30 Sep

Complaining about foreign policy, Senate Republicans could at least confirm ambassadors

To find a strategy against the Islamic State, the most vital country may be Turkey. There is no American ambassador in Turkey.

Any strategy will be partly funded by the United Arab Emirates. There is no American ambassador there.

The most immediate nuclear threat in the world comes from Korea. There is no U.S. ambassador in Korea.

In each case, ambassadors have been nominated, and Senate Republicans have blocked a confirmation vote because they’re angry at President Obama and Senate Democrats.

There is an endless list of things Congress isn’t doing, and most of them are pretty hard. Immigration reform is tough. Fixing Social Security and Medicare would be challenging. Devising a new transportation package would take some time.

It should not be that hard to take votes on confirming ambassadors. For years, before the Capitol atmosphere became more poisonous than mustard gas, the Senate used to confirm ambassadors in bunches. Republicans don’t have objections to the particular nominees, they’re just in an extended sulk.

Still, in the current atmosphere, maybe doing their constitutional duty of voting on presidential nominees is still too difficult.

But there’s one thing that Senate Republicans could absolutely do:

Stop talking about the great threat posed by the Islamic State if you won’t confirm an ambassador to Turkey.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV 9/27/14.

29 Sep

Does Monica Wehby really want to run for Senate?

Recently, a Kansas newspaper reported that Paul Davis, Democratic candidate for governor, had been caught in the ‘90s in a police raid on a strip club, and had been found in a back room with a topless dancer. Davis said he’d been brought there by his boss, and it was a case of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and his situation does indeed seem a vivid example of that phrase.

Also this month, the web site of Mary Burke, Democratic nominee for governor of Wisconsin, was purged of jobs language apparently lifted from candidates who had run for governor of other states. Those candidates had all used her campaign consultant, whom she removed from her campaign, along with the jobs language.

Last week, Gov. Paul LePage of Maine seemed to overthrow all plans for campaign debates when he said he didn’t want to appear on the same stage with the Democratic candidate, Rep. Michael Michaud. LePage said he’d be willing to debate independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

The campaign trail is lined with pitfalls, stories your campaign doesn’t want to see in the headlines, developments that produce indignant statements that of course voters don’t care about such things. Any one of them can be a complication when voters try to envision the candidate in office, making major decisions and being escorted by motorcycle police.

But in a nation of statewide candidates, it seems only one has achieved the complete trifecta: embarrassing revelations, plagiarized positions and debate refusals. Monica Wehby, come on down.

The Oregon GOP Senate candidate’s difficulties began at the end of the primary campaign with the revelation, apparently a surprise to the people who urged her into the race, that she had three times been the subject of police calls for domestic disturbance. This may not be comparable to being discovered in the back room of a strip club, and may not be a disqualification from the Senate – it certainly wouldn’t disqualify her from the NFL – but it’s an awkward thing to pop up.

It may not have helped that Wehby’s immediate reaction was to blame the Merkley campaign staff, although there was no evidence that they had called the cops.

Then observers noted a curious familiarity in policy language on Wehby’s campaign web site. Her plans on health care in particular, repeatedly cited as reflecting her special insights into the issue as a pediatric neurosurgeon, turned out to be lifted intact from the medical authority Karl Rove. Once again, the campaign’s response may not have been ideal, with a campaign spokesman sniffing, “Dr. Wehby is too busy performing brain surgery on sick children to respond, sorry.”

Actually, she wasn’t.

It took a while for the Wehby campaign to reach the proper position in such cases, blaming a departed campaign staff member – although uncooperatively, the former staffer has been insisting it wasn’t his fault.

The Senate campaign has provided lots of things to discuss in campaign debates, except so far it seems there will be only one – in Medford, several hundred miles from most of the Oregon electorate. Friday, Wehby definitively refused a Portland TV debate, a standard element of an Oregon Senate or governor’s race campaign.

