Rookie still trying to shine light on campaigns

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, is a rookie, and she admits she made some rookie mistakes.

During this past legislative session, her self-described rookie-ness got in her way as she tried to pass a bill that would have required legislative and statewide candidates to file campaign finance reports online in a searchable database. It failed in the House, 48-33, with 19 not voting, and never made it to the Senate.

Arkansas is one of 17 states where legislators have the option of electronically filing those reports, or to file by paper. At least 31 states require electronic reports.

Why does it matter? Filing reports by paper makes it harder for voters to follow the money trail. They can see the reports online at the secretary of state’s website,, but only in document form. They can’t do a search to learn who is donating to more than one candidate, and how much.

True, it’s possible to print out every legislative report and wade through the information. But that would take an enormous amount of time that few people have – not we in the media who also must cover other news, and certainly not the average Joe citizen.

That information is important – certainly more important than what’s on candidates’ websites. The type of donors who give to multiple candidates are doing so because they want something. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something.

I could be naive, but I think most elected officials at the Capitol imperfectly are trying to do mostly the right thing most of the time – just like the rest of us when we’re put into gray-area situations with conflicting influences. But no matter how noble they are, they can’t ignore the people whose donations made it possible for them to be elected.

Because campaigning is a for-profit enterprise, money will flow to political candidates like water flows downhill. The most effective reform is to shine as much light as possible on the process. That way, voters can determine for themselves which elected officials are navigating an imperfect system appropriately, and which ones are being overly influenced by donors.

Back to the rookie. Della Rosa said one of the mistakes she made this past legislative session was idealistically focusing only on how the system would benefit the public when lobbying her fellow legislators, which is not the best way to change someone’s personal behavior. If she’s re-elected in 2016, she’ll push a complete redo of the system that will make campaigning easier for them.

Filing campaign finance reports is a huge pain in the neck. It’s very easy to make an honest mistake, and then an elected official finds his or her name in a headline alongside the words “ethics violation.” The current electronic filing system is kind of glitchy. So Della Rosa is promising an e-filing system that will be easier to navigate and will prompt and warn candidates to keep them out of undeserved trouble.

Implementation costs have averaged $500,000 to $2 million per state, but perhaps Arkansas could purchase a system already used elsewhere. Yes, that’s an expense, but it would be worth it to be able to follow the money.

Della Rosa outlined her proposal Nov. 19 before a legislative subcommittee that certainly seemed ready to embrace it. At least, no one was willing to speak publicly against more transparency. Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, another rookie legislator, was particularly ready to march alongside her.

One of the objections legislators raised earlier this year was that some candidates live in areas without adequate broadband internet access. So she brought along Shelby Johnson, director of the Arkansas Geographic Information Systems Office, who said the entire state is covered by satellite internet service and that a large part of it is covered by other services, particularly wireless. In other words, no one must travel that far to find internet service capable of uploading a simple document.

By 2017, another two years will have passed where some legislators who weren’t comfortable with the internet will become more so, or will be replaced by someone who is. No doubt some legislative opponents don’t particularly want their campaign donors known, but fear of change is often the biggest hurdle any salesperson must overcome. If Della Rosa is still in office, she’ll be able to make an offer that will be hard to refuse – a system that benefits both voters and candidates.

A day of thanks

It would have been easy on Oct. 3, 1863, for President Lincoln – or anyone else – not to be thankful. The nation (or nations, depending on one’s perspective) was still mired in a terrible Civil War, and while the Union had enjoyed victories that summer in Gettysburg and Vicksburg, much bloody fighting remained. Earlier that year, Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, had been injured in a carriage “accident” caused by an assailant sabotaging the driver’s seat. Their beloved son, Willie, had died the previous year at age 11.

It was in that context that Lincoln presented a proclamation written by his secretary of state, William Seward, declaring the fourth Thursday of November “a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

The proclamation – really a prayer – is a remarkable look-on-the-bright-side document. Written by Secretary of State William Seward, it describes a bountiful harvest, an expansion of American territory, and a growing population. It doesn’t ignore the horrors of the Civil War. But it does point out that Union forces had enjoyed success on the battlefield, that the United States was at peace with foreign nations, and that “order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict.”

