2021 Summer Round-Up: Infrastructure, Afghanistan, the Delta Surge, and the Climate Crisis

As teachers welcome students back into the classroom, it is important to establish good habits and routines for the new school year. One important habit is incorporating current issues discussions into civics, social studies, and humanities courses. To help teachers get started on the right foot, we’re offering a round-up of some of the most important news stories of the past month and some discussion questions to engage students.

Infrastructure Bill Moves Forward

President Joe Biden’s administration cleared an important hurdle in its efforts to pass a massive infrastructure bill through Congress with a 69-30 vote in the Senate. Although the $1.2 trillion bill still needs House approval before the president can sign it, it has the potential to be the largest infrastructure investment ever passed by Congress.1

The bill needed at least 60 votes to pass the Senate. The Senate is currently split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tie-breaking vote. This breakdown, combined with Republicans’ use of the filibuster, means that for virtually any legislation to pass the Senate, Democrats must gain the support of at least 10 Republican senators.2 Given how strong the partisan divide in Congress has been for more than a decade, many Americans were skeptical that the Senate could reach any bipartisan agreement, with some urging senators to abolish the filibuster requirement of 60 votes. To the surprise of many, Senate Democrats were able to secure the support of not just ten but 19 Republican senators.3

LEARN MORE about the infrastructure bill and related issues

With the bill now in the House, it is almost a certainty that it will eventually pass but it remains unclear how long that will take and what the bill will contain by that time. Currently, the bill allocates funding for building new roads, bridges, and railways; repairing existing transportation infrastructure; and expanding broadband internet, clean air and water infrastructure, power systems, and pollution clean-up.4 The bill also represents a significant scaling back of the original $2.6 trillion plan, with the biggest changes being in the removal of many of the environmental initiatives.

House Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have said they will not support the new infrastructure bill unless much of the removed environmental funding is added to a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill. Negotiating this process could take weeks if not months. However, since budget reconciliation bills require only 50 votes in the Senate, much of the additional spending could be signed into law with or without Republican support.5

The United States’ Infrastructure Report Card

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think the Senate was able to reach a bipartisan agreement on the infrastructure bill (keeping in mind that the original bill was $2.6 trillion while the final bill is $1.2 trillion)?
  2. Should Congress continue to pursue bipartisanship? Or should congressional Democrats seek to pass their policies regardless of Republican support?

 

Afghanistan Withdrawal and the Taliban Offensive 

In April 2021, President Biden announced that he would press ahead with the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a move first sought by President Donald Trump’s administration. President Biden set September 11, 2021, as the deadline for withdrawal, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (which were the impetus for the conflict).6 The United States has had combat troops continuously operating in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001, making this conflict the longest continuous military conflict in U.S. history.7

Walik Koshar/AFP/Getty Images - People waiting at Kabul airport to flee Afghanistan as U.S. soldiers stand guard.

In recent weeks, the Taliban, a militant group of Islamic fundamentalists, has launched successful offensives across Afghanistan as U.S. troops and officials have withdrawn. Prior to the war in Afghanistan, the United States assisted the Taliban in its efforts to combat an invasion by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. After repelling the Soviets, the Taliban became the ruling authority during the 1990s. The group also forged connections with and harbored al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization controlled by Osama bin Laden that carried out the 9/11 attacks.8

LEARN MORE about the modern history of Afghanistan

The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan overthrew the Taliban in 2001. However, despite U.S. support over the past 20 years, the new government of Afghanistan has struggled to govern the country effectively as it has been plagued by corruption and infighting. The U.S.-trained Afghan military and police forces have not fared any better, offering little resistance to the Taliban’s resurgence. In recent days, the Taliban seized control of Kabul, the Afghan capital, and declared itself the only legitimate government of the country.9 Many Afghanis who worked with U.S. forces now fear for their lives, as the Taliban is notorious for torturing and executing those whom it considers to be traitors.10 The swift pace of the Taliban takeover, downplayed as “highly unlikely” by President Biden in July, has prompted both the United States and the United Kingdom to deploy thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan to protect evacuation efforts out of Kabul.11

LEARN MORE directly from lawmakers about the withdrawal from Afghanistan

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan even if it means surrendering the country back to the Taliban?
  2. What obligation, if any, does the United States have to those who support U.S. troops in countries where those troops are engaged in military action?

 

The Delta Variant and Mask Mandates

On May 13, 2021, President Biden celebrated an end to nearly all outdoor mask mandates and most indoor mask mandates for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This announcement was heralded as a turning point on the road “back to normal.”12 However, as a vaccination rates began to plateau, it became apparent that a significant portion of the U.S. population (18 percent) had no intention of getting vaccinated.13 Disease experts feared that with such a large cohort of people refusing the vaccines, COVID-19 would continue to mutate and spread.14

There have been dozens of such mutations, with more virulent and contagious strains emerging. Particularly widespread in the United States and abroad is the Delta variant and its subvariants. The Delta variant is estimated to be twice as contagious as other variants, with some data suggesting it might cause more severe illness in unvaccinated persons than previous strains.15 It is important to note that all available data indicates that the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against the Delta variant. Almost all COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have occurred among people who are not vaccinated or not yet fully vaccinated.16 Still, as infection and hospitalization rates rose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance for indoor masking and social distancing.

LEARN MORE about the impact of vaccination

In August, Arkansas set a record for hospitalizations, while health officials in Mississippi said that the state’s hospital system could collapse in a matter of days if the current caseload trajectory continues.17 This resurgence of COVID-19 cases across the country has prompted some areas to issue new mask mandates and others to refuse to issue new rules that follow federal guidance and CDC recommendations.18 Recently, some schools in Texas, Florida, and other highly impacted states refused to comply with their governors’ bans on mask mandates. And some schools and businesses around the country have begun to mandate vaccination for their employees and patrons.19

HEAR FROM lawmakers about the impacts of COVID-19 on students

Discussion Questions

  1. With the Delta variant on the rise, should schools be allowed to mandate that students and teachers wear masks? Should schools be returning to in-person classes?
  2. Many public schools in the United States already require vaccinations against illnesses such as measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and polio. Some of these illnesses are rarely fatal; others have the potential to be more harmful or deadly than COVID-19. Vaccination against COVID-19 is already available to those 12 or older and it is expected to become available for younger children pending approval. Should public schools be allowed to mandate vaccination against COVID-19 when it becomes available?

