Union of Concerned ScientistsScience and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Mon, 15 Jul 2019 16:25:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Science and Democracy – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 Trumpery, Codswallop, and this Administration’s Real Environmental Record https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/trumpery-codswallop-and-this-administrations-real-environmental-record https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/trumpery-codswallop-and-this-administrations-real-environmental-record#respond Mon, 15 Jul 2019 16:25:25 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66879

Earlier this month President Trump, surrounded by multiple Cabinet members, presented his administration’s environmental “accomplishments” in a speech to the nation. As noted by many fact-checkers, the president and his Cabinet made statements that were a series of half-truths, cherry-picked data, and outright fabrications.

One of my favorite words is “codswallop,” meaning nonsense. And a great synonym for codswallop is “trumpery.” I couldn’t have coined a better word myself to describe this ludicrous series of statements.

It is not insignificant that there were so many cabinet members in the room, including three who spoke (Interior Secretary Bernhardt, Energy Secretary Perry, EPA Administrator Wheeler, plus Mary Neumayr, director of CEQ). It is not clear why the other secretaries—Mnuchin, Azar, Chao, and Ross—were there. Maybe it was a slow day at Treasury, Labor, Transportation and Commerce. Or maybe it was just a way to stay out of the torrential rain that flooded DC that day.

Environmental action is too often pejoratively called “tree hugging,” when the reality is that it isn’t about that at all—it is truly about public health and safety. Protecting us from the health impacts of polluted air, water, soil, and oceans. Preserving natural systems to provide the critical services we need as a society (e.g. filtering water, buffering storms, sequestering carbon, providing food and recreation). And the loss of these “environmental” protections falls most heavily on the most vulnerable among us—the elderly, children, the poor, and communities of color.

Yes, this is a vital role of government—safeguarding our people. My colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists have written on many of the issues we are confronting where real federal government leadership, not Trumpery, is needed. The links below take you to a subsample:

Climate change

Trump’s speech falsely claimed the US federal government is leading the battle against climate change and its impacts. As recent Congressional hearings have shown, this is far from the case. And the consequences are dire for our economy, our security, and human health. To make real progress, we need to heed the international scientific advice on climate change, aggressively pursue carbon sequestration policies, and reverse the administration’s actions on greenhouse gas emissions.

We need our government in both branches to enact national standards to make the transition to low-carbon energy. Some states, like Maine, are leading the way, but we need the federal government to get with the program. And we need to recognize and act upon the fact that energy poverty afflicts poor Americans with a heavy burden. We have many of the tools to change our energy system if our leaders will only help get us there.

Some members of Congress have stepped up, with innovative proposals for a Green New Deal (which bears no resemblance to Trump’s description of it). This is a real opportunity to address climate change, environmental justice, and economic growth, if only our leaders can push ahead, not backward.


Cars and trucks are a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. It is clear that the brunt of that pollution falls on poor communities and communities of color. Even as Transportation Secretary Chao and WPA Administrator Wheeler are trying to roll back fuel economy rules, Congress is pushing back.

The future of transportation is electric as our electricity system moves to zero carbon. Freight transport is a big part of this picture, and again, the tools are available if our leaders would only aggressively lead the changes we need.

Air pollution

Air pollution kills. Trump and Wheeler were right when they said that we have made enormous progress as a country in reducing air pollution since the 1970s. That was accomplished by strong legislation, good regulations, and efforts to enforce the rules. What they left out was that this administration is working hard to dismantle many Clean Air Act protections by rolling back rules and sidelining science. Overall, Administrator Wheeler and his team seem to want to move the agency backward, not forward.

Because we have worked so long and so hard as a nation to reduce air pollution, we know what needs to be done if we had leaders who would step up to the problem, not deny it. Tightening standards based on science, evaluating regulations based on benefits to the public and not just costs, addressing ongoing issues such as cross-state pollution, and monitoring and enforcing the rules rigorously. Congress needs to step up and insist upon rigorous implementation of the Clean Air Act and other laws. And our agency leaders need to take the public interest as their mission, not industry convenience.

Other pollution issues

While the President and Administrator Wheeler touted their work on Superfund site clean-up, the reality is rather different. Even the shining examples the President listed—West Lake landfill in St. Louis and the Kalamazoo River papermill in Michigan—are not completed, nor will they be in the near future. In addition to rampant conflicts of interest, the Trump Administration has dramatically cut the budget for the Superfund program and reduced enforcement and accountability for industry, and the Superfund office has been hemorrhaging staff under Wheeler. And ignoring the impacts of climate change on Superfund sites adds to the mess.

What is really needed is a reinvestment in Superfund itself, a renewed effort to hold polluters accountable for legacy toxic waste, and prioritizing overburdened, vulnerable communities. And planning for the severe weather events and other impacts that climate change is bringing.

Similarly, on water pollution, chemical safety, and toxic substances, Congress has pushed forward, but the administration has sidestepped the law. Congress needs to hold their feet to the fire and make sure real progress is made on these critical public health issues.

Federal science and scientists

Real leadership to protect the public interest and public health and safety would ensure that our federal scientists continue to be at the top of their fields, their advice is valued and critical to policy decisions, and that political interference that censors science is stopped in its tracks. That’s not the record of this administration. Simply put, you cannot serve the public unless the professionals in our federal agencies are supported and listened to, young talent is joining public service, and policies are shaped with the best information possible.

We need real environmental leadership in the federal government

All the Trumpery aside, we as a country clearly have a long way to go on a wide range of public health and environmental issues. We need to move forward and address the many challenges we face, new and old. The Trump Administration’s approach is seemingly predicated on the false assumption that we have no more public health and safety challenges to address and it is time to take a step back. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Reinvigorating our democracy means reinvigorating the approach the federal government takes to serving the public interest—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To do that will take real leadership, not Trumpery. My colleagues and I will keep writing about what this administration is doing. We will also continue to write about what needs to be done. And when we do, we will call upon the American public to raise their voices—tell this administration that backtracking on public health and safety will not stand. Call on Congress to exercise their constitutional duty to oversee and as needed push back on the Executive branch. You are the constituents they are duty bound to serve, so speak up! Contact our federal agencies, submit formal comments on proposed actions, reach out to your elected representatives. We can help alert you to what is happening, but democracy is not a spectator activity. Democracy is a verb—something we all must do , not watch while shaking our heads.

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10 Ways Andrew Wheeler Has Decimated EPA Protections in Just One Year https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/andrew-wheeler-decimated-epa https://blog.ucsusa.org/elliott-negin/andrew-wheeler-decimated-epa#respond Mon, 15 Jul 2019 13:30:29 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66811
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signs the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule, replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that would have reduced coal-fired plant carbon emissions. Photo: EPA

On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The next day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.

