Thursday, January 31, 2013

Senate Approves Debt Limit Increase

Today the Senate approved a three-month suspension of the National Debt limit with a 64-34 vote, enabling the Treasury to continue borrowing money in order to prevent the U.S. from surpassing the debt limit until May 19th. ( Huffington Post )

This bill will help temporarily postpone another forthcoming debt crisis, and will also require the Senate to do some work as well. The new bill was passed on the condition that the Senate is forced to draft a national budget. If the Senate fails to write a budget,  the Senate member's'salaries will be withheld.

This  provision was presented by the House GOP to the Senate in order to force Senate Democrats to formally pass a budget resolution; which has not been done in the last four years.

"Because of the efforts of House Republicans, Senate Democrats are now required to do their job for the American people and pass a budget, or lose their pay. Now Senate Democrats should take the task seriously and present a plan that balances the budget and responsibly addresses the government's speding problem" - House Speaker, John Boehner

What do you think about the Senate's reluctance to pass a formal budget? Do you think that increasing the debt limit helps the U.S?

more information here and an awesome video explaining the U.S. debt limit

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords Speaks at Senate Judiciary Hearing

It's been two years since the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that had left six people dead and many others wounded. Among those injured was former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who has since then made a steady recovery after having been shot in the head.
ABC News reports that Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly spoke at today's Senate hearing regarding gun violence. Although it was difficult for her to speak due to the long-term effects of her brain injury, she made an amazing effort to express her opinion clearly and powerfully. "Too many children are dying " stated Giffords. "The time is now... [and Congress] must act".
Following Giffords was her husband Mark Kelly, who further expressed his and Giffords' opinions. He emphasized that the implementation of background checks for all persons prior to purchasing a firearm would ensure that a gun does not get into the hands of somebody who is mentally unstable. "Closing the gun show loophole and requiring private sellers to require a background check for they transfer a gun…I can't think of something that would make our country safer than doing just that," said Kelly. (abc news)
However Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, doubts the effectiveness of background checks, stating that "background checks will never be 'universal' – because criminals will never submit to them." He also continued to support the NRA's proposal to station armed guards at every American school to ensure safety.
What do you think about the proposals to control gun violence? Do you agree with either Kelly's or LaPierre's ideas? What do you suggest as a solution to control gun violence?
More information here, here and a video here

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

John Kerry Confirmed as Secretary of State

After much debate over the past few weeks as highlighted by the media, John Kerry was confirmed in as the new Secretary of State today by an overwhelming majority of 94-3. The 3 nay votes were all by Republicans. John Cornyn of Texas claimed that Kerry's views were "liberal" and "not consistent with a majority of Texans" tells Fox News.

Fellow nominee Susan Rice, the ambassador to the UN, had withdrawn her nomination due to mounting criticism from the Republicans, especially over Benghazi and comments she made on television post 9/11.

In his speech, John Kerry said he was pleased at the bipartisan support for his nominations. Other senators expressed their praise for Kerry and his work so far. Before accepting this position, Kerry worked for the US Senate since 1984. He was also a war veteran from the Vietnam War and received medals during that time as well.

Nominations for the department of defense and treasury have also been made. Chuck Hagel up for Secretary of Defense  and John Brennan for CIA director have been having a much tougher time than Kerry in securing their positions. More debate and deliberation is yet to come on both these nominations as well.

Now that the nomination has been secured, what are your thoughts on how John Kerry may fulfill his role? Will he be successful? Do you agree with his stance on any of the issues?

Read more about this topic here, here and here

Monday, January 28, 2013

Congress Passes Sandy Aid Bill

Nearly a month after the outrage against the Congress for failing to pass a Hurricane Sandy relief package, and three months after the hurricane itself, Congress finally passes a bill. $50 billion dollars have been allocated to help the states affected by this disaster.

There was debate from Republicans over how this would add to the national debt, but the Senate managed to pass it with 62-36 vote, after clearing the House. Fox news reports that all 36 votes against the bill were from Republican senators. An amendment to pay for the relief bill through more cuts was rejected.

The hurricane caused New York and New Jersey $42 and $37 billion dollar respectively. With the relief bill, the largest amount of money is allocated towards Housing and Urban Development by way of block grants. $10 billion dollars have been allocated for the purpose of repairing transport systems alone.

Read more here here and here.