This was not the first time Americans had set aside a day to give thanks. Eighty-four years earlier, the year the Constitution was ratified, President Washington had declared that Nov. 26, 1789, would be such a day. In the years following, states had set aside their own days of thanksgiving, but Lincoln’s proclamation made the practice national and, as it turned out, permanent

As bad as things sometimes have been lately, they have not been as bad as they were in the 1860s. And so, in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, let’s consider the blessings of life in 2015.

The American democratic experiment remains flawed but vibrant. The president and Congress remain unable to accomplish too much too fast, just as the system was designed. Almost two dozen candidates from a variety of backgrounds have offered themselves as presidential candidates in our competitive two-party system. Ultimately, they will gain power by ballots, not bullets.

Meanwhile, Americans remain personally free most of the time. With relatively few exceptions, they can speak and worship how they choose without fear, unlike in some parts of the world. Through honest, hard work, a person can rise from the humblest of circumstances to do great things, as Lincoln did.

While many Americans continue to struggle to make a living, the Great Recession has ended. The national unemployment rate has dropped to 5 percent, half what it was six years ago, and the economy is stable enough that the Federal Reserve is expected to increase interest rates soon.

By many quality-of-life measurements, it’s better to live in America in the 21st century than it has been to be almost anywhere else in world history. Americans who earn $32,000 a year may not feel like they are part of the “1 percent,” but globally they are, according to an interactive feature,, operated by CARE. Life expectancy has reached 78.8 years, the highest ever recorded in this country. For most of us, food will be plentiful this Thanksgiving, and when we turn on the faucet, clean water will appear. A free public education remains available for almost every American child. Because of recent technological advancements, it’s possible to connect with friends and strangers thousands of miles away, and new advancements promise safer driverless cars and medical treatments and cures in the not-too-distant future.

It’s no wonder that so many – immigrants and refugees alike – try so hard to reach these shores.

In Arkansas, the unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, slightly above the national average. The state budget runs a surplus as usual. The state’s 600,000 acres of lakes, 10,000 miles of streams, and 17.2 million acres of forests attract residents and visitors alike. Just as “harmony has prevailed everywhere” in Lincoln’s day, most Arkansans are nice most of the time today.

Times have changed since 1863, but this much has not: Our ability to choose what we think about this time of year. We have 364 days to dwell on our problems. The fourth Thursday of November is a day for giving thanks, again.

A chance for a second chance

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

A graduation ceremony for rehabilitating inmates may not be the ideal place to sell a Subaru, but that’s only one of two reasons Robert Long is attending.

“I’m doing a little prospecting here,” he said. “I know there’s people from all different walks of life. I was just at work. I wanted to be able to make it up here to see some of the guys that I was locked up with and let them see that I’m doing good, kinda spread that joy and that hope.

“So I brought a new 2016 Legacy with me, too, so everyone can look at it because it’s a beautiful car, and it attracts a lot of attention.”

Long was released from Arkansas Community Correction custody Sept. 28. Before that, he completed 240 hours of classes offered by The Exodus Project ( on the campus of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock.

Founded by Paul Chapman and ABC President Dr. Fitz Hill, the ministry began seven-and-a-half years ago, but its current form took shape in February. It focuses on ethics and character based on biblical teachings, career development, and helping inmates recover and build a long-term plan for their lives. Participants are encouraged to ask themselves difficult questions in order to change their mindsets.

Fifteen begin each class, and 100 are expected to complete the program this year. Most participants are recovering addicts.

The theme of the ceremony Nov. 6 was “Out for Life.” Graduates wearing brown prison uniforms exchanged emotional hugs with a line of instructors and then received their diplomas from Gov. Asa Hutchinson – who as a former U.S. attorney once worked to put people in jail.

Arkansas prisons are so overcrowded that the state’s county jails can’t hold the excess, and so now the state is sending inmates to Texas. Last year, policymakers considered building a $100 million prison that immediately would have been filled to capacity – in large part by returning inmates. Arkansas releases 10,000 inmates every year – in the past, with nothing but a bus ticket and $100 – and the recidivism rate is more than 40 percent.

