A tale of two Pryor ads

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

One ad explains why Sen. Mark Pryor made the toughest vote of his career. In another ad, the Pryor campaign misrepresents his opponent’s position. The first ad features the candidate speaking directly into the camera and is effective. The second uses faceless narrators and is terrible. That’s not a coincidence.

Let’s start with the first ad. Pryor and his father, former Sen. David Pryor, describe Mark Pryor’s struggles with his insurance company when he was battling cancer. “No one should be fighting an insurance company while you’re fighting for your life,” Mark Pryor says in the ad. “That’s why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

That law was the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. The ad has gotten some national attention because a Democratic senator in a tough re-election bid in a Republican-leaning state embraced his vote for Obamacare, even if he doesn’t actually use the name. Good for him for explaining his reasoning. That’s what campaigns are for – to give voters information so they can make decisions.

Then there’s the “Ebola” ad, which also has received national attention, but for a different reason.

You don’t hear much from Pryor in that ad, except for the legally required “I’m Mark Pryor, and I approved this message.” In that ad, not only one but two faceless narrators say Pryor’s opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, “voted against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola. … Instead Cotton voted for tax cuts for billionaires funding his campaign rather than protecting our families.”

The vote to which the Pryor campaign is referring was to pass the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013, which funded preparations for responding to a public health emergency such as a rapidly spreading disease. The bill passed 395-29 in the House on Jan. 22, 2013. As the ad correctly states, Cotton was the only Arkansas congressman to vote no.

How could Cotton vote against “protecting our families”? His spokesman, David Ray, said Cotton objected to a part of the bill enabling the federal Department of Health and Human Services to enact a mandatory deployment of public health workers, including those employed by states, during a major health crisis. Cotton believed the mandatory call-up was contrary to existing law and Supreme Court precedent. The bill did not pass as written. In March, Cotton voted for a similar bill that made the call-up of health workers a voluntary one. Pryor voted for the same bill, and that’s what funded the program.

So Cotton didn’t really vote “against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola.” He voted against an early version of a particular bill. Campaigns use votes like this to mislead voters about their opponents all the time, but this one is so over-the-top that Cotton’s campaign is now featuring it on its own website, while it’s not on Pryor’s.

On Wednesday, Pryor held a press conference defending the ad. He brought up Cotton’s votes against the farm bill and disaster aid and said this is part of a pattern where Cotton votes against appropriate government spending.

He made a better case talking in person than those two faceless narrators did reading a script on television.

In fact, the most effective campaign ads right now feature the candidates talking directly to voters. Those would be the Pryor cancer ad already mentioned, and Asa Hutchinson’s ad where he talks about his granddaughter inspiring him to support a law requiring high schools to offer a computer coding class.

Those ads work because they allow voters to see the candidates offering a positive vision, but what if candidates also spoke for themselves when they wanted to criticize their opponents? I’m betting their messages would be much more responsible and measured. In one earlier ad, Pryor himself had this to say, calmly, about Cotton regarding Medicare: “My opponent voted to withhold benefits until age 70, and I’m trying to stop that.” When candidates want to distinguish themselves from their opponents in a 30-second ad, that’s how they should do it.

Campaigns have decided it’s bad for their candidates to be seen criticizing their opponents in an ad. Actually, I would respect them more if they did it that way. My outlook is very Southern. If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. But if you think something not nice needs to be said, say it yourself.

Here are the two ads.

The lieutenant governor: Change it, or get rid of it

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

For more than three years from 2003-06, your tax dollars were not spent very efficiently, and I was a beneficiary.

I was the communications director in the lieutenant governor’s office. My boss, Lt. Governor Win Rockefeller, was a very good man, but the lieutenant governorship, at least the way it is designed in Arkansas, is not a useful office.

Nothing occurs there that could not be done somewhere else. Under the Arkansas Constitution, the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate when it is in session (a ceremonial job) and serves as governor when the governor is out of state (an unnecessary responsibility in the 21st century). The other major duty, the one that really matters, is to serve as governor if the governor does not finish his or her term. Two of the past four lieutenant governors have been called upon to do that.