Typically, challengers – especially challengers trailing in the polls – are eager for debates, suggesting holding them on a weekly basis, or in every part of the state, or on every issue that can be drawn out of a hat. Incumbents and frontrunners – usually a redundancy – show a modest reluctance on debates, although this being Oregon, they generally agree to several.

Wehby’s agreeing to only one debate, on Medford TV, displays a shyness unusual among challengers, usually so eager for TV time that they’ll leap to appear on surveillance cameras. Wehby, however, has shown this diffidence before, declining the only televised debate, on KGW-TV, in the Republican primary campaign.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been turned down by a major-race candidate,” said KGW Executive News Director Rick Jacobs at the time. “I can’t remember the last time it’s happened.”

As of Friday, he’s seen it happen twice.

In various ways, Wehby’s campaign has been on what you might call a bumpy path. But the experience so far raises a whole other question:

If you don’t want to debate, don’t want to be on television, don’t want to offer your own proposals and don’t want people looking into your life, what’s the point of running for Senate at all?

Can it be that much fun just raising money?

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 9/28/14.

29 Sep

On Oregon’s revenue issue, “some day” might be next session

ASHLAND – Compared with a lot of recent legislative sessions, the one that’s starting next January looks fairly calm. Unlike many of Salem’s 21st century gatherings, the economy seems stable, meaning that state programs aren’t huddling together in a leaking lifeboat, wondering who’s going to be the next splash.

Of course, points out Ways and Means co-chairman Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, there are clouds. State revenues are scraping up against the level of the kicker, and the state having to mail back $300 million to taxpayers. The huge expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare has been impressive, but will cost some money. At some point the state Supreme Court will rule on the PERS reforms, which could put the state in a hole – although more in 2017-19 than in 2015-2017.

And there’s one other thing.

“We’re in danger of losing a generation,” warns Buckley, “unless we address early education and student debt.”

Because as things stand in Oregon’s education system, we’re losing kids coming and going.
Gov. John Kitzhaber has made a priority of early education and causing kids to appear at kindergarten ready to learn. It’s an understandable goal for a state with a deplorable high school graduation rate, and the knowledge that students need to be reading by third grade.

In addition, starting next year, the state is supposed to be paying for full-year kindergarten.

Then there’s Oregon’s universities, chronically underfunded, taking the worst hits in all the century’s recession-blasted legislative sessions because after all, they could always raise tuition. The situation produces both sticker shock discouragement for students at the outset and higher student debt at the finish – and too many who don’t finish.

“We’ve got K-12 back pretty much to where it was before the recession,” says Buckley. “If we can do that for higher ed,” it will be crucial.

“If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to get it done.”

Then there’s stabilizing of Oregon’s K-12 funding, to try to make Oregon’s school budget outcomes a bit less of a suspense movie.

Once again, we’re back to the great white whale of Oregon government, a revenue package that would put a foundation under the state school system, from finger painting to physics majors. It make take a lot of the excitement out of legislative sessions – and special sessions – but it might actually produce a state better prepared for the current century.

Kitzhaber has been pursuing the goal in a path going around the legislature, with lengthy negotiations between interest groups to send a measure directly to the ballot. Oregonians are still waiting to see the white smoke of an agreement rising from those talks, but Buckley, talking with other members of the joint Ways and Means Committee, thinks the next legislature might devise its own trip to the ballot.

“We’re doing everything we can do,” says Buckley. “We need the voters’ help. It would need to be on the ballot in 2016.”

Buckley, like everyone else in the Oregon political world, doesn’t see a sales tax. What he envisions is something like closing loopholes, reconsidering the state’s tiny corporate tax revenues and maybe some more from what he calls sin taxes.

Together, as a goal, the elements of the package would be offered to voters as a way to stabilize and strengthen education. And, notes Buckley, “In every voter survey, that’s what they say they want to do.”

Of course, that’s what Oregon politicians say they want to do, too, but there are reasons it hasn’t happened over the decades. It hasn’t been doable in the hard times, when it seemed to take all the state’s efforts just to keep the schools open – even for just about the shortest school year in the country – and it hasn’t worked in the brief better times, when the state seemed too bathed in relief to think any bigger.

