Thursday, November 21, 2013

Suffragists NOT Suffragettes!

This week, I was lucky enough to tour the Sewall- Belmont House and Museum with the other NOW interns. Tucked right on Capitol Hill between several Senate office buildings and the Capitol, this museum is a gem for any feminist. The House was the home to the National Women’s Party during the fight for Suffrage in the early 1900’s, and within its walls is a fascinating walk through the history of the suffrage movement and the brave leaders who spearheaded the effort. The museum holds everything from the small but important difference between “suffragists” and “suffragettes” (it’s suffragists!!), to the important speeches and banners that the leaders held in front of the White House in 1917. Although I consider myself to be well versed in the history of suffrage, this museum taught me so much about the drastic efforts of these great female leaders to earn the right to vote.
It was so fascinating to learn about the physical, emotional, and verbal abuse that suffragists suffered through just to earn something that today we see as a crucial right of democracy. While working at NOW, I am working towards equality for women every day, but this work is often through a telephone, on a computer, or at a well organized and civil rally. In 1917, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony were imprisoned, force fed, and physically abused in their fight for women’s equality. The political environment in which they were fighting for the right to vote was so oppressive that the President, Congress, and even the police would completely ignore them at best, and more often would conspire against them. It is crazy to think that the rally I attended last week for Social Security is the same place where these brave suffragist leaders were arrested for “traffic obstruction” as they picketed the White House for the right to vote.
As we were leaving our tour, our guide was sure to leave us with an important message that really put things in perspective. As young women, we often take for granted the fact that though the things we are fighting for are important, we have made it this far because of the foundation that these suffragist women built for us. Our guide reminded us not just to “stand up” through our votes, but to also “speak up” and encourage others to vote and to use the freedoms that were earned for us by these great suffragist leaders.

Law Schools at a Crossroad

With tuition steadily on the rise across the country, many students are losing interest in attending law school. Once considered a sure bet for a stable career, students are now faced with the gamble of paying anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 with no assurance of a job after graduation. More often than not, students accumulate a massive student loan debt by graduation and then are faced with a limited job market. Frank Wu, chancellor at Hastings College of Law says that “legal education is in crisis because there are too many lawyers, there are too many law students, and there are too many law schools.”

Last year, 46,000 students graduated from law school with hopes of starting a fruitful career in the field of law. However, nine months after they graduated, only 27,000 of them had full-time jobs as lawyers. At some law schools, such as the University of San Francisco, only one in four students found jobs as lawyers. Not only are these students faced with the burden of not being able to find a job in their field of expertise, but they are unable to pay off the substantial debt they have amassed due to law school tuition. Lila Milford, a third-year Santa Clara University law student said that she has had no luck finding a job: "I have a huge looming debt and no job, so it is really high-anxiety and stressful. I knew it was going to be challenging. I didn't know how challenging." With tuition on the rise and a limited job market, law school applications are drastically declining. According to The New York Times, the number of students applying to law school has dropped by one third since 2010. This is the lowest number of law school applications in more than a decade and applications will continue to decline if tuitions stay at the same high rates.

Early this September, a task force at the American Bar Association claimed that there are significant financial pressures on law schools, students, and “the predicament of so many students and recent graduates who may never procure the sort of employment they anticipated when they enrolled." In addition, the task force called for a number of changes in legal education including more flexibility in law school curriculums and new licensing programs for basic legal services that many Americans can simply not afford. President Obama recently addressed the ongoing issues surround high tuition of law schools suggesting that law school should only be two years long and students should spend their third year clerking or practicing at a firm getting hands-on experience. By doing this, the pay would be low to begin with but it outweighs the cost of paying for a third year of law school.

