Paying to fix the VA: a tale full of sound and fury

With exuberant huzzahs, Democrats and Republicans are hailing a compromise reached Monday on a $17 billion veterans bill. It’s a demonstration of a new bipartisanship, they proclaim.

But the bipartisanship has brought forth a deeply flawed bill. That’s because it largely relies on emergency funding to cover the cost, rather than finding comparable savings elsewhere. Only $5 billion of the $17 billion is offset by other cuts.

That means $12 billion of the bill’s cost will be added to the obscene national debt, already over $17.5 trillion.

twain

Politico characterized the compromise as a result of “knock-down, drag-out arguing.”

But in the end, the public acknowledgement of tooth-and-nail fighting was so much sturm and drang. The Republicans are where they said they’d never go. They have agreed to calling a failure of the VA system that has been building for years an emergency and joined with the Democrats in not bothering to pay for most of the fix.

It was a masterful performance on both sides, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In earlier versions of the VA legislation, the Senate wanted to pay the bill’s entire tab through emergency legislation, which meant the tab would be added to the federal deficit.

But the Republican-controlled House bill called for the cost to be covered by spending cuts from somewhere else in the federal budget.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, tried to cast the House Republicans insisting on budget discipline as folks who wanted to take food out of the mouths of the needy, medical care away from the infirm and quality education away from American children.

“I hope very much we can avoid once again having a major debate about cutting food stamps, education, roads and bridges in order to fund the VA,” Sanders said.

Politico reported today that Senator Ben Nelson (D – Fla) said failure to reach a deal on VA reform would have meant “a huge dagger in the backs of veterans who so desperately need to have the confidence that the VA system is going to be straightened out.”

Now, instead, we have a bill that is a dagger is in the back of American taxpayers and their children who will be burdened with even more national debt.

Sure, sure. Spend away. No budget discipline needed here.

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In God we trust. But not in Senator Walsh.

Senator John Walsh (D-Montana) plagiarized about two-thirds of a 14 page thesis he submitted to receive his master’s degree at the prestigious U.S. Army War College, the New York Times has reported.

Senator John Walsh (D-Montana)

Senator John Walsh (D-Montana)

The War College’s handbook explicitly states that, “Directly quoting another author’s work without giving proper credit to the author,” is academic fraud and that, “Plagiarism is a serious form of cheating that carries serious consequences.”

Walsh was appointed to the seat early this year by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock after Democratic Sen. Max Baucus resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, setting Walsh up to defend the seat as an incumbent. Walsh is now the Democratic nominee in the race for a full, six-year term this fall against Republican Rep. Steve Daines.

The response of Walsh, his party and liberal supporters to this grave ethical breach that propelled Walsh forward in his career?

We’re behind him 100%. He’s our guy. His election is going to help us keep control of the senate. He’ll vote the way we want.

Walsh tried to minimize the seriousness of his actions. “My record will be defined by (service in) the National Guard, not by a few citations that were unintentionally left out in a term paper,” he said Sunday.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman, Justin Barasky, called the disclosures “smears.”

“John Walsh is a decorated war hero, and it’s disgusting that Steve Daines and Washington Republicans are going to try denigrate John’s distinguished service after multiple polls show him gaining,” Barasky said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who highlighted Walsh earning a masters’s degree from the War College when he welcomed him to the Senate in Feb. 2014, said Walsh “…has distinguished himself as leader in the Senate…”

Senator John Tester (D-Montana) argued that Walsh’s actions were a minor mistake and that voters should overlook a relatively minor mistake when weighed against his military service in Iraq and career serving his country.

As Tester put it, “He’s a soldier, not an academic.”

The willingness of Democrats to avert their eyes from Walsh’s transgression, to so blithely excuse it, is an obscenity. It’s the kind of behavior that’s behind Congress’ dismal ratings in the eyes of the public. Behavior like Walsh’s matters, even if he’s in your party and voting your way.

“It goes right to his strength — his military record and his integrity,” Montana State University political science professor, David Parker, said to ABC News. “He was willing to take somebody’s words and make them his own. That’s a question of honor.”

Is the Internet making us stupid? We’re reading faster, but remembering less.

Fifty percent of Oregonians don’t know Oregon has two U.S. senators.*

Maybe that’s because they read all their news online.

Think about how you read on the Internet.

You see an article, Are office politics destroying your career? and click on the link to read more. While you read, you are interrupted by an Instant Message from the boss that requires an immediate response. It only takes a minute to respond, but when you come back to the article a link to a Dilbert cartoon about work draws your attention. Then some high priority e-mails require attention. You take a few seconds to check on the latest news. Among the news items you see, Check out Emily Ratajkowski’s photos in the 2014 SI Swimsuit Issue, and take a look.

