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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The dangers of a fake public health insurance option

The White House and key Democratic senators, including Iowa’s Tom Harkin, appear to be walking into a trap for the sake of bipartisan agreement on health care in the Senate.

There is growing support for a fake “public option,” as opposed to a government health insurance plan that would compete directly with private insurance companies.

If Congress passes this kind of deal and President Barack Obama signs it, we will get a enormously expensive non-solution to an enormous problem, and Democrats will pay the political price.

After the jump I’ll explain why political hacks as well as policy wonks should refuse the latest efforts to derail the public option.  

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Harkin likes Dean for Health and Human Services

Yesterday Marc Ambinder mentioned Senator Tom Harkin as a possible nominee for Health and Human Services secretary in Barack Obama’s cabinet. As much as I agree with Harkin’s views on health care, I would hate to lose his voice in the Senate.

Huffington Post contacted Harkin, who praised the idea of nominating former Vermont Governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean for the job:

“I think that would be a very good move,” Harkin told the Huffington Post. “He brings all the background and experience. He’s very strong on prevention and wellness, which I’m very strong on. I think he’d make an outstanding secretary of HHS.”

Asked if he had spoken to White House on the matter, Harkin demurred: “I’m not going to get into that,” he said after a pause.

You may recall that Harkin endorsed Dean for president shortly before the 2004 Iowa caucuses. I like Dean and his views on health care, but I fear that he is not necessarily the best person to bring Democrats in Congress along with a comprehensive health care reform package.

I had to laugh at this paragraph in the Huffington Post piece:

Whether this endorsement helps or hurts is a topic of debate. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Dean’s frosty relationship with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel will be the main impediment to his ending up at HHS. Others are concerned that a major netroots movement to appoint Dean will actually turn the White House off the notion. They don’t want it to seem like they are “bending to the demands of the left,” as one Democrat put it — not because they aren’t concerned with progressive priorities, but because the choice will be criticized as an effort in political pacification.

Heaven forbid Obama should appoint someone from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party! People might think he cares about left-leaning Democrats. Never mind that thousands of former Deaniacs became dedicated volunteers for Obama’s presidential campaign. Without people like them he never would have won the nomination.

Marc Ambinder reported yesterday that Congressman Raul Grijalva has urged Obama to appoint Dean. Grijalva is a leading figure in the House Progressive Caucus and was favored by more than 130 environmental organizations for Secretary of the Interior (a job Obama gave to conservative Democrat Ken Salazar).

According to Ambinder, Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee is “a top candidate.” Daily Kos diarist DrSteveB discussed some of the names being floated yesterday and explains why Bredesen would be “beyond awful.” After reading that diary, I’m ready to remove the Obama-Biden magnet from my car if Obama nominates Bredesen.

By the way, DrSteveB likes Dean but doesn’t think he’s a good fit for Secretary of Health and Human Services.

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New level of scrutiny reveals more problems with Daschle

Update: On February 3 Daschle withdrew his nomination for secretary of Health and Human Services. It looks like he won’t be the “health care czar” in the White House either.

When Barack Obama announced plans to nominate Tom Daschle to run the Department of Health and Human Services, I agreed with Ezra Klein that the choice signaled Obama’s commitment to get comprehensive health care reform through Congress. I knew that Daschle’s wife was a longtime lobbyist, and that Daschle was not nearly as liberal as the right-wingers made him out to be. But we all know that the Senate will be the biggest obstacle to any good health care plan. Daschle knows that body’s procedures and the majority of its members extremely well.

The choice isn’t looking so good today.

Not paying taxes on the use of someone else’s limousine looks bad, but as we saw last week with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, failure to fully meet one’s tax obligations no longer seems to be a barrier to serving in the cabinet. (By the way, Daschle knew about this problem last summer but didn’t tell Obama’s vetting team.)

Many people might honestly not realize that if they use someone else’s car, they need to report the value of that service as taxable income. But what is Daschle’s excuse for overstating his tax-deductible charitable gifts and not reporting more than $83,000 in consulting income? If Bill Richardson was asked to step aside because of an investigation that hasn’t even proven wrongdoing, then Daschle should not get a pass for not paying his taxes.

As is so often the case in politics, though, what’s legal can be even more disturbing. From Politico:

Daschle made nearly $5.3 million in the last two years, records released Friday show, including $220,000 he received for giving speeches, many of them to outfits that stand to gain or lose millions of dollars from the work he would do once confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services.

