Truthout Stories Tue, 09 Feb 2016 10:55:32 -0500 en-gb The Conservative Playbook for Keeping "Dark Money" Dark

How do you stop states and cities from forcing more disclosure of so-called dark money in politics? Get the debate to focus on an "average Joe," not a wealthy person. Find examples of "inconsequential donation amounts." Point out that naming donors would be a threat to "innocents," including their children, families and co-workers.

And never call it dark money. "Private giving" sounds better.

These and other suggestions appear in internal documents from conservative groups that are coaching activists to fight state legislation that would impose more transparency on the secretive nonprofit groups reshaping U.S. campaign finance.

The documents obtained by ProPublica were prepared by the State Policy Network, which helps conservative think tanks in 50 states supply legislators with research friendly to their causes, and the Conservative Action Project (CAP), a Washington policy group founded by Edwin Meese, a Reagan-era attorney general.

Dark money is the term for funds that flow into politics from nonprofit groups, which can accept donations of any size but, unlike political action committees, are not required by federal law to reveal the identities of their donors. The anonymity has been upheld by courts that cite as precedent a 1958 Supreme Court ruling that the state of Alabama could not demand that the NAACP turn over a list of its members.

Since 2008, dark money groups have spent more than $690 million in federal races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A single group aligned with Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio helped buoy his standing in Iowa before Monday's caucuses with $1.3 million in ads.

The same story is playing out on the state level. During the 2014 election cycle, 40 nonprofits spent $25 million on TV ads about state races, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. That represented 3 percent of total ad buys, almost double the proportion that dark money paid for in 2010.

This year, 38 states are considering bills relating to disclosure, according to a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some have already adopted rules. In 2014, California began requiring nonprofits that engage in campaign activity to live by many of the same disclosure regulations as traditional political committees. Montana decided last year that politically active nonprofits would have to disclose donors, and report any electioneering communications within 60 days of votes being cast.

A memo distributed by CAP in January to conservative activists highlighted new disclosure rules being considered in Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington, as well as ethics bills in South Carolina and Texas that contain disclosure provisions.

Groups that are throwing their resources behind stricter campaign finance regulation include Common Cause, which has offices in 36 states, and the Democracy Alliance, an invitation-only organization composed of wealthy liberal donors. According to CAP, though, the initiatives to require disclosure not only pose a threat to free speech but also to the very existence of the nonprofits.

"This well-coordinated, well-funded effort to require conservative nonprofits like yours to divulge the names and addresses of your donors is all part of a plan to choke off our air supply of funding," the group said in the memo.

The memo was signed by many leading voices on the political right, including anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist; top officials at Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers political network; the Family Research Council; the Council for National Policy; and Heritage Action for America. It describes conservatives as "a persecuted class" and compares labeling private donations "dark money" to calling private ballots "dark voting."

The State Policy Network, which on its website calls pro-regulation activists "enemies of debate," distributed its documents at a conference held last fall in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The material includes a map of cities and states considering measures to "force disclosure of charitable giving" and a set of "questions that help people see the consequences of public disclosure." Among them: "Do you think the government should be able to take down names and addresses of Americans and who they donate to? Do you think people should be targeted for expressing their opinions?"

The organization also urges its supporters to choose the right phrases to color the debate, shunning terms such as "activist," "anonymous" or "dark money" in favor of "private giving," "censor" and "silencing dissent." Under the header "Framing the Issue," a man is pictured with tape over his mouth.

Other documents give conservative activists tips on where to look for "efforts to stifle free speech," for example in bills that deal with corruption or ethics, or that define electoral activity. "More than a dozen states have considered or passed legislation that changes the definition of electioneering communications to include the everyday activity of non-profit groups, like issuing a non-partisan voter guide," one briefing says.

Meredith Turney, a spokeswoman for the State Policy Network, said in an interview that along with the materials provided to members, the organization is alerting nonprofits regardless of political orientation that the proposals would interfere with privacy and free speech.

"These laws will impact groups from Planned Parenthood to The Heritage Foundation and start-up movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter," Turney said.

Arizona Democratic state senator Martin Quezada, who has been pushing dark money disclosure legislation since last year, said his goal is to let voters know which special interests might have influence over a candidate.

"My bill in no way limits anyone's free speech. It doesn't say they can't spend that money. They're free to spend that money all they want. It only requires that if you're going to spend that money, you have to tell us who you are," Quezada said.

The CAP memo also warns activists to snuff out a burgeoning alliance in some states between liberal groups seeking more disclosure and Tea Party-like conservatives who often oppose the Republican establishment. "The Left has turned the transparency concept on its head to dupe conservative legislators and well-meaning Tea Party groups to help advance their initiatives," the memo said, citing a 2014 Tallahassee voter campaign finance initiative that capped contributions in city races at $250 and established an ethics office.

"Transparency is for government," the group reminded conservative activists. "Privacy is for people."

Dan Backer, a lawyer who signed the CAP memo, said the group's organizing should be a warning to advocates of stricter campaign finance rules that his side will use "a variety of means" including litigation to preserve the privacy of donors. Backer helped bring the 2014 McCutcheon case in which the U.S. Supreme Court removed aggregate limits on direct contributions, which along with the 2010 Citizens United decision set the stage for a new flood of money into politics.

News Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Amid Corporate College Lawsuits, Obama Admin Looks to Establish "Student Aid Enforcement Union"

The Department of Education announced Monday that it is creating a new organization to "respond more quickly and efficiently to allegations of illegal actions" by American colleges.

Department officials said that President Obama has included $13.6 million for the new office in his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal. Called the Student Aid Enforcement Union, it is slated to be led by one of the Federal Trade Commission's top lawyers, Jeffrey Kaye; the current lead attorney for the commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"When Americans invest their time, money and effort to gain new skills, they have a right to expect they'll actually get an education that leads to a better life for them and their families," Acting Education Secretary John King Jr. said. "When that doesn't happen we all pay the price. So let me be clear: schools looking to cheat students and taxpayers will be held accountable."

