Last week, Senator Ben Sasse received gushing praise for his maiden Senate speech from both the national and local media. In that speech, Sasse decried the fact that the Senate doesn't work anymore to solve the problems of the U.S. He criticized what he termed: "bare knuckled politics, "radical tactics," and the use of Senate rules for "shirts and skins exercises." Sasse said the Senate should be "reducing polarization" and reformed to solve what he termed "generational problems."
It's pretty easy for somebody who is unfamiliar with Sasse's record to praise this speech. He is certainly correct when he told us that the Senate isn't solving the long terms problems that the U.S. faces. However, history didn't begin when Senator Sasse took the microphone last week on the floor of the Senate.
Sasse's own record as a candidate and a U.S. Senator directly contradicts the eloquent rhetoric in his speech. As a candidate, Sasse prognosticated that the Affordable Care Act would cause America to "cease to exist." This was an important statement because the extreme right of the Republican party is consumed with the belief that Obama and his policies will ruin America. This apocalyptic vision causes conservatives in the Congress - like Sasse - to adopt scorched earth tactics that have harmed the country.
Conservatives who genuinely believe that America is doomed are willing to adopt any tactic - regardless of how toxic and harmful - in what they believe to be a last ditch effort to save the country. That's why right wingers like Sasse have repeatedly supported government shutdowns and threats to default on the obligations of the U.S.
As a candidate, Sasse supported the 2013 government shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion and 120,000 jobs. Moreover, as a Senator, Sasse voted to shutdown the Department of Homeland Security when terrorists were threatening the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Sasse also recently voted against a bill that funded the government and raised the debt ceiling. If Sasse had gotten his way, we would be going through another shutdown right now and the U.S. would have stiffed it's creditors.
Sasse's repeated support for government shutdowns isn't the only dysfunction he has supported. Nebraska's junior Senator recently put a hold on all nominees to the Department of Health and Human Services until he gets answers on why CoOpportunity Insurance collapsed earlier this year. As I discussed in another piece, it would be much more productive for Sasse to partner with the likes of Representative Brad Ashford to find bi-partisan solutions to improve Obama Care.
Senator Sasse's support of obstructive tactics stems from his refusal to compromise and seek out bi-partisan solutions. As a candidate, Sasse signalled his lack of interest in compromise by soliciting and receiving the endorsement of Ted Cruz - one of the most extreme members of the U.S. Cruz is known for saying: "I don’t think what Washington needs is more compromise."
Since he has been elected, Sasse has voted with Cruz and other radicals in opposition to must pass legislation that had overwhelming bi-partisan support. In April, Sasse voted against the Medicare doctor fix - which passed the Senate by a 92-8 margin. This bill passed less than three hours before federal officials would have reduced payments to health-care providers by 21%. If that had occurred, many doctors and health care providers would've refused to treat senior citizens. Moreover, the passage of this legislation was hailed by members of Congress in both parties as a bi-partisan triumph.
Sasse hasn't only opposed health care for senior citizens, he has even voted against health care for our veterans. Just last month, Sasse voted with 3 other extreme Senators against a bill that would have kept Veterans' hospitals open. The bill to provide health care to our veterans passed by a 91-4 margin. Even Senator Fischer voted for it. The Veterans Administration had indicated that it might have to start closing hospitals if Congress had refused to pass this bill. Despite the high stakes involved in this legislation, Sasse voted to close down Veterans' hospitals. The Omaha World Herald reported that a "Sasse spokesman declined comment on what the senator would have preferred Congress to do."
So far in his brief Senate career, Sasse hasn't really demonstrated any desire to reform the Senate or make it work - outside of his rhetoric. I always like to say that actions speak louder than words. In any event, giving Sasse the benefit of the doubt, what so-called "generational problems" does he want to solve if the Senate were to work again?
In his much ballyhooed maiden speech, Sasse said that our "entitlement budgeting is entirely fake" and called for "telling the truth" about what he termed "entitlement over promising." These kind of statements have to be read in context with Sasse's earlier claim - shared by many right wingers - that the U.S. is going broke and will soon be like Greece.
What that means is that Sasse supports privatizing Social Security and turning it over to Wall Street. Moreover, Sasse supports cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age and instituting means testing.
Sasse's plans for Medicare are equally extreme. Sasse - along with the other members of Nebraska's Republican Congressional delegation - has voted to end Medicare as we know it and turn it over to the private health insurance industry. His plan would break our promises to senior citizens and turn Medicare into a voucher system.
The Fremont Senator's support for gutting Social Security and Medicare is based upon his so-called concern for "fiscal responsibility." That so-called "concern" didn't stop Sasse from voting for a repeal of the estate tax earlier this year. This tax cut would only benefit the top 0.2% of Americans and add $269 billion to the deficit. There has yet to be any evidence that any farm has ever been sold off to pay the estate tax in recent history.
The bottom line here is that there is a significant disconnect between Sasse's pretty rhetoric and his actual record. Moreover, if he gets his way and the Senate works in the way he wants it to work, Nebraska's senior citizens will pay a huge price in order to finance yet another tax cut for the wealthiest Americans.
It is obvious that Sasse doesn't share our values - Nebraska values. We Nebraskans believe in a secure and dignified retirement for our senior citizens. Most Nebraskans don't want to go back to the days where senior citizens were sent to poor houses and poor farms after they went broke.
It is our duty as Nebraska Democrats to point out to the media and other opinion leaders that Sasse's rhetoric about fixing the Senate is directly contradicted by his actual record. One cannot reconcile the two. We must also inform our fellow citizens about Sasse's radical vision for the country - a vision not shared by most Nebraskans.
As we've discussed here before, Pete Ricketts is off to a very poor start as Governor. He has made a series of mistakes that call into question his competence and ability to function successfully as Governor of Nebraska. Rickett's stumbling start has not gone unnoticed on the national level. Governing Magazine indicated that he is off to possibly the worst start of any new governor in 2015 and said that he is "struggling." Paul Landow - a UNO political science professor - said the following about Ricketts' many setbacks in the Unicameral: "It was a very bad start for a first-year governor. A savvy politician would have picked the battles more carefully."
