Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
PUT ELECTION REFORM IN VOTERS' HANDS, Nov. 23
The popularity of unconventional political outsiders like Donald Trump and Ben Carson is said to be a result of voters' disaffection with politics and governance as usual.
Given the bellicose nature of the Republican presidential primary to date, it's refreshing to note that voters in several states took constructive steps on Election Day. And it's dreary to note that Pennsylvania politicians cling to many of the same policies that voters in other states have corrected.
Pennsylvania maintains an unlimited contributions policy, giving over the system to wealthy interests. And it has done nothing to cast some light on the flow of "independent" third-party anonymous "dark money" that increasingly supports certain campaigns.
Contrast that with Maine, where voters overwhelmingly voted to strengthen disclosure law, increase penalties for campaign finance violations and bolster the Clean Elections Fund, which helps pay for campaigns of candidates who reject narrow-interest contributions.
In Seattle, 60 percent of voters approved an initiative to give every voter $100 to donate to the candidate of his choice in local elections, while limiting large-contribution donations.
The most important vote was in Ohio, where a resounding 71 percent of voters rejected gerrymandering. They voted to create a seven-member commission that will take legislative and congressional redistricting out of the hands of politicians themselves and assign to an independent seven-member commission.
That is exactly what Pennsylvania should do to stop politicians from selecting their voters, and begin letting voters select their representatives in fair, competitive elections.
— The (Wilkes Barre) Citizens Voice
CYBER INSECURITY: THE FEDS FAIL TO PROTECT THE PUBLIC'S DATA, Nov. 23
In the aftermath of this year's breach of federal government computer systems, which jeopardized the personal information of 21.5 million people, it comes as no surprise that most agencies flunked an oversight panel's cybersecurity "scorecard."
The recently released report by the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee found federal agencies "for decades" operated with badly managed and outdated information-technology infrastructure. The "scorecard" rates agencies on implementing provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act of 2014, The Hill newspaper reports.
Among the more pathetic performers — the departments of Education and Energy, along with NASA — all received failing grades. The Department of Homeland Security managed a "C'' and the State Department, where former Secretary Hillary Clinton used a private email server, received a "D."
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which this year "left the barn door open" to hackers, who stole addresses, health and financial information from millions of Americans, got a "D." Now that the damage has been done, OPM has announced months later that it has hired a cybersecurity expert to modernize its aged computer systems.
This inexcusable failure to provide basic cybersecurity demands a systemwide house cleaning, starting with those who have failed miserably in their responsibility to safeguard the public's data.
— The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
NO-COMPROMISE BUDGET STANCE IS DAMAGING PA, Nov. 25
That sound coming from Harrisburg Monday was the "thud-thud-thud" of a shaky, pyramidal budget deal losing its foundation and collapsing upon itself.
The tentative accord that had been reached by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders — an additional 1.25 percent in sales tax to generate $2 billion in property tax cuts and beef up school funding — was all but declared dead.
And just to pile on the uncertainty, the state Senate deadlocked Monday on Senate Bill 76, the diversionary tactic that would abolish the school property tax. Lt. Gov. Mike Stack cast a tie-breaking vote, but Republicans vowed to recruit absent votes to keep the illusory tax-killing plan on the front burner. That would be a mistake.
Things are so grim in this five-month budget standoff that counties are preparing to sue the state. Nonprofit social service agencies are struggling. Some school districts are discussing shutdown plans.
Locally, Northampton County Council agreed to borrow up to $50 million to keep operating. The Easton Area School Board put off negotiations for a teacher contact because of unpredictable state funding.
This is no way to run a state, and there's no shortage of blame to go around. In the end, the agreement brokered by Wolf and GOP leaders might have collapsed because Democratic lawmakers insisted that Republican rustle up at least half of their members to support a sales tax hike, certain to be unpopular in next year's elections.
The failure here isn't any one poison pill, but the lack of political courage to fashion a remedy. Although Wolf at times has looked like an obstructionist, he put together two plans to try to deliver on campaign promises to reduce property taxes, increase school support, enact a tax on natural gas drilling, and get the budget on a footing that doesn't rely on duct-tape binding and one-time revenues.