The President's complete budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1, is due out on Tuesday, the same day as the New Hampshire presidential primaries. It will have more details about the White House's broader enforcement priorities for the remainder of President Obama's time in office.

The Department of Education and the Department of Justice came under fire late last year from Democratic senators for their handling of a settlement with the Education Management Corp. (EDMC), a for-profit college found to have defrauded students and taxpayers.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the Obama administration "recovered a miniscule fraction of stolen taxpayer funds, held no individuals accountable while failing to even obtain an admission of wrongdoing from EDMC, and now may not even provide relief to thousands of students who owe billions of dollars in student loans because they were illegally recruited by EDMC."

The senators additionally noted the settlement came after a September order issued by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, which directed federal prosecutors to toughen up on white collar crime.

"[A] mere two months after announcing this policy, when settling a case that recovered less that one percent of funds that were illegally gained by EDMC, DOJ garnered no admission of wrongdoing and held no individual accountable for the actions that singificantly harmed students and taxpayers," the senators wrote.

Last month, the the Department of Education and the FTC announced they were taking action against another for-profit college operator, DeVry, for allegedly defrauding tens of thousands of students since 2008. The Huffington Post noted, however, that the FTC's own court filings "suggest that as many as 300,000 students were harmed" by DeVry during 2008 and 2014.

There are currently 8,424 outstanding borrower claims against institutes of higher education, according to US News. Just more than 1,300 of those involve federally-guaranteed loans worth a total of $85.6 million.

News Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Obama's Last Budget May Be Ignored By the GOP

For the last time ever, President Barack Obama is about to introduce his budget to Congress. Congress, sadly, doesn't appear to want it.

Throughout the entirety of the Obama administration, the divide between Congress and the White House has been growing steadily wider. From a first year in office where Democrats briefly controlled all three arms of government to today, where both the House and Senate are now under Republican control, getting any semblance of governing through the political process has become a more more laborious uphill battle each session.

Now, any attempt at even pretending that Congressional Republicans might be willing to work with the Commander-in-Chief has been thrown out the window, as this year's budget process seems to signal. "President Obama is expected to release his final budget plan on Tuesday, but Republicans on Capitol Hill are indicating that they won't give it much thought," reports The Hill. "The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget Committees issued a joint statement late last week announcing that, breaking with precedent, they wouldn't invite the Office of Management and Budget director to testify before their respective panels to discuss the president's budget."

Refusing to hear the budget isn't just a massive break with precedent, it is a total rejection of any sort of decorum or even respect for the office of the President, and the GOP appears to be well aware of that fact. According to Fox News, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi said they will "ignore" the President's budget and "will instead go straight into crafting their own budgets and castigate what the White House engineered."

Meanwhile the administration isn't impressed by the opposition's political theater on the subject, calling the antics a "Donald Trump"-esque way to pander to their voters. "White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Republicans' refusal to play ball was just as bad as Trump's refusal to take part in the last GOP debate after getting into a nasty spat with Fox News," reports Politico. "'They're just not going to show up,' Earnest said during the daily briefing, adding that the maneuver smacked of a 'Donald Trump approach' to the debate over spending priorities. He then accused the GOP committee leaders of being wobbly knee'd, saying the boycott 'raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.'"

According to Earnst this is the first time in 16 years that the Director hasn't been invited to brief Congress – a period leading back into the Bill Clinton presidency, and shows that the Republican party has essentially shut the door to any attempts at making the government function as long as President Obama is in office. That statement may not be far from the truth, either. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear just last week that when it comes to any major policy issues, as far as the GOP is concerned everything is done until President Obama is out of office.

"For anyone who thought Congress might accomplish something in 2016, this dose of cold water comes from the Hill's Alexander Bolton, who reports that probably ain't happening," reports "'Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), seeking to protect his majority in a tough cycle for Republicans, is leaning toward holding back several measures that have bipartisan support but are divisive in his conference.' So, for example, that bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that looked so promising, the one Republicans and Democrats had worked so hard on to reach a compromise. Yeah, the Senate won't be voting on that. Or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Or the Authorization for Use of Military Force. Or really anything. Because why force anybody to take tough votes?"

The GOP's refusal to actually try to govern for the next 11 months or longer shows exactly what a dangerous predicament the entire Republican party is in. A vote on literally any issue could either anger their base, or anger the moderates they need to get reelected, depending on which way they cast their ballots. Either possibility appears to spell disaster for a conservative movement so dramatically split in two.

Of course, if the GOP can't govern and can only block legislation, it's the American people who will suffer from a government that grinds to a halt. The budget battle is just the first sign of a crisis just waiting in the wings.

Opinion Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Ladydrawers: The Gresham Experiment, Part 1

In this installment of the Ladydrawers' "Growing Season" series, the comics journalists explore an issue that hits close to home for them: food access in the Chicago neighborhood of Auburn Gresham, and how a scarcity of healthy food options relates to street violence.

"The Gresham Experiment, Part I" is the penultimate strip in Ladydrawers' "Growing Season" series investigating food policy, race and public health in comics form. It's a story that hits close to home for Anne Elizabeth Moore, who lives just a mile or so south of the Auburn Gresham neighborhood in Chicago. Sheika Lugtu doesn't live too far away either, so together we took an in-depth look at food options in Gresham, described as one of Chicago's many "food deserts" due to the scarcity of grocery stores. It's also considered one of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods - and these two descriptions are not unrelated.

As comics journalists, our reporting process involved meandering the long blocks between Gresham's food outlets, play areas and schools, and sketching what we encountered around us - including not only the understocked meat counters of the local food market but also the sites of gang violence.

The ethics of comics journalism are complex, particularly when addressing issues of structural violence and failed city food policies. Gresham residents face a daily lack of nutritional resources and local, acute violence - but how to picture it? And how to picture it fairly? (One of the few grocery stores accessible from Gresham is the one Moore shops at every week, so we can't pretend that these issues are in any way remote from the reporters' daily concerns.)

