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A shutdown of votes and wishes

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On December 19, the U.S. Senate passed on a voice vote - with no opposition in evidence - a bill aimed at averting the impending federal government shutdown. It had support of all or nearly all Republicans and Democrats in the chamber, and was thought likely to pass in the House of Representatives. Senators started singing Christmas carols on the floor.

Then came a declaration from President Donald Trump, who initially seemed to back the bill, but after taking heat, said he would not sign it because it did not include funds for construction of a border wall with Mexico. That killed the bill in the then-Republican-led House. It was nonetheless an actual compromise, something un-thrilled Democrats and Republicans could (and in the Senate, did) vote for.

After party control shifted, the House wound up passing a measure much like the old Senate bill - which, once again, had been supported by nearly all Senate Republicans as well as Democrats - with the statement that funding for the wall could be considered separately. In fact, it has voted for 10 related bills along those lines, with mostly Democrats in favor but picking up some Republican backing. One Republican voting aye on the bill passed on Wednesday was Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho. He will take heat for that.

On Thursday, the Senate voted on and killed two budget bills. One was backed by Trump and touted as a compromise, though it contained no concessions and included what the corporate world would call “poison pills”. Only one Democrat supported it. The other was called the Democratic bill - though, once again, this was largely the same thing Senate Republicans had solidly backed a month earlier - and though it got a half-dozen Republican votes, it too failed. Idaho’s senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, were not among the six.

Idaho’s congressional delegation has had a busy week.

Simpson said, “The House voted on a package of bills that were negotiated last year between the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats. Although it does not represent my preferred starting place for negotiations, I support it because it includes provisions that are important for Idaho that I personally worked to secure, including increased funding for sage grouse conservation, PILT, wildfire prevention and suppression, and a prohibition on listing sage grouse as an endangered species, among many others.” But he also blasted Democrats for not looking more favorably on the Trump proposal.

His new fellow Idaho representative, Russ Fulcher, was quoted as saying, “It’s not a debate about what the right thing to do is, it is a power play between the speaker and the president. That's basically all this falls down to."

Actually, it must be more than that, or else the votes behind the speaker and the president, which allow them to take these positions, wouldn’t be there. And it does after all have immense national impact.

Fulcher: “My urging is to forget about the politics, forget about the party moniker right now.” But unlike Simpson, he voted against the proposal which, once again, had been developed and approved by both Republicans and Democrats.

A week ago, Risch participated with a group of Senate Republicans offering a bill to avert federal government shutdowns in the future, by setting up an automatic continuing resolution - sort of putting the federal government on temporary budget autopilot - in case of a budget stalemate. He also said, “Shutting down the government is the complete opposite of what we were elected to do - govern. I have co-sponsored this legislation year after year and hope we can finally move it forward. Real people with real problems get caught in the balance of government shutdowns and we need to act for them and for the sake of government efficiency. I would prefer a smaller and less intrusive government than what we have, but regardless it needs to operate.”

Good sentiments, and at the least a reasonable legislative concept. But with all these good intentions and good will, why are the votes - all of the delegation’s votes - still not there for an actual compromise, like the one Congress had but a month ago, to end a shutdown now with no end yet in sight?
 

Book: Proof of Collusion

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Quite a few years ago, I read (and still have a copy of) a book called Silent Coup, which sought to answer some of the questions and clarify some of the fuzzy areas surrounding the Watergate scandal.

In it, author Colodny reviewed a mass of facts surrounding Watergate. It did not exculpate Richard Nixon or his aides, at least in general, but it did provide a significant reinterpretation of the evidence. The summary at Amazon.com says, offered "revelations shocked the world and forever changed our understanding of politics, of journalism, and of Washington behind closed doors. Dismantling decades of lies, Silent Coup tells the truth." It received high touts from President Gerald Ford and a number of people connected to Watergate. It was an intriguing read.

But time hasn't been kind to Silent Coup. Several figures in the story, including one-time White House counsel John Dean, punching some critical holes in it. The biggest revelation in the book, the identity of journalistic source Deep Throat - Colodny built the case for Alexander Haig - fell apart when Mark Felt's identity as the mystery man was released by reporter Bob Woodward. They tentposts of Silent Coup's story largely fell apart.

