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Posts published in January 2020

Shining a light


Education attitudes were highlighted most strongly in this year’s release of the Boise State University Public Policy Survey, which polls Idahoans on what they think about what’s happening in their state.

But a section toward the back of the survey, on a different subject, seems just as notable.

In the Energy and the Environment section, a pull quote noted this: “Currently, a majority of the energy developed in Idaho comes from clean sources, such as renewable energy, that do not use fossil-fuels.”

That sentence alone might take many Idahoans by surprise, since much of political energy in the state has been (for a long time) supportive of fossil fuels, and the headlines about oil and gas drilling at Payette County have gotten a lot of attention. Less attention may have gone to the headlines from last summer
that of the 18 wells drilled there, 10 had been shut down, and no drilling permits were pending.

The pull quote was right. A massive amount of Idaho electric power production long has been developed through hydropower - just ask Idaho Power about that - while the other long-time power component - coal-fired, based out of state - has been in retreat as a key factor. Meanwhile, wind and solar have been galloping ahead. One of the recent big and deserved news stories in that area concerns a new massive solar power field in the desert lands near Jackpot.

Idaho is a serious renewable power state, probably among the leading clean-energy production states anywhere in the country.

How many Idahoans know that is unclear; probably a distinct minority. And the Boise State study didn’t (to judge from its release statement) get at that.

But nevertheless it did say this: “68.5% of Idahoans responded that they either strongly or somewhat favored the state transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2050, and 24.9% opposed this goal.”

I’d be interested in knowing a lot more about the quarter of respondents in Idaho who opposed the goal. You could understand the concern in, say, coal country, where fossil fuel development is locally important to the economy. But why would Idaho have any interest in standing in the way of the trend? Idaho is not a major producer of coal, oil, or gas.

The numbers shift, as you might imagine they would, when the question gets at support for the transition “if it meant an increase in your power bill?” The worst-case scenario bumps up the negatives against clean energy to 40 percent.

But generally, attitudes among Idahoans are strongly favorable toward clean energy, and toward almost all kinds of it.

One question asked, “If Idaho increases its use of local, renewable energy, there are a
variety of possible sources of this energy . Do you favor or oppose increasing our use of the following sources” - and more than three-fourths of Idahoans said they support solar, wind, hydro and geothermal. Solar actually seemed to be the most popular, reflected in strong support (more than 90 percent) for credits on electricity bills when people connect their residential solar units to the grid.

Not a lot of all this popular support tends to be reflected in the Idaho legislature, and that’s a trend you see reflected across a number of subject areas across many annual iterations of the BSU Idaho surveys.

The reasons for that might be worth some survey inquiry in future years.

The tax man cometh


It’s a stark contrast to watch legislators propose some dramatic tax policy changes then read the Boise State Public Policy Survey.

I attended a Republican traveling town hall a few weeks back and there was lots of talk about property tax relief. I guess property values are going through the roof in the Treasure Valley. Property tax bills are going up. Rates haven’t changed, but valuations have and county governments and municipalities have to deal with the growth. The Republican legislators felt the need to provide some relief to homeowners.

There have indeed been some proposals early in the session. One suggestion is to double the sales tax and eliminate property tax. Another is to add a cent onto sales tax and prohibit local school or municipal levies. Both of these proposals would disturb the “three-legged stool” of Idaho’s tax structure which gets near equal revenue from sales, property and income taxes.

Keep in mind, sales and income taxes go mainly to the state general fund, but property taxes stay more local with counties. But over half of the state general fund pays for K12 education here in Idaho, so those income and sales taxes you pay don’t stay down in Boise.

Then you read the Boise State Survey and it seems Idahoans have a different perspective. More people think the state budget should stay the same (43%) than think it should increase (37%) but only 8% supported a decrease. When asked about taxes, a strong majority (68%) thought taxes were about right; only 20% thought they were too high. These conservative Idahoans also agreed (almost 60%) that the state was headed in the right direction. Only 30% thought it was on the wrong track.

So just what problem in our tax structure are legislators feeling the need to solve? Or maybe, now when people are pretty happy, those pesky legislators think a little disruption would be tolerated.