This first strip in our series of two presents issues of food access in Gresham. The next strip, the final in our "Growing Season" series, will uproot the links between food policies and street violence. As always, you can read all four seasons of Ladydrawers' strips here, or catch up on our most recent strip with Laura Ķeniņš, "What's in a Name?" - on the mysterious illness affecting workers of color in a hog-processing plant - here. Sheika Lugtu's last strip for us looked at how the most popular drug in the world, Humira, is afflicting people with a disease, lupus, which disproportionately harms women of color.

Click to open full-size in a new window.Ladydrawers: The Gresham Experiment


1. "Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago," Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group (July 18, 2006), 6. (accessed December 29, 2015).

2. Ibid, 17.

3. "Mayor Emanuel Announces Release of Food Desert Data and New Interactive Efforts to Combat Food Deserts in Chicago," Mayor's Press Office (August 27, 2013). (accessed December 29, 2015).

4. "Examining the Impact," 20.

5. Ibid, 26.

6. "Are You an Auburn Gresham Parent?" Auburn Gresham Portal (September 14, 2015). (accessed December 31, 2015).

News Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Oil Industry Caused 2005 Swarm of California Earthquakes

Oil and gas wastewater disposal has been tied to a series of earthquakes in California for the first time, in a peer-reviewed study published last Thursday.

A string of quakes ending on Sept. 22, 2005 struck in Kern County near the southern end of California's Central Valley - and the new study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, concluded that the odds that those quakes might have occurred by chance were just 3 percent.

Instead, the researchers honed in on a very specific set of culprits: three wastewater injection wells in the Tejon Oil Field. Between 2001 and 2010, the rate of wastewater injection at that oil field quintupled, and up to 95 percent of that wastewater was sent to just that trio of closely-spaced wells, the scientists noted.

The largest of the earthquakes in the swarm measured magnitude 4.6 on the Richter scale meaning that the quakes were relatively small, unlikely to have done any damage to buildings but significant enough to be felt by those in the area.

To be sure, natural earthquakes have always far outnumbered human-caused quakes in California - but the researchers warned that even if the number of industry-caused quakes is small, wastewater injection could be responsible for larger, more dangerous quakes in the future.

"Based on our empirical results, injection-induced earthquakes are expected to contribute marginally to the overall seismicity in California," the researchers from the California Institute of Technology, University of California, University of Southern California and two French universities, wrote. "However, considering the numerous active faults in California, the seismogenic consequences of even a few induced cases can be devastating."

The researchers also warned that the number of California quakes tied to oilfield activities has been little-studied compared to other parts of the country and that natural quakes may have "masked" the oil industry's impacts.

The findings drew an immediate response from environmental groups.

"The more oil companies frack and drill, the more wastewater they inject into disposal wells near active faults," Shaye Wolf, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement responding to the new research. "That's an absolutely unacceptable risk in our earthquake-prone state."

For years, federal scientists have known that wastewater injection has caused earthquakes in Oklahoma - a state that before the shale gas rush experienced just a two or three earthquakes over magnitude 3.0 a year, but in 2015 recorded over 840 quakes that size, some as large as magnitude 5.6 (ten times the size of California's largest human-caused quake).

But the connection to California - which for years was the nation's most earthquake prone state until Oklahoma's sudden surge in quakes knocked California down to second place - is new. And unlike Oklahoma, where the recent tremors have so far caused property damage, California has a long history of natural earthquakes powerful enough to kill.

At the end of January, the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed to stop approving new offshore fracking operations along California's Pacific coast, part of a deal with environmental groups that had sued over the agency's failure to adequately measure the environmental risks, including the potential harm to endangered species, from permitting fracking at sea. Oil platforms have been allowed to legally dump up to 9 billion gallons of wastewater annually into California's ocean.

The drought-plagued state has paradoxically grappled with a flood of oil and gas wastewater in recent years. California's drillers annually pump out billions of barrels of wastewater, much of it laden with corrosive salts or carcinogens like benzene.

And while much of it is disposed of through wastewater injection, water shortages have created a market for drillers to treat that waste and sell it to farms where the food people eat is grown. "In central California's San Joaquin Valley, Chevron piped almost 8 billion gallons of treated wastewater to almond and pistachio farmers last year," Bloomberg reported in July. "California Resources Corp., the state's biggest oil producer, plans to quadruple the water it sells to growers, Chief Executive Officer Todd Stevens told investors at an April conference."

Even as the industry has experimented with other disposal techniques, wastewater injection has spiked. Since 1995, the amount of wastewater injected underground in California has roughly doubled, from under 20 billion gallons a year to nearly 40 billion.

In 2014, the California State Water Resources Board confirmed that over 3 billion gallons of wastewater tainted with fracking chemicals or other pollutants were injected directly into some of the state's underground water aquifers, which werepreviously clean enough for people to drink from, with the permission of the state's regulators.

The new study suggests that Californians may have more than water contamination to worry about from wastewater injection. The earthquakes struck near Bakersfield, CA - which is just 50 miles from one of the world's most notorious fault lines, the San Andreas fault.

In December, researchers from Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences announced the results of an investigation into human-caused earthquakes in Arkansas, finding that the more water is disposed at a given well, the stronger quakes become.

But, they added, at a certain point, there is likely to be a cap on how powerful an induced earthquake could become.

"The question becomes, Does it taper off at magnitude 3 or a more dangerous magnitude 6.5?" Prof. Jenny Suckale told the Stanford Report, as she described the findings in Arkansas.

The California study comes just two weeks after Canadian authorities shut down fracking at a well in Alberta over a 4.8 magnitude quake that struck near a town called Fox Creek. And in early January, Oklahoma was rattled by two quakes measuring 4.7 and 4.8 - some of the strongest quakes in recent memory.

The new publication drew the attention of federal earthquake authorities who said they found the tie between oilfield wastewater disposal and California's earthquakes credible.