For instance, the Health Industry Distributors Association plunked down $14,000 to land the former Senate Democratic leader in March 2008. The association, which represents medical products distributors, boasts on its website that Daschle met with it after he was nominated to discuss “the impact an Obama administration will have on the industry.”

This week, the group began openly lobbying him, sending him a letter urging him to rescind a rule requiring competitive bidding of Medicare contracts.

Another organization, America’s Health Insurance Plans, paid $20,000 for a Daschle speaking appearance in February 2007. It represents health insurance companies, which under Obama’s plan would be barred from denying coverage on the basis of health or age.

There was a $12,000 talk to GE Healthcare in August, a $20,000 lecture in January to Premier, Inc., a health care consulting firm, and a pair of $18,000 speeches this year to different hospital systems, among other paid appearances before health care groups.

The speaking fees were detailed in a financial disclosure statement released Friday, which showed that Daschle pulled down a total of more than $500,000 from the speaking circuit in the last two years, and $5.3 million in overall income.

These speaking engagements are legal, but it is an unacceptable conflict of interest for Daschle to have taken that much money from groups with a major financial stake in health care reform.

At Daily Kos nyceve examines one of those paid speeches and tells you why you should care: As UnitedHealth subsidiary Ingenix defrauded Americans, Daschle was its 2008 keynote speaker.

A lot of liberal bloggers are now calling for Obama to withdraw Daschle’s nomination and appoint Howard Dean to run HHS instead. As much as I like Dean, I do not think he’s the person to shepherd health care reform through Congress. But I agree that Obama needs to find a replacement for Daschle–the sooner, the better.

If Obama stands by Daschle, I suspect the Senate insiders’ club would confirm him, but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Speaking of stalled confirmations, Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming appears to be the Republican who is holding up Hilda Solis’s nomination for Secretary of Labor. This is purely ideological, based on Solis’ support for the Employee Free Choice Act. Solis has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Will Obama stand behind his choice for this cabinet position? The president expressed support for organized labor on Friday while signing executive orders to boost labor unions.  

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Highlights and analysis of the Vilsack confirmation hearing

Tom Vilsack appears to be on track for unanimous confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of Agriculture in Barack Obama’s cabinet. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans didn’t ask hostile questions, and Vilsack didn’t have to explain away any embarrassing behavior like Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner’s failure to fully meet his tax obligations over a period of years.

Despite the lack of drama, Vilsack made a number of noteworthy comments during the hearing. Here are some highlights.

Vilsack told senators on Wednesday that

The Obama administration wants to accelerate the development of new versions of biofuels made form crop residue and non-food crops such as switchgrass. The plants’ fibrous material, or cellulose, can be converted into alcohols or even new versions of gasoline or diesel.

“Moving toward next-generation biofuels, cellulosic ethanol, is going to be really important in order to respond” to concerns about the impact on food prices of using grain for fuel, he said.

Vilsack addressed a range of other issues, pledging, for example, to promote fruit and vegetable consumption and promising to ensure that any new international trade agreement is a “net plus for all of agriculture.”

It makes a lot of sense to produce ethanol from perennial plants that are less energy-intensive to grow and need fewer herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer than corn.

Vilsack’s opening statement also

promised swift implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) which, alone among farm bill conservation programs, has languished under the Bush Administration since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill last May.

A little later during the hearing, Vilsack described the Conservation Stewardship Program as important for the environment and cited its potential to boost farm income and create jobs.

By the way, Vilsack’s disclosure documents show that he collects payments from the US Department of Agriculture on some Iowa farmland he and his wife own:

The former Iowa governor and his wife, Christie, have been receiving payments since 2000 for an acreage in Davis County that is enrolled in the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program, according to USDA data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

In a Jan. 8 letter to USDA ethics officials, Vilsack said he would seek a waiver to continue receiving CRP payments while he is secretary. Otherwise, experts said, he would have to break his contract and reimburse the USDA for all previous payments he has received, which would total nearly $60,000.

Craig Cox, Midwest vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, welcomed having an agriculture secretary who receives conservation payments.

At a time “when simultaneously protecting our soil, water, wildlife habitat and climate is an urgent priority, it is encouraging that our new secretary of agriculture is personally participating in a conservation program that does just that,” he said.

I’m with Cox; it’s good for the secretary of agriculture to have first-hand knowledge of the conservation reserve program’s value.

