Washington Week

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Big Political Stories of 2015

From the presidential race to Congressional leadership shakeups, from immigration fights to a rejected oil pipeline proposal, here are some of the biggest political stories of 2015.  Click on the list or scroll down to keep reading.  Share your biggest political stories of the year in the comments below or on Twitter with #16for2016.

1. 2016 Republican race: Outsiders vs. establishment
2. Hillary Clinton’s email trouble
3. A Socialist takes on Clinton
4. Big money in presidential politics: A $5 billion campaign?
5. Changing face of Congress
6. Politics of corruption
7. Bipartisan spending bill (and no shutdown threats!)
8. Immigration: From the border to refugees
9. Keystone XL pipeline rejected
10. Kentucky clerk Kim Davis denies marriage licenses
11. Guantanamo Bay: To close or not to close?
12. Vaccine politics
13. Pacific trade deal in trouble
14. 2015 ballot measures: A sign of things to come?


1. 2016 Republican race: Outsiders vs. establishment

"A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."
"They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists."
"You don't cure a child molester."

Those are just some of the statements Donald Trump has made during his unconventional 2016 presidential campaign. 

Despite rhetoric that has made headlines and attracted condemnation from his Republican rivals and party leaders, Trump has surged to the top of the GOP field in nearly every poll for the last six months.  A recent USA Today survey found that 68 percent of Trump’s supporters would support him if he left the Republican Party and ran as a third party candidate -- an idea he considered but dismissed at the latest GOP debate. Trump has clearly tapped into something.

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 62 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track and 80 percent of people are "either angry about the political system, anxious about the economy or both."

Anti-Washington sentiment is even more pronounced in the Republican electorate, where a recent Pew Research Center study found that 42 percent of Republicans are angry at government, while just 11 percent of Democrats say the same.

The pervasive anti-government mood is helping Trump and other outsider candidates -- like retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson -- surge in the polls, even if only temporarily for some.

But other candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are trying to turn their experience in government into a benefit, and point to President Obama, who was a first-term senator when he was elected president in 2008, as proof of what an untested president will do.  And of course some Republican candidates with inside-Washington experience like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are trying to walk the line by capturing the outsider rhetoric.

All this has set up a dilemma for the Republican Party establishment who wants to capture the energy and enthusiasm of Trump’s supporters without alienating moderate independent voters who will be critical in next November’s general election.  The RNC has yet to figure out a strategy to get the candidate they want without driving Trump to run as an independent candidate, a decision that would likely split conservative voters and hand the election the Democratic nominee. 

Some Republican candidates have started to distance themselves from Trump’s rhetoric – including his plan to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.  Other candidates are less likely to write off Trump’s policies, potentially trying to capture his supporters if he leaves the race.  But either way, everyone is talking about The Donald.  All this is a long way around to say that Donald Trump is clearly setting the agenda in the 2016 election.

2. Hillary Clinton’s email trouble

The slow drip release of Hillary Clinton’s emails from her tenure as secretary of State continued for most of the year after revelations in March that she used a private email server located in her New York home for official business.  Clinton has said her use of private email was a measure of "convenience" so she would have to carry two mobile devices.  She later apologized and admitted it was a mistake. 

But the questions about what information Clinton sent on her email and whether or not it was classified have dogged her campaign all year.  Clinton has maintained that none of the emails she sent were marked classified at the time, and she has turned over 30,000 pages of emails to the State Department for review.  The monthly releases of emails as the State Department reviews them has shown that some emails should have been marked classified or have since been classified. 

The private server used to send the emails is now under the control of the FBI who is trying to recover emails that have been deleted.  Clinton has tried to make light of the controversy. Asked if she wiped the server before handing it over to the FBI, Clinton responded, "Like with a cloth or something?"  She also praised the social media app Snapchat because "those messages disappear all by themselves."