"In California, of course, we have a lot of natural seismicity here, so it's much more difficult" to reliably connect quakes to human activities than in a place like Oklahoma, Art McGarr, US Geological Survey seismologist told the Associated Press. "Nonetheless, I think they made at least a fairly convincing case that these earthquakes were related to fluid injection."

News Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Squatter's Rights: Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Fight Over Omaha Tribal Land

"The White man made us many promises, and he kept but one. He promised to take our land and he took it." - Red Cloud

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Nebraska v. Parker, a case that will ultimately determine if the geographic boundaries of Indian reservations can be redrawn by judicial fiat, rather than by treaties that were enacted by Congress. Court observers say the case has grave implications for hundreds of tribes across the country in areas where non-Indians have taken up residence on their reservations.

Tribal leaders say a decision in favor of the non-Indian settlers bringing this suit could set the stage for the continued diminishment of Indian lands.

The case began in 2004, when the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska enacted an alcohol beverage control ordinance regulating and taxing the sale of alcohol on its reservation-for which it had obtained federal approval. The Omaha Indian Reservation is mostly in Thurston County, but also has sections in four other counties. Prior to this ordinance, said Omaha Tribal Chairman Vernon Miller, the tribe had passed several sales taxes with no complaint.

In 2006, the tribe notified the seven liquor stores in the town of Pender (population: 1,000) that they would have to pay tribal licensing fees and a 10 percent liquor tax to continue to operate on the reservation.

In 2007, however, the town of Pender and the liquor stores sued the tribe in federal court, asking the court to declare that Pender, which is the county seat, is not within the boundaries of the Omaha Reservation because, they allege, the Omaha Act of 1882 ratified by Congress "diminished" the reservation borders.

The Omaha and their attorneys argue that only Congress has the authority to establish or redraw the boundaries of Indian lands, and that no records from the federal government or the State of Nebraska show that reservation boundaries have ever been changed. Further, they contend that numerous subsequent state and federal legislative actions reaffirm that Congress never expressly authorized the diminishment of Omaha lands.

For decades, in fact, both Thurston County and the Town of Pender boasted that they were on the Omaha Indian Reservation, according to tribal officials-until their liquor store owners were asked to pay taxes. Within months, they said, Pender sued the tribe and began describing itself in court documents and in print as a "predominantly European-American" community.

Arguing for the state of Nebraska, solicitor general James Smith began by alleging that the disputed area on the Omaha Reservation had "always" been non-Indian.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg challenged Smith's assertions by going straight to the heart of the case. "You are arguing for a de facto diminishment test," said Ginsburg. "That is, you pointed out the area has been overwhelmingly populated by non-Indians and they haven't attempted before to exercise governing authority."

Smith replied that diminishment of the reservation fits within the three-part test established by Solem v. Bartlett, a 1984 Supreme Court case which determined that opening up Indian lands for white settlement does not constitute Congressional intent to reduce or "diminish" tribal reservations.

Under this argument, Smith was seeking to establish that because the "facts on the ground" had changed under white residency in Pender, the boundaries of the reservation had also changed and that title to the land should be conferred to meet the "public expectations" of its new inhabitants-in spite of the fact that Congress has never expressly consented to redrawing the reservation map.

"And so obviously we would not be opposed to the Court concluding and reaching this decision on the grounds of de facto diminishment," said Smith. "[I]f you're looking at intent of Congress, you should be looking at what Congress is doing after the Act that is reflective of not understanding essentially that they've diminished the reservation."

Just because the town had been settled by non-Indians, said Justice Antonin Scalia, does not prove or create the legal diminishment of tribal lands.

Smith went on to assert a "long-standing assumption" of jurisdiction by the Nebraska over an area of reservation land that is primarily non-Indian – which Smith said created "justifiable expectations," of its non-Indian inhabitants and that if [the Omaha] ever had any sovereignty over it, they had long since forfeited."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor then referenced the petition before the court in which the Omaha had sought-and received-Congressional approval to impose the liquor tax.

As the justices and Smith went on to wrangle over which of several court precedents should be the determining test for the case, Smith concluded his argument by reiterating that the reservation should be diminished because it already had been diminished by white settlement.

Stepping to the podium next, Paul Clement, a former United States Solicitor General and senior fellow of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown, got straight to the point. "The question in this case is whether an 1882 Act of Congress diminished the Omaha Reservation and redrew its boundaries," said Clement. "We think multiple considerations make clear that the Act of Congress did not diminish the reservation, but simply opened up a portion of the reservation for settlement within the existing boundaries."

Therefore, he said, "...there is no language in the statute that supports a finding of diminishment."

Clement pointed out that a number of tribal members at the time of the opening of the lands also elected to take their allotments in the disputed area west of the now-defunct rail line-which would not have been possible if the land belonged to the state.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy inquired as to how many allotments were taken by Indians, with Clement confirming that 15 tribal members obtained allotments in an area which was predominantly settled by whites, which seemed to confuse Justice Kennedy as to the nature of the allotment process in the 1800s.

Later on in the arguments, as Clement pointed out to Justice Scalia that the previous ruling inSolem"went out of its way to not decide the diminishment issue," Justice Roberts interjected that the decision did talk about diminishment.

"And it seems to me that you've got to recognize when they do that, they're talking about something other than [rightful claim], in other words, pursuant to the law," said Roberts. "It's pursuant to the facts on the ground."

Allon Kedem, arguing on behalf of the United States, which has sided with the Omaha in this case, began his argument by citing the decision inSolem. "This Court explained that once a block of land is set aside as an Indian reservation, no matter what happens to the title of individual plots within the area, the entire block retains its reservation status until Congress explicitly indicates otherwise. It has not done so here."

