Congress Ends Least-Productive Year In Modern History

Congress officially ended its least-productive year on record after passing 80 bills, the fewest recorded since they began keeping year-end records in 1947, The Washington Times reported.

An analysis offered by the Times found that Congress set a record for legislative futility by accomplishing less in 2011 than any other year. This study took into account the lawmakers time spent in debate, the number of conference reports that were produced and the instance of voting on the floor of the House and Senate.

The newspaper reported that the Senate’s record was weakest by a significant margin, according to the futility index, and the House had its 10th-worst session since records have been taken.

“Absent unified party control with a bolstered Senate majority, I think it’s just very hard to get things done, particularly in a period when revenues aren’t growing and the decisions are how to cut, and how to cut in the long term,” Sarah Binder, a professor at George Washington University, told the Times. “Congress just isn’t very good at solving long-term problems.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that both Democrats and Republicans have placed the blame on the other party’s ineptitude, and lawmakers from both sides have targeted payroll tax extension as the first issue for 2012.

White House Suggests Keystone Pipeline Deadline Is Too Soon

The battle over the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline is fast approaching as the White House had signaled resistance to the new February 21 deadline that was set for approval of the project, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, the White House agreed to the new deadline as part of the recently passed payroll tax cut extension. However, as the date now approaches, the President Barack Obama Administration appears hesitant to make a decision.

“The State Department has been very clear that that does not allow for the kinds of reviews that are necessary,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said last week in regards to the deadline.

Fox News reported that the State Department has the final say in the approval process, due to the fact that it crosses international borders. The agency has been in review of the proposal for three years.

The Washington Post reported that the American Petroleum Institute, the largest oil lobby in the U.S., has launched an effort to urge the government to support the plan that would transport crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Chairman Of Joint Chiefs Heads To Israel To Address Iran Threat

Israel’s military confirmed that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey will travel to the Middle Eastern nation to commence talks this week, as Israel’s number two public official suggested that President Barack Obama is being meek about the Iranian situation, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, the content of the coming discussion between Israel’s top military commanders and the U.S. general was not announced, but Iran remains a concern for the Jewish state.

“There is very close cooperation between Israel, the Israeli military and the U.S. military, and General Dempsey is a close friend, and I’m sure that he and our chief of staff will have very serious discussions about all the options,” former Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Dan Gillerman said in a statement.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Moshe Ya’alon said that he was disappointed by the lack of an extension of U.S. sanctions on the country. These would further damage Iran’s central bank and its energy industry, according to Fox News.

The Associated Press reported that the Israeli and U.S. militaries have recently postponed large-scale war games in an effort to avoid aggravating tensions between the international community and Iran.

Obama Looks To Merge Agencies To Consolidate His Authority

President Barack Obama will ask Congress for greater power to limit the size of the Federal government. His first initiative concerns the merger of six sprawling trade and commerce agencies, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Administration officials noted that the overlapping programs of the agencies can be baffling to businesses. Obama will call on Congress to give him the type of reorganizational power that was last held by former President Ronald Reagan.

The AP reported that the Obama version of this power would be the authority to propose mergers that would promise to save money and help American consumers. It would then be up to lawmakers to give the President this fast-track ability and decide whether to approve any of his ideas.

ABC News reported that this type of declaration by the President is similar to his January 2011 State of the Union Address. Here he noted that government overlap produced inefficiency and needed to be reformed.

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater,” he quipped during the speech.

Chamber Of Commerce Chief Critical Of White House Jobs Agenda

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue criticized President Barack Obama for a weak election-year economic agenda and costly new regulations during his annual speech on the state of American business, The Washington Times reported.

“An Administration spokesman recently said that there is just one item on the president’s ‘must pass’ legislative program for the year — a further extension of the Social Security payroll-tax holiday,” Donohue said. “With all the challenges facing our economy and our country, it’s inconceivable to me that the President would agree with that — and I trust that he doesn’t. 2012 must not be wasted simply because it’s an election year.”