States do tax policy all manner of ways, and we have neighboring states with all three different flavors. Oregon has no sales tax. Washington, Nevada and Wyoming get by without an income tax. But comparing chocolate to strawberry to vanilla is just what tax wonks love to do. “Tax burden” is the appropriate term coined by such researchers and whenever the studies are done, Idaho comes in pretty darn low. One study by the Idaho Tax Commission in 2015 showed Idahoans had the second lowest tax burden in the country. I think the Boise State survey respondents sense the light burden and don’t feel the need for major changes.

Did you know the highest tax bracket in the Idaho income tax tables tops out at $11,554/ year? That means you could be in Idaho’s top income tax bracket and still be eligible for Medicaid. In essence, we have a flat income tax. Almost 97% of the state’s income tax revenue comes from people in the top bracket. Almost all of us pay the top rate of 6.92% on our income.

Earlier I mentioned the three-legged stool of Idaho’s tax structure. This analogy was always held up to me as a model for stability. When a recession hits, income and sales tax revenue plummets, but property tax revenue stays more stable. We saw this in 2008-9 with the Great Recession. Governor Risch’s tax reform of 2006 raised sales tax a cent but cut property taxes and Idaho education funding got cut. But local levies sure cropped up, didn’t they?

Representative Caroline Nilsson Troy made an interesting comment this week at a legislative coffee meeting hosted by the Moscow Chamber of Commerce. She pointed out how the committee that spends the money (JFAC) gets lots of support staff and interim study time. An investment in the committees that raise the money might be worth it too. That is, unless you think things are doing just fine.

What do we mean by that?


When we talk about politics, we find quite often that we aren’t talking about the same things. We are actually talking past each other.

We address political and social subjects as though some of us speak Urdu and others Swahili, so few of us actually absorb what those from different perspectives are saying and thinking. But we seldom admit we may be misunderstanding each other.

This sounds like an old problem, but the extent of it, and the way we experience it now, is relatively new.

Half a century ago, Americans mostly drew from a common well of public and political speech. Thus, in nearly all cases, we understood in similar ways what was being communicated.

We might disagree — and quite often did — about what conclusions to draw, what moral and ethical standards to apply, and what priorities to set. But we spoke, generally, the same language.

A person might be more sympathetic to the extremely different Joe and Eugene McCarthy. But what each of them said or meant never was seriously in doubt.

Today, words, phrases, concepts and even proper names now mean different things depending on which bubble you live your life in. That led me to reflect on the issue at more length in a newly released book, “What Do You Mean by That? How forked tongues and twisted words have taken over our politics.”

What is an “elite” and who is in it? Who is a “patriot” and what makes him or her so?

What do we mean by the “media?” Do its various elements have an agenda, and if so, what is it? (Different parts of “the media” can have different goals, of course.)

In the United States, the Constitution provides a definition and a means of determining what constitutes “treason,” but political advocates on both left and right toss the word into many other contexts.

I’ve been writing about politics, mainly for newspapers, for more than 40 years. And the job of communicating the same thoughts about the subject has gotten trickier with time. It has become necessary to take a hard look at the words we’re using and what we mean by them, because we don’t all mean the same thing.

Many are the people in America who use these words and ideas and toss them about as if everyone else conceives of them the same way. We typically swim in our own currents and use the words and their definitions we’re most familiar with, often unaware that others, many others, in our society are operating with entirely different dictionaries.

The result is, we do not hear the same thing.

A couple of years ago, a writer named Howard Polskin, after years in journalism and corporate communications, launched a website and e-mail publication called TheRighting. Its mission is to collect writings from the right side of the political spectrum “to help inform middle-of-the-road and liberal audiences about stories and viewpoints not on their radar screens that are shaping political opinion across a wide swath of America.”

What he collects are not differing philosophical views, but rather whole topics that never reach non-ideological media. And yes, I’ll assert flatly that there are such.

Entirely different worldviews are being formed out there, in the manner of a alien world creating sci-fi novelist. Many of the most intractable of our conflicts happen when these differing worldviews prevent us from making connections.