Kedem went on to point out that the issue of diminishing Indian lands is not simply an issue of tribal sovereignty, but also the jurisdiction of the United States. Additionally, he pointed out 30 years of Nebraska revenue rulings that explicitly include Pender as part of the reservation, the legal definition of Thurston County which has never changed, and the failure of Nebraska's "Tipping Point" doctrine (a legal theory by which the percentage of land sales and/or population numbers may "tip the scales" toward non-Indian ownership of reservation lands) which has never been allowed by Congress.

"And finally," said Kedem, "I think this Court should be very reluctant to assume that Congress implicitly transferred any part of its authority to change the borders of an Indian reservation to private parties and made it contingent on what this Court inDakotareferred to as uncertain future sales."

Returning again and again to the current circumstances on the reservation, however, Justices Roberts and Kennedy pressed the issue of "facts on the ground" in reference to the rights of the non-Indian residents on the reservation.

Chief Justice Roberts told Kedem that there was nothing vague about white settlers flooding into the open portion of an Indian reservation and that the area in question had since lost its "Indian character."

"We have acknowledged that de facto, if not [rightful entitlement to the land by non-Indians] may have occurred," said the Chief Justice.

After the arguments, Chairman Miller, who attended the hearing with a delegation of councilmen and tribal members, said he was optimistic, but was concerned about the apparent lack of knowledge regarding tribal jurisdiction and federal Indian law which he said was evidenced by the line of questioning.

"I saw many issues being discussed today that had nothing to do with the issue at hand and I'm concerned about how this decision is going to affect Indian country if the State of Nebraska and the Village of Pender can suddenly decide they're not on Indian land," said Miller. "They talked about 'no Indian presence,' but I was born in Pender and their economy is just as dependent on our tribe as well."

Mitch Parker, the former Omaha chairman and tribal elder who is the named defendant in the case, was also at the hearing.

"I heard them say that the tribe acted 'unilaterally,' but I think they got it backwards," said Parker. "The tribe was already there; it is our land and the state and county did all of this on their own. And yet this is how we are treated. We have to remind the court that all of the land was owned by the Indians before anyone else was here-and we also have settled expectations. We made this effort because of our grandchildren. l don't want my grandchildren treated this way."

News Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Ordinary Americans Fought Big Money and Won in 2015

While there's a long way to go, the fight for a truly democratic, transparent, and accountable government won important gains last year.While there's a long way to go, the fight for a truly democratic, transparent and accountable government won important gains last year. (Photo: Protest crowd via Shutterstock; Edited: JR / TO)

Americans believe in democracy - and they're ready to reclaim it from the wealthy special interests that have grown ever-more dominant since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

The overwhelming majority of Americans agree that money has too much influence over elections, and that the system for financing political campaigns needs a radical overhaul.

Over 90 percent of Iowa caucus voters - in both parties - recently told pollsters they are unsatisfied or "mad as hell" about the role of money in politics.

It is a striking consensus that is overcoming partisan divides and sparking civic action across the country, as a new joint report by the Center for Media and Democracy, Common Cause, Demos, Every Voice, U.S. PIRG, Public Citizen, and People for the American Way highlights.

The report, "Our Voices, Our Democracy," concludes that while there's a long way to go, the fight for a truly democratic, transparent, and accountable government won important gains last year.

Winning in the Face of a Tidal Wave of Big Money

Record-breaking spending by a handful of wealthy individuals makes the problem seem insurmountable.

But activists and volunteers across the country fought back in 2015, winning some important fights and providing inspiration to pro-democracy activists everywhere.

In Seattle, the goal of citizen-funded local elections brought together a broad coalition of grassroots activists and organizations to put the "Honest Elections" initiative on the ballot. The measure won in a landslide. Nearly two-thirds of Seattle voters said yes to increasing public participation with an innovative program in which registered voters receive "democracy vouchers," four $25 publicly financed vouchers, that they can use to support candidates who agree to follow contribution and spending limits.

Maine voters loved their Clean Elections law so much that hundreds of volunteers and a bipartisan organizational network came together in an off-cycle election year to propose a ballot referendum to expand it: strengthening public financing, tightening requirements for donor disclosure, and increasing penalties for candidates that violate the law. The ballot measure passed handily.

These wins are part of a broader democracy movement that has been building since Citizens United. Over 5 million people have signed petitions calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. Sixteen states, more than 680 cities and towns, and a majority of the U.S. Senate in 2014 have called for an amendment.

Real Solutions to Reclaim Democracy

As the "Our Voices, Our Democracy" report makes clear, no single legal or policy change will win the fight for democracy overnight. Successfully fighting big money in politics will take concerted, long-term effort by a broad-based movement.

That's why more than 150 groups came together in 2015 to support a "Unity Statement of Principles," which describes the key features a democratic system should have.

With those principles in mind, thirteen leading democracy reform groups developed a set of concrete reforms, and a plan for making 2016 political candidates face the problem of big money.

Key elements of the Fighting Big Money agenda include:

  • Creating a strong small-donor public financing system
  • Ensuring meaningful contribution limits
  • Protecting the right to vote
  • Advancing campaign disclosure and transparency efforts
  • Overturning Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo through the Democracy For All constitutional amendment or by changing the Court's jurisprudence
  • Reshaping the way the U.S. Supreme Court views money in politics issues
  • Making sure lawbreakers are held accountable by replacing the Federal Election Commission with a stronger agency and encouraging the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute criminal violations of campaign finance laws

These changes can make a real difference.

Since 2008, for example, Connecticut has had a public funding option in which candidates for state office who raise funds from enough small donors, and abide by spending limits, receive public grants.

By 2014, 77 percent of candidates were using the program, and the benefits to responsive government and engaged citizenship have been impressive, according to a report by Demos. More people are becoming small donors, and more seats are competitive, because more people can afford to run for office. Candidates and elected officials spend less time fundraising and more time interacting with constituents, and they are less beholden to lobbyists and big donors.

Fresh Momentum in Presidential Election Year

The pernicious influence of big money on our political system is set to be one of the major themes of 2016, a presidential election year, and the issue clearly resonates with politicians and voters across the political spectrum.

