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CNN Student News One-Sheet: Political Issues

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  • Use this One-Sheet to help your students understand top political issues
  • Contentious issues have cropped up in presidential campaigns throughout history
  • The issues in this One-Sheet are among those on the minds of voters in 2008
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(CNN Student News) -- Contentious issues have cropped up in presidential campaigns throughout America's history. Controversies from the past include slavery, isolationism, suffrage, civil rights, the prohibition of alcohol, and policies toward organized labor. The following issues are among those on the minds of voters in 2008.

In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that a woman has the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, striking down state laws limiting abortion rights. There have been many attempts to challenge the ruling over the years, but the landmark decision has not been overturned. In 2003, Congress passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which outlawed one particular type of late-term abortion. This issue pits abortion opponents against those who say abortion is a matter of personal choice. Some consider this issue to be a "litmus test" for Supreme Court nominees.

The cost of living is an issue that affects voters in all parties and economic classes. Among the economic issues currently on voters' minds are jobs, the threat of inflation, taxes, the home-mortgage crisis, and credit. Voters differ in their opinions as to what role, if any, the federal government should play in the economy. Most accept that one function of the federal government is to promote a stable economy. Examples of ways that governments affect the economy are government spending, tax rates, interest rates, minimum wage laws, and tariffs. Some argue that deregulation of corporations promotes economic growth; others believe that regulations protect workers and consumers. In the wake of the credit crisis, some look to the government for help while others prefer to let market forces run their course.

Parents, teachers and students all have different viewpoints on the issue of public education in the U.S. But who should be charged with educating the nation's young people? Some believe that because the word "education" is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, education is a responsibility of the individual states, not the federal government. There is a federal agency, the U.S. Department of Education, which is responsible for managing federal financial aid programs, ferreting out discrimination, and assessing the progress of public schools. State and local governments develop the majority of education policies and provide most of the funding for education. In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to meet uniform test standards to qualify for federal aid. This law, also known as NCLB, has vehement supporters and vocal detractors. In addition, there's the issue of vouchers. Some believe that parents should receive education vouchers they can use to send their children to the school of their choice, including private schools.

The bulk of the energy consumed in the U.S. is from nonrenewable fossil fuel resources, such as coal, natural gas and oil. Overall, the country uses more energy than it produces. There have been many calls for America to depend less on foreign energy sources, particularly oil. One viewpoint supports expanding exploration of domestic oil and gas reserves. Another view is to increase research and development of alternative energy. Over 16% of the world's electric power comes from nuclear power plants; in the U.S., it's close to 20%. But no new commercial reactor has come online since 1996, and the last time federal regulators granted a license to build a new nuclear power plant was in 1973. In addition to safety concerns, radioactive waste storage is also an issue.

The conservation movement in America began in the late 19th century as an effort to save the nation's wilderness for future generations. By the 1960s, it had evolved into a nationwide movement focused on changing environmental policies and promoting environmental values. A series of federal environmental laws followed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Environmental and economic concerns often are at odds with each other, and some have proposed weakening environmental regulations to ease what they see as unreasonable demands on business. There is currently a debate over the extent to which human activities such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels have led to global climate change.

Free trade
"Free trade" advocates argue that the market should be the ultimate regulator of trade, and that consumers will drive supply and demand based on their preferences. Opponents of free trade believe that governments should protect their country's services and industries by making foreign products more expensive. Governments often apply special taxes called tariffs on imported goods, theoretically allowing domestically produced products to compete with foreign products. Free trade proponents believe that these restrictions on trade inhibit economic growth. In 1994, The United States, Canada and Mexico enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, reducing trade barriers between the nations. This treaty remains controversial, and some want to repeal it or renegotiate its terms.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Gun rights advocates stress that the Second Amendment ensures individuals the right to own firearms without restrictions. Many who favor gun control interpret this amendment to mean that states shall keep militias, but that an individual's rights to own firearms may be restricted. In 1994, Congress banned possession of 19 military-style assault weapons. The ban was allowed to expire 10 years later. Other gun regulations that have been proposed or passed include mandatory trigger locks, age limits, gun sale limits, and mandatory background checks.

Health care
The U.S. government guarantees health insurance for the elderly and the poor through Medicare and Medicaid. Nearly 60% of Americans have private health insurance, but 15 percent of the population has no health insurance coverage. The health care debate pits those who propose federally-mandated, individual health insurance coverage for all Americans against advocates of private management of the health care system.

