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Feingold and Dodd Take to the Floor of the Senate

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 3:03 PM EDT

Last night, Chris Dodd took to the floor of the Senate and made an impassioned plea to his colleagues not to support the House FISA legislation. The video, and text are available here.

Earlier today, Russell Feingold followed suit, in words that echoed his remarks in response to my question at a New America Foundation event on Monday. Here's a snippet:

This legislation has been billed as a compromise between Republicans and Democrats. We are asked to support it because it is a supposedly reasonable accommodation of opposing views. Let me respond as clearly as possible: This bill is not a compromise. It is a capitulation. This bill will effectively and unjustifiably grant immunity to companies that allegedly participated in an illegal wiretapping program – a program that more than 70 members of this body still know virtually nothing about. And this bill will grant the Bush Administration – the same administration that developed and operated this illegal program for more than five years – expansive new authorities to spy on Americans' international communications. If you don't believe me, here is what Senator Bond had to say about the bill: "I think the White House got a better deal than even they had hoped to get." And House Minority Whip Roy Blunt said this: "The lawsuits will be dismissed. There is simply no question that Democrats who had previously stood strong against immunity and in support of civil liberties were on the losing end of this backroom deal."
I think it's safe to say that even many who voted for the Protect America Act last year came to believe it was a mistake to pass that legislation. And while the House deserves credit for refusing to pass the Senate bill in February, and for securing the changes that are in this new bill, this bill is also a serious mistake…Mr. President, the immunity provision is a key reason for that. It is a key reason for my opposition to this legislation and for that of so many of my colleagues and so many Americans. No one should be fooled about the effect of this bill. Under its terms, the companies that allegedly participated in the illegal wiretapping program will walk away from these lawsuits with immunity. There is simply no question about it, and anyone who says that this bill preserves a meaningful role for the courts to play in deciding these cases is wrong…But I'm concerned that the focus on immunity has diverted attention away from the other very important issues at stake in this legislation. In the long run, I don't believe this will be remembered as the 'immunity' bill. This legislation is going to be remembered as the legislation in which Congress granted the executive branch the power to sweep up all of our international communications with very few controls or oversight.

On the other hand, moments ago Diane Feinstein just announced that she's read the Department of Justice's legal memos, the written requests from the White House to the telecommunications firms, and met with representatives from those firms, and after contemplating that balanced body of information, has decided to support the legislation.

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Unable to Fire Entire EPA, White House Ignores Their Emails Instead

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 3:02 PM EDT

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When you're at work, you probably sometimes get emails that you don't want to deal with. Maybe you missed a deadline and have yet to 'fess up, or are supposed to meet with your boss and know it's going to be ugly. But eventually you deal with it, because you're responsible and know you can't avoid the situation forever.

Unless, of course, you're the Bush White House, in which case you stick your fingers in your ears and start singing loudly and shouting "I'm rubber and you're glue!" every time your co-workers try to bring up the issue. From the New York Times:

The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week. The document...ended up in e-mail limbo, without official status.

Now, "e-mail limbo" is certainly a concept with which the White House is familiar, though it's not totally clear how they played this one. Did they open the email in order to reply to it, but leave the attached report untouched? Or did they just take one look at the subject line and start a second email thread about how they weren't going to open the first one? They must have looked at something, because for the past week they've been pressuring EPA officials to cut huge sections of the supposedly unseen report. The final version, due out as early as next Wednesday, will contain no conclusions, only a general discussion of the issue. What is the White House trying to hide? According to the Times article, a conclusion estimating that the government could save up to $2 trillion over the next three decades by strictly regulating greenhouse gas emissions. You'd think an administration $400 billion in debt would be shouting that number from the rooftops.

Good Gov't Groups Push McCain, Obama on Bundling Disclosure

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 2:29 PM EDT

Eight campaign finance reform and watchdog organizations sent letters to John McCain and Barack Obama Wednesday asking them to identify exactly how much each of their bundlers has raised.

