What a searing catastrophe of a year this has been. At every turn, politicians from both sides of the aisle have been falling all over themselves to act like total schmucks.
I know it's a total cliche to start a piece by listing a definition, but I have a specific word in mind for Republicans and Democrats alike to study before they take up arms in next year's session. That word, my friends, is "compromise".
A "compromise" is an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions. Those last four words there are very important. Both sides have to give a little for the greater good. It's a pretty easy concept that seems totally lost on the morons who sit and pontificate from Capitol Hill.
Nearly all of the complaints you're about to be bombarded with could have been completely avoided if Republicans and Democrats had been willing to give up the tiniest amount of ground in favor of making a deal. Congress has become a battlefield where every issue is treated as black and white, us and them.
The real question is, when did we start keeping score?
This year, the American people finally had several ironclad reasons to call for a course correction in the way our government is run, and yet very little change has been made. It's enough to make a guy lose faith in the whole system.
In fact, about the only positive thing you can say for politics in 2013 is "Thank God, 2014 is an election year."
Least effective Congress ever
In a list that's griping about how pitiful our elected leaders are doing, you have to start here, with their irrefutable record. This 113th Congress is set to be the least productive Congress in our nation's history.
Constant bickering, in-fighting and an almost complete inability to compromise on anything, has resulted in this Congress' near collapse. So far this year, a mere 55 laws have been signed into action, fewer than any other Congress on record.
These jokers haven't even been able pass revised versions of bills that literally every other Congress has come to a consensus on. That means there's currently no Highway Bill and no Defense Bill, and until about two weeks ago there wasn't even a settled budget. On top of that, we've had a delightful government shutdown and countless scandals thrown into the mix, all in a short 12 months.
Really think about that—the people we elected to represent our interests are so mired in bi-partisan playground games that they couldn't even agree that our nation's highways should be kept in shape.
Okay, okay, in their defense, these bills aren't as cut and dry as their simple names would have you believe. The Highway Bill isn't only about highways, the Defense Bill isn't only about protecting Americans, and so on and so forth. These documents are stuffed with enough off-topic junk and back-alley deals it would make your head spin.
But, you know what? Pork is Congress' fault, too! It seems as though politicians have begun to repeat the cycle of complaining about the incomprehensible bureaucracy in Washington while simultaneously working to make that bureaucracy more incomprehensible than ever.
And the best part about being called the least effective Congress ever? Most politicians are completely unrepentant. When confronted with these alarming statistics, Speaker John Boehner told the Huffington Post: "The House has continued to listen to the American people and to focus on their concerns. Whether it's the economy, whether it's jobs, whether it's protecting the American people from Obamacare -- we've done our work."
Well, at least someone is satisfied with the way things are going.
Obamacare . . . total mess
Depending on which side of the aisle you sit, The Affordable Health Care for America Act—or Obamacare— has been an ongoing stain on the face of the nation for over two years. At every turn, the push to give every American some kind of health insurance has been met with hatred, aggravation and misinformation from all sides.
This year, though, both parties fell all over themselves to sound off on this hot button issue. Republicans found a friend in hyperbole, while Democrats got comfy with incompetence.
Dr. Ben Carson called Obamacare, "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery." Rick Santorum recently went on record comparing Obamacare to Apartheid, because decades of racial segregation and abuse are roughly equal to a website that doesn't work. Ted Cruz might win for least comprehensible insult, though, when he said, "You may have noticed that all the Nigerian email scammers have become a lot less active lately,” Cruz said, according to the Houston Chronicle. “They all have been hired to run the Obamacare website.”
But those barbs had nothing (nothing!) on the bungled rollout of healthcare.gov or the flat out lies the administration told to get Obamacare up and running.
Chief among those falsehoods was the oft repeated slogan: "If you like your plan, you can keep it." In other words, "This whole healthcare thing isn't going to affect you unless you want it to." Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of people who've already lost their health insurance coverage thanks to these new laws.
For those Americans who were eagerly anticipating the availability of cheap insurance, things weren't any better. For starters, the rollout of healthcare.gov was a horrible, flaming train wreck of a disaster.
Site outages, errors, and a poor user interface marred healthcare.gov's first weeks in the public eye. Less than 2 percent of the Americans (roughly 106,000 people) who were expected to need Obamacare were able to get it during October. November's numbers weren't much more promising, as the site was cleaned up enough to allow enrollment numbers to triple. That's still over 6 million shy of the Obama administrations intended goal of 7 million covered Americans by March of next year.
