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The tools of foreign policy

A new column by M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., a political scientist whose specialities include American foreign policy and the history, politics and governments of the Middle East.

“War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.” James Madison, 1793

Donald Trump was impeached, but acquitted, for extorting a foreign government to advance his reelection and for obstructing Congress’s inquiry into his political shenanigans.

He should, however, have been impeached and convicted for exploits far more serious: assassinating Iranian General Qassem Suleimani and his Iraqi counterpart, Mahdi al-Muhandis, abetting Saudi Arabia in its lethal bombing campaign in Yemen, and starving Iranians and Venezuelans with crippling economic sanctions. Congress has, in effect, avowed that bribing officials of a foreign government is impeachable, but killing them is tolerable.

Owing to America’s history of extrajudicial killings, Trump believed he had the power to order a death sentence outside the purview of Congress.

With the exception of the 1975 Senate Select Committee, chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church, little has stood in the way of interventionist presidents. Church’s committee concluded that the CIA had attempted to assassinate the leaders of Cuba, the Congo, the Dominican Republic, Chile and South Vietnam. It recommended that Congress outlaw assassinations.

To counter congressional action and maintain executive agency, President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905 in 1976, which reads: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan issued similar executive orders.

According to these executive orders—still in effect—the extrajudicial execution of political opponents, in peacetime and in war, is illegal and a violation of existing norms. However, U.S. administrations have used circuitous terminology and logic to circumvent prohibitions and to legitimize political killings.

Since September 11, 2001, the term “targeted killing” has crept into political and public discourse to legitimize America’s execution of non-state political adversaries. U.S. administrations have contended that the prohibition against political assassinations does not preclude taking action against terrorists. Seldom questioned, however, is who has designated the United States to be the singular and decisive power to define terrorism and identify terrorists.

Former presidents took the ban on assassinations into account and attempted to develop rationales to overcome legal obstacles. Trump did not. The Trump administration acted unlawfully—committed a crime—when it killed a military leader of a country the United States is not at war with, based on questionable, unsupported claims that Suleimani posed an “imminent threat.”

Invasions, regime change, assassinations, sanctions and threats have been tools of U.S. foreign policy for decades.

The international exploits of U.S. presidents have often been shameful. Instead of impeachment or censure, presidents have been heralded with eponymous libraries, showered with million dollar book deals, and honored in death.

According to U.S. intelligence, Russia intervened in the 2016 U.S. election. Ironically, the United States has been interfering in other countries’ elections since the Second World War.

From Truman to Trump, American presidents have taken the United States to terrible places based on false narratives. They have orchestrated the overthrow of more than 40 governments, putting in place despots palatable to U.S. political and corporate interests. Acting on the premise of self-defense, presidents have ordered lethal operations against leaders they found unacceptable.

Over the past century, the executive branch has amassed power while the legislative branch has ceded it. Congress must assert its power by making clear that starving people, deposing governments, ordering assassinations and initiating wars are serious offenses that call for impeachment. Sadly, until then, the longstanding injustices and brutalities of American foreign policy will not end.

(c) 2020, Dr. M. Reza Behnam

Evaluating performance


A guest opinion by Jim Jones and Bruce Newcomb, about the Idaho state Office of Performance Evaluations.

There has been talk of reducing legislative support for the Legislature’s independent and nonpartisan Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE), which has been nationally recognized for its excellent work. The OPE has provided the Idaho Legislature with valuable information about the effectiveness of a variety of governmental programs. We believe it would be a mistake to reduce financial support for the OPE, change its mission, or take away its independence.

The OPE was established in 1994 to provide the Legislature with in-depth research regarding the workings of governmental programs, whether they were achieving their objectives and how they might be made more efficient. The programs to be examined and evaluated are selected by the bipartisan Joint Legislative Oversight Committee (JLOC).

