2010 - %3, March

How It's Done

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 10:08 PM EST

Speaking of right-wing derangement (it was few hours ago, but we were speaking of it), Glenn Greenwald has the latest over at his place. It's about the "Gitmo 9" smear, but what it's really about is how this stuff routinely gets mainstreamed via credulous treatment by cable news. It's the noise machine in a nutshell. But don't click unless you have a strong stomach.

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Massive Methane Melt off Siberia

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 8:22 PM EST

Arctic seabed stores of methane are now destabilizing and venting vast stores of frozen methane—a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The paper, in the prestigious journal Science, reports the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf—long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane—is instead perforated and leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Melting of even a fraction of the clathrates stored in that shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming. Lead author Natalia Shakhova Shakhova of the International Arctic Research Center tells U of Alaska Fairbanks:

"The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world’s oceans. Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap."

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a methane-rich area encompassing more than three-quarter million square miles of seafloor in the Arctic Ocean—three times larger than the nearby Siberian wetlands formerly considered the primary Northern Hemisphere source of atmospheric methane.

Shakhova’s research shows the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is already emitting 7 teragrams (1 teragram = 1.1 million tons) of methane yearly, about as much as the all the oceans of the world.

"Our concern is that the subsea permafrost has been showing signs of destabilization already," says Shakhova. "If it further destabilizes, the methane emissions may not be teragrams, it would be significantly larger."

From 2003 through 2008 the researchers took annual research cruises on the shelf, sampling seawater at various depths, and sampling the air above the ocean. Their findings:

  • More than 80 percent of the deep water and greater than half of surface water had methane levels more than eight times that of normal seawater.
  • In some areas, the saturation levels reached at least 250 times that of background levels in the summer and 1,400 times higher in the winter.
  • In the air directly above the ocean surface, methane levels were elevated overall and the seascape was dotted with more than 100 hotspots. (This, combined with results from a winter expedition, showed the methane is not only being dissolved in the water but also bubbling out into the atmosphere as well.)
  • Methane levels throughout the Arctic are usually 8 to 10 percent higher than the global baseline, yet those registered over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf rose another 5 to 10 percent higher than that.

In the shallow waters of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, methane doesn’t have enough time to oxidize, and more of it rises to the surface and escapes into the atmosphere. That fact, combined with the sheer amount of methane in the region, adds an extreme volatility to this uncalculated variable in the climate models.

"The release to the atmosphere of only one percent of the methane assumed to be stored in shallow hydrate deposits might alter the current atmospheric burden of methane up to 3 to 4 times," says Shakhova.
 

Woolsey: Obama Will Support Public Option If Votes Are There

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 8:05 PM EST

With some 36 Senators (and counting) now signed on to support the public option, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, expressed cautious optimism about the proposal passing through reconciliation. "I’m not sure that the public option is dead at this point," Woolsey told Mother Jones on Thursday, adding that support for government-run health care plan in the Senate keeps "growing and growing."

Woolsey, along with other members of key House committees, met with Obama on Thursday and pressed the issue with the president. "The president doesn’t believe there are 51 votes in the Senate, but if there [are], he’ll support it," she said. The Progressive Caucus has been actively lobbying the upper chamber to include the provision in the package of reconciliation changes to the comprehensive bill, which has already passed the Senate and is pending a vote in the House.

Whether or not the public option makes it into the final legislation, Woolsey emphasized that House progressives would generally support the bill. "We’re pretty together as a caucus," Woolsey said. "The President laid out the broad outlines of the plan—I know that’s probably all that he could have gotten from the Senate."