Even billionaire reality star and Republican primary candidate Donald Trump agrees.

"I will tell you that our system is broken," Trump said in a GOP debate last August. "When [politicians] call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. That's a broken system."

In early primary states, organizations like New Hampshire Rebellion and Iowa Pays the Price have seized the moment by successfully using grassroots mobilization to push candidates to address money in politics. While neither Trump nor the other Republican candidates have released official platforms on the issue, several have expressed openness to possible reforms. Both remaining Democratic candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have policy platforms in line with the Fighting Big Money agenda.

From the 320,000 Washingtonians who supported a 2016 ballot measure to urge a Constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United, to the 79 percent of voters who approved a public campaign financing plan in Chicago, to the million-plus Americans who signed a petition asking for federal contractors to be disclose their campaign contributions, ordinary people all across the country are demanding their rights to open, honest, representative government.

News Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Mapping Study Pins Wild Bee Decline on Intensive Farming Practices

Researchers found that the crops most highly dependent on pollinators tend to experience more severe mismatches between declining supply and increasing demand.Researchers found that "the crops most highly dependent on pollinators tend to experience more severe mismatches between declining supply and increasing demand." (Photo: Luke Mackin / Flickr)

A national study suggests that intensive farming is perhaps the greatest danger to wild bee survival.

Led by University of Vermont scientist Dr. Insu Koh, the research team is the first to compare the species' population over time with the location of pollinator-dependent crops. The researchers found that between 2008 and 2013, the abundance of wild bees dropped in almost a quarter of the contiguous United States.

The study suggests that conversion of grassland and pasture to row crops is the driving force behind the disappearance of bees - not pesticides, climate change, or disease.

The researchers assembled a map to illustrate the areas most in danger, highlighting where the balance between crops in need of bees and the available bee population is unbalanced. A web app also depicts the data.

The counties on the map make up 39-percent of pollinator-dependent crop area. Even more concerning, researchers found that "the crops most highly dependent on pollinators tend to experience more severe mismatches between declining supply and increasing demand." 

For example, farmers who grow pumpkins, watermelons, pears, and almonds, are the most susceptible to declines in wild bee abundance.

This revelation, according to Dr. Koh, is the most surprising part of the study. In an interview, he predicts that if the trend continues, "we might lose some nutritious foods such as nuts and fruits. It also may impact our natural ecosystems because 70-percent of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators." 

There are quick solutions to the wild bee decline for farmers; more bees can always be brought in. But as demand increases, so too will rental fees for honey bees, and, in turn, the cost of produce like blueberries and apples for consumers. 

Dr. Koh says creating pollinator habitats near farmland can help support bee populations, but the study does not provide any statistics about how much of an impact neighboring areas for bees could have on dropping abundance, or how much habitat would be required to make an impact.

The researchers also uncovered some hopeful news: The decline in abundance of wild bees is not irreversible. They saw abundance increase in areas where crops have reverted back to grassland, such as where the US Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program has compensated farmers for allowing farmland to go fallow.

The study does not explore reasons for why bees are declining most heavily in areas where crops are most dependent on pollinators, but only that the phenomenon is occurring. Future research could look into the health of the bees themselves and whether the crops in question use similar pesticides or farming practices not used in areas where wild bee populations are more stable.

Future research avenues, according to Koh, might evaluate the prevalence of disease or pesticides in the areas experiencing wild bee decline, or if any species are replacing the wild bees. The study does not assess whether the correlation is unique to the United States, and does not evaluate what sustainable farming practices might be in use in these areas, or if there are any areas where wild bees are thriving. 

Building on these questions, the study is set to serve as a launching point for further investigation into causes of disappearance, and as a way to pinpoint locations to prioritize for examination and potential intervention. If the growth of intensive agricultural areas expands unchecked, Dr. Koh expects the bee shortage to only increase with time.

News Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Without Paper Ballots, Fear of Vote Rigging Clouds 2016 Primaries

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks during a primary campaign appearance at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Jan. 30, 2016. Rigging may not have occurred in the 2016 Iowa caucus - but without paper ballots, counted in public, and recounted or audited when necessary, there are no means to verify the will of the voters. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)Hillary Clinton speaks during a primary campaign appearance at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, January 30, 2016. Rigging may not have occurred in the 2016 Iowa caucus - but without paper ballots, counted in public and recounted or audited when necessary, there are no means to verify the will of the voters. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)

In Iowa, the Democratic caucus process, which did not provide voters with paper ballots, left many questioning whether Hillary Clinton really won. To protect the integrity of any election, officials should use paper ballots, counted in public and recounted or audited when necessary.

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks during a primary campaign appearance at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Jan. 30, 2016. Rigging may not have occurred in the 2016 Iowa caucus - but without paper ballots, counted in public, and recounted or audited when necessary, there are no means to verify the will of the voters. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)Hillary Clinton speaks during a primary campaign appearance at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, January 30, 2016. Rigging may not have occurred in the 2016 Iowa caucus - but without paper ballots, counted in public and recounted or audited when necessary, there are no means to verify the will of the voters. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)

"Something smells in the Democratic Party," blasted The Des Moines Register in a scathing February 5 editorial, after the unverifiable Iowa caucuses on February 1 ended in an inconclusive photo finish between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The Democratic caucus process, which did not provide voters with paper ballots, left many questioning whether Clinton really won, or whether the count was rigged to favor the insider establishment candidate by her supporters in the Iowa Democratic Party. Is Sanders' outsider campaign the victim of yet another example of the political "shenanigans" that seem to be a growing tradition in US party primaries?

The Des Moines Register, which has endorsed Clinton, took an applause-worthy stand of journalistic integrity (almost never seen) by questioning the voting process that benefitted its favored candidate.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."

"Clinton campaign officials are trying to shut down the questions, lashing out at Sanders backers for peddling conspiracy theories," reported the Register. "It also doesn't help the optics that the state party chairwoman drove around for years in a car with HRC2016 license plates," stated the Register's most recent article.