Ricketts has continued to struggle mightily since the end of the legislative session earlier this year. Since the Unicameral adjourned, Ricketts has spent most of his political capital trying to reverse his defeat on the death penalty. Ricketts has been so desperate to win a "victory" on this issue that he has spent approximately $54,000.00 of the taxpayers' money to purchase illegal execution drugs from Chris Harris - a shady middleman based in India.
Harris has passed himself off to Ricketts as a manufacturer and distributor of medications. Instead, investigative reporting has revealed that Harris has no pharmaceutical background and that his "factory" was an apartment that he hasn't lived in for two years.
Despite Harris' obvious lack of legitimate credentials, Ricketts sent him a state check for $54,000.00 to purchase enough execution drugs for 300 executions even though only 10 people are on death row and Nebraska hasn't executed anybody for 18 years. Moreover, Ricketts paid seven times more than what these illegal drugs usually cost.
Rickett's dealings with Harris has caused a firestorm of criticism in Nebraska. A spokesman for Nebraskans For Public Safety blasted Ricketts' claim that he can legally purchase the execution drug from Harris and demanded that Ricketts stop “misleading” the voters about the prospect of obtaining this execution drug. Senator Adam Morfeld labeled Ricketts' attempted purchase as: “Illegal drugs from a black-market source with no pharmaceutical background." Morfeld also said. “Twice now Nebraska has given Harris tens of thousands of dollars, and we have nothing to show for it.”
Rickett's attempted purchase of these illegal drugs calls into question his so-called business acumen and private sector experience that he claimed would benefit Nebraska. Instead, Ricketts failed to properly investigate Harris' background and paid way too much for too many drugs. Any CEO who did something like this would be fired. Moreover, Ricketts should reimburse the Nebraska taxpayers from his own vast personal fortune the $54,000.00 he squandered on the purchase of clearly illegal drugs from a sleazy con man in India.
Ricketts hasn't only embarrassed himself in his dealings with Mr. Harris, he has even managed to alienate former Governor Dave Heineman and started speculation that Heineman may mount a primary challenge against him in 2018.
Ricketts' squabble with Heineman began when it turned out that the State Patrol's overtime is costing the state about $50,000 more per month than the average monthly cost in 2014 and all years dating all the way back to 2002. Reporting by Deena Winter at Nebraska Watchdog has revealed that Ricketts frequently travels out of state and that his State Patrol security detail is racking up some of the largest overtime expenses in recent history.
Taylor Gage - Ricketts's spokesman - set off the dispute between the two GOP governors when he tried to defend Ricketts by claiming that Heineman traveled extensively in 2007-08. Heineman shot back and was able to prove that Ricketts' office provided information that was "inaccurate and misleading.”
This dispute between Ricketts and Heineman set off speculation in Republican circles that Heineman may challenge the current Governor in the 2018 GOP primary. In an interview, Heineman didn't rule out a future run for governor saying that: "I don’t think you ever say never. I enjoy it. I like it."
A Ricketts versus Heineman primary battle would be the political equivalent of thermo-nuclear war. Both candidates would be lavishly funded and would relentlessly attack each other. Whatever candidate emerged as the winner of the GOP primary would be wounded and the leader of a badly divided party.
This kind of primary fight could open the door to a Democratic governor in 2018. Both Jim Exon and Bob Kerrey defeated incumbent GOP governors after the incumbent Republican governor fought off a tough primary challenge. The Nebraska Democratic Party has several potential candidates who could run a strong campaign for governor.
All of this speculation about 2018 is interesting but we need to stay focused on 2016. The first step to ending Ricketts' ongoing reign of error is to elect more Democrats to the Unicameral in 2016. We are well positioned to have a good election cycle next year because we've recruited a strong slate of candidates and there should be a strong Democratic turnout in a Presidential election year. Now let's get it done! No excuses! We can do it!
One of the biggest issues of the race for the Democratic nomination is a candidates’ stance on environmental policy. This is not only because Americans have recently made it clear that they would like their next president to have a strong stance on the environment, but also because much of the money in Democratic politics is tied to environmental policy. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has even come out with a list of minimum acceptable standards for his chosen candidate. Due to the fact that Steyer spent around $74 million in the 2014 elections, many candidates are scrambling to put forward environmental plans that meet Steyer’s high standards.
Hillary Clinton has come out stronger than she has in the past on environmental issues. Her current plan would have at least 33% of the nation’s electricity produced by renewable resources by 2027. This is more aggressive than Obama’s plan to have 20% of electricity produced by renewables by 2030. Clinton’s plan also calls for the installation of half a billion solar panels by 2020. Overall, Clinton’s plan would cost $60 billion over ten years. She plans to offset this cost by putting an end to tax breaks for gas and oil producers. In addition to this formal plan, Clinton has made statements that show her opinions on a range of other issues. Clinton has come out in favor for pipeline and rail safety and tax breaks for renewables while coming out in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. The plan that Clinton has put forward meets Steyer’s standards and he has thrown her a campaign event at his home. Even though the plan meets Steyer’s standards and has been applauded by voters, some analysts are saying that Clinton’s plan won’t be achievable if and when she makes it into office.
In contrast to Clinton, Bernie Sanders does not currently have a proposed environmental plan. Even without a specific plan Sanders has proven himself to be a strong defender of the environment. He has publically declared his support for range of environmental proposals including increased use of renewables, carbon emissions taxes, tax breaks for renewables, and pipeline and rail safety. The list of things Sander opposes includes issues like offshore drilling, artic drilling, tax breaks for fossil fuels, and the Keystone pipeline. Sanders can also rely on his work in the House and the Senate to demonstrate his commitment to the environment. Bills that Sanders has introduced include the Residential Energy Saving Act, the Low Income Solar Act and the Green Jobs Act. In addition to helping introduce bills on environmental policy, Sanders has a very strong record of voting in favor of environmental issues. Steyer has not commented on Sanders eligibility to win his support, although it is doubtful that Sanders will be considered until he releases a formal environmental plan. Voters, on the other hand, seem satisfied with Sanders past achievements in environmental policy as proof that he will be a strong defender of the environment if he were to become president.