According to the newspaper, Donohue said the Democrat-controlled Senate should take up some of the legislation passed by the Republican-led House to stimulate economic growth and create jobs. He noted that at least one or two of the proposals would have to be appealing to the Senators.

POLITICO reported that Donohue noted his displeasure with hearing politicians bash the free market, saying that the only way out of the current crisis is to drive economic growth from one end of the country to the other.

Warm Winter Can Lead To Danger On Ice

Although winter has just begun, there have already been 10 reported incidents concerning individuals falling through the ice, highlighting the dangers of warm winters and frozen bodies of water.

According to a release from the National Drowning Prevention Alliance (NDPA), experts have blamed the unseasonably warm temperatures and alternate freezing and thawing for the dangerous conditions this winter.

“We urge everyone to stay off all frozen bodies of water,” said Kim Burgess, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. “The perceived recreational benefit is simply not worth the risk to yourself or your loved ones.”

The NDPA also advised against letting pets roam onto the ice, as these animals may fall through and inspire brave actions from onlookers. The organization noted that if a beloved companion does become submerged, calling 911 is a better solution than attempting a rescue mission.

Regions like the American Midwest have seen temperatures as high as 50 degrees as of January 11, and places like Albany have received only 6.5 inches of snow this winter, roughly 10 inches less than it normally gets by this point, according to the Washington Post.

Solyndra Seeking To Pay Two Dozen Employee Bonuses

Though the company filed for bankruptcy despite receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from the government, Solyndra is planning to dole out bonuses to persuade key employees to stay put, The Washington Times reported.

According to the news outlet, nearly two dozen employees could receive bonuses that range from $10,000 to $50,000 each under a proposal that was filed by legal representation for the company in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware.

The Times reported that the attorneys said the extra money would add motivation at a time when workers for Solyndra have little job security and more work due to firings following the company filing for bankruptcy.

“Within the last few months, the debtors have experienced a serious loss of personnel, which has made the continuation of the sales process in an orderly fashion more difficult,” attorneys for Solyndra disclosed in a recent filing.

The Wall Street Journal recently compared California’s proposed high-speed train to the failed solar company, calling the plan put forth by Governor Jerry Brown the “Solyndra on Wheels,” due to the $98.5 billion price tag for the project.

U.S. Plans Push For Peace Talks With Taliban

The U.S. has planned a major push for next week to jump-start peace talks with the Taliban, senior officials from the President Barack Obama Administration said.

The Wall Street Journal reported that this would be one of the first signs of progress toward a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan. This news came amid the release of a potentially embarrassing video showing U.S. troops urinating on the corpses of Afghan insurgents.

According to the news outlet, Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul to seek his approval for America to resume negotiations with representatives from the Taliban.

The Journal reported that senior Obama Administration officials said that the prospective confidence-building measures include the establishment of a political office for the Taliban in Qatar, a statement from the group distancing itself from international terrorism and the trasnfer of up to five militants held in Guantanamo Bay.

The New York Times reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted the Administration was “still in the preliminary stages of testing whether this can be successful.”

Federal Court Blocks Oklahoma Attempt To Ban Sharia Law

An amendment that would ban courts in Oklahoma from considering international or Islamic law discriminates against religions, a Federal appeals court said Tuesday, giving a Muslim community leader the right to challenge its Constitutionality, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the court in Denver upheld U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange’s order blocking the implementation of the amendment after it was approved by a majority of Oklahoma voters in November 2010.

The AP reported that Muneer Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, sued to block the law from taking effect. He argued that the Save Our State Amendment was in direct violation of his 1st Amendment rights.

“The courts shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures,” the amendment had said. “Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia law.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that the appellate court opinion pointed out that proponents of the law could not identify a single instance in which an Oklahoma court applied Sharia law or other international doctrines.

Gitmo Turns 10, Closure Hopes Fade

Suleiman al-Nahdi and dozens of other prisoners wait in a permanent state of limbo five years after he was cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay, The Associated Press reported.