The office, when filled, consumes about $400,000 a year in order to employ state government’s backup quarterback and his or her staff. Currently, no one even occupies the office. With the resignation of former Lt. Governor Mark Darr, the doors have been locked and the lights off for months. As Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, explained in an interview, “We’ve got an office that in all intents and purposes doesn’t exist right now, and there’s no clamor about some services that are not being met.”

Ingram and Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, are proposing abolishing the office and making the attorney general next in line to be governor. This would require a constitutional amendment approved by the voters. Were it to pass, Arkansas would join five other states that don’t have a lieutenant governor.

The proposal has been far from universally embraced. There’s a natural resistance to changing the Constitution, which is a good thing. Plus, some legislators might want to be lieutenant governor someday and are reluctant to vote to get rid of the office. It’s hard to cut the backup quarterback when you hope to be one someday.

There’s some concern about making the attorney general next in line, which no state currently does, because doing so limits that opportunity to lawyers only.

But it not the attorney general, then who? The next highest statewide position after attorney general is the secretary of state, a job that deals primarily with running elections and maintaining the Capitol – not really governor-type duties. Still, that position ascends to governor in three states that have no lieutenant governor – Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming. In New Jersey, the lieutenant governor and the secretary of state are the same officeholder. Legislators deal with many of the same issues as the governor, so the speaker of the House or the Senate president pro tempore would make sense. The objection is that neither are elected by voters statewide, but that hasn’t stopped Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia from making the leader of the Senate their next in line. In fact, Tennessee and West Virginia give their Senate leaders the title of “lieutenant governor.”

We could just make the lieutenant governor a real job. At one time, Arkansas’ lieutenant governor exercised real power in the Senate by appointing committees and committee chairs. There’s no way legislators are giving up those powers now, but perhaps the lieutenant governor could be made the head of a state agency or a member of some important commissions.

Or, the governor and the lieutenant governor could be yoked together on one ticket, like the president and the vice president are, instead of running separately as occurs now. That way the governor and lieutenant governor could be a team, maybe even share staff. That would be the opposite of what the state had before Darr resigned: a Democratic governor and a Republican lieutenant governor who couldn’t work together and didn’t even like each other.

Changing anything in government is hard, particularly when there’s no deadline forcing it to happen. We don’t have a crisis. We have an office that doesn’t do much when it has an occupant and currently doesn’t even have that. Ideally, Arkansas could either make it useful or just get rid of it.

Or we could just leave things as they are. It’s only $400,000 a year. Of your money.

Here’s a KARK-TV report about this subject.

Spreading wealth and breaking down barriers

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

For several years, I published a newsletter, “The Vanguard,” for Arkansas Baptist College, a historically black college in Little Rock. The newsletter dated back a century, and I assume I was its first editor who was white. It was an honor.

The school was in the midst of a resurgence under its visionary president, Dr. Fitz Hill. It’s now facing some challenges, but this column is not about that. I attended many events there, often as the only white person in the room, or one of the few. When it came time to publish, I would email a rough draft to my contact hoping she would like it, and when she called to sweetly make corrections, I would be disappointed in myself if I made many errors. She was the one writing the check, and I wanted to please her.

The nation needs more minority business owners. It spreads the wealth the way wealth is best spread. It breaks down barriers, creates respect, and makes everybody better. It made me better. When two people are doing business together – one performing a needed service, the other providing a needed paycheck – then it’s a lot easier to get past all the terrible things that have happened the past 400 years.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 Survey of Business Owners, of the nation’s 27 million businesses then, 1.9 million were owned by African Americans. That’s about 7 percent in a country where 13.2 percent of the population is “black or African-American alone,” according to the Census Bureau. The 1.9 million companies employed less than 910,000 people, so most had no paid employees. But those 910,000 people had jobs because of an African American business owner.

At one time, Little Rock was home to many minority-owned businesses – 102 on West Ninth Street in 1959, according to the Mosaic Templars Center, a neat museum in the capital city. But that would soon change. Integration put those businesses in competition with larger and more resourced businesses owned by white people. (The same dynamic occurred with colleges like ABC.) The construction of Interstate 630 cut through the business district, pretty much destroying it. Today, what’s left of West Ninth Street is in decay.

