The idea that Whole Foods Markets might not be as wholesome as consumers assume isn't really news. Kate Sheppard recently reported that the grocery chain earned a 27 out of a possible 100 rating on its sustainable business practices according to a recent report, and CEO John Mackey is a climate change skeptic. An August op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Mackey against healthcare reform led some consumers to call for a boycott. But Mackey's most recent antics have angered not only those in favor of healthcare reform, but also consumers who care about privacy issues and body policing.

According to documents received by Jezebel, employees who participate in Whole Foods' new Team Member Healthy Discount Incentive Program will be ranked according to BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure, and nicotine use. While all Whole Foods employees receive a 20 percent store discount, those who achieve the "Platinum" level in the program by having low results in all four metrics get bumped up to a 30 percent discount. But it's not just employees' lifestyles that count. The program also rewards employees simply for having good genes: Non-smoking employees who have a BMI under 24 (18.5-24.9 is considered normal), but have inherited high cholesterol, will be relegated to "the lowest-scoring biometric" and will have to make due with a 27 percent discount. Employees who do not meet Platinum requirements for other health reasons (like diabetes) are similarly out of luck.

Documents state that the initiative is "directly in line with two of our core values—supporting team member happiness and excellence and promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education." While it's common knowledge that not smoking and having lower blood pressure and total cholesterol can lead to better health, it seems a bit much to assume that hitting the questionable BMI metrics will lead to happy and healthy employees. Good thing Mackey doesn't have to worry about employee unions collectively questioning the new policy, since those, like high BMIs, are frowned upon.

In a letter sent out to employees, Mackey states that the program is being implemented to lower rising healthcare costs for both Whole Foods Markets and its employees. Mackey might do better working towards real health care reform—policies that could lower costs for all US employers and individuals—rather than whittling the waistlines of his employees.

 

 

He's Back!

Ben Bernanke was confirmed for a second term as Fed chairman today by a vote of 70-30. Neil Irwin of the Washington Post answers the first question that popped into my mind:

Bernanke was confirmed by a narrower margin than any previous Fed chairman. The previous record for most "no" votes was Paul Volcker in 1983, when he was confirmed 84 to 16.

Bernanke has "more votes against him than any Fed chairman has ever had. And that's a signal," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), in an interview. "The Fed is controversial with the American people. Bailouts. Lack of supervision over [bank] holding companies."

I hope Shelby is right. But my guess is that this is mostly a manifestation of the fact that confirmations have become more contentious in recent years. Even during a bad recession I'll bet Bernanke would have been confirmed easily a few decades ago. After all, Sonia Sotomayor was no more liberal then Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she was confirmed for the Supreme Court 68-31 compared to Ginsburg's 96-3.

Anyway, I certainly look forward to a chastened Ben Bernanke coming out strongly in favor of serious financial sector regulation. I'm not taking any bets on it, though.

Democrats' efforts to pass health care reform depend on a filibuster-proof procedural maneuver called reconciliation. If Senate Democrats can use this process to pass a package of adjustments to their version of the health care bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she can muster enough votes to approve the Senate legislation in the House. But for this to work, Sen. Kent Conrad has to be with the program. The centrist North Dakota Democrat chairs the Senate Budget Committee, which handles reconciliation measures. Other centrist Democrats, such as Missouri's Claire McCaskill, have  expressed qualms about the plan. But in a brief conversation with reporters on Thursday afternoon, Conrad slammed Republican obstructionism and vigorously defended the use of reconciliation to pass important legislation.

The Senate "was not designed to have everything require 60 votes," Conrad said. "It wasn't designed to prevent important action on the problems facing the country." If a supermajority is effectively necessary to pass any piece of legislation, he added, this "puts a great deal of pressure on going to more of a reconciliation process to deal with things."