Charles Weisselberg, a law professor at UC Berkeley says that there is at least one positive change this current dilemma has welcomed: students no longer are going to law school simply because they do not know what else to do. Many Professors are noticing that nearly all of their students have a genuine interest in practicing law. As an aspiring lawyer, I can only hope that law school tuition will be more reasonable in the coming years and young lawyers have the opportunity to pursue a successful career.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sequestration and the Future of Government Research and Development

While the government shutdown is officially behind us, a new pressing issue is causing fresh panic among many federal agencies, the impending implementation of sequestration.Sequestrations are mandatory budget cuts that will decrease funding to numerous government agencies and initiatives. Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, 1.2 trillion dollars in automatic spending cuts are set to begin in January and continue over the next 10 years. Sequestrations are expected to have a devastating effect on federal research and development programs. The sequester will mean an automatic 6.4% cut to program funding levels in 2013 for most NDD programs including the National Science Foundation (NSF). These cuts will be across-the-board, with no agency able to control how the sequester impacts individual programs. NSF could lose a total of $2.5 billion in funding and there is little information on how the cuts will directly affect each program.
Sequestration will likely have the most substantial impact on energy efficiency initiatives planned by the Department of Energy (DOE), as it would impose an 8.2% reduction. This would decrease the DOE’s funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by $148 million. Budget cuts would also apply for programs such as Energy Star, Federal Energy Management, the State Energy Program, and the Weatherization Assistance Program. By decreasing funding to these programs, the US could potentially damage its economy. Benefits from investments in energy efficiency programs are proven and extensive, ranging from creating jobs to balancing budgets and saving money. Over 830,000 jobs were created in the energy and resource efficiency segment of the economy in 2010, according to a green jobs assessment by the Brookings Institute. This is an increase from the 675,000 jobs generated in 2003, suggesting that with sufficient support, job creation in energy efficiency will continue to grow. These gains, however, will be more difficult to achieve if Congress fails to avert the sequestration. In addition, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee have raised concerns about cuts to EERE, saying that reducing the budget for research and development would result in over a hundred layoffs across the country at the national labs. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is warning that funding reductions under the budget sequestration will disrupt and delay a plethora of clean energy programs, slowing initiatives to decrease clean energy manufacturing costs and scaling back the Energy Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E). Chu also argued that budget cuts at ARPA-E would slow progress "toward a transformed 21st Century energy sector."
Sequestrations are supposed to take effect by January 15th, but Democrats are determined to fight mandatory spending cuts that would substantially decrease R&D funding. They've conceded that the level of deficit reduction mandated by sequestration must remain in place, but are now proposing that the federal agencies receive more discretion to implement the sequestration. Democrats are also hoping to redirect cuts by reducing other programs such as farm subsidies and creating a minor increase in revenue by closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy. Although Republicans remain opposed to a tax increase, they appear to be very concerned about the possible consequences of large mandatory budget cuts. Recently, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee explained their opposition to continued sequestration. They described the cuts in dire terms, noting that further sequestration will force 100,000 soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen out of a job. It appears that both parties are interested in revising the sequestration plan, and we can expect them to negotiate more as the January deadline approaches.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Shifting Electorate=Gridlock

With the 2013 elections behind us, the countdown to the 2014 midterms has officially begun.  Issues such as the recent government shutdown and the increasingly failed rollout of healthcare exchanges under the Affordable Care Act have certainly raised the stakes as our nation heads toward the 2016 Presidential election.  Despite these issues, however, a shift of our nation's demographics has ultimately contributed to the deadlock, brinkmanship and partisanship that we currently see plaguing our government.

This week, I had the opportunity to observe a Brookings Institute panel of political experts discuss the upcoming 2014 midterm elections. Additionally, one day later, our class was lucky enough to speak with John Hudak, a Brookings Institute fellow and participant on the panel.  During both events, Mr. Hudak contended that the Republican Party faced significant demographic hurdles and has failed to nominate many quality candidates for important races.  Despite only a few major races taking place this year, the shift in the electorate and overall demographics were reaffirmed.  In Virginia, the race for Governor was won by Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic fundraiser. Governor-elect McAuliffe defeated Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, confirming Virginia's evolution as a state increasingly dominated by the Democratic-leaning Washington, D.C. suburbs.  President Obama used the same blueprint to carry the state in last year's presidential election.  Mr. McAuliffe benefited significantly from an electorate that was less white and less Republican than it was four years ago.  This demographic change is not only limited to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  States such as Ohio, North Carolina, Florida were Republican strongholds just a decade ago.

