The US Supreme Court may still retain some familiarity with the Constitution when it comes to deciding the nuances of cases involving immigration policy and lifetime incarceration. But when it comes to handing off control of American democracy to corporations, the Court continues to reject the intents of the founders and more than a century of case law to assure that CEOs are in charge.
Make no mistake, this is not a “free speech” or “freedom of association” stance by the Court’s Republican majority. That majority is narrowing the range of debate. It is picking winners. To turn a phrase from the old union song, this Court majority has decided which side it is on.
The same Court that in January 2010 ruled with the Citizens United decision that corporations can spend freely in federal elections—enjoying the same avenues of expression as human beings—on Monday ruled that states no longer have the ability to guard against what historically has been seen as political corruption and the buying of elections.
The court’s 5–4 decision in the Montana case of American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock significantly expands the scope and reach of the Citizens United ruling by striking down state limits on corporate spending in state and local elections. “The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the majority wrote. “There can be no serious doubt that it does.”
Translation: if Exxon Mobil wants to spend $10 million to support a favored candidate in a state legislative or city council race that might decide whether the corporation is regulated, or whether it gets new drilling rights, it can. But why stop at $10 million? If it costs $100 million to shout down the opposition, the Court says that is fine. If if costs $1 billion, that’s fine, too.
And what of the opposition. Can groups that represent the public interest push back? Can labor unions take a stand in favor of taxing corporations like Exxon Mobil?
Not with the same freedom or flexibility that they had from the 1930s until this year. Last Thursday, the Court erected elaborate new barriers to participation in elections by public-sector unions—requiring that they get affirmative approval from members before making special dues assessments to fund campaigns countering corporations.
How might it work? If Walmart wanted to support candidates who promised to eliminate all taxes for Walmart, the corporation could spend unlimited amounts of money. It would not need to gain stockholder approval. It can just go for it.
But if AFSCME wants to counter Walmart argument, saying that eliminating taxes on out-of-state retailers will save consumers very little but will ultimate undermine funding for schools and public services, the union will have to go through the laborious process of gaining permission from tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of members. And even then, it will face additional reporting and structural barriers imposed by the Court.
Campaign finance reformers had held out some hope that states might be able to apply some restrictions on corporate spending, as Montana did with its 100-year-old law barring direct corporate contributions to political parties and candidates. That law, developed to control against the outright buying of elections by “copper kings” and “robber barons,” was repeatedly upheld. Until now.
Now, says Marc Elias, one of the nation’s top experts in election law, “To the extent that there was any doubt from the original Citizens United decision [that it] broadly applies to state and local laws, that doubt is now gone.… To whatever extent that door was open a crack, that door is now closed.”
There may still be a few legislative avenues left for countering the “money power” of the new “copper kings” and “robber barons.” But they are rapidly being closed off by a partisan high court majority.
That’s why US Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has emerged as a leading proponent of moves to amend the US Constitution to restore the rule of law in elections, says: “The U.S. Supreme Court’s absurd 5-4 ruling two years ago in Citizens United was a major blow to American democratic traditions. Sadly, despite all of the evidence that Americans see every day, the court continues to believe that its decision makes sense.”
When billionaires can “spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy this election for candidates who support the super-wealthy,” argues Sanders, “this is not democracy. This is plutocracy. And that is why we must overturn Citizens United if we are serious about maintaining the foundations of American democracy.”
Sanders says he will step up his efforts to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but the democratically disastrous rulings that extend from it.
“In his famous speech at Gettysburg during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln talked about America as a country ‘of the people, by the people and for the people.’ Today, as a result of the Supreme Court’s refusal to reconsider its decision in Citizens United, we are rapidly moving toward a nation of the super-rich, by the super-rich and for the super-rich,” explains Sanders. “That is not what America is supposed to be about. This Supreme Court decision must be overturned.”
