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  • Tom Price's Wife Gives Medical Industry Donors a Way to Influence National Policy

    Tom Price, President Donald Trump's pick for health secretary, has faced criticism in recent weeks that he's too closely tied to the health industry he may soon be charged with regulating. Democrats have focused on accusations that Price personally profited by buying stock in various medical companies before writing legislation that would boost the standing of those same companies. Price has denied all wrongdoing, and promised that if confirmed, he'd sell off any financial stake in medical and pharmaceutical companies.

    But the industry still has another way to funnel money in Price's direction: by donating to his wife's political campaigns.

    Betty Price has represented the 48th district in the Georgia state House since winning a special election in July 2015. In November, she became a member of the Republican deputy whip team in the House. An anesthesiologist prior to the launch of her political career, Betty has leaned on the health industry, both in Georgia and nationally, for campaign donations. And the medical industry has maintained its financial support for her since her husband was picked by Trump—despite the fact that Betty Price won't face reelection for another two years.

    The ethics agreement Price had to file as a part of his nomination as health secretary hinted at the idea that his wife's political position might clash with his role as head of the Department of Health and Human Services. In the agreement, Price promised to recuse himself from "any particular matter involving specific parties in which I know the state of Georgia is a party or represents a party." That's going to be a tricky proposition for Price to carry out at HHS: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are based in Atlanta and under the purview of the HHS secretary.

    Price makes no mention of his wife's political funding in the ethics agreement. Georgia is one of 28 states that allow corporations to donate funds directly to political candidates. Campaigns for the Georgia legislature can accept up to $2,500 per election cycle from a corporate entity. Betty Price ran unopposed for reelection in both the primary and general election in 2016, garnering 100 percent of the 17,886 votes in her district. She received donations from local groups like Georgia Medical PAC—to be expected given her own background in medicine and her seat on the state House's health and human services committee.

    National health care groups also took an interest in her uncontested state legislative race, donating at least $4,500 to her campaign, per public campaign finance reports. New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson donated $500; Minnesota-based United Health chipped in another $500. She received more than just direct contributions from health care companies: The employee PAC for Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories contributed $1,000.

    The donations have not slowed since she won reelection in November. In the month after Trump announced Tom Price as his HHS pick, Betty Price's campaign fund received at least $2,250 in donations from national and state medical groups. Drug-manufacturing giant Pfizer (headquartered in New York) donated $500 the day after Tom Price's nomination was announced. San Francisco biotechnology company Genentech contributed $500 later in December.

    These donations are not unique to Betty Price. Pfizer also donated to 22 other Georgia state legislators after the November election, and Genentech donated to five others. But these companies cannot donate directly to Price's congressional efforts, nor will they be able to donate to him as HHS secretary, so his wife's campaign could give them a path to curry favor with the man who will oversee their industry.

    Betty and Tom Price's offices did not respond to requests for comment on whether her campaign would rethink corporate donations from the medical industry if Price is confirmed to lead HHS.

    As a congressman from Georgia, Tom Price has been a favorite recipient of donations from medical professionals at the national level—though thanks to stricter federal campaign finance laws, Price couldn't collect direct corporate donations. According to OpenSecrets, over the course of his Price's career in Congress since 2006 year, health professionals have been by far his largest financial benefactor, donating more than $3.5 million. The second-largest group is insurance industry employees, with more than $800,000; in fourth place are people working in pharmaceuticals/health products, who have given more than $570,000. 

    As health secretary, Price would oversee Food and Drug Administration approval of new drugs and decide which treatments insurers are required to cover. The companies that donate to Betty Price will have a direct stake in these decisions. And with Betty Price still able to collect campaign contributions, they also have a way to try to influence them.



  • Trump's Health Secretary Pick Tied to Fringe Medical Group That Defends Doctors Accused of Misconduct

    Last week, the Senate Health Committee grilled Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), on his plan to dismantle Obamacare and his extensive trading in medical stocks. But when senators on the finance committee question him on Tuesday before voting on his nomination, they might want to ask about a line in his résumé that suggests he poses a much broader threat to government regulation of health care. Price has long been a member of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a fringe medical group that is deeply opposed to any government role in regulating doctors.

    AAPS got its start in the 1940s, with the help of members of the John Birch Society, the extreme right-wing group known for peddling outlandish conspiracy theories. It has fought the government over health care ever since. Its statement of principles declares it "evil" and "immoral" for doctors to participate in Medicaid and Medicare.