It was a cautionary note that came to mind reading the current book Proof of Collusion: How trump Betrayed America, by Seth Abramson. In this far more recent story - we're much closer in time to the events described than the Watergate book was - the author spins for us the story of what happened in the relationship between Donald Trump and key officials in Russia. It, like Colodny's book, builds a case: Here, that there is clear evidence of collusion between Trump and his campaign, and Russia.

There's some temptation to draw a cautionary note from the Silent experience. The difference between the books, though, is also clear. Proof is an assembly of facts, a lot of them, are little is extrapolated from them.

Abramson is an attorney, and much of the book reads like a brief in a legal case. It's not quite that dry (the material is a grabber), but it's written in Joe Friday fashion, with much more emphasis on the plain and undisputed facts than on argumentation about them. Where the facts are not clear or undisputed, Abramson seems to be forthright about that too.

The caution is in how much information is still out there. In just the last few days, another critical piece of information - an acknowledgement, apparently, by Trump spokesman Rudolph Guiliani that Trump-Russia hotel negotiations continued right up to election day, rather than ending many months earlier as had been alleged - came into public view. More will be found by journalists, by congressional committees (we can only guess what the House may now unearth) and by special counsel Robert Mueller. How much more, we can't even really guess.

And yet ... so much is already out there that it's hard to conceive how what remains could be very exculpatory. The assembly into a coherent chronological (roughly) narrative is what Abramson has done here, and the sheer volume of what we already know really is astounding. What he has written (as of before the turn of the year) is so detailed that it almost feels like a complete story. And it is very well documented; through much of the book, most sentences are footnoted, and the detail and backup are impressive.

The whole story won't be told for some time to come. But Proof of Collusion does a solid intermediate job: It gives us a good framework for putting into place the information yet to come, and working out what it means.

As the title hints, it doesn't look good. And its hard to see how it could, even if what we now know is all we know.
 

The Idafornia shirt

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The operative phrase used to be “don’t Californicate Idaho.”

Now, in the age of the meme, it’s an image, showing Idaho melded to the top of California, the merger called Idafornia.

On a shirt.

An artist from Nampa named Scott Pentzer created it, though the design is so simple almost anyone could have. Pentzer said he drew it in 2014 but didn’t bother putting it on a shirt or trying to sell it until very recently.

When he did, he got reaction. Fox News said on its website, “Within hours the internet lost its mind. After two hours on the Facebook page, the post garnered 200 comments.” More than 500 more were added to that before the post was killed. (Doesn’t take much for the internet to lose its mind.)

The image on it shows a single red fill outlined to the shape of Idaho perched on top of California, with the word “Idahfornia” within.

What’s the point? To note the real link between the states, what with so many Californians moving to Idaho - an estimated 21,000 of them in 2017, presumably as many or more last year. Most say they’ve moved to escape the high prices in California, which mainly means exploding housing prices in the coastal state. Buying a home in many of California’s urban areas has moved beyond middle-class capacity, but houses in Idaho are cheaper - albeit fast becoming more expensive, partly because Californians selling their old digs can afford to pay more. In turn, many Idahoans are being priced out in places like Boise.

Pentzer told the San Francisco Chronicle, "It tapped into a nerve or something. I know [California transplant resentment] is out there a bit, from some of the stories I heard. But I never knew Idahoans hated Californians that much."

There’s long been some California resentment. (And not only in Idaho: An Oregon governor’s famous plea to vacation in Oregon but not stay there was aimed largely at Californians.) And it goes back a long way: Aside from Native Americans and farmers from Utah, most of the early territorial settlers in Idaho, and many of its leading government and business leaders, were former Californians. That fact drew some sharp words even a century ago.

But what are the effects now of this growth driven in significant part by California?

Politically, the analysis on that has shifted over time. In the mid-eighties, when the modern California stream of newcomers got underway, there was for a while some thought that Idaho politics might veer left as a result of more moderate incoming people from the coast. Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way: Idaho seemed to be a magnet mainly for more conservative Californians, politically red people escaping a state getting steadily bluer.