By: John Nichols, The Nation, June 25, 2012
Nobody would much describe Monthly alumnus and long-time Atlantic writer James Fallows as a firebrand. But he does have a sense of historical perspective. Over the weekend, mulling a probable Supreme Court action to invalidate some or all of the Affordable Care Act, Fallows put together a stunningly brief summary of how we came to this point:
Pick a country and describe a sequence in which:
* First, the presidential election is decided by five people, who don’t even try to explain their choice in normal legal terms.
* Then the beneficiary of that decision appoints the next two members of the court, who present themselves for consideration as restrained, humble figures who care only about law rather than ideology.
* Once on the bench, for life, those two actively second-guess and re-do existing law, to advance the interests of the party that appointed them.
* Meanwhile their party’s representatives in the Senate abuse procedural rules to an extent never previously seen to block legislation — and appointments, especially to the courts.
* And, when a major piece of legislation gets through, the party’s majority on the Supreme Court prepares to negate it — even though the details of the plan were originally Republican proposals and even though the party’s presidential nominee endorsed these concepts only a few years ago.
How would you describe a democracy where power was being shifted that way?
Fallows answers his own question by using a term—“long-term coup”—that he later downgrades to “radical change.” That’s appropriate, since “coup” implies tanks in the street rather than black-robed ideological cheerleaders. But it’s becoming more obvious each day that the judicial counter-revolutionaries of the Supreme Court don’t need the crisis atmosphere that they used to justify Bush v. Gore to continue its legacy. Indeed, it seems to have become the only precedent the majority reliably respects. Maybe they will surprise us all on Thursday and step back from the brink. But without question, if another seat on the Court falls their way, the constitutional substructure of every 20th century social accomplishment from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Act to the Clean Air Act to the right to an abortion is in immediate danger. And anyone who remembers that strange night in 2000 when the Court’s Republican appointees decided to seize the opportunity to choose a president should not be surprised.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, June 25, 2012
Any day now, the U.S. Supreme Court may make possible something that has yet to happen: an honest and complete discussion of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA).
And if it throws out all or part of the law now popularly known as “Obamacare,” we will need a fearless conversation about how a conservative majority of the court has become a cog in a larger right-wing project to make progressive political and legislative victories impossible.
I still harbor the perhaps naïve hope that some conservative justices — Anthony Kennedy? John Roberts? — will pull back from judicial activism and allow the voters to decide the fate of the health-care law in this fall’s elections. And here is where the court’s reintroduction of the health-care issue into the political debate could be turned into a blessing by allies of reform, provided they take advantage of the opportunity to do what they have never done adequately up to now. They need, finally, to describe and defend the law and what it does.
The ACA is the victim of a vicious cycle: Obamacare polls badly. Therefore, Democrats avoid Obamacare, preferring to talk about almost anything else, while Republicans and conservatives attack it regularly. This makes Obamacare’s poll ratings even worse, which only reinforces the avoidance on the liberal side.
The media have abetted the problem, but this is partly a response to the impact of the vicious cycle on how the issue has been framed. As a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism has shown, terms used by opponents of the law, such as “government-run,” were much more common in the coverage than terms such as “pre-existing conditions.”
Maybe now, supporters of the ACA will find their voices and point to the 30 million people the law would help to buy health insurance, how much assistance it gives businesses, how it creates a more rational health insurance market, how it helps those 26 and under stay on their parents’ health plans, how it protects those with pre-existing conditions. “Obamacare” isn’t about President Obama. It’s about beginning to bring an end to the scandal of a very rich nation leaving so many of its citizens without basic health coverage. However the court rules, we need to remember why this whole fight started in the first place.
If the court does strike down the law, those concerned that criticisms of its ruling might undermine the “legitimacy” of the judiciary should put their worries aside. Conservative justices long ago shattered the court’s standing as a nonpartisan, non-ideological actor in our governing system. That’s why recent surveys have found its approval rating on the decline.
As retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens noted 12 years ago in a powerful dissent, the court’s Bush v. Gore decision threatened “the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.” It’s gotten worse since. The 2010 Citizens United decision stands as another ruling that plainly strengthens conservative monied interests in the electoral arena. Please don’t tell me that these justices are entirely without a political agenda.