While it is a little ridiculous that a relief package hadn't been provided much earlier, it is good to hear that they have finally gone forward with this measure. Despite Republican opposition, things have pulled through and the affected states can now truly be on a road to recovery. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Immigration Reform Bill in the Works in the Senate

Senate Majority Which Dick Durbin revealed Sunday that the Senate has been working on an immigration reform package, including a pathway to citizenship for illegal immgirants.

In the past, Republicans have shied away from immigration reform, especially that which involves legalizing the illegal immigrants, but this time this package is receiving bipartisan support. The legislation does have a section on tightening border security, in addition to a legalization process, something the Republicans actively campaigned for.

A key leader in the whole process is Senator John McCain, who believes that the 2012 election was a reflection on the Republican Party's losing ideologies. "We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which I think should be ours for a variety of reasons, and we've got to understand that," he says. Senator McCain was also a notable player in a 2007 effort towards immigration reform. He also believes that the bill now isn't too different from that which he tried for in 2007, this time, it just has a lot more bipartisan support.

This Tuesday President Obama will be giving a speech in Las Vegas regarding the bill, which is expected to be completed by late March or early April. More details on this bill are expected at the State of the Union Address.

Immigration reform is a hot topic for everyone. Obama did refer to it as a top priority during his second term, and as Senator Robert Mendez puts it "First of all, Americans support it...Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it." (As reported by this CNN article here).

The public has been largely in support of immigration reform. NBC reports that polls show four out of five Americans support a pathway to citizenship. Proponents of immigration reform also agree that this is a step in the right direction from the White House.

The six senators working on the bill are Republicans Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, John McCain, and Democrats Chuck Schumer, Robert Mendez and Dick Durbin.

While the proposal is not yet near finished, and more at the talking points stage than legislative stage, there is much optimism that the bill will go through. President Obama has worked actively on the issue, and has pushed for this legislation. With support from both sides, especially by combining major components of what both sides wanted, America can remain optimistic about the eventual turnout.

Read more on the issue (along with articles linked above) both here and here.

Is this a sign that Republican ideologies are shifting? Even though it's early in the game, is this bill likely to go through or will opposition build up? 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

March on Washington in Favor of Gun Control Reforms

In light of recent debate on gun control, thousands of people marched together on Saturday from the Capitol to the Washington Monument reports the Washington Post.

The marchers help signs paying tribute to the Sandy Hook victims, a school shooting in Newton,Connecticuit. Many marchers carried posters with faces of the victims, while others held signs saying "What would Jesus pack?" or "Gun Control Now" and "Stop NRA." U.S. Secretary of Education spoke to the marchers in a rallying area telling them "This is about gun responsibility  this is about gun safety; this is about fewer dead Americans, fewer dead children." Other marchers concurred with the statements recalling that upon hearing about the Newton shooting, the first thing she thought about was her own children.

The march was organized by Molly Smith, an artistic director of Washington's Arena Stage reports Fox News. She began by posting on Facebook, and the event eventually gained momentum by drawing support from Gun Control groups along with two churches. Smith believes that while it is important to consider mental health issues and violence in the media, the issue still begins with guns. "The Second Amendment gives us the right to own guns, but it's not the right to own any gun," she says.

Not all marchers were looking for merely gun control. Some marchers were even seen holding signs that requested that America "repeal the Second Amendment." One such marcher was named James Agenbroad from Maryland. He believes that without repealing the Second Amendment, the Supreme Court will continue to vote against restrictions on guns.

This rally was not held without opposition. Across the street gun rights advocates, in a much smaller demonstration, rallied together to project their views. Present in this rally was the Dick Heller, notable for being plaintiff in a Supreme Court Case that lead to the overturning of a handgun ban. He believes that we need armed guards to protect our children. "I don't know what their thinking was. Al I can't understand is why didn't they protect their children like the government protects itself?" he says. (As reported by this CNN article.)

America wants change. As representatives, senators and other lawmakers alike push for gun reform, many citizens stand behind them. Those present today were just one example of those working to make a difference and getting heard. Even in face of opposition such as the National Rifle Association which has worked openly to prevent reforms.

Will our government be able to pass meaningful gun control reform that changes the way weapons are sold today? Is it about background checks, about banning certain weapons or a combination of both? Do you support gun control reform or does the Second Amendment really protect our rights to all types of guns? 