But might some of that be changing now? I got an e-mail inquiry last week from a woman considering moving to Sandpoint but hesitating because she’d been hearing it might be overrun with racists and skinheads. Over time, the conservative flood of the last generation may thin out.

Many moving to the Boise area, meanwhile, seem to be arriving with the idea that it’s simply another modern American metro area - which it is - and the politics hasn’t been a large factor. That suggests a broader mainstream of people may be coming to Idaho, and if it continues it could lead to political moderation as well.

The Fox report quoted one Tweet as opining something reflecting that idea, after a fashion: "What happens when Californians flee their failed state but bring their failed political ideology with them? They transform Idaho into California. Cali used 2 b one of best states in the US, now it's the worst. Won't be long b4 Idaho turns from red to purple, then blue.”

That end result may be overstating things. But it’s a point to ponder.
 

A supermajority session

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One decade ago, following the 2008 general election, something unusual happened at the Oregon Legislative Assembly: One party controlled both chambers with supermajority numbers.

Democrats held 18 of the 30 seats in the Senate, and 36 of the 60 seats in the House of Representatives. The numbers were significant, because since 1996 the Oregon Legislature has been required by the state constitution to obtain three-fifths of each chamber to approve "bills for passing revenue." Until 2009, neither party had controlled enough seats in both chambers to meet that requirement.

The 2009 session was ambitious for the Democrats. Its results included the Healthy Kids Act (for children's health care), major transportation projects (including the Newberg-Dundee bypass) - and significant tax increases to pay for it all, changing income and other tax levels.

In the 2010 election, Democrats lost their supermajority control. In the House, they lost enough seats to result in an even split - meaning joint control - with Republicans.

Now, a decade after all that, Democrats again have supermajorities in both chambers - just barely. They control 38 of the 60 House seats, and 18 of the 30 Senate seats. (One of the Democratic senators has been known to split from the caucus on certain votes from time to time.) A question for legislators this session is: How cautious might they be, considering recent history?

Some early indicators say: Not very. Governor Kate Brown, fresh off a campaign in which her opponent argued that schools have been underfunded, has proposed a $2 billion tax increase, intended mainly to boost public school funding.

One of the critical questions surrounding that will call for quick consideration: Exactly where should expanded funding go? Brown's proposal is aimed mainly at public schools. But higher education advocates point to persistent underfunding of the state's colleges and universities. Several organizations, including the Oregon Student Association (which includes college and university students) are pushing for as much as $2 billion more for higher education.

School funding may be getting a brighter spotlight this session than usual, but it is a perennial issue, and other perennials will sprout as well.

The high cost of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) will come in for another examination, as in many past sessions. The scaling down of costs urged by its critics won't necessarily get a lot farther than it usually does (which is not very), but some new ideas are being broached. Among them, coming from at least one Democrat: Developing a new system of retirement planning for new public employees along the lines of a 401K system.

Greenhouse gas control, which was a hot topic in the last couple of sessions but did not get far, will be back. A planned "cap and invest" bill has been in development for weeks, and may be one of the hottest debate topics early in the session. Brown's proposed budget could provide some added impetus this year on the subject, since she is proposing creating a new Oregon Climate Authority which would help govern a state carbon marketplace.

The coming months will also, however, see a large collection of new, or at least newer, legislative proposals.

Affordable housing, the subject of the only constitutional amendment approved by voters on last year's general election ballot, will be the focus of several bills. What form the proposals may take is not clear yet, but an evident voter concern about the issue is likely to result in a strong push. One option mentioned by many legislators (and pushed by a group called the Community Alliance of Tenants): A statewide plan to set limits on rent prices.

Other hot-button topics may generate bills which have a rougher ride. Guns will be back for discussion with a proposal to increase penalties for owners who fail to secure their weapons. One bill summary suggests the new law could impose fines of $500 for a simple offense and up to four times as much if a child gains improper access to the gun. Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem is proposing Oregon toughen its driving under the influence legal limit, dropping the allowable level from a blood alcohol level of .08 now to .05. Only Utah has a limit that low.

Senator Floyd Prozanski, who in 2017 proposed an unsucessful measure which might lead to interstate commerce in cannabis, has said he may be back with a similar idea this session. A business group called the Craft Cannabis Alliance is proposing to do something similar. (The trade would apply only, of course, to states which like Oregon have legalized marijuana.)