We can’t keep building $100 million prisons or relying on Texas. With prodding by Hutchinson, the Legislature this year funded a transitional facility to help 500 inmates re-enter society and stay out of jail, but that’s not enough. This summer, Hutchinson hosted a summit to inspire churches and other faith-based groups to do more to help inmates return to society but not to their old ways of life.

That’s what The Exodus Project is hopefully doing for Robert Long. Describing himself as once a “hopeless drug addict,” he completed the program and then moved into the ministry’s transitional home in Little Rock. At Subaru of Little Rock, he said he sold 11 units in his first month and earned $2,000 in commission on a recent Saturday. He brought promotional material in addition to the car to the graduation ceremony.

Beneath his short-sleeve blue dealership shirt is an impressive physique. He goes to the gym every morning before work to give him the high he’s sought from drugs in his past. I tell him he doesn’t look like a drug addict.

“A lot of people say that about me, you know, and I think that’s been one of the things that’s got me into trouble, too,” he said. “When you look at me in the face, you don’t really know what you’re dealing with. I can put up a pretty good facade even when I’m in the midst of my addiction. But the truth of the matter is I have transformed. You’re looking at a different man.”

Long’s job at the dealership will be one of the keys to his success. The Exodus Project is a Christian ministry, but co-founder Chapman said church involvement and education aren’t enough. The unemployment rate for ex-offenders is 47 percent. That’s a lot of idle hands.

“If we don’t move the needle on full-time employment, everything else (will) struggle to make a true difference,” Chapman said.

At the graduation, Hutchinson asked employers to wait later in the employment process before asking job applicants the disqualifying “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” question. By delaying that question, someone like Robert Long won’t be eliminated before he has an opportunity to interview and impress.

“Let’s get beyond the checking of the box,” Hutchinson said. “Let’s give someone a chance to have a second chance.”

Goals, not grades focus at Warren

Jackson Denton and Breize Fellows advance at their own pace based on their mastery of particular skills – not days sitting in class.
Jackson Denton and Breize Fellows advance at their own pace based on their mastery of particular skills – not days sitting in class.
By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

WARREN – Sutton Nelson is the type of high-achieving student who might be unchallenged in a traditional learning environment. The Warren School District is not traditional.

There, advancement is based on individual pathways and defined goals rather than the number of days spent sitting at a desk. Students advance through learning levels, not grades. Class time is often spent in small groups. All the students have a digital device, so they work side by side but often on different skills.

In that standards-based environment, students learn at their own pace. As a level 2 student – a first-grader – Nelson quickly advanced along her pathways, mastered the material, moved into level 3 and finished it. Now she’s a year ahead of schedule in level 7.

“It kind of like helped me,” she said. “‘Oh, I have more goals. I’m going to try to get this done and get good at this and know what I’m doing.’”

Schools traditionally measure student success based on averages, which means students can excel in some areas and struggle in others and still leave with a “A” or “B” – and with gaps in their knowledge. In Warren, students must demonstrate mastery of each skill before they advance to the next. While there are scheduled classroom tests, students often tell the teacher when they are ready to assess individually. Instead of receiving letter grades on that assessment, they receive scores of 1-4, with “3” indicating mastery and “4” representing exceptional understanding.

When they’ve reached a 3, they move to the next skill – but not before then. Or, they might move on and then return to that skill later. For example, a student stuck on fractions might proceed to decimals, which can help them better understand fractions.

The model enables students to advance as quickly as their skills and ambition will take them. When Nelson completes her pathways in high school, she can further her education by taking college or career-oriented classes while still in Warren. At age 18, she might walk across the stage with her friends and receive an associate’s degree.

Other students, meanwhile, can take the time they need to master each skill, rather than fall behind and never catch up because they never understood something important covered in week 3. If a student ends a year with pathways left to complete, they don’t flunk the entire year. Instead they can pick up that one skill after the school year ends or at the beginning of the next while remaining with their classmates.

As Regina Scroggins, principal at the elementary level Brunson New Vision Charter School, explained, “We no longer just look at test scores because you know, if you give a student an F, that’s it? Are they done forever? An F, they failed, they leave feeling stupid or like they’re never going to be successful. But this way with our personalized learning, they have another chance.”

Educators at Warren say this model gives students ownership of their education. Students are asking teachers if they can work on their goals during lunchtime, holidays and summer vacations.