One year ago, a majority of Pennsylvania voters seemed to like that idea — and many Republicans said they were reconsidering their opposition to a shale gas tax.
Now all the chess pieces that were in play appear to have been knocked over — including a rare opportunity to privatize the state's liquor monopoly and enact long-ranging pension reform as part of a generational shift in how Pennsylvania collects taxes and does business. The state is veering back into a familiar haphazard, stop-gap budget framework.
What's left? An interim budget of some sort — maybe — coupled with the ongoing debate on SB 76, a pipe-dream distraction that is going nowhere. Abolishing school property taxes creates a large list of winners and losers. The Senate voted Monday without having current figures on whether the bill's hikes in sales and income taxes would cover the property revenues lost, possibly setting up another budget crisis. Even if the House went along with it, which seems unlikely, Wolf has vowed to veto it.
We need a budget. Now.
Pushing the elements of compromise into 2016, an election year — property tax relief, a gas extraction tax, liquor privatization, restructured school funding and pension reform — is a lose-lose-lose proposition.
We've been saying for several months now that Pennsylvania can have property tax relief, pension reform, free-enterprise liquor stores and better education funding, if Democrats and Republicans step up and give something to get something. Real compromise.
There's still a slim window to make this happen, but it looks like this state government — whether it's controlled by one party or power is shared — doesn't want it. That's a definition of dysfunction, and it's quickly becoming a legacy.
— The (Easton) Express-Times
EMPOWERING SUNNI IRAQIS IS KEY, Nov. 22
How should the United States respond to Islamic State attacks in Paris?
The response from the Republican presidential candidates has been to whip up hysteria over Syrian refugees and hostility toward all Muslims - with rhetoric so repulsive that it shames the country. Ben Carson likened refugees to "rabid dogs," while Donald Trump said he would "absolutely" create a database to track Muslims inside the country.
Much easier to play the demagogue than to present a detailed plan.
To her credit, Hillary Clinton did just that in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday. She called for an intensified focus on Syria (implicitly criticizing President Obama's timid approach).
But to my mind, her most important point was about Iraq. She called for U.S. help for Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders who want to fight ISIS but can't get the weapons and support to do it. That is the one step that, in the near term, might set the so-called caliphate back on its heels.
Why do I focus on Iraq, not Syria? Because I see little chance of routing ISIS in Syria, even with a more resolute policy than Obama's. Airstrikes alone won't do it (although more U.S. special forces on the ground would make them more effective).
Almost no one, certainly not Trump or Clinton, advocates sending tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops. So it is crucial to find Arab allies on the ground who can drive ISIS back with our help.
Right now, our main allies in Syria are Kurds, who are liberating areas that they want to hold in the future. But they can't liberate the heavily Sunni territory at the heart of the caliphate.
Obama missed his chance in 2012 to aid thousands of moderate Syrian Sunni fighters, including many army defectors, who might have developed into a viable force to repel both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad. Those moderates have long since fled, been killed, or joined Islamist militias out of frustration. This leaves Washington without a ground force that can crush the Syrian portion of the jihadi state.
As for enlisting the help of Russia or even Iran in a grand coalition to defeat the jihadis, forget it. Moscow and Tehran hold all the cards in new diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict. Even after the terrorists' downing of a Russian plane, Putin's primary goal - and Iran's - is to bolster the Assad regime, not to defeat ISIS. This practically guarantees that the talks - or any plan to hold Syrian elections - will ultimately fail.
Thus the best chance to squeeze the caliphate, which extends across eastern Syria and western Iraq, is to push from the Iraqi side of the border. This is why it is so important for the administration to stop its shilly-shallying about helping Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders who have been eager to enter the fight for more than a year.
"If Iraq is the only front where we can reduce ISIS, it becomes acutely important to get back the cities there that they control," said retired Col. Richard Welch, who spent more than six years working with Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq.
The U.S. military is familiar with many of these tribal leaders, who took part in the "Awakening" movement during the middle of the last decade. At that time, U.S. forces helped them roll back al-Qaeda.
Last week, I spoke by phone to Sheikh Abdullah al-Yawar of the Shammar tribe, whose base is near Iraq's border with Syria. His tribe has been battling jihadis for more than a decade. Six months ago, when I visited the sheikh, he hoped to get U.S. support to reenter the fight against ISIS, but he says nothing has happened since then.
