A look at some of the news stories The Policy Circle team is following closely this month. If there’s additional news you think we should share, please send us an email.
The world watches and waits as tensions along the Ukraine Russia border continue to mount. When asked on February 6 whether an invasion is imminent, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said, “any day now, Russia could take military action against Ukraine or it could be a couple of weeks from now, or Russia could choose to take the diplomatic path instead.”
Sullivan stated, the “U.S. and West are ready for whatever comes next.” He then cited the more than half a billion dollars worth of support the U.S. has provided to Ukraine in the form of weapons and defensive assistance. The first U.S. soldiers were deployed to Germany and Poland, as part of the U.S. effort to support its NATO allies on February 3, 2022. Sullivan reiterated the Administration’s position that a diplomatic path still exists if Russia is willing to take it. “If war breaks out, it will come at an enormous human cost to Ukraine. But we believe that based on our preparations and our response, it will come at a strategic cost to Russia as well,” he said.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin was joined by Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics. In a show of unity, they issued a joint statement whereby China indicated it agrees with Russia’s opposition for any enlargement of NATO – including for Ukraine. Russia, in turn, confirmed its agreement with China’s stance “that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.” Both leaders stated they “remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region.”
On February 5, U.S. officials said Russia has 70% percent of the military buildup it needs to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The timeline ahead is uncertain, but experts note that frozen terrains will persist in the region throughout mid-February into late March, complicating the dynamics of a large-scale invasion.
LEARN MORE: Read The Policy Circle’s Newly Released Mini Brief on the Ukraine-Russia Crisis.
AFGHANISTAN’S HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
Since the Taliban takeover in August, Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed, pushing millions more Afghans into poverty and starvation.
Before the takeover, more than 72% of Afghanistan’s 38 million citizens lived below the poverty line (even with 80% of the government’s budget coming from international aid). Now, foreign aid to Afghanistan is halted, with $9 billion U.S. dollars frozen to prevent the Taliban from accessing it. For a country heavily reliant on foreign aid, the consequences are devastating for its citizens who now face extreme poverty.
The United Nations Development Program expects the poverty rate to rise to 97% by mid-2022. The UN Refugee Agency says more than half of the population “are facing extreme levels of hunger, and nearly 9 million of them are at risk of famine” this winter. Several news outlets have recently reported that more Afghans are selling their kidneys and children in order to survive.
In September, the World Health Organization said, “Afghanistan’s health system is on the brink of collapse. Unless urgent action is taken, the country faces an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.” Six months after the takeover, those hospitals that remain open suffer from staff, medicine, heat, and supply shortages.
TAKE ACTION: Host a Conversation using The Policy Circle’s Brief on Foreign Policy: Middle East and Terror Groups & Rogue States. Review The Briefs & Discussion Guides to determine what steps you can take to move the needle on this critical issue.
INTEREST RATE HIKES
In late January, the Federal Reserve (America’s central bank) indicated that it will likely engage in a series of interest rate hikes in response to “elevated inflation and a strong labor market.”
In December, inflation hit a 39-year high when consumer prices rose 7% over the previous year. Speaking on January 26, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said, “it is our job to get inflation down to 2 percent.” According to Investopedia, “when interest rates are high, the economy slows and inflation decreases.” Higher interest rates also mean borrowing is more costly, leaving individuals and businesses with less money to spend on goods and services that stimulate the economy and job growth. To learn more about inflation and how the Federal Reserve seeks to control inflation by influencing interest rates, watch or listen to the February 4th EconTalk podcast featuring Stanford University’s John Taylor.
The Department of Labor’s monthly jobs report offers key insight on America’s employment situation and has the potential to influence economic policy decisions. January’s jobs report showed the U.S. economy added 467,000 jobs last month. The unemployment rate was 4.0%, slightly higher than the previous month (3.9%). Some speculate that the better-than-expected jobs report will influence the Federal Reserve’s upcoming decisions on interest rates. However, Goldman Sachs predicts 4 interest rate hikes this year – in March, June, and September, and December.
SHARE KNOWLEDGE: Read The Policy Circle Brief on Economic Growth and share with a friend, colleague, or teacher in your life.
POSSIBLE GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN
Current federal government funding is set to expire in weeks. In December, President Biden signed a second stop-gap funding bill to avoid a government shutdown that postponed the funding deadline to February 18.
Each year, Congress faces an October 1 deadline to enact appropriation bills for the fiscal year, which runs from October 1 through September 30 (Congress has not met this funding deadline since fiscal year 1997). As explained by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, “appropriations are annual decisions made by Congress about how the federal government spends some of its money.”
On September 30, 2021, none of the dozen appropriation bills for the 2022 fiscal year were enacted. To avoid a shutdown and provide temporary funding, Congress must pass a continuing resolution (also referred to as a stop-gap funding bill). That’s exactly what happened on September 30, and again on December 3, extending the deadline to February 18, 2022.
Another continuing resolution seems more than likely in the coming week as negotiations on a 12-bill omnibus package continues.
LEARN MORE: Read The Policy Circle Brief on Federal Debt.
U.S. SUPREME COURT NOMINATION
After nearly 28 years on the bench, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer announced he will retire at the end of the Court’s current term this summer.
The appointment of a Supreme Court Justice is a crucial opportunity for an American president. Our nation’s high court is the “final arbiter of the law” and “interpreter of the Constitution” where each justice may remain on the bench until they resign, pass away, or are impeached and convicted by Congress, enabling their rulings to shape nearly every aspect of our daily lives for many years to come.
Pres. Biden pledged to announce his nomination by the end of February, stating he will nominate “someone with extraordinary qualifications, character, experience, and integrity, and that person will be the first Black woman ever nominated to the United States Supreme Court.” Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump both followed through with their pledges to nominate women jurists to the Court.
Like other members of the federal judicial branch, Supreme Court Justices are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Here is the process:
- The President selects a nominee and refers the nomination to the Senate.
- The Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings where the nominee provides testimony and answers questions.
- The Committee votes on whether to recommend confirmation to the full Senate.
- The full Senate votes to confirm the nominee, which requires a simple majority (51 votes).
The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris (who also serves as the president of the Senate) is able to cast a tie breaking vote. This means that without any Republican votes in favor of the nominee, all 50 Democrat senators and Vice President Harris would need to vote in person to back the nomination. A 50-50 Senate has never confirmed a Supreme Court nominee.
Did you know that the Constitution does not specify qualifications for Justices such as age, education, profession, or native-born citizenship? A Justice does not have to be a lawyer or a law school graduate, but all Justices have been trained in the law. It’s important to note that regardless of who is ultimately confirmed to the Court, it will not change the Supreme Court’s existing balance. There are currently six justices appointed by Republican presidents and three justices appointed by Democrat presidents.
TAKE ACTION: Host a Conversation using The Policy Circle Briefs on Judicial Selection & U.S. Senate.