Martin O’Malley is currently the candidate with the strongest stated stance on environmental policy. He encompasses all of the stated views of Clinton and Sanders and takes many of them a step further. The environmental plan O’Malley has put forward has some very lofty goals and defines environmental protection as a moral obligation. His plan states he would have the entire nation powered by renewable energy by 2050 and would create a Clean Energy Jobs Corps. The Clean Energy Jobs Corps would do things like retrofit buildings with more energy efficient technology, restore and expand forests, and create green spaces. Other goals of the plan are strengthening the EPA, ending subsidies to fossil fuels, and investing heavily in clean energy research and infrastructure. Although O’Malley’s plan is the strongest in terms of the environment and certainly puts him in the running for Steyer’s attention, it may not be feasible. Much like with Clinton’s plan, analysts doubt that O’Malley could actually follow this plan once in office.
In conclusion, the field for this year’s democratic nomination has quite a few strong supporters of the environment. Both Clinton and O’Malley have released specific plans for how they would handle environmental policy while Sanders has shown his policy ideas through his statements and voting record. Although Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley all have strong stances on the environment, it is likely that Clinton will be taking home donations for environmental policy. This is because she has a stated plan and it is the most feasible.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was the most significant piece of social legislation to be enacted into law since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. Since the implementation of the ACA in October 2013, 17 million formerly uninsured Americans have obtained insurance coverage and the uninsured rate has dropped from 18% of the population to an all time low of just 9%. A poll conducted by the non-partisan Commonwealth Fund in June 2015 found that 81 percent those enrolled in ObamaCare plans are satisfied with their health insurance.
Despite the success of the ACA (or maybe because of it), the GOP has continued it's efforts to sabotage the implementation of this landmark health care plan. These sabotage efforts have been ongoing since the law began to more fully implemented in the latter half of 2013.
One of the most blatant and shameless attempts to wreck the ACA occurred shortly before the insurance exchanges went up in the fall of 2013. This Republican attempt to sabotage Obama Care involved the the intimidation of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, PGA, and NASCAR by Senate Republican leaders. The Obama Administration contacted these sports leagues and asked them to help spread the word about the new law so that people would sign up for the health insurance exchanges.
In contacting these sports leagues, the Obama Administration was following the precedent set by then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who partnered up with the Boston Red Sox to inform Massachusetts residents about the benefits of Romney Care. (In 2005, the Bush Administration ran a similar campaign to let seniors know about the Medicare drug benefit.) However, the Senate Republican leaders thwarted a similar campaign from the Obama Administration and bullied the sports leagues into not cooperating with HHS in informing people about Obama Care.
Another attempt to damage the ACA and hurt the American people occurred when the GOP filed a lawsuit in King v. Burwell that challenged the subsidy system. If this lawsuit had "succeeded,"approximately 6.4 million people would have lost their tax credits and experienced an average increase of 255% in their health insurance premiums. What's more, a "victory" by the Republicans in the King case would have resulted in 57,000 Nebraskans seeing their premiums soar and most likely would have forced these people to drop their coverage.
Another Republican attack on the ACA caused 113,000 Nebraskans and Iowans this year to lose health insurance coverage through CoOpportunity Health Insurance Company. This company was liquidated earlier this year because the Congress voted in December 2014 to to cut special risk-adjusting payments that CoOportunity was counting on receiving in 2015.
This cut in funding for CoOpportunity (and other health co-ops) occurred when House Republicans - at the eleventh hour - inserted an amendment aimed at cutting government funding for health co-ops into the must pass CRomnibus bill. (Passage of the CRomnibus prevented another government shutdown.) Senator Deb Fischer, and Representatives Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith voted for the December 2014 CRomnibus bill that killed CoOpportunity and canceled insurance policies for thousands of their constituents.
Ben Sasse recently noticed that many of his constituents lost health insurance polices that they liked and he told the Omaha World Herald he was looking for answers regarding the collapse of CoOpportunity and health insurance co-ops in nine states. Nebraska's junior U.S. Senator announced that he was going to block all of President Obama's nominees to the Department of Health and Human Service until he receives answers. (Incidentally, at about the same time, Sasse said he was interested in reforming Congress and reducing the gridlock in D.C.)
If Senator Sasse wants answers regarding the cancellations of these insurance policies, all he has to do is meet with Fischer, Fortenberry and Smith - who voted to destroy the insurance co-ops. If Mr. Sasse is genuinely serious about reforming Congress, he shouldn't be blocking qualified nominees who will be helping Nebraskans get better health care. Instead, he should form up a bi-partisan coalition to recommend improvements to the ACA. Sasse could easily find a willing partner by contacting Representative Brad Ashford.
The GOP is also sabotaging the ACA by blocking the Medicaid expansion in 20 states. This refusal to adopt the Medicaid expansion has caused an additional 5 million Americans to be uninsured and has caused insurance premiums in those states to be higher than those states that have adopted the Medicaid expansion.
Governor Pete Ricketts and a band of right wingers in the Unicameral have stopped a bi-partisan effort to adopt the Medicaid expansion here in Nebraska. This has prevented over 50,000 Nebraskans from obtaining insurance and has cost the state millions of dollars in federal revenues. Instead, our tax dollars are going to other states to finance their Medicaid expansions.
The Republicans will continue to sabotage the ACA and push for it's repeal. Just last week, Fortenberry and Smith voted with their fellow Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives for something like the 56th time to repeal - but not replace - the ACA. The GOP wants to destroy the ACA because it has proven that government can actually help people and improve the quality of their lives.
As Democrats, we need to message the benefits and successes of the ACA. Many Americans are still ignorant of the law's benefits and have only heard the negative propaganda about the ACA from the GOP and it's allies in the right wing media. We need to be proud of the ACA and how it has helped millions of Americans. If we run away from it, the voters will agree with the GOP and conclude that the ACA is a failure. I'm confident that once the voters become more familiar with the ACA, they will support it.