Besides, a reality of large classes, larger tuition increases and fewer options at every level just began to seem normal – or at least Oregon normal.

Finding a workable proposal will be tough for either a legislature or a governor’s task force. The 2016 vote might bring out an electorate relatively favorable to a revenue measure, if it’s the right measure and if the Legislature’s PERS changes don’t get thrown out by the court.

We’re at a point of some economic stability, and when it seems inescapable that our economic future runs through our schools. It’s hard to see a better time to take on the challenge.

Of course, there’s always never.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 9/24/14.

23 Sep

Oregon universities may have a lower price, but they cost students more

If you could all just put down your college football Top Ten for a minute, we’re in the season for some other national university rankings.

Of course, in those, Oregonians would have to look a bit further down.

In the new 2015 U.S. News rankings of national universities, the Oregon schools are about where they’ve been, with the University of Oregon tied for 106th and Oregon State tied for 138th. In the kind of calculation we make this season, this puts U of O 7th in the Pac-12 – behind the four California universities, Washington and Colorado – and OSU tied with Washington State for last.

Those faculty salary and money spent per student statistics will get you every time.

Still, we’ve seen those rankings before, and every college administrator insists he pays no attention to U.S. News – although somehow it does appear in press releases when the numbers are good.

But this month marked the second annual appearance of another set of intriguing college rankings, the Washington Monthly “Best Bang for the Buck” ratings. They don’t have any point spreads, but they do point out some other interesting gaps.

In its calculations, Washington Monthly considers statistics such as percentage of students on federal Pell grants for low-income students, four-year graduation rates and student loan defaults. As the magazine’s editor Paul Glastris said in an interview last week, “The worst possible thing is to pay for a college degree and not get one.”

But the crucial number is “net price,” how much a low- or middle-income student, with family income of $75,000 or less, would actually pay. That calculation ranks affordability considerably differently than a direct look at the sticker price.

According to the university web sites, the full cost of attending the University of Oregon – tuition, room and board and other expenses – would be $24,405, and Oregon State would cost $24,594.
University of Washington costs would be $27,112, UC Berkeley $32,400 and UCLA $33,193. Even after years of tuition hikes, the numbers seem to rate the Oregon universities pretty well in the West Coast affordability rankings.

But considering net price to low- and middle-income families after financial assistance, the order reverses. Washington Monthly pegs net price at Oregon State at $14,545; Oregon at $13,307; UCLA at $9,973; Berkeley at $9,943; and UW at $8,359.

“You can’t just look at the sticker price,” points out Glastris. “You’ve got to look at actual price.”
Actual price, the real measure of affordability, means including other states’ vastly greater availability of state and institutional financial aid.

“Most families pay less than the full price of attending UC,” burbles the University of California’s web site cheerfully. “In fact, more than half of our undergraduate students pay no tuition at all. Over two-thirds of UC undergraduates receive grants and scholarships, with an average award of around $16,300.”

By contrast, the University of Oregon web site can only bring itself to say, “If you are determined to have financial need, you may be eligible for some need-based scholarships.”

The ranking of national universities providing “Best Bang for the Buck” consists almost entirely of public universities; Stanford is a terrific place, but nobody’s ever called it a bargain. On the list, UW is #6 in the country, Berkeley #11 and UCLA # 12. Well below Arizona State, Arizona and Utah comes Oregon at #43 and Oregon State at #52, although OSU does help its ranking with a high percentage of its students on Pell grants.

What lets universities be accessible, of course, is no surprise. “It’s very difficult to do that without support from elsewhere,” notes Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, who put together the numbers, “either the state or private contributors.”

Kelchen points out that the top finisher in the rankings, the University of Florida, benefits from considerable state financial aid funding, and right behind is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has a sizable endowment for the purpose.

For Oregon to substantially improve its position, to rise above its long history of bad rankings for higher education accessibility, requires a major game changer.

One beginning might be Measure 86, the Oregon Opportunity Initiative, which would sell state bonds to create a financial aid endowment over time.