It’s also helped parents become more involved. Report cards indicate mastery of individual skills rather than average scores by subject. So instead of seeing their child earned a “B” in math – probably good enough, right? – they know exactly what their children have and haven’t learned.

The transition has been “four years of rocky road,” said Carla Wardlaw, assistant superintendent. Among those rocks: The elementary-level East Side New Vision Charter School scored an “F” on the state’s recently created, test-based school report card, while Warren Middle School scored a “D.” (Warren’s two other schools scored a “B.”) East Side Principal Sara Weaver said Warren with its new teaching methods just doesn’t fit into the state’s box. Still, that “F” was a disappointment and perhaps an indication that the road may stay rocky a while longer.

The model undoubtedly is more work for the teachers. Level 3 teacher Elizabeth McKinney must plan the entire year from the beginning because her East Side students move at different speeds, and then she must instruct students individually rather than managing one big group. Still, she believes in the model.

“We started this because we felt like it was best for kids to learn at their own pace and in their own way, and so I’m all for it,” she said. “And I’ve told Miss Sara that if we ever went back to doing it the other way, I would revolt.”

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

For hire: the next president

Elections ahead
By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

In a representative democracy like ours, voters should see themselves as human resources directors, not vote-at-home reality TV show viewers.

So for this column, let’s set aside televised presidential debate performances and act like we’re hiring someone for a job, which we are. Presidents don’t actually debate once they’re in office, anyway. Let’s also set aside each candidate’s ideology, personality, perceived character, and ability to inspire. Those are important, but we’ll get to those later in the hiring process. Finally, let’s set aside our own emotions and preconceived notions about the candidates and their parties. Instead, we’re sifting through resumes and looking at the candidates’ qualifications. Those ought to count for something, right?

We all know Hillary Clinton will be the Democrats’ nominee. She was a very influential first lady who played an important role in her husband’s presidential administration. She then served as a U.S. senator and then secretary of state. Based on those experiences, she’s qualified to make the second round.

If there’s a job that best prepares a person to be president, it would be governor of a large state. On the Republican side, the most qualified candidate is Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Kasich is one of two candidates in the race who has served as both a governor and a member of Congress. He was chairman of the House Budget Committee during the only time period in recent memory when Congress actually balanced the budget. As governor of Ohio, he helped turn a shortfall into a surplus.

Kasich’s leadership of Ohio is also important because it’s a diverse state that’s neither red nor blue, which is why it’s one of the few states that matter anymore in the Electoral College, and why no Republican has ever been elected without winning it. Unfortunately, Kasich was on the end of the debate stage Tuesday, not the middle with the frontrunners, and he did not do well.

The debate format also has not been kind to the other governor on the main stage Tuesday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But because we’re acting like human resources directors and not reality TV show-watchers, we’re not so worried about that. Instead, we’re looking at Bush’s resume, which says he was a two-term governor of one of the nation’s most populous states. Florida is also a diverse state with, like America, a large Hispanic population. As governor, Bush once had to respond to four hurricanes in 44 days, the kind of crisis presidents face.

Three other governors will be on Arkansas voters’ ballots come March 1: the state’s own Mike Huckabee, who spent a decade in office; Gov. Chris Christie, who as a Republican governor of a blue state must work with Democrats to get anything done; and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who has served in Congress and then served two terms as governor of Louisiana, where he responded as an executive to both Hurricane Gustav and the BP oil spill.

On the Republican side, five senators will be on the ballot: Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

I’m placing experience in the Senate below experience as governor. While senators deal with national issues, the buck does not stop with them. They are not required to administer much, and with the way Congress works these days, they don’t have to accomplish much, either. Rubio, Cruz and Paul all are eloquent spokesmen for their points of view, but, like then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, they all are serving their first terms in the Senate. Graham, who is in his third term after previously serving in the House of Representatives, is by far the most qualified, but he wasn’t even invited to this last set of debates because of his low poll numbers.

That leaves the three outsiders: Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, all of whom are accomplished individuals even though they have no experience in holding elected office. As human resources directors, we voters might or might not decide to go with our guts and bring in one of these three from the outside to shake things up.

