Politics roundup: Funding agreement is on, but border conflicts aren’t over yet for the U.S.


The President agrees to a funding bill in order to avoid another government shutdown, but conflicts over the border wall are still making plenty of noise

Border deal in sight, but conflict still looms

With a deadline and the threat of another deeply unpopular government shutdown, the President has little other choice. He has to sign the latest spending bill that has already passed through Congress.

While this would apparently put the drama to rest and perhaps restore a little faith in the idea of political cooperation, things aren’t over yet. According to Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, the President will indeed sign the funding bill, which includes some money for border protection. But, he has another card up his sleeve. The plan has nowhere near the $5.7 billion the White House originally wanted for a grand and somewhat ill-defined border wall.

The move is seen as a large capitulation from a President that had promised not to do so for much of the preceding shutdown. Many speculate that the President has been so focused on the wall because it was a central campaign promise. In the heady days of the 2016 campaign, it was such a big deal that some supporters even cosplayed as the wall at speeches and rallies. The White House fears disenfranchising not just the man who put on a body suit and pretended to be a barrier, but other core voters.

McConnell said that the President will sign the bill, then declare a national emergency in order to secure the necessary money for a wall. The President has floated this idea before, though whether or not the immigration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border constitutes a “national emergency” is up for debate. McConnell’s announcement to the Senate came before any word from the White House.

An official announcement quickly followed. On Friday, the President confirmed that he was declaring a national emergency, which could ultimately give him an estimated $8 billion to build a border wall, rather than the original $5.7 billion he had requested.

This use of executive action could open up a Pandora’s box, however. The pursuit of funding for a wall, despite Congressional resistance and wavering voter support, could trigger a constitutional crisis. Should a U.S. President have so much power that they can get their way regardless of what the other branches of government have to say about it?

The use of a national emergency to secure funds isn’t entirely new, but this is the first time it’s been used by a president in direct conflict with Congressional will. The move will undoubtedly encounter resistance from lawmakers and judges throughout the nation. Even if challenges make it to the typically conservative Supreme Court, that’s no guarantee that it will pass unscathed. The current Supreme Court Justices have shown a tendency to push back against executive overreach, as during the Obama era.

At the border itself, there appears to be a heady mix of support for and resistance against the wall. Earlier this week, advocates for the structure formed a “human wall” in New Mexico, referencing an earlier presidential tweet claiming that “We will build a Human Wall if necessary”.

Meanwhile, Governor of California Gavin Newsom has pulled many of the National Guard troops stationed at the state’s border with Mexico. “The border ‘emergency’ is a manufactured crisis,” he said. “And California will not be part of this political theater.”

Department of Education targeted in federal report

A new report from the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General, an independent watchdog, debuted on Thursday. In it, investigators found critical failures within the department, and especially in the Federal Student Aid office responsible for overseeing student loans. Federal student loans currently total over a trillion dollars.

With so many people handling student loan debt, and with many of them looking ahead to years of paying them off, this is an especially damning conclusion.

The report reserves some of its most critical observations for the FSA’s dealings with loan servicers, companies contracted to manage the debt. While the FSA did document servicers’ failures to follow regulations, it demonstrated little initiative in disciplining or even simply following up with noncompliance. There appears to have been little to no attempt to even understand broader patterns or to enforce any of the rules beyond the bare minimum.

Iran marks 40 years since its revolution

On Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani celebrated the 40th anniversary of his nation’s Islamic Revolution in front of large crowds. Rouhani, generally considered to be one of the more liberal Iranian leaders since the revolution, promised to grow Iran’s missile programs and its armed forces. His announcement was in defiance of U.S. sanctions reinstated in 2018.

“We will be victorious in the face of America,” promised Rouhani. His statements, and those of other celebrants, underlied the complex history of Iran and its place in the Middle East. Even within Iran, the story is complicated. The nation is modernizing, with increased access to healthcare and education, but with serious corruption issues. Growing class inequality has also contributed to unrest.

Some clarified that the frequently heard phrase, “death to America” really refers to establishment figures like the current U.S. President and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It is arguably true that few people in the White House have been friendly towards Iran, especially once the 2015 Iran nuclear deal lapsed last year.

Still, these clarifications didn’t inspire much ease. Anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric was widespread throughout the anniversary occasions. U.S. reactions to the anniversary are also colored by the recent indictment of U.S. Air Force counterintelligence specialist Monica Witt. She is now suspected of acting as a spy for Iran after years of military service and a conversion to Islam.

And, finally, your palate cleanser

If you’re already part of the science world in one form or another, then you may have heard the sad news. If not, then I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you: the Opportunity rover is gone.

Yes, we absolutely should care about a rover that landed on Mars in 2004. Fifteen years ago, Opportunity (“Oppy” to its friends) was set to explore the surface of Martian geology and look for evidence of liquid water there.

Though it was originally designed for a 90-day mission, Opportunity lasted a stupendous decade and a half. It brought a wealth of information about one of our closest planetary neighbors, such as when it uncovered evidence of hydrothermal vents that would have been part of an ancient lake on Mars. Proof of water on Mars, even if said water is long gone, was still a huge discovery.

Ultimately, Opportunity motored over 45 kilometers across Mars before a dust storm overtook it last year. With its solar panels coated in fine Martian dust particles, it was seriously hampered. Opportunity soldiered on with two steering wheels instead of four, but further dust storms dealt the final blow.

In August 2018, Opportunity became stuck in Perseverance Crater and slowly lost connection. NASA scientists played it one last song, Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You”, and officially declared the end of the mission on February 13.

Opportunity’s fellow rover, Spirit, landed in the same Mars Exploration Rover Mission in 2004. It lasted until it became stuck in late 2009, at such an angle that its solar panels couldn’t charge properly. It last communicated with NASA in March 2010.

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Plenty of people are genuinely sad, but let’s also remember the rover’s hard work and scientific achievements. Celebrate Opportunity’s legacy with photos from its groundbreaking mission. And take heart, for the Curiosity rover (which landed in 2012) is still going. NASA also plans to send even another rover to the planet as part of its Mars 2020 mission, set to launch this July.

Eventually, if manned missions to Mars are going to be part of our future, we can hope that someone will be able to walk up to Opportunity, brush off its solar panels, and say hello again.