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Closer to Universal Health Care

President Obama's health care bill moved a step closer to passage when Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted to cut off a Republican filibuster. With members voting strictly along party lines, the 60-40 vote indicated that the Democrats had rounded up the votes they need despite vehement opposition from Republicans and sharp criticism from some experts that the legislation may prove costly to taxpayers.

The New York Times reports the decisive vote took place at 1 a.m. in a city still digging out from a record December snowstorm. A final vote on the bill could come on Christmas Eve if there are no other procedural snags. "Health care in America ought to be a right, not a privilege," said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut. "Since the time of Harry Truman, every Congress, Republican and Democrat, every president, Democrat and Republican, have at least thought about doing this. Some actually tried."

The legislation aims to add some 30 million uninsured Americans to the rolls.   The bills in the House and Senate differ substantially with the House bill still proposing the public option the Senate has dropped. The bills would bar the insurance companies from denying coverage and would require nearly all Americans to buy insurance. Some would be covered through an expansion of Medicaid while moderate-income Americans would receive subsidies from the federal government.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that the $871 billion cost of the bill would be more than offset by the new revenues and cuts in spending, so that it would reduce future federal budget deficits by $132 billion between 2010 and 2019.

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Death Sentences Down

For the first time in 10 years, the number of executions in the United States has not declined.  According to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center, 52prisoners were put to death in 2009, compared to 37 in 2008 and 42 in 2007. The increase is attributed to the de facto moratorium imposed in 2008 while U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of lethal injection.

On the other hand, American juries have become more reluctant to apply the death penalty than in the past. In 2009, the death sentence was imposed in 109 cases, a third of the record number of 328 reached in 1994. In the 1970s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences compared to nine in 2009.

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The growing awareness of judicial error may be one reason juries have become reluctant to extract the ultimate price from the convicted. Nine men sentenced to death were exonerated this year, the second highest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Since 1973, 139 prisoners on death row have been exonerated.  States are also using the high cost of maintaining the death penalty as a reason for abolishing it. This year, New Mexico became the 15th state to ban the death sentence.  According to the center, 34 percent of those executed since 1973 were black, 7 percent were Hispanic and 57 percent were white. The full report is here.

Minority Farmers Sue USDA

Remember the U.S. Department of Agriculture? Probably not if you're an urbanite. But it turns out this federal agency was a hotbed of racial discrimination for decades. In 1999, the agency settled a class-action case known as the Pigford case with some 15,000 black farmers, paying out $1 billion for systematically denying them farm loans.

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Now other minorities are suing the USDA for the same reason. Native-American farmers are in negotiation with the agency, alleging systematic discrimination in the agency's farm loan program. Hispanic farmers and women farm owners have also sued, although a federal judge has denied them class status. This means they cannot proceed as a group but as individuals.

The Washington Post reports that Alberto Acosta, a New Mexico chili farmer, is one of 110 Hispanic farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Washington who have joined a suit against the USDA. Acosta applied 10 years ago to a loan program that serves as a last resort for farmers who cannot secure private financing. In 1998 and 1999, he was granted $92,000 in loans by the department. But because Acosta spoke Spanish, a USDA loan officer was required to sign off on every significant expense. Acosta had to drive 260 miles each way to the USDA office whenever he wanted to buy a piece of farm equipment, and he had to pay for and provide his own translator for each visit.  He eventually went into foreclosure.

Under the Obama administration, investigators have been sent into the field to investigate the claims for the first since 1997, when the Pigford case was pending. A USDA spokesman told the Post, "USDA is committed to ending all forms of discrimination and addressing past allegations in a timely and fair manner." For a dwindling number of minority farmers, winning the case will still be too late to save their land.

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France's Identity Debate

The identity debate in France keeps getting hotter. The tempest was triggered by President Nicolas Sarkozy in September when he proposed a national discussion on what it means to be French.  In their typical Gallic fashion of parsing the obvious, the French instead chose to debate why they were having the debate.

The discussion took on added urgency after late November's surprising vote in Switzerland to ban minarets in mosques. A poll in France showed that small majority favored a similar ban. One sentiment brought out by the discussion has been a feeling among the majority that Muslims should do more to blend into French society., the Los Angeles Times reported.

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Critics say the discussion has opened a Pandora's Box that serves far-right political parties like the National Front. Historian Jean-Yves Mollier said the debates would only further stigmatize those who didn't fall into France's native ruling caste.

Sarkozy has defended his initiative as a means for the French to let out suppressed feelings about their national identity. "It's by becoming deaf to the cries of the people, indifferent to their difficulties, their feelings, aspirations, that we nourish populism," he wrote in an editorial in Le Monde. "Nothing would be worse than denial" that the French and Europeans "feel that they are losing their identity."

For France's minorities, the debate is just another in a long line of talks that fail to result in action against blatant discrimination in employment, housing and policing.