The Register explained that in the Democrats' caucus process, voters physically arrange themselves around the room to signal their support for a presidential candidate and are counted by precinct captains. It also noted that in six precincts ties were settled by coin flips, so that a handful of delegates were assigned by pure chance. The entire process made a recount impossible, and a Democratic official confirmed that there is also no recount provision.

A paper trail is crucial as a first line of defense against election mistakes or manipulation.

Hillary Clinton was quick to claim a victory, despite a hair-thin .02 percent margin, with many precincts still not having reported their count, as some party volunteers were reported AWOL on election night. Her campaign's rush to claim the throne only exacerbated cynics and prompted raised eyebrows. "Hillary Clinton won Iowa. End of story," declared Matt Paul, Clinton's Iowa campaign director. But for many voters, it felt like Florida in 2000 when Fox News prematurely called the election, prompting George W. Bush to claim victory and raising a storm of controversy.

The media have recently reported that after some investigation, the Iowa Democratic Party did discover errors in the results from five precincts, but they insist the outcome of the caucuses remains the same, with Clinton winning by a quarter of a percentage point.

Sanders' campaign initially demanded to see the official state counts, but was denied. Sanders later decided that it was impossible to really determine who won, and politely called the contest a draw.

The end result reminded election defense activists of the Republican caucus in 2012, where Mitt Romney was anointed the victor, but it was later discovered that Rick Santorum had actually won. In that contest, many believed that the GOP may have manipulated the reported vote totals.

In the final moments of the documentary movie Mitt, which covers his 2012 campaign, Romney makes an unusual comment, quoting an unnamed campaign member who said to him: "In some ways, we kind of had to steal the Republican nomination. Our party is Southern, evangelical and populist. And you're Northern, and you're Mormon, and you're rich. And these do not match well with our party."

Rigging may not have occurred in the 2016 Iowa caucus; perhaps the Democrats were simply "disorganized," as one party official claimed.

But there is an important lesson here, and we ignore it at the peril of the democratic process.

Paper Ballots: A Key Principle of Democracy

One of the key principles of protecting the integrity of any election is that officials should always use paper ballots, counted in public, and recounted or audited when necessary, and that a strict regime for ballot "chain of custody" should be applied. This was not followed in the Democratic Iowa caucus, and that's why mistrust and mystery still shrouds that election a week later.

A paper trail is crucial as a first line of defense against mistakes or manipulation. The party should have ensured that every precinct provided paper ballots and publicly hand-counted the original document on site; this is the only time-tested means of verifying the will of the voters.

The Republicans seem to have done better, in this regard. Video from some Iowa precincts on the GOP side shows caucus captains publicly sorting and counting paper ballots, and dropping them into different baskets for each candidate, with witnesses videotaping the count. This process was rudimentary, and for that reason it can be reasonably trusted. Ostensibly there is a paper record if questions arise. Beyond this, the paper record must also be made accessible as a public document and not kept secret by party officials.

Meanwhile on the Democratic side, a news video of at least one precinct shows a large group of voters, perhaps 200, raising their hands for a particular candidate, to be counted by an individual in order to achieve a final tally. The counter would then upload the final tally onto an application provided by Microsoft.

Reports were tweeted that the Microsoft system failed and was overwhelmed at times on election night. The cloud-based system controlled by a megacorporation is described as "secure" though - as with all private, computerized and online systems - there is absolutely no way for that to be true.

Democratic officials later admitted that they also did not have enough volunteers in every precinct, which prompted one commentator to quip, "If the Democrats don't know how to organize an election, how can they expect to rule the country"? The Iowa Democratic Committee and the Democratic National Committee have no one to blame but themselves for the fact that they conducted this first 2016 test of the presidential candidates in a manner that left doubts in voters' minds.

As this election season takes off in New Hampshire and South Carolina, it's important to learn what can be done better next time, and what pitfalls lay ahead in the primary season and in the general election where most votes will be counted by unverified, easily rigged electronic voting systems.

Where paper ballots still exist, voters and candidates should demand a public hand count at the voting precinct, before the ballots are moved. 

Whoever wins the election, we must be assured that their victory was indeed the will of the voters. 

News Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Regulating Banks vs. Displacing Them: Where Clinton and Sanders Disagree on Wall Street

Amid the campaign rhetoric, it can be hard to decipher how the Democratic presidential contenders would handle Wall Street differently, but Sanders' and Clinton's financial policies are far from the same.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont raises a finger to interject as Hillary Clinton speaks during their debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., Feb. 4, 2016. (Photo: Todd Heisler / The New York Times)Bernie Sanders raises a finger to interject as Hillary Clinton speaks during their debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, February 4, 2016. (Photo: Todd Heisler / The New York Times)

Neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton does a good job explaining how, substantively in terms of policy, they are different from one another on Wall Street reform. After heated exchanges in early February's pre-New Hampshire primary debate, we were left with the impression that both would break up big banks - commercial, investment or any other type of financial entity - and that Hillary Clinton is somehow vaguely dishonest because financial firms have enriched her both personally and politically.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, "Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016."

Yet their disagreement is fundamental. They believe in different roles for the financial sector in the economy. And, yes, campaign finance factors in heavily, as Sanders wants to radically change the financial institutions at the core of our financial sector, while Clinton, still surrounded by the same status quo corporate and investment banking advisers, wants to largely leave them be and regulate them more stringently.

Here's an attempt to set the record straight.

Bernie Sanders' Argument

Sanders claims that the financial sector, which has grown from about 3 percent of GDP in the 1950s to above 8 percent these days, has too much market power. Its market power, Sanders argues, translates into the political power that maintains the status quo of a giant financial sector dominated by a relatively few highly centralized and powerful players. Sanders often describes how the "six largest banks in this country issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards and over 35 percent of all mortgages," and that they "control more than 95 percent of all financial derivatives and hold more than 40 percent of all bank deposits."

At its core, Sanders' argument is that the financial sector, the heart of any economy, is not getting the job done.

