Heather Cox Richardson
The new year has hit with news flying in from a number of quarters.
At home, minimum wage increased in nearly half of U.S. states; it has been 14 years since the last increase in the federal minimum wage, the longest stretch since 1938 according to the AFL-CIO. NPR correspondent David Gura quoted Goldman Sachs’s chief equity strategist to note, ”The S&P 500 index returned 26% including dividends in 2023, more than 2x the average annual return of 12% since 1986.”
Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH) today submitted his resignation, effective January 21, to become the president of Youngstown State University. This shaves the Republican majority in the House of Representatives even thinner. With the recent expulsion of George Santos (R-NY) and resignation of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Republicans will control just 219 seats, permitting them a margin of only two seats to pass legislation when the House returns on January 9.
The Republican House has been one of the least effective in history, and it has its work cut out for it in the new year. The first phase of the continuing resolution Congress passed in November to fund the government expires on January 19, ending funding for transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, and veterans’ affairs. The second phase expires on February 2. Much of the 2018 Farm Bill that covers food and farm aid expired in 2023. As of yesterday, January 1, the items usually covered in farm bills fall under a hodge-podge of fixes, with some old provisions from the 1930s and 1940s going back into force.
Also outstanding is the measure to provide supplemental funding for Israel, Ukraine, and the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as providing humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
House Republicans refused to pass that measure unless it included their own extreme anti-immigration measures, but they have refused to participate in efforts to hash out legislation, clearly preferring to keep the issue hot to use against the Democrats in 2024. Since President Joe Biden took office, he and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have asked Congress for additional funding for Customs and Border Patrol officers and additional immigration courts, but despite Republicans’ own demand for such legislation, House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) wrote to Biden in December demanding that he impose stricter immigration rules and build a border wall through executive action. Today, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) echoed the idea that Biden, not Congress, should deal with the border.
Meanwhile, Emily Brooks and Rebecca Beitsch of The Hill reported today that about 60 House Republicans are planning to visit the border in Texas to emphasize the issue. They are also preparing to impeach Mayorkas on the grounds that he has failed to meet the requirements of the Secure Fence Act, “which defines operational control of the border as a status in which not a single person or piece of contraband improperly enters the country.” As Brooks and Beitsch point out, “not a single secretary of Homeland Security has met that standard of perfection.” House Republicans plan to hold hearings on impeaching Mayorkas, but Homeland Security Committee chair Mark Green (R-TN) has suggested to the Fox News Channel that the articles of impeachment are already written.
At the intersection of domestic and foreign affairs, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), whom federal prosecutors have already indicted for using his office to work for Egypt, was charged again today with using his political influence to work for the government of Qatar. This is a big deal: at the time, Menendez was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a key position in the U.S. government. Two Republican operatives are pleading guilty to evading lobbying laws in their own work for Qatar; their activities appear to have been much more limited than Menendez’s.
The turn of the new year has also produced lots of news in foreign affairs.
On February 4, 2021, just after Secretary of State Antony Blinken took office, Biden spoke at the State Department and said “the message I want the world to hear today” is that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” In a New York Times article from December 31, Peter Baker, Edward Wong, Julian E. Barnes, and Isabel Kershner emphasize that Biden and his team have been engaged constantly in diplomacy with Israel, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Since the October 7, 2023, attack by Iran-backed Hamas on Israel, Biden has spoken with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu 14 times and visited Israel; Blinken has traveled to the region three times and visited Israel five times.
On December 22, in the Christian Science Monitor, Arab political journalist Taylor Luck and correspondent Fatima AbdulKarim reported that Arab Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, the U.S., and the European Union have created “[a] massive postwar reconstruction plan…for the besieged Gaza Strip.” The plan is to “rebuild the coastal strip, unite and overhaul Palestinian governance, and create a Palestinian security force in Gaza to ensure Palestinian and Israeli security.”
Arab diplomats insist the reconstruction of southern Gaza, including alleviating suffering, rebuilding housing and infrastructure, and restoring jobs, must be “rapid”; Gulf states have set $3 billion a year for ten years as the first budget. The plan calls for a “revamped and revitalized” Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza and the West Bank with current president Mahmoud Abbas as a figurehead and an apolitical unity government running affairs.
The plan is still developing, but already the main obstacles are Israel’s governing coalition, led by Netanyahu, who refuses the ideas of a two-state solution and of a Palestinian Authority in charge of Gaza, and Hamas, which Gulf states as well as the U.S. reject as a participant in the future governance of Gaza. Other Iran-backed militias also oppose such a solution.
From the beginning of the Hamas-Israel war, the Biden administration has been very clear that its first goal was to make sure the conflict didn’t spread, with Lebanon’s Iran-allied Hezbollah and other proxy militias joining in fully. Biden immediately sent two carrier groups to the region and promised “to move in additional assets as needed.” On October 10 he warned: “Let me say again—to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t. Don’t.”
The New York Times piece by Baker, Wong, Barnes, and Kershner revealed that Biden and his national security team, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan, also warned Netanyahu against launching a preemptive strike on Hezbollah. Israel and Hezbollah have been attacking each other with drones, missiles, and air strikes along the countries’ border.
Meanwhile, Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen have attacked ships in the Red Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, handling about 12% of global trade and about 8.2 million barrels of crude oil and oil products every day. On December 31, four small boats attacked the Hangzhou, a container ship from the Danish shipping giant Maersk sailing under a Singapore flag, and then fired on the U.S. Navy helicopters that responded to the Hangzhou’s distress call. The helicopter crews sank three of the boats, killing their crews; the fourth fled.
Today, Iran sent a naval frigate to the Red Sea, and Maersk announced it would stop using the Red Sea route until further notice. Hezbollah media said that an Israeli drone strike in Beirut, Lebanon, killed Saleh Arouri, the deputy political head of Hamas and a founder of its military wing. Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate.
Also today, in response to calls from Israeli cabinet members for the resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza, the U.S. State Department issued a “rejection” of both the language and the idea. “We have been clear, consistent, and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land, with Hamas no longer in control of its future and with no terror groups able to threaten Israel. That is the future we seek, in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, the surrounding region, and the world.”
And in today’s Washington Post, Lebanon’s former prime minister Fouad Siniora and former Lebanese lawmaker Basem Shabb noted that “[d]espite the ferocity of the bombing and the great loss of innocent civilian lives in Gaza, the conflict remains largely contained to an Israeli-Palestinian confrontation—and more specifically, is broadly understood in the Arab world to be a conflict with Hamas, a non-state actor,” but warned the conflict must not spread. They noted that in November, “[i]n a first, 57 Arab and Islamic countries…called for a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two-state solution,” the same concept embraced by the Biden administration.
“In response to Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, the Arab world responded with denunciation—but, more importantly, with diplomacy. No military threats were issued by any of the Arab states toward Israel,” the Lebanese lawmakers pointed out. They urged Israel to embrace the two-state solution “and, in doing so, usher in a new era in the Middle East.”
Lots of pieces moving around the board on this second day of January 2024.