1. The Health Care Bill—The health care reform bill the Senate passed last Thursday will, despite its shortcomings, ensure coverage for 31 million Americans, prohibit insurance companies from discriminating against people based on pre-existing conditions and provide $200 billion a year in subsidies to Americans making up to 400 percent above the poverty line to make sure people can afford care. It does all this while decreasing the deficit in the long term. Perhaps most importantly, it establishes the principle that health care is a right, not a privilege—a mantra President Obama repeated throughout the 2008 campaign—and that the government has a responsibility to provide citizens with health care coverage.
2. Credit Card Reform—In 2004, 84 percent of African Americans and 75 percent of Latinos were carrying a credit card balance, compared to 51 percent of whites, making them especially vulnerable to random interest rate increases, hidden fees and all sorts of shenanigans that credit card companies use to pump up their profits. Blacks and Latinos were already making less money than whites when wages started stagnating, meaning that they became even more reliant on credit cards to juggle their finances. The credit card reform bill Obama signed last May prohibits unscrupulous practices and hidden fees. As Obama said during his speech commemorating the bill’s signing, the reforms are a significant help to those “who relied on credit cards not because they were avoiding responsibilities, but precisely because they wanted to meet their responsibilities—and got trapped.”
3. Reforming the Civil Rights Division—Under the Bush administration, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice faltered in its responsibility to enforce anti-discrimination laws and protect the voting rights of minorities. Run by political appointees ideologically opposed to the historical mission of the division, the number of cases filed by the housing, disability rights and voting rights sections fell drastically. Since being confirmed, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez has declared the Civil Rights Division “back in business.” The preliminary numbers are encouraging: The Division has prosecuted the largest number of hate crimes since the last time a Democrat was in office.
4. Signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber’s plant in Gadsden, Alabama, for nearly twenty years before she discovered that her male counterparts, often with less experience or seniority, were making far more money than her. When her lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court, the final 5-4 decision set a terrible precedent: An employer could discriminate against an employee as long as they managed to get away with it for 180 days before the employee found out. Nine days after being inaugurated, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—the first bill of his presidency—into law, which extends the statute of limitations to 180 days after the last discriminatory paycheck, rather than when the discriminatory wage was first set. The potential implications in a country where African-American men and women earn 72 cents and 64 cents respectively for every dollar that white men earn are obvious. (White women make 74 cents for every dollar white men make.)
5. Reforming Mandatory Minimum Sentencing—It happened without much fanfare or notice, but an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act the President signed in November directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review all the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, the first time it has been directed to do so since 1991Since taking office, the administration has made no secret of its eagerness to eliminate the infamous crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Attorney General Eric Holder called the disparity “unwarranted” and said that it “must be eliminated.” But while the crack/powder disparity’s days are obviously numbered, the decision to order a review of all mandatory minimum sentencing could result in more humane and effective corrections policies across the board.
Adam Serwer is a regular contributor to The Root.