 

The IPCC Climate Report

On August 9, 2021, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of thousands of climate experts from 195 member nations, issued a dire report on the state of Earth’s climate and its implications for humanity’s immediate and long-term survival.20 The report states that human beings are “unequivocally” causing climate change and that the world may inevitably cross the 1.5oC overall temperature increase that has long been cited as a point of no return by climate scientists.21

Drawn from data from over 14,000 studies, the IPCC report details that once-in-50-year heatwaves now occur at least once a decade, and that historic flooding, hurricanes, and drought are to be expected for decades if not centuries to come. UN Secretary General António Guterres called the report a “code red for humanity.”22

HEAR FROM lawmakers about their views on climate change and how to address it

Currently, vast stretches of the North American Pacific Coast, Siberia, the Mediterranean, and dozens of other places are experiencing wildfires of unprecedented scope.23 In July, historic flooding occurred in Western Europe, killing more than 200 people with almost 200 more still missing.24 And with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, disease and climate experts warn that climate change will contribute to new outbreaks of illnesses, particularly as mosquito populations spread with warmer weather.25

Leaders from around the world will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021 for a climate change conference. Climate activists and scientists are hopeful that leaders will be receptive to more aggressive policies to cut down on carbon emissions. The United States rejoined the Paris Agreement in February 2021, but climate advocates now argue that the targets set under that agreement are inadequate.26

VIEW the IPCC report and its implications

Discussion Questions

  1. Should the United States do more to combat climate change? If so, what sorts of actions should it take? If not, how should this challenge be addressed?
  2. The UN is an organization made up of voluntary members. Ultimately, it has little power to compel countries to comply with any resolution or recommendation it makes. This is particularly true of large, economically powerful countries. The United States, Russia, and China, in addition to being among the biggest producers of fossil fuel emissions, are permanent members of the UN Security Council, each with the individual authority to override any decision made by the UN. With the climate threat as imminent as the UN says it is, can the world actually take unified action to address it?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!

Related Blog Posts:

Build it and They Will Come – The Biden Infrastructure Plan

How Can We Overcome Vaccine Skepticism?

Time to Reform the Filibuster?

 

Sources

Featured Image Credit: David Carpio/Shutterstock
[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/10/us/politics/infrastructure-bill-passes.html
[2] CNN News: https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2021/05/politics/filibuster-senate-explained/
[4] Ibid.
[4] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/07/28/upshot/infrastructure-breakdown.html
[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/13/us/politics/infrastructure-deal-budget.html
[6] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/
[7] https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2021-07-12/the-cost-of-the-afghanistan-war-in-lives-and-dollars#:~:text=The%20nearly%2020%2Dyear%20American,the%20United%20States’%20longest%20war.&text=July%2012%2C%202021%2C%20at%202%3A28%20p.m.&text=KNICKMEYER%2C%20Associated%20Press-,The%20nearly%2020%2Dyear%20American%20combat%20mission%20in%20Afghanistan,the%20United%20States’%20longest%20war.
[8] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11451718
[9] https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/world/taliban-to-declare-islamic-emirate-of-afghanistan-official-297971
[10] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/23/afghanistan-threats-taliban-atrocities-kandahar
[11] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/panic-grips-afghanistan-civilians-flee-taliban-s-relentless-advance-n1276528
[12] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/white-house-celebrates-new-end-mask-requirement-fully-vaccinated-n1267285
[13] https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/07/15/why-wont-americans-get-vaccinated-poll-data
[14] https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/coronavirus-variants-experts-fear-mutations-could-mean-covid-19-reinfections
[15] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/delta-variant.html
[16] https://www.kff.org/policy-watch/covid-19-vaccine-breakthrough-cases-data-from-the-states/
[17] https://www.npr.org/2021/08/12/1027103023/florida-mississippi-arkansas-hospitals-overwhelmed-covid-19-delta
[18] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated-guidance.html
[19] https://floridanewstimes.com/half-a-dozen-school-districts-are-arguing-or-arguing-to-disobey-the-governors-no-mask-mandate-order/320862/
[20] https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/ipcc-who-are-they
[21] https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/un-sounds-clarion-call-over-irreversible-climate-impacts-by-humans-2021-08-09/
[22] Ibid.
[23] https://gizmodo.com/here-are-the-5-major-regions-literally-on-fire-right-no-1847389046/slides/8
[24] https://www.cnn.com/2021/07/22/europe/germany-belgium-europe-floods-death-climate-intl/index.html
[25] https://earth.stanford.edu/news/how-does-climate-change-affect-disease#gs.8c0zs7
[26] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56901261

 

 

Time to Reform the Filibuster?

Dealing with Filibusters

The Senate is again considering changing its rules regarding the filibuster, a parliamentary procedure that gives individual senators the power to shape—and even block—legislation. The filibuster is “a loosely defined term for action designed to prolong debate and delay or prevent a vote on a bill, resolution, amendment, or other debatable question.”1

The filibuster is not in the Constitution; rather, it was an accidental byproduct of a rule change in 1806.2 In 1917, the Senate changed its rules so a filibuster could be ended by a two-thirds majority vote of senators; in 1975, the Senate lowered that threshold to three-fifths.3 Filibusters, or the threat of a filibuster, used to be rare. These days, the minority party uses the filibuster as a matter of routine, essentially creating a 60-vote threshold for most bills to pass.

Today, many Senate Democrats are considering removing the filibuster altogether, meaning that any legislation would require a simple majority vote to pass the Senate. It is not guaranteed that Democrats would be able to do this, as at least two members of their party, Senators Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.,4 and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., have not endorsed ending the filibuster.5 Almost all Senate Democrats support another position, allowing for a “talking filibuster” in which a member could hold the floor in order to delay or block a vote. Under this proposal, individual senators would have a path to make their voices heard, but not all legislation would require 60 votes to pass the Senate.

WATCH: The history of, and debate about, the filibuster, from the Washington Post

Arguments for Keeping the Filibuster

Those who want to keep the filibuster argue that this procedure empowers each individual senator to have a voice on all legislation, meaning that every state, no matter how small and no matter the party affiliation of its senators, has a say in policymaking.6 In an argument against ending the filibuster, former Senator Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., wrote that the filibuster can do as much to ensure compromise as it does to create division. He pointed out that, because of the threat of the filibuster, he and Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., were able to work together to produce 38 bipartisan bills in 2005 and 2006 alone.7 Supporters of the filibuster also note that the Senate is intended to be a deliberative body that cools the passions of the House of Representatives.8 In other words, the House majority is able to act quickly—sometimes too quickly—and it is up to the Senate to weigh all matters carefully and deliberately and to build a 60-vote consensus.

Arguments for Ending the Filibuster

Advocates of ending the filibuster argue that this procedure was never intended to be commonplace, and that it was only a clerical error that allowed it to exist at all.9 Critics note that the filibuster was a rarely used tool until recent years, and that its use exploded during the administration of President Barack Obama. As such, they argue that the founders never intended the Senate to be so gridlocked.10 Some proponents of ending the filibuster argue that it has been a tool of racism and white supremacy, with Princeton historian Kevin Kruse saying “it’s been a tool used overwhelmingly by racists” to protect slavery and Jim Crow segregation.11

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think are the strongest arguments for keeping the filibuster? What are the strongest arguments for getting rid of it?
  2. Do you support keeping the filibuster? Why or why not?
  3. How would you urge your senators to vote on this matter?