Where was I, you say to yourself.

Did you even get through the above paragraph uninterrupted?

People are reading more text than ever, but recalling less of it because they’re reading online, a Victoria Business School study on reading behavior has found.

The Impact of the Internet on Reading Behaviour, by Associate Professor Val Hooper and Master’s student Channa Herath, explores the online and offline reading behavior of individuals.

In general, online reading was found to have a negative impact on people’s cognition, with concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates when engaging with online material all much lower, principally because people are multitasking and scanning when reading online, not focusing.

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“Multitasking when reading online was common, with activities such as reading emails, checking news, exploring hyperlinks and viewing video clips providing distractions,”says Dr Hooper.

Many of the study respondents verified the results, saying they were more likely to remember material they had read offline, which was also why they frequently printed material they really wanted to read closely.

Makes you wonder whether digital readers really absorb all the political messages candidates spend so much money on.

For that matter, I wonder how many people reading this online article will finish or remember it.

*2013 Oregon Values & Beliefs Survey. Executed by DHM Research and PolicyInteractive Research; Sponsored by Oregon Health & Science University, The Oregon Community Foundation, Oregon Public Broadcasting and Oregon State University.

Things fall apart

I was enjoying a coffee and pastry at a Starbucks this morning when a man sitting next to me checking his smartphone and reading the paper turned and said, “It looks like the rebels or the Russians might have shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane carrying 300 people. Do you get the feeling everything is just unraveling?”

Yes.

A plan to transport three busloads of Central American families through San Diego for processing at the Murrieta Border Patrol station took an unexpected turn when scores of protesters blocked the buses from entering.

A plan to transport three busloads of Central American families through San Diego for processing at the Murrieta Border Patrol station took an unexpected turn when scores of protesters blocked the buses from entering.

Tens of thousands of children of all ages, most unaccompanied by adults, are flowing across the U.S. Southwest border. Frustration and anger is bubbling up all over the country. Some people are arguing that President Obama has encouraged the stream of immigrants and that strong steps need to be taken to control the U.S. border and send the immigrants home. Others argue the immigrants need to be treated with compassion and welcomed to America with open arms in the spirit of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Whichever side you are on, and just about everybody seems to have taken sides, just 28% of the public approves of the way President Obama is handling the surge of children from Central America, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center or the People & the Press.

Meanwhile, violence is spreading in Gaza and Israel after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank set off a new cycle of violence in the region.

While Hamas militants and Israel exchange rocket fire, stories multiply of civilian deaths, including a story today reporting that four boys, ages 9 to 11, were killed on a beach west of Gaza City.

A boy on a Gaza beach killed in an Israeli attack is carried away.

A boy on a Gaza beach killed in an Israeli attack is carried away.

Of course, the only reason similar horrifying stories of civilian killings by the Hamas militants haven’t surfaced in Israel is because of its effective anti-rocket defenses.

In Ukraine, tension continues as Russia threatens the country, pro-Russian militants fight the government’s forces and, as noted earlier, rumors swirl that a Malaysian Airlines plane with 295 on board, including some Americans, that crashed in Ukraine near the Russian border was deliberately shot down. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in Kiev asserted that the “the airplane was shot down by the Russian Buk missile system.”

wreckage of Malaysia Airlines plane crash in Ukraine

wreckage of Malaysia Airlines plane crash in Ukraine

In Egypt, after a popular uprising resulted in the first democratically-elected Islamic president in Egypt’s history, forces led by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the fledgling president and instigated an unforgiving campaign of retaliation against the Muslim Brotherhood and regime critics that continues to this day.

In Syria, after Obama insisted that use of chemical weapons by the the Assad regime would be “a red line for us,” Obama dithered and the civil war escalated, creating a country scarred with destruction and pushing out hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring counries.

obama-redlinespeech821

In Afghanistan, scene of what Obama called “the good war” that needed to be fought, chaos has ensued since the U.S. precipitously withdrew its troops.

In Iraq, after thousands of American soldiers gave their lives in an effort to create a sustainable peace, the U.S.-backed Shia-led government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki initiated a cleansing of the Sunni minority. Now we have a violent struggle going on in Iraq with mostly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

A file image uploaded on June 14, 2014 on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executing dozens of captured Iraqi security forces members at an unknown location in the Salaheddin province (AFP Photo / HO)

A file image uploaded on June 14, 2014 on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executing dozens of captured Iraqi security forces members at an unknown location in the Salaheddin province (AFP Photo / HO)

Meanwhile, despite a roaring stock market, economic insecurity reigns. Just 19% of those surveyed by Pew say economic conditions in the U.S. are excellent or good while 81% rate conditions as only fair or poor. About six-in-ten (62%) still say jobs are difficult to find locally.