At its core, Sanders' argument is that the financial sector, the heart of any economy, is not getting the job done. It generates immense profits for itself, but is a leech on the productive economy and, even worse, it does not invest in US economic development. We have 10 percent real unemployment and median wages have been stagnant for more than four decades. Yet, instead of investing in employment of Americans to produce the goods and services that the United States needs, the financial sector effectively takes our savings and invests them anywhere in the world, in any type of asset, with the primary aim of achieving the highest possible rate of return - the "invisible hand" theory of social welfare maximization run amok.

The international component of the financial sector is also key to Sanders' worldview and the direction in which he says he would focus his financial policies. International "free trade" sounds great in theory: Investment flows to economic activity offering the greatest financial return, regardless of place or industry, and maximum wealth is created as industries within different countries find their comparative advantage. But the theory completely misses how "free trade" works in our world, primarily because it focuses on aggregate outcome - wealth maximization - without thinking about how that outcome is distributed.

"Free trade" in the real world operates as economic imperialism by codifying the current market advantages held by US and other Western corporations. US corporations compete, absent any restraint, with industry in poor countries to extract the natural resources of those countries and then sell these resources back to them as manufactured goods, a "competition," it goes without saying, that US corporations will dominate. Adding insult to injury, this "competitive" arrangement is due in no small part to the historic inequity created by Western colonization of virtually all of what we now euphemistically call the "developing world."

This economic imperialism also works internally within the United States, as corporations outcompete small and medium-sized businesses - again, an obvious outcome - because small and medium-sized businesses lack the resources to compete in an economy defined by sprawling global supply and production chains, and purchasing and low-cost production advantages that come with scale. It is no accident that the Fortune 500 - the 500 largest US corporations - now account for 70 percent of US GDP. Investment regimes, domestic and foreign, that treat all economic actors the same - thereby implicitly hurting the weaker ones - are a key driver of the historic income inequality in our country and the world.

The shape of the international economy is not the natural "evolution and structure of the world economy," as The Washington Post editorial board would have us believe. It is the result of deliberate policies. This is why Sanders' enthusiastic opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is so important. Sanders has opposed every one of the new age "free trade" deals - including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and permanent normal trade relations with China - whereas Clinton has a mixed record. Clinton did not oppose NAFTA when President Bill Clinton signed it into law. She then voted against CAFTA as a senator, but touted the TPP as the "gold standard" on trade while she was US secretary of state, before coming around to oppose the deal in October 2015. Prominent corporate lobbyists, like US Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Thomas Donohue, do not believe Clinton would actually oppose the TPP if elected. The fact that much of the Democratic establishment is lined up behind President Obama in support of the TPP makes the Democratic nominee's commitment to opposing the deal that much more important.

Lastly, Sanders wants to tax the rich to produce the kind of economic development here in the United States that the financial sector has failed to finance. His infrastructure spending plan calls for the use of US capital to achieve US economic development, with development defined not as high profits for the investors of capital, but as high wages for workers and the production of goods we need at fair prices. Fair prices should be understood as the cost of production plus a reasonable profit, not the highest possible price that oligopolistic industries, such as the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries, can extract from us all.

Sanders also wants to empower the financial institutions that can normalize private sector investment in US economic development. These are the credit unions and community banks he has called the future of US banking. Ideally, Sanders would like to completely displace the giant financial firms that control investment in our society. This position is far different from Clinton's.

Hillary Clinton's Argument

Clinton's argument sidesteps all of this. She does not discuss any institutional alternatives to the finance giants, like credit unions and community banks. And her plan for reform is built around regulation, suggesting she thinks that the financial sector, in its chief capacity as director of national economic investment, is doing just fine.

Clinton offers systemic risk as the only justification for breaking up any of the big financial institutions. The problem with the financial sector, for Clinton, is the chance that its risk-taking in the name of profit will produce another 2008-type run on credit markets. While a huge problem, obviously, it has nothing to do with the way the financial sector drives the production of national and global income inequality.

Clinton's financial sector reform plan does nothing to increase investment in the productive US economy.

The key reforms of the Obama years - Dodd-Frank, including the Volcker Rule; (some) regulation of derivatives; and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - all leave the financial sector status quo intact while attempting to regulate some of the industry's most socially harmful practices. More importantly, the reforms do nothing to reverse the financial sector's disinvestment in the productive US economy.

Clinton's plans similarly seek to regulate without attempting to change the way the financial sector allocates capital for investment. The main initiatives in her plan for Wall Street involve giving prosecutors more time to go after banks, taxing some high-frequency traders, keeping the Dodd-Frank financial reform in place, strengthening rules against risky hedge fund investments and regulating hedge funds.

If you leave the banks intact and don't try to bypass them in any way to invest in US economic development, then words about "income inequality" and "higher wages" are likely to remain just words - not so pragmatic after all. Clinton's financial sector reform plan does nothing to increase investment in the productive US economy, the key to increasing employment and raising wages.

Now, all of that corporate money Clinton takes is likely a huge part of why she does not speak about all of this. Clinton is not paid off and bought in a straight-up quid pro quo manner. But that kind of corruption is an awfully narrow understanding of the term. Clinton surrounds herself with corporate advisers. They are her economic teachers. Clinton seems unable to imagine how the corporation, as a highly centralized - and powerful - market actor, is the very thing that produces our highly centralized distribution of wealth.

Our political economy, the way we collect and mobilize our savings and economic surplus for investment, is both economically inefficient and immoral - and the financial sector is the driving force behind it. This is how the United States can be the richest nation in the world while whole cities and regions are crushed by the economic disinvestment of deindustrialization - and the accompanying poverty, stagnated wages and ever-rising prices of basic goods and services like health care and education.

Clinton is not bought by this political economy status quo. Almost as bad though, she is ideologically captured by it, a byproduct of surrounding herself with advisers educated only in the failed conventional wisdom.

Opinion Tue, 09 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500