Few subjects have remained as heated, and less susceptible to mediated resolution, for as long as abortion. One problem is, the people in the opposing trenches define themselves in ways that do not link up at all — “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” — with no hope either side will take seriously the core concerns of the other.

There’s no engagement. And how could there be, when one side is thought to be “anti-life” and the other “anti-choice.”

The problem comes in different ways. What does a word or phrase mean — say, patriot, sovereign citizen, proper role of government, Medicare for All?

Patriot was a term in disrepute a couple of centuries ago. You didn’t want to be called one, especially if you were a politician.

Over time, it evolved into a descriptor of pride, then gained some use in sarcasm. More recently, it’s gained a lot of use — with no ironic intent — among extremist, militia and especially anti-government groups.

What you mean by “patriot” depends a great deal on who you are and who you’re addressing. And in the meantime, it is continuing to evolve.

Sometimes words we think of as being clear have developed split meanings — different meanings depending on where our allegiances lie.

Who is a Christian? Different people who call themselves Christian extend the word in very different ways, some broadly, some narrowly.

All of that has political as well as religious implications in this country.

Even more political than that, who or what is an “elite?” Some people apply the term to the wealthy and powerful, others to people with certain views, attitudes or backgrounds.

A more obvious example is “values.” Most people think values are important, but they don’t all celebrate the same values by any means.

There are new creations that pop up out of almost nowhere as well, such as “incel,” “fash,” “red pill,” even the better-known “#MeToo,” with little attempt to make them part of the larger cultural vocabulary. They’re intended as elements of language for insiders, not language for true communication.

Other words are used as epithets, such as “snowflake,” “enemy of the people” and “cuckservative.” Some of these can be turned around and used against their originators as well.

For some years, “snowflake” was a mainstay of message boards on the right. Now it is being increasingly used by those on the left.

Then there are growing uses in our political talk of academic-sounding terms — “cultural Marxism,” “stochastic terrorism,” “integralism” and “intersectionality.” They sometimes have slippery definitions almost begging to be misunderstood.

Many words and phrases are used by one element, but not another. Take “underachiever,” “red pill,” “real America” and “owning the libs.” They are used essentially as markers, as indicators, to suggest to a reader the stance and viewpoint of the writer.

That can work as long as you’re familiar with the overarching point of view. Otherwise, no.

The phrase “liberty-minded” might seem open and vague to many people. But to those who use it most, it has a highly specific and concrete meaning.

There is hope. If we think about these words carefully and demand definitions — asking, “What do you mean by that?” — it’s possible for us to restore more meaningful communication.

SOS for the salmon


Shortly after taking office as Idaho Attorney General in January 1983, I took a crash course in the life-and-death struggles of Idaho’s anadromous fish. The U.S. Supreme Court set oral argument that March for a case filed years earlier by a prior AG, Wayne Kidwell. The lawsuit was against Oregon and Washington, claiming the down-streamers were overfishing salmon and steelhead runs. Idaho sought an allocation of the fish runs.

I arrived in Washington two weeks ahead of the argument with about 20 banker boxes of records from the trial. My study of the records included the life cycle of every run, the upstream and downstream mortality of each run at each of the eight dams (4 Columbia and 4 lower Snake), habitat issues, the fish taken in the two rivers and the Pacific by all types of fishers, and practically every other factor affecting the survival or mortality of these remarkable fish.

The one thing that really struck me during my preparation for the argument was the devastating toll the dams took on the smolts during their downstream journey. It was almost beyond comprehension that such large numbers would get minced by the dam turbines, perish in the slack waters behind the dams or otherwise succumb to dam-related stress. Overcoming the dangers posed by the dams was obviously the key to survival.

The argument went fairly well but the outcome was not ideal. On the plus side, the Court ruled that each state was entitled to an equitable share of the fish and that each had a responsibility to conserve and augment the resource. On the other side, six of the nine Justices declined to set an allocation formula. Idaho ex rel. Evans v. Oregon, 462 U.S. 1017 (1983).

The case gave me an appreciation of these magnificent creatures and a strong commitment to do everything possible to protect and enhance their runs. It is hard to comprehend the strength and tenacity of these fish--fighting their way through hundreds of miles of rushing and cascading waters to regenerate their species and then die.