Corn on "Hardball": Rove on the Wrong Side of History

Thu Mar. 4, 2010 7:47 PM EST

David Corn joined Michael Shear on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews to discuss Karl Rove's new book and its defense of the Bush administration's lies surrounding the Iraq war.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

A Backlash After San Francisco Labels Sewage Sludge "Organic"

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 7:45 PM EST

Activists wearing face masks and haz-mat suits dumped a pile of sewage sludge on the steps of San Francisco's city hall today to protest the city's practice of marketing the material to home gardeners as "organic compost." The US Department of Agriculture's organic standards explicity prohibit organic produce from being grown on sludge-treated land.  "The City of San Francisco owes an apology to all of the food consumers in California who have been eating non-organic food grown on sewage sludge," said Ronnie Cummins, president of the Organic Consumers Association. He was wearing a haz-mat suit on which he'd written a message to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom: "Organic gardens aren't toxic waste dumps."

Using sludge as fertilizer is a common practice; more than half of the sewage produced in America ends up being treated and applied to gardens and farmland. The EPA considers sludge to be safe, but many food activists and some of the EPA's own scientists disagree, pointing out that it can contain trace amounts of almost anything that gets poured down the drain, from heavy metals to endocrine disruptors--and that only a portion of these contaminants are screened for in sludge. (For more on the safety of sludge, check out "Sludge Happens" in our May/June 2009 issue).

The confusion over San Francisco's "organic" sludge isn't unique. The USDA doesn't regulate which fertilizers can be labeled as organic, allowing anyone to use the term. But Cummins says it's particularly misleading to apply the "organic" term to treated sewage sludge, which has been known to contain high levels of pollutants such PFOAs and flame retardants. Mother Jones' report that President Obama's "organic" White House vegetable garden was planted on sludge-treated land led to considerable outcry last year. In response to complaints from organic gardeners who say they were duped and to this CBS news segment, San Francisco has at least temporary suspended its public "compost giveaway events" and announced that it will no longer call the material "organic."

Still, Cummins wants San Francisco to stop using sludge as fertilizer and to help gardeners who accepted the material clean up their land. To press his case, he poured some sludge into a jars and marched into Newsom's office, still wearing his haz-mat suit and a pair of safety goggles. After a moment, mayoral representative David Miree appeared and Cummins gifted him with the sludge sample. "Be careful with this stuff," Cummins said. Another activist offered Miree her safety gloves.  He politely declined them, but rather than holding the jars, walked out with them loaded into a garbage can.

Holds and Filibusters

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 6:21 PM EST

Matt Yglesias is mad:

The Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, is one of the nastiest, most brutal and evil organizations on the planet....It’s little surprise that the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 has widespread support in the Senate, including 63 Cosponsors. But because the Senate’s rules are dumb, and because Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) is a moral monster, guided by a poisonously misguided ethical compass and a callous disregard for human welfare, there’s been no vote on the bill thanks to Coburn’s hold.

Actually, this is probably unfair to Coburn, who simply has a standing objection to any legislation that isn't fully paid for. That makes him something of a jackass, but not a moral monster. (See Daniel Schulman's piece about more Coburn obstructionism here, for example.)

But what's this business of Coburn putting a "hold" on the bill in question? I always thought holds were for nominees and filibusters were for legislation. So I asked about this via Twitter and was referred to.....Tom Coburn's Senate website, which explains:

A “hold” is placed when the Leader’s office is notified that a Senator intends to object to a request for unanimous consent (UC) from the Senate to consider or pass a measure....Holds can be overcome, but require time consuming procedures such as filing cloture. Cloture is a motion to end debate that requires 60 votes.

I'm still a little confused about this. If you mount a filibuster, you're basically informing the Senate leader that you intend to withhold unanimous consent to pass a bill. This can be overcome with a cloture motion, which requires 60 votes. Likewise, according to Coburn, if you place a hold, you're informing the Senate leader that you intend to withhold unanimous consent to pass a bill. This can be overcome with a cloture motion, which requires 60 votes. So why are there two different names for the exact same process?

On a related note, if the Lord's Army bill has 63 cosponsors, why not just bring it to the floor, cut off debate, and pass it? Coburn's filibuster/hold can delay the bill for a while, but he can't stop it. So what's the holdup?