Only something that dramatic could bring Oregon within sight of universities it likes to compare itself with, to have UO and OSU – and the state’s other universities – figure in high school seniors’ calculations of bang for their buck.

Or we could just go back to the football rankings.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 9/21/14.

16 Sep

NSA surveillance could be curbed — if Congress ever acted on anything

There are some English phrases that are grammatically correct, but just don’t make sense. “Cubs’ playoff chances.” “User-friendly software.” “Middle East peace process.”

And, pretty close to the top, “Congressional to-do list.”

As Congress moves through its brief September stopover on Capitol Hill, there’s an impressive list of things it won’t do. It won’t act on immigration, it won’t pass a transportation package, it won’t make sure that the government can pay its bills.

And a decade after Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden began warning about surveillance – and more than a year after Edward Snowden revealed the government was collecting more of Americans’ telephone data than Verizon – the Senate seems in no hurry to take up the Leahy bill to limit the we’re-watching-you surveillance of the National Security Agency.

Last week, even Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper endorsed the bill – although that may have been on the principle that urging Congress to act is the best way to make sure that nothing happens. There might actually be some impact to the endorsement by Clapper, who recently admitted that the NSA had monitored thousands of phones illegally by accident because of “the complexity of the technology involved.”

Is it more unsettling that the NSA did things it shouldn’t have, or that it didn’t understand what it was doing?

For senators seeking a more technologically sophisticated view, last week five high-tech trade associations wrote Senate leaders in support of the bill, complaining, “As a result of the surveillance program revelations, U.S. technology companies have experienced negative economic implications in overseas markets.”

Or as Wyden puts it, “If a foreign enemy had done to the U.S. economy what NSA monitoring has done, people would be up in arms.”

Still, even with the NSA’s most sophisticated surveillance devices, it’s hard to find signs of life in the Senate. Neither Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., nor Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has endorsed the bill. Nor has Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal.

“In my view,” Wyden said last week, “this is a debate that should have happened years ago, so the sooner this bill comes to the floor, the sooner these intrusive, unnecessary surveillance programs will finally be reined in.”

The Leahy bill would prevent the government from collecting vast amounts of metadata – information about who Americans called, when they called and how long they talked – and create actual argument before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, which has to (and almost always does) approve requests for surveillance.

“The FISA court is the most bizarre court in the United States, bar none,” says Wyden. “There’s no other court set up to hear from only one side. That’s what gives rise to secret law,” principles based on one-sided procedures never publicly revealed.

On the other hand, last week National Journal suggested that Wyden and Mark Udall of Colorado, the foremost critics of the NSA, weren’t pushing to immediately take up the Leahy bill, either. The attitude extends through Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., other members of what Wyden calls the Ben Franklin Caucus – named after Franklin’s warning that those who would exchange liberty for safety deserve neither.

The Leahy bill, although stronger than the version passed by the House last spring, does not address the “backdoor search.” Government agencies have the power to search data on foreign sources; the “backdoor” option lets them check out, without warrant, data on Americans acquired in the course of surveillance of foreign sources.

Wyden calls this loophole “highly important. The FBI uses it so often they don’t keep track.”

Actually, in a letter to Wyden, the NSA said it had used the backdoor to check data content – phone calls and emails – of 198 Americans. The FBI said it didn’t keep t5rack, but thought the number of its uses was substantial.

Nobody thinks the Senate would limit backdoor searches this year – although the House has voted to defund them. But next June 30, the entire Patriot Act lapses, and it needs reauthorization before then – creating an opportunity that might make Wyden content to wait.

“For the first time, the clock favors reformers,” says Wyden. “We have about a year. We have a long way to go on this.”

And, he notes, there’s always the likelihood of more revelations coming out.

As we’ve learned pretty definitively, when Congress isn’t forced to act, it doesn’t. But when it’s under immediate pressure, something can happen.

At that point, even surveillance reform can get onto a congressional to-do list.

At least before the Cubs make the playoffs.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 9/14/14.