“I wonder if the U.S. government wants to keep us here forever,” the 37-year-old Nahdi recently wrote in a letter to his legal representatives.

The prison turned 10 years old on January 11, and Gitmo appears more established than ever, the AP reported. The original deadline set by President Barack Obama to close Guantanamo Bay came and went two years ago and no detainee has left in a year due to restrictions placed on transfers.

“They would like to send a message that the prisoners of Guantanamo still reject the injustice of their imprisonment,” Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, told the news outlet.

TIME Magazine reported that 36 of the 171 prisoners at Gitmo await trial for war crimes, but the other 135 detainees are being held due ot the fact that they are allegedly dangerous.

States Face Delays In Race To Top Implementation

Several States that received a portion of the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition have had to delay plans for implementing significant reforms in their schools due to slow progress, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, that two of these States may lose money if they don’t get back on track. Officials released State reports on Tuesday that outlined the progress of all 12 winners, finding only three that were on schedule with their reform plans.

The AP reported that another six States are making some progress but facing delays, and three – Hawaii, New York and Florida – are said to have significant issues.

“New York made significant progress through Race to the Top over the last year but has recently hit a roadblock that not only impedes Race to the Top but could threaten other key reform initiatives,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Backtracking on reform commitments could cost the State hundreds of millions of dollars for improving New York schools.

Although the reports don’t rank or compare efforts between the States due to differing initiatives, the assessments and comments made by Federal officials suggest Ohio and Massachusetts led the effort, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Federal Government In Red For 39th Straight Month

The Federal government ran a deficit in December, the 39th straight month in the red, according to preliminary reports from the Congressional Budget Office.

The Washington Times reported that the streak dates back to the last days of former President George W. Bush and encompasses the entirety of President Barack Obama’s tenure.

According to the newspaper, not only is the government acquiring more debt each month, but the deficit of $84 billion in December was slightly higher than the number for that month in 2010. Payments to housing finance giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae accounted for much of the growth in spending.

Corporate income tax receipts were up, the Times reported, while payroll tax receipts were down due to the tax cut Congress and Obama agreed to a year ago.

USA Today reported that the U.S. national debt recently reached a symbolic tipping point, as it is now as big at the entire American economy.

“The 100 percent mark means that your entire debt is as big as everything you’re producing in your country,” Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center told the newspaper. “Clearly, that can’t continue.”

Gold Price Rises As Euro Rebounds

The price of gold rose by a significant margin as a resurgence of the euro versus the dollar, bringing the value of the metal past a 200-day moving average, according to Reuters.

Bloomberg reported that gold reached its highest price in almost three weeks due to speculation concerning an increase in physical demand for the metal. Coupled with the rise of the euro, the move by traders to the commodity pushed the value higher during trading.

According to the news outlet, the U.S. Mint sold 79,000 ounces of gold to date for the month of January, topping the total sales for the metal that were recorded during December.

“Physical investment and jewelry demand has been strong into price falls below $1,650, with Chinese buyers particularly active,” Nick Moore, an analyst at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, told Bloomberg. He noted that demand from China “is likely to increase this month irrespective of price, in the run-up to the Chinese New Year Holiday.”

The price of gold for February delivery rose $24.40 to $1,632.50 an ounce, marking an increase of 1.52 percent, according to CNN.

New Jersey Republican Leader Dies At Statehouse

The Republican leader of the New Jersey Assembly collapsed and died at the Statehouse in Trenton on Monday, the final day of the legislative session, The Associated Press reported.

Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, 75, collapsed in a men’s room at the Statehouse and was pronounced dead at the scene. Governor Chris Christie, a personal friend of the lawmaker, confirmed the death of his fellow Republican.

“Tonight I lost a dear friend, colleague and mentor,” Christie said in a statement. “He helped to give me my start in elective politics in Morris County in 1993. He was one of the most kind, considerate and trustworthy people I have ever had the pleasure to know. This is an enormous loss for our State and for me personally.”

DeCroce’s death shocked lawmakers and legislative staff who had been working with him all evening as the State Legislature was ironing out the details on a flurry of last-minute bills, according to the AP.