"Hacktivist" Group, Anonymous, Takes Over US Government Agency Website to Avenge Death of Fellow Activist

Aaron Swartz, Internet prodigy and aggressive activist who suffered from depression, committed suicide on January 11 in response to what his family deems "an exceptionally harsh array of charges (for) an alleged crime that had no victims" (CNN). Swartz had founded Reddit, a social news website, and was known for his digital activism. However, Swartz often pushed legal limits, such as posting millions of US federal court documents online for free from a site called Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) that normally charged for access to the documents in 2009. Two years later, Swartz was arrested by the FBI for alleged computer fraud, which included illegally stealing documents from protected computers and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The stiff charges for his criminal actions, coupled with his ongoing depression problems, led Swartz to commit suicide.

In response to Swartz's death, the Internet activist group "Anonymous" hijacked the US Sentencing Commission's website ( and posted a video warning to avenge Swartz's death, calling the attack "Operation Last Resort." The video explained that when Swartz committed suicide, "a line was crossed," and that Anonymous has hacked several government computer systems and will publish the copied secret information if necessary. The video also elaborated on the supposed inherent corruption within the US justice system, noting how the justice system is skewed to benefit the wealthy, how the federal government is applying disproportionately harsh charges on Anonymous members, and how one must play "a game" within the justice system in order to receive the mildest sentence (quoted from the Anonymous video itself). 

According to the activist group, Anonymous chose to infiltrate the US Sentencing Commission for its symbolic meaning. The government agency has considerable influence on issuing sentences for criminals, which Anonymous believes are unfairly harsh for both its members and other individuals in society. The "hacktivist" group also claimed that it has "'enough fissile material for multiple warheads,' [named after Supreme Court justices,] which it would launch against the Justice Department and 'its associated executive branches,'" but its claims are largely unsubstantiated.

You may view the Anonymous video here:

Friday, January 25, 2013

Biden Advances Gun Control Agenda

Vice President Biden traveled to Richmond, Virginia today, where he met with multiple public officials and experts and consulted them about how to best reduce gun violence in the US. Speaking especially with those who had learned from the incident at Virginia Tech, Biden was able to strengthen ideas regarding how to resolve the gun control issue.

An article from USA Today mentioned that "in the Virginia Tech shooting, the gunman passed two background checks and was able to purchase weapons without a problem even though two years earlier he had been found to be a danger to himself and others." As a result, Biden is putting universal background checks at the top of his list of suggestions to reduce gun-related violence.

The gun control package currently contains several key provisions, such as increased FBI background checks, increased access to benefits for those who suffer from mental health problems, developments for a set of criteria to assess those with such mental health problems and the capacity to carry out mass-shootings, and limits on ammunition magazines. An updated version of the Assault Weapons Ban, which had expired in 2004, will contain provisions that prohibit 158 specifically-named types of of military-style firearms and semiautomatic weapons, limit ammunition magazines to have no more than 10 rounds, define assault weapons as a gun with one feature instead of two (such as a pistol grip), and not expire, as its 1994 counterpart had after 10 years.

However, there is still much speculation regarding the effectiveness the new provisions will have on the amount of gun violence in society. While pro-gun rights groups support the increased background checks, pro-gun control groups stress the importance of increased limitations on the number and types of guns available for purchase. There are still other concerns regarding how the package to reduce gun violence will make its way through Congress as the proposals become law. Some worry that opposition from House Republicans, as well as some Senate Democrats, to some of the proposed package's provisions will cause certain suggestions to be removed from the deal, and that outright opposition may cause the entire package to disintegrate altogether. Others speculate that the package should be passed provision by provision (Compromise of 1850-style) to ensure that at least some legislation regulating gun violence will be passed.

What do you guys think? Is there a proper manner to propose the legislation to Congress, or will Biden need to aggressively push for the gun control legislation regardless of what opposition he may face?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

North Korea Plans Third Nuclear Test Against the US, its "Arch-Enemy"

Two days after the UN Security Council issued a resolution condemning North Korea's recent rocket launch last month, the North Korea National Defense Commission claimed the resolution was illegal and issued a provocative response:
"We do not hide that the various satellites and long-range rockets we will continue to launch, as well as the high-level nuclear test we will proceed with, are aimed at our arch-enemy, the United States."
North Korea had conducted two nuclear tests in the past, in 2006 and 2009, but the rockets launched were primarily constructed of plutonium. However, North Korea is believed to have been working on a program to utilize enriched uranium in its tests, which will enhance the amount of weaponry it has at its disposal against the United States.