The good news, if there is any, is that Wheeler is an Eagle Scout compared to his ethically challenged predecessor, Scott Pruitt. The bad news is, as predicted, Wheeler has been more effective than Pruitt in rolling back and eliminating EPA safeguards.

My organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has compiled a list of 80 Trump administration attacks on science since taking office, and Wheeler has been the driving force behind many of them. Below are 10 of the more egregious ways he has undermined the EPA’s time-honored role to protect public health and the environment so far.

1. Sidelined scientists

Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, has taken a number of steps to systematically reduce the role of scientists in the agency’s policymaking process. Last fall, for example, he eliminated the agency’s Office of the Science Advisor, which counseled the EPA administrator on research supporting health and environmental standards, and placed the head of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave. He also disbanded a 20-member scientific advisory committee on particulate matter, or soot; failed to convene a similar panel on ozone; and packed a seven-member advisory committee on air quality standards with industry-friendly participants.

2. Proposed to restrict the use of scientific data

Claiming his intent is to increase “transparency,” Wheeler is promoting a rule Pruitt proposed that would dramatically limit the scientific studies the agency considers when developing health standards. If adopted, the rule would restrict the use of scientific studies in EPA decisions if the underlying data are not public and reproducible, which would disqualify many epidemiological and other health studies the EPA relies on to set science-based public safeguards. Given that EPA health standards often rely on studies that contain private patient information, as well as confidential business information that cannot be revealed, the rule would significantly hamper the agency’s ability to carry out its mission. Wheeler plans to finalize the rule sometime this year.

3. Gutted the coal ash rule

The first major rule Wheeler signed as acting administrator refuted his claim that he could fulfill President Trump’s directive to “clean up the air, clean up the water, and provide regulatory relief” at the same time. By rolling back the Obama-era coal ash rule, Wheeler provided regulatory relief to his old friend the coal industry by weakening environmental protections established in 2015 to clean up coal ash ponds, which are laced with toxic contaminants that leak into groundwater. The move was a top priority for coal baron Bob Murray, owner of Murray Energy, Wheeler’s most lucrative client when he worked for the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.

Coal-fired power plants have been dumping this residue from burning coal into giant, unlined pits for decades. According to the EPA, there are more than 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, and a recent analysis by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project found that 91 percent of the coal plants filing monitoring data required by the 2015 rule are polluting water with unsafe levels of toxic contaminants. Wheeler’s EPA says the new rule—which extends the deadline for closing some leaking ash ponds and allows states to suspend groundwater monitoring and set their own standards—will save utilities as much as $31 million. But the agency ignored the enormous costs of cancer and neurological and cardiovascular diseases linked to coal ash ingredients, which include arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.

4. Recommended unsafe levels of drinking water contaminants

Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are used in firefighting foam and a variety of nonstick, cleaning, packaging and other household products, have been linked to thyroid disease and kidney, liver, pancreatic and testicular cancer. According to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University, these chemicals threaten the drinking water supplies of an estimated 19 million Americans. A 2018 Union of Concerned Scientists report, meanwhile, found that PFAS water contamination at 130 military bases across the country exceed the 11-parts-per-trillion safety threshold determined by the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Nearly two-thirds of the sites had contamination that was more than 100 times higher than the safe level.

In February, Wheeler announced the “first-ever nationwide action plan” to regulate PFAS chemicals in water, saying the agency would develop and set a limit for two of the most prevalent PFAS chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. During the announcement, he told reporters he believes the agency’s voluntary 70-part-per-trillion health-advisory level for the chemicals is “a safe level for drinking water,” despite the fact that this level is more than six times higher than what the Disease Registry considers safe.

While Wheeler slow-walks the EPA’s response, members of Congress have introduced at least a dozen bills to address PFAS contamination, and the Senate recently passed a defense bill that would require the EPA to set a science-based standard for PFAS in drinking water.

5. Rolled back Clean Water Act protections

Clearing up a decade-long dispute over the scope of the Clean Water Act, the Obama EPA adopted a broad, science-based definition of the law that included protecting intermittent and ephemeral streams and wetlands that do not have surface water connections to other waterways. A 2015 EPA meta-analysis of more than 1,200 peer-reviewed studies concluded that even infrequently flowing small streams and isolated wetlands can affect “the integrity of downstream waters.” Trash them and that pollution could wind up in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and estuaries.

Regardless, Wheeler announced plans during a December telephone press briefing to reverse the Obama EPA definition of waters protected by the Clean Water Act, a thinly disguised gift to land developers and the agriculture industry. When asked what wetlands would no longer be protected, Wheeler replied, “We have not done … a detailed mapping of all the wetlands in the country.” Likewise, EPA Office of Water head David Ross—who represented industry clients against the EPA before joining the Trump administration—told reporters on the call that the agency had no idea how many streams would be dropped from Clean Water Act protection under the proposal.

In fact, Wheeler and Ross were well aware of the damage their new definition would do. At least 18 percent of streams and 51 percent of wetlands across the country would not be covered under their proposed definition, according to an internal 2017 slideshow prepared by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers and obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.

6. Suppressed an inconvenient formaldehyde report

Last August, Wheeler disingenuously told a Senate committee that the EPA was holding up the release of a report on the risk of cancer from formaldehyde to confirm its veracity. “I am sure we will release it,” he said, “but I need to make sure that the science in the report is still accurate.”

In fact, the report—which concluded that formaldehyde can cause leukemia and nose and throat cancer—was completed by EPA scientists a year before Wheeler testified, according to a Senate investigation, and their conclusion was hardly a surprise. Both the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the US Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program have already classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen.

The EPA’s review process normally takes 60 to 90 days. The formaldehyde report has been in limbo for at least a year and a half, a blatant giveaway to the American Chemistry Council, the US chemical industry’s premier trade association, which has blocked tighter restrictions on formaldehyde for decades.

7. Ignored EPA scientists’ advice to ban asbestos

Instead of heeding the advice of agency scientists and lawyers to follow the example of 55 other countries and ban asbestos completely, the EPA announced in April that it would tighten restrictions on asbestos—not ban it—despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its dangers. Manufacturers will be able to continue to use the substance if they obtain EPA approval.

Asbestos has not been produced in the United States since 2002, but is still imported for use in a wide range of commercial and consumer products, including auto brake components, roofing, vinyl floor tile, fire-resistant clothing, and cement pipes, sheets and shingles. One of the deadliest known carcinogens, asbestos kills nearly 40,000 Americans annually, mainly from lung cancer.