Prior to the establishment of the OPE, performance audits were periodically made of all governmental agencies, regardless of how they were functioning. The reviews were fairly superficial and did not specifically target programs that appeared to be struggling to attain their objectives. The OPE has been able to better inform legislative decision-making by identifying problem areas in important programs and suggesting alternatives to eliminate them.

It is important to have an oversight committee with an equal-party balance to identify problem areas for investigation. When those having different policy outlooks can agree on the programs that do not appear to be cost-effective and efficient, it makes sense to focus attention on those programs. The investigations by the OPE are fact driven, leaving it to the Legislature to adopt policies to address the problems identified.

The OPE has worked on quite a number of programs that were perceived to be struggling and has been able to give the Legislature the information it needs to fix them--improving operations at the Idaho Transportation Department, strengthening public contracting practices, reforming Idaho’s foster care system, increasing efficiencies in the parole process, recommending that the Legislature and Department of Health and welfare develop a long-term vision and plan for taking care of individuals with intellectual disabilities, and proposing a number of improvements in Idaho’s public education system.

The OPE has received national recognition for its forward-looking, problem-solving work, including awards for excellence from the National Legislative Evaluation Society, the American Society for Public Administration and the American Evaluation Association. Its investigations have helped the Legislature to identify how to spend taxpayer dollars in the most effective manner to meet desired legislative goals.

Some have suggested that OPE resources should be diverted to the legislative budget-writing committee to provide quicker, less in-depth answers as to where state revenues should be spent. We think that would be a mistake. Evidence-based spending decisions are essential in this time of growing problems and shrinking resources. There is a place for quick and dirty decision-making but it should not supplant the deliberative approach that has been so effective with the OPE. Why throw out or hamstring an office that is working and producing results for the benefit of taxpayers? If it ain’t broke, it don’t need fixin’.

Bruce Newcomb served 20 years in the Idaho House of Representatives, including eight years as Speaker. Representative Newcomb, a Republican, and Senator Bruce Sweeney, a Democrat, served as first co-chairs of JLOC.

Jim Jones served 8 years as Idaho Attorney General and 12 years as a Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court.

Homelessness this season


From a post by Erik Kingston, Boise, who works professionally in housing services and analysis. (This post has been updated.)

The recent Jesse Tree newsletter states that 2,246 Ada County residents became homeless for the first time in 2018—a period that developers, realtors and the local officials who support them would describe as one of ‘unmatched prosperity and growth.’ It is ridiculously easy to become homeless right now…far easier than it was 16 years (or four terms) ago.

More and more of my calls on the housing information line are from retirees—mostly women—in their 70s and 80s and facing homelessness for the first time in their lives. But many also include working families and individuals in low-wage service sector jobs. One day an investor buys the property and they receive a notice that gives them two choices:

1. Sign a new month-to-month lease with a 30% to 40% rent increase

2. Move.

But if moving is their only option (because SSI doesn't go up 30% to 40%), here's the thing: the Rental Vacancy Rate (RVR) in Ada County as of Dec. 6 (yesterday) was 0.4% for units affordable to a household income of $41,000 or less. That’s less than one available unit for every 200 units in that price range. The actual numbers from on 12/6/2019 tell me that out of 6,173 units in that price range, only 25 show as available.

That’s not much to choose from if—for instance—a 188-unit complex is snapped up by a Beverly Hills hedge fund and a third of the residents are forced out. When any outside investor assumes ownership of our local housing market, two things happen:

1. Rents go up and tenants can become ‘housing cost burdened’ (spending more than 30% of their income on rent) or ‘severely housing cost burdened’ (spending more than 50% of household income on rent). This means they have less money to invest in the local economy, also known as ‘foregone spending.’ Shift Research Lab estimates that for 2018, ‘foregone spending’ in Idaho—owing to housing cost burden—totaled $670M

2. Displaced tenants face significant financial and emotional stress, which can lead to compromised mental and physical health, lost productivity, domestic violence, suicide, and increased reliance on public programs and resources that represent a public subsidy to the private equity of investors.

