Education, Senate News, White House 2016

Sen. Sanders: Free college for all

Independent senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed a massive bill yesterday that would make tuition at colleges and universities across the United States free for students to attend.

According to the post announcing the legislation on Sen. Sanders’ official website, schools would not charge tuition as the cost would be paid for by both the federal and state governments (two-thirds by the federal, one-third for state). In addition, the legislation would create an increase work-study programs, ban the federal government from making a profit on loans, and would create incentives to encourage colleges to bring down costs. The total cost of such legislation would be upwards of $700 billion over the next decade.

On his website, Sen. Sanders argued that if the U.S. economy is to remain competitive in the global market, then a college education should not leave graduates buried in debt and should be something readily available to all who wish to attend.

Sen. Sanders also pointed out that other modern countries have surpassed the United States in the number of college graduates they produce and the quality of the education those students receive.

“We once led the world in the percentage of our people with a college degree, now we are in 12th place. Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people.  They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”

The Vermont senator went on a media offensive yesterday to try to gather support for the bill. Among other things, Sen. Sanders appeared on MSNBC to promote the legislation, held a press conference with student organizations and recent college graduates, and peppered his social media account and website with various quotes and statistics about the rising cost of higher education.  Below is a taste of some of the senator’s social media blitz

In order to pay for the huge price tag, a tax on Wall Street transactions by hedge funds and the like would be created. With a Republican-controlled Congress currently in power, it would appear that the legislation to begin with would never pass in its current form. With a tax on Wall Street, the bill’s already slim chances are virtually non-existent.

Advertisements
House News, News, Senate News, Spending/Taxes

Bill introduced that could lower interest on student loans

student-loan-default

A new bill introduced into Congress on Wednesday could give relief to millions of college graduates and their families (if passed, of course).

The bill- titled “The Bank of Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act”- would attempt to lower interest rates for a range of borrowers. Ivana Saric of DailyCal.org summarized the basic parameters of the bill nicely:

With the passage of the bill, certain existing undergraduate student loans could be refinanced down to a 3.86 percent annual interest rate, graduate student loans could be refinanced to 5.41 percent, and parent loans could be refinanced to 6.41 percent. This would save borrowers on average $2,000 per loan.

For reference, here are the current interest rates on student loans, as provided by StudentAid.ed.gov:

(Screenshot from StudentAid.ed.gov)
(Screenshot from StudentAid.ed.gov)

The bill was introduced on Capitol Hill by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) and Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney (D), and it is co-sponsored by over 100 other legislators (79 members of the House and 28 senators). In a statement released by his press office, Rep. Courtney said (in part):

Student debt—which surpassed $1 trillion last Congress—hinders our economy because it delays borrowers from major investments, including buying a home, starting a business, and saving for retirement. As higher education becomes more crucial than ever to secure a good-paying job, keeping college affordable must be a top priority in Washington.

According to Rep. Courtney’s statement, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that about $460 billion worth of current student loans would be eligible for refinancing if this proposal were to pass (which works out to about half of borrowers).

Sen. Warren introduced a similar bill in the Senate last September, but it was shot down by Republicans in the chamber. At the time, some members of the G.O.P. opposed the proposed bill because it would raise taxes on the wealthy through implementation of a 30% tax payment on income of people making $1-2 million (also known as the “Buffet Rule”). As of yet, it is not known if the latest version of the interest rate bill would be tied to the Buffet tax proposal.

Defense, Senate News

Senate confirms Ash Carter as Defense Secretary

Carter (Photo from Department of Defense)
Carter (Photo from Department of Defense)

In a 93-5 vote Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Ash Carter as the nation’s 25th Secretary of Defense.

Carter, 60, was nominated by President Obama in September of last year to replace outgoing Defense head Chuck Hagel, who reportedly was at odds with several members of the Obama administration concerning the plans to defeat ISIL in the Middle East.

Reaction on Capitol Hill to Carter’s confirmation was generally very positive:

And from Sen. John McCain’s (R-Arizona) speech on the Senate floor:

On Afghanistan, Dr. Carter told the committee he would consider revisions to the size and pace of the President’s drawdown plan if security conditions warranted. To achieve the success that is possible there, he urged the United States ‘continue its campaign and finish the job. Dr. Carter indicated he is very much inclined in the direction of providing defensive lethal arms to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression. He pledged to do more to streamline and improve the defense acquisition system that takes too long and costs too much. And Dr. Carter agreed it is time to roll back sequestration because ‘it introduces turbulence and uncertainty that are wasteful, and it conveys a misleadingly diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike.’

