2011 - %3, June

Supreme Court Kills Off AZ Public Financing Law

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 12:17 PM EDT

Score another one for James Bopp, the veteran conservative lawyer who has helped kill off much of the country's campaign finance regulatory system. On Monday, the US Supreme Court struck down an innovative Arizona public financing law that would have provided extra public money to candidates who were being outspent by privately funded candidates and independent expenditure groups. The drafters of the law had hoped that by using public funds to generate more speech, not less, they might be able to avoid many of the free speech issues that have bedeviled other attempts to level the campaign playing field.

The Roberts Court, though, was having none of that. In a 5-4 ruling (PDF) in Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom PAC v Bennett, the court sided with Bopp, who represented one of the self-financed candidates who were the plaintiffs in the case. The court found that the law would force well-funded candidates to decide between spending more money and thus speaking out more, or spending less to avoid helping their opponents earn more public money for their campaigns. The court found the position untenable with constitutional guarantees of free speech.

The opinion, written by Roberts, draws heavily on its previous ruling in Davis vs FEC, in which the court struck down the "Millionaire's amendment" to the McCain-Feingold law, which had allowed candidates to avoid campaign contribution limits if they were running against a wealthy self-financed candidate. That was partly Bopp's case, too. More significantly, though, one of the only reasons that the court could even hear the Arizona law is because of a case Bopp won back in 1994 in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which invalidated a public financing scheme in Minnesota. That decision created the circuit court split that allowed the high court to step in and decide this case. 

When I talked to Bopp last year about the Arizona case, he was pretty sure he was going to win. He told me:

Public funding, he argues, suppresses speech because it sets spending limits for candidates who accept it. "The problem is, the reformers are hoisting themselves on their own petard," he explains. "Their real goal [with public-financing schemes] is to restrict expenditures."

That, in a nutshell, is what the Supreme Court said today, too.

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Rove's Shadowy Crossroads GPS Plans $20 Million Ad Assault on Obama

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 8:07 AM EDT

Election Day 2012 is still 17 months away, but already a shadowy outside spending group has announced it will spend $20 million on ads bashing President Obama's record on the economy, jobs, and the nation's debt.

Conceived by GOP mastermind Karl Rove, Crossroads GPS will unveil its first, $5 million set of ads today, appearing on television stations in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, and Virginia, among other states. The ads will also appear on national TV networks. Here's that first ad, titled "Shovel Ready," ripping Obama for rising unemployment and national debt and a failed $830 billion stimulus. "It's time to take away Obama's blank check," says the ad's narrator.

Want to know who funded the "Shovel Ready" ad? Too bad. Crossroads GPS is what's called a 501(c)4 group, or "social welfare organization," under IRS tax law. That means the group can engage in politicking, but it can't be the majority of what they do. But more importantly, Crossroads GPS does not have to disclose who its donors are. It's a secret. When Crossroads GPS files its fundraising paperwork with the IRS for the 2010 election, which it has yet to do seven months after the fact, there won't be any donor names at all.

Think of Crossroads GPS' $20 million ad buy as a preview for what's to come in the 2012 presidential election. In fact, Crossroads GPS' sister group, American Crossroads, which does have to disclose its donors, has pledged to spend a staggering $120 million during the 2012 election cycle to unseat Obama and win the majority in the Senate. On the Democratic side, as I reported in May, there are an array of outside spending groups focusing on the presidential, House, and Senate races intended to counter the right wing's flow of dark money. After watching the GOP cruise to victory in 2010, with the help of the Crossroads groups, they're building their own war chests for 2012. "What's the benefit," one Democratic strategist told me, "of sitting on the sidelines and losing your majority in the Senate, losing more seats in the House, and possibly losing the White House?"

Already Democrats are using the "Shovel Ready" ad as a way to raise as much as $400,000 this week, The Hill reported. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the main fundraising arm for Senate Democrats, blasted out an email to supporters highlighting the GPS ad and asking for money. "It’s a huge buy," wrote DSCC official Guy Cecil, "but we can fend them off in the states they’re targeting IF we hit this fundraising goal on Thursday."

Bill Callahan's Love Song to America

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

Four hours before Bill Callahan is set to perform at the Independent, a small San Francisco nightclub, he fiddles with his shoelaces and pokes the tips through a grommet in his navy sneakers. Though his singing voice is unwavering as oak, Callahan is actually a bit shy. In person, his cowboy baritone often decrescendos to a whisper. Still, his eyes flicker with passion when he talks about things like the difference between songwriting and prose, or how genetically modified meat wrecks our bodies.