8. Weakened the mercury emissions rule

In late December, the EPA proposed to significantly weaken a rule restricting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by recalculating its costs and benefits. The Obama EPA, which issued the rule in 2011, estimated it would cost utilities $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually to install pollution controls and lead to $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits by reducing not only mercury, a potent neurotoxin, but also sulfur dioxide and soot, thus preventing 130,000 asthma attacks, 4,700 heart attacks, and as many as 11,000 premature deaths. The Wheeler EPA ignored the “co-benefits” of limiting sulfur dioxide and soot, and flagrantly lowballed the health benefits of curbing mercury alone at only $4 million to $6 million annually.

Most utilities have already complied with the mercury rule at a fraction of the estimated cost, but health advocates fear that this new, industry-friendly accounting method, which makes it appear that the cost to polluters far outweigh the rule’s benefits, will set a precedent for the EPA to sabotage an array of other public health protections.

9. Slammed vehicle emission rules into reverse

Last August, the EPA and the Transportation Department issued a proposal to freeze vehicle tailpipe pollution and fuel efficiency standards, rolling back a 2012 Obama-era rule requiring automakers to boost passenger vehicle fuel economy to a fleetwide average of 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “Make Cars Great Again” published a few days before the two agencies announced their proposal, Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao charged that the Obama-era standards—the first to limit vehicle carbon emissions—are too burdensome for automakers and “raised the cost and decreased the supply of newer, safer vehicles.”

Parroting the Trump administration’s line of reasoning, Wheeler and Chao argued that fuel-efficient cars—which weigh less than gas-guzzlers—are not as safe, a contention that has been widely debunked. In fact, a 2017 study concluded that reducing the average weight of new vehicles could result in fewer traffic fatalities.

In any case, freezing the standards at 2020 levels would be hard on the planet, not to mention Americans’ wallets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It would result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040, amounting to 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone—the equivalent of the annual output of 43 average size coal-fired power plants. It also would cost drivers billions of dollars. In 2040 alone, they would have to pay an additional $55 billion to fill their gas tanks. Meanwhile, the design improvements automakers have made so far to meet the standards have already saved drivers more than $86 trillion at the pump since 2012, and off-the-shelf technological fixes, the Union of Concerned Scientists says, would enable automakers to meet the original 2025 target.

10. Rescinded the Clean Power Plan

Perhaps Wheeler’s most damaging move to date came late last month when he signed a final rule to repeal and replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have required coal-fired power plants to dramatically cut their carbon emissions. Yet another gift to the coal industry, Wheeler’s so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule grants states the authority to determine emissions standards but sets no targets, leaving them the option to do absolutely nothing.

Before Wheeler released the final rule, an April study in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that his draft version would boost carbon emissions in 18 states and the District of Columbia and increase sulfur dioxide emissions in 19 states. The EPA’s own analysis of the draft rule, meanwhile, found that the proposal could have led to as many as 1,400 premature deaths annually by 2030 due to an increase in soot, and as many as 15,000 cases of upper respiratory problems.

Reversing decades of bipartisan protections

If Wheeler truly cared about transparency, he would petition the Trump administration to change the name of his agency to “Every Polluter’s Ally.” In just 12 months, he has killed or weakened dozens of safeguards with the sole intention of bolstering polluting industries’ profit margins even after Congress slashed the corporate tax rate. As a result, millions of Americans will be drinking filthier water and breathing dirtier air, and more will suffer from serious diseases, according to his agency’s own accounting.

Wheeler and his predecessor Pruitt have sullied the bipartisan track record of one of the nation’s agencies entrusted with protecting public health and safety. So it is little wonder that three former EPA administrators who, notably, served under Republican presidents, recently sounded the alarm on Capitol Hill, urging legislators to step up their oversight of the agency and denouncing its attempts to hamstring science.

“There is no doubt in my mind that under the current administration the EPA is retreating from its historic mission to protect our environment and the health of the public from environmental hazards,” former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who served under President George W. Bush, stated in her written testimony for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. “This administration, from the beginning, has made no secret of its intention to essentially dismantle the EPA…. Therefore, I urge this committee, in the strongest possible terms, to exercise Congress’s oversight responsibilities over the actions and direction of the EPA.”

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Two Major Takeaways from the Second Dietary Guidelines Public Meeting https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/two-major-takeaways-from-the-second-dietary-guidelines-public-meeting https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/two-major-takeaways-from-the-second-dietary-guidelines-public-meeting#respond Fri, 12 Jul 2019 20:37:36 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66905

This week, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee convened for its second public meeting at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The committee is charged with developing a scientific report that will lay the foundation for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—the ninth edition of science-based nutrition recommendations that shape the food choices made by millions of kids, parents, and seniors every day.

These meetings are designed with transparency in mind: their purpose is to grant public access to the deliberations of the full committee as it builds out research protocols and eventually shares its findings. Last week’s meeting was the second in a series of five, and the first of two opportunities for the public to deliver comments to the committee in person.

And while this week’s public meeting made it crystal clear that the committee of experts is putting in hard work, there were also clear signs of the ways in which this work has been constrained by the Trump administration, including agency Secretaries at the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These are our two major takeaways from the second public meeting of the committee.

1. It’s clear that the committee is putting in the work

Anyone hoping to see committee members clashing ideologies or lobbying for their diets of choice would have been disappointed. The committee, of which 16 of 20 members were present, engaged in substantive discussions for the better part of six hours. Each subcommittee delivered a presentation outlining the questions it was tasked with answering, as well as the research protocols that subcommittees have developed to begin to answer those questions. (These are available online, and will be updated with each subcommittee’s progress.) Some committee members, like Dr. Joan Sabaté, raised larger questions about the core focus of the guidelines—for example, is their objective to promote good health, with a focus on foods, or good nutritional status? But the majority of the questions posed throughout the course of the day were procedural. Things like, how do we make sure we’re including the right variables and setting the correct criteria to get the best results? Or, how can we better coordinate across subcommittees to ensure consistency? From where I sat, both the technical expertise in the room and the collaborative nature of the work—among committee members and USDA staff alike—were visible from start to finish.

2. It’s also clear that this work has been constrained by the administration

Even with the full dedication of the committee, the resulting scientific report—and the Dietary Guidelines issued thereafter—is likely to fall short of its full potential to promote public health. That’s because the Trump administration has hamstrung this committee at two critical junctions in its work: it preselected the questions the committee would address, and it limited the scope of research the committee could use.