Next year's election will very important for the cause of health care reform. If the Democratic nominee is elected President, the ACA will probably be safe for the indefinite future. It will be almost impossible for any future GOP President and Congress to take away health care from millions of Americans.
On the state level, we need to elect more Democratic State Senators so we can break the right wing filibuster of the Medicaid expansion. The Nebraska Democratic Party has already recruited an outstanding group of candidates for the legislature. All of us need to contribute to these find candidates and canvas for them. Now let's get it done!
Representative Jeff Fortenberry has successfully marketed himself as a moderate since he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004. For example, when I ran for Congress last year, I frequently heard from voters that Fortenberry wasn't as extreme as the rest of the Nebraska Republican Congressional delegation.
The Lincoln Journal Star has also echoed Fortenberry's talking point that he is some kind of a thoughtful moderate. In a 2013 Lincoln Journal Star opinion piece, the Lincoln paper's editor alleged that Fortenberry was a "compassionate conservative" and found his alleged independence from the more extreme elements of the GOP to be "inspiring."
Fortenberry's voting record in the House of Representatives clearly indicates that he is no moderate and that he usually votes with the most extreme members of the House.
A good example of Fortenberry's philosophy can be found in his support of the 2011 default threat and his numerous votes for government shutdowns. I've singled out this portion of his record because this is the Congressional GOP's most reckless and destructive tactic. Fortenberry and his fellow Republicans have taken the position that they will hurt the American people unless President Obama gives in to their demands to cut Social Security and Medicare.
Representative Fortenberry was a staunch backer of the phony debt ceiling crisis that was ginned up by his party bosses and the Tea Party in 2011. In a press release dated May 31, 2011, Fortenberry stated he would vote against refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless the Congress adopted what he called "budgetary controls to get America's fiscal house in order." In other words, Fortenberry was prepared to crash the world economy unless the Democrats agreed to cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other middle class programs.
Fortenberry's threat in and of itself did serious harm to the American people in 2011. Due to the GOP's irresponsibility, the economy went from creating 200,000 jobs per month to creating only 100,000 jobs per month. The economy only began creating 200,000 jobs per month (or more) in 2013. Moreover, consumer confidence in 2011 fell to depths not seen since the economic crisis of 2008-09.
The next time Fortenberry and the Congressional Republicans threatened to hurt the American economy was the government shutdown of 2013. This shutdown - which cost the economy $24 billion and 120,000 jobs - is a perfect example of how Fortenberry pretends to be a thoughtful moderate while he votes with the Tea Party.
At a town hall meeting held during the run up to the government shutdown in August 2013, Fortenberry stated that he was opposed to a government shutdown. The First District Congressman said that a shutdown would lead to "very significant consequences for the country without accomplishing its goal. "
Mr. Fortenberry broke his word to his constituents and voted on September 20, 2013 to shutdown the government. This shutdown was aimed at defunding the Affordable Care Act and taking away health insurance from millions of Americans. Moreover, during this 16 day government shutdown, Fortenberry was never on the list of House Republicans who favored a clean continuing resolution and he never called for an up or down vote on this legislation that would have re-opened the government.
Once this deeply misguided government shutdown came to a conclusion, Fortenberry pretended that he had opposed it all along. As a matter of fact, he issued a statement claiming after that he "did not favor shutting down the government." Subsequently, about a year later during the 2014 campaign, Fortenberry told the Omaha World Herald that: “The consequence of shutting down the government was not healthy." What that means is that Fortenberry was for the shutdown before he was against it!
Despite the harm inflicted by the 2013 government shutdown, Fortenberry has continued to support government shutdowns in the current session of Congress. On both January 14 and March 3, 2015, Fortenberry voted to shutdown the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over an unrelated immigration issue even though the U.S. was being threatened with terrorist attacks.
Fortenberry's two votes to shutdown DHS over a partisan dispute with President Obama were especially reckless since a shutdown of that agency could slow down or weaken a U.S. response to a terrorist attack. The second vote to shutdown DHS came at a time when the Mall of America in Minneapolis was threatened with an attack by a radical Islamist group. Despite that threat to the Midwest, Fortenberry defended his votes by saying that: "The House of Representatives has done the right thing here. We've stood on principle."
Fortenberry followed up his two dangerous votes to shutdown DHS with a vote on September 30, 2015 against a bill funding the government through December 11, 2015. This time Fortenberry voted to shutdown the government over a dispute regarding federal funding of Planned Parenthood.
What we have here in Nebraska CD-01 is a representative who says one thing and does another. When Mr. Fortenberry is in Nebraska, he generally positions himself to be some kind of a thoughtful moderate who is willing to buck the party line if necessary. On the other hand, when Fortenberry is in Washington, he can be counted on by the radicals in the GOP to vote with them.
Fortenberry's numerous votes for government shutdowns proves that he is one of the more extreme members of the GOP House caucus. A thoughtful moderate wouldn't vote to harm the people in his district with a government shutdown or vote to shutter DHS when the country is threatened with an attack.
What we need to do as Nebraska Democrats is submit letters to the editor that reveal Mr. Fortenberry's true record. We should also email reporters who cover Nebraska's First District Representative and provide them with the evidence that Mr. Fortenberry is an extremist despite his soothing rhetoric. It's time that we let the people of Nebraska CD-01 know the truth about Representative Fortenberry. He is no moderate!
When Pete Ricketts ran for Governor last year, he promised to "Grow Nebraska." That was the central theme of his election campaign. Ricketts proposed the usual tired conservative platform of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and fewer regulations for big business as the magic elixir that would make our state more prosperous. (What he didn't mention was that a similar platform has been implemented with disastrous results in states like Kansas and Wisconsin.) Since Ricketts has been inaugurated as Governor, his economic development program has hit a series of road blocks and setbacks.