In the meantime, if you can't get the site to work, you can always call in. Judging by how efficiently most government operations are run, though, I'd imagine that'd be a little like visiting the DMV while filling out a tax form and trying to get a Comcast customer service rep on the phone—while being eaten alive by piranhas.
Who said the government always had to be open for business?
Early in December, Paul Ryan and Patty Murray, the people who run the budget committees in the House and Senate respectively, came forward with a two-year budget proposal. And good for them!
Too bad they only came to an agreement after literally a year of bickering and nonsense that cost this country millions of dollars and severely impacted several thousand government employees who paid the price for our elected leaders' selfish jacka**ery.
In late September, the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate scurried to pass a budget for the coming year. Unfortunately, the warring tribes that inhabit our legislative branch were at an impasse. House Republicans refused to approve a budget that included any funds that would be used for Obamacare. The Senate Democrats, in turn, refused to pass any budget that appeared to make them lose face. It kind of went like:
Democrats: Republicans are just ticked off because the American people voted for Obamacare. They lost and they just won't accept it.
Republicans: We approved all the money required to run the federal government, we just removed the Obamacare stuff. Dems are the ones who let the doors close.
And that's where things stood on Oct. 1. That's the day the new budget was set to begin, and that's the day the government found itself without the ability to pay almost two million employees. Roughly 800,000 federal employees were sent home during the two weeks of the shutdown, with another 1.3 million expected to show up and do their jobs without the expectation of a paycheck.
Can you imagine how you'd react if you walked into the office this morning to have your boss tell you, "We don't know when exactly we can pay you again, but it's ok, just sit tight and keep on working for free. What you do is too important, so we can't send you home."
After 16 days of bickering and finger-pointing, the House and Senate finally decided to heed the will of the people who elected them and do something. And by "do something" I mean they voted to not think about it right then and get the government functioning on a shoestring budget until early next year.
That's why the news from the first paragraph is so exciting. Because after months of being completely hated by the American people, Congress has finally decided to work a little harder to keep their stupidity swept under the rug.
Hobby Lobby has a soul, apparently
Here's the situation: With the impending kerfuffle surrounding Obamacare, companies are being required to—as part of paying for employees' healthcare—cover women's birth control.
Fiscally speaking, this is no small expense, either. One study cited on MotherJones.com has stated that: "the proportion of privately insured women who used a vaginal ring for contraception and paid $0 in out of pocket costs increased from 23 percent to 52 percent between 2012 and 2013." That's one method of contraception whose users have doubled under this new mandate. No small amount of change.
Rather than argue the costs of these measures, however, companies like Hobby Lobby have leapt to claim that Obamacare violates their first amendment right to freedom of religion, that having to cover their female employees' birth control goes against their company's religious beliefs and that if they don't come through with all that delicious, delicious birth control, they could be looking at nearly $425 million in fines.
Read that last bit closely. Obamacare violates "their company's religious beliefs." Not their personal beliefs, their company's beliefs. Let's get one thing perfectly clear here: People have religious beliefs, companies don't. They can't have religious beliefs, because they're not people. Companies are made up of people. They aren't people.
I'm just going to repeat that one more time for the readers in the cheap seats: Companies. Are Not. People.
It's perfectly acceptable to take religious exception with women using birth control. However, to claim that you can't carry out the mandate of the government because it goes against your religious beliefs completely undercuts one of the founding ideas of the United States.
Ever hear of the separation of church and state? The guys in the wigs who wrote this stuff up separated those two entities on purpose, because history is riddled with failed examples of governments and religions working hand in hand. It's right there in the first amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"
Last I checked, Hobby Lobby's doesn't have a subtitle that reads "Jesus' Church of Beads and Framing," so the bit about "prohibiting the free exercise thereof" really shouldn't come into play.
I'm not a lawyer (clearly), so I could have misinterpreted that. I must have, because someone made a compelling enough argument on behalf of Hobby Lobby that the Supreme Court will be wasting their time this spring deciding whether or not corporations have religious beliefs. If they decide that Hobby Lobby does indeed have religious beliefs, then the number of women who are back to scrounging up the cash for contraception each month could skyrocket.
But it's ok, because the good folks at Hobby Lobby will have successfully decided what God wants for their people, and corporations will be that much closer to being the fully realized members of society that they are. Next up, voting rights!
We got shown up in Syria, by Russia
On Aug. 21 of this year, the Syrian government —led by al-Assad—dropped chemical weapons on a suburb of Damascus. Conservative estimates put the death toll at nearly 300. At those numbers, a best case scenario states that 1 in 6 of the people killed were actual enemy combatants. The rest were civilians.