Detroit Area Economy Worsens As Big Three Automakers Face Dire Crisis

Obama’s rating for handling the economy also has stayed negative, with 56% disapproving of the way Obama is handling the economy, according to the Pew survey. In fact, Obama’s job rating on the economy has been around 40% for most of the past five years.

Meanwhile, Obama, “a restless president weary of the obligations of the White House,” as the New York Times puts it, jets around the world for fundraisers and dinners with celebrities and wealthy supporters, taking as many breaks as he can for golf.

Barack Obama

Unravelling? You bet.

Replenishing the Highway Trust Fund: more budget shenanigans

borrowing-spendingescher-hands

It’s not just a burst of illegal immigration and a screwed up Veterans Administration that motivates Congress to try budget slight-of-hand. Rebuilding a depleted Highway Trust Fund through dubious manipulations is being tried, too.

Facing depleted resources in the Highway Trust Fund that could hold up road and bridge construction across the country, and the jobs that would come with it, House Republicans and the Obama Administration are backing a bill that would inject up to $11 billion into the Fund by, among other things, making changes to corporate’ pension contributions.

So-called “pension smoothing” would allow companies to temporarily contribute less to their employees’ pension plans.

The theory behind this maneuver is that because pension contributions are tax-deductible, companies will pay higher federal taxes over the ten-year scoring period used by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) if they put less money into their pension plans.

Senator Mr. Wyden (D – OR), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, already sees this as an opportunity to cleave off some of that new revenue. He’s proposing to use about $2.7 billion of the increased tax collections during that 10-year period to help out retired coal miners, who have underfunded pension and health benefits programs.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)

Wyden has expressed concern in the past about the potential burden on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation from underfunded multi-employer pension plans, in which multiple employers in the same industry contribute to a single pension fund. Of particular concern are multi-employer plans established through union contracts in contracting industries, such as coal mining. Changes in the coal industry has meant fewer employers paying into pension funds on behalf of fewer employees.

But Congress’s “solution” to the Highway Trust Fund’s shortfall is a sham because the revenues that are supposedly increased because of the pension smoothing change would be largely offset in the years after the 10-year scoring period. That’s because corporations will pay less in taxes in years after the 10 year period. In other words, no real savings are realized in the long run. But because those reduced taxes wouldn’t happen until after 10 years, they don’t count in Congress’s method for calculating budget balance.

Wyden, of all people, ought to know that the whole method of producing revenue he wants to use to bulk up the coal miners’  underfunded pension plans is bogus. But why let reality intrude.

So bizarre.

Making it even more bizarre, Republicans vehemently opposed this very same “pension smoothing” policy back in March 2014 when the Democrats proposed using it to pay for the renewal of unemployment benefits.

“When they were seeking a spending offset to the five-month extension of unemployment insurance, Democrats were happy to use a budget gimmick,” the New Republic reported. “They would have preferred to use deficit spending, but a gimmick was the next best thing. If Republicans required a spending offset, better a fake one than one that cuts spending on the social safety net or other government programs.”

You have to watch them all like a hawk, don’t you.

“Just put in on my tab.” Forget about budget discipline in D.C.

 

Forget about budget discipline in D.C. It’s an emergency.

The Obama administration was caught unprepared by the onslaught of children coming across the southern border and illegally entering the U.S., so President Obama quickly pasted together a proposed response that would cost $3.7 billion.

Not satisfied to just deal with the immigration problems, Obama tacked on a request for $615 million for emergency wildfire suppression activities for FY 2014, and a new discretionary cap adjustment for wildfire suppression operations starting in FY 2015.

But he doesn’t want to pay for any of it. He’s fine with it being added to the already obscene national debt, already over $17.5 trillion.

National-Debt-Cartoon

Obama dismisses Republicans calling for the money to be offset by spending cuts to other programs.

Don’t you understand? This is an emergency, the White House says, ignoring that it’s own policies, in tandem with cynical politicians and law-breaking businesses, have been aggravating the illegal immigration problem for quite some time.

The Senate wants to jump on the “It’s an emergency” bandwagon with new Veterans Administration legislation, too.

In response to high publicity problems at VA hospitals, the Democrat-controlled Senate has passed legislation to address the problems. Part of the bill would provide funding for the VA to contract with private medical centers to help meet demand.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has warned that the contracting section would lead to an explosive growth in entitlement spending, which is already out of hand. And the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the contracting provision alone would increase federal spending by about $35 billion over the next 10 years.

“We need to resist the temptation to create more entitlements and more entitlements, which is one of the reasons we are heading recklessly toward fiscal crisis,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who voted against the bill.

The Senate wants to pay the bill’s entire tab through emergency legislation, which means the tab would be added to the federal deficit.