The selection of research questions is the step that can put the rest of the Dietary Guidelines process on the right path. After all, there are hundreds of ways our diet can affect our health, and exponentially more questions about how and why. If I eat more fruits and vegetables, am I less likely to get cancer? Which types of cancer? Can I drink alcohol if my child is breastfeeding? If so, how much is safe? Choosing and prioritizing these questions so that the resulting research and recommendations maximize public health benefits is key. In previous iterations of the guidelines, the committee was asked to use its collective expertise to develop these questions. But in this cycle, the USDA and HHS developed the questions first. Though the agencies have claimed this was done to promote a deliberate and transparent process, it’s also clear that this move allowed the agencies to dodge controversial questions on topics like sustainability—with profound implications for public health.

The selection of the research that will be used to answer these questions is equally important. There’s a lot of nutrition research out there—not all of it good—and the committee needs to have the best information available to do its work. That’s why it was so puzzling when the USDA made an unprecedented decision to exclude one of four types of evidence previously used by Dietary Guidelines committees: systematic reviews from external groups. In other words, research produced by institutions like the World Health Organization—no matter how high the quality—can’t be used by the committee it to make recommendations. Instead, they will now have to rely on their own systematic review. The USDA addresses this protocol change on the Dietary Guidelines website, claiming that outside systematic reviews aren’t useful because they won’t directly address the questions the committee is considering, and won’t have the same criteria. Yet previous committees, which carefully screened external reviews for quality and relevance, were able to use these reviews to save time and more effectively address questions. In fact, the 2015 committee used such reviews and reports to answer nearly half (45%) of its research questions.

Though several comments from committee members alluded to the fact that topics had been predetermined before the committee selection, there was little mention of the limitations placed on external systematic reviews. As the subcommittees work with USDA staff to begin implementing their research plans, we’ll likely find out more about if and how this hinders the process.

The next chance to get a glimpse at the committee deliberations will be on October 24-25 in Washington, DC. In the meantime, you can learn more about some of the key science issues in the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—and how to weigh in with your own public comment—on our website.

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Don’t Fall for Atkins PR Ploy: For Healthy Diets, We Need Strong Government Support https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/dont-fall-for-atkins-pr-ploy-for-healthy-diets-we-need-strong-government-support https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/dont-fall-for-atkins-pr-ploy-for-healthy-diets-we-need-strong-government-support#respond Fri, 12 Jul 2019 16:07:21 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66902

Readers with an interest in food and health might have been intrigued by full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post calling for an overhaul of our nation’s official Dietary Guidelines for Americans. After all, as the ad argues, national obesity and diabetes rates have more than doubled since introduction of the Dietary Guidelines in 1980. They must be doing something wrong.

The problem with this seemingly sensible appeal is that it is misleading—not the least for being led by a company, Atkins Nutritionals, with a clear conflict of interest in that its transparent intent is to drum up business by arguing for a shift to a dubious low-carbohydrate regimen. But moreover, the ad’s basic premise is flawed: if we just had better information about healthy diets, we would all be healthier. But there’s an obvious difference between knowing what to do and being equipped with the right environment, genes, gut microbiota, health care, resources, or social support to do it successfully. And obesity in particular is a condition with a complex etiology. The notion that we could have curbed obesity rates in recent decades with stronger dietary recommendations alone is both inaccurate and insulting to the millions of Americans who wage war against their weight each day.

The reality is, with some notable exceptions, we do have strong science-based dietary recommendations. Historically, the process for developing Dietary Guidelines has employed some of the most rigorous methodology available for reviewing scientific nutrition literature. If we’re doing something wrong, it isn’t that we’re publishing Dietary Guidelines that are woefully inadequate. It’s that the food industry spends billions of dollars annually to fight medical advice, nutrition recommendations, and common sense to promote their products at the expense of our health—Atkins being one of any number of examples—and by and large, it has done so unchallenged by the federal government.

There are hundreds of decision points between accessing information and acting on it. And in all the places we make decisions about our diets, from the cafeteria to the checkout lane, we are likely to find that industry is there to whisper in our ears. By comparison, the federal government has done very little to bridge the enormous gulf between the scientific recommendations contained in the Dietary Guidelines and the effective implementation of those recommendations. Although law requires that the official dietary guidelines be integrated across all federal agencies carrying out federal food and nutrition programs—programs used by approximately one in four Americans over the course of a year—there is little enforcement or accountability to ensure that this happens. Our country spends $3.5 trillion in health care costs each year, the vast majority of which are attributable to chronic disease. The government allocates no funding to the implementation of our federal nutrition guidance.

So, yes, we need to take drastic action to change the current trajectory of population health. But overhauling the Dietary Guidelines isn’t going to do it. To counter the market power and sophisticated techniques of the food industry to promote unhealthful eating, the public sector should be implementing measures commensurate with the gravity of our public health crisis—particularly when it comes to the industry’s deliberate practice of influencing lifelong eating patterns by heavily targeting their advertising to children. This starts with thorough integration of the Dietary Guidelines into public spaces where federal nutrition programs operate, but it should also manifest in stronger funding and support for policy, systems, and environmental changes within the private sector. Our health care system, in particular, would benefit enormously from greater investment in nutrition, both for the prevention and treatment of disease.

That’s the political economy of the matter.

Now, for the nutrition science. The ad calls for a “controlled carbohydrate eating approach” as a viable option for Americans. While there isn’t a set definition of a controlled carbohydrate diet, it sounds similar to carbohydrate counting—a legitimate dietary approach, endorsed by organizations like the American Diabetes Association, that can help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood glucose. If the Dietary Guidelines were designed to cater to different chronic disease states (and they’re not), this would be reasonable enough. Controlled carbohydrate diets would, indeed, be a choice for Americans with diabetes.

But the signers of the letter aren’t just talking about diabetes; they’re talking about obesity, too. Which makes me think they’re not really talking about carbohydrate counting; they’re talking about low-carbohydrate, or low-carb, diets. Which would make a whole lot of sense for a company called Atkins Nutritionals. Unfortunately, there have been mixed results at best on the efficacy of low-carb diets, particularly when it comes to long-term health outcomes. And even where research shows promising results, the success of the low-carb diet depends on what you put on your plate instead—and your ability to stick with it.

Don’t get me wrong: we have a complicated relationship with carbs, and it’s hurting our health. As a nation, we eat far too much refined grains and not enough whole grains. Research also suggests that highly processed foods—of which refined grains are a common ingredient—are also likely harming our health by promoting weight gain. But the answer isn’t simply to eat less. It’s also to eat better. Science continues to show that whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet, and can help prevent chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and—you guessed it—type 2 diabetes.