The new Secretary of Defense is returning to a familiar place, as he served as the Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2011 to 2013. Carter had also served in the Department of Defense going back to the first term of President Bill Clinton. He has a bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale University in 1976, and received his doctorate from Oxford in theoretical physics in 1979.

Defense, House News, Senate News

Pres. Obama asks Congress to approve force against ISIL

President Obama speaking to military families in 2013 (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)
President Obama speaking to military families in 2013 (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley)

In a letter sent to Capitol Hill Wednesday, President Obama has asked Congress to approve his request to use force against the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

According to the official AUMF (authorization for use of military force), the president is asking Congress to approve a plan that would allow military use against the group for up to three years, but would permit the U.S. military from putting actual boots on the ground. The AUMF also would require the president to give reports to Congress every six months regarding what specific actions have been taken against ISIL under the approval of the authorization (the official request can be found here).

The following is a portion of President Obama’s letter to request (as found on the White House website), where he details what approval of this AUMF would allow him to do:

My Administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long‑term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations.  The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.  It would also authorize the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.

Shortly after the White House announced its request, the office of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) released a statement saying the president’s request falls short of “a robust authorization.” More below:

ISIL is at war with our country and our allies.  If we are going to defeat this enemy, we need a comprehensive military strategy and a robust authorization, not one that limits our options.  Any authorization for the use of military force must give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people.  While I believe an AUMF against ISIL is important, I have concerns that the president’s request does not meet this standard.  Now we will begin hearings and rigorous oversight so lawmakers and the public can provide their input.  Ultimately, our objective is to show the world that the United States is resolute in our commitment to destroy ISIL.

On the Senate side, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said the Senate would review the president’s request “thoughtfully” and would seek the advise and consideration of military leaders. You can see Sen. McConnell’s full comments below from his YouTube channel (everyone has one nowadays it seems, don’t they?)

The request is the first formal presidential request to use military force sent to Congress since President George W. Bush asked and received permission back in 2002 to invade Iraq. According to Yahoo!News, there is no timetable as of yet for Congress to consider and approve President Obama’s request for authorization.

House News, News, Senate News

From Vatican Hill to Capitol Hill: Pope to address Congress

(Pope Francis and President Obama at the Vatican in March 2014; Photo by the AP)
Pope Francis and President Obama at the Vatican in March 2014 (Photo by the AP)

Pope Francis will become the first pope to make an address to a joint session of Congress when he visits the United States later this year.

According to a statement released on House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) website, the first pope from the Americas will speak to the 114th Congress on Sept. 24. More from the speaker’s release:

In a time of global upheaval, the Holy Father’s message of compassion and human dignity has moved people of all faiths and backgrounds.  His teachings, prayers, and very example bring us back to the blessings of simple things and our obligations to one another.  We look forward to warmly welcoming Pope Francis to our Capitol and hearing his address on behalf of the American people.

Last summer, the Vatican confirmed that the pope would come to the U.S. to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which takes place from Sept. 22 through the 27th. Speculation that he could expand his U.S. stay ended when Pope Francis himself said during his visit to the Philippines that he planned to visit New York and Washington D.C. during his late summer trip.

While there is no word as of yet as to the content of Pope Francis’ address, one possible topic he could discuss is the future of the U.S.-Cuba relationship. The pope has played an active role in getting the countries open up dialogue after nearly 60 years of silence in the hopes of reestablishing a working relationship in the future. While he has had largely positive relationship with the U.S., the pope has been a strong critic of some policies held by American politicians. In 2013, Pope Francis slammed the idea of “trickle-down” economics, saying the theory plays a role in the increase of income inequality around the world. The Catholic Church has also criticized President Obama for including  coverage for abortions and birth control in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and it was reportedly a topic of conversation during the president’s meeting with the pope at the Vatican last year.

Last month, New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan said in a blog post that while the Vatican will not announce any official schedule for the pope’s trip until around March 1, he expects Pope Francis will address the United Nations and make a stop at historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Obviously, there is no word yet on whether His Holiness will visit the White House during his stop in Washington.

Analysis, House News, Senate News

A Look at the 114th Congress

(Photo by Karen Bleier of AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by Karen Bleier of AFP/Getty Images)

The 114th U.S. Congress is officially meeting for the first time today and, for the first time in eight years, Republicans will control both the House and the Senate. This will also be the final Congress President Obama will work with (or at least try to work with). With the White House and Capitol Hill presumably set to butt heads for the next two years, let’s take a look at the issues that the sides will try to get a handle on, as well as the demographics that make up this version of Congress.