    AAPS has been a vocal player in the anti-vaccine movement. Its medical journal has attacked immigrants as the source of disease outbreaks, including leprosy, and suggested that HIV doesn't cause AIDS but that abortion causes breast cancer. The scientific consensus rejects all these claims. AAPS was the primary source of rumors during the presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton was suffering from a major illness. It has opposed electronic medical records, calling them a form of "data control" like that used by the Stasi, the former East German secret police. Researchers estimate that medical errors kill more than 250,000 Americans a year, making them the third leading cause of death, but AAPS dismisses such reports as a bogus pretext for more government regulation of health care. AAPS was a prominent opponent of the Affordable Care Act, and Price appeared regularly at its protests and events, speaking out against the health reform bill.

    Price has been listed as a member of AAPS as far back as 2009, when the group touted him as a member in a press release. Multiple news accounts last month stated that Price was an active member of the group. However, AAPS general counsel Andrew Schlafly could not confirm whether Price is still a member of the group, and Price's congressional office did not respond to a request for comment.

    As HHS secretary, Price would be in charge of multiple federal offices involved in improving health care safety, a job that includes oversight of the regulation of individual physicians. But AAPS has opposed a wide range of government measures to hold individual doctors accountable, and even some private ones. It has fought to limit malpractice lawsuits and battled proposals to require board-certified specialists to recertify every 10 years to ensure their scientific knowledge is current. It has worked to strip disciplinary power from state medical boards and even gotten involved in lawsuits to weaken federal protections for the peer review process, in which doctors vet their colleagues.

    "I think that Dr. Price has the potential to cripple the delivery system reform that is making patients safer and giving them better care every day," says Michael Millenson, a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine who consults with the health care industry on reducing medical errors.

    AAPS, though, is thrilled with his nomination. "The hope is that Tom Price will try to steer HHS in the right direction," says Schlafly, the son of the late anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly. "We were glad he got picked. We support him. We like him. He's a good guy."

    AAPS has long been a bad doctor's best friend. Over the years, it has waged concerted campaigns to protect doctors accused of misconduct.

    In 2007, AAPS sued the Texas medical board when it tried to discipline some physicians for particularly egregious misconduct, including one doctor the board believed was injecting patients with jet fuel and formaldehyde as part of his "chemical sensitivity" treatments. (The doctor later explained that he was merely injecting patients with the "electromagnetic imprint" of carcinogens as part of his homeopathic treatments and was eventually allowed to keep his license, with some restrictions.) After six years of litigation, AAPS ultimately lost its lawsuit against the medical board. But in 2011, the group succeeded in persuading the Texas Legislature to strip the board of much of its power.

    AAPS has defended doctors criminally charged with drug trafficking for overprescribing pain medication, a key factor in the opioid epidemic. One of those doctors, William Hurwitz, was alleged to have prescribed one patient 1,600 pain pills in a day. One of his patients allegedly died of an overdose after he prescribed her massive doses of morphine. After Hurwitz was sentenced to prison for 25 years, AAPS filed a brief as part of his appeal. (He was eventually retried and sentenced to just under five years.) In 2009, Price headlined the AAPS annual meeting where the conference materials included a poem Hurwitz wrote from prison.

    The group championed Parvaz Dara, a New Jersey oncologist whose medical license was revoked in 2011 after his unsanitary medical practice infected at least 29 cancer patients with hepatitis B. AAPS issued press releases decrying Dara's persecution, published his writing in its medical journal, and invited him to speak at its conferences. (The New Jersey medical board restored his license in 2014, with some restrictions.)

    Schlafly says AAPS gets involved "when there's an unfair action against a doctor for exercising his independent judgment." He adds, "We're more about standing out against government, against big hospital systems, against big insurance companies. There's a libertarian streak in our organizations."

    AAPS is so opposed to any questioning of doctors that it's fought peer review, the process used by doctors to evaluate each other's work. Peer review is sacrosanct in medicine, and it's enshrined in a federal law that protects doctors from lawsuits by other doctors to encourage them to participate in the process. AAPS has filed legal briefs in support of doctors who, after peer review, were denied hospital privileges because of their poor care and threat to patients; the group frequently argues in these cases in favor of making it easier for doctors to sue colleagues who blow the whistle on them.

    Price has long supported the crusade against malpractice lawsuits. In Congress, he has advocated federal limits on malpractice suits, and his proposed Obamacare replacement legislation would restrict suits against doctors. But even without legislation, Price would have tremendous power as HHS secretary over how the government regulates doctors. For instance, he would oversee a national database aimed at preventing dangerous doctors from moving across state lines and continuing to practice. "Boy, our members dislike that National Practitioners Data Bank," says Schlafly, who wants to limit hospitals' ability to report disciplinary action to the database.

    In 2011, Price introduced legislation to do just that. It didn't pass, but he'll have the ability to undermine the database at HHS. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently found that hospitals and medical boards routinely evade database reporting requirements, allowing many doctors accused of sexual assault to keep practicing. HHS could crack down on this problem, but Price seems more likely to weaken the reporting requirements than to enforce them.