But friends of the health-care law need to acknowledge upfront that no matter how effectively they criticize the court, a ruling against it would be a real defeat — for the president, for the cause of expanding insurance coverage, and for progressives generally. Neither Obama nor his congressional allies would have wasted the time and political capital entailed in passing health-care reform if they had known that their efforts would be struck down by the judiciary even before the law came fully into force.
Enacting any sort of health-care reform is, as we have seen repeatedly since Harry Truman called for universal coverage, a gargantuan task. Balancing the many interests involved (and, ironically, the individual health-insurance mandate was a concession to conservative interest groups) is exceedingly difficult. For unelected judges to give the back of their hands to legislators whose job is to solve problems while accounting for competing priorities would be the height of arrogance and a flight from democracy. But all the liberal anger in the world will not make up for the size of the setback.
Were the health-care law to be eviscerated, those who battled so hard on its behalf might draw at least bittersweet comfort from what could be called the Joni Mitchell Rule, named after the folk singer who instructed us that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 24, 2012
In oral arguments before the Supreme Court in March, lawyer Paul Clement made the case that the simplest way to dispense with the 2010 health-care-reform law would be to overturn it entirely: If the Court finds that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, it should strike down the whole thing. “The better answer might be to say, ‘We’ve struck the heart of this act; let’s just give Congress a clean slate,’” said Clement, representing the National Federation of Independent Business and the 26 states that oppose the law.
On its face, Clement’s logic seems simple: If you’re going to monkey with a giant piece of legislation that restructures nearly one-fifth of the U.S. economy, it’s best not to get into the weeds. Just let Congress start from scratch. But this argument misunderstands what would happen if the sprawling law is suddenly moot. Unlike partial revocations, which would give Congress time to fix potential glitches, a complete invalidation would start several policy fires that would require immediate congressional action. And members of Congress have not spent much time planning for this scenario.
First up: Medicare. The Affordable Care Act changed the formulas that Medicare uses to pay providers from top to bottom. It shifted growth rates, boosted some providers’ pay, and baked in financial incentives for doctors and hospitals that achieve quality benchmarks. It also codified many of the Medicare payment adjustments that it passes every year. (After all, when you have one big health bill moving, why not throw in everything?) Since 2010, regulators have acted on those changes, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services pays out 100 million medical bills each month according to the new pay scale.
If the law is overturned, no one is sure what figures the system would use. Should CMS continue to pay providers at the rates set by the law? Or should it go back to 2009 levels? Both Donald Berwick, who ran CMS under President Obama before he joined the Center for American Progress last year, and Gail Wilensky, who held a similar post during the presidency of George H.W. Bush and is now at Project HOPE, said they don’t know the answer. The House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees would need to move fast to establish a clear legal authority for CMS to pay providers.
Furthermore, CMS operates using an antique IT system that makes it difficult to enact quick changes. Last year, when Congress looked like it might not pass routine legislation to forestall a big cut to physician pay rates, CMS Deputy Administrator Jonathan Blum told reporters that the system could hold claims for only 10 days before the computers crashed. Congressional staffers say they would probably need to freeze the current rates for weeks or months to give CMS time to switch back to the old pay scale.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a physician and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare, opposes the law. But, he says, “there’s going to be a lot of chaos.” Although “there are discussions going on all the time,” Coburn says, few decisions have been made. On the House side, a Republican aide says that staffers are making preparations, but members are not concerned about a real emergency if the law is struck down. “I don’t think, overnight, there’s going to be this immediate panic,” the aide said.
The health-care law also reauthorized several long-standing federal programs, including the Indian Health Service, the principal care provider for nearly 2 million American Indians and Alaska natives. And it dedicates billions of dollars to expand community health centers and the health care workforce. If it disappears, the legal authority for those programs or their funding would disappear with it. If Congress doesn’t want these programs to shut their doors and shed workers, it will need to reauthorize them quickly. Many of these programs have enjoyed broad bipartisan support for decades, and it’s unlikely that even Republicans clamoring for repeal of the health care law would want to see them eradicated.
