2011 - %3, June

Planned Parenthood Under Attack at the State Level

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 12:55 PM EDT

By Friday, Kansas could be the first state to effectively make legal abortion inaccessible within its borders. Drawing less attention, though, is the fact that the state is also on a mission to put Planned Parenthood out of business there entirely, after also passing a new law that cuts off public funding to the group's reproductive health clinics.

So far, none of the three clinics in the state that provide abortions have been granted a license to continue operating, as the Kansas City Star reports. Our own Maddie Oatman reported Tuesday that one of the clinics has filed suit to stop the new rules. But among the litany of anti-abortion bills passed in Kansas this year was also one that cuts off federal Title X family planning funding for Planned Parenthood, a move that could limit services at the organization's two health centers in the state. (Title X is a federal program, but it provides grants to state and regional health departments which in turn administer them to service providers.) The two offices—in Wichita and Hayes—don't provide abortions at all. They provide health screenings, contraception, and educational resources, and in most years, between 40 and 60 percent of their funding comes through Title X, says Peter Brownlie, the president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

On Monday, the group filed suit in the federal district court in Kansas City to prevent the enforcement of the defunding legislation. The two clinics see 5,600 patients per year, and the denial of Title X funds would most likely mean that they have to do away with the sliding scale fee that they currently charged based on a patient's income. That has allowed them to provide their services at little or no charge for people at poverty level or below, says Brownlie.

"We're going to continue to make every effort to keep them open," he told Mother Jones last week. Meanwhile, the group is also fighting the new abortion clinic regulations that threaten to close their other office in Overland Park, Kansas, where they do provide abortion services.

The Kansas Planned Parenthood situation is a little bit different than Indiana's, where the state legislature voted in April to block Medicaid funds from being used at the clinics. The feds declared the move illegal because it discriminates against specific health care providers, and last Friday a US District Court judge granted an injunction to stop the law from taking effect in the state. (The Indiana attorney general has filed an appeal, but as of Saturday, Planned Parenthood is again accepting Medicaid patients.)

Other states have followed the lead of Indiana and Kansas. North Carolina passed a bill earlier this month blocking funding to the group over the governor's veto, and Texas is on track to sign a similar measure into law this week. While anti-abortion lawmakers may have lost their battle to end funding for PP at the federal level earlier this year, they've been able to chalk up several wins at the state level.

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Shot Across the Bow at US Flotilla Passengers

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 12:39 PM EDT

In a last-ditch effort to deter American participation in the Gaza flotilla redux—the Audacity of Hope containing 36 American passengers is set to embark from Greece any day now—the US government sent out a warning about the possible repercussions of jumping onboard. On Friday, the State Department declared "that delivering or attempting or conspiring to deliver material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas, could violate US civil and criminal statutes and could lead to fines and incarceration." But critics say there's no evidence that any of the passengers intend to deliver anything to Hamas, and that the Obama administration is overstepping its boundaries.

The warning, according to American University law professor Stephen Vladeck, constitutes an unmistakable threat of potential prosecution under the so-called "material support" law—18 U.S.C. 2339B for you legal buffs out there. First passed in 1996, it has been perhaps the Justice Department's favorite tool for prosecuting terrorism cases since 9/11. The statute prohibits the knowing provision of "material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization." In 2001, the Patriot Act expanded the definition of "material support or resources" to include "expert advice or assistance."

Beaches to Avoid This July 4th

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 10:59 AM EDT
Avalon Beach: I'll stay on the sand, thank you.

Angelenos beware: If you plan to spend your Independence Day soaking up rays on the beach, it might be wise to stay out of the water.

That's according to the Natural Resources Defense Council's 21st annual report on beach water quality, which reveals the nation's dirtiest lake and seaside beaches. Southern California snagged the most spots on a list of "repeat offenders," where contamination—mostly from human and animal waste in storm runoff—exceeded national standards at least a quarter of the time over the last four years.

Overall, 2010 saw the second-highest number of beach closures and health advisories in the past two decades. Beaches were scored based not only on water quality, but also on how accessible local officials made that information to the public.

NRDC officials cited everything from the stomach flu and pink eye to dysentery and hepatitis as illnesses that can strike swimmers, adding that animal waste can exacerbate algal blooms that have health consequences for marine life. And you thought the local water park was bad.

"A day at the beach shouldn't have to come with a skin rash as a souvenir," NRDC water expert David Beckman said.

Shocked, Shocked: GOP Hypocrisy on Certainty

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 10:24 AM EDT

The First Read gang at NBC News' political unit made a good point about those say-anything Republicans:

*** Remember the GOP talking points on "certainty?" However, over the past year, John Boehner and Republicans have railed against the Obama administration’s policies (on health care, on the financial industry), arguing they create uncertainty for the business community. “We're calling for an end to the threat of tax hikes -- and a fundamental reform of the tax code -- to provide certainty to those in our country who create jobs," Boehner said in May. “We need to move forward on those policies that will give our small businesses the certainty to create those jobs,” he added earlier this month. “We need to stop the regulations to provide more certainty for America's job creators,” he noted two week ago. But the issue of "certainty" is not is not being brought up now by Republicans when it comes to the debt ceiling. If anything, despite calls from the Wall Street and business communities to CREATE certainty by taking this debt ceiling issue off the table sooner rather than later, the GOP is now doubling-down on creating a LACK of certainty for now as a way to gain leverage in the talks with the White House.

