retreat on 529 College Savings Plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture of Gridlock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NW Delegation Gains Clout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Plea for Pro-Manufacturing Policies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shape of Government to Come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lame Duck Congressional Cromnibus

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

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

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

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

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

The cromnibus has a similar political lineage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democrats Miss Chance to Tell Success Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Crime is relatively low; and

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

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

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

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

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

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

NW Delegation Continues to Move On Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Election All About Obama

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

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

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

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

Here is a quick overview of the election:

Election 2014 - A Presidential Referendum

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

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

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

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

Politics in the Northwest

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

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

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

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

Rising Influence in the NW

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

Lewinsky Scandal Tipped Presidential Approval Ratings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebola Scare Elbows onto Political Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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