CNN reported that DeCroce was the Republican leader in the New Jersey General Assembly since 2003.

U.S. Man Sentenced To Death In Iran

An Iranian court has convicted an American man of working for the CIA and sentenced this individual to death, state radio reported on Monday, in a case that may add to the tension between the U.S. and Iran, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Iran charges that as a former U.S. Marine, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati had received special training and served at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to being sent to Iran for his alleged intelligence mission for the CIA.

State radio in Iran did not say when the verdict was issued, and Hekmati has 20 days to appeal the decision under Iranian law. The 28-year-old former translator for the military was born in Arizona and graduated from a Michigan high school. According to the AP, his father claims that his son is not a spy and was simply visiting his grandmother in Iran.

The New York Times reported that Hekmati is the first American to receive a death sentence in Iran since the Iranian revolution took place 30 years ago. He has been imprisoned in the Middle Eastern country since August.

Hardship Claim Extended For Potential Immigrants

In a move that seeks to streamline the immigration process, the President Barack Obama Administration proposed new hardship rules to make it easier for illegal immigrants to apply for legal status and remain in the U.S., The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, the latest move by the Administration would help to ease the burden for illegal immigrants in the U.S., and supporters cheered it as a tremendous victory for these individuals.

The Times reported that Homeland Security officials said the change only applies when an illegal immigrant has a family member living in the U.S. legally who would undergo “hardship” if separated from each other.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said that Obama was “bending long established rules to put illegal immigrants ahead of the interests of American citizens and legal immigrants. “Who is the president batting for — illegal immigrants or the American people?” the lawmaker asked rhetorically.

The Texas Tribune reported that the proposal would be posted in the Federal Register, and would be subject to a public comment period. Changes to the rule may take effect later this year.

China Slams New U.S. Defense Strategy

China slammed America’s new Asian-focused defense strategy, noting that its accusations of a lack of opening in Beijing’s military policy were both “groundless and untrustworthy,” The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the new strategy, outlined last Thursday, shifts the focus of the U.S. military away from the Middle East and makes a renewed commitment to assert American influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

In response to this new strategy, China said it was committed to peaceful development and a defensive policy. According to the AP, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters that their strategic intent was clear, open and transparent.

“Our national defense modernization serves the objective requirements of national security and development and also plays an active role in maintaining regional peace and stability. It will not pose any threat to any country,” Liu told reporters. “The charges against China in this document are groundless and untrustworthy.”

Reuters reported that the new U.S. strategy will include keeping large bases in Japan and South Korea and the deployment of marines, Navy ships and aircraft to Australia’s Northern Territory.

DHS To Launch Hotline For Jailed Immigrants

The Department of Homeland Security is launching a hotline for individuals who have been jailed on immigration charges and believe they are victims of a crime or may be U.S. citizens, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the toll-free hotline – 855-448-6903 – will be staffed 24 hours a day and run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to answer questions from people held in local jails concerning possible deportation proceedings.

The AP reported that the hot line is the latest move by the Administration of President Barack Obama to address concerns about alleged illegal immigrants held in local jails. In early December, Homeland Security ended agreements that allowed deputies at an Arizona sheriff’s office to check the immigration status of local inmates.

This practice was halted after a Justice Department report outlined allegations of discrimination and racial profiling against Latinos.

The Los Angeles Times reported that interpreters will be available for alleged illegal immigrants who speak other languages.

“ICE personnel will collect information from the individual and refer it to the relevant ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations field office for immediate action,” immigration officials said in a statement.

White House Announces Federal And Private Sector Job Opportunities For America’s Youth

The White House announced “Summer Jobs+,” a new call to action for the government, non-profits and businesses to work together to provide low-income and disconnected inner-city youth with a path to employment, according to a government release.

President Barack Obama proposed $1.5 billion for high-impact summer jobs and year-round employment for low-income youth ages 16 to 24 as part of the “Pathways Back to Work Fund.”

