Democrats plan to use a student loan bill introduced Tuesday by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as a wedge issue in the 2014 midterm elections, forcing Republican candidates to either support it or explain why they don't. Dem strategists think Warren's legislation—which would lower interest rates on most federal student loans below 4 percent, reducing millions of Americans' bills by hundreds or thousands of dollars a year—could help turn out young people, who tend to vote for Democrats. Fifty-seven percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 say student loan debt is a "major" issue for them, according to a recent Harvard poll.
Senate Democrats plan to hold a vote on Warren's bill, or a version of it, it early June, and to hold Republicans who vote against it accountable. The bill, which would be funded by eliminating tax breaks on millionaires, is one plank in what Democrats have dubbed their "Fair Shot Agenda," an election year slate of proposals aimed at highlighting Republican opposition to politically popular legislation. (The Fair Shot campaign also includes raising the minimum wage and equal pay legislation, measures Senate Republicans have blocked.)
Some Dems are already on the attack. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), as well as Shenna Bellows, who is running against Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, and Rick Weiland, who is hoping to replace outgoing Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson in South Dakota, are holding events this week aimed at pressuring their Republican opponents to support Warren's legislation—or embarrass themselves by publicly opposing it.
Warren's student loan bill "is a perfect messaging item for the Democrats," says Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University. He expects Democrats to continue to use the student debt issue to hammer Republicans, who generally oppose debt relief, over the next six months. "Republicans, in general, will oppose [Warren's bill]," Baker adds, which he says could raise the ire of young voters—a large portion of whom are currently expected to sit out this election—and push them to the polls.
Adam Green, the cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal PAC that supports progressive candidates and calls itself the "Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party," says that Warren's bill is already having an effect. His group has launched a national petition in support of Warren's bill, which the group is sending to all Republican Senate candidates this week. The progressive PAC is also organizing events aimed at pressing four more Senate GOP candidates on the student loan issue.
The PCCC is not the only outside group hoping use student loan debt to take down GOPers. In April, Student Debt Crisis, a group that advocates for student loan interest rate reform, nominated Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) for television host Bill Maher's "Flip-A-District" contest, a campaign Maher launched to find the worst member of Congress and boot him from office. The group chose Kline because he is one of the few members of Congress who has proposed raising student loan interest rates.A few weeks after the group entered Kline in the running, he shot from 75th to first on Maher's list of terrible lawmakers.
Last year, GOP senators filibustered student interest rate relief before acquiescing to a compromise bill at the 11th hour. That legislation prevented interest rates on new federal loans from doubling to 6.8 percent. But the law didn't do anything to help the 40 million Americans swimming in existing student loan debt, some of whom are paying back loans with rates of up to 10 percent. Warren's bill—cosponsored by 23 other Senate Democrats—would reduce most of these Americans' federal student loan interest rates to the current rate on new undergraduate loans: 3.86 percent.
Even if her bill is approved by Congress this year, Warren says she will keep pushing for further debt relief for students. She says she'll only stop when the government no longer profits off student debt. The feds will rake in $66 billion in revenue on the federal student loans the government doled out between 2007 and 2012. As Warren said on the Senate floor Tuesday, "Those are the kind of interest rates that would make a Fortune 500 CEO proud."
Watch Warren's full floor speech on the bill here:
Update, Thursday, June 5, 2014: On Tuesday, Boko Haram killed scores of villagers in four different northern Nigerian villages, CNN reported Thursday. Officials are still working to tally the total number dead, but residents fear it could be more than 100.