    AAPS' opposition to federal efforts to improve health care extends beyond regulation of doctors. It has opposed federal funding for comparative effectiveness research to figure out, for instance, whether spine surgery is better than physical therapy for most back pain. (It's not.) There's little private support for such research because it threatens the health care industry's bottom line, so it relies on federal funds. AAPS sees this sort of work as a gateway to government-rationed health care. That's because the research could be used to end Medicare payments for ineffective care, such as lucrative but unnecessary spine surgeries or useless but expensive drugs. The group believes doctors should have the ultimate authority over all treatment decisions. Price apparently does, too. One of the many bills he sponsored to overturn Obamacare included language that would have banned comparative effectiveness research from being used to deny coverage for a treatment or procedure in a government health care plan. The bill would also have restricted the publication of the results of such research—potentially leaving the public in the dark about medical choices.  

    Patient safety advocates are particularly concerned that much of Price's work as health secretary to advance AAPS' agenda could occur out of the public view. "This is someone who belongs to a group that has singled out functions that protect the public that the public doesn't even know exists," says Millenson. "You're talking about someone with a detailed agenda, and a detailed agenda to mess things up. If that doesn't worry you, I'd like to know why."



  • Will Rick Perry Privatize America's Nuclear Waste Storage?

    In recent decades, the federal government has turned to private corporations to help handle everything from intelligence to prisons. Should nuclear waste be next?

    That's a question currently being considered by the Department of Energy, as it looks for solutions to the long-standing problem of how to store radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Now, with Rick Perry slated to head the department, the issue could become more complicated. That's because the former Texas governor has deep ties to a waste disposal company that could create a significant conflict of interest once he becomes energy secretary.

    Nuclear waste is currently held at power plants across the country—some of which are no longer operating. The federal government was supposed to start consolidating the waste from these plants nearly 20 years ago, but it hasn't been able to find a way to dispose of it. In 1987, the feds determined that a site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be the perfect dumpster for high-level nuclear waste (such as used reactor fuel), but opposition to the plan began almost immediately. Finally, in 2010, the Obama administration cut funding for Yucca Mountain in response to local opposition and the efforts of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who was the Senate majority leader at the time. With the new administration taking over and Reid retiring, it's unclear whether the project will be revived.

    Because Yucca Mountain had been stalled for so long, the federal government began to explore the possibility of working with private companies for interim storage of the waste—a temporary solution that could last for decades. Testifying at a Senate hearing in September 2016, Obama administration Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz explained this "novel approach" could help the government follow through on its obligation to collect the nuclear waste, and his department began to ask private companies for information about how it would work.

    During his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Perry emphasized that obligation remains a pressing concern. "Hopefully this is the beginning of seeing real movement, real management of an issue that I think no longer can sit and be used as a political football, one that must be addressed," he said. "And I think we can find a solution both in the interim and in the long term."

    One company eager to get in on interim storage is Texas-based Waste Control Specialists, which last year applied for a license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and will be submitting a preliminary proposal to the Department of Energy before the end of the month to store high-level nuclear waste for the federal government. In order to get a contract with the Department of Energy and store the waste, the company would need to obtain a license from the NRC. (The two agencies are independent from each other.) An NRC spokesperson said the license approval process would take a minimum of three years.

    Watchdogs worry the company's ties to Perry could create a conflict of interest. As Mother Jones previously reported, WCS lobbied the Texas Legislature for six years to pass legislation that would allow private companies in the state to be responsible for the disposal of low-level nuclear waste. (Low-level waste consists of things like clothing, cleaning supplies, and other items exposed to radiation.) The legislation passed in 2003, and Perry signed it.

    When the new system went into effect, WCS was the only company that applied for a state license to handle the waste. A panel of state engineers and geologists determined in 2007 that groundwater contamination at WCS' proposed disposal site in West Texas was "highly likely." WCS countered that such contamination wasn't possible. "The state of Texas required over 600 test wells at a variety of depths to address questions about any possibility of subsurface water before issuing the license," WCS spokesman Chuck McDonald said. "Those questions were answered emphatically."

    Despite the reviewers' concerns, the three Perry-appointed members on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality signed off on the license. Three staffers at the agency resigned in protest over the decision. "We knew from the beginning that this permit was intended to be issued," Glenn Lewis, a member of the review panel, said in a 2011 interview with NPR.

    Many opponents of the plan cried foul, pointing to the relationship between Perry and Harold Simmons, the company's owner at the time. Simmons, who has since died, was one of Perry's biggest contributors throughout his career, giving his campaigns more than $1.3 million. When the Texas governor ran for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, Simmons was one of his largest donors. (Simmons also helped fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry in 2004.) Critics of Texas' deal with WCS, such as the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, have suggested that Simmons' relationship with Perry may have helped WCS get the permits.