In the ensuing years, every conceivable measure has been tried to reduce mortality at the Snake dams--trucking or barging around the dams, spilling over or around them, whatever--but nothing has really worked. Some solutions increased survival on the journey to the Pacific, but it was found that large numbers of those fish suffered delayed mortality from the stress.

Despite the expenditure of about $17 billion, there has been little success in regenerating the wild fish runs. Of 100 smolts heading downstream, only 1 can be expected to make it back to its spawning grounds. The recovery target is 4% and the minimum is 2%. The draft Lower Snake River Dams Stakeholder Engagement Report released by the State of Washington in December estimates that the recovery target can be achieved by breaching the 4 lower Snake dams and increasing the spill level at the 4 lower Columbia dams.

A long-time observer of this drama, Rocky Barker, noted in an Idaho Statesman article last May that the solution to the problem is removal of the four lower Snake River dams. Instead of trying to figure out a way to get the fish safely around, through or over the dams, just punch through the dams.

It has taken me a while to conclude that this is the way to go. Other solutions can be figured out for getting grain to market, producing power and the like. But restoring this stretch of the Snake to its pre-dam condition is the only feasible way in my mind to safely flush the smolts to the Columbia. I would not support breaching if it would endanger Idaho’s control over its water. It will not!

With the increasing temperature of both the Pacific and the two rivers, the survival of anadromous fish runs has been made even more precarious. They might have a fighting chance if we can remove the main barrier to their continued existence. If the Snake dams stay intact, the salmon and steelhead won’t be around much longer. The Supreme Court indicated we have a responsibility to conserve and augment this valuable resource. Let’s do it.

“We are lost”


Soon, we’ll be done with this national impeachment embarrassment and can get back to watching Donald Trump turn whatever he touches to ashes. Maybe.

Or, if scuttlebutt is accurate, we might have some witnesses and documents. Rumor at this point. But, could be.

Like too many Republican senators, I haven’t watched every “breathless” moment. And, like the petulant and shameful Lindsey Graham, I haven’t stayed in the chair in the chamber where the Republican-authored rules said he should stay. The rules, it seems, were written for Democrats only.

Unlike the disgustingly partisan Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), I chose not to fall asleep or trot back to my office to avoid listening to the evidence.

Under normal journalistic principles, I wouldn’t write a review of the proceedings until their conclusion. Normally.

But, in this case, the GOP presenters will not disappoint in their expected avoidance of accuracy, facts and truth. They’ve so often telegraphed their intent that many observers can almost write the expected headlines in advance.

“Nothing Donald Trump has done merits being removed from office.”

“Trump and fellow Republicans were not permitted to be present or offer testimony in the House hearings.”

“Democrats operated in secrecy and refused Republican involvement.”

“Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton created the problems in Ukraine.”

Even a professional dumpster diver couldn’t find a single fact in such claims. But, that’s their story and they’re sticking with it.

You don’t have to be a lawyer to summarize all this impeachment business to date. There are enough lawyer “jurors” to deal knowingly with all the legal mumbo jumbo. Even if the likely outcome is a colossal miscarriage of justice.

No, all you need to know has been carefully and publically presented enough times that just about anyone with an open mind can make sense of the facts and understand the issues.

For this observer, the Democrats have most professionally presented a rock solid case. Even operating without key witnesses and the chain of documents denied them, Adam Schiff and company have masterfully laid out the facts. Absent all the resources they’re entitled to, they’ve made their case in support of both articles of impeachment previously approved by the House.

In a bit of irony I’m sure not lost on the Dems, last week, Trump tweeted an admission he’s guilty of the charge of obstructing Congress. In undeserved advance praise of his own legal team, Trump wrote “They (Democrats) don’t have the documents. WE have the documents.”

As a non-lawyer, even to me, that seems like an admission of guilt to the impeachment charge of obstructing Congress.