Earlier this week the Register published an article on the opening statement Vilsack prepared for his confirmation hearing:

Tom Vilsack is promising to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “aggressively address” global warming and energy independence.

In an opening statement prepared for his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for agriculture secretary also said he would use the department to “create real and meaningful opportunities” for farmers and to guarantee that rural communities grow and prosper. […]

Vilsack, a former mayor of Mount Pleasant, also said rural communities continue to lose population and “find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy.”

He pledged to try to resolve the long-standing civil rights claims against the department.

“If I’m confirmed, the message will be clear: discrimination in any form will not be tolerated,” Vilsack said.

After reading that Register article, La Vida Locavore’s Jill Richardson commented,

I want to see our subsidy structure change to reward farmers for sustainability instead of yield. I want the government to ease the financial risk on any farmer transitioning to organic because it appears to me that being an organic farmer isn’t so bad on your bank account, but transitioning alone might break several farmers financially. I want to outlaw CAFOs altogether. But will Vilsack do this? Let me just say this: I am so confident he won’t that I promise now to entirely shave my head if he DOES do each of these 3 things.

I think we can all agree that Jill is not going to look like Sinead O’Connor anytime soon. I totally agree with her first two suggestions. As for CAFOs, it’s not realistic to expect them to be banned, but I believe they would be greatly reduced in number and size (over time) if government policy made them pay for the harm they cause.

On a more encouraging note, I read this at the U.S. Food Policy blog:

Some highlights included Vilsack’s encouragement of locally grown fruits and vegetables and pronouncement that they should be grown not just in rural areas, but everywhere. He announced that he met with Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle last week in order to demonstrate the importance of working together for nutrition. “It’s going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children’s diets…that means supporting those who supply those products” and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products, Vilsack said.

Maybe Vilsack and Daschle will take some of Angie Tagtow’s excellent advice on how their agencies can work together to improve human health. I would also encourage them to read this recent piece by Steph Larsen: “For healthy food and soil, we need affordable health care for farmers.”

I am curious about what Vilsack means by “supporting those who supply” locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables. One problem with our current agricultural policy is that commodity farmers lose all federal subsidies if they put more than two acres into growing fruits or vegetables. Apparently that was the price needed to get California’s Congressional delegation to vote for various farm bills over the years. Even though almost no subsidies go directly to California farmers, this penalty limits the competition California growers might otherwise face from Midwestern farmers.

So, very little of the produce consumed by Iowans is grown in Iowa, and our grocery stores are full of produce trucked in from thousands of miles away. Most of the crops Iowa farmers grow are inedible for humans without processing.

A few years back the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University published a report on “Food, Fuel and Freeways.” It showed how far food travels to Iowans and how much Iowans could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions if we increased the proportion of locally-grown food in our diets to even 10 percent of what we eat.

Getting back to the Vilsack hearing, members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee made some notable comments yesterday. who questioned Vilsack made some notable comments on Wednesday. Iowa’s own Tom Harkin, who chairs the committee, gave Vilsack a warm welcome:

“I just couldn’t be more proud to see you sitting there. I don’t think President-elect [Barack] Obama could have picked a better person for this position,” Harkin said.

Harkin also discussed federal child nutrition programs:

Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin , D-Iowa, said reauthorization of a law (PL 108-265) governing school lunches and other child nutrition programs “is really the only thing that we have to do this year.” […]

During the hearing, Harkin said he will propose that the Department of Agriculture use Institute of Medicine guidelines to set standards for junk food sold in schools. Current USDA school food standards exempt most snack foods, because they aren’t a part of subsidized lunches.

During the last renewal of the child nutrition act, then-Gov. Vilsack wrote a letter to lawmakers and the Bush administration expressing concern about childhood obesity and the problem of vending machine snacks that compete with school meals.

At the time, Vilsack backed limits on the kinds of snacks and beverages students can buy outside the lunch line. Nutrition advocates want junk food kicked out of schools, but many schools use the cash from sales to cover the rising costs of meal services.

(Side note: the state of Iowa is now considering banning the sale of junk food in public schools.)

Meanwhile, Iowa’s Republican Senator Chuck Grassley urged Vilsack to act quickly on several other fronts, including rule-making that would protect smaller volume livestock producers. Also, Grassley and Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota wrote an open letter to Vilsack asking him to close a loophole affecting commodity program payment limits. Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, explains that “This particular loophole is the single most important one allowing mega farming operations to collect payments in multiples of what otherwise appears to be the statutory dollar limit.”