    "Lo and behold, the company that lobbied to get the legislation passed and gave lots of political contributions was the only applicant, so it was a real corporate sweetheart deal," Cyrus Reed of the Texas Sierra Club said.

    McDonald denies that the company received any special treatment. According to McDonald, WCS invested more than $500 million to license and construct the facility in West Texas and won't be able to recoup that investment for decades. He calls the facility "the most environmentally studied and geologically surveyed site on the planet."

    "WCS went through the most rigorous licensing requirements ever imposed on a disposal facility of any kind," McDonald said.

    According to Reed, the staffers on the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality who resigned were concerned about more than just water contamination. "We had a couple people resign or retire from the commission and come to us and say, 'Look, we think there was political pressure to get this license done, and all the t's weren't crossed,'" he said, adding that Simmons' past contributions to Perry raised red flags. "Harold Simmons certainly was supportive of the governor who then signed into law important bills for his industry," he said.

    In an interview with Mother Jones, a Perry spokesman declined to answer questions about the WCS license process but said Perry has no ties to the company beyond Simmons' campaign contributions.

    Reed's group sued WCS over its disposal facility due to the environmental concerns, but the Texas Supreme Court ultimately decided the group didn't have standing in the case.

    More recently, Perry has supported the idea of storing more dangerous nuclear waste in Texas. In 2014, he sent a letter to the Texas lieutenant governor and the speaker of the house, in which he declared that "it's time for Texas to act" because states holding onto high-level radioactive waste have "been betrayed by their federal government." Attached to the letter was a report that Perry had commissioned from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality calling on the federal government to authorize "centralized interim storage facilities" for high-level nuclear waste. It also outlined how the Department of Energy could work with private companies to make that a reality.

    As for WCS, the company argues that disposing of Texas' low-level nuclear waste for more than four years has made it a strong candidate to handle the federal government's waste, especially since so few companies are in this line of work. There would likely be little competition for the potential contract. Companies generally notify the NRC well in advance if they intend to apply for a license, and only one other company has issued such a notice.

    WCS also contends that Texas' experience with privatized waste disposal makes Perry uniquely qualified to lead the Department of Energy.

    "Texas leadership from the governor on down has had experience addressing nuclear waste issues, and it's an experience that very few other states have had because no other state has successfully opened a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility," McDonald said. "I think the fact that Governor Perry has working knowledge of the issue…will serve him well as the secretary of energy."

    Even if Yucca Mountain eventually does move forward, permanent disposal is at least 20 years away, and interim storage would still be necessary, argues WCS.

    Meanwhile, a coalition of anti-nuclear-energy groups has lined up against the creation of new interim storage sites and has written a letter to NRC opposing the company's application. Attorney Robert Eye, who represents some of the groups, worries these sites will become permanent places to put the waste because there will be "very little pressure to move [it] to a permanent repository, even with the best intentions."

    Reed, the Texas Sierra Club official, says his primary concern is that if something goes wrong and waste isn't properly stored, the government could ultimately end up dealing with an expensive cleanup.

    "Private companies…can easily go belly-up depending on short-term economic realities," Reed said. "With radioactive waste, you really want to make sure the person watching the waste is more permanent than companies are. The real concern is companies walk away from things, and then other people are left holding the bag."



  • Donald Trump's Press Secretary Sends Even Crazier Tweets Than Donald Trump

    Over the weekend, the American people were introduced to President Donald Trump's new press secretary, Sean Spicer, who dedicated his first press conference on Saturday to angrily accuse members of the media of purposely misleading the public about the size of Friday's inauguration crowd.

    According to Spicer, Trump drew the "largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period," a patently false claim that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway later defended as "alternative facts." Both statements added a fresh new layer of humiliation to Trump's first few days in office.

    While the country has been well acquainted with Conway's expert spin skills by now, most Americans are still wondering who just delivered one of the strangest White House pressers in recent memory. For the uninitiated, here's what a brief look at Spicer's social-media utterances reveal:

    He has engaged in a yearslong war with Dippin' Dots:

    Like his boss, he makes a habit of airing consumer grievances on Twitter:

    He hates Daft Punk:

    Also making the rounds since Saturday's press conference is a Washington Post piece from August that revealed the gross fact that Spicer regularly chews and swallows 35 pieces of Orbit cinnamon-flavored gum—all before noon.

    It's a lot to take in. But take comfort in knowing we all still have four long years to get acquainted.