UPDATE: As I expected, the holdup has to do with the delays involved in breaking a filibuster. But what exactly are those delays? The first is "ripening," which means that cloture motions aren't voted on until two days after they're introduced. But during those two days the Senate proceeds with other business, so that doesn't really cause any calendar difficulties.

The second is that there's a 30-hour post-cloture debate rule. So once cloture is voted on, Coburn and his pals can, if they want, chew up 30 hours of floor time with debate, amendments, quorum calls, etc. But they actually have to do it. If they don't, then presumably the Senate proceeds with other business and there's no real impact.

So the question is: is Coburn really willing to spend 30 hours on the floor for every one of these bills he puts a hold on? And since each senator is limited to one hour of post-cloture debate, can he round up enough friends to take up the rest of the time? Once or twice, maybe he could. But I wonder how many bills he'd be able to do this on before he (and the rest of the Republican caucus) ran out of steam?

There's probably more to it than this. There are a million ways to obstruct business in the Senate, after all, and most bills have to be voted on more than once. But although breaking a filibuster when you don't have 60 votes really is nearly impossible, it seems at least possible that post-cloture obstruction could be reduced a lot if Coburn's bluff were called a few times. Anyone with parliamentary expertise, though, is welcome to chime in on this.

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Skin in the Game

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 4:25 PM EST

Time's Barbara Kiviat is on a new healthcare plan:

I used to be charged co-pays. About $25 a pop for office visits. Now I am under a system of co-insurance. After my yearly deductible, I pay 10% of all my health care costs, up to an annual out-of-pocket maximum.

This has immediately changed my behavior. I hurt my ankle a while back, but how I did that and what is ultimately causing the pain is a mystery. My first foot doctor was stumped. I went to see another one a few weeks ago and [...] one of the technicians fetched me for an X-ray. I asked how much the X-ray would cost. He said he didn't know, but he could try to find out... or would I just like to wait and see the doctor first? I said I'd wait.

The doctor came in and asked me a few questions. I explained that I'd been to another doctor. I repeated what that doctor had told me about the X-ray I'd had at his office. My new doctor examined me and told me that another X-ray wouldn't tell him what he needed to know. And that was how I prevented my very first unnecessary medical test.

Kiviat is a fan even though the new plan costs her more than the old one. Just knowing how much everything costs — and being responsible for a chunk of it — makes her a better healthcare consumer.

Now, before the HMO/PPO revolution, this sort of plan was pretty standard and healthcare costs skyrocketed anyway. What's more, since a big part of healthcare spending is for emergency services that nobody shops around for and big ticket items that exceed the out-of-pocket caps on these plans, it's not clear how much this kind of "skin in the game" would really save. Still, with some caveats that I won't go into right now, I think this is a good idea. Even if the effect on healthcare inflation were modest, that's better than nothing. And taming healthcare costs isn't going to be done with one big idea; it's going to be done by implementing a whole bunch of little ideas that each have a small effect.

Still, as Kiviat notes, a minimum requirement for making this work is knowing how much healthcare costs you in the first place. And this is something that really does, in theory, have bipartisan support: Democrats and Republicans both say that doctors and hospitals should be transparent about the cost of all the various procedures they offer. And Rep. Steve Kagen (D–Wisconsin) has introduced a bill that would require just that. It says that healthcare providers shall:

publicly disclose, on a continuous basis, all prices for such items, products, services, or procedures in accordance with this section....The disclosure required under subsection (a) shall be made in an open and conspicuous manner; be made available at the point of purchase, in print, and on the Internet; and include all wholesale, retail, subsidized, discounted, or other such prices.

And there's the rub. There is no "price" for an ankle X-ray. There are only prices. If Kagen's bill were law, Kiviat would have been confronted with something like this:

X-Ray, Ankle, Single View

Medicare: $145
Medicaid: $98
Aetna: $156
   • With bundling discount: $141
Anthem Blue Cross: $157
   • After March 18, 2010: $203
Cigna: $168
Uninsured: $578
   • Discounted price if you complain hard enough: $275
   • Discounted price if you complain even harder: $198
Etc.