Traditionally, many small businesses owned by African Americans have served mostly African American people – funeral homes, hair stylists, etc. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, it is bad if it stops at that. According to the Pew Research Center, median incomes for African Americans in 2013 were 59.2 percent of whites, and the wealth gap between members of those two races was growing. One way to address that is to circulate dollars throughout the entire American community. The best way to make that happen is for more African Americans to own the means of production.

When I told my wife I was thinking about writing this column, she asked, “So what’s your solution?” Unfortunately, I don’t have a good one. I’m not sure if any more laws need to be passed. I think affirmative action in government contracts and scholarships is helpful, though it should be based on class and background, not race.

Undoubtedly, progress is being made in race relations, which should increase opportunities for African American business owners. Regardless of what you think about President Obama, his election was a ceiling-breaking event unimaginable not long ago. Young people are not color blind, but they are color blurry, which is good, because they’ll have to be. While the Census Bureau considered only 2.4 percent of us to be “two or more races” in 2013, that number will grow in the coming years. In 2010, 10 percent of opposite sex married couple households were interracial or interethnic – an increase from 7 percent in 2000. A 2013 Gallup poll found 87 percent of Americans approved of marriages between white and black people. In 1958, just 4 percent did.

Please keep all this in mind as we watch the unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri. Certainly a scab has been ripped off an old wound there. I’m not sure what to think about all of it, except this: An officer shooting an unarmed man is bad, and rioting is also bad.

But honest commerce – that’s really good. Many things must still happen on this long march to justice. One is more diverse people doing business with each other. After all – and I usually hate this expression – but in business, the only color that matters is green.

Arkansas’ other health care reform

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Let’s play a word association game. I write “health care reform.” What comes to mind?

Probably “Obamacare,” and probably, if you live in Arkansas, not in a positive light. You might next think, “private option,” the state program that uses federal dollars under Obamacare to buy private insurance for lower-income Arkansans.

Meanwhile, there’s another important health care reform effort underway. While Obamacare and the private option are mostly about expanding health coverage, the Arkansas Payment Improvement Initiative is meant to address the biggest problems with the health care system today – costs and incentives.

The United States spends 18 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, far more than the rest of the industrialized world, and gets no better overall results. Too much of the care provided really doesn’t help the patients. These high costs and inefficient process occur largely because the system is based on what policymakers call “perverse incentives.” Medical providers are paid by the procedure, not the outcome – not for making us well and certainly not for keeping us from ever getting sick.

They don’t try to make us sick, of course, but the system’s incentives do influence their focus – how much effort they expend on preventive care, for example. As CHI – St. Vincent CEO Peter Banko told me, “Until you change how we’re being paid, you’re not going to see changes in the system.”

So Arkansas is changing the way they’re being paid.

As part of the Arkansas Payment Improvement Initiative, state agencies, insurance providers Blue Cross and Qualchoice, the Arkansas Hospital Association, and the Arkansas Medical Society collaborated to try to determine appropriate practices and acceptable ranges of costs for various “episodes of care.” They started with five situations: pregnancies; total hip/knee replacements; outpatient upper respiratory infections; congestive heart failures; and attention hyperactivity disorder.

For each of those episodes, a principal accountable provider now serves as the “quarterback,” meaning he or she is the main decision-maker responsible for coordinating all providers who are delivering care. That’s unlike a typical health care episode, where no one is in charge and patients are just handed off from provider to provider – each of whom runs their own tests for which they charge insurance companies and taxpayers. For hip and knee replacements, the quarterback is the orthopedic surgeon, who is responsible not only for the procedure but also for the 30 days prior and the 90 days afterwards.

After 12 months, the quarterbacks’ total insurance and Medicaid claims are totaled. Those whose costs are below “commendable” levels receive a bonus payment, and those whose costs are above “acceptable” levels pay back part of the excess cost.

Early results are promising. According to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, providers are performing more preventive tests for diabetes, HIV and other conditions in pregnant women. That makes sense, because they’ll be penalized if they don’t catch these health issues and costs rise later. Unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions for unspecified upper respiratory infections have dropped 19 percent. That’s important because antibiotics have no effect on, say, a cold virus, but the overuse of them leads to harmful effects, such as creating drug-resistant bacteria.