Readers concerned that their eating choices are their own business—and not any affair of the government’s—should reflect that the nation’s dismal public health status (intrinsically and by contrast with other wealthy nations) is both a first-order crisis as well as a massive market failure, reflecting the disproportionate power of industry messaging over that of the public sector. Trillions of dollars of profits are gained on one side and trillions of dollars of healthcare costs are lost on the other, not to mention the years and quality of lives lost. The market failure is clear in that—contrary to the expectation that in a market economy the best outcomes for all are produced with open competition and perfect information—in the real world, the more profit the food sector makes, the sicker we all seem to get. Per the social contract that undergirds all modern democracies, it is the proper role of government to step in when such obvious and catastrophic market failure occurs.

Rather than undermine or relinquish the rigorously evidence-based Dietary Guidelines—least of all in favor of a niche special-interest business—we should double down on the government’s role and responsibility to the public. As we and many others have documented, we must create social and economic conditions where access to nourishing food and routine physical activity result in default healthy lifestyles.


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PFAS Amendments Form a Blueprint for Remedying National Toxic Threat https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/pfas-amendments-form-a-blueprint-for-remedying-national-toxic-threat https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/pfas-amendments-form-a-blueprint-for-remedying-national-toxic-threat#respond Thu, 11 Jul 2019 17:42:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66886

The House of Representatives will vote today on the inclusion of several PFAS-related amendments to the House National Defense Authorization Act that will help us to understand the extent of the PFAS public health threat and its health impacts, limit current PFAS pollution, and clean up legacy contamination on DOD and Superfund sites and nearby communities. These are all commonsense measures that should have already been in place to protect us from these chemicals, but because of a failure of our regulatory system and industry hiding scientific data on its products, we have waited too long for policy remedies. The inclusion of PFAS amendments on the Senate and House versions of the NDAA are a great first step toward much-needed reform to remedy the PFAS contamination situation we find ourselves in today, and we hope to see the two chambers work together to form the strongest package possible in conference that then becomes law.

What would the bill do?

The NDAA is comprehensive legislation that funds the Defense Department, so the PFAS section is just a sliver of the law. The House and Senate versions of the NDAA have a lot in common but have different amendments tacked on that bulk them up. They both attack the PFAS problem from three key fronts:

Understanding the scope of PFAS contamination and exposure

The House and Senate versions both contain provisions that would improve government tracking of PFAS contamination and require blood testing for DOD firefighters. The Senate version of the NDAA includes legislation that would require that USGS and water utilities monitor PFAS contaminants in water. We recommend that the House version include amendments that would provide an additional $5 million for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) health exposure assessment (#518), expand water quality monitoring (#7), and create an online health database for military members (#165).

Regulating PFAS manufacturing, use, and disposal

The Senate version of the bill includes a phaseout of PFAS in firefighting foam by 2023 (which is a quicker phaseout than the House’s deadline of 2029), requires the EPA to set an enforceable standard for PFOA and PFOS within two years and that it list PFAS on the Toxic Release Inventory, which would require manufacturers to report discharges of the chemicals into the environment and notify communities. We recommend that the House version also include faster phase out of PFAS in firefighting foam (#512), a requirement for community notification of DOD PFAS testing (#94), set limits on PFAS discharges into drinking water supplies under the Clean Water Act (#665), and regulate the disposal and incineration of PFAS materials (#352).

Cleaning up PFAS contamination

The Senate version would require the Secretary of Defense to set up cooperative agreements with states facing contamination from military sites to remediate sites expeditiously. We recommend that the House version go a step farther by requiring that EPA designate PFAS as a hazardous substance, which would require responsible parties to clean it up (#537), hasten cleanup of military sites contaminated with PFAS (#538), and also charge GAO with studying DOD cleanup of PFAS-contaminated sites (#159).

What’s next for the bill?

The House will vote today on the inclusion of these amendments into its NDAA package. Once the House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the NDAA, they will have to conference the two bills to create a resolution that can pass both chambers in the fall and make its way onto President Trump’s desk. We are encouraging members of Congress to ensure that this version is as strong as possible and includes the best elements of both versions, including language classifying PFAS as a hazardous substance, listing it under the Toxic Release Inventory, and setting an enforceable standard for drinking water.

The fight continues

We are encouraged that there is bicameral legislation on the table which includes provisions that will help chip away at the PFAS public health issue and signal to the government that urgent action is needed. Communities impacted by PFAS contamination firsthand are tired of lip service—they just want clean water. EPA and DOD should be working tirelessly to understand how to detect PFAS, how to best clean it up and dispose of it, and how to mitigate related health impacts. EPA should also think about regulating PFAS as a class of chemicals rather than on a case by case basis, because as Linda Birnbaum (departing head of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences) affirmed in her testimony before the Senate this year, “approaching PFAS as a class for assessing exposure and biological impact is the most prudent approach to protect public health.” There is also much more than can be done with regard to detecting and regulating PFAS air pollution, testing and regulating PFAS presence in food byway of food packaging and through the use application of PFAS-containing sludge on U.S. crops, furthering research on health impacts associated with PFAS exposure and to develop safer alternatives to PFAS, and making sure companies are being held accountable for causing this problem in the first place. We will be pushing for continued policy fixes that incorporate the best available science on PFAS.

For now, we want the House version of the NDAA to be as strong as possible when it goes to conference. Call your representative today and tell them to vote in favor of amendments that will mean more action to protect us from PFAS.


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Censoring a Senior Analyst at the State Department for Telling the Truth is a Damned Shame https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/censoring-a-senior-analyst-at-the-state-department-for-telling-the-truth-is-a-damned-shame https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/censoring-a-senior-analyst-at-the-state-department-for-telling-the-truth-is-a-damned-shame#respond Wed, 10 Jul 2019 21:35:18 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66863
Image: C-SPAN

Think of it. You are an accomplished scientist in academia and decide to serve your country by going into public service. You do your job, advising the State Department, the Administration and Congress on critical security risks like climate change, based on a huge amount of well-established evidence. But then the White House censors your testimony to the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, apparently on the theory that if it doesn’t get in the Congressional Record the risks will dissipate. What do you do?

Dr. Rod Schoonover, a senior intelligence analyst at the State Department subjected to exactly those circumstances, today decided to resign rather than be prevented from doing the job he entered public service to do. Let’s be clear. His job was not to repeat political talking points for the Administration. There are plenty of political appointees in the federal government who can do that. That is their job. His job was to analyze information and tell the Administration, Congress and the American people what it means based on his scientific and intelligence expertise. And the information is telling Dr. Schoonover and many others inside and outside the US government that climate change poses grave risks to the country. The information basis? The US National Climate Assessment (here are three posts about it from my colleagues), produced by literally hundreds of scientists inside and outside of government.

