Weekend open thread: Accountability

Senator Chuck Grassley hit a new low last week in running interference for the White House on the Trump/Russia investigation. After leaders of the private research firm Fusion GPS called on Congressional Republicans “to release full transcripts of our firm’s testimony” about the so-called Steele dossier, Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham wrote to the Department of Justice and the FBI “urging an investigation into Christopher Steele.” Ranking Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein was not consulted about the referral, which she accurately characterized as “another effort to deflect attention from what should be the committee’s top priority: determining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election and whether there was subsequent obstruction of justice.”

Here in Iowa, the Department of Human Services recently acknowledged that privatizing Medicaid “will save the state 80 percent less money this fiscal year than originally predicted,” Tony Leys reported for the Des Moines Register. The Branstad/Reynolds administration has claimed since 2015 that shifting care for one-sixth of Iowans to private companies would result in big savings for the state. Officials were never able to show the math underlying those estimates. Staff for Governor Kim Reynolds and the DHS now portray the miscalculation as an honest mistake, which a more “comprehensive methodology” will correct. The governor would have been wiser to pull the plug on this disaster last year.

Forthcoming Bleeding Heartland posts will address those failures in more depth. But now it’s time to hold myself accountable for the 17 Iowa politics predictions I made at the beginning of 2017. Did I improve on my showing of seven right, two half-right, and seven wrong out of my 16 predictions for 2016?

1. Senator Joni Ernst will vote to confirm every Donald Trump cabinet appointee.

Correct–easy call.

2. Senator Chuck Grassley will vote to confirm every Donald Trump cabinet appointee but one.

I gave Iowa’s senior senator too much credit. I felt that Grassley would try to bolster his “watchdog” reputation by casting one vote against a Trump cabinet nominee. He was a rubber stamp even of several nominees who lied under oath during their confirmation hearings.

3. Thanks in part to a more rapid work pace by Grassley’s Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senate will approve more than twice as many judicial nominees in 2017 than it did during the previous two years combined.

During the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Grassley blocked dozens of judicial nominees and slow-walked others. Final count for 2015 confirmations: ten federal district court judges and one appeals court judge confirmed. In 2016, the GOP-controlled Senate confirmed just eight district court nominees and one for a circuit court. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland never even got a hearing.

The twelve U.S. appeals court judges confirmed in 2017 set a record “for the most circuit court picks confirmed in a president’s first year.” Grassley was proud to make history, even though one of the men given a lifetime seat was unanimously rated “Not Qualified” by the American Bar Association. After GOP senators confirmed Steve Grasz, Alliance for Justice president Nan Aron noted, “Not since 2006 has a federal appellate court nominee unanimously rated unqualified by the ABA even gotten a hearing, much less a confirmation.”

Also during 2017, the Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch* to the Supreme Court and six judges to district courts, for a total of nineteen.

That’s more than double the number of federal judges confirmed in 2016–but alas, I predicted twice as many as the previous two years combined. Close, but no cigar.

4. A Democratic challenger to Representative Rod Blum in Iowa’s first Congressional district will emerge before any Democrat announces a campaign against Representative David Young in IA-03.

Wrong. Two Democrats, Mike Sherzan and Anna Ryon, declared their candidacies in IA-03 in early March. (They later left the field for different reasons.) Abby Finkenauer became the first confirmed candidate in IA-01 in early May.

I could make a case that Courtney Rowe was the first Blum challenger to “emerge” when she announced in January that she was exploring the IA-01 race. However, Rowe didn’t make her challenge to Blum official until late May.

5. Representative Steve King will rule out running for governor.

Correct. To be honest, I’d forgotten King told Congressional reporter Scott Wong in December 2016 that he was considering running for governor. Obviously, that was just attention-seeking behavior.

A couple of months ago, King became a statewide co-chair for Governor Kim Reynolds’ campaign.

6. Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett will confirm plans to run for governor as a Republican.

Was not hard to see this one coming.

7. At least three Democrats will have launched gubernatorial campaigns by the end of December.

By Labor Day, seven Democrats were running for governor, not counting the three who had declared their candidacies earlier in the year but dropped out by that time (Rich Leopold, Mike Matson, and Todd Prichard).

8. Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds will choose a sitting member of the Iowa House or Senate to be her lieutenant governor after Terry Branstad leaves office.

Wrong. Though several Iowa House Republicans were rumored to be on the governor’s short list, Reynolds picked Adam Gregg, previously the state public defender and before that an aide to Governor Terry Branstad. Technically, Gregg does not hold the lieutenant governor position, but all official communications give him that title anyway.

9. Either Branstad or Reynolds (if she becomes governor while the Iowa legislature is still in session) will sign into law a new tax cut.