Again, incentives are the key. As Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson, a pediatrician, explained, “It was easier for me to write the prescription for the mom whose kid had a cold than it was for me to spend the 10 minutes telling her why she really didn’t need the antibiotic.” Now that doctors face a financial penalty for prescribing a useless drug, they’re more likely to give that explanation.

One obvious concern is that providers will cut corners in order to shave costs, but that’s not been the intent. Providers still have plenty of incentives to provide effective care, including of course, their desire to serve patients. Keep in mind that more care is not necessarily better care and can be much worse for the patient. CHI – St. Vincent is participating in a similar pilot program through Medicare where the hospital and doctors are paid a set amount for joint replacement procedures and must control costs to make a profit. The result? Hospital readmissions have been reduced by two-thirds.

I asked Banko why the hospital and doctors didn’t make those changes beforehand. He replied, very forthrightly, “There was no financial incentive to.”

Who knows if all this is going to work, but it seems promising. What America needs isn’t more health care – but better and more affordable care. That will only happen when the incentives change.

Impeach us all

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Impeaching the president would be bad for the country in many ways. It should not happen, and it will not happen.

But we columnists like to use this kind of thing to make a point, so here goes.

If the U.S. House of Representatives somehow were to vote for impeachment, there would be no point in asking whether or not the Senate would remove the president from office. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote in that chamber, and no Democrat there would vote for that.

Instead, a better question would be, if we’re going to start stripping constitutional duties, why stop with the president? Maybe we all should be replaced.

The president has failed to provide leadership on the most important long-term issue facing the federal government, one that will really matter long after the Benghazi and IRS scandals are long forgotten. The national debt was $17.68 trillion on Aug. 11 – more than $5 billion more than it was the day before and more than $11 trillion more than it was in 2000. The $500 billion that will be added to the national debt this year will be the best fiscal year the nation has had since President Obama took office. The debt is now equal to about $56,000 for every American man, woman and child. It’s still rising, and it will continue to rise unless something in Washington changes.

The country must have a serious conversation about its wants, needs and expectations, because it’s clearly living beyond its means. The president started that conversation by appointing the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010 to make recommendations for addressing the problem. At the time, he seemed interested in the subject. But no one in the White House is talking about fiscal responsibility and reform now.

The president sets the tone, but Article 1 of the Constitution gives Congress the responsibility for taxing, spending, and paying off debts. Clearly, Congress has been failing to fulfill those responsibilities for a long time. For the past few years, it has lurched from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, jeopardizing the full faith and credit of the United States and blunting the country’s economic recovery. Like a college freshman who parties all semester and then crams during finals week, it rarely acts anymore without an absolute deadline.

And yet despite the fact that, according to Gallup, only 13 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, being a member is a secure job. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 90 percent of House incumbents and 91 percent of Senate incumbents running for re-election were sent back to Washington in 2012. Voters did not care that, during the fiscal year leading up to that election, the federal government had spent almost $1.3 trillion more than it had collected. In fact, they rewarded that behavior.

Ultimately, the White House and Congress reflect the will of the people, and the will of the people is to borrow and spend. Polls have made it clear that Americans are at least aware that the national debt is a problem, but they also oppose meaningfully cutting spending or raising taxes. In a survey last year by the Pew Research Center, respondents were presented 19 areas where spending could be cut. None were favored by a majority. Members of Congress and the president know this.

The Constitution reserves impeachment for “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Americans today – the president, the Congress, and the voters – together have made the decision to steal trillions of dollars from our children and grandchildren. Stealing is a crime – in this case, a high crime. We’re committing treason against the future country they will inherit.

So maybe it’s time to stop talking about impeaching just a particular president and start talking about impeaching us all. We voters have proven unable or unwilling to perform our duties, and so perhaps those duties should be stripped from us and entrusted to the next in line – every American currently under 18. Put kids in the White House and in Congress. If we won’t make their future a priority, maybe they will.

I’m kidding, I guess. But at least my 12-year-old and nine-year-old know that stealing is wrong.

Private option still splits GOP despite decrease in uninsured

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Arkansas got some news last week regarding its uninsured population. Whether you think it was good news or just news depends on what you think about the “private option.”