How to pay for all the many ideas circulating? That's where much of the heat - and the critical nature of a Democratic supermajority - come into play. Plenty of tax proposals have surfaced, ranging from increases in minimum business taxes, to changes in kicker tax rebates, to changes in how property assessments (for tax purposes) are calculated. In most recent years passing these tax plans has been, if not impossible, then very difficult. They may be easier with supermajority Democratic control.

At least up to a point. Some Democrats may hit the caution button along the line, recognizing that Oregonian tolerance for tax increases, especially very many at any one time, is distinctly limited. The latter weeks and months of this year's session may hinge on that calculus of the desire to make improvements and advance services around the state, against the cost of paying for them.

The formal session begins in January 22, and runs to mid-summer. A short organizational session will run from January 14 to 17 and include formal swearing in, committee organization and bill introductions.
 

What Little said, and didn’t

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Like many State of the State speeches by Idaho governors, Brad Little’s first speech to a joint session of the Legislature this week was notable for what the new governor said and what he left unsaid.

No one will accuse Little of scaling many oratorical heights, but his compact, workmanlike 35-minute address did help to both establish his agenda and begin to define his governorship as distinct from outgoing Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Little paid tribute to his political partner for the past decade, but then pivoted on a dime and said, “I stand here today not to reminisce about Idaho’s past, but to look to our future.”

The Otter era is over and something new is beginning to unfold.

Little’s rhetoric about the importance of improving education in Idaho was short of aspirational flurries, but the sentiment he expressed about the importance of education seems entirely genuine.

“I know there’s a strong correlation between our education system and the attractiveness of our state to entrepreneurs and businesses,” Little said. “Most importantly, a strong education system helps ensure we keep our best and brightest here in Idaho.”

The challenge to Idaho of keeping the best of the state’s talent at home to gain an education and then land a good job will only increase, and Little seems to instinctively grasp that better schools equal a better economy. His stated determination to keep education at the head of his agenda will serve him well and, I suspect, eventually put him at odds with the skinflints in the Legislature. And that highlights what was left unsaid by the new governor.

There was virtually nothing in Little’s speech to challenge the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature and in fact he took two potentially contentious issues off the Legislature’s plate, at least temporarily.

By finessing the first half-year funding for the Medicaid expansion approved overwhelmingly by voters in November, Little left that fight for next year.

Likewise, while citing uncertainty about state revenue collections, the governor effectively postponed another battle about eliminating the sales tax from grocery purchases, a position he had campaigned on but now acknowledges he lacks the cash to pay for.

In politics, a decision postponed is a decision made and this can was kicked down the road. We’ll see how long the can keeps rolling.

To his credit, the new governor stepped up to assume responsibility for what he called “accountability to Idahoans” for such things as the recent customer service snafus with driver’s licenses. But pointedly Little did not extend the idea of accountability to the ethics of lawmakers or to improvements in campaign and personal financial disclosure, areas where Idaho continues to be very old school and very far from transparent.

Little also declined to challenge legislators with any big plans for really addressing Idaho’s woeful record of high school graduates advancing to further education.

He passed on pushing for meaningful pre-kindergarten education, an initiative broadly supported by the business community and by virtually everyone who understands the importance of giving kids an early educational launching pad. The Legislature has long dithered on such issues and this year at least the new governor seems content to let the dithering continue.

As Boise State University professor Stephanie Witt wisely pointed out, the governor’s speech was also devoid of “fed bashing,” and happily so.

Poking a stick at a federal agency or two has been a standard feature of State of the State speeches in the recent past. Instead, Little struck a cooperative, collaborative tone with talk of working with public land managers. Little’s approach is a welcome change, especially if he sticks with it.

Also missing entirely from Little’s accounting of the State of the State was anything about great and pressing issues that consume Washington, D.C., and threaten the economy.

“Idaho remains a heavily trade-dependent state,” Little said, “with around $2 billion in agricultural exports. When markets are open, agriculture makes the most of those opportunities. When markets are disrupted, we feel it.”