"We met with Americans last June and told them we had 4,000 volunteers and gave them a list at the end of July," Yawar told me Thursday. "They told me that in two months, they would start training 2,400 and would give us weapons. But since then, nothing has happened, nothing has changed."
Many other Sunni sheikhs are also eager to fight ISIS in Iraq's Sunni heartlands, where the extremists have captured major cities such as Ramadi and Mosul, which is the heart of the so-called caliphate. But the Obama administration insists on funneling weapons and training for the tribes through the Shiite-led central government, which passes on almost nothing to the Sunnis. (U.S. weapons are reaching Iraqi Kurds, but the Kurds - as in Syria - can't go it alone.)
The administration has been holding off for months on aiding Sunni tribes directly, waiting for the Iraqi parliament to pass a national guard law that would subsume Sunni tribal fighters under the national Iraqi army. But Iranian pressure has blocked the law's passage.
The result: Only a couple of thousand Sunnis have joined the struggle. "There are no real Sunni fighters being trained to take back Mosul," says Yawar. "Seriously, there is nothing moving to face ISIS."
This is nuts. As Clinton put it Thursday: "We need to lay the foundation for a Second Sunni Awakening. We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to . . . finally stand up a national guard . . . arming Sunni and Kurdish forces. . . . If Baghdad won't do that, the coalition should do so directly."
This is the kind of serious issue candidates should be discussing, not registering all Muslims or banning refugees.
— The Philadelphia Inquirer
ATHLETES, SCRIBES ON FOREFRONT OF DIPLOMATIC EVOLUTION, Nov. 22
Covering formidable ground usually begins by finding common ground. Developing big relationships usually begins by developing small ones.
And mending shattered fences between nations usually begins by building firm bonds between people, be they presidents or paupers.
The Penn State baseball team's trip to Cuba, which began Saturday and runs through the end of this week, may meet the eye as little more than a noteworthy novelty. Just as the eight journalism students covering the sojourn may appear to be little more than a lucky few enjoying a singular educational opportunity.
But both the games and the students represent so much more than that.
"It's the beginning of something and it's the end of something," Penn State journalism professor John Affleck told the Reading Eagle, "and we'll get to be there for that."
They'll not merely get to be there for the beginning of newly normalized relations between the United States and Cuba. They'll not merely get to be there for the end - or the beginning of the end - of 55 years of bitter vitriol between the countries.
They'll also get to be tangible tools of an intangible change. They'll also get to be, in their own modest but meaningful way, whether or not they realize it, initial instruments in melting a half century of mistrust.
They will do it through baseball, the storied pastime of each nation. They will do it through storytelling. They will do it through interaction, on and off the field.
And they will do it through the fresh eyes and open minds of youth.
First, there is the baseball.
"It's the common language of both countries," said Affleck, a longtime former Associated Press reporter and director of Penn State's John Curley Center for Sports Journalism. "I think sports reveals individual character and national character, and we'll get a chance to learn a lot about the national character as they play and cheer for their national sport. I think that's going to be fascinating to see."
Second, there is the storytelling. The Penn State students will file game reports and features available to Pennsylvania papers and their readers. Through these stories we can gain glimpses of Cuba's collective struggle, its culture and its attitude toward both America and the American-Cuban thaw.
Third, there is the human interaction. For his students who cannot communicate in Spanish, Affleck has enlisted the help of University of Havana students to serve as translators. This inevitably will facilitate various relationships, be they lasting or fleeting, and those small relationships are the perfect place to begin building larger ones.
Finally, there is the cleaner, if not spotless, mental slate Penn State's young players and students, and Cuba's young players and students, will bring to the experience.
The Bay of Pigs is ancient history for them. Fidel Castro is more legend than leader in Cuba, more figment than threat in America.
Fewer years and fewer fears lay behind these youngsters. More patience and possibilities thus lie before them.
"As the politicians work out the details of the (Cuban-American) relationship in a legal sense," Affleck said, "people on a one-to-one level enjoying a sport together will teach everyone a lot about who we are.
"My students are very lucky to be covering this."
They're not the only lucky ones.
— The Reading Eagle