The Gallup organization released a survey finding that the state led the nation in reducing its uninsured adult population. In 2013, 22.5 percent of the state’s adults were uninsured – the second worst rate after Texas. In 2014, only 12.4 percent were uninsured. Nearly half of all adult Arkansans who didn’t have insurance last year have it this year. Arkansas rose to 22nd, tied with New Hampshire. Texas is still last.

The increase in the number of insured Arkansans can be credited mostly to the private option, which is the state program that uses federal Medicaid dollars through Obamacare to purchase private insurance.

Under Obamacare, those residents were supposed to become Medicaid recipients, but the Supreme Court gave states the option of saying yes or no. Instead, some Arkansas Republican legislators said “yes, but” and fashioned the private option with Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration. The result is that about 200,000 Arkansans now have health insurance. According to Gallup, the top 10 states that showed the most improvement all took the federal money. Texas didn’t, and 24 percent of its residents still don’t have health insurance.

So that’s a slam-dunk case for the private option, right? Not exactly.

The private option barely passed in 2013 and barely survived in 2014. Like other state programs, it requires the support of three-fourths of the Legislature before any money can be spent on it. All the Democrats support it. Republicans are split between three groups – the yeses, the no’s, and the “heck, no’s.” There are enough no’s and heck no’s to kill it. For it to survive, the yeses must pull a few no’s to their side.

How could anyone be against something providing health insurance to 200,000 people? Cost, uncertainty, and concerns about the growth of government. The cost to the federal government is expected to be $1.59 billion in fiscal year 2015 and $2.35 billion in fiscal year 2020. Those may be federal dollars, but they come from actual taxpayers, including Arkansans. While the feds are paying for everything initially, in 2017 Arkansas will be responsible for 5 percent – a number that rises to 10 percent by 2020. Because the federal government is paying for most of it, the state supposedly gains $670 million over a decade. But that’s assuming Uncle Sam holds up his end of the bargain.

The Republican Party divide is illustrated in the state Senate. The soon-to-be top dog, incoming Senate Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, is a private option architect. Last week, Republicans nominated Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, as their Senate majority leader, their number two. He’s part of the “no caucus.” Their new number three, Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, the majority whip, is a private option supporter.

Hendren told me that while he’s glad that 200,000 Arkansans now have insurance, he remains opposed. He’s a chemical engineer who deals with numbers, and to him, the numbers just don’t add up. However, he said the facts have changed since he first started voting no in 2013.

“We have this program, and I’m one who believes you’ve got to be fair with people,” he said. “So anything that’s done, we have to take into account the fact that we’ve got a lot of people in Arkansas who are playing by the rules and who are working hard, and to just yank that away from them without any consideration is not something that I think is the right thing to do. So we’re going to have to look at how we can find some middle ground, or find some sort of process that gets us to a program that’s more sustainable.”

The private option debate dominated the 2013 and 2014 sessions, which Hendren doesn’t want to repeat this year. He wants Republicans to fashion a compromise or simply vote on the issue and move on. He said his goal will be to “not let that define us as a caucus.”

He wants there to be one Senate Republican caucus. Currently, on this issue, there are three: the yeses, the no’s, and the heck no’s.

Note: Here’s the Gallup survey.

Real Americans tackle ‘Big Bad Budget’ in film

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

If you and seven other Americans with different backgrounds and beliefs were given a weekend to balance the federal budget together, could you do it?

That’s the premise behind “Big Bad Budget,” a film that producer and host Tom Carroll calls a “high-brow reality show.”

Carroll, who owns an Albuquerque, N.M.-based marketing and PR firm, rounded up four local Republicans, three Democrats, and a Democrat-leaning independent. They were given information about the federal budget to digest for a week and then were brought together over two days in June 2013. Their mission was to balance the budget by finding $750 billion in spending cuts and/or tax revenue increases. The negotiations were filmed and then edited down to an hour.

Like other reality shows, there’s some conflict, though there’s no yelling or tearful confessionals. The two tribes – I mean, parties – were separated at times to strategize, and Carroll pulled individuals aside for brief interviews.

The show gave differing viewpoints a chance to be aired. Republican Seth Heath said this about food stamps: “Poverty isn’t supposed to be comfortable. It’s supposed to be painful. Otherwise you have no desire to achieve and to become a successful person.” Wanda Small, a human resources consultant and a Democrat, said most people are trying to succeed. While arguing against cutting unemployment benefits, she said one temporary position she tried to fill paying $10 an hour drew more than 150 applicants. “Nobody wants to be in a situation where they have to get a handout,” she said.