It doesn't matter that many of these tenants—particularly seniors— have worked their whole lives and now receive social security and a small pension.

It doesn't matter that they've lived in the same rental for decades, have always paid rent on time and are model tenants.

It doesn’t matter that they’ve developed a support network (i.e. 'social cohesion and capital') with fellow tenants, neighbors and local businesses that allows them to look after one another rather than relying on public services.

It doesn’t matter that ‘homeless shelters aren’t designed for women my age’ (actual quote from an 85 year-old caller being forced out of her home of several decades by the new investor/owner).

All that matters is than an investor or group of investors have identified her Boise home as a commodity—an opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of these tenants, their neighborhood, and our community.

How will she move a lifetime of memories, furniture, dishes, medical devices, clothing, photos and art from her grandkids? Where will she live?

Tops in millionaire growth: Oregon

From a report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

The number of taxpayers reporting annual income of $1 million or more has risen faster in Oregon than any other state, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy’s analysis of newly released data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

From 2010 to 2017, the number of Oregonians with at least $1 million in annual income jumped 133 percent, the Center said. Meanwhile, growth nationally averaged 75 percent.

“This new IRS data strengthens the case for raising taxes on the rich to fund public services that benefit all Oregonians,” said Center communications director Juan Carlos Ordóñez. “It adds to the growing body of research showing that tax rates matter little, if at all, on where rich people decide to live.”

In 2010, the starting point of the data made available by the IRS, Oregon put in place higher tax rates on high-income earners. In January of that year, voters approved Measure 66, one of two successful tax measures on the ballot. Measure 66 raised Oregon’s top marginal tax rate from 9 to 11 percent for couples (joint tax filers) with income above $500,000 a year. The measure also raised the tax rate to 10.8 percent for couples with income between $250,000 and $500,000. In 2012, those rates came down to the current level of 9.9 percent — still higher than before Measure 66.

The IRS data shows not only that Oregon outpaced the nation in growth of the total number of taxpayers with at least $1 million in income, but also in the size of this very high-income group relative to the rest of the state’s taxpayers. “Examining the data this way takes into account differences in population growth among the states,” Ordóñez explained.

The Center found that Oregonians reporting at least $1 million in income made up about 0.1 percent of all Oregon taxpayers in 2010. By 2017, that share had grown to 0.22 percent of all Oregon tax filers. That amounts to a 110 percent growth in the share of tax filers with top incomes — a figure eclipsed by only one state, Georgia.

“At the same time that we’ve seen sharp growth in the number of million-dollar incomes in Oregon, we’ve also seen a housing crisis explode, college tuition climb, and preschool stay out of reach for half of all children in our state,” said Ordóñez. “On many levels, it makes sense to ask the richest Oregonians to contribute more toward the common good.”

The Oregon Center for Public Policy ( is a non-partisan, non-profit institute that does in-depth research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues.

About Oregon’s record low unemployment …

This is from a report issued late last month by the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

Although Oregon’s unemployment rate is lower than it has been in decades, not every aspect of the state’s labor market looks rosy. A new report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy points out that more than one-third of counties in the state have yet to make up the job losses from the Great Recession and that the wages of the typical Oregonian have barely budged.

“By some measures, the Oregon jobs market has rarely looked better, but the statewide figures can mask the difficulties some communities are facing,” said OCPP policy fellow Audrey Mechling.

From a record high of 11.9 percent in 2009, Oregon’s unemployment had fallen to 4 percent by July 2019, according to the Center’s analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was the lowest jobless rate since at least three decades back.

Yet, as of 2018, 14 Oregon counties — all but one of them rural counties — had not recovered the jobs lost during the Great Recession, the Center said. Those counties were Umatilla, Baker, Malheur, Lincoln, Union, Coos, Douglas, Lake, Gilliam, Klamath, Curry, Grant, Harney, and Crook counties.