Update, Monday, May 12, 2014: On Monday, Boko Haram released a video claiming to show about 130 of the schoolgirls it kidnapped on April 15. In the video, the leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau says that the girls have converted to Islam and will not be released until Nigeria frees from prison all Boko Haram members. Via the BBC:
In mid-April, more than 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped from Chibok boarding school in northern Nigeria by gunmen from the Islamist sect Boko Haram. Three weeks later, most of those girls are still missing. More than a week ago, a group of Nigerians launched the Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls, sparking global outrage over the attack. And on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered to send a team to help rescue the children. Meanwhile, Nigeria's nightmare gets worse by the day: On Monday, the leader of the group, which has terrorized the country for years, threatened to sell the girls off as slaves, and on Tuesday, Boko Haram kidnapped another eight girls. But let's back up a minute. What is Boko Haram, exactly? And why do its members kidnap schoolgirls?
What is Boko Haram? Boko Haram is a group of Islamic fundamentalists based in northern Nigeria that has been terrorizing the country since 2009. The group believes Western culture is sinful and wants to return the country to the pre-colonial era of Muslim rule. To that end, Boko Haram has attacked government targets, including military checkpoints, police stations, highways, and schools, as well as churches, mosques, the UN building, and, recently, a bus station in the capital city of Abuja. Over the past five years, Boko Haram has slaughtered roughly 5,000 Nigerians whom the group viewed as pro-government. Here is a map of Boko Haram attacks over the years, via Business Insider:
What gave rise to the group? Boko Haram has roots in the 1970s-era Islamic revival in the region, but was founded in 2002 by a Muslim cleric named Mohammed Yusuf, shortly after Nigeria's transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1999. The Boko Haram ideology—disseminated through a mosque and Islamic school Yusuf set up—gained traction in post-dictatorship Nigeria because many northern Muslims saw Western-style democracy as a scheme to disenfranchise them; voter turnout is higher in the Christian south than in the Muslim north. Persistent extreme poverty in the region has reinforced the notion that the government, which the group believes has been corrupted by Western values, cares more about enriching itself than helping Nigerians, and it has helped drive Boko Haram recruitment over the years. It's hard to say how many Nigerians the group counts as members, but the Nigerian security forces claim to have killed thousands of them.
Nigerians have labeled the group Boko Haram, which loosely translated means "Western education is a sin." But that's not what Boko Haram calls itself. Its official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."
Boko Haram is an Islamist terror group. Any links with Al Qaeda? Yep. In many of his sermons, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledges allegiance to Al Qaeda. And Boko Haram has reportedly adopted many of Al Qaeda's terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings. Last year, the Obama administration officially designated Boko Haram a terrorist organization.
Why did the militants kidnap the schoolgirls? In an effort to scare Nigerians away from Western education, Boko Haram and other militants have attacked 50 schools over the past year, killing more than 100 schoolchildren and 70 teachers. Thousands of students and teachers across the northern part of the country have been forced to flee their schools because of the violence.
This is not the first time Boko Haram has kidnapped girls, either. Just two weeks before the Chibok abduction, 25 young girls were kidnapped by the Islamist militants from the northern town of Konduga. Those girls are likely still being held captive. And Boko Haram abducted handfuls of children last year, as well as Christian women, whom the group converts to Islam and forces into marriage. But the Chibok kidnapping "is the largest number of children abducted in one swoop in the country," Nnamdi Obasi, a senior Nigeria analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Mother Jones this week.
Some of the girls have reportedly been married off to the militants. On Monday, the leader of Boko Haram threatened in a homemade video to sell some into slavery:
She says that when the gunmen came to her dormitory, they were sleeping. This is before dawn. These men came in, they had uniforms. They said, "Don't worry. We're soldiers here to help you." And she said it wasn't until that they were outside and…started setting fire to the school and shouting…"God is great," that it suddenly dawned on them these were not soldiers. These were Boko Haram.
You can imagine the conditions that they're in [now]. They were taken initially to the Sambisa forest, dense forests, humid heat, blocks of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. They're probably drinking water from rivers and streams that [are] not clean. We're told they're kept on the move. Every couple of days, they're moving.