I’ll spoil the ending: They balanced the budget by raising tax revenues by $250 billion and cutting spending by $500 billion, including $200 billion from defense, or about a third of the defense budget. The vote was 7-0, with one abstention. Heath accepted higher taxes along with smaller spending cuts than he preferred. Small agreed to reduce unemployment benefits from 99 weeks to 18 months and to cut Social Security by $75 billion.

It’s hard to miss the point.

“Congress needs to see that it needs to put its own personal interest behind the national interest, and if regular Americans can get together and over a short period of time with the information make the hard decisions, then why can’t Congress?” Carroll told me.

Granted, the comparison with Congress is imperfect. The participants had only one task – make the numbers add up. Members of Congress must balance many competing interests, and not just personal ones. Quickly cutting $200 billion from the defense budget would send shock waves through the economy, for example.

Still, the show demonstrates that, when Americans are given the facts and a reason to work with people with whom they disagree, a consensus can emerge. The first thing that happened was the Democrats proposed cutting $10 billion from the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans, annoyed at government intrusion in general, quickly agreed. Both sides proposed spending cuts and tax increases early in the process because they knew compromise would be required. There was some venting, and then it was just a matter of giving and taking and finding common ground.

“Big Bad Budget” has aired in Albuquerque and is being shopped around public television stations. AETN has recorded the show but hasn’t decided if it will run it. Carroll hopes it will be available on Netflix. It’s available on DVD at bigbadbudget.com.

Something like this needs to happen in cities across America and include more than eight Americans. Congress reflects the will of the people, and we the people don’t understand the national debt very well. According to the polls, we don’t want to cut spending or raise taxes. You can’t balance the budget without doing one, the other or both.

On the other hand, the show demonstrates the inadequacy of polling. Questions are usually asked over the phone and in isolation, such as, “Do you favor raising the such-and-such tax?” By itself? Of course not. In this case, Americans made difficult choices because they had an opportunity to make thoughtful decisions in the context of the big picture. They raised taxes, but they cut spending twice as much and balanced the budget.

Failure to compromise meant failure, period. They didn’t want to fail. So even though this wasn’t exactly like Congress, much applies. In Albuquerque and in Washington, people are more likely to succeed when given the right incentives. If it really had to, Congress could balance the budget. As Carroll said, “Right now they’re stuck in their positions, but if you told them that they had to do it or they’d all be thrown out of office, they’d do it in a weekend.”

Here’s the trailer.

Why did Rep. Crawford, a veteran, vote against VA funding? Here is his reasoning.

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

In 1988, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford was an Army bomb technician serving in Pakistan. It was his job to keep things from exploding. On July 30, he played with a little fire.

Crawford, a Republican who represents eastern Arkansas’ 1st District, was one of only five U.S. House members voting against a bill providing $10 billion for private providers to serve veterans when the VA system is overloaded. The bill also will provide money to the VA to hire additional medical staff and lease 27 new medical centers, and it made it possible for senior executives to be fired at will by the secretary of veterans affairs. Because some of the spending is offset by cuts elsewhere in the department, it will add $10 billion to the national debt over 10 years. Only three in the Senate voted no.

The bill was passed remarkably quickly for a Congress that doesn’t accomplish much even slowly. No one wanted to be seen as voting against veterans, especially not amidst the current scandal over long wait times, poor care, and records manipulation. The department reported in July that about 636,000 veterans have been waiting at least a month for medical appointments. Crawford’s Democratic opponent, Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson, quickly held a press conference with veterans denouncing the vote.

Why did Crawford, a veteran and the son and grandson of veterans, vote no? In a phone interview, he said he opposed adding $10 billion to the national debt by giving it to a bureaucracy that has misused what it had. He said management, not money, is the big issue at the VA, where funding has increased 57 percent since 2008 at the same time the patient load has increased 14 percent. He said the VA already had the statutory authority to send patients to private providers when it’s backlogged.

Crawford said Congress should have given incoming Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald time to assess the situation at the agency and then make recommendations. Instead, he said, Congress reacted to the problem by writing a blank check.