Further Reading and Resources

    • The Heritage Foundation: “The Filibuster Protects the Rights of All Senators and the American People”
    • Watch: Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, makes the case to keep the filibuster in a Federalist Society policy brief
    • Wall Street Journal: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argues that ending the filibuster would create a “scorched-earth Senate”
    • Watch: Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., argues for ending the filibuster
    • Rashad Robinson writes in USA Today and Zach Beauchamp writes on Vox.com about the filibuster and race
    • Politico: “‘They Are, in Effect, Supporting Racism’: Black Leaders Zero in on Dems’ Filibuster Holdouts”
    • Rolling Stone: “The Filibuster’s Ugly History and Why It Must Be Scrapped”
    • #CloseUpConversations: Join Close Up on Thursday, April 8, at 6 pm EST for a conversation with Adam Jentleson, the author of Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy, to discuss what the filibuster is, how it works, and what reform would mean. Jentleson is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a guest on numerous podcasts, including NPR’s “Fresh Air,” “The Ezra Klein Show,” and “Why Is This Happening with Chris Hayes.”

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!

Sources

Featured Image Credit: RWT/AP
[1]. Senate.gov: https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/filibusters-cloture.htm
[2] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/justthefaqs/2021/03/08/filibuster-what-how-could-affect-bidens-agenda-senate/4626598001/
[3] Senate.gov: https://www.senate.gov/about/powers-procedures/filibusters-cloture.htm
[4] National Review: https://www.nationalreview.com/news/sinema-calls-on-senators-to-change-their-behavior-instead-of-eliminating-filibuster/
[5] Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/2021/3/20/22341271/feinstein-filibuster-reform-talking-joe-manchin-kyrsten-sinema-joe-biden-senate-60-votes
[6] Politico: https://www.politico.com/story/2011/01/against-ending-the-filibuster-048019
[7] Ibid.
[8] The Heritage Foundation: https://www.heritage.org/political-process/report/the-filibuster-protects-the-rights-all-senators-and-the-american-people
[9] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/justthefaqs/2021/03/08/filibuster-what-how-could-affect-bidens-agenda-senate/4626598001/
[10] Brennan Center for Justice: https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/case-against-filibuster
[11] Vox.com: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2021/3/25/22348308/filibuster-racism-jim-crow-mitch-mcconnell

 

A Bumpy Transition: Where Do We Go From Here?

Thousands of people celebrate on Saturday, November 7 in New York City and across the country when Biden is declared the winner. Image Credit: Chang W. Lee/New York Times

Thousands of supporters of President Trump rallied in Washington, DC for the “Million MAGA March” on Saturday, November 14. Image Credit: Julio Cortez/AP

On Saturday, November 7, most major media outlets declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election.1 While the Biden team has already begun its informal transition, it has not yet been granted access to intelligence briefings, office space, or other elements of a formal transition.2 This formal transition cannot happen until the General Services Administration issues a “letter of ascertainment.”3 President Donald Trump has not formally conceded the election, as his campaign is continuing to file lawsuits, so far unsuccessfully, around the country.4

WATCH: “What Is the GSA, and What Role Does It Play in the Presidential Transition?” from CBS News

Biden’s inauguration will take place on January 20, 2021.5 While the outcome of the election is all but certain,6 much can still happen between November and January to shape the early months of the Biden administration. The transition to a new administration is a significant undertaking, involving every federal agency, staff members in the current administration, and staff members in the incoming administration. In the midst of an economic downturn, the COVID-19 pandemic, and an effort to develop, produce, and distribute a vaccine, a smooth transition may be even more difficult and necessary in 2020.7

What Happens During a Transition?

In order to be ready to hit the ground running, there are many things that a president-elect must accomplish during the transition. According to the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, these are the primary goals of a new president during this important time:

  • Staffing the White House and the Executive Office of the President.
  • Making more than 4,000 presidential appointments, more than 1,200 of which require Senate confirmation.
  • Getting up to speed on more than 100 federal agencies and organizing and training leadership teams for each one.
  • Building a policy platform for the new administration based on campaign promises, and planning executive actions, a management agenda, a budget proposal, and potential legislation.
  • Preparing a 100-to-200-day plan for executing the policies laid out during the campaign to help the new administration get off to a quick start.
  • Developing a strategy for communicating with the American people, Congress, the media, political appointees, the federal agencies, and other stakeholders.8

While this list seems manageable, it relies heavily on the cooperation of the outgoing administration. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other public health officials are raising alarms over the decision by the Trump administration to block or delay transition efforts.9 Some experts are also concerned that the Trump administration’s behavior could harm national security.10 However, President Trump’s national security advisor has promised a professional transition.11

LISTEN: “How Presidential Transitions Usually Happen and What Could Be Different This Time,” from NPR

The weeks ahead may be pivotal to ensuring a smooth transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration. The transition is an aspect of government that many people take for granted, and, except for the appointment of officials who require Senate confirmation, transitions take place largely out of the public eye. However, it seems that this transition will be closely watched for evidence of cooperation between political rivals.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was your personal reaction to the news that Biden won the election? What did your friends and family think?
  2. What discussions have you had with others about the election since Election Day?
  3. What issues do you hope the Biden administration prioritizes after the inauguration? What would you like to see done?
  4. How involved/engaged were you during the election? Did you read/watch the news? Talk with friends, family, and classmates? Post on social media? Volunteer for a campaign?
  5. How will you stay engaged after the election?

Further Reading:

Sources

Featured Image Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool
[1] Fox News: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/biden-wins-presidency-trump-fox-news-projects
[2] Fox News: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/biden-transition-team-charging-ahead-but-calls-for-more-access-for-president-elect
[3] NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/live-blog/2020-11-13-trump-biden-transition-n1247607/ncrd1247740#blogHeader
[4] BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-54724960
[5] USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/11/12/joe-biden-barrels-toward-inauguration-trump-mounts-legal-challenges/6236070002/
[6] Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/this-election-result-wont-be-overturned-11605134335
[7] Center for Presidential Transition: https://presidentialtransition.org/blog/pandemic-impact-transition/
[8] Center for Presidential Transition’s The Presidential Transition Guide: https://presidentialtransition.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2018/01/Presidential-Transition-Guide-2020.pdf
[9] Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/15/fauci-coronavirusbiden-transition-team-436588
[10] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/13/opinion/sunday/transition-national-security.html  NPR: https://www.npr.org/2020/11/14/934920708/the-rocky-transition-of-power-between-biden-and-trump-may-affect-national-securi CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/12/politics/transition-pentagon-chaos-intelligence-national-security-threat/index.html
[11] The Hill: https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/526112-trump-national-security-adviser-there-will-be-a-professional

Universal Basic Income: Pipe Dream or Proactive Policy?

On November 6, 2017, businessman Andrew Yang began a presidential campaign centered on a signature policy, Universal Basic Income (UBI).1 If put in place, this UBI or “Freedom Dividend” would give every adult American $1,000 a month, no questions asked.2 The idea captured some voters’ imaginations; although Yang ultimately suspended his campaign after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, UBI has never been more popular.3

What Is UBI?

UBI is a form of government assistance wherein every adult citizen is automatically entitled to regular payment from the government. In most proposed UBI systems, this money does not have to be spent on specific goods or services; it can be used by recipients for anything they deem necessary.4 Some UBI systems call for replacing basic income entirely, making full-time employment largely optional. Others favor a more modest approach, which would supplement rather than replace individual income.

How Would Yang’s Model Work?