Conrad argued that it's not possible to use reconciliation—which requires merely a straight majority vote—to win passage of an entire comprehensive health care bill, as some progressives have advocated. (There are assorted rules that prevent this.) But Conrad noted that he's open to using this legislative maneuver to make limited, though significant, changes to a measure the Senate has already passed—provided that certain procedural kinks could be ironed out.

Those procedural issues involve which body would take the opening step in this legislative dance—the House or the Senate. House Democrats want the Senate to pass its changes to its health care measure first. (Otherwise, they could end up voting for a Senate bill containing provisions they don't like and then get stuck with it, should reconciliation fizzle.) Senate Democrats, however, aren't sure they can approve through reconciliation changes to a bill that hasn't yet been approved by the House. "We are being asked to pass a piece of legislation that amends another piece of legislation which does not exist yet," a Senate aide told Greg Sargent yesterday. "We are having problems with the [Congressional Budget Office] and parliamentarian on that front." The Senate just wants the House to "back off," Sargent reported. Parliamentary experts for the Democratic leaders on each side of Capitol Hill are now trying to sort all this out.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech didn't provide any guidance on how congressional Democrats should proceed. One House Democratic leadership aide told Mother Jones that the top Democrats on the House side assume that Obama is hesitant to tell the "touchy" Senate how to do its job at such a critical juncture. The absence of any reference to reconciliation in Obama's speech, he insists, was no indication it is off the table.

Conrad, for one, didn't sound like a man with doubts about the idea. He said, "Frankly I think we have to reconsider the rules by which this body is governed," because the Senate "is in danger of becoming dysfunctional," and "there's going to be a building demand in the country to change the system."

Important news out of the Bay Area today: The Westboro Baptist Church, the quasi-cult from Kansas that protests at the funerals of dead soldiers and, well, everyone else, has finally found something it likes. But it's protesting anyway. The group will be picketing the San Francisco offices of Twitter today to remind the company of its higher obligation:

We're not protesting Twitter as a platform; that's like picketing televison! =) We're picketing the people who run @Twitter, who don't use their position & voice to warn a generation of rebels of the consequences of their rebellion. Same goes for those at Foursquare & Gowalla (tho I personally find their products useless -- at least relative to Twitter. =)

(For the definitive take on the WBC, check out MoJo's outstanding piece from 1999).

Are House and Senate Democrats really planning to debate healthcare for several more months?  A knowledgable observer emails to say that it's unlikely because any deal involving reconciliation needs to happen fairly quickly:

The current continuing resolution expires February 23 (or 24). Unless Congress wants to keep doing continuing resolutions (and thus funding Bush budget priorities and not Obama’s), they'll need to get to get the 2010 budget done (via reconciliation). I would suspect that Feb 23 is the key date, not some spring or summer timeline.

Hmmm. I'm just tossing this out for comment since I don't independently know what all the procedural hurdles are here. But if this is right, then the timeline for passing healthcare reform is actually fairly short unless the House is willing to pass the Senate bill based on assurances of doing something to modify it in the next budget year. That doesn't seem very likely, though.

Further comments welcome from any congressional process nerds out there.

It may be irresponsible to blog this, but here's what Nick Baumann just tweeted:

Word on the Hill is that after leadership meeting, Baucus said #hcr by spring/summer, immediately regretted it. Hearsay tho.....

I'll refrain from going bananas until/unless this is confirmed. But Senate Dems can't seriously be thinking of spending another 3-6 months on healthcare reform, can they? [UPDATE: Probably not. More here.]

On the bright side, though, Nick also reports that Kent Conrad, who needs to be on board with any kind of reconciliation strategy since he chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is on board with a reconciliation strategy:

The Senate "was not designed to have everything require 60 votes," Conrad said. "It wasn't designed to prevent important action on the problems facing the country." If a supermajority is effectively necessary to pass any piece of legislation, he added, this "puts a great deal of pressure on going to more of a reconciliation process to deal with things."