How does this relate to the ongoing Benghazi investigation? The House Select Committee on Benghazi has been investigating the events of Sept. 11, 2012, in Libya that left four Americans dead including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.  That committee asked for any communication about the attack, its cause and aftermath.

All these questions led to Clinton’s marathon 11-hour testimony before the committee in October.  After it was over, even committee Chair Trey Gowdy admitted that little new information was learned.  Clinton’s performance capped off a very good October for Clinton that included a solid performance in the first Democratic debate and news that Vice President Joe Biden would not challenge her for the nomination.

But for Clinton’s critics, her handling of the emails and the ongoing federal investigation point to questions of her trustworthiness that go back as far as her husband’s administration.

3. A Socialist takes on Clinton

Who could have guessed at the beginning of the 2015 that a self-described socialist would be attracting tens of thousands of people at political rallies?  Or that an Independent member of Congress would be a major force competing for the nomination of the Democratic Party for president? 

Well, meet Bernie Sanders.  He’s a 74-year-old Vermont senator who is doing just that. 

When the Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is seen by many as calculating with every decision highly politicized, Sanders is complete opposite.  His widespread appeal is attributed by many to his authenticity.  He is what he is.  He says what he means. 

And he is energizing young voters.  He’s actually beating Clinton in polls of first-in-the-nation New Hampshire voters.  And his third quarter contributions nearly matched Clinton’s.

Can Sanders pull an upset victory against the two-time presidential candidate? Stay tuned.

4. Big money in presidential politics: A $5 billion campaign?

The 2012 presidential election cost more than $2 billion. Four years later, that seems like a drop in the bucket.  Some fundraisers predicted as early as January that the 2016 presidential election could cost $5 billion, according to The HillNPR reported in August that $4.4 billion will be spent on TV ads alone.

As of the end of the most recent reporting period, the Center for Responsive Politics reported that almost $500 million had already been raised by candidates and their super PACs.  $263 million has been raised by candidates; $208 million by super PACs.

But who is giving all the money? Some candidates have been successful raising small-dollar amounts including Bernie Sanders with 650 thousand donors, Ben Carson with 402 thousand donors and Hillary Clinton with 400 thousand donors.  But the vast majority of money raised so far has come from a very small pool of donors.  The New York Times reported in October that 158 families have raised half of the money so far in the 2016 race, each contributing more than $250,000.

As much money as $5 billion is (and believe us, we can think of a lot of things to spend that on), here’s a little perspective:

The 2014 midterm elections cost $3.7 billion. That’s less than half the amount Americans spent on Halloween.  And it’s only five percent of what Americans spent on lottery tickets. 

So maybe $5 billion is a perfectly reasonable amount to spend to be the leader of the free world.

5. Changing face of Congress

After nearly 25 years in Congress and five tumultuous years as Speaker, John Boehner announced his resignation in September, setting off a weeks-long scramble in the House Republican conference to find his replacement.  Boehner rose to power after the 2010 tea party wave, but he struggled to hold together the large and divided Republican conference.  His tenure was marked by fights with the White House over fiscal policy and a two-week government shutdown.  After concluding his continued speakership could cause "irreparable harm to the institution," Boehner stepped down. 

But Boehner’s effort to unite House Republicans did not go as intended. When 40 members of the House Freedom Caucus didn’t support Boehner’s deputy Kevin McCarthy to succeed him, it appeared that no figure could unite the party.  After a prolonged courting period, House Budget Committee chair and 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan agreed to serve as speaker and was supported on the floor by almost all Republican members. 

Ryan’s tenure so far has been a dramatic shift from the top-down approach of his predecessor.  Ryan has allowed committee members and chairmen more independence in crafting legislations and has a wider circle of advisers from all ends of the conference.  His inclusive style has won praise from the Republicans he leads, and his frequent television appearances and more approachable style have helped push the party’s message to more people.  But Ryan, who has young children with his wife in Wisconsin, has indicated he will not spend as much time travelling and fundraising for the party as has been a traditional role of speaker.