  • White House Press Secretary Defends False Statements About Inauguration Crowds

    After making several false statements over the weekend about the size of the crowd at President Donald Trump's inauguration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer promised to the media on Monday that he would never intentionally lie to them. Then he made more questionable claims.

    "I believe that we have to be honest with the American people," Spicer told ABC News' Jonathan Karl, adding, "Sometimes we can disagree with the facts. There are certain things that we may not fully understand when we come out, but our intention is never to lie to you." But the promise came as part of a combative exchange, during which Spicer introduced dubious claims about Trump's speech to the CIA on Saturday. And in response to questions about his own integrity, Spicer repeatedly blamed the press for being overly negative toward Trump.

    Spicer brought up a mistake Time reporter Zeke Miller made on Friday, when he inaccurately reported that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. Spicer complained that Miller, who shortly after the mistaken report tweeted "my apologies" and "apologies to my colleagues," had not sufficiently apologized.

    "Where was the apology to the president?" Spicer asked. "Where was the apology to millions of people who read that thought how racially insensitive that was?" Earlier, however, Spicer appeared to accept Miller's multiple apologies:

    Next, Spicer repeated his claim that there was intense excitement among CIA employees during Trump's highly political speech at CIA headquarters. Spicer claimed that the crowd of CIA officers had loudly cheered Trump, contradicting CBS News' report that the cheering came largely from an entourage of about 40 people that Trump's team brought to the address, not from CIA personnel. Spicer said Trump had only arrived at CIA with a very small group of people—he guessed 10 people—and that the cheers had come from CIA employees.

    Spicer headed into Monday's press briefing with his integrity in question, thanks to several demonstrably false statements he made to the press on Saturday evening (which were not the first time Spicer was caught in a lie.) Chief among them, Spicer wrongly asserted that the crowd at Trump's inauguration was "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe."

    Toward the end of Monday's lengthy press conference, Spicer conceded that the crowd in Washington was not the biggest ever and argued that he had never made such a claim. Instead, he said that by "both in person and around the globe," he meant "total largest audience." That's not how his words were broadly interpreted at the time, and it's not what Trump claimed in his speech at the CIA, where he stated, "It looked like a million, million and a half people." (Experts in crowd estimation put the crowd size at a fraction of those numbers.)

    Spicer also conceded that he had been wrong when he claimed Saturday that ridership on Washington's Metro system was higher than for President Barack Obama's second inauguration four years ago. "At the time, the information I was provided by the inaugural committee came from an outside agency that we reported on," he said. "And I think, knowing what we know now, we can tell that [Metro's] numbers are different."

    When asked about crowd size and his decision to deliver Saturday's incorrect statement about it, Spicer repeatedly he returned to the idea that the administration is under attack by the media. "It's about this constant, you know, 'He's not going to run,'" Spicer said. "Then if he runs, 'He's going to drop out.' There is this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he has. I think it's unbelievably frustrating when you're continually told it's not big enough, it's not good enough, you can't win."



  • Giant Study Shows That?Surprise!?Vaping Entices Non-Smokers

    E-cigarettes, long touted as a tool to discourage smoking, are actually doing the opposite, according to a landmark study published Monday in Pediatrics. In this first-of-its kind national analysis, researchers found that the devices attract kids who otherwise would not have been likely to pick up smoking.

    "E-cigarettes are encouraging—not discouraging—youth to smoke and to consume nicotine, and are expanding the tobacco market," said Stanton Glantz, a co-author and director of the University of California-San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research.

    Last year, the Food and Drug Administration announced sweeping regulation of e-cigarettes, which included restricting purchase by those under 18.

    The researchers analyzed data from the Center for Disease Control's National Youth Tobacco Survey between 2004 and 2014, completed by more than 140,000 middle and high schoolers. They found that while cigarette smoking rates declined, the introduction of e-cigarettes had no effect on the decline. Meanwhile, the total use of tobacco products (cigarettes combined with e-cigarettes) has increased. That's concerning, the researchers say, since several longitudinal studies have found that kids who use e-cigarettes are three times more likely to smoke cigarettes a year later.

    Teens who had used tobacco products in the past 30 days, according to the CDC's National Youth Tobacco Survey Pediatrics

    Past research has found that certain characteristics measured in the CDC survey—like living with a smoker, wearing clothing with a tobacco company logo, or saying they would accept cigarettes from a friend—are predictors of a teen's likelihood of picking up smoking.

    But the Pediatrics study found that e-cigarette smokers displayed fewer of these characteristics, leading the researchers to conclude that e-cigarettes are attracting a new population rather than just being used by existing smokers.

    Gregory Conley, the president of the American Vaping Association, says that the study's findings "strain credulity," as youth smoking is rapidly declining, teens typically use vapor products occasionally rather than habitually, and "only a fraction of recent users report using the products with nicotine." 

