In the first season of John Oliver’s acclaimed show Last Week Tonight, the comedian proved he has a knack for bringing the world’s attention to thorny, complicated issues without losing his sense of humor.
The show’s best episodes unpacked complex subjects, ranging from civil asset forfeiture to net neutrality, in 15-minute satirical monologues that reverberated both online and off; in some cases, Oliver’s comic tirades even inspired viewers to take real-life action.
With season two kicking off on Sunday, here are six difficult and relatively under-reported issues that might benefit from the John Oliver treatment over the next few months:
John Oliver proved he could take on tricky issues in the American criminal justice system with his look at civil asset forfeiture. There’s no better place to pick up on criminal justice issues than with solitary confinement. The practice, used in an estimated 44 states, places prisoners alone in a cramped space for days, weeks, months or even years on end. (In one recent case, a prisoner spent 28 years in solitary confinement). Prisoners often end up with a slew of mental health issues including paranoia and panic attacks. Still, despite acknowledgement of the problems caused by solitary confinement, tens of thousands remain subjected to it. The challenge for Oliver’s talented team of writers would be to make this bleak trend in U.S. correctional facilities amusing.
Death penalty drugs
The Supreme Court announced last month that it will review Oklahoma’s troubled lethal injection protocol, which includes a controversial sedative called midazolam that’s been used in three prolonged and problematic executions. In January 2014, death row inmate Dennis McGuire reportedly snored and snorted on the gurney for roughly a half-hour after being injected with it. In April, Clayton Lockett reportedly writhed and groaned during his execution and died about 45 minutes after the lethal injection began. And in June, Joseph Wood’s execution lasted close to two hours before he was pronounced dead. So what are other states who have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs doing? They’ve turned to small, private compounding pharmacies, which are not under federal oversight, to mix together drugs, while attempting to pass secrecy laws that would keep the pharmacies’ identities secret.
The federal funds rate
The federal funds rate is the “interest” rate that determines everything from the cost of taking out a mortgage and the size of your 401k account, to the price of buying government bonds. Since the Great Recession, the Federal Reserve has kept that rate at historic lows in an effort to get people to take out loans, start businesses, and spend money. But with the economy well on the road to recovery, it’s coming closer to raising the federal funds rate. That would be opposed by big businesses, who fear such a move would unsettle the market and slow the economy — but might be welcomed by average American savers who have their retirement funds tied up in U.S. government debt. When should the Federal Reserve increase the rates? It’s an opaque issue, but it affects all our wallets.
The Clean Water Act
Over 40 years ago, Congress overrode President Nixon’s presidential veto to pass the Clean Water Act, a law that has allowed Americans to fish and swim at thousands of lakes, rivers and creeks that might otherwise have become polluted by the energy and agribusiness industries. But the wording of the act has always been vague, creating a legal grey area in recent years that has permitted more and more polluters to get away with spoiling American waterways. Last April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlined plans to define more clearly how it protects the waters of the United States, to howls of outrage from a coalition of farmers and businesses that consider the new rules too complicated to follow, and Republican lawmakers who suspect the federal government holds a radical environmentalist agenda. The EPA will release a final definition in the spring — at which point the lawsuits from states and lobby groups will begin flowing.
You’ve probably heard the stories—or read the TIME cover story—but in many places, teacher tenure laws prevent administrators from firing teachers who behave inappropriately or are flat out incompetent. Efforts from reformers have changed the laws in some states, often by instituting testing standards that teachers must meet to guarantee they can keep their jobs, but some say testing can be an unfair metric of teacher performance. No matter where your sympathies lie, the issue is more complex than simply firing teachers who don’t perform. And there’s a web of interests to boot, including billionaires trying to reshape the system, politicians bankrolled by teachers unions and, of course, the teachers, both good and bad, themselves.
This free trade deal between the United States and 11 partner countries along the Pacific Rim may be the biggest thing you’ve never heard about. Then again, it’s hard to say exactly what it is, given that it’s being negotiated in secret and only a select few are privy to its terms. Early rumors suggest the agreement could govern more than 40% of U.S. imports and exports and lead to more than $75 billion in additional income in the U.S. But at a time when Democrats and Republicans agree on very little, many from both sides of the aisle in Congress are complaining that President Obama is trying to push such a dramatic deal without Congressional input or oversight. Maybe John Oliver can help us figure out what’s the deal with the deal.
– additional reporting by Sam Frizell and Josh Sanburn