According to ABC News, the US has increased sanctions on North Korea in response to its recent rocket launch, but a future nuclear test would violate UN sanctions on Pyongyang and further isolate the North Korean capital. Interestingly, North Korea's only major ally, China, has also urged the nation to refrain from any action that would escalate hostilities in the area, urging "calm and restraint" (ABC News).

North Korea's response has been described as "needlessly provocative," but its intentions behind the bold statement are still considerably debatable. The New York Times explained that statements by North Korea tend to become increasingly heated when the United States appears to have its attention focused elsewhere, such as towards Iran's less-developed nuclear program. It also speculates that
the statement could have also been issued as a Kim Jong-un's resort to confrontation with the United States instead of aiding his country with difficult economic reform to maintain power.

It seems that North Korea, supported by China's economic aid, adamantly refuses to halt its nuclear testing program. Will tougher, UN-issued sanctions encourage North Korea to reduce its nuclear tests, or will another version of the arms-race ensue? Is this statement evidence of North Korea losing power over its citizens and turning to confrontation as its last resort?

Fixing the Filibusters

The Senate has passed bipartisan filibuster reforms with overwhelming majorities on both measures.

As it stands, filibusters, used to delay votes on legislation, cannot be stopped unless there is a 60 vote majority (out of 100).  Democrats have long accused Republicans of overusing the power to prevent real change.

The measures passed today were created as a compromise between the Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans would use fewer filibusters, while the Democrats would allow amendments by the Republican party to bills they discuss. The Republicans have also long accused Democrats of preventing them from making any changes to bills.

The first measure reduces the amount of times a filibuster can be used by a minority party. The 60 vote requirement to end a filibuster shall remain as is.

The second measure of the proposal states that the minority party will be allowed 2 amendments to all legislation. The minor catch is that if the amendment is not relevant to the legislation, it will require 60 votes in order to pass.

These changes came about amidst threats of Senator Harry Reid's "nuclear option" as it has been dubbed by Senate Republicans. The "nuclear option" would've been a process by which Senate rules are changed through a vote of just 51 people instead of 67.

Although this isn't extensive legislation to entirely change the filibuster culture of the Senate, it is a step forward in breaking the gridlock between both parties. With the passing of this new proposal, both sides have incentive to work through legislation instead of slowing it down in order to stall.

Read more about what happened today here, here, here, and here.

So what do you guys think? How much effect will this really have on the Senate? Is this the start of something new? 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ban Lifted on Combat Roles for Women

Current Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, who is expected to leave his position in mid-February, has decided to allow women to serve in combat roles in the military. The announcement is expected to be made formally on Thursday. While this will open nearly 14,000 positions to women serving in the military, about one-fifth of all military positions are still off-limits.

CNN reports that the change will be a gradual one, similar to the one made when the Navy began to integrate women into its units. The military will use a timetable in which it will began to integrate women into different departments, instead of opening all positions up all at once. A major factor for each position will be the physical demands and gender accommodations. 

This integration is different from the way things were handled when DADT was repealed. However a senior Defense official defends the methods stating:  “You’re talking about personal choice of behavior vs. physical capability. And they were already in the units. If you take a unit that’s never had women before, that’s quite a culture change.” (CNN). 

A non profit organization, American Civil Liberties Union, had sued the Pentagon in November under the claim that women were already serving combat roles without receiving recognition. A senior defense official concurs with this statement, saying this was just an implementation of policies already in place. 

Even in a world where we think equality has been achieved, there are still gender divides. Will this move help achieve full gender equality within the military? Or will physical demands of each position always create an imbalance? Either way, this is another step forward towards a more balanced military. 

School Shooting in Houston, Texas Leaves 4 in the Hospital, 2 Detained

An "altercation" erupted into gunfire after two men in the Lone Star College campus in Houston, Texas got into a fight and one pulled out a handgun, shooting the other. As students, upon hearing the gunshots, frantically ran for cover, a maintenance worker was shot in the leg during the crossfire. A "shelter-in-place order" was subsequently issued, advising students to take cover in their current locations, and the school was put on lockdown. Although only one handgun has been confirmed to have been used in the shooting, both men were wounded and sent to the hospital, along with the wounded maintenance worker. A fourth individual was also brought to the hospital due to an undisclosed medical condition, which a federal law enforcement official who received reports from the scene claimed was a heart attack.