Conrad argued that it's not possible to use reconciliation — which requires merely a straight majority vote — to win passage of an entire comprehensive health care bill, as some progressives have advocated. (There are assorted rules that prevent this.) But Conrad noted that he's open to using this legislative maneuver to make limited, though significant, changes to a measure the Senate has already passed — provided that certain procedural kinks could be ironed out....He said, "Frankly I think we have to reconsider the rules by which this body is governed," because the Senate "is in danger of becoming dysfunctional," and "there's going to be a building demand in the country to change the system."

Baby steps.

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a nuclear champion who is leading efforts to pass energy and climate legislation on the conservative side of the aisle, described the Obama administration on Wednesday as the most pro-nuclear of those he has worked with during his two terms in the Senate. Graham told reporters that Obama's energy secretary, Steven Chu, has "probably been the easiest secretary of energy to work with since I've been up here," adding, "He's a very pro-nuclear guy."

Graham said that Chu had been "incredibly helpful" in heralding the "nuclear renaissance" Graham wants to bring about. Chu has headed efforts to speed up the nuclear loan gaurantee program, which Graham would like to see expanded in a climate and energy bill. The loans would use taxpayer dollars to back a massive expansion of nuclear power that the private sector has been reticent to support given the expense and high default rate for these investments. Graham also wants to see nuclear power included in the new federal renewable electricity standard, which would require utilities to drawn a percentage of their power from renewable sources. Including nuclear concerns many environmental advocates because nuclear energy is neither renewable nor a new technology, and the RES is intended to boost use of energy sources that are actually renewable, like wind and solar.

Chu has been at the forefront of the administration's efforts to expand nuclear power, and has been working to set up a blue-ribbon commission that will focus on nuclear fuel issues. And while some Republicans have been critical of Chu for not moving fast enough on nuclear, he has promised to do more. "I'm pushing it as hard as I can," Chu told senators last week.

President Obama, too, gave the nuclear industry top billing in the energy portion of his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, to the surprise (and chagrin) of some environmentalists.  He began his remarks on climate with a call for "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." (That didn't stop the Viriginia's Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell from accusing the administration of "hindering nuclear energy expansion" in his rebuttal.)

Environmentalists also criticized Obama for explicitly voicing support for oil, gas, coal, and biofuels in his speech—with no mention of wind, solar, or other renewable sources of energy. "President Obama's support for all these dirty energy sources was a big win for corporate polluters and their Washington lobbyists, but it was a kick in the gut to environmentalists across the country," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth.

The End of Diplomacy?

Matt Yglesias points out that increasing partisanship in Congress makes it not just hard to pass domestic legislation, but nearly impossible to pass international treaties:

The dysfunctional nature of the United States Congress means that essentially all diplomatic intercourse with the American government is worthless. If you were at a G8 meeting talking regulation, why would you take the Obama administration’s positions seriously? Or at a Major Economies Forum meeting talking about climate change? Or at a UN Security Council meeting talking about multilateral nuclear disarmament?....If the people you’re negotiating with think that anything you oppose will face unanimous opposition from a minority with the power to block bills, while your own party isn’t even disciplined enough to provide the leadership with consistent backing on procedural issues, then what is there really to negotiate about?

It's a good point, but I think it's probably overstated. The problem with things like the filibuster and the Senate hold isn't so much that they exist, or that they're anti-majoritarian per se, but that they've become routine. That really does represent a qualitative change in the way Congress operates, and it's a change that no one, from the founders forward, ever really intended.

But for better or worse, formalizing international treaties has always been hard, and it's hard by design. So this doesn't represent any real change in how the government works. Foreign countries have always known that they're at the mercy of a very difficult ratification process if they want to conclude a formal treaty with the U.S., and it's not clear to me that minority obstruction on treaties is worse now than it's been in the past.1

What's more, it's not always as bad as it sounds. Executive agreements have become much more popular in recent years, and these can be passed with 60 votes. In that sense, passing treaties has actually become easier. Beyond that, in some cases the president can simply agree to push for harmonizing rules without a treaty in place at all. Sometimes this can be done via executive order and sometimes via riders to budget bills that are passed via reconciliation. It's not always necessary to get Congress to sign on to everything.