This demographic change, along with gerrymandering, has created significant gridlock amongst our elected officials in Washington. While Republican state governments are able to redistrict and gerrymander to put their candidates in easier positions to win House seats, they're unable to do so in Senate and Presidential elections.  Additionally, the number of voters in a midyear election is significantly less than in a general election.  This ultimately favors Republicans because younger voters who tend to vote Democrat will stay home.  But interestingly enough, Democratic Senators currently represent such "red" states as Montana, Alaska, Iowa, South Dakota, Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas.  Since House members from these are overwhelming Republican, a divide and subsequent gridlock has taken shape in both chambers of Congress.

As a result of this, the overall belief of the panel and other prominent political experts is that the House will remain controlled by Republicans while Democrats will keep the Senate. Republicans will use the same district lines that were put in place during the 2010 Census and subsequent Tea Party wave and Democrats should continue to take advantage of their upper hand in certain statewide elections.  While many of the political pundits will continue to dissect and analyze the prospects of 2014, our nation's demographics, electorate and gridlock won't be seriously tested until 2016.        

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Congress: A Life-long Career and Family Business

 A few weeks ago my class watched a documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? The documentary follows the 2004 campaign of Jeff Smith, a young man running for Congress. Jeff Smith’s campaign shed light on two major issues within the American legislative system.  One of the problems that plague our Congress and Senate currently is the lack of turn-over and the other being the increasing number of political dynasties.

The seats in Congress and the Senate are being held by one individual for decades. For example, the seat Jeff Smith was running for was only made available after the former Congressman, Dick Gephardt, decided to retire after nearly three decades as a representative. If incumbents choose not to retire they usually die while in office; two examples being Senators Rob Byrd and Ted Kennedy who spent nearly a half century in office.  House representatives serve two year terms, while Senators serve six year terms. It amazes me that we will not allow for a president to serve more than two terms in office but are content to allow our legislative body to hold crucial congressional seats for life.  It is my understanding that only the members of the Supreme Court were allowed to be appointed for life. I don’t believe that this is what our founding fathers hand in mind while establishing our government.

Current polls indicate that Congress has a low approval rating but the career politicians occupying those seats remain. These career politicians have been able to protect themselves against removal via gerrymandering as well as seniority practices. This is why an average Joe like Jeff Smith will never be able to usurp a seat from an established career politician. One has to wait until these individuals either decide to retire or die while in office. Even then seats are in danger of being held by a close relative of the former Congressman or Senator.

In the documentary one of the opponents that Jeff Smith was running against was Russ Carnahan. The Carnahans are a strong political family.  His grandfather A.S.J. Carnahan served seven terms in Congress. His father, Mel Carnahan, was a former governor and posthumous Senator elect, a position later served by his wife Jean Carnahan.  It is apparent that regardless of Jeff Smith’s qualifications, intentions, and popularity, he did not possess a notable political name like his opponent and unfortunately that makes a difference.  The Carnahans are not the only political family that has turned congressional seats into a dynasty. There are 37 current members who have relatives who have served in Congress and they are only increasing. As I witnessed in the documentary a political name does not necessarily mean that individuals are the most qualified. Congress does not need more incompetence and political monarchies are not helping at all.

Many are proposing a limit to the amount of terms an individual can serves in Congress. This limit would do away with the abuses stemming from seniority and political monarchies. Maybe then Congress would accurately represent the people of this country instead of supplying individuals with comfortable, lifelong careers for themselves and their relatives.