2011 - %3, June

There's a Foxx Guarding the Ag-Policy Henhouse

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 1:09 PM EDT
Know your farmer, know your food? Oh no, you don't, says Virginia Foxx.

In my post on the recent House Republicans' assault on progressive ag policy, I mentioned the move to shut down USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. The sponsor of the amendment that did the dirty deed is Rep. Virginia Foxx (R.-N.C.)—who, it turns, out, represents my district in Congress. This is the sort of thing she gets up to when she's not defending children from the scourge of gay marriage, or lashing out at undocumented workers (who, incidentally, form the backbone of our area's Christmas tree and nursery industries.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, Know Your Farmer is essentially a website. it gathers up and spotlights a hodgepodge of existing programs, funded by the 2008 Farm Bill, that direct modest amounts of money to rebuilding local and regional food systems and supporting new farmers.

That's actually a significant service. The USDA's own site is infamously unwieldy and impossible to navigate. Without Know Your Farmer, the few progressive federal ag programs we have—for example, ones that that help make farmers markets accessible to low-income mothers, or help small farmers launch profitable food businesses—would likely wither on the vine.

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Meet the Panda Dog

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 11:24 AM EDT

The Chinese have surpassed us as the world's biggest auto market, bested us at the renewable energy game, and are years ahead of us on high-speed rail technology.

Now they've beaten us to the "Panda Dog."

There's a new fad among Chinese pet owners that involves taking your domesticated canine to a grooming salon and having it washed, trimmed, and dyed to resemble an exotic animal. Think fluffy chow-chows as baby pandas and golden retrievers as mini-cheetahs or micro-tigers.

Photos currently making the rounds on the blogosphere include images from a dog pageant in China's Henan Province. The dogs on display look confused and not particularly ecstatic.

Quote of the Day: Cantor Bails

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 10:33 AM EDT

From House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, explaining why he's bailing out of budget negotiations with the Obama administration:

I believe that we have identified trillions in spending cuts, and to date, we have established a blueprint that could institute the fiscal reforms needed to start getting our fiscal house in order. That said....Democrats continue to insist that any deal must include tax increases....Given this impasse, I will not be participating in today’s meeting and I believe it is time for the President to speak clearly and resolve the tax issue.

Roger that. Trillions in spending cuts already agreed to, but there can't be one dime in tax increases of any kind. Would any conservative apologists like to continue pretending that Democratic aversion to spending cuts is pretty much the same kind of thing as the Republican jihad against tax increases? Anyone? Ross?

Pawlenty Rocks the God Vote

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 9:37 AM EDT

The religious right is Tim Pawlenty's to lose.

In a recent poll of leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE)—which includes representatives from a number of evangelical organizations around the country—45 percent named Pawlenty as their preferred Republican candidate. Coming in a distant second with 14 percent: Mitt Romney.

In the NAE press release announcing the poll, Leith Anderson, the group's president, points out that Pawlenty's strong showing "might be expected since he is so often identified as an evangelical." It doesn't hurt that Anderson is Pawlenty's pastor at Wooddale Church—a shared history that the release fails to mention.

Pawlenty's religious fervor distinguishes him from Romney, the current frontrunner. It's central to his presidential narrative. But that's not likely to help him much with the broader Republican electorate:

Among Republicans, 59 percent hold a favorable view of [Romney], according to a Bloomberg National Poll, while only 16 percent view him negatively. He’s also more popular than unpopular with independent voters by a 10 percentage point margin. . . . [Pawlenty] is viewed favorably by 29 percent and unfavorably by 11 percent.

And then there's this:

While the poll shows more than half of Republicans are dissatisfied with the current choices in the field, an overwhelming 85 percent want candidates seeking their support to focus almost entirely on economic issues, not social ones.

Of course, social issues define the evangelical right. Meaning that Pawlenty would be well advised to aggressively broaden his base, and court some of that 85 percent that's begging to hear more about jobs and smart investments and less about abortion and traditional marriage. Because if polls like Bloomberg's bear out, most Republicans just don't care what the NAE thinks.