The changes to Congress are just beginning. 18 other members of Congress have announced they will not seek reelection next November, including Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who is widely expected to be replaced by New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

6. Politics of corruption

Corruption in politics is nothing new, and 2015 was no exception.

Two current members of Congress have been indicted on federal charges but remain in Congress while they fight the charges. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Penn., was indicted in July on racketeering charges.  Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was indicted in April on corruption charges including bribery, conspiracy and making false statements.

Two other members resigned after federal investigations. Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., resigned in January after pleading guilty to felony tax evasion.  He was later sentenced to eight months in prison. And Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., resigned in March amid a federal investigation into his use of taxpayer funds.

And in May, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., was indicted on bank-related charges including structuring withdrawals to avoid bank reporting requirements.  The money was allegedly used to keep accusations of sexual misconduct under wraps.  The longest-serving Republican speaker of the House-turned-lobbyist pleaded guilty in October and will be sentenced in February.

7. Bipartisan spending bill (and no shutdown threats!)

Last-minute budget and spending fights are nothing new for Congress, but this year, the fight was not so much a fight.  Gone were the threats of a government shutdown that we’ve come to expect.  Instead this was a straightforward negotiation with compromises on both sides of the aisle.  And it wasn't so last-minute either: It passed with almost a week to go before a government shutdown. 

The $1.1 trillion government spending bill -- passed with over 300 bipartisan votes in the House -- keeps the government running until Sept. 30, 2016, and includes over $600 billion in tax breaks.

Republicans got an end on a ban of oil exports.  Democrats were able to renew wind and solar tax credits and block GOP efforts to cut off federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

The spending bill also renews health care funding for 9/11 first responders.  

8. Immigration: From the border to refugees

Secure the border. Build a wall. Amnesty. 2015 was the year the immigration debate hit a fever pitch.  Fueled by Donald Trump’s campaign announcement when he said Mexican immigrants were bringing crime and drugs, what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States became a huge topic of debate.  Trump advocates building a “beautiful wall” and deporting anyone here illegally.  Other candidates are for legalization.  Some promote a path to citizenship. 

But in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernarndino, California, the immigration debate became about more than just the Southern border.  When questions emerged about whether one or more of the terrorists involved in the Paris attack entered Europe as refugees from Syria, Republicans called for stopping all refugees from Iraq and Syria from entering the U.S.  And then, after a husband and wife – both Muslims – killed 14 people in California, the Republican frontrunner upped the ante again, calling for a halt to all non-American Muslims being allowed to enter the U.S.

The spending bill passed by Congress at the end of the year did include tougher scrutiny for people who have traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan in the past five years, but it did not pause the Syrian refugee resettlement program altogether as some Republican members advocated.

9. Keystone XL pipeline rejected

After seven years of deliberations, President Obama announced his rejection of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline that would have opened another avenue to send Canadian oil to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The decision to reject Keystone was a major victory for environmental activists, and Obama said the project would run counter to the U.S. goal of fighting climate change.  The president also rejected claims that the pipeline would create jobs, instead calling on Congress to pass an infrastructure plan that would create "30 times as many jobs per year" as Keystone.

The 1,179 mile pipeline was a major topic of debate during Obama's 2012 reelection campaign and had already been playing into the 2016 race. All of the Democrats hoping to succeed Obama had already announced their opposition to the pipeline, including his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Republican candidates supported the plan.

10. Kentucky clerk Kim Davis denies marriage licenses

After the Supreme Court expanded marriage rights to same-sex couples nationwide, one Kentucky county clerk became a rallying symbol for conservatives when she refused to issue any marriage licenses in her county.  Kim Davis, the Democratic county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, said she was acting "under God’s authority" when she refused to issue licenses to all couples, rather than issue them to same-sex couples.  Davis was held in contempt of court and served five days in jail before being released when she agreed that she wouldn’t interfere with her deputies issuing marriage licenses.  Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz attended a rally with Davis upon her release.