The two individuals believed to have been involved in the argument that led to the shooting are now detained by police and hospitalized for their injuries. Police officers escorted terrified students and teachers out of their classrooms shortly after the shooting, and one of the students had survived the shooting at Virginia Tech. One of the men in the shooting is Carlton Berry, who has been charged with aggravated assault and has had several run-ins with the law since 2009. The other man involved, who was shot by Berry, is Jody Neal, who was in the process of enrolling into Lone Star College as a student.

Fears of a replay of the deadly shooting at Newtown, Connecticut were certainly in the minds of the students and staff of the college as the incident took place. According to Lone Star College, weapons are not allowed on its campus, but this clearly did not prevent the shooting from occurring. Is there anything schools, or perhaps the government, can do to prevent such instances from happening again?

Exit Polls Show Netanyahu Winning the Israeli Election with a Centrist Surprise

According to exit poll results conducted on January 22, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Beitenu party won the most votes of the 32 political parties running for election in Israel. The elections for the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral legislature, are based on proportional representation, so each political party that receives more than 2% of the national vote wins seats in the Knesset directly proportional to how many votes it received in the election. Other successful parties include the Jewish Home party, a rightist party, which won approximately 11-12 seats, and the Labor Party, which won approximately 15 seats. (Remember that these results are based on exit polls and include a margin of error.) Only 12 out of the 32 political parties won enough seats to enter the Israeli parliament.

However, the extravagant success of the Yesh Atid party, a centrist party led by Yair Lapid that won an astounding 19 seats in the Knesset and came in second place, has caused the Likud Beitenu party to become especially wary of its position in the Israeli government. The Yesh Atid party’s success has been attributed to Netanyahu’s lack of attention to important issues affecting the middle class, such as Israel’s high cost of living,increased peace talks with the Palestinians, and the unfair draft exemption forultra-Orthodox Jews pursuing religious studies.

Since no party has ever won a majority of 60 seats in the Knesset, the parties often rely on coalition-building based on ideology. Netanyahu has stayed on the conservative end of the political scale, but the rise of the centrist Yesh Atid party may prompt him to change his interests and move closer to the center. Pledging to create a government with as broad a coalition as possible with a focus on domestic policy, Netanyahu may find the support he needs in the Yesh Atid party, which has attracted many Israeli citizens dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s performance so far. “With his traditional allies of nationalist and religious parties, Netanyahu could put together a shaky majority of 61 seats, initial results showed. But it would be virtually impossible to keep such a narrow coalition intact” (Huffington Post).

Update: Today’s poll results from yesterday’s election show that the left-wing/centrist coalition and the right-wing each won 60 seats in the Knesset, leaving each group with exactly 50% of the seats in the Knesset. This renders the above statement from Huffington Post invalid, and Netanyahu certainly must act to form a majority as a result. You may view the seat-breakdown at the end of this article.

Moving to the center may increase the number of seats the coalition under Netanyahu holds in the Israeli legislature, but there are concerns regarding the new coalition’s resulting views towards the Palestinians. While Lapid holds a softer view towards the Palestinians in contrast to Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party’s calls for annexing parts of the West Bank, Lapid still believes in keeping Jerusalem intact, despite Palestinian desires to claim the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem for the creation of a new Palestinian state. This coincides with Netanyahu’s continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but certainly contradicts the Yesh Atid party’s goals to further peace talks with the Palestinians.

What do you guys think? Should Netanyahu work to win the support of the newly powerful Yesh Atid party? Or will his actions alienate not only his traditional nationalist and religious party supporters, but those truly wishing for a two-state solution? What do you think of the even 60-60 split in the Knesset between the right-wing and left-wing/centrist groups?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Unity, Equality the Focus of Obama's Speech

Today’s presidential inauguration highlights included Beyonce’s much-praised performance of the National Anthem and Michelle Obama’s bright red ball gown—however, arguably the most anticipated moment of today was President Obama’s inaugural address. (For those who decided to sleep in on our Monday holiday and missed the speech, a full transcript and a video can be found here)

As predicted, a major focus of the speech was on the unity of the country: “We cannot mistake absolutism for politics, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” However, Obama’s stance on polarized politics seemed more pragmatic compared to his more idealistic inaugural speech in 2009, which aimed to negotiate and compromise with the Republicans. Today’s speech revealed a more forceful leader determined to enact his policy decisions despite Republican opposition and his party’s defeat in the 2010 Congressional midterm elections. A Washington Post article described his attitude as “not ‘Come, let us reason together.’ It was ‘Follow me.’”