Homeland security
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the federal government reorganized a variety of agencies under the umbrella of the Homeland Security Department. Congress passed the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded law enforcement's surveillance and investigative powers. There is debate among supporters and opponents of the Patriot Act regarding the balance between civil liberties and security. In addition, legal issues remain regarding the rights of suspected terrorists, enemy combatants and other detainees held in the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A record number of foreclosures and an oversupply of homes have led to a decrease in home values. That also means that cities and counties have collected less in property taxes, which affects the services they provide, and banks have lost revenues or gone bankrupt. There have been other ripple effects, such as a slowdown in construction and other industries connected to housing. To ameliorate the impact of the crisis, some want to offer financial aid to either lenders or homeowners. Others believe that bailouts should not be offered to speculators who bought houses in order to "flip" them for higher prices, lenders who gave money to people who could not afford to pay back the loans, and homeowners who bought homes they couldn't afford.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 12 million illegal immigrants reside in the United States. Some view illegal immigrants as a necessary component of a low-wage labor force, particularly for seasonal farming and construction jobs. Others view them as a drain on limited government resources. Proposals from various fronts include a guest worker program, a path to citizenship, increased penalties, and a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border.

Soon after Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took approximately 70 U.S. citizens hostage, holding them for 444 days. Since then, relations between Iran and the United States have been strained. The U.S. and the U.N. accused Iran of sponsoring terrorist activities in the Middle East and imposed economic sanctions. The global community is also concerned about Iran's nuclear program, which it claims is only for peaceful purposes. Options proposed for dealing with Iran include more sanctions, further diplomatic efforts and military action aimed at the country's nuclear facilities.

In March 2003, the U.S. and its allies launched a massive aerial attack, called "Shock and Awe," on the country of Iraq, then led by dictator Saddam Hussein. Today, thousands of U.S. troops remain in Iraq; their mission includes creating security and rebuilding the country's infrastructure. Some favor staying in Iraq until the country stabilizes. Others prefer developing a phased withdrawal or a complete pullout of forces.

Price of gas
From 2001 to 2007, the average retail price of a gallon of regular, self-serve gasoline was less than $2. By May 2008, average gas prices had topped $4 a gallon. Economists point to several factors contributing to the price spike, including higher demand, fewer new reserves, no new U.S. refineries in three decades and political strife in oil-rich regions such as Iraq and Nigeria. To help consumers, some candidates propose a summer holiday for the 18-cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax. Others support a windfall profits tax on oil companies. Still others believe that the answer to high gas prices lies with more fuel-efficient cars, drilling in the Arctic and seeking alternative fuel sources to reduce dependence on oil.

Same-sex marriage
Marriage confers certain legal rights between spouses, including shared ownership of property, the right of inheritance, custody of offspring, and medical benefits. There is widespread debate over efforts to bring these rights to same-sex couples. Proposals include granting full marriage rights, allowing for civil unions or domestic partnerships that may not have all the legal rights of marriage, or banning the concept completely.

Social Security
The Social Security Act created a national system that provides benefits for the elderly, the disabled, dependents, and some other groups. Employer and employee contributions currently fund the system. Some experts believe the system will become bankrupt this century. There have been calls for saving Social Security by privatizing it, allowing individuals to plan and invest for their senior years. Opponents of this idea believe the government should revise the way Social Security is funded in order to provide a financial safety net for the elderly.

Stem cell research
Stem cells are cells that can develop into other cell types. Research on stem cells may yield clues about human development and lead to treatments for a variety of ailments, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, Lou Gehrig's disease, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. The controversy over stem cell research surrounds their source: human embryos. Currently, federal funding is restricted to stem cell strains harvested before 1991. Some propose banning or further limiting the use of federal funds for stem cell research, while others advocate more funding and the removal of all restrictions.

The United States has a progressive income tax system: Individuals with higher incomes pay proportionally higher taxes. In 2001 and 2003, President Bush pushed tax cuts through Congress. Some want to repeal the tax cuts, saying they benefit only higher income families. Others would like to make them permanent, saying that the American families are shouldering the bulk of the tax burden. The "Fair Tax" is a controversial proposal that would repeal income taxes, abolish the Internal Revenue Service and establish a national retail sales tax. A "Flat Tax" would tax income at the same rate for all individuals.

(Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica Online, CNN Library, U.S. Dept of Energy, U.S. Dept.of Education, U.S. Census Bureau, CIA Factbook)

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