The current median annual individual income in the United States is approximately $33,000; the poverty line stands at just under $13,000 per year.5 At $12,000 per year, Yang’s UBI would still fall below the poverty line and therefore would not replace the need for employment for most people. However, for an individual living in poverty, an additional $1,000 a month would essentially double their income. Yang also argues that entitling adults to $1,000 per month would mean that unpaid jobs, such as stay-at-home parenting and volunteering, would no longer necessitate the same sacrifice.6 Yang also suggests that UBI could be a means of enabling people to make more time in life for personal development and interests, as they would not have to focus so much on acquiring money.7

According to Yang’s policy briefs, his UBI policy would cost $2.8 trillion per year, which is roughly 70 percent of the federal government’s current annual budget.8 Yang’s policy proposal takes other factors into account, which he claims would bring the net cost down to $320.5 billion per year. His policy would raise additional revenue by imposing a new value-added tax (VAT, a type of tax on products that consumers buy).9 However, economic experts do not agree that the cost of the program could be offset sufficiently.10

Why Is Yang Advocating for UBI?

Yang has tied the need for UBI to the threat of automation in what he calls “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”11 Unlike previous revolutionary changes owed to technology, Yang suggests that advancements in artificial intelligence will result in jobs being lost at a higher rate than they can be replaced. On his policy site, Yang argues that in the next 12 years, one in three Americans are at risk of not just losing their jobs but having their profession itself cease to exist.12 For example, Yang believes that driverless vehicles will render trucking jobs obsolete and leave truckers with a skill set and job history that is no longer relevant when they need to find new employment. UBI could be a way to offset the harm of job loss and provide individuals with a safety net as they find new jobs or learn new skills.

What Is the Criticism of UBI?

Beyond the high cost of implementing UBI, criticisms tend to center on the implications that such a system would have on the economy. Some have suggested that UBI would disincentivize hard work and undermine the American work ethic.13 Others point to studies which show that people receiving unemployment benefits devote more time to leisure than job-hunting.14 Participants in similar smaller-scale programs were shown to be less productive and less motivated to work.15 Finally, some economists argue that prices on everything from food to rent would increase, reflecting the extra money that people would have. Therefore, little would change other than the imposition of new government spending.16

The Future of UBI

UBI is unlikely to come before Congress anytime soon, especially with its best-known advocate no longer in the race for president. However, prior to Yang’s candidacy, a minority of voters supported or had even heard of UBI, whereas recent polling indicates that a slim majority of voters favor the idea.17 UBI is being piloted in several U.S. cities and is far more popular in Europe, with pilot programs already underway in several countries. While this is far from the first time UBI has been promoted, it is not outside the realm of possibility that with changing economic realities, the policy could continue to gain support among policymakers.18

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think that UBI would have more positive or negative effects on how Americans lead their everyday lives?
  2. Some proponents have suggested that UBI could eliminate the need for programs like unemployment benefits or food stamps. Do you think that would be a reasonable compromise? Or would those programs need to remain in place even with UBI?
  3. Think about your own family. What would an extra $1,000 per month per adult enable your family to afford what it otherwise struggles to afford or cannot currently afford? Do you think it should be the responsibility of the government and taxpayers to provide for those expenses?
  4. What are some additional or alternative programs to UBI that could be initiated to meet the challenges presented by automation and the potential loss of employment that could result?

 

Sources

Featured Image Credit: https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/universal-basic-income-faces-sceptics-yang-gang-fans-190522185947811.html
[1] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/28/us/andrew-yang-fast-facts/index.html
[2] Freedom-Dividend.com: https://freedom-dividend.com/
[3] America: The Jesuit Review: https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2019/10/02/universal-basic-income-having-moment-can-advocates-convince-skeptical
[4] The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/07/09/who-really-stands-to-win-from-universal-basic-income
[5] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines
[6] Yang2020.com: https://www.yang2020.com/what-is-freedom-dividend-faq/
[7] Ibid
[8] National Priorities Project: https://www.nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/
[9] Freedom-Dividend.com: https://freedom-dividend.com/
[10] Vox: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/2/13/18220838/universal-basic-income-ubi-nber-study
[11] Newsweek: https://www.newsweek.com/andrew-yang-trump-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-1465649
[12] Yang2020.com: https://www.yang2020.com/what-is-freedom-dividend-faq/
[13] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/miltonezrati/2019/01/15/universal-basic-income-a-thoroughly-wrongheaded-idea/#775a349b45e1
[14] Independent Women’s Forum: https://www.iwf.org/blog/2809515/Why-Universal-Basic-Income-Will-Ruin-Lives
[15] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/miltonezrati/2019/01/15/universal-basic-income-a-thoroughly-wrongheaded-idea/#775a349b45e1
[16] Medium: https://medium.com/discourse/would-a-universal-basic-income-cause-a-major-spike-in-rent-prices-50fca12b06ab
[17] The Hill: https://thehill.com/hilltv/rising/463055-more-voters-support-universal-basic-income
[18] U.S. News & World Report: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2019-10-08/canadians-and-the-british-show-more-support-for-basic-income-than-americans

 

 

Is It a Crime When Politicians Lie?

“There’s a clear difference between politics and a crime,” Michael Levy told the Supreme Court in January,1 when he made arguments in a case about New Jersey’s “Bridgegate” scandal. As the justices considered whether or not a public official commits fraud by obfuscating the “real reason”2 behind a decision, they asked both sides tough questions and did not split along ideological lines.3 The Court’s decision could narrow or expand corruption prosecutions against politicians.

The Bridgegate Scheme

The George Washington Bridge is the world’s busiest, carrying 250,000 to 300,000 vehicles daily.4 In 2013, after Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., would not endorse the reelection bid of then-Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, officials on Christie’s staff concocted a fake traffic study to shut down all but one bridge lane dedicated to Fort Lee.5 Unbeknownst to local officials, closures took effect on the first day of school, resulting in massive traffic backups that included public safety vehicles seeking a missing child and responding to a cardiac arrest.6 The scheme lasted four days.7 At trial, Bridget Anne Kelly and William E. Baroni Jr. were convicted on the basis of evidence that included Kelly’s now-infamous email announcing it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”8

Politics or a Crime?

The deceptive study misused $5,4009 worth of Port Authority employee resources.10 Kelly’s attorney thinks prosecutors incorrectly applied fraud statutes11 since the officials reallocated public resources to another public use12 and did not “receive payments or kickbacks.”13 Government lawyers countered that Baroni commandeered resources14 because he lacked authority to realign lanes.15

Kelly’s attorney, Jacob Roth, says that if a hidden political motive could send a public official to prison,16 it “casts a pall over routine political conduct.”17 Roth offered hypothetical examples, such as a police chief publicly stating concerns about crime to advocate for more officers, while the real goal is to gain favor with a police union.18 “We don’t want public officials acting for personal … partisan or political reasons,” said Roth. “But … the remedy for that is not the federal property fraud statutes.”19 Roth’s preferred remedy is political consequences: Bridgegate damaged Christie’s in-state popularity and his 2016 presidential bid.20