16 Sep

On Iraq and ISIS, who’s fighting on our side this time?

To approach a foreign challenge, presidents often have a choice between two entrances. To approach Iraq, presidents have a choice between two Bushes.

Wednesday night, explaining his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State, President Obama picked the right Bush.

But the question is who’s there with him.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, George H.W. Bush assembled a huge coalition, and then devised a strategy. Invading Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush started with his strategy, and looked around for a coalition.

Obama has the right plan; the United States will provide equipment and air support, while troops on the ground will be local, supplied by what he calls “a broad coalition.” That makes sense; Middle East countries have more to fear from Isis than we do, and Middle Eastern troops should have more local credibility.

What was missing Wednesday was a clear sense of who would be in the coalition. Tactical bombing is in support of ground troops; Americans are entitled to know what troops their bombers will be supporting.

There will be Iraqis and Kurds. Will there be Turks? Saudis? Iranians? Bombing can degrade Isis; only boots on the ground can destroy it.

We know Iraq can be a dense wilderness. We need to find the right Bush.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 9/13/14

14 Sep

How to feed kids, without a side order of paperwork

We don’t tend to think that billions of dollars in education spending are balanced on a cheeseburger, or are reflected in the aluminum foil around a breakfast wrap.

But in a state where most of our schoolchildren now qualify for free or reduced-price meals, we need to understand that crucial developments in the educational process happen – or don’t happen – in the belly as well as the brain. We still need to make progress in this area, but as Oregon schools open this year, we’re moving a few fish fingers forward.

For three years, the national school lunch program has run pilot programs, in 11 states, for community eligibility. If a school, or a district, has 40 percent of its students automatically qualifying for free lunch and breakfast – by their families receiving food stamps or the students being involved in other programs such as foster care –the school can serve all of its students without charge.

No collecting applications from families who may not be great at filling out forms, no checking to see if the kid qualifies for his hot dog. A little less distraction from long division.

In every state where the program has been tested, it has grown every year. This fall, community eligibility has been expanded to every state. In Oregon, 253 schools in 47 districts, and six entire districts, are in the program, meaning thousands and thousands of Oregon students will have one less thing to worry about.

It’s all about readiness to learn, says Gitta Grether-Sweeney, director of nutrition services at Portland Public Schools, which has 25 of its 82 schools in the program.

“Just like they get free textbooks, they get free meals,” she says. “I’m very excited about it. It gets nutrition into more kids.”

Which can also produce something else.

“Being able to have meals at no charge,” says Heidi Dupuis, manager of school nutrition at the Oregon Department of Education, “encourages children to come to school.”

And in a state with a seriously destructive absenteeism rate, that can provide an additional serving of benefit.

Students aren’t the only people gaining from the program.

“One of the thing that makes school staff most uncomfortable is when a kid shows up and doesn’t have money,” points out Zoe Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C. “Nobody likes being in that situation.”

That means both kids who haven’t produced the required forms, and kids without the necessary cash. Many schools have some kind of stash of crackers or peanut butter sandwiches for that situation; community eligibility is a somewhat more complete solution.

The 40 percent threshold for entry into the program is just a fraction of the students who would qualify after going through the application process. According to Neuberger, a school with 40 percent of its students qualifying automatically would likely have about 82 percent of its students overall qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch – a statistic that would be familiar to many Oregon schools.

“It’s good for families,” says Grether-Sweeney about the program. “They don’t have to fill out the free and reduced-price applications. It also helps families that are just on the edge (of qualifying), and it takes away the stigma.”

The stigma of being on the free lunch program rises as kids advance through the grades, and three of the Portland schools involved are high schools. “The more kids eat at school,” says Neuberger, “the less stigma there is.”

The program also produces more kids eating breakfast, for more productive school mornings. In schools in three states (Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia) with two years’ experience of community eligibility, breakfast consumption went up 25 percent.

The CBPP estimates that more than 600 Oregon schools might qualify for the program, considerably more than the 253 the state Department of Education counts so far. Some may be waiting to see how it works – in other states, participation has increased in second years – others may be worried that they could end up owing the feds money when the calculations all work out.