Gotcha.

Meat-Industry Abuse: Not Just for Workers

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 10:14 AM EDT

As I tried to tease out in this post, the meat industry's business model hinges on cutting costs. And relentless cost-cutting pressure translates to relentless pressure to cut corners down the production chain, from the slaughterhouse kill floor to the factory-farm pen. Ted Genoways' blockbuster piece "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret"  delivers a case study in how workers pay the price for the mountains of cheap meat the industry pays out.

Animals pay, too. They are treated as industrial commodities—like identical machine parts being churned out by a factory—not living beings that have evolved over millennia to thrive or suffer under specific conditions. Systematically objectified, factory-farm animals are subject to routine abuse. If you worked as a quality-control inspector on an assembly line, you'd think nothing slamming a defective widget into the waste bin. Widgets feel no pain. As a matter of course, animals get the same treatment, as this—the latest in a string of appalling recent undercover videos—demonstrates.

Now, unlike other recent cases of abuse exposure, this one isn't likely to result in the responsible company declaring the workers involved "bad apples" and firing them. Most of what you see in the video is entirely routine and industry-standard—like the practice of cutting off the tail of piglets with a pair of shears and no anesthetics. "Tail docking," as the practice is known, is necessary on factory hog farms, because distressed hogs tend to try to chew each others' tails off. The same isn't true of hogs that live outside. Note also the practice of tossing piglets roughly across rooms—which a plant manager is caught onscreen training workers to do, based on the theory that piglets are "bouncy."

What's happening here isn't just a moral abomination. Public health, too, is threatened by abusing animals to the point the point they have open wounds and then hoping daily lashings of antibiotics will keep infections at a manageable level. I can't imagine a better strategy for incubating antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Mercy for Animals, the group that planted the undercover investigator at the facility, documented these conditions:

• Large, open, pus-filled wounds and pressure sores
• Sick and injured pigs left to languish and slowly die without proper veterinary care
• Mother pigs—physically taxed from constant birthing—suffering from distended, inflamed, bleeding, and usually fatal uterine prolapses

Rather than change practices in response to public outrage over these exposures, the meat industry has floated legislation in several states to ban the practice of sneaking cameras onto factory farms. It's an industry that can't bear scrutiny.

Fighting Outside Money With Outside Money

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 9:26 AM EDT

So begins the 2012 presidential campaign's outside spending money war.

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by two former Obama White House aides, has launched a new ad pushing back against a multi-million-dollar attack campaign targeting President Obama's economic record by Karl Rove's American Crossroads. Priorities' $750,000 ad buy was significantly less than Crossroads', but the spots will air in states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia—that are all crucial to Obama's re-election.

Titled "Portraits," the add calls Crossroads' most recent offering—blaming President Obama for the lagging economic recovery—"politics at its worst." Set against a montage of purportedly ordinary Americans, the ad's narrator hews closely to Democratic talking points, criticizing Republicans for opposing "economic reform," wanting to "end Medicare," and cutting education funding, all the while supporting subsidies for big oil companies and tax breaks for the wealthy.

Here's the ad:

Like American Crossroads, Priorities USA Action is a 527 organization, or super PAC, which means it has to report its donors to the Federal Election Commission. The public will eventually know who funded this ad and others from the Democrat-led group.

The takeaway here is this: Democrats got shellacked in the 2010 midterms, in part because they didn't have the outside spending firepower to counter the barrage of ads from Crossroads and other like-minded groups. Not anymore. November 2012 is still almost a year and a half out, but already we're getting an early glimpse at the outside money wars sure to dominate the airwaves the closer we get to election day.

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The Media's Michele Bachmann "Gaffe" Problem

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 8:59 AM EDT

Over at the Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein takes the media to task for spending so much time focusing on Michele Bachmann's embarrassing slip-up on Monday, in which she confused American icon and Iowa native John Wayne with serial-killing clown and Iowa native John Wayne Gacy. He's also irked that ABC's George Stephanopolous wasted precious time grilling Bachmann about her assertion that the Founding Fathers worked to end slavery:

So what counts as a "gaffe" in the eyes of the press corps?

We're getting an excellent lesson in it this week, with the formal rollout of the Michele Bachmann presidential candidacy. Bachmann is taking heat for what seems to me to be a relatively minor mistake in Americana and for a misstatement of early American history.