Have any of the girls escaped? Nigerian police report that 53 of the girls have escaped, but 276 remain missing. Here is the AP's Faul again, explaining how some of the girls managed to flee the terrorists:
The girl I spoke with was able to escape on the first night. She said that they were loaded onto trucks. It was dark. In the dark, some of the girls clung to low-hanging branches overhead. This was an open-back truck. She said she hesitated. And then one of the girls said, "Me, I'm going. If they shoot me, they shoot me, but I don't know what else they might do to me if I don't go." So this girl jumped down, and the girl I spoke to jumped down. She said she ran into the bush, and she said, "I ran and I ran." And she said, "That's how I was able to save myself."
What is the Nigerian government doing to rescue the girls? The Nigerian government claims that it has deployed aerial surveillance over the forest and that it has soldiers on foot searching for the girls. But from the start, Nigerian security forces made a pretty weak effort to find the girls, Mausi Segun, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in northern Nigeria, told Mother Jones last week. She says the military did not make use of information provided by parents and locals in its rescue efforts. Desperate parents took to the forest themselves to search for their daughters.
Meanwhile, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan waited three weeks before publicly acknowledging the abductions and admitting he had no idea where the girls might be. The tepid response by the government has sparked a string of protests in Abuja. (First lady Patience Jonathan recently alleged that women protesting in Abuja against the government's weak response to the Chibok abductions had fabricated the kidnappings.)
What is the rest of the world doing to help rescue the kidnapped girls? On Tuesday, the Nigerian government accepted a US offer to send a team of military and law enforcement officials to help the search and rescue effort. The United Kingdom will send a similar team. China and France have pledged assistance, too.
In the wake of the kidnapping, the rest of the world was slow on the uptake. Only after Nigerians criticized the international media's initial indifference to the massive kidnapping did the foreign press start covering the attack. Since then, global outrage has grown by the day. The Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted more than a million times. On Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted her support.
How is the Nigerian government fighting the broader Boko Haram insurgency? Jonathan has vowed to defeat Boko Haram, but the insurgency is deadlier now than at any point in the group's history. In the the first few months of 2014, the Islamist militants have already killed 1,500 people.
As Mother Jonesreported last week, one reason the Nigerian government has not been able to stem attacks by the group is that the military does not coordinate with security forces in the countries that border northern Nigeria—including Cameroon, Chad, and Niger—where Boko Haram hides out. And the military's expenditures are not tracked, so it's hard to tell how much of the $6 billion a year the country spends on defense actually goes toward fighting Boko Haram.
Human rights advocates charge that Nigerian security forces' response to the insurgency, which often includes the indiscriminate killing of northern Nigerian men, has aggravated Boko Haram violence.
Update 2, Wednesday, May 21, 2014: On Wednesday, President Obama notified Congress that he has sent approximately 80 US military personnel to Chad to aid in the recovery of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls.
Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram
In the wake of the April kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram, fearsome images of the militants—in army fatigues and turbans, brandishing automatic weapons and rounds of ammo—have been splashed over the front pages of the international press. But the Al Qaeda-linked group has been slaughtering Nigerians by the hundreds since 2009. They've also kidnapped scores of women and children and attacked dozens of schools over the past year, with little attention from the Western media. Why did the foreign press decide to start paying attention now?
Part of the reason is the sheer scale of the kidnapping. According to the latest numbers, nearly 300 schoolgirls were abducted on April 15 from Chibok boarding school in the northern Nigerian state of Borno. Last year, Boko Haram abducted handfuls of children, as well as Christian women, whom the group converts to Islam and forces into marriage. The group attacked 50 schools last year too, killing more than 100 schoolchildren and 70 teachers. The number of kids taken during the raid on the Chibok school is staggering, however. "It is the largest number of children abducted in one swoop in the country," says Nnamdi Obasi, a senior Nigeria analyst for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit conflict resolution organization. "Certainly not a minor incident that could be ignored."