One of Ricketts' most embarrassing setbacks has to be the sudden and unexpected termination of Brenda-Hicks Sorenson as the Director of the Department of Economic Development. Hicks-Sorenson was selected by the search firm Ricketts hired with special interest money provided by the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. As it turns out, Hicks-Sorenson turned out to be grossly incompetent and was ousted at the instigation of the State, Omaha and Lincoln Chambers of Commerce. The Omaha Chamber should demand a refund of the money they paid to the private search firm!
What was little discussed by the Nebraska press was that Hicks-Sorenson was under fire in Wisconsin, where as deputy director of that state's economic development department, she authorized a loan without the proper vetting process to a prominent Scott Walker supporter. That loan has since gone in default - costing the Wisconsin taxpayers $500,000.00. There has been speculation that there may be legal repercussions for this failed loan.
Nebraska's Governor suffered yet another setback last week when Conagra announced it was moving it's headquarters from Omaha to Chicago and laying off over 1,000 employees. This was a serious blow to Omaha and Nebraska since Conagra had stationed it's headquarters in Omaha since 1922. Moreover, the State's taxpayers have spent $160 million on economic and tax incentives on Conagra since that company demanded tax breaks back in 1987 as the price to stay in Omaha. Yet we heard nothing from Ricketts about the brewing crisis in Omaha and he spent most of his time this last summer on foreign junkets and trying to bring back a death penalty law that hasn't been used in this century. Nebraskans would be much better off with a governor who fought for jobs rather than a largely symbolic law that has proven to be a failure.
Even though Conagra has announced it will soon be leaving Omaha, the overall Nebraska economy is still doing well. Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the country and there is approximately $700 million in the State's rainy day fund. Our state has experienced this success in spite of Heineman and Ricketts - not due to their actions.
In his last two years as Governor, Heineman proposed large, budget busting tax cuts that would have drained the State's hard earned surplus. Moreover, Heineman proposed a radical tax scheme that would have abolished state income taxes and financed a tax cut that largely benefited the wealthy by raising taxes on farmers, students, senior citizens and the sick. Fortunately, both of these radical tax schemes never were even voted out of committee.
Ricketts followed the path that Heineman blazed and proposed a large property tax cut that - like Heineman's tax cut bills - didn't even get out of the Revenue Committee. This regressive tax cut would've caused cuts in school funding and increases in other taxes.
Nebraska has prospered since the end of the 2008-09 recession - in part due - to a moderate majority in the Unicameral that has prevented the last two Governors from blowing up the State's budget with ill considered tax schemes that favor the wealthy. Nebraska Democratic Senators have led the way in this effort. For example, Heath Mello has shown outstanding leadership as Chair of the Appropriations Committee in crafting responsible budgets that drew nearly unanimous support from the Unicameral.
There were never any guarantees that Nebraska would avoid the fates suffered by Kansas and Wisconsin. In both of those states, right wing governors passed huge tax cuts for the wealthy and hoped (against historical experience) that they would pay for themselves. What occurred was that Kansas and Wisconsin had to cut funding for universities, schools and roads to balance their budgets. Moreover, both of those states have experienced sub-par economic growth due to these wrong headed policies.
Nebraska has avoided the kind of terrible outcome experienced by Kansas and Wisconsin thanks to our great State Senators and the hard work of Nebraska Democrats. Once again in 2016, we will have to go back to work to elect more Democrats to the Unicameral and preserve the moderate majority that has protected the state from the radical right.
We can take nothing for granted. Ricketts and some of his aides are already hard at work recruiting Tea Party Republicans to run for the legislature. Furthermore, we can expect these Tea Party candidates to be lavishly financed by Ricketts and his billionaire friends and allies.
It is up to us to prevent Nebraska from going the way of Kansas and Wisconsin. We Nebraska Democrats will have to be every bit as relentless as the right wing Republicans and the billionaires who finance them. We must never give up and never get discouraged. I'm confident that we will have a good election cycle in 2016 if everybody does their job. Thank you for all that you do!
When President Obama took office, the economy was in free fall and losing 800,000 jobs per month. Since he took office, the U.S. has experienced a record 66 consecutive months of private sector job growth and the economy has created on average over 200,000 jobs per month since 2013. The unemployment rate is now lower than it was at anytime during the Reagan Administration. All of this has been accomplished in the face of all out GOP obstruction and in some cases, outright sabotage. The phony 2011 debt ceiling "crisis" ginned up by the GOP and the 2013 government shutdown slowed down economic growth and hurt the American people.
The economic recovery is currently facing headwinds from developments overseas. The September jobs report was disappointing (but would've been considered good when compared to the last Republican Presidents) due to slowing economic growth in China and Europe. The European economy has been mired in a slow growth pattern for years due to an addiction to Republican style austerity.
International economic trends aren't the biggest threat to the recovery - the biggest obstacle to the best jobs growth since the late 1990s can be found here at home with the Republicans in Congress. Just recently, the Congressional Republicans agreed to temporarily avoid a government shutdown by passing a funding bill that finances the government through December 11. Once again, we could be facing the prospect of a damaging government shutdown during the crucial Holiday season when many retailers do most of their business. A leading Lincoln retailer once told me that the December Holiday season can make or break a small business.
The recent vote to fund the government through December 11 didn't come easy because once again it faced significant opposition from the radical right of the GOP. Both Ben Sasse and Jeff Fortenberry voted for another government shutdown. Their votes can be seen as extreme since both Deb Fischer and Adrian Smith voted to fund the government. Fischer and Smith are both considered to be staunch conservatives in the GOP caucus.
Representative Brad Ashford was the only member of the Nebraska delegation who showed any leadership on the issue. Ashford demanded that the Congress end it's undeserved vacation and return to Washington to address a long list of unfinished business. Congressman Ashford also offered to go without his paycheck in the event of another government shutdown.
A government shutdown isn't the only or the most serious threat to the American people. The Department of the Treasury has announced that the debt ceiling must be raised no later than November 5 or else the country will face the prospect of a default on it's obligations that could create a financial crisis as serious as the one we went through in 2008-09 after the collapse of Lehmann Brothers. The Republicans on Congress are facing these challenges at the same time they are going through bitterly contested leadership elections created by the surprise resignation of House Speaker John Boehner.
