A leading black gay-rights organization says that President Obama's new stand against the Defense of Marriage Act has especially high stakes for African-American LGBT families.
Big news from the Department of Justice, which announced that President Obama ordered the administration to stop fighting for Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. He's decided that the federal law, which defines marriage as only between a man and a woman, discriminates against gay spouses and, therefore, is unconstitutional. It remains in effect unless Congress repeals it, and the administration will continue to enforce it -- but they will no longer defend it in court.
The president had always opposed DOMA, even promising a repeal from the campaign trail, but the Justice Department is required to defend federal laws if reasonable arguments can be made. Yet in light of two new lawsuits challenging Section 3, the administration concluded that gays and lesbians deserved a higher standard of scrutiny.
"This decision is about the president's recognition that DOMA is not just a law on the books, but a deliberate strategy to bring discrimination against the LGBT community," says Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Lettman-Hicks told The Root that she believes Obama's stand against DOMA is directly related to the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and an effort to now acknowledge and extend benefits to gay military spouses. “We're removing the discriminatory practice of not admitting openly gay and lesbian individuals into the military, but, at the highest level of government, DOMA is just another layer of discrimination,” she said.
In terms of civilians, Lettman-Hicks points out that a reversal of DOMA would also have particularly high stakes for black LGBT families. “The last Census showed that black families headed by same-sex couples are two times more likely to be raising children than white same-sex couples,” she explained. “We're nontraditional households. We take in our nieces and nephews and everyone else, as well as having our own children. The trends of black LGBT families are not much different than those of the greater black community.”
By virtue of that, ending DOMA would give those families the federal protections of marriage, such as health care benefits and family tax credits. The president's decision doesn't get them there yet, but it's a big step in that direction.
As for “But what took him so long?” skepticism surrounding the announcement, Lettman-Hicks rushed to the president's defense. In fact, the National Black Justice Coalition recently issued a Midterm Report Card (pdf) giving the Obama administration high marks for a commitment to equality for LGBT people.
"I think that anyone who would chastise the president, who has done more for gay rights in two years than any of his predecessors, are on some new-wave cynicism to think that public policy changes overnight," she said. "I find the ardent support he has given the LGBT community unprecedented -- to not think of the political consequences, but to think about what's right."
A new bill co-sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott hopes to put long-term unemployment assistance back on the political map -- but at what point should unemployment benefits just expire?
Every few months, a renewed debate seems to play out in Congress over extending unemployment benefits. Republicans claim that, given the deficit, extending benefits is fiscally irresponsible. (Some also argue that it discourages people from looking for work because apparently they'd rather sit around collecting meager checks.) Democrats counter that, in light of the country's deep economic hardship, now is not the time to focus singularly on the deficit.
The latest version of this dispute involves the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Expansion Act, introduced by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Aimed at "99ers" -- people who have exhausted the maximum 99 weeks of unemployment insurance without finding work -- the bill would extend emergency benefits for 14 more weeks.
According to a Congressional Research Service report (pdf), in October 2010 there were roughly 1.5 million 99ers in the country.
Lee and Scott tried to add the measure to the House's Continuing Resolution that will fund government operations through the end of the fiscal year, but it was blocked by Republicans last week.
"It's a matter of priorities," Congressman Bobby Scott told The Root in an interview, measuring recent tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and wealthy estates against cutting off aid for the long-term unemployed.
"You cannot disconnect the budget struggles we're having today from the tax cuts from two months ago. If you spend $800 billion over two years, and then say, ‘We're broke and have to cut spending,' there's a connection. When you have no money and compassion for hardworking Americans who are struggling because the jobs don't exist, but you just had money and compassion for dead multi-millionaires, it just seems to be a warped sense of priorities."
Scott says that extending unemployment insurance is not just important for sympathetic reasons, but that it also has economic advantages. "If your goal is to create jobs in terms of stimulating the economy, economists have determined that investments in unemployment compensation are the most effective investments you can make," he said, citing studies that show a positive ripple effect from unemployment insurance as the money spreads through the economy. "That's in stark contrast to the tax cuts for the wealthy that we just passed, which will generate virtually no economic impact."
Still, after 99 weeks of unemployment benefits…should there be a point when they just expire? We can't afford to pay it forever, right? Scott isn't troubled by these questions.
"It is inappropriate to discontinue someone's unemployment compensation when the jobs aren't there," he said, explaining that there are currently four times more people looking for jobs than there are jobs available. Some positions have gone overseas, some have been overtaken by technology, and other businesses are just getting by with fewer employees. "These are people who had been working and are actively looking for a job, but however hard they look a lot of them will not be able to find one. It's not like they would rather be idle. To suggest that there's nothing that can be done is just not fair.