According to Hoefner,

Another former chairman, Pat Leahy (D-VT), weighed in with a comment that the Department is not keeping up with the rapid growth of organic and then with a question asking whether it wasn’t time for the Department to get on with the business of actually actively promoting organic.  Vilsack said we need to “celebrate and support” organic and USDA should view it as one very legitimate option in a menu of options for improving farm incomes.  Then, in response to an extended monologue from Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) deriding organic as marginal, Vilsack held his ground, but diffused the implied antagonism, saying the Department needs to support the full diversity of American agriculture.

The Ethicurean blog published an excerpt of Roberts’ insult to “small family farmers”:

That small family farmer is about 5’2″ … and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly – he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab – and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.

How disappointing that an imbecile like this could easily get re-elected in Kansas. Roberts’ caricature does not resemble any of the sustainable farmers I know. They work just as hard as Roberts’ idealized “production agriculture farmer” but don’t receive any federal subsidies, despite growing high-quality food and being good stewards of the land.

If you haven’t already done so, please go to the Food Democracy Now site and sign their new petition recommending 12 good candidates for undersecretary positions at the USDA. These will be important appointments, since Vilsack won’t single-handedly be setting the USDA’s policy direction.

The Center for Rural Affairs has also launched a petition worth signing, which urges Vilsack to implement a number of programs that would benefit farmers and rural economies.

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More reaction to Vilsack's nomination and good ideas on food policy

I don’t recall nearly as intense a reaction to Bill Clinton’s or George Bush’s nominees for secretary of agriculture. Either food and farm issues are much more salient now than they used to be, or I am noticing it more because Barack Obama is tapping an Iowan to head the USDA.

Tom Vilsack’s friend Jennifer Donahue says Vilsack is the “best possible” choice for secretary of agriculture.

Denise O’Brien urges sustainable agriculture advocates not to give up hope, because as governor Vilsack was accessible and did some good things on food and environmental issues.

Another Iowan, Food & Society Policy Fellow Angie Tagtow of Elkhart, wants Vilsack and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle to work together:

A dichotomy exists between agriculture policies and Dietary Guidelines for Americans – yet, ironically, both are overseen by the USDA. Current food and farm policies stand in the way of making healthy food the easiest choice.

Food and agriculture policies must support disease prevention efforts and can save millions in health care costs. The USDA and USDHHS must use sound science, instead of pressures from special interests like biotechnology companies and the food industry, to reform policies and programs that support a healthy and sustainable food and agriculture system.

Specifically, Tagtow advocates cooperation between Vilsack and Daschle toward the following goals:

1. Creating an intradepartmental Food Policy Council, led by a Food Czar, “to assure farm, food and nutrition policies and programs support public health goals.”  

2. Enacting policies to build fertile soil. “Farmers should receive support or credits for decreasing use of synthetic farm chemicals, protecting natural resources, building soil, reducing fossil fuel use and capturing carbon.”

3. Creating incentives to grow more fruits and vegetables in the U.S.: “Our agriculture system does not grow enough of the right foods that promote our health. We are forced to rely on other countries to put fruits and vegetables on our plates.”

4. Making fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains more available to people on federal food and nutrition assistance program: “Improving the nutritional quality of the WIC food package and the foods served in schools will nourish healthy children, prepare them to learn, reduce childhood diseases, reduce food insecurity and produce healthy, productive adults.”

5. Leveraging food production as economic development. “Growing more food closer to where we eat it increases our access to fresh seasonal food, cultivates a closer relationship with farmers, and builds community resiliency, economic stability, food security and health.”

Tagtow’s suggestions are all excellent, and I hope Vilsack and Daschle will act on them.

Rob Hubler, former Congressional candidate in Iowa’s fifth district, is asking everyone on his e-mail list to support petitions calling for a more sustainable agriculture policy:

Friends,

[…] Will you join me in continuing to work for the same values we campaigned on? There are two quick, but important, actions I want you to take. Both will make a difference for the future of rural communities, family farming and our entire food system.

First, I was proud to add my name to a remarkable effort to pressure President-elect Obama to appoint a “Sustainable Secretary of Agriculture” originated in our own district. Food Democracy Now (http://www.fooddemocracynow.org), launched last week by Iowan Dave Murphy, rocketed to national attention when Nicolas Kristof endorsed the effort in his New York Times column.

Nearly 50,000 people have already signed. Will you help push the petition to 100,000?