Bundlers are the closest thing to fat cats in today's fundraising landscape. Each individual can only donate $4,600 to a presidential candidate ($2,300 in the primary and $2,300 more in the general, if the candidate is declining public funds), but a bundler can lean on all of his contacts to put together hundreds of other people's donations, thus delivering anywhere from $50,000 to many millions to the candidate.

For that kind of money, a donor can expect some influence.

And that's why the eight groups — Campaign Finance Institute, the Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, the Sunlight Foundation, and U.S. PIRG — are asking McCain and Obama to make public how much bundlers collect.

This isn't really an unreasonable request. According to the reform group Public Citizen:

In 2004, Bush provided the names and states residence of bundlers who raised $100,000 (called "Pioneers") or $200,000 ("Rangers"). The information was displayed in an obvious place on his campaign Web site and appeared to be published promptly. Kerry provided lists of bundlers who raised at least $50,000 or $100,000.

We've Got an FEC

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 11:34 AM EDT

The longstanding vacancies at the FEC have finally been filled. Last night, the Senate confirmed five commissioners to join the only sitting commissioner, Ellen Weintraub. The panel, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans as per the usual, will finally have the quorum it needs to address issues like this and this, and deal with the DNC's newly filed lawsuit challenging John McCain's withdrawal from the primary election matching funds program.

Don't expect the new FEC to usher in an era of reform. Good government groups have long criticized the FEC for being a collection of party loyalists more prone to gridlock and slaps on the wrist than to firm and effective oversight. That said, a weak FEC is better than no FEC, particularly during an election year. So, happy day.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR), Getting Desperate

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 10:28 AM EDT

What do you do if you're a Republican incumbent in a blue state that the Democratic nominee for president is almost certain to win? Put out an ad making it look like you and that Democrat are best pals.

This is an obvious response to Gordon Smith's dwindling lead in the polls. The Obama campaign's response? "Barack Obama has a long record of bipartisan accomplishment and we appreciate that it is respected by his Democratic and Republican colleagues in the Senate. But in this race, Oregonians should know that Barack Obama supports Jeff Merkley for Senate. Merkley will help Obama bring about the fundamental change we need in Washington."

Ouch.

Supreme Court Overturns Exxon Valdez Verdict

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 9:59 AM EDT

Exxon today has proven the benefits of the endless appeal. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the $5 billion punitive damage award handed down by an Alaska jury in 1994 for its role in the massive oil spill in Prince William Sound, Exxon today landed a major victory at the Supreme Court. In a 5-3 ruling, with Alito sitting out, the court overturned a lower court decision that had reduced the verdict to $2.5 billion, and sent the case back saying that the punitive damage award was excessive and should not exceed about $500 million, the same as the compensatory damages.

The decision strikes yet another blow against what is essentially the capital punishment of the civil justice system, in a long-running campaign by Exxon and other big companies to try to abolish these sorts of awards entirely. Punitive damages are the extra damages added to a jury verdict to punish especially egregious conduct by a civil defendant. As the former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely once wrote, punitive damage awards aren't given out for innocent mistakes, but are generally reserved for "really stupid defendants, really mean defendants, and really stupid defendants who could have caused a great deal of harm by their actions but who actually caused minimal harm." Punitive damages put the real teeth in the legal system, and serve as an ad-hoc form of regulation by standing as a potential deterrent to all sorts of egregious behavior. That, of course, is why business really hates them.

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Everglades Wins Big

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 9:07 PM EDT

333px-Historic_Everglades_Regions.jpg The state of Florida has pledged to buy up sugarcane farms to help restore the flow of the Everglades. For a bargain $1.75 billion, US Sugar will relinquish 300 square miles of its holdings south of Lake Okeechobee over the next six years.

Great news for the people of Florida, as well as for birds, alligators, crocodiles, and manatees. The agreement comes between Republican Governor Charlie Crist and US Sugar, reports the Miami Herald. It's at least partially the result of the South Florida Water Management District board voting seven months ago against the practice of backpumping (pdf) dirty farm runoff into Lake Okeechobee, which then flows south into the Everglades.

