By Igor Volsky
During his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama will announce an executive action to increase the minimum wage for the half-million service employees who work in federal facilities, one of several actions the administration plans to take in the face of the least productive Congress in history. As Obama explained earlier this month, “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.” In that spirit, here are seven other steps the Obama administration can take to advance its agenda:
1. Protect LGBT Americans from discrimination.
LGBT activists are pressuring the Obama administration to issue an executive order preventing discrimination by federal contractors based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the White House has taken to describing the order as “hypothetical” and is pressuring Congress to take legislative action and pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA). Reports have indicated that the order has been drafted and has has been delayed for over a year ago. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to sign the order, which could protect 16 million people.
2. Reduce fracking emissions on public lands.
A recent report from the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University rebuked the Obama administration’s emphasis on an “all of the above” energy strategy and urged the administration to rely on an analysis that includes “counting the full costs of various energy choices, including pollution and health care costs that have been ‘externalized’ in the past.” The energy experts specifically recommended that the Bureau of Land Management — which oversees energy development on federal lands — requires natural gas producers to “use and demonstrate the best available technologies and practices on federal lands” and work closely with states to develop a “nationwide methane reduction strategy.” Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas and traps more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
3. Ease rules on marijuana to allow for its medical use.
Scientists, medical marijuana advocates, and at least two governors have petitioned the Obama administration to change that rules that classify marijuana as more harmful than cocaine and methamphetamine or a Schedule 1 dangerous substance with no currently accepted medical value. And while the Department of Justice has committed to reducing overly harsh sentences through a number of law enforcement policies, the existing classification leaves growers and distributors vulnerable to prosecution, complicates access to a legal supply of marijuana for medical research, and prohibits pharmacies from prescribing the drug.
4. Penalize states that don’t submit records into the existing background check system.
Though Obama has already taken executive action to advance gun safety, activists are urging him to strengthen reporting guidelines and require gun dealers to report multiple sales of rifles and shotguns to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) (existing federal law already requires the reporting of individual purchases of two or more handguns in a five-day period). The Attorney General could also use his authority to withhold a portion of Justice Assistant Grant money to states that are non-compliant in providing mental health records into the gun background check system. Currently, more than a million records are still missing and 15 states have submitted fewer than 100 mental-health records.
5. Promote green purchasing in the federal government.
Obama has already issued an executive order requiring “95 percent of new government purchasing contracts to be for products that are energy-efficient or otherwise ‘environmentally preferable.’” But as Mother Jones points out, “Obama’s order doesn’t require agencies to consider the carbon footprint of a product’s manufacture and supply chain.”
6. Re-examine undue hardship in student loan bankruptcy cases.
Obama could direct the U.S. Justice Department to examine and propose a new definition for undue hardship in student loan bankruptcy cases — the legal standard that would allow students to discharge their student loans. Currently, the standard and its application vary widely and a 2009 a federal appeals court made it much harder for put-upon borrowers to get out from under the cost of their degrees. The definition could be revisited to incorporate borrowers’ gainful employment prospects and the specific characteristics of their loans.
7. Promote apprenticeships.
To expand job opportunities for Americans, Obama can increase the adoption of apprenticeships — or a job in which an individual is “paid to learn a set of skills through on-the-job training” — by American businesses, create a national apprenticeship website, collect voluntary commitments from businesses to hire high school graduates into apprenticeships, and apprenticeships in the federal workforce. Apprenticeships are not widely used by American businesses — just 358,000 Americans had active registered apprentices in 2012 or 7 percent of the number of apprenticeships in England — but they could fill America’s shortage of skilled workers to meet the nation’s future economic needs and offer workers higher wages and better employment outcomes. Research shows that apprenticeships lead to an increase “in lifetime earnings and benefits of up to $300,000 for workers.”