Among all rural counties, the unemployment rate stood at 5.5 percent in 2018, compared to 3.6 percent in the counties making up the Portland-metro area.

The unemployment rate also remained uneven along racial and ethnic lines, according to the Center. The 2018 unemployment rate for Latino Oregonians stood at 5.6 percent, compared to 4.1 percent for White Oregonians. Prior analysis by the Center also found significantly higher levels of unemployment among Black Oregonians.

And despite the big swing from record level unemployment during the depths of the Great Recession to record low unemployment at the end of 2018, the typical Oregon worker has seen little in the way of a pay increase, the Center’s report said. Real hourly wages for the median earner in Oregon increased by only 3 percent from 2009 to 2018. Since 1979, wages for the median earner were up only 1 percent.

“When wages remain stagnant even in the face of one of the longest periods of economic expansion and lowest levels of unemployment, it’s time for lawmakers to put in place policies that increase the paychecks of workers,” Mechling said. “From boosting tax credits for working families to removing obstacles to unionization, there is much lawmakers can do.”

The use of teaching health centers

From a guest opinion by Ted Epperly, MD, CEO, Family Medicine Residency of Idaho, Boise; Boyd Southwick, President, Idaho Academy of Family Physicians, Idaho Falls, and Neva Santos, Executive Director,
Idaho Academy of Family Physicians

James needed a sports physical and a vaccine booster in September. In November, he fell from his bike and broke his arm. In February, his parents made appointments for preventive colonoscopies. In March, his younger sister developed an ear infection. In August, his grandmother was diagnosed with high blood pressure and started a long-term treatment plan.

All of them went to the same doctor for their health needs. That doctor, a family physician, was trained in a teaching health center—a community-based residency training program that analysts say is an invaluable tool for increasing primary care physicians and addressing the maldistribution of doctors.

Since their inception in 2010, teaching health centers have been very successful in recruiting medical students into primary care and training them in comprehensive patient care at less cost. Currently, 56 teaching health center residencies are training 728 residents in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
In fact we have a Teaching Health Center (THC ) right here in Boise Idaho. The Family Medicine Residency of Idaho was one of the original 11 THC’s in the United States and has done a lot to help train family medicine physicians for rural and underserved parts of Idaho.

Equally important, they and their graduates have provided much-needed health services to 66.4 % of people in Idaho and nearly 80 million Americans living in health professional shortage areas. Research shows that more than nine out of 10 teaching health center graduates remain in primary care practice and more than three out of four plan to work in underserved communities. Studies also have documented that teaching health center residents are three times more likely than traditionally trained residents to practice primary care in a community-based clinic. Other data show that nearly twice as many residents who trained in teaching health centers went on to practice in underserved settings compared to their counterparts who trained in hospital-based programs.

That’s important because we know that an increase of one primary care physician per 10,000 people reduces deaths by more than 5%. Patients—particularly the elderly—with a usual source of care are healthier and have lower medical costs. They have better care coordination and fewer expensive emergency room visits, unnecessary tests and procedures. In contrast, those without a usual source of care have more problems accessing health services and more often do not receive appropriate medical help when it’s necessary.

Teaching health centers’ continued success now depends on Congressional action. Unless Congress reauthorizes the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education Program, federal support ends on Oct. 1. Ensuring a robust program requires a five-year extension and increased funding that can support new teaching health center programs, particularly in rural and underserved areas. Currently, the Training the Next Generation of Primary Care Doctors Act reflects family medicine’s goals of reauthorizing the THCGME program for five years, authorizing adequate and sustainable funding for existing residency programs, and supporting expansion into more rural and underserved communities.

This is critical. A Robert Graham Center survey of teaching health centers found that more than four out of 10 teaching health center residency programs would be very unlikely and more than two out of 10 would be unlikely to continue supporting residency positions without continued federal funding. Due to funding uncertainty, some programs have slowed their recruiting or closed over the past few years. Congress should pass this legislation immediately to prevent a disruption in the pipeline of primary care physician production.