Unfortunately, there is some confusion about what raising the debt ceiling means and the Republicans are exacerbating the problem by misrepresenting what it's really about. As Democrats we need to get our message out about the debt ceiling and the disastrous consequences for the economy if the GOP refuses to increase it.
Just what is raising the debt ceiling? This is a much misunderstood and fairly routine (until recently) procedure. Former President Bill Clinton explained it the following way: "The reason that raising the debt limit is so unpopular is that people think you're voting to keep [increasing] deficit spending, instead of voting to honor obligations that were already incurred." In other words, raising the debt ceiling isn't like we're raising the nation's credit limit. Instead, it's like the credit card bill that the nation has just received in the mail. We need to pay it in order to maintain the full faith and credit of the U.S. Failure to pay our nation's bills by raising the debt ceiling would cause the rest of the world to lose confidence in our nation's ability to meet its obligations, increase everybody's interest rates, tank the stock market and send the already fragile world economy into another recession.
What the Republicans are threatening to do is to refuse to pay the bills that the U.S.A. already owes. Refusing to increase the debt ceiling would be like telling your credit card and student loan companies that your family has reached its debt limit. According to the Republicans in Congress, that means we can quit paying our bills.
Defaulting on the financial obligations of the U.S. is so radical that even the GOP aligned U.S. Chamber of Commerce has consistently come out against it in the past. In 2013, U.S. Chamber President Thomas Donohue said: “It is insane not to raise the debt ceiling. I know there are a lot of people, new people in the House and some of the guys in Heritage and other places talking about how we should burn down the House to build a new one. Well that is just fine if you knew what you were talking about, but you don’t.”
Before the Obama Presidency, raising the debt ceiling used to be a fairly routine process. When Ronald Reagan was President, the debt ceiling was raised no less than 17 times. During the Presidency of George W. Bush, the debt ceiling was raised 7 times. At no time did any party refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless the other party capitulated to its agenda. Many current Republican members of Congress voted to raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts or offsets during the George W. Bush Administration.
It is very important that the debt ceiling be increased and the government be funded before Boehner leaves office on October 30. The Republican House members running for the Speakership have promised more confrontations with President Obama and Kevin McCarthy has all but promised to shutdown the government if he doesn't get his way on the Affordable Care Act and immigration.
As Nebraska Democrats, we must keep the pressure on the Nebraska members of Congress to do their jobs by voting to pay our country's bills and fund the government. This is task is so essential that even the likes of Fischer and Smith recognize it. In contrast, Sasse and Fortenberry continue to demonstrate their extremism and recklessness.
The ultimate solution to the problem of Republican extremism is to elect more Democrats in 2016. I'm confident that the Nebraska Democrats will have an excellent election cycle in 2016 because we've recruited an outstanding slate of legislative candidates. Moreover, Brad Ashford is well positioned to get re-elected in Nebraska CD-02. Prominent Republicans speaking on background have told me that it will be difficult for them to defeat Representative Ashford in a high turnout Presidential election cycle.
I would urge everyone of you to contribute to the candidate (or candidates) of your choice in the 2016 election cycle. I can tell you from running for office myself, every little bit helps. I was grateful for all contributions I received - either large or small or inbetween. In addition, I would recommend that you canvas for our excellent ticket. Anymore, it's not enough to simply turnout to vote. We need to do more than that if we are to defeat the lavishly funded GOP machine. Now let's get it done!
I'm proud to be a Democrat due to our party's many accomplishments over the years. For example, nearly twice as many jobs were created during Democratic Presidencies as opposed to Republican Presidencies between 1962 and 2012. At the present time, President Obama has created more jobs than the last two Republican Presidents combined and the unemployment rate is now lower than it was at anytime during the Reagan Administration. (As we know, Reagan is regarded as the gold standard for Presidents by Republicans.) Every Democratic President beginning with Jimmy Carter has reduced the deficit and President Clinton was the last President to balance the budget.
The Democratic Party is not only the best party for economy, we have also been very successful in both insuring and lifting out of poverty millions of Americans. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) were all passed due to the leadership of Democratic Presidents and over the hyper-partisan opposition of the conservative wing of the GOP. These critical reforms would have never occurred during a Republican Presidency. The reality is that reducing poverty and insuring more people simply isn't a priority for the GOP.
The first major effort to reduce the poverty rate was Social Security which passed during the FDR Presidency in 1935. Before the passage of this program, poverty among the elderly was a serious problem. Many people were forced to retire early because their bodies were ruined through years of brutally hard labor during the first Gilded Age. Many senior citizens became a financial burden for their children and made their childrens' ability to retire to become more difficult. Other senior citizens were confined to the poor house or the poor farm - many of which had horrific conditions. Those poor seniors were essentially sent there to die.
In response to FDR's introduction of Social Security, conservative Republicans predicted that it would ruin the economy and the country. Conservative doomsayers prognosticated that workers would never see any benefits when they retired. Instead, the money would be spent on other priorities by the federal government. Other right wingers fearlessly predicted that FDR's New Deal would cause hyper-inflation and that if anybody every received any benefits, they would be rendered worthless by that inflation. As early as 1936, GOP Presidential nominee Alf Landon predicted that Social Security would go broke. (The right wing has persisted in making that erroneous prediction up to the present time.)
As it turned out, all of those predictions of doom and gloom turned out to be wrong. Social Security is the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Social Security presently keeps 22 million Americans out of poverty.
Social Security is not only preventing millions of Americans from falling into poverty - it is also in no danger of going broke. At the present time, this program is in a position to pay out all promised benefits until 2034. If absolutely no changes are made in Social Security by then, the program can still pay out something like 78% of it's promised benefits. Nevertheless, a series of small tax and/or benefit tweaks could preserve the solvency of Social Security for the indefinite future.
FDR wanted to include a health insurance program as part of his Social Security bill in 1935 but he lacked the votes in Congress to pass it. It took another Democratic President to finally realize FDR's vision when the Medicare program was enacted in 1965 during the Johnson Administration.