A unique aspect of the speech was its specific, policy-oriented topics such as immigration, gun control, and climate change. Most notably, as the first publicly pro-gay marriage president, Obama made reference to the Stonewall riots and called for “our gay brothers and sisters [to be] treated like anyone else under the law.” This quote marked the first time that the rights of homosexuals were mentioned in a presidential inaugural address.

Obama also gave a nod to the various minority groups that contributed greatly to his re-election with his references to the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights and the role of Selma, Alabama in the Civil Rights Movement. However, in spite of its importance during the election campaign, he only mentioned the country’s economy in passing as a “recovery” in progress.

With issues such as the debt crisis in hand, hopefully Obama will be able to use his experience from his first term to successfully work with Congress. What are your outlooks on President Obama’s second term? Is there any particular policy that you would like to see enacted during the next four years?

Can Obama Work With His New Congress?

In President Obama’s second inaugural speech, he addressed issues ranging from LGBT rights to immigration. I think he summed it all up by stating, “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time—but it does require us to act in our time.”

At the start of his first term, Obama was thrown into a recession, two wars, and a divided government. Now, at the start of his second term, the economy has slightly improved and we have ended one of the wars, but we still struggle with a divided government. In his past term, there was much controversy about whether Obama would be able to accomplish any type of legislation due to the bipartisan Congress. Recently, Congress was heavily publicized due to the amount of time it took to pass any type of Sandy relief funds (it took three months for them to decide). The inability to compromise has caused many unnecessary, drawn-out debates about what types of legislation should be passed. The past Congress had one of the lowest approval ratings and one of the least productive terms in history.

For the 113th Congress, the Senate is controlled Democrats and the House of Representatives by Republicans. Many say that since immigration and energy reform are some of the big issues, Obama may gain some support from moderate Republicans. Others believe that Obama could use the Democratic Senate and pressure as the bully pulpit to push House Republicans towards more liberal policies. There has been some debate recently about whether Obama would lean slightly towards Republican policy in some effort to find a common ground. As he has no chance for re-election, Obama doesn’t need to worry as much about retaining constituents. If conceding to some Republican ideas would help move the U.S. towards progress, I think it would be worth it.

It seems like many choose a side based on what types of benefits it will bring. Shouldn’t the issue, like environmental protection, be more important than party affiliations? What would you do if you were in President Obama’s position? How would you help Congress to "act in our time?"

Sunday, January 20, 2013

King's Influence on Obama's Second Term

After being officially sworn in today, President Barack Obama will be publicly sworn into office tomorrow, January 21, 2013. This day also happens to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which as Sally mentioned in the previous post, symbolizes just how far this country has come in regards to racial equality. But despite Obama being the first African-American president, the U.S. still has a long way to becoming racially equal.
Obama has used this important day to emphasize how much he admires King and his efforts. The National Day of Service on Saturday, which started the weekend of inaugural festivities, was in honor of King (you can read more about this day here). The president has said that Martin Luther King Jr. is one of two people who had the most influence on his career, the other being Abraham Lincoln. Both of these great figures fought for something that allowed Obama, and all African-Americans, to progress so much. 2013 also happens to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s I Have a Dream speech. Tomorrow, President Obama will use two Bibles when taking the public oath, one that belonged to Martin Luther King Jr. and one that belonged to Abraham Lincoln.

Some say that with King on his mind, Obama will start out his second term more focused on the same issues that King fought for, like poverty and racial equality. In his first term, Obama seemed more focused on foreign affairs than problems here at home. Though understandable, like in bringing troops home or eliminating Osama bin Laden, it seems like Obama pushed aside the issues that have been continuous problems for all presidents.

We will just have to wait and see what President Obama lays out in his Inaugural Address tomorrow morning. What do you think Obama will focus on in the next four years? What do you wish he would focus on? How much influence will King’s legacy have on Obama’s decisions? 

Obama officially sworn in for Second Term

President Obama took the official oath for his second term of presidency in the Blue Room of the White House today. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office as First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia looked on.

Although it is not constitutionally required, Obama ended his oath of office with “So help me God,” a tradition that George Washington reportedly began by adding the phrase during his first inaugural oath. A CNN article noted that several non-religious groups have argued that this phrase goes against the secular nature of the United States, but the Supreme Court rejected to hear a case regarding this issue two years ago.

