January 30, 2014
By George E. Curry
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – With a largely uncooperative, highly-partisan Congress headed into a mid-term election, President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night that he will have ‘a year of action’ by expanding economic opportunity through executive orders and other action that do not require legislative approval.
“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama said in a speech that lasted a little longer than an hour. “But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Repeating many of the themes he sounded in his State of the Union speech a year ago – and having seen congressional inaction on most of them – a frustrated Barack Obama promised to be more aggressive in using the power of the presidency.
In glowing review of his first five years in office, Obama said, “Here are the results of your efforts: The lowest unemployment rate in over five years. A rebounding housing market. A manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s. More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world – the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years. Our deficits – cut by more than half. And for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is.”
He continued, “…The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress. For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.”
A major theme of the president’s speech was providing expanded opportunity for all Americans – an opportunity to get a job, to earn fair wages, to get an education and to have access to affordable health care.
“Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”
Unlike past State of the Union speeches, Obama did not call for higher tax rates on high-income earners. He also toned down his rhetoric on income inequality from a month ago when he called it “the defining challenge of our time” and referred to a “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility.”
A recent report by Oxfam, a London based organization that seeks to eradicate poverty, found that the wealth of 1 percent of the richest people in the world ($110 trillion) is 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
The Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, collected data that shows the top fifth of the U.S. population receives 66 percent of tax-expenditure benefits, the middle 60 percent of the population receives slightly more than 31 percent and the bottom fifth receives just 2.8 percent of tax-expenditure benefits. The top 1 percent of the population alone receives 23.9 percent of tax-expenditure benefits.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 60 percent of Americans believe the “economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.” And even larger margin – 65 percent – believe the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased over the past 10 years.
But instead of getting into what his Republican critics like to call a class war, the president framed the issue Tuesday night through the lens of a lack of progress for working-class Americans.
“Let’s make this a year of action,” President Obama said. “That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”
In an action on Tuesday, President Obama issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10.
To raise the minimum wage beyond federal contractors, as Obama has been urging for more than a year, he will need the support of Congress. He will also need cooperation from the House and Senate to act on other issues such as immigration, extending unemployment benefits, tax reform and expanding pre-K education.
Although White House officials are predicting some progress on farm legislation and immigration, they recognize that partisan politics traditionally grow even more partisan in a mid-term election, especially during a president’s second term. Consequently, the administration is advancing a series of modest initiatives, including:
Directing the Treasury Department to create a starter retirement savings account, called “myRA”; Hosting a White House summit on working families; Having Vice President Joe Biden lead a review of the federal job training system; Streamlining federal regulations covering construction of manufacturing factories that rely on natural gas and Convening a group of CEOs to solicit their ideas on how best to get unemployed workers back into the job market.
On CNN Tuesday night, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized President Obama for taking so long to use the authority he has to issue executive orders, which are presidential directives that interpret the constitution and federal laws without needing the approval of Congress.
According to the National Archives and The American Presidency Project, President Obama has issued 168 executive orders. His 147 during his first term was the fewest by a president in more than 100 years. By contrast, in their first terms, Ronald Reagan issued 213, Bill Clinton 200 and George W. Bush 173.
Obama defenders say many of his executive orders have been far reaching, delaying enforcement of certain sections of the Affordable Care Act, federal recognition of same-sex marriages and delaying deportation of some illegal immigrants.
At a White House briefing with a small group of reporters Tuesday afternoon, a senior administration official responded to critics who contend that President Obama would be more effective if he socialized more with House Republicans. But that’s been impossible with the Tea Party wing of the GOP, the official said.
“They said he should schmooze a little bit more, if he would just go play golf with them,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They don’t want to be seen playing golf with him. They don’t want to be seen having dinner with him. They don’t want to work with the president and they’ve told us that every way they know how.”
January 23, 2014
By Saeed Shabazz
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
(FinalCall.com) – The federal government represented by agencies including the Dept. of Homeland Security, Labor Dept. and Environmental Protection Agency will continue Public Listening Sessions in February, according to federal officials.