Perhaps the White House is happy Dr. Schoonover resigned. But I am not. I don’t know him personally but certainly respect his expertise. And I believe the State Department needs such expertise. Our credibility in the world and our ability to build strong alliances depend upon it. We can’t deny fundamental evidence and expect others to take us seriously, let alone solve real problems. More importantly, I think the federal government broadly, in all its agencies, needs highly trained professionals who will put their skills to use for the American people. To tell us the truth, unvarnished by what is politically expedient. If our public policies and decisions are not based on science, they will be wholly political. That can’t turn out well.

No doubt Dr. Schoonover will go on to continue to do good work and contribute to science and society. And so will many other scientists and professionals at all stages of their careers. But we should be encouraging them to engage in public service. Censoring a senior scientist’s work does just the opposite. We all lose out. That’s a damned shame, on this Administration.

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Psychologists and Pediatricians Know that Families Belong Together: A Call to Action https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/psychologists-and-pediatricians-know-that-families-belong-together-a-call-to-action https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/psychologists-and-pediatricians-know-that-families-belong-together-a-call-to-action#comments Tue, 09 Jul 2019 20:18:42 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66806

As family medical and mental health professionals, society entrusts us not only to care for children, but to protect children when they are in harm’s way. It is for that reason, and simply as compassionate human beings, that we write with profound concern about the ongoing conditions for migrant children and families at the US border, from the ongoing horror of family separation to the deteriorating medical, physical, educational, and sanitary conditions of vulnerable families. We have watched countless families flee violence and danger, only to find themselves newly at risk at our borders. If anyone in our profession knew of children living in conditions that our colleagues have witnessed at the border, we would face professional sanctions if we failed to report our concerns to child protection services. 

We choose our vocations to protect and nurture children, the most important natural resource for any society’s resilience and sustainability. When we are not aiding children in danger, we work with them to develop resilience to overcome adversities and traumas that they may face. Yet perhaps more powerful than either healing or helping is to advocate for equitable systemic change that will minimize adverse childhood events and traumas.

This is important within, at, and even beyond our nation’s borders. Our work is to ensure that young people may grow up in healthier conditions to reach their full potential as thriving and contributing members of society. Addressing the human rights crises at our border and in the northern triangle, both of which US policy has and can impact, would prevent more of the horrors we have been seeing along the Rio Grande.

No Amount of Detention is Safe for Children

South Texas Border – U.S. Customs and Border Protection process unaccompanied children after they have crossed the border into the United States. Photo: US Customs and Border Patrol

The science is unambiguous that adverse events, including the conditions these families are fleeing and those at our borders, have a profound negative impact on emotional, psychological, and even physical development. While one only needs compassion and common sense to know that children need to be with their families, the scientific literature on attachment tells us the same thing. Children need the consistent presence of a caregiver to grow healthy, happy and resilient, and contribute to society.

The forced separation from caregivers is traumatic to children and families, as well as to many ordinary Americans who have witnessed the photos and heard the cries of the children coming through our screens. This is why in 2018 the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics called this policy “nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.” Similarly, psychological organizations have made statements condemning family separations and acknowledging the negative consequences and costs for families and for society down the road. This persistent “toxic stress” and Adverse Childhood Experiences disrupts development, causing profound and lifelong damage to the brains and bodies of young people, costing our society far more in the long run.  Recent news brings confounding and infuriating reports of physicians being unable to visit children in the facilities.

Aerial view of the detention facility in Yuma, Ariz. as part of an ongoing response to the current border security and humanitarian crisis along the Southwest border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Despite the 2018 executive order to end migrant child separation, each week brings still more reports describing significant numbers of children who continue to be separated and held in inhumane conditions. Despite the binding legal settlement requiring that children are held under safe and sanitary conditions, the reports show that children are deprived of basic necessities such as soap and toothbrushes. One 15-year-old girl described caring for another child, age 5, in the “Ice Box,” sleeping on a mat on a concrete floor, and saying “There are no activities, only crying.” As pediatric health care professionals, if we knew of children living in the community being treated this way, we would be legally and ethically obligated to report to child protective services for abuse and neglect. From the perspective of child welfare and professional ethics, why should it make any difference whether the treatment is at the hands of an abusive adult in the community, or at the hands of our own government? Even if instant reunifications were possible, the impact on traumatized caregivers and children would be lasting.

We must remember too that the current crisis exists in a larger context of  increasing racism in society, and increasing fear and dehumanization of immigrant and refugee children. Racism itself is a public health issue, impacting both physical and mental health, with the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine recently calling for adolescent health professionals to address racism and promote equity at the individual as well as societal level.

All of these refugees are members of the human family. Most Americans living today had trauma as part of their family’s immigration story. For most, that trauma began to heal, not fester once they reached American shores. One of the authors of this piece, Dr. Vo is the son of Vietnamese refugees, and his partner was a child refugee herself in the last century. The other author of this piece, Dr. Willard, had ancestors that fled economic and political hardship in the 19th century, his partner’s family escaped Europe during WWII. Their own experiences have motivated them to continue to make the US better for the next generation, and continue to ensure the promise of our nation.

In a deeper sense, this debate is about far more than soap and toothbrushes. Children need to feel loved, they need to feel cared for, they need to feel protected and safe. This is a fundamental human need, and one of our most sacred duties as professionals who care about children. What’s more, parents, and by extension, societies need to love and care for vulnerable, so that they may continue into the future.

Families Belong Together rally on the east lawn of the Iowa State Capitol. Photo: Phil Roeder.

Call to Action

With that, we call for an immediate end to the detention of migrant children. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has recently reaffirmed, no amount of detention is safe for a child. All children have the right to basic humanitarian standards including medical care, nutrition, and sanitation. Recent reports have suggested that doctors have not been given access to children under five to assess health conditions in some facilities. We ask for this in a nonpartisan spirit of inclusiveness and compassion for people on all sides of this situation, including the separated families, their loved ones and advocates, as well as those who are suffering even as they implement this inhumane policy.

We were raised learning that the American dream, for immigrants and residents, was a better life for your children. Harming children and families who are seeking safety hurts not only those seeking refuge, but all of us who believe in continuing to make America an idea and place we believe in.


Dzung X. Vo, MD, FSAHM, FAAP, is an academic pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine, an author, and a mindfulness practitioner and teacher. His clinical and academic work is founded on promoting resilience and positive youth development so that our young people can thrive and grow into contributing, caring adults. He is a Vietnamese American Canadian, the son of Vietnamese refugees, and a dual US and Canadian citizen currently living and working in Vancouver, British Columbia.  