Callahan recently released his 13th studio album, Apocalypse. It sounds so intimately pressed to his half-singing-half-speaking voice that the microphone could be inside Callahan's mind. His sound wasn't always so focused. A Maryland native, Callahan performed under the name Smog from the early 1990s to mid 2000s. Then, he moved to Austin, Texas, and started performing under his own name. Over the course of those two decades, his style drifted from more abstract and instrumental to what it is today: grounded in lyrics. His songs are casual, unhurried, and delivered over minimalist guitar fingerpicking with a dash of distortion. His voice, a soothing low drawl, is reminiscient of Johnny Cash. On his lastest album, we hear tales about cattle drivers and crops, US soldiers and talk shows. It's part nostalgia, part American apocalypse. In our backstage chat, Callahan reflected on everything from the flavor of bison meat to weird babies and our elected leaders' secret underground garden plot.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 27, 2011

Mon Jun. 27, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team pull camouflaged netting over an artillery emplacement during platoon evaluations on Fort Bragg, N.C., June 15. Evaluations follow months of training, field exercises and certification. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

Fast Food's Litter Legacy

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

If Iron Eyes Cody (the "crying Indian" of the '70s anti-littering commercials) were alive today, he would almost certainly shed a few tears about this news: Litter from fast-food chains is spreading far and wide. When a team from the environmental nonprofit Clean Water Action surveyed litter in four cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, it found that trash from four restaurants (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Starbucks) and one convenience store (7-11) made up more than half of the litter it collected. 

Miriam Gordon, Clean Water Action's California director, was careful to note that the survey was "not comprehensive; it was just a snapshot of trash in four communities." But its implications are big, since McNuggets boxes and Big Gulp cups dropped in the Bay Area often find their final resting place in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the giant gyre of trash that floats in North Central Pacific, between California and Hawaii. According to Gordon, 80 percent of the patch's trash comes from land-based sources. And it's growing: In 1999, a researcher who surveyed the patch found six times more plastic than plankton. By 2009, there was 40 times more plastic than plankton.

Some communities are wising up to the litter problem. Several cities in California and a few in DC's Potomac Basin are aiming to get rid of litter before it enters creeks and storm drains by installing trash capture devices in the storm drains and ramping up litter collection. But "this will be costly from a taxpayer perspective, " says Gordon. "The real environmental solutions come from reducing trash at the source." Clean Water Action estimates that as much as 31 percent of the trash it collected could have been eliminated if restaurants allowed customers to bring in reusable food and drink containers.

Easier said than done. I asked McDonald's whether it allows customers to bring in reusable food and beverage containers. No dice. "[A customer's container] could introduce a risk of cross-contamination by accepting items back across the counter and it being in contact with our kitchen equipment and employees," wrote Jill Scandridge, McDonalds' director of public affairs, in an email. "There is no way to ensure that it meets necessary sanitation standards for being in contact with food."

Fair enough. It's understandable that McDonald's would want to be extra careful; no one wants a salmonella outbreak. But some of the other chains I talked to do allow reusables: Some 7-11 stores sell reusable cups for "proprietary beverages" like the Big Gulp. Starbucks has allowed its customers to bring their own cups since 1985, and in 2000, a company task force estimated that it could save $1 million a year by encouraging customers to bring in reusable mugs. The coffee giant recently pledged to serve its 25 percent of its beverages in renewable cups by 2015.

When I asked San Francisco's health department whether it considers reusable containers a health risk, the answer was no. "Currently, there is no official state or local public health policy on bringing reusable food containers into restaurants," wrote Richard Lee, director of San Francisco's environmental health regulatory programs, in an email. "In general, we don't think this would be a likely public health hazard, because it is unlikely that members of the public would put themselves at risk using dirty or contaminated containers." Restaurants can take precautions to reduce the chances of contamination; for example, Lee notes that SF health-department codes specify that reusable cups should not touch the beverage-dispensing spigot.

Clearly a switch to reusables at fast-food joints like McDonald's would require a pretty dramatic shift in consumer behavior. And I'm not suggesting that everyone bring old Tupperwares to tote their Big Macs. But it would be nice if more fast food chains encouraged people to BYO cups for soda or coffee. McDonald's serves more than 58 million customers every day. That's a lot of cups, lids, and straws that the ocean could probably do without.

Priorities, Priorities: AC in Afghanistan vs. School Lunch at Home

| Sun Jun. 26, 2011 2:23 PM EDT
A Canadian soldier works on an AC system in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

When you station hundreds of thousands of people in hot places to fight wars, it costs something to keep them reasonably cool. How much?

According to NPR, the military spends $20 billion per year on air conditioning in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is that a lot? Here's NPR:

That's more than NASA's budget. It's more than BP has paid so far for damage during the Gulf oil spill. It's what the G-8 has pledged to help foster new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.

To choose an example from my world, that's more than twice as much as we spend annually on the National School Lunch Program. I would argue, as I have before, that investing significantly more in school lunches is an urgent national priority. School lunches are society's most concrete, tangible way of transmitting foodways to rising generations. Sure, we pass on foodways in home kitchens and in our built infrastructure of restaurants/eateries, and well as through advertising; but those are in the private sphere. The public-school cafeteria is where we create a public vision of what the food system should be like. In short, it's the public contribution to the formation of kids' eating habits. And the eating habits we develop as kids largely determine the food choices we make as adults. If that weren't true, the food industry wouldn't be dropping $1.6 billion every year marketing to kids.

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Report: WI Judge Allegedly Grabbed Colleague by the Neck Before Union Bill Decision

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 11:11 AM EDT

The fireworks just keep coming and coming out of Wisconsin, the flashpoint for the grassroots uprising against the GOP's war on unions and workers' rights. Here's a breaking news headline from this morning:

"Prosser allegedly grabbed fellow justice by the neck."