Attendees will have opportunities to offer input on presidential Executive Order 13650 “Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security” issued last summer. Topics will include improving operational coordination with state, tribal, territorial and local partners; enhanced information collection and sharing; modernizing regulations, guidance, and policies; and identifying best practices in chemical safety and security, federal officials said.
Michele Roberts, community coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Justice and Health Alliance, told The Final Call “the importance of the Listening Sessions is to engage, full public input into the process. From the process, we are hoping strong policy guidance, standard and regulation language will be forthcoming.”
“We are tired of our communities being ‘sacrifice zones’ or ‘kill zones,’ ” Ms. Roberts added.
Ms. Roberts was referring to what the environmental injustice movement refers to as “the disproportionate” pollution burden borne by communities of color and poorer White communities, often located near freeways, power plants, toxic waste sites, oil refineries, rail yards, chemical plants and other major sources of pollution.
However, some believe these communities do not possess the political power to achieve real regulatory legislation because of opposition from the Republican right-wing.
One environmental injustice activist who plans to approach the Listening Sessions carefully is Dr. Henry Clark, PhD., executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition located in Richmond, Calif., home to Chevron refineries with 11 million pounds of toxic explosives and corrosive chemicals.
“Now they want to hear our concerns for the umpteenth time,” Dr. Clark told The Final Call. “We want to see some results.”
Dr. Clark said there is some good language in Executive Order 13650 that speaks to protecting environmental justice in communities. Richmond is located on the San Francisco Bay, one of the poorest communities in the state with 44.2 percent of children under 18 living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Listening sessions were held in Sacramento Jan. 7, in Los Angeles on Jan. 9 and Jan. 10; and government officials head east Jan. 14 to Wash., D.C., and to Houston, Texas Jan. 24.
Dorothy Felix, president of Mossville Environmental Action Now, said people in her Louisiana town want the Listening Sessions to hear demands that residents be moved out of harms’ way. On Dec. 20, a fire occurred in the vinyl chloride manufacturing area at the Axiall compound in nearby Lake Charles, La.
Ms. Felix said Mossville residents were ordered to “stay in place,” but were not informed of what toxins were released into the air. Axiall is an integrated chemicals and products company that manufactures building and home improvement products that contain chemicals such as chlorine, caustic soda, vinyl chloride, polyvinyl chloride, acetone and ethylene dichloride.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been reporting since 1975 on Trends in Environmentally Related Childhood Diseases. Asthma prevalence has doubled, childhood cancers, impaired fertility birth defects, learning disabilities, leukemia, and brain cancer increasing, according to the agency. Environmental health and security activists say these rising trends reflect the need for Listening Sessions to result in policy changes.
Dave Gilmore of Let’s Save Paterson said, “As a resident in the oldest industrial city in America, Paterson, N.J. with all the textile mills and other industrial chemicals being dumped in the Passaic river, now the third most polluted body of water in the nation snaking through our town, we can’t be but attentive to these types of initiatives (listening sessions).”
The end game is results, activists stated clearly: “Listening and doing nothing different, have to wait and see,” said Dorothy Felix of Mossville Environmental Action Now in Louisiana.
January 23, 2014
By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON – Despite the unprecedented levels of obstruction from Republicans in the Senate, President Obama has managed to get a higher rate of Black judges confirmed than any other president in history, according to a court watchdog group.
Research compiled by the Alliance for Justice, a national organization dedicated to progressive values and the creation of a just and free society, shows that so far during the Obama administration, Blacks have accounted for 18.7 percent of the federal judicial confirmations, a sharp increase over the George W. Bush administration, where 7.3 percent of the judicial confirmations were Black. During the Clinton administration, 16.4 percent of the federal judicial confirmations were African American.
During the Obama administration, 41 percent of the federal judges that have been confirmed are women, compared to 22 percent under George W. Bush and 29 percent for Clinton.
