White House dumps Dawn Johnsen

Dawn Johnsen withdrew her nomination yesterday for head of the Office of Legal Counsel, saying in a statement,

Restoring OLC to its best nonpartisan traditions was my primary objective for my anticipated service in this administration. Unfortunately, my nomination has met with lengthy delays and political opposition that threaten that objective and prevent OLC from functioning at full strength. I hope that the withdrawal of my nomination will allow this important office to be filled promptly.

Sam Stein posted the full text of Johnsen’s statement and commented,

The withdrawal represents a major blow to progressive groups and civil liberties advocates who had pushed for Johnsen to end up in the office that previously housed, among others, John Yoo, the author of the infamous torture memos under George W. Bush.

But the votes, apparently, weren’t there. Johnsen had the support of Sen Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) but was regarded skeptically by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) — primarily for her positions on torture and the investigation of previous administration actions. A filibuster, in the end, was likely sustainable. Faced with this calculus, the White House chose not to appoint Johnsen during Senate recess, which would have circumvented a likely filibuster but would have kept her in the position for less than two years.

A White House statement said the president is searching for a replacement nominee and will ask the Senate to confirm that person to head the Office of Legal Counsel quickly. I still think the Obama should have included Johnsen in a group of recess appointments he made last month. Jake Tapper quoted an unnamed Senate source as saying the White House “didn’t have the stomach for the debate” on her nomination. It doesn’t reflect well on Obama or on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that Johnsen never got a vote in the Senate, even after it was clear there were 60 votes in her favor last year (before the Massachusetts Senate special election).

UPDATE: From a must-read post by Glenn Greenwald:

What Johnsen insists must not be done reads like a manual of what Barack Obama ended up doing and continues to do — from supporting retroactive immunity to terminate FISA litigations to endless assertions of “state secrecy” in order to block courts from adjudicating Bush crimes to suppressing torture photos on the ground that “opennees will empower terrorists” to the overarching Obama dictate that we “simply move on.”  Could she have described any more perfectly what Obama would end up doing when she wrote, in March, 2008, what the next President “must not do”? […]

I don’t know why her nomination was left to die, but I do know that her beliefs are quite antithetical to what this administration is doing.

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Weekend open thread: Food and farm policy edition

Share anything that’s on your mind this weekend in the comments below.

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Justice jointly hosted a workshop in Ankeny devoted to concentration in agriculture, antitrust issues and market practices. After some controversy over the speakers scheduled initially, more farmers and producers were able to speak during the workshop. Lynda Waddington covered a panel including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The Des Moines Register covered a session concerning Monsanto’s dominance in the biotech seed industry:

Monsanto has generated controversy because of its leading role in the biotech revolution in corn, soybean and cotton seeds since the mid-1990s. About 90 percent of the corn and soybean fields in the Midwest now are planted with seeds genetically altered to resist herbicides and pests.

“Biotech seeds have given farmers better yields and improved their lives,” said farmer Pam Johnson of Floyd County.

Monsanto, Pioneer and other seed companies license their traits under the auspices of a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing life forms to be patented.

Iowa State University professor emeritus Neil Harl said that Supreme Court decision radically changed the seed business from a collaborative, collegial enterprise among land grant colleges, farmers and companies.

“Before 1980, seed germplasm was considered something in the public domain,” said Harl. “Seed was developed in the field and everybody shared. Now seeds are developed in the laboratory and are patented and licensed.”

Holder said the high court decision 30 years ago wouldn’t block antitrust action, if it was deemed necessary.

“The antitrust authority is there,” Holder said. “The question is what the patent holders are doing with their patents. If they are using it to preserve monopolies, that is unfair behavior.”

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey noted that farmers are spending twice as much on seed as they did a decade ago, but also are getting better yields.

“There is tension about the cost of inputs,” Northey said. “But we don’t want to lose the innovation.”

The food blog Cooking Up a Story published this short backgrounder on “Hybrids and the Emergence of Seed Monopolies.”