Also, just as an observer, it’s obvious the pick of Adam Schiff to head the Dems impeachment case was masterful. His Friday summation and charge to Senators was brilliant. A former federal prosecutor, Schiff built an almost perfect case. Without key witnesses and the storehouse of withheld White House documents, Schiff and his team used only publically accessible materials to create a damning presentation. Even the aforementioned Lindsey Graham publically acknowledged Schiff’s leadership and legal talents.

All of this was done with Dems having one hand tied behind their backs. And, with many Republicans blatantly ignoring the rules laid down by their own majority leader. Book reading, playing gadget games, doing crosswords, eating, sleeping or just walking out. Even several Senators who’ll be asking voters to re-elect them in 10 months.

Why would voters do so after witnessing such disgraceful behavior?

Somewhere in all the words, I found a statement by Schiff that hit close to home.

“The American people deserve a president they can count on to put their interests first. Framers (of the Constitution) couldn’t protect us from ourselves if right and truth don’t matter. And you know what he (Trump) did was not right.

“No Constitution can protect us if right doesn’t matter anymore. And you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months. He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to

“Right matters. And the truth matters. Otherwise, we are lost.”

Wise words that many Republican senators will never understand. Until it’s too late.

Free market health care


In his book Words that Matter, linguist Frank Luntz counsels against referring to “private health care,” if what you’re trying to do is to reduce, eliminate or de-emphasize such programs as Medicare and Medicaid (or, prospectively, the Affordable Care Act). Speak instead, he advised, of “free market health care.”
It does sounds friendlier, doesn’t it?
But what does it mean?
It means in practice, in the era of the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare; Luntz was writing a couple of years before its passage): going back, in many respects, to what the United States had previously. The ferocious political debates of 2017 and 2018 brought forward to the nation what that meant: Eliminating or diminishing health care insurance coverage for tens of millions – maybe most – of Americans.
Here’s a dispassionate take, from Wikipedia, on what the term could be taken to mean:

“In a system of free-market healthcare, prices for healthcare goods and services are set freely by agreement between patients and health care providers, and the laws and forces of supply and demand are free from any intervention by a government, price-setting monopoly, or other authority. A free market contrasts with a controlled market, in which government intervenes in supply and demand through non-market methods such as laws creating barriers to market entry or directly setting prices. Advocates of free-market healthcare contend that systems like single-payer healthcare and publicly funded healthcare result in higher costs, inefficiency, longer waiting times for care, denial of care to some, and overall mismanagement. Skeptics argue that health care as an unregulated commodity invokes market failures not present with government regulation and that selling health care as a commodity leads to both unfair and inefficient systems with poorer individuals being unable to afford preventive care.”

Those “market failures” are not a matter of chance or an occasional slipup, but an inherent part of the system.

Free markets, in the classic and idealistic sense, operate at least theoretically under arms-length, willing-buyer-willing-seller conditions. In many marketplaces that can and does happen, but in others specific conditions do not allow for it. In the case of health care, while there are exceptions, the consumer and provider are not on a level playing field with comparable leverage.

My one experience with hospitalization began when my wife called for an ambulance – sent by the only outfit available – which then took me to the nearest hospital. No options were seriously considered even for a moment; there was no time and no capability to assess (much less do a price comparison) of alternatives. Upon arrival at the emergency room, the demand was made that I sign an open-ended – completely open-ended – agreement that I would pay whatever charges were imposed, with no ceiling on the number of dollars involved, nor any way for me to control them. My life was at immediate risk, and neither I nor my wife anywhere in the process was given a chance to consider options or even find out how much expense we were committing to. Checking the alternative of another hospital or medical provider was not even a remote consideration. (We did not have health insurance at the time either, though the situation would not have been greatly different if we had.) This was not an arms-length, willing-buyer-willing-seller transaction. The only real choice involved here was: “Your money or your life.”

(I should add in fairness that the actual medical care I received was excellent, and because of that I soon recovered fully.)

In other terms, the health care system involves (as a Nobel Prize-winning economist argued) “a huge mismatch of power and information between the buyer and the seller. If a salesman tells you to buy a particular television, you can easily choose another or just walk away. If a doctor insists that you need a medication or a procedure, you are far less likely to reject the advice. And … people think they don’t need health care until they get sick, and then they need lots of it.”