GOP Mind Games, Job-Killing Edition

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 9:32 AM EDT

It's an article of faith among congressional Republicans that, if you repeat a talking point often enough, no matter how inaccurate it is, it will eventually take root in the minds of Americans. Case in point: A new Bloomberg poll finds that 55 percent of Americans believe spending and tax cuts are the best way to lift the US labor market and lower unemployment, now at 9.1 percent, as opposed to more government spending.

That's straight out of House Republicans' "cut-and-grow" playbook, in which the road to economic prosperity entails slashing corporate tax rates and billion-dollar cuts to "job-killing government spending."

Except that's not true.

Alan Blinder, a Princeton economics professor and former Fed vice president, thoroughly debunked the GOP's claims on Tuesday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "The GOP Myth of 'Job-Killing' Spending." Blinder writes:

The generic conservative view that government is "too big" in some abstract sense leads to a strong predisposition against spending. OK. But the question remains: How can the government destroy jobs by either hiring people directly or buying things from private companies? For example, how is it that public purchases of computers destroy jobs but private purchases of computers create them?

Blinder easily knocks down claims that the 2009 federal stimulus—roughly $600 billion in spending and $200 billion in tax cuts—failed to create jobs, pointing to Congressional Budget Office data that shows the net job gain was at least 1.3 million and perhaps as high as 3.3 million. What's more, Blinder debunks the idea that the federal deficit and the uncertainty that comes with it has caused companies to scale back business investments, which in turn impacts hiring and economic growth. Except such investment soared in the past year, increasing 14.7 percent. Ultimately, Blinder argues for another round of stimulus—specifically, giving businesses that grow their payrolls a tax credit—while calling for a serious long-term deficit reduction package.

And Blinder isn't the only expert to dismantle the GOP's economic position. In an interview with Yahoo News' Lookout blog, a former top economic aide to George W. Bush said the GOP's cut-and-grow agenda doesn't make any sense. "That wouldn't square with the way we normally think about economic activity in a depressed economy," said Andrew Samwick, now an economics professor at Dartmouth. Samwick, like so many other economists, points out that increased spending is a proven way to ramp up hiring and spark economic growth. Slashing spending does the opposite.

Yet Republicans have hammered away with their cut-and-grow mantra so much that they've convinced a majority of Americans to believe the unbelievable. You've got to hand it to Republicans: They may be wrong, but they are convincing.

House Republicans Aim Pitchfork at Food-System Reform

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 9:00 AM EDT

I've complained once or twice in the past that US farm policy, even under Obama, favors corporate-led, highly dysfunctional agriculture. That's true on balance, but it doesn't tell the whole story. If you dig into the topic, you'll find that sustainable-food activists have been working for decades to place progressive, community-oriented programs into the ag-policy mix. These hard-fought victories, won during once-every-five-years Farm Bill wars, are vastly outweighed by things like the government's corn-ethanol fetish, or its hyper-aggressive trade policies. 

But the food movement's political gains are real, they're fragile, and they need defending. And they're under withering attack from the GOP-controlled US House, which passed a fiscal 2012 agriculture appropriations bill that if signed into law would snuff out US farm policy's green shoots like an herbicide-spewing crop duster snuffs out weeds. The D.C.-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the best watchdog/lobbying group we have on ag-policy issues, delivers the grim news on what the House bill would do. Here's a few highlights, summarized by me.

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Should Jon Huntsman Run as an Independent?

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 7:57 AM EDT

Every presidential candidate talks about the importance of "independent" voters. But in an interview with Kasie Hunt, former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman takes it a step further:

In an interview with POLITICO, Huntsman made clear that he plans to capitalize on election rules in New Hampshire and South Carolina that allow independent voters to cast ballots in the GOP presidential primary.

"These are wide open primaries, we forget that," Huntsman said, predicting an independent turnout in New Hampshire as high as 40 percent. "[I] think, given the fluidity of the race in these early states, that we stand a pretty good chance, and we're putting that to the test."

The former Utah governor's strategy is an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity. His moderate positions on the environment, immigration and civil unions —and his time as Barack Obama's ambassador to China—are formidable obstacles to victory in a party where the energy is concentrated in the conservative core.