You know what's not getting nearly the same treatment? Bachmann has been going around for some time now, including on her Sunday TV appearances, spouting absolute nonsense about the debt ceiling. She's claiming that somehow it would be no big deal if the limit wasn't raised.

That's a fair point (and, ahem, here's our coverage of the debt ceiling fight). But I'd expand that much, much further to cover a whole range of other issues that inevitably get buried once the campaign kicks into gear. The relevant point, after all, really isn't that Bachmann says crazy things; it's that she believes those things, and that those ideas are a fundamental part of her political ideology. For instance, as Bachmann noted in her kickoff speech, she launched her political career by opposing Minnesota's state curriculum standards. What was the nature of her opposition? She and her allies argued that the standards were part of a United Nations plot to acclimate children to a pantheistic, pro-abortion, Soviet-style, one-world state—and George H.W. Bush was in on it! Given the current heated debate over education reform, that seems like a pretty ripe topic to bring up in an interview. Certainly more so than the debate over slavery, which has been dormant for a while.

Bachmann's detractors, particularly in Minnesota, tend to believe that her rise has been aided by the failure of mainstream news organizations to look critically at her political views and associations. Her supporters, meanwhile, suggest that she's a victim of the sloppy tendency to focus on trivial verbal slip-ups rather than substantive issues. Two weeks into her presidential campaign, at least one thing is clear: They're both right.

How the Meat Industry Turned Abuse into a Business Model

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
These little piggies went to the factory gestation facility.

As a long-time student of the meat industry, I read Ted Genoways' extraordinary article on conditions at the "head table" of a factory-scale pig-processing plant with delight. As a human being, my reaction was revulsion.

In a single long piece, Genoways lays out the crude history of US meat over the past 80 years. We get the unionization of the kill floor in the wake of Sinclair's The Jungle, the post-war emergence of meat packing as a proper middle-class job, the fierce anti-union backlash of the '70s, followed by corporatization, scaling up, plunging wages, and then, well, all manner of hell breaking loose, graphically documented by Genoways. All I can add to the story is to emphasize how forces in the broader economy turned the meat industry into one that profits not by putting out an excellent product, but rather by relentlessly slashing costs.

In his story, Genoways reports that Quality Pork Processors sped up its kill line by 50 percent between 1989 and 2006, while the plant's workforce "barely increased." The strange malady acquired by those workers in Austin, Minn., makes for an eye-popping story; but the rough conditions they worked under aren't the exception—they're industry standard. By 2005, things had gotten so dire for meat-packing workers that Human Rights Watch—typically on the lookout for atrocities in war zones—saw fit to issue a scathing report on their plight. The report's title says it all: "Blood, Sweat, and Fear."

WHAT drives such routine worker abuse? What would make a company steadily increase pressure on its workers to the point of endangering them, even as wages flatline?

The surface answer is, of course, because they can. After the unions evaporated, the meatpacking workforce became extremely vulnerable. By the '90s, meatpacking had become such an awful job that native-born Americans abandoned the industry as quickly as they could. Undocumented workers from Mexico and points south, fleeing agrarian decline in those regions, filled the void. Unprotected by unions, one brush with authority away from deportation, undocumented workers are easy targets for the predatory practices of powerful employers, as Genoways demonstrates.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 29, 2011

Wed Jun. 29, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Task Force Currahee, pull security from the top of a mountain in Paktika province during operation Surak Basta III on June 23. The operation was to infiltrate near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in order to stop enemy fighters from entering into Afghanistan. Photo via US Army.

Does Rick Perry Want to Make Texas a No-Fly Zone?

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Texas lawmakers are expected to vote on a bill Wednesday that would effectively outlaw many routine airport searches by the Transportation Security Administration. If it passes, a TSA screener who touches the "anus, sexual organs, or breasts" of a passenger without probable cause could face jail time—a prospect that has the Obama administration threatening to sue the Lone Star state and even cancel flights. A rattled state Senate seemed to have dropped the bill before Gov. Rick Perry put it back on the agenda again last week, perhaps seeing a high-stakes fight with the feds as fuel for a presidential bid. But why stop at that? Some of the bill's most enthusiastic backers view it as a key first step towards an even bigger goal: The establishment of an independent Republic of Texas.

"If the federal government follows up on its threat and suspends air travel, I honestly think we are going to gain a lot of members in a big hurry," says Dave Mundy, media director for the Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM), a pro-secession group that claims an active membership of 10,000. "An air embargo, which is what they are talking about, would actually be an act of war. I mean, that's what happens when you declare war on somebody. You establish a no-fly zone."

Yesterday, TNM president Daniel Miller wrote on the group's website that "Texas is not Iraq." ("Will Washington choose to engage the Texan 149th Fighter Wing and their F-16 air superiority fighters?") Miller also pointed to this "brilliant" observation from an anonymous blogger: "The state of Texas has more military capability than the United Kingdom, and so, unless Washington plans to nuke them, they might want to consider how well they might do engaging Texan F-16s while they allege the right to violate United States Code and the Constitution."