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Episode 46: A "Border Crisis" Far from the Border

Tens of thousands of children have crossed into the United States this year, fleeing desperate conditions in Central America. The news media have dubbed it a “border crisis,” though none of these kids stays at the border for very long. And in Washington, Congressional leaders seem more focused on who to blame rather than what to do about it.

In this week's podcast, host Andrea Seabrook goes straight to the front lines of the crisis. No, not the border but an elementary school just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol.

Susan Holiday, the principal at Gladys Noon Spellman Elementary School, in Cheverly, Maryland doesn’t have the luxury of debating the politics of immigration, or playing the blame-game. With a third of her students unable to speak or read English, she and her staff focus on the practicalities: teaching young immigrants in a new language, a new school, and a new home.

"On their enrollment it will say you know, 'Date first entered the United states'," says Holiday. "Let's just say their  first day of school is August 25, it might say August 20. That means they just got here."

Students like this have very different needs from American kids returning to school, she says. Some have just made an arduous trek through the desert, some without an adult. Many new immigrant students at Spellman school don't read or write in their native language, much less in English. And so Holiday and her staff reorganize classes, pair new students with bilingual ones, and make any accommodation they can to get those kids in class.

In the end, it doesn't matter what the politics are, and it's clear that this is much more than a "border crisis." The way Susan Holiday sees it, it's a practical problem. There's work to do. Now do it.

Episode 45: How one bill passed in the aftermath of 9/11 is still shaping U.S. modern warfare

It was three days after the attacks —September 14th, 2001 -- that Congress gathered in Washington to respond to the vicious blow America had sustained. Every member of the House and Senate, save one, voted to give President George W. Bush the authority to capture or kill those responsible. The bill they passed that day is called the AUMF -- The Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists.

Many predictions were made that day, of the coming war, the stamina and depth of the commitment it would require of American citizens. But what no one knew, what no one could know, is how the AUMF would anchor the country to that moment, and drag it back there again and again during the longest war in the nation's history.

On this week's podcast, DecodeDC host Andrea Seabrook tells the story of how it happened, and what many think should come next.

Episode 44: Exit Interview: Rep. Rush Holt

Members of Congress are notorious for being tight-lipped about the details of the legislative process -- especially when they’re talking to journalists. Luckily there are exceptions to the informational lock-down reporters face: members of Congress who are on their way out. Our “DecodeDC: Exit Interview” series continues with one of only a couple of lawmakers who is also a scientist: New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt.

Rep. Rush Holt Jr., a Ph.D. in physics, says science trains your mind.

“Scientists want the evidence first and consensus later. Politicians tend to look for consensus first, and look for the evidence to match,” Holt says.

That has set up a bad precedent in the current Congress, Holt says. When it comes to climate change, and other science-based topics, “ideology has trumped evidence.”

Holt is also frustrated at how the Republican Leadership is running the House of Representatives.

“The House is run by people who are so skeptical of government that they don’t believe government can or should do anything to help people,” Holt says. “Of course that’s troubling to those of us who got into this because we believe the government can and should help people. “

But that’s not why he’s leaving Congress.

“Everybody assumes I’m bailing out of Congress because I can’t take it anymore -- it is just too frustrating, you know -- but that’s not the reason,” Holt says.

Instead, Holt says he’s leaving with a real sense of accomplishment and even optimism.

“I feel good about what I’ve done and what I’ve been doing,” Holt says.

The 65-year-old representative has spent slightly more than a decade and a half as a liberal Democrat promoting scientific thinking and advocating for education, environmental protection and civil rights. The scientist-turned-congressman’s political interests were inherited from his parents – his father, the youngest person ever elected to U.S. Senate. and his mother, Secretary of State of West Virginia.

Holt believes his most important legacy has been increasing the trust people have in government -- at least for some. He’s leaving now, he says, simply because “it’s time.”

“For more than two centuries, there has been representative following representative following representative – that’s the way it’s supposed to work,” Holt says. “It’s not about any one person, and I think it’s time for the citizens of the 12th district in New Jersey to choose their next representative.”

Katherine Lepri contributed to this story.

Episode 43: Executive Orders

House Speaker John Boehner, the country’s most powerful Republican, says he’s going to sue President Barack Obama on behalf of the Congress for alleged misuse of executive orders.

Is Boehner's threat more of the same partisan Washington theater or a real constitutional crisis? 

"The House leadership is scrambling so hard to try to reassert some kind of actual leadership, that it’s I think awfully hard for most Americans to see really this in serious way as the Congress trying to defend its authority, says political science professor Phillip J. Cooper of Portland State University, and author of “By Order of the President -- Use and Abuse of Presidential Direct Action.”