Even aside from life and death situations, true arms length transactions are unusual. Changing doctors or medical centers is often difficult or time-consuming. For many people, multiple providers may be involved. Many patients, especially those in advanced age, may have difficulty dealing with the options even if they were all practically available.

Some medical treatments really are discretionary or allow for the time and information patients need to make informed and thoughtful choices. The free market can and frequently does (or could) work in those cases. But much health care is not on that level, and for most people, most of the time, getting it to work in a fair, useful and affordable way probably would take still more regulation at some level.

The system is immensely complex, and while the core of it in the United States has emphasized involvement by private providers, there’s long been governmental regulation of various sorts as well – not to mention the ugly elements of a highly competitive for-profit system, which often has a tendency to drive up prices and cut costs (service and quality for patients).

Writer John Daniel Davidson remarked, “We’ve never really had a ‘free market’ health care system in the modern era. What we’ve had is more like crony capitalism. We spend hundreds of billions every year subsidizing employer-sponsored coverage, which mostly benefits large employers, while also paying for a Medicare entitlement that includes every American over age 65 – even billionaires. We could create a market-based system that subsidizes those who need it while driving down costs for everyone else. But it would mean disrupting the cronyism that has dominated American health care for 70 years. So far, neither party has been willing to do that.”

That may be in part because neither has been able to find a way to make it work.

The Senate on trial


You may have heard a number of references this week to the Senate impeachment trials of two former presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, both of whom, given the long verdict of history, likely deserved to be convicted. Neither was, of course, and Donald Trump almost certainly will not be convicted either.

“The proceedings there look like a flimsy excuse for a trial,” David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, “and they are. But under the surface, a series of real trials is going on. Vulnerable senators sit in the dock, the jurors are voters, and the verdicts won’t come back until November.”

While the serially lying president is technically on trial for abuse of power and his corrupt obstruction of Congress, additionally it is the Senate itself and individual senators on trial and among the accused are Idaho’s get-along by going-along Trumpians, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch.

Neither Idahoan did anything this week to warrant the high public trust that voters have repeatedly bestowed upon them and their craven political opportunism may yet bite them. By repeatedly rejecting the notion that the Senate should actually conduct a trial of the president as the Constitution demands, Crapo and Risch have put the interests of the Republican Party – not to mention their own interests – ahead of the truth.

Both men voted over and over again not to seek witnesses or documents that the Trump White House has systematically refused to produce. This knowing disregard for information that could either convict or exonerate Trump may prove to be an effective strategy to prevent the truth from catching up immediately with the president, but the known unknowns of what is to come, a steady drip, drip of harmful revelations, should bring shivers to what is left of the spines of Crapo and Risch.

Risch also unintentionally provided what will both be a lasting image of Trump’s impeachment and a metaphor for his own bootlicking in service to the president. Since still cameras are not allowed in the Senate chamber an old-school sketch artist for the New York Times captured Risch in pen and ink, head buried in hand snoozing at length during the trial’s opening day.

Ironically, Risch’s afternoon nap came at the precise moment the Senate was debating whether to require the production of documents from the State Department, the agency of the federal government that Risch’s Foreign Relations Committee is supposed to oversee. It is worth noting that not once in the first year of his chairmanship has the napping Risch required an appearance before his committee of the Secretary of State who is positioned squarely at the center of the Ukraine scandal that engulfs Trump’s presidency. So, Risch’s sleeping is more than a metaphor it is a pattern.

But set aside the comparisons to the racist, bullying Johnson in 1865 and the womanizing, dissembling Clinton in 1999, the true historical analog to the current Trump trial happened in 1954. In December of that long ago year of the Eisenhower presidency the United States Senate actually acquitted itself very well by condemning the outrageous conduct of one its own – the junior senator from Wisconsin Joseph McCarthy.

As much as Trump’s presidency reminds us of Richard Nixon, another vulgar Republican who at least had the good grace to confine his bigotry to private conversations and eventually had the decency to resign the presidency short of being impeached, Joe McCarthy is Trump’s true political ancestor.