A complete erasure of the health care law could also spell trouble for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The law’s Public Health and Prevention Fund, despite recent reductions, is set to dole out about $10 billion for community health ventures over 10 years. But because of recent appropriations cuts, the agency is using $825 million of that sum to pay for bioterrorism response-planning, lead-poisoning prevention, immunization programs, and many other core functions this year. Without new appropriations, these public-health programs will face instant, dramatic cuts. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, says he has not talked to his Democratic colleagues about contingency plans, and he is not optimistic that much would pass in this Congress. “The last time we did this, it took 30 years,” he says.
Since the Court is not especially likely to overturn the entire law, few lawmakers — including party leaders — have planned for it. “You asked whether there have been discussions,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who is a member of the Finance Committee. “The answer is yes. But there have been no conclusions reached yet.” In this Congress, though, even if both chambers ready blueprints in time, it’s hardly clear that anything could become law.
By: Margo Sanger-Katz and Meghan McCarthy, The Atlantic, June 25, 2012
The Supreme Court’s rejection of a long-shot legal challenge to let states bar corporate and union political contributions in their own elections underscores the legal quandary in which many left-of-center campaign finance reformers find themselves.
The court, in a 5-to-4 vote split along ideological lines, refused on Monday to strike down a Montana ban on corporate political spending. The decision effectively upholds its landmark 2010 decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations and unions were entitled to the same free speech protections as citizens, or at least allow state law to supersede it.
Because the Supreme Court decided Citizens United only two years ago and its conservative majority remains intact, few legal experts expected it to rule in favor of the challenge.
The current case, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, stemmed from a century-old Montana law that prohibits corporations from spending money on political campaigns. The effort, joined by more than 20 states, stipulated states should be allowed to carve out their own rules to regulate political fundraising and spending, an argument backed by the Montana Supreme Court when it ruled in favor of the state law last year.
But the Supreme Court, in a one-page per curiam opinion that shut the door on the possibility of oral arguments, curtly dismissed the notion that federal law didn’t apply.
The Citizens United decision, combined with other court cases and FEC rulings, has dramatically loosened fundraising and spending regulations for independent political organizations, which have proliferated since 2010 and become a major force in campaigns. Effort to curb the spending through the judiciary have thus far proven fruitless; Paul Ryan, senior counsel to the Campaign Legal Center, a left-of-center interest group, called the ruling “disappointing but predictable.”
“Unfortunately the only surprise would have been if the Supreme Court had taken the opportunity to revisit its horribly misguided decision in Citizens United,” Ryan said. “Clearly, the Supreme Court has decided to wash its hands of the disastrous results of its earlier decision. Apparently the same five Justices who gave us Citizens United are not troubled by the fact that special interests are picking the winners and losers in our federal and state elections.”
In a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer agreed. He reiterated his existing objection to the Citizens United decision, arguing that the proliferation of political spending amounted to a quid pro arrangement between politicians and political spenders. He also backed the state’s right to decide on its own whether corporate spending constituted to a corrupting influence, the threshold conservative justices have argued laws must pass to be constitutional.
“Thus, Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so,” Breyer wrote.
But even as the liberal justice signaled he would like to reconsider Citizens United, he acknowledged the court’s unchanging conservative majority means he doubts there is a “significant possibility” the court will reverse itself — something that left conservatives pleased.
“This closes the door on the argument that unique facts in a certain state can be employed to overturn [Citizens United],” said Jim Bopp, an Indiana campaign finance attorney who has spearheaded an array of challenges to campaign finance laws across the country. “Further, it means that independent expenditures are never corrupting as a matter of federal constitutional law.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a longtime advocate for loosening campaign finance regulations, hailed it as “another important victory for freedom of speech.”
“Clearly, the much predicted corporate tsunami that critics of Citizens United warned about simply did not occur,” he said in a statement.
By: Alex Roarty, The Atlantic, June 25, 2012