Dr. Christopher Willard (PsyD) is a clinical psychologist and author educational consultant based in Boston. His clinical work and research primarily focus on resilience and mindfulness. He teaches part time at Harvard Medical School.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

US Customs and Border Patrol
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Happy Birthday America: The Census is Intact, for Now https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/happy-birthday-america-the-census-is-intact-for-now https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/happy-birthday-america-the-census-is-intact-for-now#respond Wed, 03 Jul 2019 20:17:06 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66765
Photo: spurekar/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

With news that the Trump administration has abandoned its attempt to place a citizenship question on the 2020 Decennial Census, the people of the United States received the best birthday gift they could hope for, averting a xenophobic and racist effort to disenfranchise millions of people of color by corrupting the nation’s largest civic event. Today we can all celebrate knowing that the oath that US Marshals first took in 1790, to complete “a just and perfect enumeration” of all persons, remains intact, thanks to the efforts of thousands of scientists, legal experts, and advocates. However, undercounts resulting from budget negligence and disinformation campaigns remain a serious threat to the integrity of the Census. Come 2020, we have to be more vigilant than ever to ensure that every voice is counted in order to stop the further erosion of our democratic infrastructure.

Why Trump abandoned his attempt to weaponize the Census

Of all his actions that undermine US democracy, corruption of the nation’s largest non-military exercise for discriminatory purposes would possibly have been the most destructive. The Census, in addition to determining the allocation of about $800 billion in federal program funding for medical services, schools, housing, and infrastructure, also provides economic data that shapes the function of the entire economy, and of course is used to allocate seats to the House of Representatives.

Recently revealed court records show that even before President Trump took office, officials involved in his transition team were figuring out how to place a citizenship question on the Census in order to minimize the voting power of Hispanics and be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” according to a memo from GOP demographer Thomas Hofeller, who had simulated redistricting plans using citizen voting age populations, rather than total population.

President Trump and Electoral “Integrity” Commission Leader Kris Kobach, who was eventually held in contempt of court for failing to notify voters of eligibility as Kansas Secretary of State

As soon as it was clear that Trump and loyalists like Kris Kobach, co-chair of the infamous (and quickly disbanded) “Electoral Integrity”commission, were serious about getting their citizenship question, supposedly for the purposes of better enforcing the Voting Rights Act, the scientific community took action: several former Census directors voiced their concern about the “huge, unpredictable consequences” that placing an untested question could produce, and leading scientific organizations and users of Census data, joined by the Union of Concerned Scientists, sent letters to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, explaining the importance of maintaining the scientific integrity of the nation’s most valuable data resource.

In March 2017, when Secretary Ross announced his intention to add the question, the civil rights community fought back: lawsuits were filed in several states and Congress held hearings, where testimony revealed that not only would adding the question likely result in an undercount of 5-12%, concentrated in hard-to-count and immigrant communities, but that the administration had no legitimate justification to add the question, given evidence that it would be more difficult to enforce the Voting Rights Act with such flawed data. Then last week, and shortly after the damning evidence of the Trump administration’s discriminatory intentions were revealed, the Supreme Court blocked the question from being added, based on its conclusion that the justification was “contrived.” President Trump initially responded by threatening to delay the Census until he got a more favorable decision, but administration officials declared that the Census forms were being printed without the question.

Serious threats to the integrity of the Census, and democracy, remain

After the initial surrender, President Trump has since contradicted his own administration officials, tweeting that “News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect, or, to state it differently, FAKE!”

The president has also abandoned the public justification for the question, resorting to his typical xenophobic vitriol:

“I think it’s very important to find out if somebody’s a citizen as opposed to an illegal. I think that there’s a big difference to me between being a citizen of the United States and being an illegal.”

It is beside the point that a citizenship question would not even determine whether a non-citizen is here illegally. We are likely to see much more of this language coming from the White House, with a clear intent of frightening immigrants and lowering their response rates, thereby amplifying the representation of Non-Hispanic whites in the census count and distorting the allocation of seats to the House of Representatives. The Census Bureau may even be planning to provide citizenship data to states from other administrative sources, in an effort to encourage the creation of citizen-only redistricting maps, mirroring the discriminatory intent of the Census citizenship question. The Supreme Court has been agnostic on the question of whether such maps would be constitutional.

A republic, if we can keep it

Finally, there will likely be a more coordinated effort coming from enemies of democracy within and abroad. Try searching #boycottcensus on Twitter and you will already find a large number of right-wing actors (and bots) urging conservatives, especially in blue states, to not take part in the Census.

This is the battle before us. Having preserved the integrity of the Census questionnaire (for now), it is time to ensure the integrity of its implementation. It is our largest civic event, derived straight from the Constitution: the snapshot of America that literally constitutes our numeric population, once a decade. Our Census is the technology that gives life to our constitutional protections, as the measurement of population traits is what allows political power to be allocated to us. To the degree that it is corrupted, so is our democracy.

Celebrate today, because we have earned it. And when the Census rolls out in 2020, we must work together to educate, organize and engage all our neighbors to take part, liberals and conservatives, citizens and non-citizens, to ensure that everyone is aware of their rights, especially those who have been systematically targeted by this administration in such an un-American fashion.

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The Supreme Court’s Partisan Gerrymandering Decision is Justice Scalia’s Last Laugh https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/the-supreme-courts-partisan-gerrymandering-decision-justice-scalia https://blog.ucsusa.org/michael-latner/the-supreme-courts-partisan-gerrymandering-decision-justice-scalia#respond Mon, 01 Jul 2019 14:52:25 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66692

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Rucho v. Common Cause that partisan gerrymandering claims present questions beyond the reach of the federal courts may signal the first time in the nation’s history that a majority of Justices have surrendered our most fundamental of constitutional rights, the right to participate equally in the political process, because “it has searched high and low and cannot find a workable legal standard to apply” in the dissenting words of Justice Elena Kagan.

Many scholars of election law and redistricting saw that it might play out this way. The majority decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, lays bare two crucial errors that we dedicated several chapters to in our book on Congressional redistricting and the courts, Gerrymandering in America. First, the majority failed to recognize the nature of vote dilution as it relates to partisan gerrymandering. Second, and as a result of the first error, the majority held fast to the false intuition that available standards and metrics, including responsiveness, asymmetry and proportional representation, are political or arbitrary rather than grounded in Constitutional protections. We cannot discern whether these serious errors by the Chief Justice were made because of an inability to comprehend the social science or a more deliberate path of willful ignorance.

The Rucho majority’s framing reflects the influence of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away in February of 2016, and clearly shaped their views on this matter. As a result, we have a decision straight out of The Federalist Society: a veneer of judicial restraint that masks an extraordinary and unprecedented exercise of political power from the least accountable branch of the Federal government. That being the case, we agree with the majority that citizens can (and must now) mobilize to enact reforms that our research shows can help compensate for the Court’s negligence.

