Briefly

Stuff that matters


Reverse Robin Hood

Barring a miracle, Republicans will cut food for the hungry.

Congressional Republicans have wanted to slash the food stamp program for a long time, but for the last eight years President Barack Obama mostly stood in their way.

Now, that restraint has been replaced with a goad. Trump announced plans for even deeper cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) last month. Those cuts could come this year in a budget bill or next year when legislators craft a new farm bill.

Under Obama, SNAP survived with relatively small cuts, but even those were enough to affect lives. Consider the woman Arthur Delaney found for a story in the Huffington Post:

“After those changes, Judy Beals of Belleville, Wisconsin, saw her benefit drop from $120 per month to $16 ― the minimum benefit. The 67-year-old retiree said she’s been eating once a day.”

Some 43 million people receive food stamps, roughly one out of every eight Americans. Cutting money from food stamps likely means many more of them will have to skip a meal.

If there’s any silver lining for the poor here, it can be found in improving economic conditions. There are some 8 million fewer people struggling to feed their families than when Obama first became president.


'tis NOT the season

California is preparing for a weekend of wintertime wildfires.

That’s weird, because the state is technically in the middle of its rainy season right now.

The last few weeks have seen devastating fires in Southern California. Now forecasts show extreme fire risk extending north to the Bay Area, where rainfall has been less than 25 percent of normal since mid-September. According to the National Weather Service, “any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly.”

In Santa Barbara, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, conditions are even more dire. The Thomas fire, now the fourth largest fire in state history, has already consumed more than 250,000 acres — an area nearly the size of L.A. itself. The current forecast shows at least three major wind events in the next week, which could fan the flames even further.

Smoke from the fire has turned the skies orange and caused air quality to plummet, prompting surreal scenes of surfers donning gas masks.

Southern California hasn’t received significant rainfall in more than 250 days. It’s now the 12th consecutive day for extreme fire conditions — an all-time record for any time of the year. That all this is happening in December, during what is normally the peak of the rainy season, is truly remarkable.


Big Brother

The EPA hired a ‘war room’-style media monitoring company.

Because that’s not weird or hostile at all.

As Mother Jones reported Friday, the EPA signed a $120,000 contract (using taxpayer money) with the opposition research firm Definers Corp. earlier this month.

Definers brings hawkish political strategies to the public relations services it provides to corporations and nonprofits. “At the heart of the Definers Public Affairs’ system is our information operation — our media monitoring and rapid response mechanism known as the War Room,” the company advertises. “A War Room offers the flexibility and dynamism necessary for robust intelligence gathering.”

Not only does the company monitor news coverage, it also claims to “build and influence media narratives, move public opinion and provide powerful ammunition for your public relations and government affairs efforts.”

Definers has deep Republican ties. Its current president, Joe Pounder, was previously research director for the Republican National Committee. Its founder, Matt Rhoades, led Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. After that campaign, Rhoades launched America Rising, which the Wall Street Journal called “the unofficial research arm of the Republican Party.”

EPA spokesperson Nancy Grantham told Mother Jones, “The Definers contract is for media monitoring/newsclip compilation.”

Sounds like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s plan to sway public opinion by speaking almost exclusively to right-wing media wasn’t working out as he’d hoped.


#MeToo

More than 10,000 Interior employees say they were harassed or intimidated.

In a survey released Thursday, about 35 percent of Interior Department workers reported experiencing harassment or intimidation at work in the past year. Eighty-five percent of respondents said they had to continue working with the person responsible for the harassment.

The survey collected employee responses earlier this year, several months before the recent avalanche of sexual harassment allegations in the United States. Eight percent of employees surveyed — nearly 2,400 people — reported sexual harassment.

For perpetrators of harassment, consequences were often lacking. Even though 76 percent of respondents said they took action when they saw an abuse of power, 40 percent said the person they told didn’t act or that they felt pressure to stop bringing up the issue.

Over the years, the Interior Department has seen a pattern of harassment. Thirteen female National Park Service employees wrote a letter of complaint alleging harassment and sexual misconduct in 2014.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke fired four senior managers for misconduct on Thursday, and threatened to remove hundreds more if necessary. “Intimidation, harassment, and discrimination is a cancer to any organization. However deep it goes, we will remove it from Interior,” he said in a video posted on the agency’s website.


Industry-fiendly

Trump’s pick to head chemical safety at the EPA is no longer in the running.

Michael L. Dourson faced bipartisan opposition from senators because of his close ties to the chemical industry.

Emails obtained by the New York Times from Greenpeace show hundreds of pages of correspondence between Dourson and individual chemical companies whose products were up for review by the EPA. Plus, Dourson founded a consulting firm in 1995 that produced complimentary studies for chemical companies in exchange for payment.

Dourson also recently worked to defend a carcinogen called trichloroethylene that’s currently up for EPA review. As head of the chemical safety division, Dourson would have made the final call on the decision.

Two Republican senators from North Carolina, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, announced they would not support Dourson’s nomination in October. “With his record and our state’s history of contamination … I am not confident he is the best choice for our country,” Burr said in a statement.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, also said she was leaning against Dourson.

Dourson withdrew his name from consideration on Wednesday, but he was already working as a senior adviser to the agency while his confirmation was pending. It’s unclear whether he will continue to do so.


scorched earth

One-third of forests aren’t growing back after wildfires.

Forests in the American West are having a harder time recovering from wildfires because of (what else?) climate change, according to new research published in Ecology Letters.

Researchers measured the growth of seedlings in 1,500 wildfire-scorched areas in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Across the board, they found “significant decreases” in tree regeneration, a benchmark for forest resilience. In one-third of the sites, researchers found zero seedlings.

The warmest, driest forests were hit especially hard.

“Seedlings are more sensitive to warm, dry conditions than mature trees, so if the right conditions don’t exist within a few years following a wildfire, tree seedlings may not establish,” said Philip Higuera, a coauthor of the study.

Earlier this month, a separate study found that ponderosa pine and pinyon forests in the West are becoming less resilient due to droughts and warmer temperatures. Researchers told the New York Times that as trees disappear, some forests could shift to entirely different ecosystems, like grasslands or shrublands.

You’d think the rapid reconfiguration of entire ecosystems would really light a fire under us to deal with climate change, wouldn’t you?


de-newable energy

The Republican tax bill could lead to major job losses across the U.S. renewable industry.

Federal tax credits are essential to driving growth in the United States’ wind and solar energy industries. Those credits, which were first introduced in 1992 and only stabilized in 2015, are now on the chopping block.

The government has a long history of subsidizing major industries, from food to fossil fuels. The renewable energy tax credits were supposed to apply through the year 2020, but the GOP tax bill (both the House and the Senate versions) suggests modifying provisions that were key to driving growth in the industry. That could seriously undermine future investment in solar and wind projects, as well as jeopardize existing projects that rely on credits for energy they produce.

And reneging on the 2015 deal could result in significant job losses, too. The current House version of the tax bill would eliminate adjustments to inflation and accelerate the phase-down schedule of federal tax credits, putting 60,000 wind industry jobs at risk.

The House tax bill also would have terminated tax credits for electric vehicles and wind production, but the final compromise will keep those tax breaks, Bloomberg reports.

It’s still unclear what combination of the House and Senate bills will Frankenstein its way to President Trump’s desk, but it’s not looking good for the industry that has created jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the economy.