Writings and observations

Jane Lubchenco

Jane Lubchenco

The Northwest hasn’t picked up many spots on the top level in the Obama Administration – none of the full cabinet posts. The top appointment is for administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that may not be such a minor thing.

President-elect Barack Obama had a few words about that appointment in today’s radio/video address:

Finally, Dr. Jane Lubchenco has accepted my nomination as the Administrator of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is devoted to conserving our marine and coastal resources and monitoring our weather. As an internationally known environmental scientist, ecologist and former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Jane has advised the President and Congress on scientific matters, and I am confident she will provide passionate and dedicated leadership at NOAA.

Unmentioned there was that she is a professor at Oregon State University (did a presidential brother in law have some peripheral involvement there?). Her university web pages note that she is the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology and a professor of Zoology. A descriptive line says she “is an environmental scientist and marine ecologist who is actively engaged in teaching, research, synthesis and communication of scientific knowledge.”

You can see some of that fitting into one of the major themes Obama has been developing, an emphasis on science and scientific training; today’s weekend address was all about that. And at a point when climate change is going to be driving a lot of policy, a NOAA administrative stands to be a good deal more than just a manager of weather stations. More specifically, Oregon has been in the middle of a string of new developments that relate to just that – wind energy, ocean-wave energy development, a governor’s push to use the state as a major electric car staging ground – and Lubchenco’s role could have a measurable effect on all those things.

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Washington statehouse

All those stories you see about newspaper cutbacks are far from academic or theoretical: They directly affect what you know, and directly affect any attempt to keep watchdogs on the people and organizations in power. That point comes home strongly in a Seattle Times article out today.

There were in 1993 some 34 full-time reporters at the Washington statehouse at Olympia, many of them from newspapers around the state. That number fell in half by last year, and couple drop below 10 next year – a stunning fall of more than two-thirds in 16 years. Papers like the Vancouver Columbian, whose circulation area takes in upwards of a third of a million people, will have no one watching their delegation or local interests at Olympia. The Tacoma News Tribune has gone from two (full time) reporters to one, and the Times itself from three to one.

Whose interests are being served by that?

The situation seems to be less severe in Oregon and Idaho, which at this point may have larger statehouse press corps for population size than many states do – albeit not large.

Jeff Mapes of the Oregonian wrote us, “I don’t think it has been as dramatic in Oregon. We have just about the same coverage of the capital as before. It’s a little hard to count, though, because we have people shuttling in and out of Salem because it’s relatively close to Portland. During the session we’ll probably have a half dozen people doing some legislative coverage, but there will probably just be three there full time.”

In Boise, veteran Statehouse reporter Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review indicated change hasn’t been drastic, but it has been happening:

“We’re about where we were last year in Boise, but we’ve seen a gradual drop over the years. The Idaho State Journal in Pocatello and the CdA Press stopped sending a reporter last year, the same year I lost my intern and the Statesman went down to one full-timer. (The Press hired a freelancer last year, but didn’t this year.) AP has downsized its Statehouse presence to two full-timers, one an intern, as of last year. And the only broadcast media with full-time presence at the Idaho statehouse any more is Idaho Public TV. The commercial TV and radio folks still show up, but don’t maintain a fulltime presence.”

Fingers crossed, then, that we’re finding a floor here, rather than about to crash through a new lower level . . .

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Idaho Oregon Washington

You may have noticed that we’ve done a little sprucing up, code-wise. We’ve operated with a sound WordPress package for more than three years, but we haven’t upgraded its core engine in all that time. So things have become increasing scratch/patch. And after a while, a little shaking out helps.

What’s here is, for the most part, much like what was here yesterday – from many of the basic elements, you can see this is still Ridenbaugh Press. But there’s been a little reworking under the hood, and will be a little more. The site’s purpose and content, though, go on.

Let us know what you think.

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This is hard winter in the Northwest. Minus 6 at Burns today. At our headquarters, the backstreets were snow-covered from early morning on; the highways were worn down, but looking treacherous.

We were lucky. Spokane was buried under two feet of snow – to the point that simply moving around at all became a questionable thing. Most of North Idaho was hardly better off. And the snow storms, while not especially fierce, are beginning to feel never-ending.

Here a couple of snow pictures from around the region, from Chiloquin (about a half-hour north of Klamath Falls) and from inside Seattle, where this kind of snow isn’t such a commonplace matter.

snow at Chiloquin

Snow at Chiloquin/Joanne Lipsiea

And at Seattle . . .

snow at Seattle

Snow at Seattle/Nancy Kool

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The Northwest figures prominently in the end of year awards by national political analyst Stu Rothenberg. Assessing all the races around the country, he put some of the Northwest’s key contests into top-of categories.