The long reach from Scalia’s grave

In the last major partisan gerrymandering case,  Vieth v Jubelirer (2004) Justice Scalia (writing for the plurality) claimed that, unlike the “one-person, one-vote” standard in reapportionment cases, a majority rule standard (a majority of persons must elect a majority of legislators) could not be derived from any “constitutionally discoverable” right, because majority rule claims pertain to groups, not persons. The standard “rests upon the principle that groups (or at least political-action groups) have a right to proportional representation. But the Constitution contains no such principle.”

“Democracy Going” by JmacPherson (CC BY 2.0)

Chief Justice Roberts picked up right where Scalia left off: “Partisan gerrymandering claims invariably sound in a desire for proportional representation.” Roberts then declares that such claims reflect “a ‘norm that does not exist’ in our electoral system” and that “The Founders certainly did not think that proportional representation was required.” In Gerrymandering in America, we demonstrate that Justice Scalia and now Chief Justice Roberts, was and are incorrect to argue that a majority rule standard can only be derived from a claim to group rights and proportional representation. We show that the equal treatment of individual voters logically implies the majority rule standard.

Partisan vote dilution and equal protection

Chief Justice Roberts fails to see the equivalence between the one-person, one-vote rule and majority rule. On the one hand he acknowledges that vote dilution “refers to the idea that each vote must carry equal weight” and that the rule is “relatively easy to administer as a matter of math” for apportionment cases by requiring approximately equally populated districts. On the other hand, he claims that “It hardly follows from the principle that each person must have an equal say in the election of representatives that a person is entitled to have his political party achieve representation in some way commensurate to its share of statewide support.”

But it does. There is no way for equally weighted votes to produce the outcomes, including minority rule, that we frequently get from partisan gerrymanders. And while the intent of malapportionment or racial gerrymandering may differ from partisan gerrymandering, they all work through the same effect: vote dilution. Vote dilution, by whatever method or reason, can reach a point where it violates majority rule. And if the majority rule principle is derived from individual rights of equal protection, which it is, it is protected under the 14th Amendment. Not as a matter of political motivation, or precedent, but as a matter of math. This is a principle that the Founders, especially James Madison, understood. It is why seats in the House of Representatives are supposed to be allocated proportionally using the Census. But that’s another story.

The road to democratic restoration

Defenders of political equality and majority rule, the first principles of democracy, now bear the burden of securing them without federal judicial protection. In the states, grassroots organizing to legislate independent redistricting commissions, as well as multi-district, and yes, more proportional districting plans, can reduce partisan bias. And as the Rucho majority noted, several Congressional bills (the For the People Act, the Fair Representation Act) have provisions that could radically improve electoral representation. The time has come to take action.

The research team that wrote Gerrymandering in America includes me and the following scholars and experts:

Alex Keena – Virginia Commonwealth University
Alex Keena is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, where his research focuses on political representation, Congress and elections.

Anthony J.McGann – University of Strathclyde
Anthony McGann is a Professor at the School of Government and Public Policy in at the University of Strathclyde.  He is also affiliated with the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Sciences and the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine.

Charles Anthony Smith – University of California, Irvine
Charles Anthony Smith is Professor at the University of California-Irvine, where his research is grounded in the American judiciary.

This article originally appeared at the LSE’s USAPP – US politics and policy blog.

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The US Supreme Court Turns its Back on Democracy https://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/the-us-supreme-court-turns-its-back-on-democracy https://blog.ucsusa.org/ken-kimmell/the-us-supreme-court-turns-its-back-on-democracy#comments Fri, 28 Jun 2019 15:01:28 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=66680
Photo: Wikimedia

I will always remember where I was yesterday—the day the United States Supreme Court turned its back on democracy. I was in Birmingham, Alabama, ground zero in the fight for racial justice and democracy, on a tour through the south to speaking to churchgoers about climate change. And it was there I learned that the court had issued a decision that will go down in history as one of its most dreadful and infamous, on par with the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that sanctioned the Jim Crow laws that African Americans and others later opposed so bravely in Birmingham.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court held that federal courts can do nothing about extreme partisan gerrymandering, in which incumbents draw voting districts to ensure that the party in power stays in power indefinitely. With this decision, the court sanctioned an insidious practice in which politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around.

The two cases before the court clearly demonstrate the egregious nature of extreme gerrymandering. In the North Carolina case, the state legislature and governor enacted a redistricting plan designed to ensure that ten of thirteen of North Carolina’s congressional seats went to Republicans, even though Democratic candidates typically receive about half of the votes statewide. The architect of the redistricting plan was crystal clear on the intent:

We are “draw[ing] the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats because [I] d[o] not believe it[’s] possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.” I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

In Maryland, the mapmaker working on behalf of the Democrat-led legislature and governor was given two instructions—make sure that seven of Maryland’s eight congressional districts would be held by Democrats, and that all incumbents were protected.

Both of these gerrymandering efforts, aided by advanced computing technology and granular voting data, worked exactly as planned.

The lower courts struck them both down, and the Supreme Court took the cases ostensibly to decide when partisan gerrymandering goes so far that it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, which “guarantees the opportunity for equal participation by all voters in the election” of legislators.

Despite the long line of precedents striking down racial gerrymandering and requiring one-person-one-vote when drawing districts; despite the obvious way in which extreme gerrymandering denies voters the right to elect representatives of their choice; and despite the fact that the political system cannot be expected to remedy itself, the court essentially threw up its hands and claimed that it was beyond judicial capability to draw the line between permissible and unpermissible gerrymandering.

Not only is this rationale utterly unbefitting of the goals and grandeur of the US Constitution and the historic role the federal courts have played in enforcing it, it is simply incorrect, as my colleague Michael Latner points out.

As the dissenting opinion forcefully puts it, “for the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities. And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.”

What we must do

If there is any silver lining to this blatant judicial abdication, it is this: voters now have no choice but to demand a political remedy to this problem. They can do this at the voting booth by supporting candidates committed to drawing fair district lines. They can support ballot initiatives that take the power of districting out of the hands of elected representatives (in states that allow it). And they can support democracy reforms at the federal level, such as HR 1, which requires states to establish independent commissions to draw district lines.

Unless and until this happens, we can continue to expect a government that is unresponsive to the will of the voters. This means gridlock and excessive partisanship on all of the issues of our time, including issues that UCS focuses on—climate change, nuclear weapons, food sustainability—as well as so many others such as immigration, gun control, and health care.

In Birmingham, those who fought for civil rights had the US Constitution and the federal courts on their side. Tragically, in today’s battle for democracy, we do not. It means we simply must fight harder.

Photo: Wikimedia
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