Health Insurance Coverage Expands Under Affordable Care Act

More working-age adults have health insurance after the first open enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act, according to a survey conducted by the Commonwealth Fund.

For people aged 19-64, the uninsured rate dropped from 20 percent before the open enrollment period began to 15 percent afterwards. An estimated 9.5 million fewer adults were uninsured.

In states that chose to expand their Medicaid rolls, the uninsured rate for those living in poverty dropped from 28 to 17 percent. There was no significant change in states that did not expand Medicaid.

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Job Training Bill Approved

The House of Representatives passed legislation on July 9 consolidating and updating existing federal jobs training programs. The bill, dubbed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (HR 803), passed by a vote of 415-6. It was previously passed by the Senate on June 25 by a vote of 95-3. It now heads to the White House where President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

The bill authorizes $58 billion in federal funding over 6 years, while eliminating 15 programs deemed redundant. It applies a single set of outcome metrics to every federal workforce program and authorizes states and local workforce boards to implement pay-for-performance contracts for training programs, according to a bill summary.

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President Requests $3.7 Billion to Address Border Crisis

On July 8, President Obama requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding from Congress to address a surge of Central American children who have crossed the U.S. southern border.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children and an additional 39,000 women with children have crossed the border this year, far higher than normal levels. Most are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

The requested funding includes $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to provide food and shelter for the immigrants and an additional $1.6 billion for enforcement by the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security.

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Supreme Court Backs Religiously-based Objections to Federal Law for Corporations

In a 5-4 decision issued June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a for-profit corporation can be exempted from laws on the basis of religious belief. The decision came in a case (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby) in which the owners of an arts and crafts company, Hobby Lobby, objected to federal requirements that its insurance plans cover contraception.

The decision was based on an interpretation of a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, not the First Amendment to the Constitution.

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Same-sex Couples Treated as Married for Federal Tax Purposes

Same-sex couples that are legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriages will be treated as married for federal tax purposes, according to a ruling issued by the IRS and Treasury Department on August 28.

According to the IRS/Treasury announcement:

Under the ruling, same sex couples will be treated as married for all federal tax purposes, including income and gift and estate taxes. The ruling applies to all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor, including filing status, claiming personal and dependency exemptions, taking the standard deduction, employee benefits, contributing to an IRA, and claiming the earned income tax credit or child tax credit.

The decision comes two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits.

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NYC “Stop and Frisk” Policy Ruled Unconstitutional

U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” policy unconstitutional in an August 12 decision.

According to city officials, police stops have helped sharply curb major crimes in New York, including murders. But Scheindlin ruled that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

About 83 percent of all stops between 2004 and 2012 involved blacks and Hispanics, although only about half of the city’s residents fall into these two groups.

Under a 1968 Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio, stopping and frisking is not inherently unconstitutional. It is allowed under certain conditions. Scheindlin directed the city to impose new limits on the policy, including establishing a pilot program where some police officers will wear cameras to record such stops. The ruling also directs the city to solicit public comments on how to reform its tactics.

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Obama Asks Congress for Authority to Consolidate Federal Agencies

On January 13, President Obama called on Congress to grant him authority to merge multiple federal agencies, subject to an up or down vote of Congress.

The president said that if given this power, his first use of it would be to consolidate six departments that focus on business and trade: the U.S. Department of Commerce’s core business and trade functions, the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

According to the administration, presidents had similar authority from 1932 until 1984, when it lapsed. The president challenged members of Congress to support the proposal. Many have previously supported similar measures, but heightened election-year polarization may make any proposal difficult to get through Congress this year.

The proposal is called the Consolidation Authority Act.

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Justice Department Says Obama Recess Appointments Are Constitutional

In an opinion dated January 6, the Department of Justice said that recent appointments made by President Obama while the Senate was in pro-forma session were constitutional.

The Constitution permits presidents to make appointments when it is in legislative recess. To block such appointments, the Senate has been staying in pro-forma session, with some sessions lasting just a few minutes or seconds per day.

In a Justice Department memo, Virginia A. Seitz, the assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote that these pro-forma sessions were not legitimate sessions and could not be used to justify blocking recess appointments.

According to a separate Congressional Research Service report about the president’s recess appointment power:

… the clause was meant to allow the President to maintain the continuity of administrative government through the temporary filling of offices during periods when the Senate was not in session, at which time his nominees could not be considered or confirmed. This interpretation was bolstered by the fact that both houses of Congress had relatively short sessions and long recesses between sessions during the early years of the republic. In fact, until the beginning of the 20th century, Congress was, on average, in session less than half the year. Throughout the history of the republic, Presidents have also sometimes used the recess appointment power for political reasons. For example, recess appointments enable the President to temporarily install an appointee who probably would not be confirmed by the Senate.

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Military Strategy Revised In Light of Reduced Spending

President Obama joined Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon on January 5 to announce a revised national security strategy, responding in part to budget cuts imposed on the Pentagon last year.

The overall defense budget is now $662 billion, but $489 billion in cuts over the next 10 years have already been approved by Congress. Another $500 billion in cuts may be implemented starting in 2013 if Congress does not adopt other measures to reduce the deficit.

The new plan will move the U.S. further from being able to fight two major wars at the same time, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or a possible conflict with North Korea. However, analysts suggest that the United States already falls well short of that goal, as was demonstrated when forces were diverted from Afghanistan during the conflict in Iraq.

The strategy envisions a “rebalancing” of forces away from Europe and toward the Asia-Pacific region, where China is seen as a rising, and possibly hostile, power. The document recommits the U.S. to its Asian allies, particularly India. Commitments to the Middle East and Israel are maintained.

The new strategy also places an increased emphasis on cyberwarfare, special operations forces, stealth technology, and counter terrorism.

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U.S. Sanctions on Iran Raise Stakes in Middle East

On December 31, President Obama signed legislation that would impose sanctions on foreign banks handling transactions involving Iranian oil. The sanctions were imposed to pressure Iran into abandoning a suspected nuclear weapons program.

Iran has reportedly begun enriching uranium at an underground complex near the city of Qom. Some experts say Iran could produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb within a year.

The sanctions are making it more difficult for Iran to sell all of its 2.6 million barrels of oil per day. The European Union is considering similar measures.

In response, Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil supplies flow. Iran has also threatened to take action if an American aircraft carrier group returns to the Persian Gulf.

The sanctions are included in Section 1245 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012.

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