By Huntsman's own admission, his party's shift to the right has left him considerably out of step with the conservative base—a problem that's been reinforced by a string of polls, which show him bringing up the rear. So what's a professed Obama admirer and former moderate Republican governor to do? Nate Silver, riffing off of Huntsman's new anti-war push, tweets an unlikely scenario: "Independents want quick withdraw from Afghanistan too. Does the possibility of running as an independent enter into Huntsman's calculus?"

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 23, 2011

Thu Jun. 23, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Staff Sgt. Matthew Easly prepares to plot a waypoint during the Land Navigation event at the Army Reserve Best Warrior competition at Fort McCoy, Wis., Tuesday, June 21, 2011. Easly, a native of Sacramento, Calif., is representing the 807th Medical Deployment Support Command at this year's competition. A driving rain and strong winds added an additional element of difficulty to the event that started at 3 a.m. and finished six hours later. Photo via US Army.

Kansas: The First Abortion-Free State?

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

If new guidelines from the Kansas health department are enforced, the last three abortion clinics in the state could be forced to shut their doors this summer.

Back in April, the state legislature passed a law directing the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to author new facility standards for abortion clinics, which the staunchly anti-abortion GOP governor, Sam Brownback, signed into law on May 16. The law also requires the health department to issue new licenses each year, and it grants additional authority to health department inspectors to conduct unannounced inspections, and to fine or shut down clinics.

The department wasted no time in drafting the new rules, issuing the final version on June 17 and informing clinics that they would have to comply with the rules by July 1, as the Associated Press reported Wednesday. Peter Brownlie, president of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, told the AP that inspectors were expected at their clinic in Overland Park, Kansas, on Wednesday. There are only three clinics left in the state: Planned Parenthood's, a clinic in Overland Park, and the Aid for Women clinic in Kansas City.

The new requirements require facilities to add extra bathrooms, drastically expand waiting and recovery areas, and even add larger janitor's closets, as one clinic employee told me—changes that clinics will have a heck of a time pulling off by the deadline. Under the new rule, clinics must also aquire state certification to admit patients, a process that takes 90 to 120 days, the staffer explained. Which makes it impossible for clinics to comply. And clinics that don't comply with the rules will face fines or possible closure.

Women seeking abortions already have a tough time in Kansas, where providers face death threats and evictions. Earlier this year, the state  approved one law banning abortion after 20 weeks gestation, and another restricting private insurance coverage for abortions.

The state's latest approach—with its remodeling requirements and so forth—is often referred to as "Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers." TRAP laws are intended to make it difficult, if not impossible, for clinics to operate, and they have become increasingly common around the country.

"Enactment of this type of legislation discourages health care providers from offering abortion care and can make provisions very burdensome and/or expensive for smaller providers," says Sharon Levin, vice president of the National Abortion Federation, the professional group representing abortion providers. The laws, Levin says, "do not make abortion safer; they just make it more difficult for abortion providers to remain open, and for women to access the abortion care they need."

A court fight over the rules is almost inevitable. But anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue are already claiming success in making Kansas "the first abortion-free state."

No Pesticide Permit? No Problem!

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Spraying herbicide near a Florida canal.

In 1996, the Talent Irrigation District in Oregon set out to kill off aquatic weeds in irrigation canals by spraying herbicides in the water. But in addition to a lot of dead weeds, it got a lot of dead fish—92,000 steelhead salmon. Since then, legal battles have raged over how the government should regulate pesticides used on or near waterways.

On Tuesday, pesticide users marked a possibly major victory in that battle, as a bill that would allow them to bypass the Clean Water Act and spray pesticides over waterways passed through the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

Currently, once a pesticide has been deemed safe by the EPA, there's nothing to compel users of the pesticide to follow guidelines in the Clean Water Act for minimizing how much pesticide makes it into streams, lakes, or other water bodies. But in the long wake of the Talent incident, in 2009 a federal court ordered the EPA to require pesticide users to get a permit before they could spray into water.