President Obama has also managed to get more Asian Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and gays confirmed to the federal bench than either Bush or Clinton.
“This is the best slate of judicial nominees I’ve seen from any president since I’ve been at the Lawyers’ Committee, since 1989,” said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit group that works for equal justice under the law. “I’ve never seen a more diverse slate, I’ve never seen a more highly-rated slate, I’ve never seen a slate with this kind of deep diversity.”
Yet, the current slate of judicial nominees has faced unparalleled delays in the Senate. President Obama’s judicial nominees have waited an average of 115 days between judiciary committee vote and confirmation, more than double the average wait time of President Bush’s nominees. Forty percent of President Obama’s district court picks have waited more than 100 days for a vote on the Senate floor, compared to 8 percent of President Bush’s nominations. Sixty-nine percent of President Obama’s circuit court judicial nominations have waited more than 100 days for a vote on the Senate floor. Only 15 percent of President Bush’s circuit court nominations waited that long.
Meanwhile, the problem of judicial vacancies is getting worse. During President George W. Bush’s sixth year, there were only 48 judicial vacancies. By 2013, however, there were 91 vacancies.
Senate Republicans are gamming the judicial nomination process, utilizing a tradition that began nearly 60 years ago, when a segregationist led the Senate Judiciary Committee. The “blue slip” policy enabled a senator’s objection to a president’s judicial pick from his or her home state.
GOP Senators from Georgia have used the “blue slip” practice to delay some of President Obama’s nominees for Georgia’s northern district for years.
In an effort to fill those judicial vacancies in Georgia’s northern district, President Obama worked with Republican Senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, striking a deal that has drawn sharp criticism from some of President Obama’s long-time supporters and Democrats from the state.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) Lewis, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a former Atlanta-based civil rights group, said he and other Black leaders object to some of the Obama appointment of federal judges in Georgia.
“The group cites serious concerns that the proposed candidates do not adequately reflect the diversity of the northern district and that the selection process lacked meaningful community input,” Lewis said in a statement. “Additionally, the coalition finds it troubling that several nominees include persons who have advocated in favor of Georgia’s voter ID laws and for including the Confederate Battle Emblem as part of the Georgia State Flag.”
Mark Cohen defended Georgia’s restrictive voter ID laws that some civil rights leaders say discriminate against the poor and minorities. As a Georgia state legislator, Michael Boggs voted in favor of keeping the Georgia state flag that was based on the Confederate flag.
Georgia’s Black population is 31 percent, twice the national average. In Alabama Blacks account for nearly 27 percent of the state’s population and roughly 17 percent of Florida’s state population. Only one of the judges currently serving on the 11th circuit court responsible for those states is Black and only one out of six of President Obama’s nominees for that circuit is Black.
After years of blocked nominations and procedural delays employed by the Republicans, who are in the minority in the Senate, Democrats, headed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pushed the button on the “nuclear option” last November that that allowed them to cease debate on a particular issue with a simple majority. The historic move cleared the way for some of President Obama’s judicial nominations and executive-level positions to be confirmed.
“The [Obama] administration has really had a difficult row to hoe because of the difficulties in the Senate,” said Arnwine of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The Senate has accorded this president less respect, less deference, and less cooperation than any president I’ve seen.”
The Obama administration’s success in the federal judiciary has not come without sacrifice. President Obama has been forced to withdraw five Black judicial nominations, most recently, William Thomas, an openly gay Black judge in Florida, because of a lack of support from Republican senators.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are calling on Senator Patrick Leahy, who chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, to reform the “blue slip” process.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said that the “blue slip” process is being abused and that is having a chilling effect on qualified Black judicial candidates.
“The reform that we pressed so hard for in the filibuster reform process itself will be still-born if the ‘blue slip’ process is not also reformed,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-Washington, D.C.).
Rep. Butterfield said that no one is letting the president off the hook, because more diversity is still needed in the 11th circuit where Cohen and Boggs, two White male judges, were just nominated.