The Constitution requires all presidents to take office on January 20, but President Obama will be repeating the oath again tomorrow in front of the public outside the U.S. Capitol. The African-American president’s public inauguration will take place on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a perfect symbol for the advancement of racial equality since the Civil Rights Movement.

A president's second inauguration is never as attention-grabbing as their first; nevertheless, more than 800,000 people are expected to gather in Washington D.C.’s National Mall for the inauguration and the parade, which features a U.S. Marine Band and children on unicycles. Not to be forgotten are the Presidential Inauguration Balls—some highlights will include a 3 to 4 feet tall cake adorned with a presidential seal and performances by a wide range of celebrities, from Stevie Wonder to Katy Perry.

As for the highly anticipated inauguration speech, many speculate that President Obama will focus on the unity of the country that is currently plagued with increased political polarization and heated partisan debates in Congress.

Tomorrow’s swearing-in ceremony will take place at 8:30 AM (PST) and the Inaugural Parade at 11:35 AM. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Controversial Full-Body Scanner to be Removed from Airports

Say goodbye to “naked” full-body scans! The Transportation and Security Administration announced today that they will be removing the revealing full-body scanners at all U.S. airports beginning in the summer.

The scanners to be eliminated use X-rays to produce nude body images of airline passengers. Not only do they slow down the security checkpoint lines, passengers have long complained that the scans are a breach of their privacy. In addition, some have argued that the radiation-emitting machines pose as a health hazard, citing a “cluster” of Bostonian security officials who were diagnosed with cancer after the implementation of the scanners.

Rapiscan, the maker of the machines, admitted that they will not be able to meet a Congressional mandate deadline to resolve privacy issues before June 2013. The TSA ended their contract with Rapiscan on Friday and secured a contract with the L-3 Security and Detection System to create replacements for the Rapiscan scanners.

174 machines are currently being used across the country, and are one of two types of full-body scanners used in airports. The second type of scanner, which only creates an avatar-like image of the passenger, will still remain. Although it has yet to be decided where the removed scanners will go, the TSA is considering relocating them to other government agencies such as military bases and prisons.

I’d like to hear your opinions on the TSA’s removal of the scanners. Were these scanners actually a violation of privacy, or were they a just method of protecting the safety of the American people?

Same-sex Couples and Their Struggles With The Government

Though President Obama and Congress repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2010, gay and lesbian soldiers still face many daily social struggles. Because of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex couples can’t be recognized by any government. This causes great obstacles for any same-sex couple dependent on government benefits.

Sgt. Karen Alexander and her wife Pvt. Allison Hanson can’t live together on base, as Fort Bragg can’t recognize them as a married couple. They choose to live off base, so they can be together, but this causes more problems as they struggle to get enough money to survive. Alexander even had to resort to sending her son to live with other family because they couldn’t afford to care for him properly. In another case, Ashley Broadway, wife of Lt. Col. Heather Mack, was denied full membership to the officers’ spouses club just because she was a woman. Later on, Fort Bragg gave her a guest “caregiver” pass, as Broadway and Mack have a son, but this puts Broadway on the same level as other nannies and not as other wives.  

The Pentagon refuses to change their stance as they are bound by the Defense of Marriage Act. The Supreme Court is said to make a decision on the constitutionally of DOMA in June, but there is no guarantee that the ruling will be in favor of same-sex couples. Many also say that is too far away for same-sex couples who are struggling now.

Though free to be who they are, gay and lesbian soldiers still face opposition from society. Unless we repeal those laws, these couples will never truly be equal and free. Those soldiers fight for others to have the chance to be free, so why can’t they? Is it unconstitutional? How can Congress protect these couples' rights? What do you think?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Algerian Government Raids Gas Facility to Rescue Hostages

Today, the Algerian government attacked the Tigantourine natural gas facility near In Aménas, Algeria, where employees had been being held hostage by Islamist militants since early Wednesday. Many of the hostages were from foreign countries such as the United States, Britain, the Philippines, and Japan. An Algerian security source claims that thirty hostages and at least eleven Islamist militants were killed in the attack; however, as the original number of employees held hostage were unknown, the validity of these numbers are still yet to be determined. A senior U.S. defense official stated that at least two American employees safely escaped, but others are still missing.