Well, markets are being disrupted, thanks to the simple-minded trade policies of a president who never met a market he didn’t seek to upset. Idaho’s dairy, fruit and potato growers, even the state’s upstart brewing industry, have felt the sting and there was no mention of Idaho’s trade future in China and Mexico, where the state actually has offices to push exports.

One has to assume that pointing out unwise trade policies promulgated by a Republican administration, even when those policies hurt Idaho industries, is apparently too sensitive an issue to raise in a room where 84 of the 105 legislators are Republican.

No single speech, even a new governor’s first State of State, can possibly articulate the full vision of a new administration.

Little may have wisely limited his first year agenda to schools, keeping the economy strong and providing careful stewardship of the state budget. What the governor’s vision lacks in aspiration is balanced by its careful and modest practicality.

Little’s real test will be whether he’s willing to use the full power of the office he now holds to shape legislative outcomes he truly cares about.

His predecessor often seemed reluctant to engage and occasionally confront a Legislature that has rarely in Idaho history cared much about what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing.”

Governors can, if they wish, create a vision and with real leadership push and pull a Legislature to be better than the status quo. Little has all the necessary preparation for the job. His first big speech provided some broad brush hints at what he wants to do.

Check back in April to see if he leads the Legislature or if, more in the style of Otter, he affirms what lawmakers ultimately decide to do.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.
 

Brad speech, Butch speech

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Brad Little now has two major addresses - inaugural and state of the state - under his belt as Idaho governor, and they might have given a focused indication of what he will do.

But not exactly. We’re probably going to have to keep watching to figure that out.

The speeches were capable, professional and appropriate. But they were not revelatory; he almost seemed to be holding back rather than expounding on how he thought things should be.

The inaugural was a hello, a thanks and a pointer to the upcoming state of the state speech, delivered as usual on the first day of the Idaho Legislature regular session.

That speech, at about 4,000 words, was shorter than all but one of predecessor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s speeches (and maybe even shorter than that one, from 2017). But otherwise, beyond a slight difference in tone - attributable to different personalities - Little’s address was a lot like most of Otter’s. Little, of course, was present to watch and learn from his predecessor; he was on the podium just behind Otter while most were delivered.

Some of Otter’s earlier speeches leaned heavy on ideology: free markets, limited government, Washington is awful, etc. The last of those came in 2011, and since then Otter - while of course never leaving his philosophy behind - spent most of his SOS speeches talking about policy specifics.

Senate Democratic leader Michelle Stennett was quoted as saying of the Little speech, “I did a happy dance. Because really, much of what he said is something that as Democrats we have been talking about and trying to pass for 10 years — at least as long as I’ve been here. ... Education, the highlights of his speech, are things that we have been working very hard toward.”

That suggests this speech marked a clear change in direction from the last gubernatorial dozen years (at least). Maybe that will materialize, but the speech provided little evidence.

I asked one veteran observer of these speeches what differences he saw; he cited a higher visibility for the first lady and representatives of the state’s Indian tribes, and no real Washington-bashing. But that was about all.

Consider education, to which Little devoted a large chunk of his speech. He had quite a few specifics on offer and some policy changes, though nothing as prospectively dramatic as Otter’s recent proposal to upend the structure of Idaho higher education. But then, Otter has talked about education quite a bit too. In all of his last half-dozen speeches, at least, he devoted about as much discussion to education as Little did. Education accounted for almost a quarter of his longest address, in 2018. And he put his discussion of it in strong terms, as when he started in 2013 by saying, "Like you, my highest priority remains public schools."

The most-noted specific in Little’s speech: “On election day over 60% of voters approved Medicaid expansion. For months I made it clear I would honor the will of the people. I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach. We need spring in our safety net so that there are multiple pathways for the gap population to move off Medicaid and onto private coverage.”

The first part seemed definitive enough, but what did the last part mean? Was he calling for work requirements, and if so what kind, or something else, or would that be a misreading? What are the parameters he would or would not accept? Little’s short statement on the subject was treated almost as a break from Otter, but Otter repeatedly (albeit unsuccessfully) tried various compromise approaches in the Medicaid-expansion area, up to and including 2018. Would Otter have said something much different about the Medicaid initiative if he were still governor today? Not a bad question.

How the Little Administration will differ from the Otter Administration, other than in personnel (locus of many changes) is something we’ll need more time to process.
 