McCarthy, as the superb new documentary in the PBS American Experience series makes clear, based what became his celebrity and his Republican power on a lie. McCarthy rode the fiction of widespread communist infiltration of the federal government all the way to the top much as Trump rode the lie about Barack Obama’s citizenship to his own takeover of the GOP. Both men are bigots: McCarthy an abuser of homosexuals and “elites” in the entertainment world, while Trump attacks any critic, but particularly immigrants, Muslims and African-Americans like the black listed athlete Colin Kaepernick or Congressman John Lewis.

McCarthy was a bully. Trump is, too. Both count the repulsive Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s Senate aide and Trump’s long-time lawyer, as a godfather. Each attacked and skillfully manipulated the press and intimidated fellow Republicans into support or silence. Each tapped into something dark and sinister in the American psyche, the uncommon willingness to embrace the paranoid and ego driven impulses of a blustering demagogue. But there the parallels end because in 1954 the Senate, unlike today’s Senate, did something about McCarthy.

Led by Republicans who had had enough of McCarthy’s nonsense – a hero of the story was Utah Republican Arthur Watkins whose role in bringing down McCarthy featured in the first paragraph of his obituary twenty years later – 67 senators condemned McCarthy, as one biographer has noted, “for obstructing the business of the Senate, impairing its dignity, and bring the entire body into dishonor and disrepute.”

Yet with Trump Senate Republicans can’t muster the guts to even seek let alone confront the truth. As journalist Susan Glaser wrote the Trump defense team, much like the president, is “loud, intemperate, personally nasty, ad hominem, factually challenged, and often not even bothering to have a tenuous connection to the case at all.” The word “Ukraine” did not pass their lips.

A Senate on trial and found wanting may well have even longer-term consequences for the increasingly fragile American experiment than ignoring the crimes of an individual president. Once the sideboards of Constitutional constraint where the legislative branch holds to account the executive are chopped into kindling the whole structure weakens and slides toward collapse. Have no doubt that is happening.

In 1954 when Senate was on trial along with Joe McCarthy, Idaho’s then Republican senators, like Crapo and Risch today, took the path of party loyalty rather than institutional honor. Herman Welker, a one-term Idaho senator who if he is remembered at all is remembered as “an unflagging supporter” of his pal McCarthy, was one of 22 Senate Republicans – Idahoan Henry Dworshak was another – who refused to sanction McCarthy.

“I wonder,” Welker said after the McCarthy censure, “if we did not injure the reputation of the Senate more than we could have in any other way.” Welker’s prediction was blindingly wrong and history honors not him, but those like Arthur Watkins who defended the honor of the institution.

For Crapo and Risch it’s one thing to be a knee-jerk partisan, but an altogether more serious matter to be a wrecker of great institutions in service to a criminal president.



If you’ve purchased a car within the last decade, there’s a good chance its technology will let you make and receive telephone calls without ever touching your cell phone.

Motor vehicles produced these days, and for some time now, mostly are equipped with bluetooth technology, and every year the portion of vehicles on the road which do not include this equipment diminishes. Some non-equipped vehicles still stay on the road for a long time to come, but they will become rare.

It’s been more than a decade since the west coast states of California, Oregon and Washington passed state laws prohibiting the handheld use of cell phones while driving, and many other states have done that as well. (Passengers, of course, still can use them.) The specifics of these rules are a little different in every state.

They did not come out of nowhere. The National Safety Council has estimated cell phone use while driving is implicated in about 1.6 million car crashes every year. Nearly every state has regulated their use while driving in some way or another; Idaho has banned texting while driving, in common with nearly all the rest of the country.

In the case of more general no-handheld cells while driving laws, there was some complaint at first, but most people adjusted. Not everyone complies; cops still pull over drivers with some regularity for holding a smartphone while driving. (Any use of one, not just talking on the phone, is banned while driving.)

But increasingly, people actually have adjusted, either by using alternate technology, such as a car’s bluetooth capacity, or phone holders or other equipment. Or - imagine this - they increasingly seem to forego distracting conversations while managing a vehicle in heavy traffic. Either way, the smartphone-while-driving ban in these states, as in the many others which have placed them on the books for years, has been readily accepted.