As a result of this attack, the UN conducted a survey of the site and others like it and concluded that, indeed, chemical weapons were used in the war. Several nations—ed by the United States—began debating the need for air strikes on Syria.
Among statesmen, the call to depose al-Assad began to rise. Among Americans, the decision was hotly contested. In fact, polled Examiner readers came out very strongly against the United States' taking violent action in the region.
Yet, for a few short weeks the possibility of America's involvement in yet another unpopular conflict seemed inevitable. The irony was that it seemed the same people who railed against the U.S. playing "world cop" were about to begin doing that very thing.
When Secretary of State John Kerry suggested a peaceful resolution in the form of Syrian disarmament, he did so almost jokingly, as though the administration hadn't even considered the possibility of asking al-Assad to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction before sounding the drums of war.
You know who did think it was a good idea? Bare-chested sportsman, recent plastic surgery victim and passionate advocate of fewer rights for the people, Vladimir Putin, who upon hearing Kerry completely dismiss any possibility of diplomacy, got Syria on the phone and pitched the idea. And it worked.
In fact, Syria gleefully agreed to the deal. Within days, Syria had agreed to hand over all of it's chemical weapons to the United Nations, and within a few more days the eyes of the world were taken off of Syria.
As a result, the Syrian civil war is still getting civilians killed, the United States looks like a pack of bullies and warmongers, and Russia - the country that imprisons protesters, raids the offices of charities and doesn't allow homosexuals to speak freely - somehow has credibility for preserving human rights.
If that's not a mind-boggling turn of events, I don't know what is.
Bloomberg, the nanny mayor
There are few things that Americans hate worse than being told what to do. Especially when those orders are coming from a billionaire who—while he might not mean to—comes off as super-duper patronizing. "Just listen to me, children; I'm rich, I know what's best."
At least, that's how New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg supposedly sounded during his decade-plus tenure as New York's mayor. Bloomberg took it upon himself to improve not just his city, but the quality of its people’s lives. Unfortunately for the mayor, he forgot that people in the U.S. (especially New Yorkers) want to do what they want to do whether it's bad for them or not.
It should be noted that several of Bloomberg's policies didn't really merit national attention insofar as most New Yorkers seemed to think they weren't bad ideas. For example, while he got some static from politicians, there was very little hubbub over Bloomberg adding nearly 400 miles of bike lanes to the city. According to a "report card" from Georgetown, bike riding has doubled since 2007 as a result.
The Gun Offender Registration Act seemed to go down fairly smoothly, as well. Who wouldn't want the police to be able to keep tabs on people who have committed gun crimes. And you can't argue with a 35 percent decrease in murders over a 10-year period.
When Bloomberg began drafting legislation that would reduce the amount of trans fats in New York restaurants, or make large-sized sodas illegal, or raise the smoking age (which he did earlier this year), he found mountains of opposition waiting for him.
While Bloomberg and company claimed that it was a politician's duty to improve the quality of every person's life, critics responded that it wasn't the government's responsibility to control its citizens’ imbibing. Bloomberg's critics argued that some people found a sort of intangible joy in a large soda. Sure, it might not be healthy, but it fills a need that can't be measured in calories. Besides, as Americans it's everyone's right to eat and drink themselves to an early grave should they choose to. That sounds sarcastic, but it's 100 percent true.
The year in gun violence
America has a problem with gun violence.
There, I said it. And as a result, I've effectively alienated about half of the people who've managed to get this far in my long-winded, rambling mess of a year-end political recap.
But, when we can't go a single day without multiple gun-related deaths in this country, what other conclusion is a rational person expected to draw? So far this year, nearly 11,000 people have been fatally shot in our country. Almost 200 of those deaths were children. And that's not counting the people who commit suicide or gun safety accidents. These are just the reported incidents.
I'm not saying that I have an answer. I'm not saying that the solution lies in less guns, or in more guns. I'm saying that America has a violence issue and our elected officials only talk about it when a tragedy like Newtown is smeared across the front page.
When these horrific events do strike, all that most politicians can agree on is that mass shootings are very sad and we need to talk about the issue of gun violence. Then, both sides brush up their talking points, jam some ear plugs in their ears and yammer on until the crowd goes away.
Conservatives claim that the only solution is putting more guns into an already volatile environment (arm teachers and security guards!), while liberals try to rationalize removing weapons from a society whose citizens, by and large, do use them responsibly. In what's becoming an alarmingly repetitive cycle, neither side refuses to budge on the matter.