No it didn’t

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Shortly I'll get around to an overview look at the first state of the state speech delivered by new Idaho Governor Brad Little. But before I get to that, one allegation contained in it deserves a review.

The context was Little's statement that "I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach," though he didn't specify exactly what that would entail.

Then he made this statement, reflecting some of what he said during the recently-concluded campaign:

While making health care available to low-income individuals we should also do what we can to make affordable, accessible, quality health care available to all Idahoans.
An unintended outcome of the Affordable Care Act is that too many people are priced out of health insurance coverage. In the past two years, the number of uninsured Idahoans increased by 125,000 – almost double the gap population. As Idaho continues to enjoy the fastest-growing economy in the nation, the number of insured Idahoans should be increasing not decreasing.
We must pursue strategies that contain health care costs.

My first response when I heard this (and the many comments like it made by many Idaho politicians) was this:

That's funny. Before the Affordable care Act, I went more than a decade without health insurance; which is to say, without health insurance that would have done me any good. I could have afforded a garbage health insurance policy that would have done me no good, but what would have been the point? A policy like the one I have had since the ACA went into effect was simply out of reach for me then; it would be now but for the subsidies the ACA has provided. (A decade ago, without insurance, I was hospitalized and faced a hospital bill of tens of thousands of dollars, and calculated that if I had been able to afford health insurance then, the premiums would have been so costly that dealing with that massive bill alone was better. Some insurance.) Today and for the last several years I have decent coverage.

My second response was that this isn't just me. Something like 20 million people have been in the same position and gotten insured thanks to the ACA when they otherwise could not (the best efforts of the Trump Administration and Congress to kill their health insurance options notwithstanding).

Priced out of health care? My policy, which covers has been roughly similar through the ACA years, did bump up in price a couple of years ago, actually dropped a bit this year, but throughout has remained decidedly affordable. The numbers of people using marketplace insurance policies has remained more or less stable, which ought to put paid to the idea that "An unintended outcome of the Affordable Care Act is that too many people are priced out of health insurance coverage."

The website Factcheck pointed out, "Republicans say the average family health insurance premium has increased by $4,154 under President Obama. That’s right — and it’s a much slower rate of growth than under President George W. Bush. In fact, employer-sponsored premiums have been growing at moderate rates for the past few years. This is a prime example of what we call a “true, but” claim: an assertion that’s technically correct, but changes in meaning or significance once it’s put in context or fully explained."

And: The RNC’s “fact check” goes on to list more figures from the KFF survey, including the accurate statistic that the average premium for single coverage through employers has gone up 28 percent “under Obama” That’s right again, but much lower than the growth of individual premiums during Bush’s first six years. That increase was 72 percent."

The situation isn't great now, for sure. But it's a massive improvement over what came before it.

That's the ACA marketplace aspect of the picture, of course - not many other aspects of health care. The Medicaid expansion fix is another element of that. The biggest aspect, not much covered in the talk about insurance, is the cost of health care and its many drivers, and the problem of health cost won't really really be reined in until that is addressed.

But let's be clear about this: For tens of millions of Americans, the Affordable Care Act has made the health insurance picture better, not worse. Period.
 

The western secretary

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When in early 2006 Idaho was mentioned as source material for a new federal Interior secretary, I was a little skeptical. But it panned out: The state’s then-governor, Dirk Kempthorne, was named and confirmed to the position.

My reason for being dubious wasn’t specific to Kempthorne. He was a second-term governor not seeking re-election (and presumably looking for his next landing place), with a fellow Republican who would succeed him and no disqualifying scandals or other problems. All of that made for understandable sense as a prospect.

My skepticism came from how Idaho almost always seems to be mentioned for Interior, but has been far more often bridesmaid than bride. Before Kempthorne, just one Idahoan led that department - another governor, Cecil Andrus - but someone in the state almost always seems to be mentioned as a prospect.

I was asked last week why that is, and the answer seems straightforward.

Much of it is regional - as in western regional. The Department of Interior’s activities are national in scope, but they seem to to tilt western. The bureaus of Land Management and Reclamation, two of Interior’s largest agencies, operate mostly in the western states. Western governors and legislators - including Idaho’s - tend to have some focus on environmental and natural resource issues, usually more than most of their colleagues to the east. A lot of BLM and Bureau of Reclamation leaders have come from the western states.