The current primary care physician shortage and maldistribution remain significant physician workforce challenges. An Annals of Family Medicine study projects that the changing needs of the U.S. population will require an additional 33,000 practicing primary care physicians by 2035. With reauthorization and expansion of the THCGME Program, however, the United States can make significant strides in meeting the challenge.

Normalizing lying

This is a submitted guest opinion from former U.S. Representative Larry La Rocco.

President Trump’s State of the Union address touched me personally. And not in a good way.

As a former U. S. Representative from the First District of Idaho I was privileged to spend four years working in the hallowed House Chamber in the US Capitol. If you have visited or seen it on TV, you immediately grasp its historic significance and its relationship to our nation’s core values.

The State of the Union has gravitated toward increasingly more theater, campaign rhetoric and partisan messaging, but it still serves as an important vehicle for presenting the President’s agenda and gauging the reaction of the Congress. The speech is a dramatic spectacle filled with the leaders of the three branches of government under one roof at the exact same moment. It can be simultaneously spine chilling and stomach churning depending on the issues at hand, the behavior of the audience, the height of the oratory and the tenor of the message.

The 2019 speech for me was, quite simply, sad. Here’s why: it contained false claims, misleading statements, mis-characterizations and outright lies. The State of the Union is the place where falsehoods and dishonesty should be parked at the curb. The well of the US House of Representatives is not a plane hangar. President Trump’s mendacity fouled the hallowed chamber and it is inexcusable.

We live in a contemporary world of fact checkers. Pick your favorite: Politifact, The New York Times, Politico, NPR, The Washington Post, Snopes, The Annenberg Public Policy Center; and the list goes on. The Washington Post has documented 8,459 false claims and misleading statements in the first 745 days of the Trump Administration.
Depending on your political persuasion and your preference for news sources, that
claim of falsehoods could be off by anywhere from zero to 8,459. However, the “Pants on Fire” list of documented Trump lies by Politifact goes on for many pages. The New York Times meticulously catalogues the lies by subject and date. The other sources have cited hundreds of instances of outright falsehoods and the facts to
back up their claims.

I was deeply saddened because I believe the State of the Union should be a safe zone for facts. It is not a place or time for lies. President Trump stretched the truth 30 times based on fact checking by The Washington Post. His lies were mainly on immigration and the economy over the course of his 82 minute world-wide address. Anyone can access a fact-checking source with a phone or computer.

We must question whether Americans have become so accustomed to President Trump’s lies and falsehoods that it has become accepted behavior. We cannot brush this deceptive behavior off as “whataboutism” which is a convenient way of saying they all do it. No, they don’t all do it. This isn’t about “equivalency” and settling political scores with rivals or partisans. 8,459 falsehoods in two years is 8,459 too many.

The State of the Union speech was instantly accessible to 327 million Americans and was viewed worldwide. To wrap our brain around political mendacity and its insidiousness we should localize the impact of it on our lives in Idaho. What if Senator XXXXX gave the commencement speech at Eagle High school, and it contained 30 falsehoods? What if Congressman XXXXX spoke to the Parma Lions Club and dished out 30 lies? What if Governor XXXXX spoke to the Idaho Farm Bureau and skirted the truth 30 times? Would those speeches be acceptable to Idahoans? I don’t think so.

Yet, the Idaho Congressional Delegation sat in the hallowed House Chamber for the one hour and 22 minute State of the Union message, absorbed 30 falsehoods preceded by two years of thousands of false claims and lies and said nothing. Maybe they even stood and applauded when the emotional and dishonest red meat was served.

I was deeply shaken by this year’s State of the Union because it strayed from the truth for purely political reasons. We must demand better. Lying to Americans is not normal. I fear its normalization will tear at the core values we cherish and protect. President Trump should be ashamed, and his enablers should as well.