“These veterans have sacrificed a heck of a lot more than to have to go on borrowed money to get their health care,” he said.

The rest of Arkansas’ congressional delegation voted for the bill, including its three House members who also are veterans.

Was Crawford’s vote the right one? Your answer to that probably depends on whether you think it addressed the problem or merely threw money at it. If there’s any area where the government should deficit spend – even be willing to waste a little – it’s this one.

Whether or not it was the right vote, it certainly was a courageous one, especially during an election year. Of course, Crawford did once defuse bombs for a living.

***

It wasn’t Congress’ best week from a fiscal responsibility standpoint. Congress voted to replenish the Highway Trust Fund so that it will remain solvent through May. Had it not acted, the fund, which pays for 70 percent of Arkansas highway construction, would have been empty, and states would have been reimbursed only as money became available. It’s hard to plan mutli-year highway projects that way.

The main additional funding mechanism is pension smoothing, which lets companies delay contributing to their employees’ retirement plans. Doing so increases the companies’ taxable incomes in the short term, though they will have to make up the difference later, which will lower their taxable incomes then. The measure will increase highway revenues for six years and then start reducing them as companies replenish their pension funds. So once again, Congress has borrowed from the future to pay for present needs.

There were options. The Senate voted for a bill that would have funded highways into December without the pension smoothing provision. The House didn’t budge.

Arkansas’ four House members voted for the pension smoothing bill. Its senators voted for the gimmick-free Senate version and then voted for the final version. Sen. John Boozman also voted for an amendment that would make states responsible for most highway funding. It did not pass.

Some say Congress should stop the games and just raise the gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 1993. Of course, there’s a reason for that. According to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday, only 14 percent of Americans support a gas tax increase, while 58 percent oppose it. Other proposals that would increase revenues drew little support. So Congress is reflecting the will of the people.

Something has to give. The country’s infrastructure is decaying and congested. Congress isn’t willing to buck popular opinion or create a different set of funding priorities. Maybe it’s time to rethink our transportation system, but into what?

I don’t know, but this governing by crisis while relying on accounting gimmicks is no way to run a railroad. Or fund highways.

Could third parties affect Senate race?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Let’s start with an apology: I’m sorry for using the word “poll” in this first paragraph. There have been many polls in this year’s U.S. Senate race, and there will be many more. In one poll released this week, however, two numbers stood out.

It’s not the 44 percent of likely voters picking Tom Cotton or the 42 percent supporting Mark Pryor in the latest Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College poll. Those two candidates consistently poll at about those levels. Their focus henceforth will be on ensuring those base levels show up on Election Day – mostly by scaring them – and on fighting over the other 14 percent.

The question is, how much of that 14 percent is available, and to whom? And that’s why the other poll numbers might matter: 4 and 3.

Unlike many polls, this one also included the minor party candidates. Mark Swaney of the Green Party polled at 4 percent, while Libertarian Nathan LaFrance attracted 3 percent.

I’m a word guy, not a math whiz, but 4+3=7, and in an election this close, that’s a factor.

Granted, many of those respondents are just sick of all the negative ads and picked one of the other two names, despite there also being an “undecided” option. But let’s spend a few paragraphs focusing on those respondents who purposely chose Swaney and LaFrance. They might have an effect on the election, maybe an important one, because they are probably taking a bigger bite out of Pryor’s support than Cotton’s.

The Green Party’s main issues are climate change and nationalized health care. They are unapologetically liberal. It’s safe to assume that most of the informed respondents who said they were voting for Swaney would be Pryor voters if there were only two choices. Few are playing “eenie meenie miney moe” between the Green Party and Cotton.

Libertarians, on the other hand, are for smaller government in every way. They would cut taxes and government spending significantly, so on economic issues, they are to the right of Republicans. However, on social issues, they generally support gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, and keeping abortion legal. They’d slash defense spending, too. In many ways, they’re to the left of Democrats.

So the 4 percent (the informed ones, anyway) who said they would vote for Swaney would have picked Pryor if there were only two choices. But the informed portion of LaFrance’s 3 percent would have gone either way – probably more for Cotton, but not exclusively.