But the bill approved by the Republican-controlled House would require that the cost be covered by spending cuts from somewhere else in the federal budget.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has tried to cast the House Republicans as folks who want to take food out of the mouths of the needy, medical care away from the infirm and quality education away from American children.

“I hope very much that the House will agree with the Senate that we are in an emergency and that [it] is absolutely imperative we move as quickly as possible” to authorize funding, Sanders said. “I hope very much we can avoid once again having a major debate about cutting food stamps, education, roads and bridges in order to fund the VA.”

Sure, sure. Spend away. No budget discipline needed here.

As Will Rogers said, “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when a baby gets hold of a hammer.”

Get Smart – It’s time to tighten the screws on for-profit schools

Too many for-profit schools have no good reason to exist and lots of reasons not to.

Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain of schools with about 72,000 students, took in $1.4 billion in federal student loans and grants last year, almost 90 percent of its total revenue. The money kept afloat the 107 campuses of Corinthian’s schools across the country, operated under the names Heald, Everest and WyoTech.

corinthiancolleges

But now the entire system is collapsing under the weight of lawsuits and government action alleging fraud, excessive student debt, low completion rates, lies about student success in finding employment in their fields, and other malfeasance.

For-profit schools in the United States have become a largely government program, sucking up federal loans and grants, costing taxpayers billions and failing to deliver for students. The government should be coming down hard on a network that delivers so little value for all the federal money pouring into it.

But Congress, particularly heavily lobbied Republicans swamped in campaign contributions from the for-profit colleges industry, refuses to rein in the abuse.

Minnesota Republican Rep. John Klein tops the list of members receiving contributions from the for-profit schools industry, taking in $117,650 in the 2014 cycle. Klein just happens to be Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Republican Rep. John Klein is a big beneficiary of contributions from the for-profit schools industry

Republican Rep. John Klein is a big beneficiary of contributions from the for-profit schools industry

This isn’t to say the Democrats are all on the side of the angels. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, pulled in $11,100 from for-profit schools and Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, collected $21,70 in the 2014 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A typical concern raised by Democrats is that cracking down on the for-profit schools will hurt minorities, a cynical explanation given that minorities tend to be the ones hit the worst by for-profit schools’ abuse.

Prominent companies heavily invested in for-profit colleges include ITT Technical Institute, DeVry, Kaplan, Apollo Group / University of Phoenix, Career Education Corp. (CEC), Education Management Corp. (EDMC), and Globe University.

Just in the first three months of 2014, for-profit education companies spent at least $1.9 million on lobbying expenses, according to an Inside Higher Ed analysis. Apollo Education Group, the Association for Private Sector Colleges and Universities, Bridgepoint Education, Herzing University and Corinthian Colleges (which operates under the school names Everest, Heald, and Wyotech) were among the biggest spenders.

The Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the trade group representing for-profit schools, argues on its Higher Education For All website, that “all students should be afforded the opportunity to pursue a postsecondary education regardless of their location, socioeconomic status or career choice… Government should not be in the business of restricting individual’s opportunities…”

Agreed, but that doesn’t mean the government, and taxpayers, should be subsidizing a failing system.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, more than 600,000 federal student loan borrowers who entered repayment in 2010 defaulted on their loans by 2012. The largest share of these students – 46 percent –attended for-profit colleges, even though they enrolled just 13 percent of students nationally.

Apollo Group says it’s “Playing a vital role in educating the world”, but in 2013, the Washington Post reported that the University of Phoenix had an overall graduation rate — meaning first-time undergraduates who get a degree in six years — of about 16 percent, and the graduation rate for students in online programs was just one-fourth of that.

phoenix-university

Particularly hard hit are veterans. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, over the past five years, the University of Phoenix campus in San Diego reaped $95 million in post 9/11 GI Bill money, more than the entire University of California system. Meanwhile, the overall graduation rate at the San Diego campus is less than 15 percent and more than 25 percent of students default on their loans within three years of leaving school.

The for-profit college industry has been battling for years to block regulations that could shut off federal dollars flowing to programs that too often leave graduates and drop-outs with excessive debt and no good-paying job.

On Feb. 26, 2014, when Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director, Richard Cordray, filed a lawsuit against for-profit chain ITT Educational Services for misleading students, he cited the failure of for-profit schools to serve their students well.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, he said, for bachelor’s degree students starting a four-year program in 2004, just 28 percent of students attending for-profit institutions graduated within six years. This was half the rate for students at four-year public institutions.

“This is truly an American tragedy,” said Cordray, in announcing the suit against ITT. “Students may think they are climbing a ladder to success when instead they are getting knocked down, crushed by student debt that does not help them gain a better job or a better life.”

It’s time for Congress to act.