The reportedly al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels most likely abducted the gas complex and its employees as an act of retaliation against the French intervention in neighboring Mali.

Governments of the foreign countries whose citizens are involved in the hostage crisis have complained about Algeria’s lack of notification before the attack. Both Great Britain’s and the United State’s offers to aid in the releasing of the hostages were declined by the Algerian government on Wednesday. Because the government has a “history of violent suppression of Islamist militancy,” concerns are being raise over whether the attack was unnecessarily brutal and deathly.

This global conflict has had negative economic effects as well--as a country rich in oil, Algeria and its hostage crisis has caused the price of oil to increase from $1.08 to $95.32 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

What do you think of the Algerian government’s decision not to inform other countries before attacking the gas complex and the lack of information regarding the current state of the hostages?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Obama's New Cabinet

At a news conference on Monday, President Obama hinted that he would be adding some high-profile women to his cabinet. His current cabinet members make up one of the most diverse groups in history, including eight women and nine minorities.

In the past few months, President Obama had many of his members either retire or announce their intent to step down from their positions. Already, President Obama has nominated to fill those empty seats with John Kerry as Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary, and Jacob Lew (who is currently Obama’s Chief of Staff and was the director of the Office of Management and Budget) as Treasury Secretary. There has been much criticism of the Obama’s choices so far, as these three new appointments have been all Caucasian and all males. But is this criticism really justified? Lew has had extensive experience within Obama’s own legislation as well as other past top members of the government. Kerry has established himself as a leading expert on national security issues and has worked his way up to Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  On the other hand, Chuck Hagel has had questionable popularity with the public due to his controversial “Jewish lobby” remark. Furthermore, Hagel’s views about national security and nuclear weapons have many people worried.  

One of Obama’s supposed nominations, Christine Gregoire (the former governor of Washington) will likely fill the empty Energy Secretary seat, Interior Secretary seat or be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Gregoire has had extensive experience with handling energy and environmental issues. As governor, Gregoire supported California’s Clean Car standards, secured adoption of the Columbia River Water Management Act, and fought to reduce toxics in water, waste and air. In addition to her acts as Governor, Christine Gregoire was the Director of the Department of Ecology where she transformed the agency into a highly effective environmental organization. With this extensive environmental resume, it seems Gregoire will be able to contribute greatly to Obama’s current cabinet. But despite all these accomplishments, Gregoire had huge controversy surrounding her 2004 win in Washington. Having been the closest state election in history, Gregoire had an approval rating of only 40%.

Hagel’s strange nomination has many people voicing their concerns about Obama’s future decisions regarding his cabinet. Gregoire’s nomination seems to soothe some minds, but will it continue? With many more positions to fill, will President Obama make proper decisions, based on merit? Or will he seek to pacify concerns about having a diverse cabinet? 

Bork's Borking is Both Bork's Fault and Our Problem

This article by Elie Mystal is likely to be in next year's packet for the Judiciary chapter. It has a strong liberal flavor overall, but also argues that defeating Bork was, while the product of Bork's views and not a matter of defamation, ultimately a bad thing for the Supreme Court itself. Key quote:

Don’t get me wrong, he would have been a terrible justice. An evil one. ...America is better because Bork never sat on the Supreme Court. 
But the Court, as an institution, is worse. The country learned the wrong lesson from the Bork confirmation hearings. Bork’s rejection should have been a signal that presidents should nominate judicial centrists, not Scalia-like ideologues who long for the good old days when the Constitution protected each state’s right to trample on their women and minorities. After Bork, Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy, who was confirmed unanimously. You don’t get much more centrist than Kennedy (actually, you do, her name is Sandra Day O’Connor). One might have hoped that the Bork fight was a weird, ugly, nomination anomaly. 
Then Thurgood Marshall died, Bush 1 sent up the most conservative whackjob he could find, and thought nobody would notice because he was black. It’s amazing how pubic hair in a soft drink will ruin a party. 
And now here we are. Some nominations are contested, some eventually garner broad support. Some are “borked” before they even get started. But the threat of having a huge Senate fight over the nominee’s politics instead of his or her qualifications has changed the fundamental nature of how we nominate and confirm justices to the Court. And not in a good way.
If you click through -- which is advised -- note that Chief Justice John Roberts made reference to "calling balls and strikes" during his confirmation hearings, as if judging was really just a matter of reading comprehension.