Before Medicare, approximately 56% of senior citizens lacked health insurance. This is because many senior citizens have illnesses and other pre-existing conditions that put the price of insurance out of reach for many of them. Simply stated, the private health insurance industry can't make money insuring senior citizens. That's why we need Medicare.
When Medicare was being debated in the early to mid-1960s, the conservative wing of the GOP predicted disaster would ensue if senior citizens were insured. Ronald Reagan led the GOP opposition to Medicare. At that time, Reagan boldly predicted that Medicare would "curtail Americans' freedom" and that "pretty soon your son won't decide when he's in school, where he will go or what he will do for a living. He will wait for the government to tell him." The former movie actor even went so far as to say that: "We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free."
Once again, as in the case of Social Security, all of the predictions of doom from the right wing of the GOP proved to be wildly inaccurate. Today, thanks to Medicare, nearly all senior citizens have insurance and 75% fewer are mired in poverty. Moreover, the combination of Social Security and Medicare have reduced poverty among the elderly from 50% to 9%.
The passage of Medicare was a tremendous accomplishment and success but there was still a major coverage gap in America. When President Obama took office, the U.S. was an exceptional nation in that we were the only First World industrialized country that lacked universal health care coverage. During the Bush Administration between 2001-09, 8 million Americans lost insurance coverage and the rate of the uninsured in this country soared to 18%.
In response to this breakdown in the U.S. health care system during the Bush years, President Obama proposed the ACA - which was aimed at insuring an additional 25 million Americans. Once again, the GOP trotted out it's tired and all too predictable prognostications of doom and disaster. John Boehner predicted the ACA would cause "Armageddon" and "ruin our country." Just two years ago, Ben Sasse made the absurd prediction that the implementation of the ACA would cause America to "cease to exist."
Once again, the silly predictions of doom and gloom from the GOP proved to be dead wrong because the ACA has proven to be a success. This landmark health care law has resulted in 17 million formerly uninsured Americans in becoming covered for the first time. The rate of uninsured Americans has fallen to an all time low of 9%. Thanks to the ACA, the number of uninsured Americans have fallen at it's fastest pace since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
As Democrats, we have the right to be very proud that our party has led the way in reducing poverty and insuring more of our fellow countrymen. However, we can't take these achievements for granted. The right wing of the GOP and the billionaires who finance them want to gut or otherwise abolish these programs because they prove that government can actually work and improve the lives of millions of Americans.
Unfortunately, Nebraska's Congressional Republicans have led the way in the thus far futile efforts to take away insurance from millions of Americans. Fischer, Sasse, Fortenberry and Smith have all voted to end Medicare as we know it and turn it into a voucher program. This radical privatization scheme would cost the average senior citizen thousands of dollars in additional out of pocket medical expenses every year.
These same four Nebraska Republicans have also voted repeatedly to repeal the ACA and go back to the old, failed health care system that President Obama inherited from the Bush Administration. If the Republicans were to get their way, millions of Americans would have their insurance policies canceled and those hated pre-existing condition clauses would return.
Not only is Medicare and the ACA in the cross hairs, Ben Sasse and virtually all of the Republican candidates for President want to privatize Social Security and turn it over to Wall Street. Just imagine the harm that all Americans would have suffered in the stock market crash of 2008-09 if Bush had gotten his way in 2005 and privatized Social Security? It could have turned a very deep recession into a depression.
What this means is that the stakes in the 2016 election cycle couldn't be much higher. The modern GOP is committed to gutting or otherwise repealing the Progressive reforms of the 20th and 21st centuries. We as Democrats need to run on our accomplishments and make sure the voters know about them. We will need to sharpen the differences with the GOP and inform the voters that they aren't your father's Republican Party. We need to let the voters know that we don't want to back to the dark days of 2008 when the economy was losing 800,000 jobs per month and millions of Americans were losing insurance coverage. As I've said before, if we don't message our accomplishments, nobody else will. Now let's get it done!
Will The GOP Members Of The Nebraska Delegation Hurt The American People Again With Another Government Shutdown And Default Threat?
For the second time in just two years, the Republicans in Congress are prepared to shutdown the government and hurt the American people again. The 2013 shutdown was over the Affordable Care Act and this year's shutdown will be over an effort to defund Plannet Parenthood. This is approximately the 12th time the Congressional Republicans have threatened to shutdown the government or default on the national debt since they regained control of the House in the 2010 election cycle.
This habit of Congressional Republicans to govern by threatening to sabotage the economy and creating phony crisises began in 2011 when they threatened to default on the national debt. Both Jeff Fortenberry and Adrian Smith were behind this reckless strategy. This debate over whether or not the U.S. would even pay it's bills resulted in the 2011 Sequester Act which according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office cost the economy 1.4 million jobs and caused a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating for the first time in our history.
Just the threat to default itself badly damaged the economy in 2011 and ended a promising economic recovery. Due to the GOP's irresponsibility, the economy went from creating 200,000 jobs per month to creating only 100,000 jobs per month. The economy only began creating 200,000 jobs per month (or more) in 2013. Moreover, consumer confidence in 2011 fell to depths not seen since the economic crisis of 2008-09.
Despite the serious harm inflicted on the economy by the phony debt ceiling crisis of 2011, the Congressional Republicans shutdown the government for 16 days in 2013. Fischer, Fortenberry and Smith all voted for the government shutdown. Candidate Ben Sasse also supported the shutdown and told the Omaha World Herald that he opposed the legislation that re-opened the government.
The 2013 shutdown was aimed at repealing the ACA , preventing millions of Americans from getting insurance and bringing back pre-existing condition clauses. Like the 2011 default threat, the 2013 shutdown hurt the American people. This ridiculous shutdown cost the economy $24 billion and 120,000 jobs.
Despite the failures of those past attempts to hold the American people hostage in 2011 and 2013, the GOP wants to do it all over again this month. There are only 6 legislative days left for the Congress to do the right thing and fund the government. Moreover, the debt ceiling must be raised again at the end of October. (Raising the debt ceiling doesn't authorize new spending. Instead the Congress is paying for spending it has already authorized. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling would be like buying a car and refusing to pay for the loan.)