Prosecuting Corruption

The Supreme Court seemed to apply this reasoning in 2016 with an 8-0 unanimous vacating of former Governor Bob McDonnell’s (R-Va.) corruption conviction,21 limiting bribery laws by deciding that McDonnell’s acceptance of $175,000 in money and luxury items (including a Ferrari)22 was not criminal since, as McDonnell’s lawyers said, he only provided “routine political courtesies,”23 such as setting up meetings, in exchange for the items. McDonnell’s lawyers argued, “Mere ingratiation and access are not corruption.”24 Responding to the ruling, Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, “The Supreme Court essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their office to the highest bidder,”25 and that “if you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up.”26

The McDonnell case reflected many justices’ concerns over “prosecutors’ overly expansive interpretation of federal fraud and corruption laws,”27 concerns echoed in recent decisions that protected “small-time criminal defendants swept up by large-scale prosecutions.”28 Kelly, a single mother of four,29 says she is being scapegoated,30 claiming that Christie (who has called this case politically motivated) knew of the scheme.31

Former federal prosecutor Frank O. Bowman III sees this judicial trend as the Supreme Court “taking ‘an unduly protective view of official misconduct.’”32 Bowman adds, “The notion that what is otherwise plainly a crime becomes permissible because it has a political motive strikes me as just daft.”33  Bowman believes prosecutors need reasonable leeway with fraud statues “to keep up with the crooks, particularly the crooks in public office.”34

A decision in Kelly v. United States is expected in June.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it acceptable for public officials to hide true political motives and offer alternative public explanations for their actions? Why or why not?
  2. Should a head public official, like a mayor, governor, senator, or president, always be held accountable for the actions of their staff members? Why or why not?
  3. When filing their appeal to the Supreme Court, Kelly’s attorneys warned of how expanded government prosecutorial power might be used in the current partisan environment. They wrote, “If there is one thing this country does not need right now, it is a rule of law allowing a public official to be locked up based on a jury determination that she ‘lied’ by purporting to act in the public interest or by concealing her ‘political’ purposes.”35 Based on that quote, discuss the following questions:
    • How large a factor do you think partisanship will be in prosecutors’ decisions over which corruption cases to pursue?
    • How concerned are you that prosecutors would pursue corruption cases mostly or entirely for political retribution against their rivals?
    • How involved should courts be in trying to curb government corruption?
  4. If a government official acts for political or personal reasons, should they be subject to fines and jail time, or should their fate be left to voters in the next election? Read the following statements and quotes and decide which you agree with more and why:
    • The best remedy for dishonesty or graft in government is to make the public aware so they can vote on the basis of the potentially offensive actions. From the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ amicus brief: “If state decision makers deprive the electorate of the candid reasons for policy choices, the solution is at the ballot box, not the jury box.”36
    • If government officials act dishonestly or in their own personal interest or in that of a friend, the remedy should be criminal fraud or corruption charges with accompanying fines and jail time. From Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) amicus brief: “The founders empowered the public to protect the public sphere against corruption, including through the jury box.”37
  5. Respond to the following questions after reading this quote from Whitehouse: “In the same way that a fish may not be aware that it’s swimming in the water, because swimming in water is so much its natural state, I think we have become a little bit desensitized to the extent to which we are now swimming in corruption.”38
    • How prevalent is corruption in U.S. government?
    • How can citizens best address government corruption?

 

 

Sources

Featured Image Credit: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-cas
[1] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[2] Oyez: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2019/18-1059
[3] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[4] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[7] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[8] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[9] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[10] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[11] Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1343
[12] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[13] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[14] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/a-view-from-the-courtroom-the-bridge-and-tunnel-crowd/
[15] Philadelphia Inquirer: https://www.inquirer.com/news/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-supreme-court-chris-christie-20200114.html
[16] Crain’s New York Business: https://www.crainsnewyork.com/law/bridgegate-convictions-questioned-us-supreme-court-justices
[17] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[18] Ibid
[19] Crain’s New York Business: https://www.crainsnewyork.com/law/bridgegate-convictions-questioned-us-supreme-court-justices
[20] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[21] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/27/politics/bob-mcdonnell-supreme-court/index.html
[22] NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/former-virginia-governor-robert-mcdonnell-spared-prison-sentence-n599506
[23] Ibid
[24] Ibid
[25] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/27/politics/bob-mcdonnell-supreme-court/index.html
[26] Ibid
[27] SCOTUSblog: https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/01/argument-analysis-justices-tackle-convictions-arising-from-bridgegate-scandal/
[28] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/politics/2020/01/13/bridgegate-supreme-court-chris-christies-lane-closers/4420543002/
[29] Northjersey.com: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/14/bridgegate-bridget-kelly-bill-baroni-appear-united-states-supreme-court-arguments/4422233002/
[30] The Hill: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-case
[31] Associated Press: https://apnews.com/20b73a43e891ad63caac459cdc604a0e
[32] ABA Journal: http://www.abajournal.com/web/article/crosstown-traffic-scotus-considers-bridgegate-prosecutions
[33] Ibid
[34] Ibid
[35] NJ.com: https://www.nj.com/news/2019/06/bridget-kelly-is-unbelievably-happy-as-us-supreme-court-agrees-to-hear-bridgegate-case-attorney-says.html
[36] Quartz: https://qz.com/1782309/a-criminal-cover-up-on-the-worlds-busiest-bridge-hits-scotus/
[37] Ibid
[38] The Hill: https://thehill.com/regulation/court-battles/477797-supreme-court-to-tackle-corruption-questions-in-bridgegate-case

 

 

 

Primary Voting Begins: Iowa and New Hampshire

From left: Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg

What Should You Watch for in the Democratic Primaries? 

The next month features four nominating contests: the Iowa caucuses (February 3), the New Hampshire primary (February 11), the Nevada caucuses (February 22), and the South Carolina primary (February 29).1 A great deal of polling has been done to determine voters’ favorites in these contests, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire. However, looking at current aggregate polling for those two states, the probable outcome is anything but clear:

Iowa New Hampshire
Source: Real Clear Politics3

At first glance, the numbers above indicate that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has an edge in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but there are several potential confounding factors. For one, these rankings have alternated for months, with Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) all having occupied the top spot in each state at least once since primary season began in 2019.4, 5

Second, a number of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have not yet decided on a candidate. Recent polling indicates that as many as 60 percent of voters in those states are undecided, and that at the very least, a sizable minority of voters still remain uncommitted.6

READ: Close Up In Class examines the presidential nominating process and the early voting status of Iowa and New Hampshire

What about the Republican Party? 

As the sitting president, President Donald Trump is all but guaranteed to be the Republican nominee (no sitting president has lost the nomination since President Franklin Pierce in 1852).7 Several states have even decided not to have Republican primaries or caucuses at all, despite the fact that several candidates are technically running against President Trump.8

How Does 2020 Compare to Other Primary Seasons? 

In 2016, polling showed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with a small but clear lead over Sanders in Iowa; in New Hampshire, Sanders was much further in front of Clinton. When the time came for voting, Clinton barely beat Sanders in Iowa (by 0.25%); in New Hampshire, Sanders handily beat Clinton and even did slightly better than the pre-election polls had suggested.

On the Republican side in 2016, now-President Trump slightly led Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in polling, but Cruz ultimately beat Trump by 3.3%. In New Hampshire just over a week later, Trump had a significant lead in the polls and did slightly better than the polls predicted when votes were cast.