But an honest to God treaty? Yeah, that requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate. But it always has, and treaties have been failing for a long time because of it. Just ask Woodrow Wilson's ghost.

1Data to the contrary welcome, of course

Is Blanche Lincoln the dirtiest member of Congress? The League of Conservation Voters thinks so. The group named the Arkansas Democrat the inaugural member of their 2010 Dirty Dozen—a list of top targets for environmentalists to unseat in the next election.

Lincoln is "one of the worst Democrats in the US Senate," said Tony Massaro, the League's senior vice president for political affairs. He cited Lincoln's opposition to climate legislation and her support for efforts to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions as reasons that Lincoln is the first person to be named to their 2010 list (the rest will be released in the coming weeks.) Lincoln has received a lifetime voting score of just 49 percent on environmental issues from the organization—the lowest of all Democratic senators up for reelection this year.

Massaro pointed to a recent poll from Democratic polling firm Benenson Strategy Group that found that 55 percent of Arkansans support passing a bill that includes a cap on carbon dioxide pollution and measures to expand use of renewable energy. "She is out of step with the majority of people in Arkansas," said Massaro.

Lincoln's chances of reelection look tenuous at best, as she has come under fire from Arkansas Republicans for her support of health care reform. At least five Republicans are expected to file to run in the primary, and more may jump in before the March 8 deadline. The state Democratic Party has been openly considering whether another Democrat might fare better in the election.

The League of Conservation voters spent $1.5 million during the last election cycle targeing Dirty Dozen members, and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on individual races. Half of the candidates they've targeted to date lost their election bids.

The League is also going after Steve Pearce, a GOP candidate for New Mexico's second congressional district. He represented the district from 2003 to 2009, and made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 2008. He has a 3 percent lifetime voting record from the organization.

UPDATE: Lincoln's office issued a statement defending her environmental record on Thursday afternoon, calling LCV a "liberal" and "extremist" group and vowing that "threats from outside special interest groups will not deter her from remaining a strong and independent voice for Arkansas."

"I have built a practical, common-sense record on energy and environmental issues while working closely with Arkansas environmental advocates," said Lincoln. "Threats from extremist groups from outside our state tell me I'm doing something right for Arkansas."

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama praised nuclear energy as a promising renewable option to help solve the country's energy crisis. But rising radioactive chemical levels at a nuclear plant in Vermont give us another reason to be queasy about the idea... as if we needed one.

In response to leaks of tritium (radioactive hydrogen) at nuclear plants in Illinois and New York, the Vermont Yankee plant began monitoring the harmful chemical in 2007. In recent weeks, tritium levels have spiked in water sources surrounding the plant, prompting Vermont lawmakers to question whether they should extend Vermont Yankee's operating license, which expires in 2012. The New York Times reports:

Vermont's governor, Jim Douglas, a longtime supporter of the plant, said on Wednesday in a statement that recent events had "raised dark clouds of doubt" about the reactor’s safety and management. He suggested that the Legislature put off any decisions on the future of the plant, located in the town of Vernon.
If the nuclear plant were to be denied an extension, it would be the first such move by the public or its representatives since 1989, when residents in Sacramento voted to close the Rancho Seco nuclear plant, owned by their municipal utility. No state legislature has ever voted to close one.

Despite the environmentally harmful waste and potential dangers associated with nuclear energy, applications to build new reactors have surged in the past three years. But as the need for increased renewable energy production expands, so does the perceived necessity of nuclear power. And nuclear lobbyists hope to capitalize on this trend by securing massive federal loan guarantees for new reactors from the Climate bill currently being debated in Congress.

But nuclear energy isn't the homerun that the NEI and congressional politicians want you to think it is. And chemical mishaps like the tritium scare in Vermont should make Congress pause before it prioritizes the industry over cleaner, safer renewable options like wind and solar.