Butterfield said that the 11th circuit serves a large population of African Americans, that’s why the region needs more Black judges on the bench.
“It’s the Deep South and we must have some movement,” said Butterfield. “If it means repealing the blue slip process that has been observed for years, then the blue slip needs to be discarded.”
January 16, 2014
By CHUCK BARTELS
An agreement awaiting a federal judge's final approval soon could end one of the nation’s most historic desegregation efforts following decades of court battles and $1 billion of special aid to Little Rock-area schools.
Lawyers and patrons are picking apart details of a proposed settlement among three school districts, state lawyers and others involved in the case to determine if it is fair. Unless U.S. District Judge Price Marshall finds fault with the deal, for the first time in more than a quarter century the state no longer will be required to make extra payments to help fund racial integration of schools.
In November, Marshall gave tentative approval to a plan that would end the state’s payments within four years. However, he heard formal arguments Monday and Tuesday on whether to officially end the dispute that has roots in the Central High School desegregation fight 56 years ago.
“I grew up in Arkansas; I remember the 1957 crisis,” said Jerry Guess, the superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District. “I believe all of this is entwined and I believe this is an important moment in education in Arkansas.”
Little Rock was the scene of the nation’s first major desegregation battle when President Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops to escort nine black schoolchildren into Central High School, the city system’s flagship school. Court cases involving desegregation have been in place during most years since then.
The Little Rock School District sued the state and the Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock districts in 1982, saying their policies had created a racial imbalance among schools countywide. Under terms of a 1989 settlement, the state of Arkansas agreed to give the districts extra money to boost desegregation efforts, including adding magnet schools and allowing student transfers.
Under the proposed settlement, payments that total nearly $70 million a year now would end in four years. Funds in the final year must be used to improve facilities. Without the settlement, the districts risk having payments stopped immediately, which almost happened two years ago.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who has since recused himself from the case, attempted to cut off the funding, saying the districts had become accustomed to the money and benefited more if they didn't fully comply with the settlement.
“It seems that the State of Arkansas is using a carrot and stick approach with these districts but that the districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job,” Miller wrote in 2011. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned him, saying no one had asked for the payments to end.
Taking that as a clue, the state petitioned to end the payments.
Marshall cannot modify the terms of the agreement; his role is only to approve or not approve it. If the agreement reached among the parties falls apart, a trial on the state's request is set for March.
Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said he doubted any objections raised would “impair approval of the settlement.”
John Walker, a state representative and noted civil rights attorney who also represents black schoolchildren as interveners, said he also sees no reason the judge would disapprove.
“Factually, nothing has changed since the last hearing,” Walker said.
Under the proposed agreement, students currently attending schools out of their home districts would be allowed to continue their studies without having to transfer back.
School patrons in Sherwood, a small city north of North Little Rock, have criticized plans to let the nearby Jacksonville area secede from the Pulaski County district while Sherwood cannot until the judge declares the district officially desegregated, or unitary.
Pulaski County’s unitary status has been held up by shortcomings in facilities, discipline, scholarships and student achievement, according to recent court documents.
“That does not offer us a ray of hope. ... We’ve been in this court case for 30 years,” said Linda Remele, a retired teacher and administrator who backs a separate district for Sherwood and has filed a written objection to the court.
However, the rest of the settlement does not necessarily signal an end to discrimination in the schools, he said.
“The only thing historic about (the settlement) is that the state no longer will have to pay money after four years for trying to help these districts do what they’re supposed to do,” Walker said, pledging to file another lawsuit if the districts falter.
But Walker said a new suburban high school illustrates the continuing problem for black children. The new high school is in heavily-white Maumelle, and a shiny new middle school in Little Rock is in the Chenal neighborhood, among the wealthiest enclaves in the state.
“The idea has to be that the intended beneficiaries (of the settlement) have their issues addressed,” Walker said. “Poor sections of the districts, including Jacksonville, are underserved.”