Iowa New Hampshire 2
Source: Real Clear Politics 9, 10

In many ways, the 2020 Democratic primary season is more similar to the 2016 Republican primary season. In each, the party had a large field of candidates at first; by the time primary voting began, there were still several viable candidates. Republicans in 2016 also had a clear sense of running against Clinton in the same way that Democrats in 2020 know they will be running against President Trump.

So, Why Does All of This Matter? 

A victory in Iowa or New Hampshire does not guarantee a candidate’s victory overall. However, a strong performance or an unexpected result sometimes makes or breaks a campaign. Winning the first contest in Iowa grants legitimacy to a candidate, especially if that candidate has never run in a presidential primary (like Buttigieg or Warren). Winning one or both contests would prove that a candidate could compete with more established candidates, like Biden or Sanders. For example, people cite the relatively unknown Senator Barack Obama’s win over the widely known Clinton in Iowa in 2008 as a turning point in the race between them.11

Alternatively, a win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire for Biden or Sanders could help solidify their positions and signal to other candidates that the time has come to rally around them. On the other hand, losing, or even just barely winning, in Iowa and New Hampshire could have negative consequences for their arguments, especially if they lose out to newcomers like Buttigieg or Warren.

Of course, it’s also possible that the results of Iowa and New Hampshire could have little significance at all. The two remaining contests in February can also reinvigorate a campaign. Governor Bill Clinton (D-Ark.) famously lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992, but his large margin of victory in South Carolina less than a month later earned him the nickname “The Comeback Kid” and helped propel him to the nomination.12 In addition, March sees many more contests dealing with much larger populations, and the results of those primaries and caucuses will likely make a frontrunner clear.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having many candidates to choose from in a primary or caucus?
  2. In February 2020, there will be four contests for Democrats: in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Each of these states is intended to represent a different part of the country. Do you agree with these choices?
  3. Under New Hampshire law, the state is required to hold the first primary in the country; Iowa state law similarly mandates that the Iowa caucuses be held at least eight days before any other nominating contest. Are these good enough reasons for Iowa and New Hampshire to be the first states to cast votes?
  4. Some have suggested that instead of state-by-state/week-to-week contests, all primaries should be held on one date, similar to the general election. Do you agree/disagree with this idea? Why?

 

 

Sources

Featured Image Credit: https://people.com/politics/top-democratic-candidates-2020-list-poll-numbers-names-fundraising/
[1] People: https://people.com/politics/top-democratic-candidates-2020-list-poll-numbers-names-fundraising/
[2] 270toWin.com: https://www.270towin.com/2020-election-calendar/
[3] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/ia/iowa_democratic_presidential_caucus-6731.html
[4] Ibid
[5] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/nh/new_hampshire_democratic_presidential_primary-6276.html
[6] Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-01-16/iowa-caucus-nears-undecided-voters-feel-the-pressure
[7] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/politicaljunkie/2009/07/a_president_denied_renominatio.html
[8] Fortune: https://fortune.com/2019/10/10/trump-2020-republican-primaries-cancelled/
[9] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/ia/iowa_democratic_presidential_caucus-3195.html
[10] Real Clear Politics: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/nh/new_hampshire_republican_presidential_primary-3350.html
[11] BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7171282.stm
[12] IdeaStream.org: https://www.ideastream.org/news/with-a-month-to-go-before-iowa-and-new-hampshire-anything-can-happen

 

 

How Would You Vote in the Senate Impeachment Trial?

Editor’s Note: This week, we created a longer post to provide some background on both the process and substance of President Donald Trump’s impeachment and Senate trial. This post includes more substantial teaching strategies, including a role-playing approach, that can be used to explore the issues at the heart of the impeachment and Senate trial.

After six weeks of committee investigations and hearings, the House of Representatives voted to approve articles of impeachment on December 18, 2019. These articles accused President Trump of two violations of his oath of office: (1) abusing the power of his office to force a foreign leader (President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine) to investigate a political rival (former Vice President Joe Biden) and his son; and (2) obstructing the lawful work of Congress by ignoring subpoenas requesting certain documents from the White House and other executive branch agencies, as well as by refusing to allow current and former executive branch officials to testify before investigating committees.

On January 15, 2020, the House appointed “managers” for the case against President Trump, and then officially delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate.1

For a more detailed account of the impeachment process, please see Close Up in Class’ Controversial Issues in the News on Impeachment.

What Happens Next in the Senate?

The House managers delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate on January 15; the next day, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts swore in all of the senators to serve as jurors in the impeachment trial.2 The oath for the jurors is taken from the first presidential impeachment trial, that of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. The oath is as follows:

“I solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be,) that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of [Donald J. Trump], now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: so help me God.”3

After a few days of preparation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will introduce the rules to govern the trial, to be voted on by the Senate. If the rules are similar to those of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1998, as they are expected to be, senators may meet every day except Sunday. Both the House managers and the president’s defense team will have time to prepare their briefs; then, they will receive equal time to make their case before the Senate. Senators will have the opportunity to question both the House managers and the president’s defenders. In President Clinton’s trial, each side had up to 24 hours of floor time to present its case and neither side used its full allotted time.4

Chief Justice Roberts will preside over the trial and rule on any parliamentary inquiries. While the chief justice will have wide latitude in how to rule, precedent has him interfering very little in the process.

Once both sides present their respective cases, the senators have the right to make motions, such as to dismiss the articles or to call witnesses. The rules that the Senate passes at the beginning of the process could affect these motions. If witnesses are called, there must be time for them to testify and be questioned. After all of the witnesses (if there are any) have testified, each side has a chance to make closing arguments.

The final part of the trial is deliberation and voting. Unlike a normal Senate debate, deliberations are often held behind closed doors. In the deliberation phase of President Clinton’s impeachment trial, each senator had up to 15 minutes to speak and his or her remarks appeared in the record only if they asked for them to be published. Afterwards, there is a final, public vote. Remember, there must be a two-thirds majority (67 votes of “guilty”) in order to convict the president.5

The process could go off the rails, especially if the White House tries to prevent witnesses from testifying. There is likely to be at least one motion to dismiss the articles of impeachment without a trial or without deliberation. It is unlikely that the process ahead will be a smooth one.

What Can You Do in Class?

There are a number of ways to address the impeachment trial with your students. First, have all students read the actual articles of impeachment. Then, consider a few options:

Mock Impeachment Trial

Turn your classroom into the Senate and assign different roles to students. This is a process that will take at least three days of class time, if not more. You will have students do research into the specifics of the articles of impeachment and whether or not they rise to the standard of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” from Article II, Section 4, of the Constitution.

Roles:

  • House managers will research and develop arguments in favor of impeachment. They will present their arguments to the senators and respond to questions.
  • The president’s defense team will research the articles of impeachment and develop a defense, both from research and from listening to the case from the House managers. After presenting their defense, they will also take questions.
  • The chief justice, as the presiding officer, will make certain that the proper processes are followed and will rule on any issues that arise.
  • The clerk will keep time for speakers and take notes.
  • The rest of the class will be senators. They will research both sides of the debate, and listen to and question the managers and defense team. They will then deliberate and take a final vote.