What about more extensive background checks? Or psych evaluations for first time buyers? What if we taught children the danger of guns like we do with cigarettes and unprotected sex? How about we take a page from New York and ask gun shop owners to keep rigorous inventories of their weapons? None of those things hinder a person's right to own and operate a weapon, and every one of them helps American citizens become more informed about the damage guns can cause. I'm just saying, it's not a black and white issue; there's always room for compromise.
I understand it's a tricky subject. Americans are entitled to their guns. That's a fact. But, in a country where people are gunned down literally every day, maybe it's time for our leaders to have a sustained discussion about the violence problem, regardless of whether or not the news is paying attention.
Part of Colorado tried to secede
Proving that rednecks live everywhere in America ( and not just below the Mason-Dixon line), a group of Colorado farmers did their very best to try and secede, not from the Union, but from their own state.
In a sentiment echoed by most rural conservatives whose personal politics are trumped by the liberals who cluster together in a nearby city (I'm looking at you, southern Illinois), the citizens of northern Colorado voted to create an independent state that would not be subject to the whims of Denver and Boulder's increasingly Democratic bent.
Marriage for gay people? Not in Northern Colorado. Legalized weed? Take that noise to a Phish concert, hippie! Limits on renewable energy? The frack and they're proud of it. Limits on weapon magazine size? Them's fighting words (and that's particularly scary in Northern Colorado because everyone's packing).
Thank God the vote got shut down (hard) at the state level, but for a little while there, citizens from five counties were determined to say “so long” to their state. The attempt was mostly written off as laughable by both parties, but that derision totally overlooked the root of the issue.
Whether you agree with the above sentiments or not, the real issue at stake here is that a section of the American population feels so unrepresented in their state's government that they feel the only way to get heard is to break away and form their own club. Further, when they brought their grievances to public attention, they were mostly called right-wing nutjobs, receiving none of the considered attention that their elected representatives owed them.
They got mocked, turned down and sent packing back to the boonies. That's a pretty sad state of affairs, whether you think their values are ludicrous or not.
The Voting Rights Act was shot down
Mark it in the history books, people: 2013, the year racism ended.
Why aren't you partying right now? Everyone is treated completely equally in the eyes of not just the law, but our business owners and politicians, as well!
That must be the case. Why else would the Supreme Court have voted down a key section of the Voting Rights Act this year?
Apologies, I went ahead and jumped into that one with both snarky feet. Let's start from the beginning.
In 1965, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, because at the time, there were certain sections of the country where minorities were, let's say, aggressively encouraged not to vote. As a result, the Voting Rights Act basically helped black, hispanic and Asian people actually get to the polls in some states without being met with threats or, in some cases violence.
This year, however, the Supreme Court decided that states should be allowed to go ahead and change their own voting laws without running it by the federal government first. After all, there's no need for federal oversight into voting practices because racism is a thing of the past.
And of course racism is dead. That's why, in 2001, a town in Mississippi voted to cancel elections because too many black people made it on the ballot. Or, in 2004, political supporters in a town in Alabama threatened to disqualify Asian American votes because, "If they can't speak English good, they prob'ly ain't American." And don't even get me freaking started on Texas.
It's true that in the nearly 50 years that the Voting Rights Act has been in play that instances of voter tampering have plummeted. But,few and far between as they might be,instances still surface from time to time, because—and this is going to blow your mind—racism still exists.
The Voting Rights Act didn't work; it was in the process of working. People will always be looking to exploit government loopholes. They didn't just go away because they were stopped from scheming for a few decades. Several states, for example, have made drastic changes to their voting laws in the time since the Supreme Court's ruling.
We'll just have to see how these new changes affect the voting results in next year's elections.
Texas really doesn't want women getting abortions
I sincerely hope that if you're a woman living in Texas that you're either an extreme right-to-lifer or totally barren, because if you fall outside those two categories, the state of Texas has some stuff it would like to tell you about how to handle your body.
It all started because the Texas politicians were attempting to past some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the country. In addition to banning abortions after twenty weeks, the legislation would also restrict the number of available abortion clinics from 47 to about five, a move which would effectively make it impossible for women who lived in rural areas or who didn't have access to a vehicle to get an abortion.
State Senator Wendy Davis garnered lots of attention when she stood in the state senate for over 12 hours in the hopes of delaying the controversial vote. She even succeeded—for, like, ten seconds.
Then, Texas governor Rick Perry called a special session of the state legislature to hold the vote again. Perry even went so far to explain to the media that, as the governor, he could call as many special sessions and hold as many votes as he wanted to until the legislation passed. Backed by the Republican-held senate, Perry managed to get his way the first time around.
