Category: Explainer

Today in the United States is the federal holiday known as Washington’s Birthday (not “Presidents Day—see item #1). In honor of George Washington’s birthday, here are 5 things you should know about the day set aside for our America’s founding father.

George Washington1. Although some state and local governments and private businesses refer to today as President’s Day, the legal public holiday is designated as “Washington’s Birthday” in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code. The observance of Washington’s birthday was made official in 1885 when President Chester A. Arthur signed a bill establishing it as a federal holiday.

2. Washington was actually born on February 11, 1732, under the Julian calendar in effect at the time he was born. But his birthday is considered to be February 22 under the Gregorian calendar which was adopted throughout the British Empire in 1752.

3. Because the public holiday is on the third Monday in February, the observance can never again occur on Washington’s actual birthday since the third Monday in February cannot occur any later than February 21.

4. Some sources—including Wikipedia and the U.S. Mint—incorrectly claim that President Nixon changed the name of the holiday to “Presidents’ Day” to honor all past presidents. While Nixon did issue an executive order making the third Monday in February a public holiday, the claim that he changed the name is a modern myth. “President’s Day” was created by marketers who jumped at the opportunity to play up the three-day weekend with sales, and “Presidents’ Day” bargains were advertised at stores around the country.

5. Almost every February 22 since 1888 President Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address has been read in the United States Senate. Here is the text of that address:

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islamic-state-beheads-christiansWhat just happened in Libya?

Islamic State (IS) released a video on Sunday that appeared to show the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya. The footage showing the deaths of the Egyptian martyrs appeared on the Twitter feed of a website that supports IS.

In the video, militants in black marched the captives, dressed in orange overalls, to a beach the group said was near Tripoli, the capital of Libya. The victims—all men—were forced down onto their knees and then beheaded.

A caption on the five-minute video read: “The people of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian church.” Before the killings, one of the militants stood with a knife in his hand and said: “Safety for you crusaders is something you can only wish for. . . The sea you have hidden Sheikh Osama Bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”

The militant speaker then pointed northward and said, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”

The video is one of the first showing beheadings by IS affiliated group outside their core territory in Syria and Iraq.

Why were the Egyptian Christians in Libya?

According the Jerusalem Post, despite the increasing chaos in Libya, thousands of Egyptians have traveled to the region over the past four years in search of jobs. The 21 Christians were workers kidnapped by IS in December and January from the coastal town of Sirte in eastern Libya, an area now under the control of Islamist groups.

Who is Islamic State?
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244-BudgetCover-FY2016What is the President’s budget?

Technically, it’s only a budget request—a proposal telling Congress how much money the President believes should be spent on the various Cabinet-level federal functions, like agriculture, defense, education, etc. (A PDF of the 150 page document can be found here.)

Why does the President submit a budget to Congress?

The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 requires that the President of the United States submit to Congress, on or before the first Monday in February of each year, a detailed budget request for the coming federal fiscal year, which begins on October 1.

What is the function of the President’s budget request?

The President’s annual budget request serves three functions:
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nigeria-boko-haramWhat’s going on in Nigeria?

During an attack that started January 3 and continued through this past weekend, the African Islamic militant group Boko Haram opened fire on 16 northern Nigerian villages. The death toll estimates range from 200 to as many 2,000 people.

Another 10,000 people who managed to escape have fled to neighboring Chad. Many Nigerians drowned in an attempt to cross Lake Chad to escape what is now described as  the “deadliest massacre” in the history of Boko Haram.

Over the past six months, Boko Haram has taken control of more than two dozen towns in northeast Nigeria, most of them in Borno State, and launched attacks into Chad and Cameroon. As Alexis Okeowo notes, their territory now nearly equals the Islamic State’s in Iraq and Syria.

What happened this weekend?

A girl believed to have been no more than 10 years old detonated a bomb concealed under her veil at a crowded northern Nigeria market on Saturday, killing as many as 20 people and wounding many more.

The explosion is believed to be a new tactic in the Islamists’ campaign with Boko Haram’s decision to use perhaps their youngest-ever suicide bomber.

What was the recent criticism by the Catholic archbishop?
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Yesterday, in a short, videotaped preview of his upcoming State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled a new proposal: Make two years of community college free for all students who meet certain eligibility standards.

Here is what you should know about the proposal.

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charlie-hebdoWhat just happened in Paris?