Wrong again. The Iowa legislature did not adopt any tax cuts during the 2017 session. That’s a top priority for Reynolds and Republican state lawmakers this year.

UPDATE: Twitter user mtb002 informs me that Branstad did sign a small tax cut for first-time home-buyers last year. I appreciate the sentiment, but I am still recording this as an incorrect prediction.

10. Branstad will not reveal donors to his 2015 inauguration fund before the U.S. Senate considers his nomination to be ambassador to China.

Another wrong answer. A few weeks after Ryan Foley reported on the Branstad-Reynolds Scholarship Fund’s failure to disclose the names of donors to Branstad’s 2015 inaugural, the fund submitted a late filing to the Internal Revenue Service near the end of January. The Senate confirmed Branstad in May.

11. The Branstad/Reynolds administration will increase its offer of extra payments to the three companies picked to manage care for Iowans on Medicaid.

I got this one right. After months of negotiations behind closed doors, the Iowa Department of Human Services agreed to pay agreed to pay an extra $60.8 million during fiscal year 2018 to the two private insurance companies that still manage care for Iowans on Medicaid. (One of the three corporations pulled out of the program late last year.)

12. The Iowa House and Senate will defund Planned Parenthood and pass a bill resembling the 20-week abortion ban House Republicans approved in 2011, but will not pass more extreme anti-abortion legislation, such as a “personhood” amendment or a ban on terminating pregnancies after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.

Yes, yes, and yes. I wish I could count this one as three correct answers.

13. Some member of the Iowa legislature will be arrested on an OWI.

Happy to be wrong about this one. It’s been several years since a sitting member of the Iowa legislature was arrested for drunk driving.

14. The Iowa Supreme Court will reject a lawsuit claiming that because of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a DREAMer should not be subject to prosecution in state court for forgery and identity theft.

Indeed, the Iowa Supreme Court dismissed the case that Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren had brought against a woman who had used false documents to obtain an Iowa driver’s license and later to get a job. You can read that 4-3 ruling for the majority, concurring opinions, and dissents here.

In his special concurrence, Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins highlighted the issue of prosecutorial discretion:

When DACA became available, [Martha] Martinez came forward to obtain legal immigration status and proper work authorization. At each step, it seems, Martinez attempted to do right in difficult circumstances created by her parents when she was only a child. According to the record and by all measures, Martinez has been a valuable contributor to her community and our state. At the time the county attorney decided to exercise his discretion to file charges, she had three young children and was pregnant with her fourth child. At the time he filed the charges, the county attorney knew there was a good chance Martinez could be deported, which would force her children, three American citizens, to leave the country or stay here and fend on their own.

I’m happy to note that although Senators Ernst and Grassley recommended Ostergren as one of three candidates for U.S. attorney in Iowa’s southern district, Muscatine’s heartless county attorney did not get the job.

Small consolation for Ostergren: he still gets to drive around in an SUV he bought with other people’s money. Jason Clayworth reported for the Des Moines Register in 2015, “Muscatine County supervisors were surprised last year to learn that County Attorney Alan Ostergren had spent more than $27,000 in civil forfeiture money — seized by the Muscatine County Drug Task Force — to buy a new Jeep Grand Cherokee to drive for work.”

15. The Iowa Supreme Court will reject a legal challenge to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission’s decision to reject a new casino for Cedar Rapids.

In a unanimous ruling, the court held the commission “has the power to issue a license following an affirmative gambling games referendum, but is not required to do so.” Furthermore, the justices held, the commission “can consider the economic effect of a new gaming operation on existing gaming facilities when deciding whether to issue a new gaming license.”

This lawsuit stemmed from a 2014 decision. In November 2017, the Racing and Gaming Commission rejected three more applications to build a casino in Cedar Rapids.

16. Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter won’t be confirmed to a second term.

Rastetter read the writing on the wall and did not request to be appointed to a second six-year term on the powerful board that oversees Iowa’s state universities. Senate Democrats surely would have blocked his confirmation.

17. Iowa State University President Steven Leath will be gone by the end of the year.

A year ago, I reasoned,

if some new scandal emerges involving violations of ISU policy or personal use of university resources, and if I am correct about Rastetter being forced off the Board of Regents, at some point at least five board members will decide Leath doesn’t need to be their headache anymore.

Alternatively, Leath may move back to the South, if he gets an appealing offer from another university and his “confidant and defacto real estate agent” Rastetter is no longer running his governing board.

In March, Leath agreed to become president of Auburn University in Alabama.

Final tally: ten right and seven wrong. I hope to do better with my eighteen Iowa politics predictions for 2018, which I’ll publish later this month.

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