But that should not become a habit. Ideology, personality, perceived character, and ability to inspire – all of those matter a lot. But experience and qualifications shouldn’t be irrelevant. As democracy’s human resources directors, we ought to at least glance at the candidates’ resumes before hiring them for the job.

Senate race not yet unpredictable

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Politics in Arkansas is becoming increasingly predictable: In statewide races and in many legislative ones, bet on the candidates with an “R” beside their names. The past week or so, things became, if not unpredictable, then at least mildly interesting in the U.S. Senate race.

On Nov. 4., the latest Arkansas Poll sponsored by the University of Arkansas’ Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society revealed these numbers about U.S. Sen. John Boozman: 38 percent of respondents approved of his job performance, 18 percent disapproved, and 44 percent had no opinion or refused to answer the question.

It was the first and the last numbers that raised some eyebrows – particularly the last. That 38 percent approval rating is a little low. More striking is the fact that Boozman has been in the Senate for five years and in office for 14, and yet 44 percent of respondents don’t have much of an opinion about him. Arkansas’ other senator, Tom Cotton, who won his first race in 2012, had a 45-27 approval rating with 29 percent not knowing or refusing to answer.

The next day, published a story saying national Republican Party leaders are becoming concerned that Boozman raised less money in the last quarter than did his 38-year-old Democratic challenger, former U.S. attorney Conner Eldridge.

Of course the Eldridge campaign tried to make hay with these two stories. Meanwhile, the day of the story, I was called at home by an automated telephone survey asking about a hypothetical matchup between Boozman and former Lt. Governor Bill Halter, who forced Sen. Blanche Lincoln into a runoff in the 2010 Senate race. Halter did not respond to a request for an interview and it’s unclear who sponsored the survey, but someone seemed to be testing a Halter candidacy. For whatever reason, he’s not running.

Then on Nov. 9, the last day of the filing period, businessman Curtis Coleman filed to run against Boozman in the Republican Party primary. Coleman said he had been encouraged by supporters to run, and when he challenged them late last week to raise enough money to cover his filing fee before the end of the weekend, they responded by donating more than $20,000. Coleman said the conservative but low-key Boozman isn’t conservative enough and is not enough of a fighter.

Libertarian Frank Gilbert, who won 2 percent of the vote running for governor in 2014, also will be on the ballot.

All of this is worth a column, but is it enough for Boozman to be worried? Probably not any more than any incumbent with challengers should be.

This will be Coleman’s third statewide race. In 2010, he won 5 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate primary won by Boozman without a runoff. In 2014, Coleman won 27 percent in the Republican primary running for governor against now-Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Coleman said he now has statewide name identification and a grassroots network, but so does Boozman, and he’s the incumbent.

The Democrats’ Eldridge is an attractive young candidate with a crime-fighting resume, family connections, and personal wealth, but he has a “D” by his name and was appointed to his post by President Obama. Republicans will make a huge deal of that.

As for those 38-18-44 numbers, Boozman can work with those. Twice as many like him as don’t, and he will have millions of dollars to court that 44 percent who don’t have much of an opinion about him. When only “very likely” voters are counted, his support increases to 44 percent. (Cotton’s increases to 51 percent.) At this point three years ago, Sen. Mark Pryor’s numbers in the Arkansas Poll were much worse: 33-41 approval-disapproval, with 26 percent having no opinion or not answering. He lost to Cotton.

Meanwhile, Democrats are fielding candidates in only one of the state’s four U.S. House races. In the 2nd District, former Little Rock School Board member Dianne Curry filed Monday to run against incumbent U.S. Rep. French Hill, a Republican. Hill also faces a primary opponent, Brock Olree, and a Libertarian challenger, Chris Hayes.

So things will be mildly interesting but still predictable: Arkansas’ congressional delegation in 2017 probably will look exactly as it does now. Then again, that’s a prediction, not a prophecy. There’s still an election to be had.

Do needy students merit more scholarships?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Let’s jump straight into the facts. According to a new report, “Closing the Gap,” by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, 94 percent of Arkansas’ state-funded college scholarships are based solely on merit – ACT scores, etc. – while 6 percent also are based on need. Only two states and the District of Columbia are weighted more toward merit. The national average, on the other hand, is 75 percent need-based.