Some Idaho cities have moved in that direction, and others might. The state overall has not, yet.

There’s something positive to say about not being an early adopter of a new product or a new idea. Why not let someone else do it first, and let them rather than you work the bugs out of it? You can also get an indication of the value of an idea by seeing whether other states have backed off from it; though in this case, states have been tending to toughen rather than weaken cellphone/driving bans as years have passed.

At this point, on this idea, in most of the states that have tried it, most of the bugs have been worked out. Idaho really can draw from the experiences of other states in fashioning a sensible policy in this area.

Idaho is still working on it. Legislation on the subject has been surfacing steadily in recent weeks. Some of it is negative; one is a measure similar to one from last session which would ban local government handheld/cellphone/driving bans.

One of the bills proposed for this year’s Idaho legislative session means to expand and toughen the law on distracted driving generally. It is so sweeping that it has attracted concerns even from law enforcement.

But there is a limit to these things. If you required by law - and got compliance - on a rule saying that drivers must at all times sit up straight, keep both hands at the 10 and 2 spots on the wheel, look at nothing but the road or mirror and neither talk with anyone nor listen to any other non-car sounds … what you’d have after a while is a zoned-out, barely-thinking, non-alert driver.

In other words, distracted.

So where to draw the line? That’s where past experience and good judgement is supposed to come in.

Idaho poverty and justice


Governor Little has a sense of justice. And he’s acting on it. He’s fighting poverty in Idaho, though he doesn’t freely use the term.

This week we remember Martin Luther King. He fought against racial injustice but more, he knew poverty was a millstone around the neck, preventing young children from developing the content of character by which he famously called for us to judge them. But many rise up out of poverty and grow their character, and indeed, grow their wealth. Justice guards that path from poverty.

In Idaho, as well as nationally poverty is defined based on monthly income; this gives us the measure “Federal Poverty Level”. Many dispute these terms, but if you are going to measure something, you need to be consistent. I’ll use it.

If you look at that national designation, Idaho is actually pretty low, with only 11% below 100% FPL, ranking us near the bottom. Nationally, nearly 14% live below 100% FPL. But if you look a little higher, folks making less than 200% of the FPL, we jump up to the top third, with 34% earning less than $2082/month. Nationally, only about 30% earn less than 200% of FPL.

So, Idaho has poverty, but more, we have many folks working hard and not making a lot. We are a low wage state. That pathway out of poverty, guarded by justice is paved with education. Idaho folks would benefit greatly from the opportunity of education, a free, common, uniform education, as our Idaho Constitution guarantees. Our founders knew it; Brad knows it.

And Governor Little knows, for primary education to be valuable and effective, the ability for students to read at grade level when they reach third grade is a key indicator. Most of those that can’t struggle going on in the grades; many of those that can will thrive. He has committed investment toward early reading capabilities. It is a worthwhile investment. And, as always, there is more to do.

The other move Governor Little has made for justice in Idaho has to do with the recently released criminal offenders. Idaho has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. Over a third of those in the system are there for crimes involving drugs or alcohol. Furthermore, Idaho has the highest recidivism rate (people released, then returned to prison). So, we incarcerate many with fixed sentences for drug violations, and when they are released, they often go back to jail or prison for parole violations.

Reintegrating offenders takes an investment. The recently passed Medicaid Expansion law will help felons in need of medical care, since, odds are they will be working a pretty low wage job that might not offer health insurance benefits. Brad knows this value and knows the investment is worth it.

But Governor Little knows the path for released offenders from the structured chaos of the prison environment to the goal of productive community members would benefit from sign posts; limited structure. He has put funding to operate a community reintegration center in Twin Falls. Low risk offenders will live there in a supervised setting, continuing programs and working in the community before being released.

Work gives more than a paycheck. It’s a place to build relationships, confidence, skills and value. And people need more than money to climb out of poverty.

I appreciate our governor’s commitment to justice. All people deserve our respect and all, under our Constitution have the right of justice. But making positive steps forward take time. And there is more to do.
To quote Martin Luther King:

If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.