Second, the Center for Rural Affairs launched a Grassroots Letter to the next Secretary of Agriculture. No matter who Obama selects, the next head of the USDA needs to hear from you. You can sign the Center for Rural Affairs Grassroots Letter and leave your own comment about the change you would like to see to food, farm and rural policy. The Center for Rural Affairs will send your signature and comment onto the next Agriculture Secretary.

Join me in signing their letter here: http://www.cfra.org/08/grassro…

Peace & Justice,

Rob L. Hubler

I agree that it’s helpful to add more names to those petitions. Food Democracy Now has more than 58,000 signers already. The Center for Rural Affairs’ proposals are wide-ranging and sensible.

The Organic Consumers Association, which came out swinging against Vilsack last month, hasn’t given up on blocking this appointment. On Wednesday they launched a “Stop Vilsack” petition.

This strikes me as ineffective and unwise. There is no chance of Obama backing off from this nomination. He was aware of Vilsack’s position on agriculture when he made the decision. There is no chance of the Senate not confirming Vilsack. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chairs the relevant committee and has already said he will make sure Vilsack’s confirmation hearings go smoothly.

The Organic Consumers Association would do better to organize pressure on Vilsack to take specific actions, either reversing bad Bush administration policies or moving in a more sustainable direction, as the Center for Rural Affairs and Tagtow are proposing.

Daily Kos user CornSyrupAwareness had a different take on Vilsack’s nomination:

I’m glad to see Iowa get their due with this pick of Tom Vilsack. They were instrumental in getting our man elected, and we should all tip our caps to Iowa. Iowa is now paid in full for their efforts and I’m glad. This way they don’t get their due by ‘vetoing’ a Surgeon General’s warning on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

CornSyrupAwareness also quoted some comments Obama made months ago about corn syrup, and posted this great clip of Bill Maher asking Joe Biden, “Which is more likely to contribute to the death of your average American: a terrorist strike, or high-fructose corn syrup, and air that has too much coal in it?”

Once Vilsack is confirmed as secretary of agriculture, a lot of other positions within the USDA will need to be filled. At La Vida Locavore, Obama Foodorama drew attention to last week’s little-noticed resignation of Elizabeth Johnson, the Under Secretary for Food Safety of USDA and made the case for Bill Marler to replace her:

[T]here are opportunities for swift and dramatic change, particularly in food safety. If the USDA fulfilled even half of its already existing mandate, we’d have a far cleaner and safer food chain. Elizabeth Johnson’s now-vacant post as Under Secretary for Food Safety needs to be filled by an inspired, activist leader, someone with both a long institutional memory, and a firm grasp on how to rapidly change what’s so terribly wrong with our system. There’s one individual in the food safety world who is the most uniquely qualified candidate to take on such a huge challenge: Attorney Bill Marler, the foremost food poisoning authority in the country (pictured).

A founding partner of Seattle’s Marler Clark law firm, Marler is an extremely activist consumer advocate and champion of change in food safety policy and practice, both in the US and abroad. His focus on food safety began in 1993, when he won a landmark settlement against Jack in The Box for E. coli contamination. Since then, Marler’s firm has become a powerhouse of food borne illness litigation, garnering close to half a billion dollars in settlements for injured clients.

Marler himself is now the leading US expert in institutional and agricultural structures for food safety, and he regularly works with farmers and major corporations to change/create safety practices (most recently, he persuaded global conglomerate Conagra to dramatically alter their policies). He’s repeatedly testified before Congress on food safety, and has been a vociferous and much-published critic of government policies and practices (including the ongoing labeling fights over “organic”). His Marler Blog is the best internet source for food safety information, and as the years have gone by, Marler has devoted more and more of his professional life to non-profit consultations on food safety and security around the world. Under the umbrella of Marler Clark’s non-profit organization, Outbreak, Marler consulates with foreign food agencies, producers, and governments on how to better protect the public from poisoned food, and how to create safe food systems. This is crucial for any Under Secretary for Food Safety, because America imports a huge part of our food supply each year. Marler has not only been an activist on getting foreign producers to focus on safety, but he’s also intimately acquainted with exactly what goes on in international markets.

The undersecretary appointments don’t get much attention but are quite important. Thanks to Obama Foodorama for shining a light on food safety. (UPDATE: Daily Kos user Halcyon informed me that Marler is an occasional diarist at Daily Kos. His most recent post is about the top ten food safety stories of 2008.)

Share any relevant thoughts on Vilsack’s nomination or federal policies on food and agriculture.

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