Today at 11:30 a.m. local time in Paris (5:30 a.m. ET), two gunmen wearing black hoods and carrying Kalashnikovs killed twelve people, including two police officers, and seriously wounded four others in an apparent terrorist attack on the offices of a French satirical news magazine that had published cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad.

The gunmen escaped and are currently on the loose and being hunted by French police. (The police say they are looking for three men.)

Why is it assumed to be a terrorist attacks by Muslims?

In an eyewitness video of the attack, the gunmen are heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) while the shootings took place.

According to a video shot from a nearby building and broadcast on French TV, one of the men shouted in French, “Hey! We avenged the Prophet Muhammad! We killed Charlie Hebdo.”

The attack is believed to be in response to a recent tweet by the publication of a cartoon of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, with the caption (in French): “Best wishes, by the way.”

France has raised its terror threat level following the shooting.

What is Charlie Hebdo?
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As the most widely observed cultural holiday in the world, Christmas is a time of produces many things — joy, happiness, gratitude, reverence. And numbers. Lots of peculiar, often large, numbers. Here are a few to contemplate this season:

christmasnumbers$35.03 – Average amount U.S. consumers spent on real Christmas trees in 2013.

$81.30 – Average amount U.S. consumers spent on fake Christmas trees in 2013.

33,000,000 – Number of real Christmas trees sold in the U.S. each year.

9,500,000 – Number of fake Christmas trees sold each year.

7 – Average growing time in years for a Christmas tree.

350 million – Number of Christmas trees currently growing on Christmas tree farms.

319 million – Current population of the United State.

$27.21 — The energy costs of lighting a six-foot Christmas tree, lit 12 hours a day for 40 days, decorated with various light types.

$1,000,000,000 – Estimated value of U.S. imports of Christmas tree ornaments from China between January and September 2014.

$24,000,000,000 – Estimated retail sales by the nation’s department stores (including leased departments) in December 2013. This represents an estimated 40.9 percent jump from the previous month when retail sales were estimated at 17.3 billion.

800,000 – Number of new employees hired to compensate for the holiday rush in 2013.

37.5% — Estimated percentage of charitable giving that occurs between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

$781 – Average amount people in the U.S. estimated they’ll spent in on Christmas presents in 2014.

108,000,000 — Average number of homes Santa Claus has to visit on December 25 (assuming there is at least one “nice” child in each).

20140305-cuba-exteriors-sl-1538_53ee39d1154ce422fc2278062244c068What just happened with Cuba?

Yesterday, President Obama announced that, “the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” He instructed Secretary Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to reestablish diplomatic relations that have been severed since 1961. High-ranking officials will visit Cuba and the U.S. will reestablish an embassy in Havana. He also instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.

The President also says the U.S. will take steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba. Americans who travel to Cuba will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions and exporters will be able to sell goods to the country.

Can the President do all that?

Sort of. The president controls the State Department, but the Congress controls the money. Senator Rubio (R-FL) has said that he’ll do everything he can to block funding for a Cuban embassy and prevent an ambassador from being selected.

The trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba also cannot be lifted without congressional approval. The executive branch has the authority under current law merely to issue licenses that permit US citizens and corporations to do business with Cuba, travel there, and send money to family members there.

Why the change now, after 50 years?
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garnerA New York grand jury refused to indict a police officer in the death of a 43-year-old man that was caught on video. Here are some details about the controversial case:

What was the incident that caused Garner’s death?

On July 17, 2014, two New York City police officers, Justin Damico and Daniel Pantaleo, attempted to arrest Eric Garner. When Garner resisted, Pantaleo grabbed him around the neck and tackled him to the ground. As Damico and three other officers assisted in pinning him to the sidewalk, Garner repeated nine times that he couldn’t breath. Garner was 6’3”, 350-pounds, and had a history of medical problems, including asthma.

Although Garner was in obvious respiratory distress, none of the officers or the EMT personnel who arrived on the scene performed CPR. He died of cardiac arrest a few minutes later while on the way to the hospital.

Why was Garner being arrested?
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Abolition-of-Slavery-dayTomorrow is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, a commemoration of the date of the adoption, by the General Assembly, of the United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (resolution 317(IV) of 2 December 1949). As part of the effort to help eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking across the world by 2020, Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and Orthodox leaders will gather at the Vatican tomorrow to sign a Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery.

Here are some things you should know about the modern slave trade:

What is modern-day slavery?

Modern-day slavery, also referred to as “trafficking in persons,” or “human trafficking,” describes the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.

How many people today are enslaved?
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