"One of the tragedies in this," Scott continued, "is that, as some of the jobs have disappeared and people need new skills, the Continuing Resolution cuts job training. It adds insult to injury."
Scott says that he and Congresswoman Barbara Lee will continue to bring up the 99ers bill at every opportunity. But with a Republican-controlled House it stands a slim chance of becoming law.
"If it doesn't pass, the Republican majority will be responsible," Scott said. "They have had several opportunities already, and there will be continuing opportunities, to help those most in need. The jobs aren't there, so this issue is not going to go away."
On the second anniversary of the stimulus act, nobody's exactly calling for celebration.
Break out the bubbly ... or not.
Thursday, Feb. 17, marked the second anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. For the occasion, various camps inside the Beltway gave their reflections on the $787 billion piece of legislation intended to shore up the collapsing economy. Needless to say, there's quite a sweeping range of thought.
Representing the GOP, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus wrote a scathing Washington Times op-ed dismissing ARRA as having done zilch to help the economy. "What has been the result of nearly $1 trillion spent on the so-called stimulus?" he wrote. "Twenty-one months of unemployment at or above 9 percent, 2.6 million jobs lost, unsustainable budget deficits and an ever growing national debt."
Yet according to new think-tank analyses, from the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Economic Policy Institute, the stimulus act worked. The CLASP report applauded the Recovery Act's subsidized jobs program, which used $1.3 billion to create opportunities for hard-to-employ workers with limited education or criminal records. The report found that the program placed more than 260,000 low-income workers in private sector jobs, in positions ranging from administrative, sales, construction, customer service and health care.
The EPI breakdown considered the economy's extremely dire straits when Obama first took office (including a loss of 750,000 jobs per month). "With unemployment at 9.7 percent today, it's hard to appreciate how much more damage the stimulus investments prevented," said EPI Vice President Ross Eisenbrey, who posited that the unemployment rate would have been significantly worse without the Recovery Act.
Faint praise, for sure, but most economists agree that the stimulus "worked" in terms of averting a financial meltdown -- stabilized markets and GDP growth, for example. But without enough new jobs created to offset unemployment, it's hardly anything to get excited about. And prospects of improvement are slim, if House Speaker John Boehner's style is any indication.
At a press conference this week, Boehner was asked about federal employees potentially losing their jobs if House Republicans achieve their plan to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending this year. Boehner took a "That's the breaks" approach.
"If some of those jobs are lost, so be it," he said. "We're broke."
Now that everyone's had their say on his 2012 federal budget, President Obama addressed people's doubts but defended his choices.
On the heels of criticism over his 2012 federal budget proposal, from both the left and right, President Obama joined the fray in a Tuesday morning news conference where he defended his choices.
The president notably responded to the impression that his budget, with its focus on small domestic programs, puts too much on the backs of the poorest Americans. Echoing the rationale provided earlier by members of his administration, he first explained the reasoning behind certain unpopular cuts, like the Pell Grant and LIHEAP funding.
He continued that his budget adds dollars to other areas to help the vulnerable, such as restoring funds that had been cut from food stamps (SNAP), allocating more money to public school districts, backing science and technology programs to bring underrepresented students to those fields, and boosting infrastructure spending.
“Sometimes I'm just frustrated by the number of people out there who are struggling, and you want to help every single one individually,” he said, when asked if he really understands the pain of cash-strapped Americans. “You almost feel like you want to be a case worker and just start picking up the phone and advocating for each of these people who are working hard, trying to do right by their families.
“But my job is to make sure that we’re focused over the long term: Where is it that we need to go? And the most important thing I can do as president is make sure that we’re living within our means, getting a budget that is sustainable, investing in the future and growing the economy. If I do that, then that’s probably the most help I can give to the most number of people.”
Another common critique on the budget is that it makes no mention of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, despite those being the biggest long-term drivers of the deficit. The president said that those are negotiations he’ll be making with Congress over the next few months.
“I said in the State of the Union and I'll repeat, that side of the ledger only accounts for about 12 percent of our budget,” he said. “So we've got a whole bunch of other stuff that we're going to have to do, including dealing with entitlements.”
Obama took care to mention, however, that he doesn’t want to significantly tamper with Social Security, which he described as being less of a deficit-driver than the other two.
The president also addressed the fact that his budget ignores most of the proposals offered by his bipartisan fiscal commission, which put sacred-cow expenditures, like tax breaks for homeowners and military spending, on the chopping block. Yet, going by Obama’s budget, it’s almost like the commission never existed.
He pointed out that the report was also so divisive that it couldn’t get the required 14 votes from the full 18-member commission. One person who notably passed from signing on was the chairman of the House Republican budgeters.
