Category: Explainer

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
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Yesterday Zack Pruitt explained why when “sanctuary cities” disregard the rule of law on immigration, humanitarian issues become clouded and morality is challenged. But what exactly are sanctuary cities?

This short video by The Daily Signal explains what they are and why they’ve become so controversial.

greekbanks_3357117bWhat’s going on in Greece?

Greece is defaulting on a key debt owed to the international community—and the Greek government is putting the question of whether the country will default on even more government debt up for a popular vote this week.

How did Greece get into such a financial mess?

Too much debt. For the past twenty years the government of Greece has spent more than it has collected in taxes.

Wait, that can’t be all there is to it. The U.S. does the same thing, doesn’t it?

Yes, but the U.S. is a rich country with a good credit rating while Greece is not.

A good way to measure a country’s debt is to compare it to its GDP. The United States deficit averaged -3.03 percent of GDP from 1948 until 2014, reaching an all time high of 4.60 percent of GDP in 1948 and a record low of -12.10 percent in 2009 (low is bad). Greece averaged -7.19 percent of GDP from 1995 until 2014, reaching an all time high of -3.20 percent of GDP in 1999 and a record low of -15.70 percent of GDP in 2009. In other words, Greece spends about twice as much (as a percentage of its GDP) as does the U.S.

Let’s imagine two countries—Greece and the U.S.—as if they were persons: GDP would be the person’s “income”; the deficit would be “additional credit card debt”; and interest on the deficit would be like “interest on a credit card.”

The U.S. has a high income (16.7 trillion a year) and every year adds about 3 percent to the total it owes the credit card companies (the national debt). No one is too worried that the U.S. will default on its loans so the credit card companies give them a low interest rate (2.43 percent).

Greece, on the other hand, has a relatively modest income (242 billion, or 1/70 the size of U.S GDP) and adds a lot more to its debt every year (7 percent). Greece has a low credit score (i.e., the credit card companies aren’t sure Greece will pay off its debt) and so is charged a high interest rate (about 15 percent).

Now Greece is refusing to pay its creditors, causing financial turmoil throughout Europe.

If Greece is such a small economy why does it really matter if they default?
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ssm-caseThe Supreme Court issued its ruling today on the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. (You can find our explainer article on the case here.)

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia and Thomas joined. Scalia also wrote an opinion that was joined by Thomas. Thomas also filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Scalia. And Alito filed a dissent that was joined by Scalia and Thomas.

In the ruling and four dissents—which total 103 pages—there are dozens of interesting and important quotes. Here are 50 key passages you should know about.

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What was the same-sex marriage case that was decided by the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which is consolidated with three other cases—Tanco v. Haslam (Tennessee); DeBoer v. Snyder (Michigan); Bourke v. Beshear (Kentucky). These cases challenged two issues concerning whether the Fourteenth Amendment must guarantee the right for same-sex couples to marry.

o-SUPREME-COURT-BUILDING-facebookWhat issues was the court asked to decide?

The two issues that were answered in this case are:

1. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?

2. Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?

These are known as the “marriage” and “recognition” questions, respectively. The Court answered both in the affirmative.

What did the Court rule?
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Supreme CourtIn a significant victory for the Obama administration, the Supreme Court voted in a 6-3 decision in King v. Burwell that the Affordable Care Act authorized federal tax credits for eligible Americans living not only in states with their own exchanges but also in the 34 states with federal exchanges. Here is what you should know about the case and the ruling.

What was the case about?

At the core of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the Court noted, were three key reforms: (1) Guaranteed issue and community rating requirements, (2) Require individuals to maintain health insurance coverage or make a payment to the IRS, unless the cost of buying insurance would exceed eight percent of that individual’s income, and (3) Seek to make insurance more affordable by giving refundable tax credits to individuals with household incomes between 100 per cent and 400 percent of the federal poverty line

Additionally, Obamacare requires the creation of an “Exchange” in each State—basically, a marketplace that allows people to compare and purchase insurance plans. The law gives each State the opportunity to establish its own Exchange, but provides that the federal government will establish “such Exchange” if the State does not. This case hinged on what “an Exchange established by the State under [42 U. S. C. §18031]” could mean since several individual states refused to establish their own exchanges.

The Internal Revenue Service interpreted the wording broadly to authorize the subsidy also for insurance purchased on an Exchange established by the federal government. The four individuals who challenged the law argued that a federal Exchange is not an “Exchange established by the State,” and section 36B does not authorize the IRS to provide tax credits for insurance purchased on federal Exchanges. Several district courts agreed with the government, but because one sided with the plaintiffs the case ended up at the Supreme Court.

Can you explain that without the legalese?
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opm-hackWhat is the “OPM hack”?

The “OPM hack” refers to a massive data breach in which hackers, believed to be based in China, acquired personnel records of federal employees from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

What is the OPM?

The OPM (Office of Personnel Management) serves as the human resource department for the federal government. Among other duties the agency conducts background investigations for prospective employees, issues security clearances, and compiles records of all federal government employees.

How many records were stolen?

The OPM said that 4 million employees, both current and past employees, have been affected. But the American Federation of Government Employees, the union for federal employees, claimed Thursday that all federal employees and retirees, as well as one million former federal employees, had their personal information stolen. (UPDATE (7/10/15): The OPM has announced the records of  21.5 million Americans were stolen.)