The night before the DOJ/USDA workshop, Iowa CCI, Food and Water Watch, the National Family Farms Coalition and Food Democracy Now organized a town-hall meeting to raise awareness of excessive levels of concentration in agriculture. Lynda Waddington was there for Iowa Independent.

Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture Francis Thicke has long been concerned about the loss of competition in agricultural markets. He attended the workshop in Ankeny and praised the DOJ and USDA for investigating antitrust issues related to agriculture:

“Antitrust enforcement by the federal government has been ignored for so long that it will take Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting to bring competitive markets back to agriculture,” said Thicke, who plans to participate in the first of a series of five workshops planned by the two federal departments this Friday in Ankeny. […]

“The effects of excessive market power by a few firms has been studied for years,” said Thicke. “It has been shown that if four or fewer firms control 40% or more of a market, then it no longer functions as a competitive market.” He pointed out that, as of 2007, four firms controlled 85% of the beef packing market, four firms controlled 66% of the pork packing market, four firms controlled 59% of the broiler market, and four firms controlled 55% of the turkey market.

“Clearly we are beyond the point of open competition in our agricultural markets,” Thicke asserted. “When there are so few large firms in a market, controlling firms begin to act in concert whether or not they are directly communicating pricing with each other.”

Speaking of food policy, I heard some good news this week. The Iowa Center on Health Disparities at the University of Northern Iowa has received major grants for two important projects:

The focus of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant is to launch an Iowa Food Policy Council, a diverse statewide cooperative to develop and make research, program and policy recommendations for a food system to support healthier Iowans, communities, economies and environments. Over the next year, the Iowa Food Policy Council will conduct a comprehensive statewide assessment of food systems, food access and health indicators.

The focus of the Leopold Center grant is to convene key food security and public health stakeholders from across Iowa who will examine the disparities in food access and health among Iowans. The Food Access and Health Working Group will address programs and policies that increase access to fresh, nutritious and affordable local food for all Iowans, including vulnerable children and their families.

More details on the grants are after the jump. I was hoping Governor Culver would revive the Food Policy Council, but I’m glad another way was found to get this project going.

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Year in review: national politics in 2009 (part 1)

It took me a week longer than I anticipated, but I finally finished compiling links to Bleeding Heartland’s coverage from last year. This post and part 2, coming later today, include stories on national politics, mostly relating to Congress and Barack Obama’s administration. Diaries reviewing Iowa politics in 2009 will come soon.

One thing struck me while compiling this post: on all of the House bills I covered here during 2009, Democrats Leonard Boswell, Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack voted the same way. That was a big change from 2007 and 2008, when Blue Dog Boswell voted with Republicans and against the majority of the Democratic caucus on many key bills.

No federal policy issue inspired more posts last year than health care reform. Rereading my earlier, guardedly hopeful pieces was depressing in light of the mess the health care reform bill has become. I was never optimistic about getting a strong public health insurance option through Congress, but I thought we had a chance to pass a very good bill. If I had anticipated the magnitude of the Democratic sellout on so many aspects of reform in addition to the public option, I wouldn’t have spent so many hours writing about this issue. I can’t say I wasn’t warned (and warned), though.

Links to stories from January through June 2009 are after the jump. Any thoughts about last year’s political events are welcome in this thread.

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Thicke warns of excessive concentration in agriculture

The Justice Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture have been accepting public comments in advance of a series of workshops on “competition and regulatory issues in the agriculture industry.” The first workshop is scheduled for March 12 in Ankeny.

Francis Thicke, a dairy farmer and Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture, submitted this comment to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division. Excerpt:

Economists tell us that when four firms control 40% or more of a market, that market loses its competitive nature. Currently, four firms control 83.5% of the beef packer market; four firms control 66% of the pork packer market; four firms control 58.5% of the broiler market. The turkey, flour milling, seed, and other agricultural markets are similarly concentrated.