Undaunted, state Democrats stated that they would challenge the legislation on a federal level. Until, of course, the federal level was all: "That's your problem, ladies living in Texas. We have minority voters to alienate."
I wish I could say there was more to that story, but there isn't. Of course, the measures aren't totally passed yet, and some Democratic opposition is still banging around in the background, but, in terms of success, it looks like they don't have a snowball's chance in Texas.
The NSA is spying on you right now, probably
Of all the slides in this piece that I'm hesitant to write, this one has to take the cake. After all, there's little chance that Judge Alito, Rick Perry or Michael Bloomberg are going to find their way down into the crevasse to read a piece where they get badmouthed by some nobody. But the NSA could be reading this write now, even as I type. They're not above it.
In May, a tech nerd named Edward Snowden claimed to have proof that the NSA was spying not only on foreign governments, but on American citizens as well. This spying effort wasn't restricted to our cell phones, either. Snowden provided proof that the National Security Agency was also spying on the players of Massive Multiplayer games like "World of Warcraft". Certain NSA members have also been accused of spying on their spouses, significant others, and even potential significant others.
The true extent of this invasion has yet to be determined. In all likelihood, it never will be since the NSA isn't exactly world renowned for its transparency.
While the whole debacle has stirred up a national argument about whether safety or privacy is more important, it's done seriously little to curb the NSA's activities. They're still collecting more and more phone records and data, it's just that now they're being a teensy bit more honest about it.
What's scary is the extent to which the NSA can operate without any threat of restriction. They claim today that they are actively spying on less than 60 Americans around the world. But that doesn't mean that the information they collect from U.S. phone companies isn't providing information on innocent Americans.
While a federal judge did just state that the spying is more than likely unconstitutional (shock), there is little hope that this legal assessment will carry any repercussions for the agency as their spying program goes on pretty much unabated.
No food for poor people!
Among the myriad things that haven't gotten accomplished by Congress this year, the lack of a new Farm Bill is one of the most devastating to impoverished Americans. You see, America's food stamp allotment is wrapped up among the legislation that seems to be aimed specifically at America's farmers (but isn't). Actually, food stamp funding typically makes up about 80 percent of the annual funds allocated in the Farm Bill. And this year, House Republicans have had enough.
In July of this year, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted up a new Farm Bill that essentially eliminated a large portion of the money regularly used for food stamps. As a result, people who rely on food stamps for things like, well, food, have seen a significant reduction in their benefits. That means that those people who are living below the poverty line have less access to healthy, fresh food options.
I can completely understand a Congress that's willing to trim the pork in some of the legislation that passes through the House and Senate. It's been needed for years. But, to take your stand on a bill that's been passed countless times in the past, and aim your fiscal responsibility guns at the Americans who need a little help nourishing their families seems a little irresponsible.
But fine, whatever, poor people are moochers. It's totally okay that the Farm Bill won't be passed until next January at the earliest. Oh, wait, what about the price of milk?
It's a seemingly innocuous thing, milk, but if Congress is unable to pass a new Farm Bill, milk prices the world over could double. Milk is a pretty valuable (and common) commodity. It doesn't take an economist to figure out that if the price of milk goes up, so does the price of everything else. That means America could ride into the new year on a wave of inflation not seen since Jimmy Carter, all because some politicians decided that this was the time to make a stand.
Obama? Still using drones
In a year of disturbing abuses of power, Obama and his drone army have to take the cake. Earlier in the year, Barack Obama got into some hot water when it was revealed that he just loves initiating drone strikes on potential threats.
That wouldn't be so bad if he wasn't also giving the go ahead to murder innocent civilians along with those potential threats. When confronted with these crimes, the president did say he was sorry. Then he followed that up with a pretty quick assurance that he would still keep using drones whenever he felt that they were the only option.
"The only option" is a pretty fuzzy distinction when the president himself is able to launch a drone strike whenever he wants to, no Congressional oversight necessary. It would seem, too, that the war on terror is pretty dire, because "the only option" has been exercised a lot this year.
Think about it. Obama was caught cold on the drone thing in late January. However, the leaders of Yemen and Pakistan claim that U.S. drone strikes have accounted for hundreds of civilian deaths this year. As close as early December, a minimum of 13 people were killed because a few among their numbers were suspected of having ties to al Qaeda. Of course, we'll never know what that proof was because the administration doesn't talk about individual drone strikes.
Seems like hard evidence to me!
Seriously, though, the Obama administrations continued use of a tactic that seems largely unnecessary (and that certainly runs concurrent to the will of the people), is just callous. At the very least though, Obama can add another record to his resume: First person to win the Nobel Peace Prize ironically.