I’m not saying this necessarily will change the outcome, but Pryor is being hurt more than Cotton.

The numbers won’t stay this way. Swaney and LaFrance are poorly funded candidates who don’t have money to advertise and probably have reached their ceilings of support. A percentage of those who do vote will gravitate toward Pryor or Cotton because of the so-called “spoiler effect.” In our winner-take-all system, voters have an incentive to choose the least objectionable of only two parties, lest the more objectionable candidate win.

Here’s where you might say this is why we need just two parties, and that people shouldn’t “waste their votes” on candidates who can’t win. You might say those liberal Green Party supporters should just choose Pryor, the less conservative of the two major party candidates.

Green Party voters don’t see it that way. They would say both Pryor and Cotton are the conservative candidates, and that Swaney is the only one who represents their values. If you really believe both Republicans and Democrats are ruining the planet, must you vote for the one you think is less ruinous? Libertarians say Democrats and Republicans both are the parties of big government – the same party, in fact, just two sides of the same coin.

This is the land of many choices, except in elections. But there are ways our democracy could be more open but still efficient. One is instant runoff voting, where voters rank their candidates top to bottom, and a numerical process determines the winner. Green Party voters could make their statement by picking Swaney first and then Pryor (or LaFrance) as their number two.

But we don’t have instant runoff voting. We have winner-take-all voting, in a very close race, where a few percentage points matter.

Note: Here’s a link to the Talk Business & Politics-Henderix College poll.

Above is an excellent video by C.G.P. Grey explaining why the spoiler effect makes it so hard for third parties and independents to break through. Below, C.G.P. Grey explains instant runoff voting, or what he calls the alternative vote.

Welcome to America, kids – eventually

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The question of what to do with these 50,000 Central American children sent to America alone by their parents to escape violence and poverty in their homelands – that’s a tough one. What do we do? Let some of them stay? Send them all home?

Eventually, we’ll be asking young immigrants to come.

We will do that because the decisions we have made, politically and personally, will leave us with no better choice. Let’s look at some statistics to see why.

In 1946, the World War II generation returned home from overseas and made a bunch of babies. From that year until 1964, 80 million baby boomers were born, and now they are beginning to retire in massive numbers and living longer than previous generations. Social Security’s framers did not plan for this influx of long-living beneficiaries when it was created. Life expectancy was 64 for a program that started paying benefits at age 65. There was one beneficiary for every 16 workers paying into the system.

Now there are three workers supporting each beneficiary. By 2025, the ratio will be 2.3 to one. The baby boomers themselves did not make enough babies, and then Congress messed it all up by raiding Social Security to pay for other programs.

This isn’t just a problem for the Social Security system. Entire sectors of the economy will be looking for workers. For example, the trucking industry, which pays pretty well, is expecting a deficit of 300,000 drivers over the next decade.

Could we just wait for people to make more babies who will grow up and fill the void? Not really. According to the Census Bureau, the median age for American females in 2013 was 39. That means a lot of us are too old to make babies. We’d have a real problem if it weren’t for the Hispanics already here (average age: 27).

Let’s review. We’ve promised benefits to an entire generation of retiring senior citizens, but we don’t have enough young people working to pay for those benefits, fill jobs in certain sectors, or make babies themselves.

We need an influx of young people – fast. Where could we find them? Obviously, south of the border and across the ocean.

At some point, regardless of all the political yelling, the United States will loosen its immigration laws. Those already here will be given a path to citizenship, or at least a path to something. The door into America will open wider. It might be attached to a wall, but the door will be open.

Is this the right thing to do? It won’t matter, because no one will have a better idea.

We ultimately will do this because we will have no better alternative as a result of the choices we have already made. Politically, we could have raised the retirement age enough to compensate for our increased lifespans. We have chosen not to do that. Our society could have fostered the expectation that the care of the elderly would be primarily the responsibility of their children. We decided, for many good reasons, to also rely quite a bit on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. We could have had a sensible immigration policy. We chose to squabble about it. As individuals, we could have had more kids. We, including my wife and I, decided that two were enough.

The choices we have made over the past 50 years, when we have had lots of alternatives, will dictate the choices we will make in the future, when we will have far fewer alternatives. So welcome to America, kids – if not now, then eventually.