(You could say something similar for secretary of the Department of Agriculture, a job never filled by an Idahoan, with the qualified and partial exception of Ezra Taft Benson.)

These things are true for most of the western states. Consider where the recent Interior secretaries have come from: Ryan Zinke from Montana, Sally Jewell from Washington, Ken Salazar from Colorado, Kempthorne from Idaho, and before him Gale Norton of Colorado, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Manuel Lujan of New Mexico. The principle applies the same for both parties. The last non-westerner in the position was Don Hodel, in the Reagan Administration. Of the 26 secretaries in the last century, all but six have been westerners.

Few cabinet jobs seem to have a strongly specific regional attachment, but Interior does.

No wonder that as Zinke heads for the door, the list of possibilities to replace him is strongly western. Names mentioned on the long list include just-departed Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Representative Raul Labrador, both loosely plausible from a resume standpoint. Otter, 76 years old and just wrapping 12 years as governor, spent six years in Washington as a member of Congress and seldom missed an opportunity to say how much he wanted leave. Labrador is a better fit in some ways but Interior-related subjects do not seem to have been a high priority for him. He has never been an executive (many cabinet members are former governors). Besides that, he lost the Republican primary for governor last year, a primary many had expected him to win, which would not be the best positioning for building political capital in the Trump Administration.

My best guess for an Interior nominee, at least following the usual political logic, might be to look toward Nevada, which has two departing Republican top office-holders (Senator Dean Heller and Governor Brian Sandoval), both with some established strength in a competitive political environment. No Nevadan has ever been confirmed as Interior secretary, while states around it have contributed. (The same is true of Utah; might that state provide a possibility too?)

I remain a little skeptical for an Idaho answer to the new Interior opening. But there’s always room for a surprise.
 

Rerun: Brad Little’s arrival

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This is a column that first appeared on ridenbaugh.com on January 6, 2009. The occasion was the arrival of Brad Little to his first statewide Idaho elective position - almost exactly a decade before he would assume his second one.

In these days of controversial appointments to high office, here's one that (overwhelmingly) won't be: state Senator Brad Little to lieutenant governor of Idaho. And while you so often see many politicians grappling for higher office, here's one just the opposite: The surprise here isn't that Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter wanted him for the job, but that Little agreed to take it.

For the better part of a couple of decades, Brad Little has been maybe the foremost name on the Republican bench - the logical candidate for whatever office, or higher office, you're probably talking about. That has in smaller part to do with his pedigree (one of the big southern Idaho ranching families, and a very politically prominent father) but more his personal qualities. He is a rancher and businessman in Emmett, very much a part of the older Idaho, but also highly plugged in to the new and technical West and a bit of a policy wonk. He's considered relatively moderate on social issues. But he's not a Republicrat; Otter surely wanted as lieutenant someone he could work with comfortably, and Little will likely be a solid fit. His political skills are very highly developed. And almost all the way across the political spectrum in Idaho, he's very highly regarded.

(You'll not hear many Democrats bad-mouthing him; he is not an ideologue, seeming to have a more practical frame of mind. There are some Republicans, from the hard-core activist crowd, who have blasted him. But the better measure is that Senate Republicans have elected him to leadership.)

For years, the talk has been that Little be an automatically major candidate for almost any office, and at times might clear the field of serious contenders. (Had he wanted the first district House seat in 2006, the betting here is that he would now be entering his second term there, without breaking a sweat.)

But he has been reluctant. People were pleading with him for years to run for the state legislature, before he finally agreed to do it - the kind of thing lots of politicians like to be able to say, but that Little honestly could. Plenty of other Republicans would have been happy to see him run for high office since, but he's not pursued any of those opportunities. Why? The general understanding has simply been his responsibilities to the family business and his preference to stay where he is. He seems to have no hunger for the title.

So, as noted, the bigger surprise may be that he was willing to move up. Part of it may be that lieutenant governor is a part-time job. But it does raise the question anew of whether Little might be willing to go for a major (full time) office down the line. It now enhances his position on the bench.