With only a week left until a potentially apocalyptic default on the federal debt, which could wreck the world economy, the approval rating of the Tea-Party-led Congress is at an abysmal all-time low, hovering somewhere between 5 percent and 11 percent, depending on who you ask. Apparently, and not surprisingly, hostage taking does not count as productive work by the American people. Nevertheless, despite the efforts of GOP lawmakers in Washington, Obamacare is up and running.
Meanwhile, a number of crucial policy issues have fallen by the wayside, and may never be properly addressed due to the time wasted on the government shutdown. While some federal employees are labeled as nonessential, there are a number of essential issues that don’t go away simply because lawmakers don’t like government and pretend they suddenly disappeared.
The following are five pressing things Congress should be working on right now:
It seems that even when its babies are gunned down in cold blood, the U.S. is slow to act on reforming the nation’s gun laws. Nearly a year has passed since the Newtown massacre, when a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. This, as Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist with a security clearance killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard last month. Meanwhile, firearm violence continues to ravage cities such as Chicago.
Only 20 percent of the public owns firearms, and a majority of the public has consistently supported common-sense gun reforms, such as assault weapons bans and background checks. With the most liberal gun laws and the highest rate of gun ownership, the U.S. loses 32,000 lives a year to firearms. Writing for the Observer, British columnist Henry Porter suggested that the international community intervene in America’s civil war, noting that while only 20 people were killed by terrorists on U.S. soil since 9/11, 364,000 people were killed by privately owned guns. If the country is indeed in a civil war over guns, Congress will likely not act anytime soon, given that it is engaged in its own civil war, and has taken the government hostage.
President Obama is promoting a plan to provide high-quality preschool for every child, including a series of investments to cover children from birth until age 5. A partnership between the federal government and the states would provide universal preschool for 4-year-olds from families at or under 200 percent of the poverty line. The potential returns on investment in early childhood development are clear, as education provides more opportunities and reduces economic inequality and achievement gaps. States have been defunding preschool programs, and the consequences are clear: the U.S. lags behind the rest of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations on public expenditures on childcare, ranking 28 out of 38 countries. Fewer than 30 percent of American 4-year-olds are in high-quality preschool programs, the White House website notes. And only a relative handful of well-to-do families can afford to send their children to private preschools with college-sized tuition fees.
But for now, the Obama plan seems elusive, even a pipe dream. After all, sequestration and the federal shutdown have decimated Head Start programs throughout the country.
Although the Congress is hopelessly gridlocked and the government is in shutdown mode, advocates for immigration reform are continuing the fight. This past Tuesday, around 15,000 people came to the National Mall demanding changes to the immigration laws, and eight pro-immigrants’ rights lawmakers, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York), were arrested for civil disobedience. The protest in Washington came after 160 rallies were held across the country on Saturday. Further, House Democrats introduced an immigration bill that provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants, and increases border security.
With the separation of families caused by the current policies, and a record 1,000 deportations per day under Obama, there is a sense of urgency. Moreover, there is bipartisan support for comprehensive reform, with evangelical Christians aligning themselves with liberal Democrats and demanding that Republicans take action. But the legislation faces an uphill battle in today’s political climate, when all attention is focused on the shutdown.
When it comes to climate change, all of the warning signs are there. Over the long term—the last century—global temperatures have been rising. Moreover, we are 95 percent certain the increases are due to human activity. Meanwhile, the permafrost in Alaska is melting, creating damage to infrastructure and releasing more greenhouse gases into the air—that’s not an opinion, but a reality. The United Nations says we cannot ignore the issue of climate change, and the head of the OECD association of industrialized countries wants to make the issue a higher priority, with a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But many evangelicals and Tea Party types in the GOP are climate change skeptics, and one study suggests the issue will replace health care as their central issue, with a focus on “big government regulations” that will hurt business. In light of skeptical and recalcitrant political adversaries—and a divided Republican Party in which some conservatives are proposing a carbon emissions tax that no Republican in Congress will support—Obama has devised his own action plan on climate change outside of Congress, through the use of executive orders. But some of his proposals will take years to carry out, and he only has until 2016 to make a difference. Meanwhile, climate change denial is unsustainable, yet GOP skeptics held a hearing anyway.
Last month, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) urged his Obamacare-obsessed colleagues to “stop denying reality” and support the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill. The legislation, which is endorsed by over 200 organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, would strengthen building codes, require the federal government to use energy-saving techniques and encourage supply chain and manufacturing efficiency.
Restoring Voting Rights Act
When the U.S. Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, it dealt a swift and jolting blow to the civil rights community, particularly African-Americans and other groups with histories of discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Attorney General Eric Holder has responded by having the Justice Department go after insidious voting restrictions in states such as Texas and North Carolina as a way of fighting patterns of racial discrimination against voters. These voter restrictions and voter ID requirements run the risk of stunting black political representation and reversing the trend of growing civic participation by African-Americans—not unlike the Jim Crow laws, and for the same reasons. This will impact black participation at the city council level, according to a new study.
The Supreme Court eliminated the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain areas of the country with a history of racial discrimination to obtain approval from the feds or a federal judge before changing their election rules and regulations. Congress could rewrite the formula deciding which jurisdictions should be covered under the Act. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) an unlikely civil rights ally, has expressed an interest in reversing the recent Supreme Court decision. But Sensenbrenner, like fellow Republican Colin Powell, stands alone on this issue among Republicans, as many in their party are in favor of curtailing, not restoring, voting rights, for political gain.
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