Prosser, of course, is conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, who narrowly won re-election to the state's high court this spring in one of the closest judicial races in Wisconsin history. Now, Wisconsin Public Radio and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) are reporting that Prosser allegedly grabbed a fellow justice, Ann Walsh Bradley, around the neck with both hands during argument shortly before the court ruled on June 14 to uphold Republican Governor Scott Walker's bill to curb collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions.

Asked to respond, Prosser told WCIJ he had "nothing to say." Justice Bradley said the same to Wisconsin Public Radio. Here's more from the story:

The sources say Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs was notified of the incident. One source says Tubbs came in to meet with the entire Supreme Court about this matter. Tubbs, contacted by Wisconsin Public Radio, declined to comment.

Sources also say the matter was called to the attention of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, which investigates allegations of misconduct involving judges. James Alexander, executive director of the commission, said Friday that "we can neither confirm nor deny" that the incident was under investigation. "The commission hasn’t given me any authority to make any confirmation."

Amanda Todd, spokesperson for the court, sent an email to the full court on Friday afternoon informing them of the Center’s media inquiries on the matter. Reporters also contacted each justice individually. As of the end of day Friday, none of the justices had commented.

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold Walker's bill not only angered Democrats and union supporters but split the high court itself. The court's chief justice, Shirley Abrahamson, blasted the four justices (among them Prosser) who wrote the majority opinion, writing that they "make their own findings of fact, mischaracterize the parties' arguments, misinterpret statutes, minimize (if not eliminate) Wisconsin constitutional guarantees, and misstate case law, appearing to silently overrule case law dating back to at least 1891." The court's decision overturned a district court judge who said Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature violated the state's law open meetings law during the passage of Walker's bill.

To be clear, the details of Prosser's alleged misconduct are still somewhat unclear. But if substantiated, these latest allegations aren't the first time Prosser has been accused of mistreating female judges. In early 2010, Prosser lashed out at Abrahamson in a closed-doors meeting, calling her a "bitch" and threatening to "destroy" her.

Bidding Adieu to Amtrak?

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:35 AM EDT

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama ran down a long list of things the nation needs to do better. Among expected topics, like education and healthcare, Obama noted infrastructure, and more specifically—high-speed rail. Parts of Europe and Russia invest more in their railways than we do, he said, and it's high time we start catching up.

That mission made some headway this week—but not in quite the way the rail industry would have hoped for. On Wednesday, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a legislative hearing to discuss a draft bill that aims to improve high-speed and intercity passenger rail for the nation. How? By privatizing Amtrak.

If implemented, the GOP-sponsored bill would transfer control of the Northeast Rail Corridor—the train web connecting major Northeast cities—from Amtrak to the Department of Transportation. DOT would then oversee a private sector bidding process for high-speed rail projects in the Northeast, and for intercity routes nationwide.

William Shakespeare: Toker?

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:15 AM EDT

If he were alive today, would Shakespeare have really, really liked listening to the Grateful Dead?

That's the question a group of scientists, led by anthropologist Francis Thackeray, is attempting to answer. Thackeray, director of the Institute for Human Evolution in Johannesburg, South Africa, told Fox News he has formally asked the Church of England to green light his exhumation of the Bard of Avon's remains to determine the cause of his death and, among other things, if the playwright had traces of pot pumping through his system. This comes over a decade after Thackeray and the South African Police Services Forensic Science Laboratory both uncovered "suggestive evidence of cannabis" and "signs of what looks like cocaine" on clay pipes found in the garden of Shakespeare’s old house.

Tom's Kitchen: Pasta With Snap Peas and Fennel

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Welcome to my occasional cooking column (a continuation of something I started on Grist). The idea of Tom's Kitchen isn't to show off my flashy cooking skills (which are actually quite modest); or rub your face in how amazing it is to cook on a small veggie farm. Rather, what I want to do is contribute to a tradition established by much more accomplished cooks than me—e.g. Deborah Madison, Mark Bittman—of showing that cooking delicious, healthful food really isn't all that hard or time-consuming. 

When I first started cooking seriously 20 years ago, I would grab an "authentic" cookbook centered on some faraway land—say, Paula Wolfert's classic 1973 opus Couscous: And Other Good Food from Moroccochoose some recipes, jot down a vast shopping list brimming with esoteric ingredients, and set off on a day-long adventure (and a long night of dishes). You can learn plenty from that style of cooking—I have—but really, it's a hobbyist's activity. It's not going to put dinner on the table on a Tuesday night after a long day at the office (or of writing and farm work). These days, my cooking is simpler: I see what fresh ingredients are available, check out what's in the pantry, and figure out some quick way to bring it all together in palatable fashion. It's often influenced by techniques and pantry ingredients I picked up over the years from the likes of the great Wolfert, but there's no attempt to be authentic or fancy or do special shopping. There's just no time.

I think this style is a much more user-friendly way of drawing more people into cooking—a critical task, I think, when tens of millions of people have no idea how to cook and outsource their diets to the food industry.