“He’s got a little bit of juice when it comes to trying to get an eventual budget done,” Obama said, repeating that he’ll have to work with both sides to arrive at something with a viable chance of passing. “I mean, my goal here is to actually solve the problem. It’s not to get a good headline on the first day.”
The presser’s recurring theme of both parties working together is a hopeful one, but Obama’s actual negotiations with Republicans are sure to be rife with conflict. His budget is just the opening bid for that drawn-out process.
As many reservations as I may have with the president’s proposal – namely its trimming of relatively small social programs over, say, seriously addressing the Pentagon’s massive budget – it beats the ideas that Republicans have put forth. They haven’t unveiled a 2012 budget yet, but the GOP vision for financing the rest of this year includes far bigger reductions to Pell Grants, heating assistance and CDBG funding, plus cutbacks in the WIC nutritional assistance program for low-income mothers.
On the matter of forthcoming budget negotiations, Obama said he knows it will be prickly but feels confident that both sides can navigate the situation together.
“I expect that all sides will have to do a little bit of posturing on television and speak to their constituencies, and rally the troops and so forth,” he said. “But ultimately, what we need is a reasonable, responsible, and, probably, somewhat quiet and toned-down conversation about where can we compromise and get something done.”
Amid backlash over tough budget cuts affecting lower-income Americans, White House officials try to smooth things over by putting the worst offenders in context.
President Barack Obama unveiled his budget request for the 2012 fiscal year on Monday, a thick document upwards of 2,000 pages that's had people grumbling well before its official release. The White House says the proposal would shave $1.1 trillion off the federal deficit over 10 years -- but the spending cuts needed to achieve that end are tough.
Advocates for poor Americans are disappointed by the budget’s cuts to programs like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and reductions in Pell Grants for low-income students, particularly when the president just extended tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
In a series of news briefings and conference calls, members of the administration have countered that hard cuts had to be made, and that in context maybe they're not so bad. Here's how senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, Office of Management and Budget director Jacob Lew, and Council of Economic Advisors member Cecilia Rouse make their case for three budget requests that have people giving the president the side-eye.
1. Pell Grants for Lower-Income College Students: CUT BY $100 BILLION
Cecelia Rouse explained that the savings used from cutting back on Pell Grants will be used to keep the maximum financial aid award at $5,550. The offset was necessary, she said, given the sharp influx of students applying for Pell Grants during the recession. The cuts were made to the parts of the program that were the least effective.
“We looked for two programs which we think don’t have the same bang for the buck. The first one was the second Pell, which is used over the summer. We don’t think it’s actually helping students accelerate their degree. We think it’s instead going to students who could otherwise still afford to go to college in the summer.
“The second place where we felt our dollars weren’t being used as wisely is the in-school interest subsidies for graduate students. Graduate students who have taken out loans currently do not pay interest while they’re still in school, and yet again we don’t have evidence where that really makes a difference for completion. It will add a very small amount to the overall loan burden for these students, and yet it's very expensive. Instead the president said it’s really important that we get those lower-income students who otherwise wouldn’t go to college -- get them into college, help them get their degree, and look for places where we thought we were subsidizing students which weren’t as effective.”
2. Community Development Block Grants: CUT BY $300 MILLION
Valerie Jarrett emphasized President Obama’s personal attachment to cities, as a former community organizer, before saying that the proposed cuts could have been far worse.
"Initially there were thoughts about doing dramatic cuts in CDBG – I had heard up to 25 percent. The president insisted on a very minor cut of seven and a half percent. We know that [communities] will feel that seven and a half percent, particularly in these dire times, but it was unacceptable for the president to do the draconian cuts in CDBG that had been contemplated. We don’t know what the Republicans will do in response, but we are going to fight hard to make sure that you have every CDBG dollar that we can possibly give."
3. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): CUT BY $2.5 BILLION
Jacob Lew said that the cuts were made due to a significant drop in energy prices – and that the administration will revisit the decision in case those prices change again.
“If you go back to 2008, [LIHEAP] was funded at roughly $2.5 billion. We had a huge spike in energy prices, and the program doubled to $5 billion. We’re now at a price level that's close to where we were before that increase. Looking at our fiscal challenges, we can’t just straight-line the program at $5 billion, so we have gone back to the level it was at when prices were roughly the same.
“It’s a program that's done an enormous amount of good for an enormous number of people. It was never meant to be an entitlement program; it was meant to be a grant program that the states administered. Its funding level has fluctuated based on needs. Balancing our fiscal challenges and the funding change from 2008 to now, we made the tough decision. And we will keep our on eye on where prices go, and what the need in the future is.”