The fact that Arkansas is doing things differently than the rest of the nation should matter, considering it has the second lowest percentage of residents with a college degree. (Thank goodness for West Virginia!) About 14 percent of us have a bachelor’s degree, while 7 percent of us also have a master’s degree or higher. Another 7 percent have an associate’s degree.

The 94-6 percent ratio is the result of the growth of Academic Challenge Scholarships awards, which are largely funded through the lottery and are entirely merit based. In the past, the scholarships went to students who scored a 19 on the ACT or earned a 2.5 grade point average in high school. A law passed this year by the Legislature makes the 19 on the ACT the only requirement, which may have been a mistake because grade point average supposedly is a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores.

The problem with basing scholarships on merit alone is that it makes them harder to attain for students who grew up in tougher circumstances with fewer advantages. Those are the very students who need the money more – as long as they can put it to good use.

Let’s also be blunt about what’s really happening. People of all income levels buy lottery tickets, of course, but a certain percentage of those ticket-buyers are poor people looking for a little hope. That’s their choice, but state resources are encouraging them to “invest” in this pipe dream. Then their money pays for scholarships for bankers’ kids. I’ve got a banker friend who’s outraged by this.

The report says 25 percent of Arkansas scholarships should have a need-based component. If that’s the case, then what should those scholarships pay for?

According to the report, more than half of Arkansans – 57 percent, actually – have a high school diploma or less.

Of course, that describes a lot of smart, successful people. But moving forward, most of the good jobs of the future will require something more, though not necessarily a bachelor’s degree or even an associate’s degree. The report says that, by 2020, Arkansas needs to produce an additional 99,000 people with career and technical certificates, which often can be earned fairly quickly and at low cost to fill existing workforce needs. Arkansas actually will need 786 fewer people with master’s degrees than it has now, the report estimates.

The Academic Challenge Scholarship goes to students attending college, not earning a technical certificate, which is the better choice for many people. And it’s really targeted toward 18-year-old high school graduates, rather than adults who need to retool their skills to be more employable.

So however the state rebalances its state-funded scholarships so that they’re based more on need, it should remember that what people really need is the ability to earn a good-paying job, and preferably in the near future.


If you have 30 minutes when you’re washing the dishes or something, listen to Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s maiden speech on the U.S. Senate floor.

Sasse waited a year after being elected to make his first speech, which once was a Senate tradition. When he finally spoke, it was a bold call to action. He said the Senate is failing to address the nation’s big issues, allowing the executive branch to take too much power. Senators from opposite parties are privately friendly, even affectionate. But when the cameras roll, they talk in shallow sound bytes using politi-speech that sounds nothing like the way real Americans talk. The Senate doesn’t need less debating, he said. It needs actual debating about important issues in a respectful manner. Senators are elected to six-year terms so they can think long-term in what once was called the world’s greatest deliberative body. If they’re not going to fulfill their role, he asked, does the United States even need a Senate at all?

Good stuff. Last I checked, it had 3,837 views on YouTube. Here it is.

Budget deal puts off tough talk

Uncle Sam hangs on for webBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The good news regarding last week’s budget deal is that Congress didn’t wait until the last minute to work in a somewhat bipartisan fashion to avoid a fiscal crisis, and the results were not terrible.

You know there’s a “bad news” element to this, right?

Here’s what happened. The federal government was about to reach the debt ceiling, which is the statutory limit for how big the national debt is allowed to become. Congress reaches the ceiling every year or two, often squabbles about it, and then raises it. Outgoing Speaker John Boehner was determined to “clean out the barn” before new Speaker Paul Ryan took his place. So Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, a two-year budget deal that took the debt ceiling off the table until March 2017 – after the elections are over and everyone has been sworn into their new terms.

The act provides $80 billion in sequester relief over two years – meaning it increased spending. The sequester was a creation of the Budget Control Act of 2011, back when the government was adding $1 trillion in debt every year. (This year, thanks in large part to a better economy, it will be about half that.) Basically, if Congress didn’t come up with a plan to reduce those deficits on its own, spending automatically would be cut for the military and for domestic programs by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The idea was to make the provision unpleasant enough that Congress would do its job and create a better process. It didn’t.