“America’s young people face record unemployment, and we need to do everything we can to make sure they’ve got the opportunity to earn the skills and a work ethic that come with a job,” said Obama.  “It’s important for their future, and for America’s.  That’s why I proposed a summer jobs program for youth in the American Jobs Act – a plan that Congress failed to pass.”

The Associated Press reported that the White House said with the help it has received from the private sector it has secured commitments for nearly 180,000 youth employment opportunities for next summer. Republicans have charged that the Federal government is taking credit for positions that were going to be created anyway, at places like CVS and Bank of America.

Wisconsin Governor Says Unions Have Made It Personal

With impending June recall election becoming all the more certain, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has said the debate is no longer just about collective-bargaining rights, as union leaders have made it personal, The Washington Times reported.

"They want me dead. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration," Walker said in an interview with the newspaper.

The Times reported that his opponents have until January 15 to collect roughly 540,000 signatures and trigger another election. This would likely center around the successful efforts by the Governor to strip some of the collective-bargaining rights from teachers and other government employees.

This move was made by the Governor out of an effort to close budget gaps and put Wisconsin back on more solid footing, according to the newspaper.

The Hill reported that Walker, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, urged his fellow governors to seek "structural reforms" like eliminating collective-bargaining rights.

"If you are going to do it, don’t go halfway," Walker said. The Governor also suggested that House Budget Committee Chairman Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) shares his views.

Former CIA Chief Calls Iran Greatest Threat To U.S.

Tehran will be the top threat in 2012, former CIA Director Michael Hayden predicted as Iran dominates the foreign policy debate in the U.S., according to Fox News.

“It is the single greatest destabilizing element right now with regards to global security,” Hayden told the news outlet. He noted that the trajectory that the Mideast nation is on concerning nuclear weapons and the recent Strait of Hormuz incident is one that the world should fear.

Hayden went on to say that the threats by Iran to close the waterway suggests that officials in Tehran may commit an “unforced error” in the next year.

The U.S. is not the only country that sees the Iranian threat as an impediment to the world’s progress, as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper opined that the country must be put in check, according to The Jerusalem Post.

“In my judgment, [Iran] is the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security,” Harper said during an interview with a Canadian radio station. “The is a regime that wants to acquire nuclear weapons.”

New Defense Plan To Shift Focus To Asia

President Barack Obama is helping to coordinate a new Pentagon strategy for absorbing hundreds of billions of dollars in defense budget cuts, as this move will mark a turning point in U.S. security policy, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Obama planned to make an appearance in the Pentagon press briefing room to announce the results of a strategy review that he ordered last spring. The aim of this was to streamline the military in an era where budgets are lower and to reassess the defense priorities in light of what is occurring in Asia.

The AP reported that Obama’s decision to announce the results himself underscores the political dimension of the debate in Washington over defense savings. The Administration has noted that cuts to the budget are essential, but will not come at a cost to the strength of the U.S. military.

According to POLITICO, the strategy focuses on crafting a nimble, tech-savvy military capable of swooping in to confront terrorists on a global scale. This force will supposedly be able to deter the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, along with countering a rising China in the western Pacific.

Obama Appoints Three To Labor Board, Bypasses Congress

Only hours after appointing the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while Congress was not in session, President Barack Obama bypassed opposition from the GOP to appoint three individuals to the National Labor Relations Board, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, the move was praised by union leaders, but Republicans threatened legal action and said Obama is setting a dangerous precedent in bypassing Congress.

Fox News reported that the board usually has five members, but has only been operating with three. It lost another member this week, hampering its ability to conduct regular business.

“The American people deserve to have qualified public servants fighting for them every day – whether it is to enforce new consumer protections or uphold the rights of working Americans,” said Obama during an announcement. “We can’t wait to act to strengthen the economy and restore security for our middle class and those trying to get in it, and that’s why I am proud to appoint these fine individuals to get to work for the American people.”

Reuters reported that the new members of the board will be sworn in for 18-month terms, and the five-member panel will consist of three Democrats and two Republicans.