The exact amount of data stolen, however, may be unknowable since, according to one U.S. official, “OPM officials and other authorities still don’t have a good handle on how much information was actually stored by OPM in the first place.”

What type of records were stolen?

Some of the records stolen were the Questionnaire for National Security Positions form, known as the SF-86 form. The 126-page form contains a plethora of information about an individual, including their Social Security number, birthdate, addresses, passport information, financial information, previous employment activities, connections to foreign nationals, etc.

When did the data breach occur?
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Pope-Francis-writing-On June 18, 2015, Pope Francis will issue the encyclical, Laudato si’. Here are some answers to questions people who aren’t Catholic—like me—may have about the document:

What is an encyclical?

The term encyclical (from the Greek egkyklios, kyklos meaning a circle) refers to a circular letter, that is, a letter that gets circulated to a particular group. A papal encyclical is a letter written by the Pope to a particular audience of patriarchs, primates, archbishops, and bishops of the Catholic Church. Sometimes encyclicals are written to an even narrower group (e.g., the bishops of a particular country) but they normally tend to be for a broader audience. Encyclicals addressed to the bishops of the world are generally concerned with matters which affect the welfare of the Church at large.

What do encyclicals do?

As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains, encyclicals condemn some prevalent form of error, point out dangers which threaten faith or morals, exhort the faithful to constancy, or prescribe remedies for evils foreseen or already existent.

How many encyclicals have been published?

290, so far.

Have encyclicals always been issued by popes?
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hijab-caseIn the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that employers must offer a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious practices. Here is what you should know about that case.

What was the issue that sparked the lawsuit?

Samantha Elauf, a 17-year-old Muslim girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma, applied for a job at Abercrombie, a preppy clothing retailer, in 2008. After being interviewed by Heather Cooke, the store’s assistant manager, Elauf was given a rating that qualified her to be hired. However, the store has a policy forbidding employees to wear “caps.” Cooke informed her district manager that she believed Elauf wore her headscarf because of her faith. Her manager said that Elauf ’s headscarf would violate the store’s dress code, as would all other headwear, religious or otherwise, and directed Cooke not to hire Elauf.

The EEOC sued Abercrombie on Elauf ’s behalf, claiming that its refusal to hire Elauf violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII prohibits a prospective employer from refusing to hire an applicant in order to avoid accommodating a religious practice that it could accommodate without undue hardship. Abercrombie claimed that dress policy wasn’t discriminatory because it applied to all head coverings. In addition, they claim, Elauf had not even requested a religious accommodation.

The question presented to the Supreme Court was whether this Title VII prohibition applies only where an applicant has informed the employer of his need for an accommodation.

What was the ruling of the Court?
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patriot-actWhy is the Patriot Act back in the news?

Last night three key provisions of the law were allowed to expire (at least temporarily) after Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) blocked an extension of the program during a Sunday session of the Senate.

What is the Patriot Act?

The official title of the law is the USA Patriot Act of 2001, an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” The 320-page law, signed a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a series of bioterrorism incidents (i.e., anthrax attacks), was intended to “deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, to enhance law enforcement investigatory tools, and for other purposes.”

Beginning on December 31, 2005, many provisions of the act were set to expire unless Congress reauthorized them. Out of the sixteen sections, 13 were allowed to expire while three were reauthorized. After approval by Congress, President Bush signed an extension in 2006 and President Obama signed an extension in 2011. On June 1, 2015 the last three sections expired.

What were those last three sections that just expired?

The three sections that recently expired were:
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HUMAN_TRAFFICKING_8705943What is the story with the human trafficking bill?

The recent human trafficking bill, officially known as the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, was originally introduced in in the Senate on January 2015 by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). The bill had 34 cosponsors in the Senate, 13 Democrats and 21 Republicans (Sen. Barbara Boxer initially signed on as a cosponsor but withdrew her support a day later.) However, after initially supporting the bill, Democrats launched a filibuster because of language in the bill related to abortion.

In response, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow a vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch until the trafficking bill made it out of the Senate. After weeks of negotiations, a bipartisan agreement was reached and the bill was put up for a vote, passing unopposed (99-0).

Why did the Democrats oppose the bill?

Senate Democrats—including ten of the cosponsors—filibustered the bill to prevent it coming up for a vote after learning of opposition by abortion rights groups, such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood. The abortion lobby opposed the bill because it included the Hyde amendment, an addition routinely attached to annual appropriations bills since 1976 which bans federal funding of abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

According to NPR, Democrats said restrictions on abortions should apply to only taxpayer money, and that the fund created by the trafficking measure was not taxpayer money because it’s collected from fines on people convicted of sex-trafficking crimes. A deal was later reached which would allow the criminal fines to be used for victim services unrelated to health. The money related to the bill used for health services would still be subjected to the Hyde amendment.

As NPR’s Alisa Chang says, “both sides can say they won. Republicans can say no part of the fund pays for abortions. Democrats can say the Hyde Amendment was never expanded to apply to non-taxpayer money.”

What does the trafficking act do?
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