The sequester has been the law of the land ever since. On the plus side, it has been the most effective method Congress has created to reduce spending in a long time. On the negative side, it’s not enough. The national debt has ballooned past $18 trillion, about $57,000 for every American. It 1980, it was $1 trillion. Also, the cuts do not represent a thoughtful, careful approach to deficit reduction. It’s kind of a hacksaw when what’s needed is a scalpel, though a big one. A lot of elected officials don’t like it because they want more spending for domestic programs, the military, or both.

So negotiators came up with that $80 billion while claiming that the extra spending was offset in other parts of the budget. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, that’s only partly correct. Meanwhile, Congress added another $31 billion in spending to the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations war-fighting account, which is exempt from the sequester.

Using a war-fighting account as a slush fund to get around the sequester and increase government spending – that’s bad policy on a lot of levels.

Five of the six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation – Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, and Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill and Bruce Westerman – voted against the deal. Rep. Steve Womack in Northwest Arkansas’ 3rd District voted for it, saying the deal is imperfect but the debt ceiling must be raised, that the act would increase military spending, and that it would allow members of congressional Appropriations Committees to do their work in more regular order.

There are arguments to be made against having a debt ceiling, which periodically creates an avoidable crisis that brings the United States government to the brink of default and makes the markets and the rest of the world wonder when this country will ever get its act together.

On the other hand, for all its flaws, it forces elected officials to confront the national debt on a regular basis. Now Congress and President Obama have made it a little easier to avoid that awkward discussion – sort of like a family that’s going broke that always finds excuses to avoid the real issues because the time never seems to be right. And this happened during an election season, which is precisely when the time should be right.

That conversation will be difficult, if it ever occurs. It’s going to involve asking tough questions about Medicare, Social Security, the military, and other popular government programs that most Americans want more of, and taxes, which most Americans want less of. Like anything on a budget that’s not balanced, the solution will involve some combination of having less of what we like and more of what we don’t.

For now, that conversation will be limited to the campaign trail – not a place where elected officials like talking about tough choices in detail, but it will have to do.

Sorry, no complaints today

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Watched the main Republican debate on CNBC Wednesday. This is the part where I’m supposed to complain about something. How about I not do that?

The debate featured the top 10 polling candidates and was preceded by a previous debate featuring another four.

This is a strong Republican field – maybe the strongest in memory. Those 14 candidates included two business leaders, a neurosurgeon, five current senators and one former one, and five current or former governors. While they all support smaller government, they are quite different – in background, in temperament, and in beliefs. One of the candidates is African-American, one is a woman, and three are the sons of immigrants – in two cases, Cuba, and in the other, India. One is the son of a former president and brother of another, but he must ask for our votes just as they did.

Over the course of an evening, these 14 ambitious high achievers stood in front of the American people, presented their ideas and qualifications, and asked for our votes. There were inaccuracies, of course, and promises based on bad math. But there were also substantive arguments based on detailed policy positions, and there was passion based on true belief.

Policies come and go. What’s more important is the process. The candidates disagreed, and it’s almost certain that some of them don’t like each other. But no one was going to draw a sword or stage, or amass their armies to seize power. The candidates faced challenging questions from moderators who had no reason to fear them, and they spoke before an audience that acted with restraint but felt free to express its approval and disapproval.

The Democrats’ slate of candidates is, unfortunately, thinner, the party’s establishment having chosen to rally behind one candidate early in the process. But it should be noted that the one candidate could be the first female president. Meanwhile, her main challenger is a person who is not a member of a political party and calls himself a socialist. Think I’m insulting him? I’m not. Regardless of what one thinks about his label, it’s good that voters are getting a chance to consider his ideas.

Please take a moment and consider the alternatives under which many people have lived in the past and under which many live today. The obvious example is Syria, which is engulfed in a religious civil war with many sides. ISIS is attempting to install a Muslim caliphate through tools such as beheading people based on their religion. The Assad government maintains power by dropping crude barrel bombs that kill indiscriminately. No wonder that war has produced more than 4 million refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In China, 1.4 billion people are ruled by a Communist Party that, this week, decided to double its previous limit and allow families to have two children instead of just one. It holds onto power by promising unending economic growth, a promise it cannot possibly keep. North Koreans worship their leader or face the consequences.