    Lauren Dutra, a study co-author and researcher at RTI International, counters that smoking rates were already falling before the advent of e-cigarettes, and that nicotine levels in e-cigarettes are not yet regulated by the FDA.

    "I don't want to say if e-cigarettes didn't exist, these kids never would have been exposed to nicotine," says Dutra. But "perhaps these kids wouldn't have picked up a cigarette or wouldn't have used nicotine at all had it not been for the existence of e-cigarettes on the market."



  • 5 Sketchy Facts About Trump's Pick for USDA Chief

    Amid the pomp and tumult of inauguration week, you may have missed that President (whoa) Donald Trump at last made his final Cabinet pick, naming former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue US Department of Agriculture secretary. At a televised candlelight dinner on the eve of the inauguration, Trump mused on his long and zigzagging USDA search that started and ended with Perdue, who emerged as a front-runner right after the election and then faded as the president-elect auditioned a succession of candidates for the post (transcript by Politico):

    He came into my office two months ago. Since then, I saw 10 people that everybody liked, politically correct, and I kept thinking back to Sonny Perdue, a great, great farmer. He loves to farm; he knows everything about farming, knows everything about agriculture. He’s been successful in farming. He knows the good stuff from the bad stuff.

    But people came into my office, and they said, 'I am really wanting the job.' I said, 'Let me ask you a question: Do you have any experience with farms or agriculture?' 'No sir, I don't.' I said, 'Have you ever seen a farm?' The one gentleman, who is a great guy, we'll find something else. But I can't make him the secretary of agriculture.

    The "politically correct" bit is, no doubt, a reference to the fact that Trump's 22-member cabinet and top staff is largely, like Perdue, white and male: It contains just four women, one African American, and not a single Latino. Indeed, Trump will be the first president since Ronald Reagan to enter office without having appointed a Latino to a cabinet-level post. (Reagan appointed a Latino to his Cabinet in his second term.)

    During the USDA search, there were intermittent reports that Trump was, as Politico put it at one point, "scrambling to appoint a Hispanic official to serve in his Cabinet amid criticism that his incoming administration lacks diversity at the highest levels." He publicly mulled several candidates who would have added diversity (examples: Abel Maldonado, son of farm workers and, like Perdue, a farmer himself; J.C. Watts; Heidi Heitkamp).

    In the end, Trump chose a white, southern male for the job. And not just any white southerner. Here are a few things to know about Perdue:

    1. He was a big fan of the Confederacy. As I reported a few weeks ago, Perdue displayed a disturbing nostalgia for the Confederacy while governor (2003-2011)—not a great look for the incoming head of a federal department that, in 1999, settled a landmark lawsuit charging systemic USDA discrimination against black farmers between 1983 and 1997, agreeing to pay out $1.25 billion to harmed farmers.

    2. He enacted severe voter ID laws. Voter fraud is vanishingly rare, and laws requiring photo identification at polling places target black voters with "almost surgical precision," a federal court ruled last year. In 2005, Perdue signed into law one of the nation's first "strict" ID laws—the very first of many in former Confederate states—requiring people to either present a current photo identification card or be denied the vote. Perdue vigorously defended it through several legal challenges. It remains in place.

    3. He championed immigration crackdowns. In 2006, then-Gov. Perdue mashed up the voter-fraud myth with another racially tinged fantasy, this one fervently held by Perdue's new boss, Trump: that undocumented immigrants burden taxpayers by siphoning welfare benefits. "It is simply unacceptable for people to sneak into this country illegally on Thursday, obtain a government-issued ID on Friday, head for the welfare office on Monday and cast a vote on Tuesday," he declared. He backed up his harsh words with a crackdown on undocumented workers. Coupled with the George W. Bush administration's simultaneous get-tough efforts, the Georgia law worked perhaps too well. Here's an Associated Press piece from September 2006:

    STILLMORE, Ga. –  Trailer parks lie abandoned. The poultry plant is scrambling to replace more than half its workforce. Business has dried up at stores where Mexican laborers once lined up to buy food, beer and cigarettes just weeks ago.

    This Georgia community of about 1,000 people has become little more than a ghost town since Sept. 1, when federal agents began rounding up illegal immigrants.

    The sweep has had the unintended effect of underscoring just how vital the illegal immigrants were to the local economy.

    Perdue doubled down in 2009, signing another tough immigration bill. By 2010, when preparing to leave office, he had changed his tune a bit—perhaps chastened by how much Georgia's ag industry relies on migrant labor. He declined to express an opinion about the renewed immigration crackdown being promoted by his successor, but he did tell the Associated Press that "the Republican Party needs to be very, very careful that it maintains the golden rule in its rhetoric regarding immigration policy." He added that the GOP need to make sure that "people of color and people who are not US-born'' are made to feel welcome, adding, "And I think that's the challenge of the Republican Party.''