Issues

Keystone XL Pipeline: Just this afternoon, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters President Obama will most likely veto Keystone Pipeline legislation if it ever made it to the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Both chambers tried to pass a Keystone bill in November in an attempt to give an edge to the candidates running in the runoff election for one of Louisiana’s senate seats (Bill Cassidy, a Republican, defeated incumbent Mary Landrieu, a Democrat). The Republican controlled Congress could still try to pass the Keystone legislation, along with bills that directly contradict President Obama’s larger energy policies.

Immigration: Republicans in Congress pressed President Obama to hold off on taking executive action on immigration back in November. While the president went ahead with his plan to allow up to five million illegal immigrants stay in the country, his action still needs to be funded, which means another battle with Congress appears likely.

Affordable Care Act: While in the minority through the first six years of the Obama presidency, Republicans in both chambers of Congress proposed votes to repeal “Obamacare” many times. None of those votes had any real chance of passing and were primarily done to get members of Congress to go on official record as voting for or against the measure (how else were PACs and congressional members supposed to make those campaign ads everybody adores?) Now that Republicans have control of both houses of Congress, the effort to repeal the act will most likely ramp up. Take this quote from newly re-elected House Speaker John Boehner (which first appeared in Al-Jazeera America shortly after the elections last year):

“The House, I am sure, will move next year to repeal ‘Obamacare,’ because it should be repealed and it should be replaced with common-sense reforms,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Thus far, over seven million previously uninsured people have signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Demographics

Ever hear the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who? One of my favorite songs. Why do I bring this up? Well, near the end of the over eight minute song, there sits a lyric that is not altogether inappropriate for this story:

Meet the new boss/same as the old boss

Those lyrics could very well be the slogan for the 114th Congress. According to PolitiFact.com, roughly 95% of lawmakers up for re-election in 2014 were in fact sent back to Congress despite the fact that Congress as a whole had an approval rating in the teens heading into the mid-term elections. However, according to a September 2014 poll conducted by Gallup, 54% of respondents approved of their own representative’s performance in Congress, providing at least some level of explanation as to why the majority of such an unpopular Congress was sent back to work there.

Though many of the members who will serve in the 114th Congress are the same as the previous Congress, there are some interesting trends in this new version. According to Yahoo! News, a record 104 women between the two chambers will hold seats (out of 535 total seats), one more than the previous Congress. So despite a new record number of women, men still dominate Congress (remember that same as the old boss line?)

In terms of race, the New York Times reports nearly 87% of the new Congress is white  (79.8% for the House, 94% in the Senate). While that overall number of whites in Congress is still very high, there have been slow gains amongst African-Americans, Asians, and Hispanics in recent years.

We all know of the dismal approval ratings Congress has posted over the past several years (see above). Most people who give Congress a low rating would probably say the fact that the members in the chambers cannot seem to agree to do or work on anything constructive is the reason why they would give the legislative body low marks. Well, I would advise such tough graders to stay away from cable news and political websites today.

Of all the days the Congress is in session and its members inside the Capitol Building, today is one of the busiest days that accomplishes nothing on the legislative calendar. I know what you must be thinking- isn’t that pretty much everyday? Well, take a look at this article from Yahoo! News, which lists what procedural issues a new Congress has to settle and how the members go about doing so. It is a pretty interesting look inside the seemingly random rules and traditions Congress uses that many Americans have not a clue about.

News, Senate News

Vivek Murthy Confirmed by Senate as next Surgeon General

(Photo by Charles Dharapak of the Associated Press)
(Photo by Charles Dharapak of the Associated Press)

The Senate finally voted to confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States by a 51-43 vote.

As Huffington Post reports, Murthy’s confirmation was being held up by many Senate Republicans and the National Rifle Association (NRA), which opposed Murthy because of comments he once made about guns being “a healthcare issue.” Only one Republican (Mark Kirk of Illinois) voted for Murthy, while three Democrats voted against.

The 36-year-old is a graduate of Harvard University and the Yale School of Medicine. More recently, he has worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Murthy has previously stated that if confirmed, one of his priorities would be to find ways to curb obesity.

The post had been left vacant since July 2013 when Regina Benjamin resigned. Benjamin’s deputy, Boris Lushniak, as been serving as acting surgeon general while the Obama Administration searched for a replacement and Senate Republicans blocked Murthy’s confirmation from consideration on the Senate floor.

President Obama issued a statement on the White House website Monday night after news of the confirmation broke. It reads, part:

“As ‘America’s Doctor,’ Vivek will hit the ground running to make sure every American has the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe. He’ll bring his lifetime of experience promoting public health to bear on priorities ranging from stopping new diseases to helping our kids grow up healthy and strong.”

More of President Obama’s nominations are scheduled to be voted on Tuesday.