Of course the American system is less than it should be. Of course it’s often corrupted by money and ego and partisanship. Of course problems are not being solved. Of course the media can be irresponsible and annoying.

But there has to be some balance between seeing all the flaws and seeing only flaws. Can’t there be something between naive and pessimistic? How about “optimistically realistic”?

The late writer David Foster Wallace told the story of two young fish who were met by an older fish swimming in the opposite direction. “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” said the older fish. After swimming a ways, one of the young fish looked at his buddy and said, “What’s water?”

The idea is that we can become so accustomed to our surroundings that we don’t realize they exist. The same is true for we who have lived in a society that is imperfect but, in the history of human existence, amazingly free and prosperous. What’s freedom? Most of us don’t know, because we haven’t experienced the opposite.

I don’t know, either. But I think it has something to do with my future president standing on a stage armed only with ideas and qualifications and asking for my vote, and my deciding whether or not to give it. Sorry, no complaints today.

Lead, listen or both?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

“Look, I imagine that there’s theoretically a chance that (we) all went from being radical extremist crazies to Washington sellouts in 12 hours. But maybe a more likely narrative is that we really think that this is a good step for the conservative movement.”

That quote, published in the Washington Post, came from Rep. Mike Mulvaney, R-South Carolina.

Mulvaney is a member of the Freedom Caucus, the group of about 40 conservative Republican congressmen whose demands led to the resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner. Some thought the group was being too combative and expecting too much. That’s where the “crazies” part comes from.

Most threw their support behind Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose plenty conservative but also willing to work with the other party, which the speaker of the House must do. When that happened, some of the same people – particularly talk radio hosts and bloggers – who were cheering about Boehner threw a fit because they didn’t like Ryan. That’s when the Freedom Caucus became “sellouts.”

I’m writing this not to defend the Freedom Caucus, but because the quote brought to mind the age-old question: How much should members of Congress lead, and how much should they listen?

The answer, of course, is that they should do both. And when those two realities conflict?

Maybe Benjamin Franklin can help. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was leaving Independence Hall when, according to, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin required, “A republic if you can keep it.”

Franklin notably did not say “A democracy,” because that is not what the Founding Fathers created. In a democracy, voters make the decisions about their government. In a republic, they elect people to make those decisions, and then oversee them.

There are many wise sayings about letting your conscious be your guide, and not many about seeking only to please others. That’s because no one can twist in the wind forever before finally being blown away.

The same applies to politics. Members of Congress must listen to constituents, but it’s their name on the door. Arkansas’ four U.S. House members each represent 750,000 people, and Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman represent three million. We’re all different, we don’t always know what we want, and sometimes we want too much. We want less government but more government services, with lower taxes. We tend to want freedom, but not so much for those different than we. Two polls about the same issue – but with slightly different wording – can create vastly different results.

A few suggestions, then, for lawmakers.

– Don’t make many promises, particularly when those promises make it harder to accomplish more important goals. Pledges signed as candidates promising to never fill-in-the-blank can be counterproductive. Sometimes you can get a lot by giving a little – but you have to give a little nonetheless. Change takes time.

– Recognize the difference between right and wrong, and correct and less correct. For example, if a lawmaker really believes that abortion or capital punishment are murder, they should take a stand. Whether the top income tax rate should be a few percentage points in one direction or the other? There’s probably an ideal number, but no one knows what that is, and the country can be wrong either way and still be prosperous. If constituents can’t accept that, then they’re just wrong. If a congressman violates his deepest convictions, he is.

– Remember that hard-core true believers with time on their hands tend to speak a lot louder than people busy raising their kids and working for a living.

– Be willing to lead and lose. Somebody’s got to say that we can’t spend money we don’t have. Make the tough calls, and if the voters choose someone else as a result, so be it.

– Be willing to leave. We all can become a little corrupted by our jobs. We’re at our best when we’ve gained experience but not yet become stale or jaded.

And the rest of us? The latest Gallup poll has Congress with a 13 percent approval rating, yet 95 percent of House members were re-elected in 2014. The Senate was a little more competitive at 82 percent. In Arkansas in 2014, voter turnout was barely over 50 percent of registered voters.

Congressmen must listen. It helps when voters speak, without yelling, with a little thoughtful consistency, and most clearly at the ballot box.