“Master of self-destruction” – Departing Idaho Republican Representative Bill Sali is a finalist: “That leaves me with having to choose between Sali, who would have been re-elected indefinitely if he had made any effort to get along with people, and Mahoney [Tim Mahoney, D-Florida], the hypocrite’s hypocrite. Tough call. I can’t make it. How about calling it a tie?”

“Strongest Republican Swimmer Against the Tide” – Returning Washington Republican Representative Dave Reichert. “Reichert has turned back two strong challenges in terrible environments in a swing district that has gone Democratic at the presidential level . . .”

“Time to Stop Running” – Nominee, Idaho Democrat Larry LaRocco. “LaRocco’s last two showings suggest that maybe running statewide in Idaho isn’t his best option.”

“Biggest Long-Shot Winner” – Nominee (without comment) Democrat Walt Minnick, who ousted Sali.

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Idaho Washington

Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden

BACKGROUND Not a lot of U.S. senators (there have been more House members) have actively called for investigation into the activities of the Bush Administration. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is one of them, pursuing – often individually – an inquiry into decision-making at the Department of Interior.

This week, on hearing that Colorado Senator Ken Salazar would be named Interior secretary, Wyden said that would be a good pick. (He and Salazar have worked together on several topics, often energy-related.)

He also, in speaking to Oregon Public Radio, added this: “The Obama Administration will have considerable follow-up work to do, given what [Interior official] Julie MacDonald did to hot-wire too many of these Endangered Species decisions to satisfy her political agenda.” And he said the investigation into the department’s activities should be expanded. A new, comprehensive report on just that, developed at Wyden’s instigation, was just released on Monday. (It takes something to get Wyden, normally diplomatic, to speak this way: “This report makes it crystal clear how one person’s contempt for the public trust can infect an entire agency.”)

Last of

three posts.

That isn’t the outline of a legislator content to take a comfortable path, now that his side is – after a long haul in the minority – running things.

He could go to work on a wide range of subjects. According to Wyden’s office, his focus will be on:

· Jobs and the economy – Senator Wyden has been very aggressive in calling for creating more family-wage jobs through greater federal spending on infrastructure. He made that very clear during a tour of the state in the two days following the general election, saying the Congress needed to make an infrastructure stimulus package the first order of business when the new Congress convenes in January.

· Health care – Senator Wyden is a going to be a major player in the debate over health care. His Healthy Americans Act has significant bipartisan support, which means he and the other co-sponsors will be deeply involved in Congressional efforts and efforts by the White House to reform America’s health care system to give people universal coverage that is affordable, available and portable.

· Forestry – Senator Wyden is prepared to introduce legislation that will require increased thinning of overgrown stands of federal timber while protecting old growth stands. The believes that thinning second-growth trees in Oregon’s national forests will put people back to work in mills while creating healthier, more fire-resistance forests.

· Alternative energy – Lower gas prices should not create a false sense of confidence. We still need alternative energy and Oregon is perfectly situated to become the green energy jobs capital of America. Senator Wyden believes Oregon has the work force, the locations and the technology to attract and retain alternative energy employers.

On Monday, speaking at Grants Pass, Wyden reportedly focused on Healthy Americans, infrastructure modernization and forest issues (the latter being a key in that region’s economy).

Early indications are that health will be one of the first major agenda items on table for the new Obama Administration, and Wyden has been taking steps to jump into the middle of that activity. From the Jeff Mapes blog on the Oregonian site, on November 21: “Wyden had breakfast Thursday with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who has reportedly been tapped to be Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services secretary. And on Friday, Wyden released a letter to Obama signed by the 15 co-sponsors of his bill – seven Democrats, seven Republicans and one independent – laying out their principles for health-care reform.”

If health care is to be fast-tracked, Wyden will have to be one of the main players.

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REPORT The antecedents of this political blog run back, through intermittent gaps, back to about 1994 – it has been Ridenbaugh Press since the beginning – and that surely makes it one of the older blogs, online years before the term “blog” was born. Even many of the leading national blogs have been around less a decade; many of the highest-traffic have six or seven years of existence. The medium of blog is in its infancy.