That vote was the result of a 2007 court victory by Earthjustice, when a federal judge ruled that backpumping violated the Clean Water Act.

The buy-out of US Sugar will not end the Everglades' troubles. Another 500 square miles of sugarcane farms owned by other companies remain in production. Yet the deal marks a revival of the Everglades restoration effort, the largest of its kind in the world, aimed at undoing flood-control projects that have been killing the Everglades for decades.


Does Your City Toke or Do Blow?

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 5:17 PM EDT

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In the quest to discover your neighbors' vices, the only data more valuable than Google search records might be the records you leave in your toilet. In cities around the world, scientists have begun to measure concentrations of illegal drugs at sewage treatment plants, hoping to get a sense of what people are sending down the pipes. Results so far indicate that Vegas-goers do more meth than some of their midwestern counterparts, Angelenos outdo the Old World in cocaine use, Londoners fancy heroin more than Italians, and everybody smokes a whole lotta pot.

Clearly, the most obvious place for this information is an online quiz site: "If your city were an illegal drug, which one would it be?" Beyond that, the real-life applications aren't yet clear. Environmentalists are interested in the potential consequences of so many chemicals in the pipes—who wants to find out that, in addition to being filled with prescription drugs, their drinking water is also laced with coke? And no city wants to broadcast that its citizenry is, uh, high (San Diego has already refused researchers access to its sewage). The scientists who conducted the European study (.pdf) think it will be most useful as a real-time data collection tool, not to mention a vast improvement over just asking people how many drugs they do—the study notes that the concentration of cocaine in Milan's sewage suggests that actual use is more than double the reported rate.

Such information could certainly help law enforcement and public health officials improve their approach to combating drug use, but it's easy to see how things could get out of hand. What happens when the DEA shows up at your door with a warrant and a urine sample you didn't know you were giving? You laugh, but the scientist who pioneered this idea believes it would be possible to analyze sewge at the level of "a community, a street, even a house." In that way, studying poop is like studying Google searches— you'll probably find out more about your neighbors than you wanted, or needed, to know.

Photo from Flickr user PabloBM.

Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme Denies He's a Homophobe

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 4:20 PM EDT

mojo-photo-joshhomme.jpgJosh Homme has issued a statement denying he's homophobic after an expletive-laden rant he unleashed on a concertgoer which included anti-gay slurs hit the intertubes. During a performance last week at the Norwegian Wood festival, something got thrown at the stage which hit Homme, who was reportedly already grumpy after a three-day bout with the flu. He singled out the assailant in the audience and unleashed a blistering tirade of insults that's truly awe-inspiring in scope; unfortunately, the rant included multiple mentions of "faggot" as well as references to, er, forced homosexual activities. Close your office door and feel the power of this totally, totally not safe for work clip of Homme unleashed, after the jump:

Condors Rescued From Wildfire

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 3:43 PM EDT

400px-Condor_in_flight.JPG Eight endangered California Condors were evacuated by helicopter from their holding pens after the Gallery Fire (now part of the Basin Fire Complex) cut off the road into their facility. Seven of the rescued birds are less than a year old, and the eighth condor is their mentor.

The Herald of Monterey County reports that a three-person crew from the Ventana Wildlife Society was flown in by the Coast Guard, walked a mile from the drop point to the condors, and brought the birds back in carriers. After their helo flight, the condors were driven to Pinnacles National Monument.

Meanwhile, the National Interagency Fire Center reported yesterday that 1,080 new fires ignited in California over the weekend. You can see from their site how enormous the problem is. Some fires are actually complexes of 150-plus fires. Most are still zero percent contained.

Cooler weather is helping along the coast but let's face it, some of these fires are going to be burning for a long time. Maybe until snow falls.

The smoke blanketing northern California is moving east.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.