The anticompetitive effects of market concentration is further compounded by the fact that some of the top four firms in each market category are also among the top four in other markets. For example, Tyson is number one in beef packing, number two in pork packing, and number two in broilers. This kind of horizontal integration encourages firms that dominate in several markets to manipulate prices in order to increase their market share. For example, when beef and broiler prices are profitable, a firm with dominant market share in beef, broilers, and pork can take measures to prolong the unprofitability of the pork market in order to force out firms that deal only in pork-while maintaining its own firm’s overall profitability through the beef and broiler market sectors.

A good current example of the farm-level effects of market concentration is the milk market. Recently, dairy farmers have been experiencing record losses due to low farm-gate milk prices. At the same time, the largest dairy processor, Dean Foods-that is purported to control 40% of U.S. dairy processing-has posted record profits over the past two quarters. Clearly, Dean Foods has found a modus operandi that enables it to isolate itself from the market forces bearing on dairy farmers.

I am glad to see Thicke raise this issue, which affects the well-being of so many family farmers. I do not recall Iowa’s current Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey or his predecessor Patty Judge sounding the alarm about excessive concentration in the agriculture industry. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

Last month the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering released a report on consolidation in the seed industry, which has left farmers with “fewer choices and significantly higher prices in seed.” You can read more about that report at La Vida Locavore and Iowa Independent.

Blog for Iowa recently published a lengthy interview with Thicke that is worth reading. Here are the links to part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

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Guantanamo prisoners to be moved to Illinois?

The conservative blog biggovernment.com published an alleged December 10 memo from the Department of Justice to Defense Secretary Robert Gates authorizing the transfer of some prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois. The center was built to be a high-security state prison but has mostly remained mothballed for lack of state funding to operate it. Elected officials in Illinois have urged the federal government to use this facility to house some of the alleged terrorist prisoners because doing so is expected to create around 3,000 jobs in the area.

Iowa Republicans have been hammering Bruce Braley (IA-01) over this proposal, because the Thomson facility is just across the river from Clinton, Iowa. However, Braley says his constituents overwhelmingly favor the plan.

I will update this post if other reports confirm the authenticity of the memo.

UPDATE: Ed Tibbetts reported for the Quad-City Times:

An administration official, responding to the memo Friday, cautioned that it is only a draft and said it is not unusual for such documents to be prepared for multiple possibilities.

“This is a draft, predecisional document that lawyers at various agencies were drafting in preparation for a potential future announcement about where to house Gitmo detainees,” the official said.

“Drafts of official documents are often prepared for any and all possibilities, regardless of whether a decision has been made about the policy or if the document will be used,” said the official, who requested not to be identified because the person was not authorized to discuss the issue.

Despite the cautions, top Illinois backers were reacting positively to the development.

“Even though the final decision has not been made, we are encouraged by this development,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement.

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Grassley news roundup

I haven’t written anything yet about Senator Chuck Grassley’s comments on the AIG bonuses. The whole episode was such an empty populist gesture. First he said the AIG no-goodniks should act like the Japanese and either offer a humble apology or kill themselves. Then he walked back his comments and said they should offer a sincere apology. That’s all? I’d like to see more strings attached to the Wall Street bailout program, which Grassley voted for.

The Twitterer for the Daily Iowan Opinion page had the best response to Grassley I’ve seen so far. After the senator explained that “I do want an attitude in corporate American that’s similar to what they have in corporate Japan,” DIOpinions commented, “Making failed American executives more like their Japanese counterparts would require massive pay cuts.” Don’t hold your breath until Grassley gets behind that.

Anyway, we’ll find out how much Grassley cares about getting taxpayers’ money back from AIG when the Senate votes on the bill the House of Representatives passed yesterday.

Follow me after the jump to read about Grassley’s recent comments on medical marijuana and health care reform.

Also, I can confirm that at least one Democrat is stepping forward to challenge Iowa’s senior senator in 2010. Details are below.

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