Suggested Timeline: One day (plus homework) for research, one day for presentations from both sides and questioning, and one day of closing arguments, deliberation, and voting. Clearly, a class could take several days to complete this activity if you wanted more time for preparation and to allow each side a full class period to present their case.

Jigsaw and Deliberation

Divide the class into four groups.

  • Group One will research Article 1: Abuse of Power, and arguments in favor of a guilty verdict on that count.
  • Group Two will research Article 1: Abuse of Power, and arguments against a guilty verdict.
  • Group Three will research Article 2: Obstruction of Congress, and arguments in favor of a guilty verdict on that count.
  • Group Four will research Article 2: Obstruction of Congress, and arguments against a guilty verdict.

Make sure that students understand that they are merely conducting research on these positions; they are not sharing their own personal positions.

Each group should research the evidence and arguments for their option. Together, the group will prepare a brief of the main points that support their position. After all groups complete their briefs, the class should then jigsaw into briefing groups (so at least one member of each research group is present). Each student in the jigsaw group then explains the evidence and arguments for or against their assigned article of impeachment as other students take notes and ask clarifying questions.

After students come to understand all sides, they should have individual time to process what they have learned and to determine how they would vote on each article. They should then gather in groups of 2-4 to discuss their conclusions. Then, bring the whole class together so one person from each group can report on what their group discussed. General discussion ensues.

Here is a graphic organizer to assist students. They can take notes on the main arguments for each position.

After the jigsaw, students should work on their own to consider all of the evidence and arguments and determine how they would vote on each article if they were in the Senate. They should be able to explain their reasoning for each of their votes.

Resources for These Activities

You should probably assign students specific pieces that are relevant to their assignments. Reading through the entire majority and minority reports would take too much time. Students should also find their own resources, such as appropriate op-eds and legal analyses. You may wish to appoint a facilitator for each group who could assign specific pieces of the group’s work.

In the end, students should be able to answer how they would vote on each article of impeachment and why they would vote that way.

 

Sources

Featured Image Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP PHOTO
[1] Associated Press: https://apnews.com/3ff484c069f314f03dfb4e15e8d85c67
[2] Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/14/trump-senate-impeachment-trial-process-how-the-rules-work-098226
[3] Senate.gov: https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/1_1868ImpeachmentRules.pdf
[4] Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/14/trump-senate-impeachment-trial-process-how-the-rules-work-098226
[5] Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/14/trump-senate-impeachment-trial-process-how-the-rules-work-098226

U.S.-Iranian Relations Following the Death of Qasem Soleimani

On January 2, 2020, it was announced that an air strike ordered by President Donald Trump had successfully targeted and killed Qasem Soleimani, chief of the Quds Force, at Baghdad International Airport. The Quds Force is regarded as the elite unit of Iran’s military; it handles overseas operations and is classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States. Soleimani and his troops have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members, as well as the wounding of thousands more.1

Soleimani’s killing follows an Iranian attack on December 27, 2019, against a U.S. military base in Iraq, and a coordinated assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Both of these attacks were commanded by Soleimani.2 In a statement, the Department of Defense explained that the strike was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”3 The day after Soleimani’s death, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there was an imminent threat of attack, plotted by Soleimani, that would have put many American lives at risk.4

The news of President Trump’s order to kill Soleimani has received both praise and criticism from members of Congress. Republican lawmakers have largely applauded the strike, arguing that it brought justice to many American military families; they also insist that the Quds Force would be to blame for any escalation that comes.5 Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, has stated that the administration’s action risks provoking further escalation of violence around the world.6 Many Democrats fear that the consequences of the strike could lead to another war in the Middle East.7 The divided response from Congress on the legality of the attack has also reignited a debate on presidential war powers.

There has been criticism from congressional Republicans as well. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) said that the administration’s effort to explain the attack was “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.” Senator Lee added, “What I found so distressing about the briefing is one of the messages we received from the briefers was, ‘Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran,’ and that if you do, ‘You will be emboldening Iran.’”8 Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) added, “I think it’s sad when people have this fake sort of drape of patriotism, and anybody that disagrees with them is not a patriot. … For him to insult and say that somehow we’re not as patriotic as he is—he hasn’t even read the Constitution … he insults the Constitution, our Founding Fathers, and what we do stand for in this republic by making light of it and accusing people of lacking patriotism.”9

Even with those questions and critiques from President Trump’s fellow Republicans, it is unlikely that the Senate will take actions to curb the president’s authority. On January 9, the House of Representatives passed a concurrent resolution to restrict the administration’s authority to strike Iran without congressional approval. The resolution now heads to the Senate, but it is less likely to pass in that chamber. Meanwhile, House leadership is considering further action to reduce the president’s authority to act without the input of Congress.10

While the United States and Iran have long experienced tense and unsettled relations, those relations have become have become increasingly contentious in recent years. With the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the reinstatement of sanctions in 2018, and Iran’s recent attacks on U.S. personnel, the hope for improved relations still seems distant.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think the United States was right to kill Soleimani? Why or why not?
  2. Was the attack on Soleimani a proper response to the December attacks on Americans? Why or why not?
  3. Why do you think members of Congress are so divided in their response?
  4. How does this impact U.S. troops abroad?
  5. Do you think the killing of Soleimani has lessened or heightened the risk of an Iranian attack against the United States?
  6. What should the balance of power be between the executive and legislative branches when it comes to military action?

 

Sources

Featured Image Credit: https://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/200102230543-qassem-soleimani-file-2016-restricted-exlarge-169.jpg
[1] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/03/asia/soleimani-profile-intl-hnk/index.html
[2] The Hill: https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/476632-soleimani-is-dead-but-the-enemy-still-stands
[3] Department of Defense: https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2049534/statement-by-the-department-of-defense/
[4] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-security-blast-target/iranian-commander-soleimani-had-been-in-pompeos-sights-for-years-idUSKBN1Z21UT
[5] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/us/politics/us-iran-war.html
[6] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/world/middleeast/iranian-general-qassem-soleimani-killed.html
[7] Ibid.
[8] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/08/most-disturbing-part-mike-lees-broadside-against-trump-administrations-iran-briefing/
[9] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/09/why-dont-mike-lee-rand-paul-have-support/
[10] CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/war-powers-resolution-house-votes-to-limit-trumps-ability-act-against-iran/

 

Should Eligibility for Food Stamps Be More Restrictive?

Upon releasing new rules that will make it more difficult for “able-bodied” adults to receive food stamps, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue explained, “Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work. This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”1

The revised qualification requirements, announced on December 4 by the Department of Agriculture, were long-expected new rules regarding the eligibility of individuals for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. The way the program currently works, “able-bodied working adults” with no dependents are eligible for SNAP benefits for three months out of every three years, unless they are enrolled in an education or training program for at least 80 hours per month or are working at least 20 hours per week.2

The issue for the Trump administration is that the program has given states wide leeway to allow some counties’ residents to spend longer periods of time on SNAP. Until now, in order to grant such a waiver, a county’s unemployment rate could be as low as 6.5 percent, while the threshold had been as low as 2.5 percent before last week. Therefore, according to the administration, thousands of people have been collecting food stamps for many months and years longer than they should have been.