Newspapers were at that stage in the 1700s, especially the later part of that century and the early years of the one following, and in those days they looked and read a lot differently. Facts were interspersed among opinions and aphorisms, and the people now revered as founding fathers were targeted with mud that makes even our recent elections look sickly sweet. Routinely, writers on matters public used pseudonyms, even when almost everyone knew who they were anyway. Ben Franklin probably fooled none of his neighbors masquerading as Silence Dogood. Eventually, newspapering became a bigger deal and a more established deal, and professional standards tended to rise. No regulation was necessary.

Stephen Hartgen

Stephen Hartgen

Newly-minted Idaho state Representative Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, is a former publisher and editor of the Twin Falls Times News, and other papers around the country before that; and just about everyone who wrote an opinion for those papers – like other conventional daily papers – had to sign their name to what they wrote. (Excepting of course the “institutional” editorials, which as at many other papers bore no signature and were often strongly worded indeed, but we’ll move past that.) As the Idaho Statesman‘s Kevin Richert wrote some days ago, Hartgen “is drafting a bill to require bloggers to post under their real name, and require online commenters to do likewise. In essence, Hartgen wants online commentary to more closely resemble newspaper opinion pages, where letter writers are generally required to identify themselves.”

Newspapers as they are now, that is. Except for the “institutional” unsigned editorials.

How far such a measure would get is unclear. Probably Hartgen will get some sympathy from some other legislators, though whether they’d want to undertake this particular crusade is more doubtful. Especially as the near-impossibility of enforcement, and the likelihood of an overturn in court, becomes clear.

Maybe – and this would be more understandable – Hartgen’s point simply is to draw some attention to the matter of anonymity, to the point that debate can be a race to the bottom if you don’t have to show your face before hurling invectives. We’re not entirely unsympathetic there; this blog encourages commenters to use their real names, or something close to them. But in common with most blogs, we don’t require it; engaging in the debate generally seems worth the lack of knowing who the person is. (Personally, we tend to take arguments more seriously when we do know who is behind them. Our guess is that we’re not alone in this, and that may be one of the self-correcting factors in the arena over time.)

Hartgen certainly has riled the blogosphere, though. Richert, a long-time newspaper guy (who once worked for Hartgen), registered his disapproval. Conservative blogger Adam Graham (who’s far from anonymous, and who in general is likely to agree with Hartgen on many other matters) pointed out the tradition of pseudonyms, and closed with the thoughtful suggestion that “the way to combat bloggers you don’t like is by encouraging a wider circle of people to become involved, not regulating the heck out of it.”

A sound enough point, but the definitive smackdown of the real-names-leads-to-civility argument comes from Goldy (a nom de blog, but very widely known in Seattle and beyond to be David Goldstein) at Horse’s Ass: “See, I’ve never blogged anonymously, and I have absolutely no problem sticking my name on a post, no matter how uncivil, ugly or inflammatory. So suck on that” – at which point he proceeds to show show what a highly visible, named blogger is fully capable of.

A serious suggestion: Hartgen, who has been a journalist for many years, definitely ought to join the growing number of state legislators who blog. Under his own name, of course. We’d bookmark it.

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READING The deal announced today between Avista (once known more understandably as Washington Water Power) and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe looks like a pretty big deal – among many other components, there’s something about $150 million changing hands over a period of years. Flying to some extent under the radar, this may be one of the key Inland Empire developments of the year.

A description from the Avista statement:

“Avista and the Tribe have agreed to support the issuance of a single 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the Post Falls hydroelectric facility and the Spokane River hydroelectric projects. The agreement also supports continuation of existing water levels on the lake. . . . The comprehensive settlement provides for payment over the life of the long term license of over $150 million both for environmental measures in and around Coeur d’Alene Lake and for compensation to the Tribe. Also addressed are rights-of-way for transmission lines over tribal lands and future storage payments connected to a new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license for the Post Falls dam. Included in the settlement are provisions for Avista to make payments to the Tribe for past and future use of submerged Tribal lands and to satisfy Avista’s obligation to mitigate the impacts of the Post Falls dam on the Tribe’s natural and cultural resources on its Reservation.

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Wyden in Astoria

Ron Wyden

BACKGROUND When Ron Wyden was elected to the U.S. House in 1980, he arrived in counterpoint to a predecessor – Bob Duncan – who though also a Democrat had a very different take on legislating. He was not, generally, an activist on socially expansive legislation. Wyden, a co-founder of the Oregon Gray Panthers and a lobbyist and organizer on various legislative fronts, had other intentions for his office.

He took office at the launch of the conservative ascendancy, his early years at the height of Ronald Reagan’s popularity and with only the House in Democratic hands – and many of those Democrats of what now would be called the blue dog variety. The times for an activist Democrat were far from ideal.