Cooper points out that Speaker Boehner doesn’t have the authority to sue on behalf of Congress without a vote authorizing him to. These facts make it more likely that the would-be constitutional crisis will likely be reduced to a congressional kerfuffle.

But there are important questions at play here. On this week's podcast we ask, what are executive orders for and what can the president do with them? What’s considered out-of-bounds? Most importantly, why should we care?

Executive orders are written directives from the President of the United States to government departments and agencies. They detail how the law is to be implemented, often specifically citing the legislation the president is enacting. 

Other executive orders are based on the president’s general constitutional mandate to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Every president back to George Washington has issued Executive Orders. (Well, OK, the nation’s ninth president, William Henry Harrison, died in office before he could get around to issuing one, but most historians ignore this blip in the data.)

In the last century, most presidents’ orders have numbered in the hundreds. And the vast majority of them deal with mundane, unremarkable policy actions. The president might create a commission to study and combat organized crime, or mandate new protections for small business owners.

But from time to time, executive orders have been used to mandate government action that has much broader social impact - think Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which freed southern slaves by executive order or many of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs which were established through executive orders. More recently, George W. Bush established the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, through executive order.

Presidents run into problems when they cross the line between executing existing laws, and crafting new ones. That’s what John Boehner accused Barack Obama of doing when the president delayed the enacting of portions of the Affordable Care Act by a year. Boehner’s threatened lawsuit over that executive order is what’s causing the aforementioned Congressional kerfuffle.

But before you decide to ignore the issue altogether, remember this, says Professor Cooper: “A Constitutional republic is supposed to operate under the supremacy of law. No man is so high he is above the law.” 

If we don’t keep a critical eye on how the president uses executive orders, he or she could slip into the habit of creating new laws rather than enacting existing ones passed by Congress.

Cooper reminds us, “Democracy is in the details,” and “there have to be some boundaries out there on power.”

Episode 42: Exit Interview: Rep. Jim Moran

Members of Congress are notorious for being tight-lipped about the details of the legislative process -- especially when they’re talking to journalists. In part this is because of the intense polarization of our day. It's also because lawmakers are wary of describing the kind of compromise and flexibility it takes to actually get legislation passed.

At the same time, the two-year election cycle in the House of Representatives and the narrow margin of control in both chambers makes for an environment in the Capitol of constant campaigning.

Sound depressing? It is for us, too. But luckily there are exceptions to the informational lock-down reporters face: Members of Congress who are on their way out.

Retiring lawmakers suddenly become great sources of honest information about how the legislative branch operates.

Today we’re introducing a new feature to our podcast and blog: “DecodeDC: Exit Interviews.”

In the next few months we’ll be interviewing some of the dozens of lawmakers who have announced their retirement at the end of this year. Our hope is to pull back the curtain on the congressional process, and, perhaps, collect some ideas about what could be done to get Washington back on track.

First up, Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, who is retiring with a long list of un-achieved priorities.

The 69-year-old lawmaker spent more than two decades passionately advocating for bedrock democratic issues, including stronger environmental protections, and the the closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But as we begin our interview, the white-haired Virginia Democrat slumps into a leather sofa as if to hide from the world. Moran is burnt-out.

 In the past four years Moran has introduced six bills regarding Guantanamo Bay and eighteen bills dealing with animal or environmental protection.  None of them made it past committee consideration.

"It's been extremely frustrating because the presence of Guantanamo Bay serves as a recruitment tool and a rallying cry for those who would do America harm,” Moran says. He worries that the detention center undermines the values of the U.S. justice system. "We are founded on a principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.  That everyone should have the right to be represented in a legitimate court of law, that they can't be held without charges being filed against them."

In fact, Moran will leave Congress with few bills to his name and a dubious sense of accomplishment. Of the 298 bills Moran introduced since 1991, only nine passed into law. Of those, three renamed post offices. The most weighty of his legislative accomplishments is a law requiring that products containing traces of animal fur be labeled correctly.

"The Congress is not the institution that it was intended to be by the Founding Fathers, that it is expected to be by the voters of this country.  It is a dysfunctional institution right now.  It doesn't act on behalf of what are the best interests of the public. It's more inclined to act on what is in the best interests of its contributors."

Moran is only one of several dozen lawmakers who’ve announced their retirement at the end of this year. And his outlook for the future members of Congress is none too bright.

"I think that they're going to be all the more dependent on the money they can raise," he says. “I think that it's going to be even more messaging from the leadership rather than the following of their own course. I think things are going to get worse before they get better--and  I think that's very unfortunate."