    4. He's tightly intertwined with the industry he will now regulate. Before entering politics, Perdue sold fertilizer. As governor of Georgia, he led the nation's number-one chicken-producing state, and over his career in politics he netted $328,328 in donations from agribusiness interests, including $21,000 from Gold Kist, a large, Georgia-based chicken-processing company that was later taken over by chicken giant Pilgrim's Pride. He now runs a company that trades agricultural commodities globally.

    5. He enjoyed the spoils of cronyism. Back in 2005, Georgia state Rep. Larry O'Neal—Perdue's lawyer—managed to pass what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called a "seemingly mundane tax bill" that was "designed to allow Georgians to delay paying state taxes on land they sell in Georgia if they buy similar property in another state." The bill included a "a last-minute change, which would make the tax break retroactive to land sales made in 2004." Voila. "And just like that, Gov. Sonny Perdue saved an estimated $100,000 in state taxes," the AJC reported, adding this:

    Without the backdated tax break, the governor would have had to pay taxes on money he made in 2004 by selling property he owned in Georgia. Later that year, he used $2 million in proceeds from the sale of that Georgia land to buy 19.51 acres near Florida's Walt Disney World."

    Then there was the time in 2010, at the tail end of his second term as governor, when Sonny Perdue named his cousin, David Perdue, Jr., to the board of the Georgia Ports Authority. According to the AJC, it was a plum post for David, who had just stepped down as chief executive of Dollar General discount stores:

    The board sets policy and oversees management of the quasi-state agency that rakes in some $67 billion in revenue statewide. And it’s viewed as a prestigious panel, where powerful Georgia business and political leaders rub shoulders. The chairman while [David] Perdue served on the board was Alec Poitevint, former head of the state Republican Party who went on to manage the 2012 GOP national convention.

    Meanwhile, that same year, Sonny Perdue "while he was still governor, met with ports officials to discuss opportunities for his private grain and trucking businesses at the port once he left office," the AJC reports, citing emails it obtained through the state's Open Records Act. Then, in 2011, after Sonny Perdue left office, he and David Perdue launched Perdue Partners—"a global trading company that facilitates US commerce focusing on the export of US goods and services through trading, partnerships, consulting services, and strategic acquisitions." The paper adds:

    Records obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request paint an even more complicated portrait, showing that a trucking company purchased by both Perdues hauled cargo at the port while David was on the board making important decisions about the port’s operation.

    With with his stint on the port authority board on his resume, David Perdue leapt into Georgia politics—in 2014, he was elected to the US Senate. 



  • Trump Reinstates Global Gag Rule to Cut Off Family Planning Funds Abroad

    Surrounded by men, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Monday reinstating the "global gag rule," which bans federal funding for international non-governmental organizations that offer abortions or advocate for the right to an abortion.

    The Ronald Reagan-era order, also known as the Mexico City policy, has been instituted by Republican presidents, and then killed by Democratic presidents, since its inception. Obama signed an executive order early in his presidency to reverse it.

    According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, women in poor countries suffer the most from this policy. A 2003 analysis found that the rule leads to unsafe abortions, which are the second-leading cause of death for women of reproductive age in Ethiopia and account for more than 40 percent of the maternal mortality rate in Kenya. Peru has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Latin America, in part because of its high rate of clandestine abortions.

    The 1973 Helms Amendment already bans the use of American foreign aid for abortions. Money from the United States can go to organizations that educate women about abortions or perform abortions, as long as it's not used for the procedure itself. The gag rule would deny US funding to any international organization that mentions abortion as an option for women seeking help with an unwanted pregnancy—even if that organization largely provides contraception or more general reproductive health care.

    The United States currently spends about $600 million annually on family planning and reproductive health programs in foreign countries. The Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that studies reproductive health care, estimates that a loss of this funding would translate to 38,000 more abortions. Marie Stopes International, one of USAID's biggest family planning partners, estimates that the global gag rule will lead to an additional 2.2 million abortions worldwide.

    The international assistance funding provides access to contraceptive services and supplies for 27 million women and couples.

    In a statement, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) promised to introduce a bill to repeal the rule on Tuesday. "The Trump Administration and Republican leadership have made no secret of their dangerous obsession with rolling back reproductive rights," she said. "President Trump's reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule ignores decades of research, instead favoring ideological politics over women and families."