Second of

three posts.

In contrast to many Democrats of the time, though, Wyden’s stance didn’t come across as defensive. (A supportive district back home probably helped.) In his pre-Congress activist days, he worked on measures not especially ideological but with a specific practical bent – a ballot issue to cut the cost of dentures, for example.

In the House, in the 80s, he dug into federal spending in sometimes obscure areas and pushed measures intended to foster competition in health care and change rules on federal reimbursement; there were specific, sometimes technical, regulatory changes related to business phone billing and computer crime and even baby formula, during the era of deregulation. He worked on federal legal backing for certain community health operations, to cut malpractice insurance rates. He found Republican alliances in measures to expand unemployment insurance (in cases where some of the money would go to business startups) and developed new incentives for investing in low-income housing. The Almanac of American Politics in 1988 said that “he approaches issues with an almost child-like wonder but works out solutions that are politically shrewd and make sense as policy.” A fair number of these ideas cleared the House.

In the Senate his pace seemed to accelerate. He worked on Internet anti-censorship measures, restricting gag rules by HMOs and other measures of seemingly technical but actually wide-ranging import. With conservative Idaho Senator Larry Craig, Wyden pushed through federal payments to rural counties, maybe the piece of legislation each senator is best known for in the region.

In the current term (the two-year cycle now ending), with Democrats again in the Senate majority (narrowly), Wyden pushed out a series of initiatives, though even in that changed circumstance he has made a general practice of finding Republican support to more or less evenly balance the Democratic. From the descriptions on his web site:

The Healthy Americans Act: Following 60 years of gridlock on a desperately-needed overhaul of the nation’s health care system, Senator Wyden has unveiled a groundbreaking proposal to provide affordable, high quality, private health coverage for everyone regardless of where they work or live.

The Credit Card Safety Star Act of 2007: Working to give consumers the tools to make informed choices about complex credit card agreements, Senator Wyden introduced the “Credit Card Safety Star Act of 2007.” The legislation creates a five-star safety rating system for credit cards in order to increase the transparency of credit card agreements and encourage issuers to abandon abusive practices by offering consumers fair terms they can understand.

The Fair Flat Tax Act of 2007: Senator Wyden offers major tax relief for America’s middle class by making the 1.4-million word U.S. income tax code simpler, flatter and fairer.

Lewis & Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act of 2007: Working for the permanent preservation of an additional 128,600 acres surrounding Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, Senators Wyden introduced the “Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act of 2007.” The legislation builds on previous efforts to establish a Mount Hood wilderness area, incorporating comments from over 100 community groups and local governments, members of the Oregon Congressional delegation, the governor and the Bush administration.

Oregon Forest Restoration and Old Growth Protection Act: Striking a balance between the need to sustain forests, as well as bolster the economy, Senator Wyden has proposed an expansive overhaul of federal forest practices in Oregon. This initiative would permanently end the logging of old growth trees, discourage clear cutting, and place a new emphasis on greatly expedited, large-scale forest restoration efforts to improve forest health and create thousands of new jobs.

Wyden-Grassley Staff Discussion Draft Oil Speculation Tax Proposal: In an effort to reduce excessive speculative trading in oil and other commodities, Senator Wyden, a member of the Senate Finance and Energy Committees and the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), are circulating a staff discussion draft of tax fairness legislation today that would end lucrative tax breaks that speculators enjoy by taxing all the profits they earn on the oil commodities market at the same rate as ordinary income.

These measures have been making their way gradually through the Senate, blocked in part by single senator (such as Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn and Mount Hood) and in some cases by the slow accretion of support. Wyden generally seems to have approached them as works in progress, moving toward a completion but by way of accumulating support.

Conditions will change, however, in 2009, as the Obama Administration moves in and Democrats pick up stronger control of Congress.

[concluding tomorrow]

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Kachinas/Linda Watkins

READING The comparisons between this period and the onset of the New Deal are probably overstretched, but some specific counterparts are arising – take for example what you might call Grid 2.0.

The old version (1.0) was the massive damming of the Columbia River, the immense hydropower project that transformed the Northwest. Now, there may be something new. From an Associated Press piece just out: “there’s talk of another major public works project for the Northwest, one that would deliver green wind power to the Interstate 5 corridor and, by some estimates, help create 50,000 jobs.”

In theory, it could plug into the current Bonneville Power system and then expand it, dramatically. And the amounts could be substantial; already, as the article notes, enough wind power is being produced to power two Seattles, and twice as much capacity is in the pipeline.

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