11. Guantanamo Bay: To close or not to close?

On his second full day in office in 2009, President Obama signed an executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Nearly seven years later, the prison remains open and the Obama administration rejected a Pentagon plan to build a facility in the U.S. to house the remaining 107 Gitmo detainees because the cost estimates were too high.  The White House asked the Pentagon to revise the $600 million price tag.  But this setback was just a few weeks after Senate included a ban on using funds to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. when they voted to approve the National Defense Authorization Act. With a little more than a year in office, the president is running out of options to close Guantanamo.

12. Vaccine politics

The anti-vaccination movement for many years has been pushing a link between vaccines and the rise of autism, a claim that has been widely debunked by doctors.  After a measles outbreak in California in early 2015, the debate about vaccine safety bubbled up in a big way. 

Two Republicans who were still weighing presidential campaigns suggested vaccines should not be mandatory.  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called vaccines a "measure of choice," and Sen. Rand Paul, a practicing ophthalmologist, said "it’s an issue of freedom and public health."

Democrats seized on the statements to paint Republicans as anti-science.

Christie backtracked and said kids should be vaccinated.  Paul even invited a reporter to watch him get a booster vaccine for Hepatitis A to underscore his belief that vaccines are safe. And for months the debate seemed to go away. Crisis averted.

But the conversation came to the forefront of the political campaign months later during the second Republican presidential debate when frontrunner Donald Trump once again made the connection between vaccines and autism. "Just the other day, 2 years old, 2½ years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic," Trump said while advocating "smaller doses" of vaccines "over a longer period of time."

The two doctors on the stage -- Paul and retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson -- only loosely debunked Trump’s comments while embracing the sentiment that parents should be able to choose how their children are vaccinated.

"We have extremely well-documented proof that there’s no autism associated with vaccination, but it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time," Carson said.

"I’m for vaccines, but I’m also for freedom," Paul added. "Even if the science doesn’t say bunching them up is a problem, I ought to be able to spread my vaccines out a little bit at the very least."

The politics of science will surely continue as the 2016 race continues.

13. Pacific trade deal in trouble

Months after Congress narrowly voted to approve fast-track trade authority, it appears the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration with 11 Pacific nations -- the centerpiece of his "Asia pivot" -- is in serious trouble in Congress.

The June vote over fast-track authority pitted the president against members of his own party including Democratic leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.  His partners in that vote were the Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.  The fast-track vote means Obama only needs 51 votes in the Senate to move forward, but with more questions from both sides of the aisle, a vote in the House could be close.

Republicans who supported the original vote, including Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Orrin Hatch, have yet to decide how they will vote in the face of stiff opposition from business groups.  Some Republicans believe the White House should go back to the drawing board to negotiate a better deal which appears to be a non-starter for the White House.

Complicating matters for the president is the complete opposition to the deal by the Democrats hoping to succeed him as president, including his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

14. 2015 ballot measures: A sign of things to come?

With marijuana legalization already on the books in four states and the District of Columbia, 2015 saw a halt in momentum when voters in Ohio rejected a ballot initiative that would have legalized recreational marijuana. The initiative -- with celebrity backers like boy band singer Nick Lachey -- would have only allowed 10 specific facilities to grow marijuana.  With 17 states considering some level of legalization in 2016, will voters follow Ohio’s example or continue the expansion of legalization?

Voters in Houston, Texas, rejected a non-discrimination ordinance that would have protected gay and transgender people. Opponents successfully defeated the ordinance when they reframed the debate about public restrooms.  Same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, but in many states LGBT people can be fired. Other states are already considering nondiscrimination ballot initiatives in 2016 elections.

In Kentucky, tea party candidate Matt Bevin won an unexpectedly large victory in the state’s governor’s race.  Bevin campaigned on his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and pledged to shut down the state’s healthcare exchange and consider reversing the state’s Medicaid expansion.

Republicans won victories in other states including Mississippi and Virginia.