  • The House Is About to Hand a Big Win to the Anti-Abortion Movement

    Since the 1970s, the Hyde Amendment has prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions. The rule has always functioned as a budget rider attached to individual federal appropriations bills. But as early as Tuesday, the House could vote to make it permanent. If members of the House approve the bill, they'll be moving on what has long been a priority for anti-abortion groups just days after the Women's Marches, in which millions of Americans demonstrated against President Donald Trump in what may have been the largest protest in US history. Enshrining the Hyde Amendment into law was one of Trump's primary campaign promises to the pro-life movement.

    The bill, dubbed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act, would prohibit the use of any federal funds to pay for abortion or for health benefit plans that include abortion coverage. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the bill's author, proposed a similar version of the legislation in 2013 and 2015. Both versions passed the House but not the Senate.

    The Hyde Amendment has always impacted low-income women the most—it makes it impossible to use Medicaid funding for almost all abortions. But as a budget rider, the amendment has to be renewed by Congress every year. If Smith's bill becomes law, that would no longer be the case; the prohibition would become permanent and could only be reversed through new legislation in the future. If the bill were to make it to the Senate, it would require 60 votes to pass; there are 52 Republican senators.

    Kristan Hawkins, the presidents of Students for Life, told the Washington Times that Congress and the administration's speed in moving to enshrine the Hyde Amendment inspires confidence that anti-abortion laws will be a priority for Trump.

    "We applaud Speaker Ryan and the House of Representatives for starting the process to make the Hyde Amendment permanent law," she said. "This is a great sign that the Trump administration plans to follow through on their promises during the campaign, and we look forward to working together to make abortion unthinkable in this nation."

    Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, told Mother Jones that she is "not terribly surprised" at the speed with which the bill has come up for a vote. "But it does seem like a slap in the face after we had over a million women marching in Washington and around the country," DeGette said.



  • Trump's CIA Pick Said He Was Against Waterboarding. Then He Changed His Tune.

    The Senate is set to confirm as the new head of the CIA on Monday a man who is open to revisiting the practice of waterboarding—even if that's not what he told the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearing.

    Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), President Donald Trump's pick to lead the nation's top spy agency, appeared before the committee on January 12 for a televised hearing. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Pompeo whether he'd restart the "CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques that fall outside the Army field manual." That was a clear reference to waterboarding, a practice considered torture by many international experts.

    "Absolutely not," Pompeo responded. He said he would always comply with the law and couldn't "imagine [he] would be asked by the president-elect or then-president" to have the CIA torture someone.

    But on Friday, the day Trump was assumed the role of president, the intelligence committee released Pompeo's written answers to questions posed by senators after the initial hearing. Feinstein again brought up waterboarding, asking specifically whether Pompeo would commit to "refraining from taking any steps to authorize or implement any plan that would bring back waterboarding or any other enhanced interrogation [technique]." Pompeo gave a different answer this time.

    "I will consult with the experts at the Agency and at other organizations in the U.S. government on whether the Army Field Manual uniform application is an impediment to gathering vital intelligence to protect the country or whether any rewrite of the Army Field Manual is needed," Pompeo wrote. "If any such differences are justified, a fundamental requirement is that such differences fully comply with law, including laws governing the treatment and interrogation of individuals."

    The written questions also elicited Pompeo's thoughts on the CIA's collection of publicly available information on Americans, a controversial practice given that the CIA is generally a foreign-focused intelligence agency that's supposed to engage in only limited domestic activity. "I made the statement...in the context of if 'someone's out there on their Facebook page talking about an attack or plotting an attack against America,'" Pompeo wrote in response to questions from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "In such cases, publicly available information can provide relevant information and generally involves fewer privacy concerns than other collection techniques."

    Pompeo added that "of course there are boundaries" to the CIA's collection of such information and that any such activity would be "conducted in accordance to the Constitution, statutes, and applicable presidential directives."

    Pompeo's thoughts on this matter were laid out in a January 2016 Wall Street Journal op-ed, in which he said that Washington was "blunting" the "surveillance powers" of the intelligence community by refraining from collecting people's personal information and called for a "fundamental upgrade to America's surveillance capabilities." He said the country should re-establish its bulk metadata collection program and "[combine] it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database. Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed."

    Wyden asked about the database in the written questions. Pompeo responded that he hadn't "consulted legal experts on a hypothetical database" or studied which third-party information would be available to include in the database.

    On Saturday, Human Rights Watch urged senators to vote against Pompeo's confirmation, citing concerns about his thoughts on torture and surveillance.

    "Pompeo's responses to questions about torture and mass surveillance are dangerously ambiguous about whether he would endorse abusive practices and seek to subvert existing legal protections," Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, the group's US program co-director, said in a statement. "Pompeo's failure to unequivocally disavow torture and mass surveillance, coupled with his record of advocacy for surveillance of Americans and past endorsement of the shuttered CIA torture program, make clear that he should not be running the CIA."




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