In its announcement, the Department of Agriculture reported that this change in the rule will mean that approximately 688,000 people will be dropped from SNAP in the near future. The expected savings is estimated to be $5.5 billion over five years.3

After the new rules were announced, Representative Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations, criticized the stricter requirements. “This is an unacceptable escalation of the administration’s war on working families, and it comes during a time when too many are forced to stretch already-thin budgets to make ends meet,” she said. “The USDA is the Grinch that stole Christmas. Shame on them.”4

So, should the federal government make it more difficult for people to be eligible for food stamps? Or are these changes an unnecessary burden on those who are trying to make ends meet?

When considering these questions, students should first understand how a person becomes eligible for SNAP.

Eligibility Requirements

Applicants must have INCOMES below certain levels, based on household size. A household is defined as people who live together and eat meals together. Applicants may have RESOURCES, but they must be below a certain level:

  • $2,000 for most households
  • $3,000 for a household with an elderly person (age 60 or older) or a disabled person
  • Most states exempt one or more vehicles from household resources
  • A household’s home does not count as a resource5

1. Do these requirements seem reasonable? Is there anything you would change or add? Why?

An immigrant is eligible to apply for SNAP benefits if he/she:

  • Has been in the United States as a legal resident for five years
  • Is a documented immigrant child (not born in the United States)
  • Has earned, or can be credited with, 40 quarters of work
  • Is a refugee or asylee
  • Has a military connection
  • Is a member of certain Indian tribes6

2. Should immigrants who meet these requirements be eligible for food stamps? Why or why not? (You may wish to use discretion as to whether this question is appropriate in your class.)

3. Research the impact of SNAP in your state using this resource from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

    • About what percentage of residents in your state use SNAP? How does this compare to the national average? What aspects of the economy in your state might contribute to the difference between your state and the national average?
    • What types of workers in your state are most likely to use SNAP?
    • How does your state’s SNAP profile compare to those of other nearby or similar states? What may account for any differences?

4. After doing some research, read the following:

5. The Department of Agriculture is considering two more rules that would further restrict eligibility for food stamps. Read the following opinion pieces about current and potential reforms:

    • From National Review
    • From the Los Angeles Times
    • What are the strongest arguments in each article? What values are important to the writers of each piece?
    • Do you believe the reforms to SNAP make sense or go too far? How?

 

Sources

Featured Image Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP
[1] U.S. Department of Agriculture: https://www.fns.usda.gov/pressrelease/usda-019619
[2] Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/12/04/trump-administration-tightens-work-requirements-snap-which-could-cut-hundreds-thousands-food-stamps/
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] U.S. Department of Agriculture: https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/SNAP_Basics_FactSheet.pdf
[6] Ibid.

 

The Death Penalty: A Just Punishment?

On November 15, 2019, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals suspended the execution of Rodney Reed and sent his case back to trial, due to new witness testimony that pointed to his innocence and raised concerns about how evidence was handled during the initial trial.1 Since 1977, at least 166 inmates have been released from death row after new evidence came forward or problems were found in the trial procedures.2  

Currently, 29 states have death penalty laws, and the federal government recently announced that it would resume executions after a 16-year hiatus. Attorney General William Barr has scheduled five death sentences to be carried out by the end of the year, all in cases involving horrifying murder (and, in some cases, sexual assault as well). Seven states have carried out 20 executions this year,3 the lowest number since 1976, when the Supreme Court found in Gregg v. Georgia that the death penalty does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.4 Among the factors hindering the pace of federal executions are the difficulty of obtaining the drugs necessary for lethal injection, as well as declining support for the death penalty among the public,5 possibly due to lower rates of violent crime and the recent exoneration of some death row inmates.6

On November 25, 2019, Gallup released the results of a new survey indicating for the first time that Americans now prefer life in prison with no possibility of parole over the death penalty when a person is convicted of murder. Support for life in prison rose from 45 percent in 2014 to 60 percent in the most recent survey; support for the death penalty dropped from 50 percent to 36 percent. However, 56 percent of Americans still broadly support the death penalty, even if they prefer life in prison as punishment for convicted murderers.7 

Although capital punishment has been a controversial issue for decades, researchers from the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that tracks death penalty statistics, noted that “[t]his year has had an extraordinarily high percentage of cases in which there is very serious evidence that people who did not commit the killing are being subjected to death warrants.”8 As such, policymakers are considering and reconsidering whether or not the death penalty is an appropriate way to deliver justice. 

Both supporters and opponents of the death penalty are vehemently opposed to any innocent person being put to death. But supporters insist that some crimes are so terrible that death is the only suitable punishment. They also argue that the possibility of a death sentence helps prevent crime from happening in the first place.9 In response to Attorney General Barr’s decision to schedule executions for five federal prisoners, victims’ advocates pointed out that some families find it extremely painful to wait years or decades for an execution that they see as closure and justice for their loved one(s).10 For his part, President Donald Trump supports the death penalty and has called for using capital punishment for mass shooters and drug traffickers.11 

Opponents of the death penalty point to inmates like Reed, who was convicted and sentenced to death even though his blood did not match the blood found under the victim’s fingernails and observers have contested the legitimacy of the central evidence in his case.12 Critics argue that the justice system can be flawed, and that there is always a risk that an innocent person could be executed. Opponents also note that even when guilt is certain—as it was in the case of Daniel Lewis Lee, who was convicted of murdering a couple and their child—judgments of who receives the death penalty can be arbitrary and unfair. For example, Lee’s co-conspirator, Chevie Kehoe, received a life sentence even though most accounts point to Kehoe as instigating the violence.13

For further reading on the death penalty, please see Close Up in Class’ Controversial Issue in the News on the subject.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Do you support the death penalty? Why or why not? 
  2. What type(s) of crime, if any, should warrant the death penalty? 
  3. How should policymakers respond to the problem of potentially innocent people serving on death row? 
  4. How should public opinion factor into death penalty decisions made by judges and justices? 

 

Sources

Featured Image Credit: Associated Press 
[1] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/rodney-reed-texas-execution.html
[2] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/19/us/death-penalty-rodney-reed-crimes.html
[3] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-executions/ex-judges-families-of-murder-victims-call-for-halt-to-us-federal-death-penalty-idUSKBN1XN046
[4] Oyez: https://www.oyez.org/cases/1975/74-6257
[5] Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-executions/ex-judges-families-of-murder-victims-call-for-halt-to-us-federal-death-penalty-idUSKBN1XN046
[6] Gallup: https://news.gallup.com/poll/268514/americans-support-life-prison-death-penalty.aspx
[7] Ibid.
[8] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/19/us/death-penalty-rodney-reed-crimes.html
[9] BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/capitalpunishment/for_1.shtml
[10] The Gazette: https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/public-safety/execution-for-iowa-mass-killer-dustin-honken-on-hold-20191121
[11] WhiteHouse.gov: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-mass-shootings-texas-ohio/
[12] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/rodney-reed-texas-execution.html
[13] Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-11-12/rod-reed-ray-cromartie-kardashian-injustice-capital-punishment