Actually, it would be way more complex than that. But you get the idea: it's not as simple as it sounds. However, this might be a feature, not a bug. Not only might healthcare consumption be improved by making prices transparent, but it might be improved by showing everyone just how arbitrarily different people are treated depending on what kind of insurance they have. It's worth a try.

Rockefeller Makes New Play to Thwart EPA Climate Regs

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 4:11 PM EST

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller on Thursday became the latest Democrat to launch an effort to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating planet-warming emissions, with the introduction of a bill that would put the brakes on regulatory action for two years.

His reason? To "protect clean coal state economies." Of course, "clean coal" doesn’t actually exist yet. The entire press release on his bill is a study in wishful thinking. "Today, we took important action to safeguard jobs, the coal industry, and the entire economy as we move toward clean coal technology," said Rockefeller. The release continues: "Senator Rockefeller has been working to protect West Virginia clean coal and secure the economies in clean coal states." If you repeat the phrase enough times, will it actually become real?

Rockefeller's bill is just another delay on rules that his colleague, Robert Byrd, has said the coal industry should accept as inevitable and necessary. The EPA is moving forward on regulations under the Clean Air Act because the Senate has so far not passed a new law. Rockefeller has not so far been supportive of congressional actions. He said he had "serious concerns" about the House-passed cap-and-trade bill that would, incidentally, direct a whopping $60 billion to carbon-capture-and-sequestration, aka "clean coal," technologies.

Rockefeller’s measure would call a time-out on anticipated rules for emissions from power plants, refineries, factories, and other stationary sources. It would allow the agency to move forward, however, on rules for automobiles, which are expected by the end of the month. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson laid out a slower timeline for regulations last week to allay concerns from Democrats like Rockefeller. But while he said that was a positive sign, he remains "concerned it may not be enough time."

Rockefeller’s fellow statesmen on the House side, Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan, are expected to introduce identical legislation, along with Rick Boucher (D-Va.).

This is just the latest in a growing bipartisan attempt to block the EPA. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is leading efforts to nullify the agency’s finding that gases threaten human health, the precursor to legislation. She has support from Democrats Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.). And on the House side, Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Jo Anne Emerson (R-Mo.) have introduced identical legislation, as has the GOP caucus. Murkowski called Rockefeller's legislation "further evidence of the growing, bipartisan, and bicameral resistance to EPA's back-door climate regulations" in a statement. She said she would support his bill, while keeping her disapproval resolution on reserve in case his failes.

Environmental groups argue that Rockefeller might as well have joined Murkowski's efforts. "In our view, there is little difference between no action for two years and no action ever on solving the climate crisis,” said Joe Mendelson, director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation.

Dems Fundraise Off RNC Memo

| Thu Mar. 4, 2010 4:04 PM EST

The Democratic Party is using a lurid Republican National Committee strategy presentation as part of its own pitch for campaign dollars. In two separate emails sent out today, both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) blasted the RNC presentation, which was reported on Wednesday, for spreading “GOP lies”—and solicited contributions in an effort to stop them.

In an email solicitation Thursday, the DSCC described how the RNC presentation instructed members to “capitalize on fear of President Obama and his ‘trending toward socialism’ to raise money,” citing a slide titled “The Evil Empire” depicting Obama as the Joker. “We know they use fear and lies, but this evidence shows that it is part of a coordinated effort at the highest level of the Republican Party,” the email says. “If this type of attack infuriates you half as much as it infuriates me, you need to act now. Make an immediate donation to the DSCC to fight the Republican lies and smears.”

Fiore Cartoon: Death Plummet

Thu Mar. 4, 2010 3:47 PM EST

America is in a freefall. But there are those who refuse to pull the government parachute chord because it would mean "socialism" and "tyranny."

As satirist Mark Fiore demonstrates below, that can only end one way...