A week into Oregon’s participation, the process seems to be working smoothly. And the Department of Education hasn’t been getting complaints from schools that staff members miss dealing with the forms.

“The Community Eligibility Program increases access to the meals program,” says Dupuis, “and it reduces the administrative burden at both the household and the school level.”

It provides students food and focus, and frees up time for the people running schools.

It seems to help everybody with their math.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 9/10/14

10 Sep

Oregon primaries now more exclusive than democratic

In a rare display of unity, the Oregon Democratic and Republican parties, along with most of the other pillars of Oregon politics, are opposed to Measure 90, and you can see why.

Measure 90 (the “top-two primary”) would let anybody vote for whomever she wanted in the May primary, and the top two finishers – who might be two Democrats, or two Republicans, or one of each, or two Prohibitionists (probably not in the metropolitan area) – would be alone on the November ballot. But everybody – major parties, minor parties, people who call you up at home at dinnertime to plead for money – wants to be on the November ballot, when the air is crisp, voters are paying attention and TV news actually notices there’s an election going on.

Fair enough.

On the other hand, we need to find some way of giving most Oregonians a voice in who represents them.

That’s not the same as letting them vote, which most Oregonians loyally do every November. But by then the game is mostly over, with most seats decided in the May primaries, which are limited to an exclusive and diminishing percentage of the state’s voters.

In 2012, Oregonians elected 16 state senators. In only two races were the November margins less than 18 percentage points; in those two the margin was more than nine points, or close to the 10-point gap that marks an official landslide.

In state House races, at most a quarter could be considered hard contested. Despite their moving devotion to the November elections, Oregon Democrats failed to put up November nominees for two Senate seats and nine House seats; Republicans passed on two Senate seats and four House seats.
In real terms, a supermajority of the seats in both chambers were decided by 8 p.m. on primary day – with most voters from most districts looking in from the outside.

Oregon is one of just a dozen states where voting in party primaries is limited to voters registered in that party, a proportion of Oregonians getting smaller and smaller. In 1960, as Jeff Mapes reported in The Oregonian earlier this year, 98 percent of Oregon voters were registered Democrats or Republicans; now the number is less than 70 percent, and dropping.

Younger Oregonians, it seems, may be willing to vote for the major parties, but would rather not be associated with them, and sometimes you can see their point.

If the major Oregon parties still get fainting spells at the idea of the top-two system that Washington and California have, which has produced more contested November elections – even if sometimes between members of the same party – there’s another way to avoid ignoring the rising tide of Oregon independents.

The parties could open up their own primaries. In a variety of systems, that’s the situation in most states, where party primaries are open either to all voters or at least to unaffiliated voters.

In Illinois, for example, primary voters can pick either party, telling their choice to a polling place judge who must repeat it “in a distinct tone of voice, sufficiently loud to be heard by all persons in the polling place.” Apparently in Chicago, you can vote in a Republican primary if you want to, but they want your name.

Which is still, of course, more inclusive than the Oregon system.

But Oregon parties have resisted opening their primaries as well, preferring to keep their own company. Once you let other people vote, you never know what might happen.

The most hospitable gesture recently was made by the Oregon Republican party, which for 2012 voted to keep its presidential and legislative primaries closed, but to let unaffiliated voters vote to help choose its nominees for secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general. The problem was that for two of those jobs, no Republican filed to run in the primary.

For independents, it was like being invited to a party and the host not showing up. Maybe Republicans hoped that if they let independents vote for those slots, one of them would run.
But disdain for Oregon independent voters is bipartisan. Both parties firmly shun input from independents, even though ignoring a steadily increasing hunk of the electorate produces a system that’s neither democratic nor republican. If we insist on staying with our current structure, we’ll have more and more elected positions effectively decided by a smaller and smaller percentage of voters.

This may not say much for the system’s legitimacy, but at least it will be simple.

And actual representative government can be such a hassle.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 9/7/14.