But it's not just the shock value of the Chibok school attack that's put a recent spotlight on Boko Haram. The group has terrorized the country on this scale before, having killed thousands over the past five years. In November 2011, the militants attacked police facilities in the northern state of Yobe, killing 150. That year, the group also carried out a brazen attack on the UN compound in the capital city of Abuja. In January 2012, coordinated bombings by the Islamist militants in the city of Kano killed about 150. And in July of that year, the group attacked multiple Christian villages in the north, killing more than 100. Those attacks prompted obligatory reports by the likes of the New York Times, the Associated Press, Reuters, and the BBC.
The economy added 288,000 jobs in April, according to new data released Friday by the Labor Department. The unemployment rate plummeted from 6.7 percent to 6.3 percent—which is the lowest jobless rate since President Barack Obama took office at the start of the great recession.
Economists had forecasted April jobs gains of 218,000 and an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent.
The number of unemployed people dropped by 733,000 people, and the total number of Americans who are either unemployed, have given up looking for work, or are working part-time because they can't find full-time work fell from 12.7 percent to 12.3 percent last month. The jobs report brought more good news. Employment gains for February and March were revised upwards by a total of 36,000. Part of the healthy gain was due to warmer weather, which boosted seasonal employment.
Now for the not-so-good news. Another reason the unemployment rate fell is because April saw a decline in the workforce participation rate, which is the number of Americans who are working or looking for work. That number fell by 806,000 last month. The decrease in the labor force was partly due to the fact that Republicans refused to renew federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Jobless Americans are required to prove they are actively searching for work in order to continue receiving unemployment insurance; once there's less of a motivation to search, many give up looking.
The construction and retail sectors saw the largest increase in employment, with jobs gains of 32,000 and 35,000, respectively. Professional and business services added 75,000 jobs. And the economy took on a total of 15,000 government jobs.
Good or bad, you can take most of this information with a grain of salt, if you want. As Neil Irwin explained Thursday in the New York Times, businesses, journalists, and stock traders place way too much weight on the monthly jobs numbers, given the "statistical noise" in each report. In order to determine how many people are employed in the US, for example, the Labor Department conducts a huge monthly survey of 144,000 employers who employ about a third of all non-farm workers. Sampling errors are inherent in these surveys, Irwin explains, because the results are not representative of all the nation's employers. And each monthly jobs report is released before all the survey data is in, so researchers have to fill in gaps with estimates that may later end up being wrong. "Even when the economy is moving in a clear direction," Irwin writes, "the noise in month-to-month changes can be big enough to obscure any trend."
If you want longer-term trends that you can bank on, here are a few. We've had roughly zero net job growth over the past seven years, because gains in employment have been offset by population growth. The unemployment rate is still above the historical average for this stage of an economic recovery, Annie Lowrey noted in the New York Times Friday. And the black unemployment rate is stuck at more than double the white jobless rate.
"What kind of shenanigans are going on now?" That's what Darin Robbins, a Green Party member in Corning, New York, thought when he learned that a stranger had circulated a petition to place his name on the ballot for a House race.
Robbins had no plans to seek office, so he was shocked a couple of weeks ago when a Green Party secretary called to tell him that a petition had been filed in his name to run against GOP Rep. Tom Reed, the vulnerable first-term Republican who represents the 23rd congressional district in upstate New York.
The story gets stranger. A Republican operative was behind the attempt to put Robbins on the ballot. Aaron Andrew Keister, a notary public who has worked as a video tracker for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the political committee dedicated to electing GOPers to the House, filed ballot accesspetitions—each bearing the signatures of about 75 registered voters—for Robbins and a second Green Party member. If Keister's plan had succeeded, it could have helped Reed—the Northeast regional chairman of the NRCC—by putting on the ballot a progressive candidate who would likely draw votes away from his expected Democratic opponent, county legislator Martha Robertson. But Keister messed up: Because he filed the Robbins petition late and got the other Green Party member's address wrong, neither Green will appear on the ballot for the June primary or the November general election, according to New York election officials.