The only member of the Nebraska delegation who has shown any leadership on this issue is Representative Brad Ashford. Nebraska's House member from CD-02 has called for the Congress to end it's undeserved vacation and return to Washington to fund the government. Moreover, Ashford has pledged to give up his paycheck in the event of another shutdown.
At the time of the writing of this article, we've heard nothing from Fischer, Sasse, Fortenberry and Smith regarding the government shutdown. We've heard nothing from them because they supported the last shutdown and can be counted on by the most extreme members of the GOP caucus to support another one.
The really tragic thing about the latest sabotage threat from the GOP is that 2015 was supposed to be the "first time in four years that the federal government is actually boosting economic growth, rather than detracting from it," according to an analysis by Macroeconomic Advisers. If the government isn't funded and/or the U.S. stiffs it's creditors, the U.S. could be headed back into recession, the report found. “A government shutdown would be one of the most ludicrous and self-inflicted wounds that I can imagine,” Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said in an interview, adding that lawmakers are “forming another circular firing squad.”
All Nebraskans should call on Fischer, Sasse, Fortenberry and Smith to join Representative Ashford in his pledge to go back to Washington to stop a destructive shutdown. I would urge all of you to flood their offices with phone calls, letters and emails. The continued prosperity of our country may depend upon those efforts. Thank you for everything that you do.
The Nebraska press and political insiders were dismayed by Ricketts' failed first legislative session in which his agenda was largely ignored by the Unicameral due to his inexperience and weak staff. As it turned out, several important measures such as the repeal of the death penalty and the granting of drivers licenses to the Dreamers were passed over his vetoes. Insiders from both parties at the Capitol were harshly critical of Ricketts and some Republicans even (justifiably) contended that the session was an "embarrassing start" for the rookie Governor.
Ricketts struggles have not only occurred over at the Capitol. As it has turned out, Ricketts has made several executive appointments that have proved to be a further embarrassment to his Administration.
When Ricketts ran for Governor last year, he touted his experience at AmeriTrade and contended that Nebraska would benefit from his business experience. In furtherance of that end, Ricketts hired a private search firm to conduct a search for key appointments and financed that search with money from special interest groups like the Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Unfortunately for the Nebraska taxpayers, Ricketts' highly touted (and overrated) talent search has saddled them with several unsuitable people serving in important positions. Moreover, Ricketts seems to have a tendency to select appointees from Wisconsin and Louisiana - which are GOP dominated states that have been plagued with corruption and fiscal irresponsibility.
A key appointment from Scott Walker's Wisconsin was the selection of Brenda Hicks-Sorensen as Nebraska's economic development director. In Wisconsin, Hicks-Sorenson served as the vice president at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. While serving in that capacity, she played a major role in that department’s failure to scrutinize the the financial background of a company that received a $500,000 loan that is now in default. The company that failed to pay off this loan from the Wisconsin taxpayers also happened to be a significant donor to Scott Walker's campaigns.
At least two key Ricketts appointments have come from another state that is suffering from Republican misrule. Courtney Phillips - who served in the number two post in the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals - was picked by Ricketts to head up the troubled Department of Health and Human Services. (HHS) That agency was allowed to disintegrate during the Heineman Administration and has been plagued by gross incompetence and mismanagement.
It is doubtful that things will improve at the Nebraska Department of HHS under Phillips' (so-called) leadership. Senior officials in Governor Bobby Jindal's administration used private email accounts to craft a strategy for making cuts in the amount of $859 million in that state's Medicaid program. (I'm still waiting for Fox and the GOP to condemn Jindal for this practice.) Despite these deep cuts in Louisiana's Medicaid program, that state is currently suffering from a $1.6 billion deficit created by Jindal's tax cuts.
Another failed appointment from Louisiana has further tarnished Ricketts' already tattered reputation for executive competence. The Governor's newly appointed state director of developmental disabilities - Yolanda Webb - suddenly resigned last week after only working in her new job for all of 5 days. Webb's resignation was bizarre and totally unexpected. She told Ricketts in her resignation letter that "I have decided (and sometimes life decides) that it's best to go in a new direction."
Ricketts hasn't had any better luck when making appointments of people who are from Nebraska. Brad Rice - who was selected to head up the Nebraska State Patrol - was sued for denying a promotion to a woman and saying that women shouldn’t be in law enforcement. The State of Nebraska was sued for discrimination in this case and lost in 2007.
The State of Nebraska probably lost this case because there was strong evidence that Rice committed perjury at the trial. During the trial, Rice repeatedly testified under oath that he never said that women shouldn't be in law enforcement. However, a State Patrol sergeant testified in that trial that Rice had indeed made that statement. (It wasn't all that long ago that the GOP was of the belief that committing perjury in a civil trial was a firing offense.)
The most disturbing and common thread in Ricketts' hires is that most of his top picks come from Wisconsin and Louisiana. What this should tell us is that Ricketts admires the records of Walker and Jindal and would like to bring their policies here to Nebraska.
Both Wisconsin and Louisiana are suffering from record budget deficits that were caused by reckless tax cuts for the wealthy. (At the present time, Wisconsin has a $2 billion budget deficit.) Moreover, both of these states suffer from corruption and cronyism.
In the 2016 election cycle, Ricketts will recruit and lavishly finance a set of legislative candidates to do to Nebraska what has happened in Louisiana and Wisconsin. As Nebraska Democrats, we can stop him by contributing to and working hard for our own slate of candidates.
In the last few months, Chuck Hassebrook, Steve Lathrop and Hadley Richters have recruited a bumper crop of 5 star recruits for the legislative races. We have excellent candidates for the Unicameral in almost every part of Nebraska. There is every reason to be optimistic about our chances in 2016.
Nevertheless, we can take nothing for granted. Ricketts and his billionaire friends will do everything they can to turn Nebraska into a banana republic. We can't let that happen. Now let's get behind our great candidates and have a good election cycle. We can do this!