Opening Pandora’s box

The Thinker by Rodin

The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. After the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government we were going to get. He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Next Wednesday may be the end of our republic. That’s when the U.S. Senate is likely to acquit Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate is basically enshrining Richard Nixon’s assertion that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. Richard Nixon’s corpse would be smiling, if that were possible.

It will be an entirely predictable end to a trial in which no one seriously disagrees the president committed impeachable crimes, including the president’s lawyers. They just say that he has immunity from them. Republican senators seem to agree, setting the precedent that the president is above the law, or above any meaningful check by Congress. Senators can’t even be bothered to call witnesses. Many of them, rather than listening to the testimony presented, were caught reading books and doing crosswords instead.

So after his “exoneration”, it’s likely that if Trump wanted to arrest dissidents and deny them the right of a jury trial, he could get away with it. Because even if impeached again, the Senate won’t throw him out of office for offenses like this. There’s really nothing Trump won’t be able to get away with after Wednesday, and given his temperament you know he’s going to try. It’s likely to make all Republicans except the Never Trumpers giddy. It’s what they have been hoping for all along.

Oh, but there’s an election coming up! Voters will rectify things! Things aren’t so bleak after all! Since Trump’s election, Democrats have been on the upswing, winning the House, winning seats in the Senate and turning Virginia blue. But even if all of this happens, the precedent is now set. Congress has essentially voluntarily ceded power, allowing the Executive to become even more powerful, and itself more irrelevant. The script has now been tried and tested. Whether Republican or Democrat, the president can now simply refuses to respond to any congressional subpoenas. Unless two-thirds of the Senate agree to remove him from office, he or she has carte blanc.

A fair election in 2020 is problematic. There is the usual voter suppression and gerrymandering, which will be dialed up to 11 for November 3. The U.S. Senate is fine if other countries want to hack our election system or set up disinformation campaigns, even though it is explicitly against U.S. law. The U.S. Senate has effectively nullified lots of laws like this by simply refusing to hold accountable those charged with enforcing them. In short, the law means nothing to our senators, unless it can be used against their political enemies. Law is now meant to be applied selectively, and as a political weapon. Trump has an attorney general who agrees and who now states this as policy.

We are in a huge mess because our senators refused to do their job. Our system of checks and balances has proven able to be hacked. Our founders assumed that institutional forces would make these forces work. They did not want political parties, but we created them anyhow. As a consequence, 231 years later this system has proven fatally flawed.

The only chance of rectifying this is if Democrats win the trifecta in November: turning both houses of Congress and the executive blue. And even then there are institutional forces that make returning to a real republic problematic at best.

We can start with Donald Trump who you know will claim the election is rigged if he loses and will refuse to vacate the White House. Most likely he will see if he can affect a military coup to retain his hold on power. After all, if the election he is trying to rig goes against him, it must be illegitimate. Then it will be up to our military to resist the urge. I’d like to say I have faith they will resist, but we live in extraordinary times.

But even if Trump loses and goes, even if Democrats win a trifecta, there is a court system now full of cronies of Trump and Republicans designed to thwart any progress. You know the courts will find a reason to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Any universal health care plan that a President Sanders wants to put in place will be judged unconstitutional as well. A likely recession will weigh against a Democratic president and a Democratic congress, as the 2010 election showed.

Then there are the hosts of other issues that need addressing, with climate change at the top of the list. But since our constitution is now broken, it must be fixed too. That will require constitutional amendments that will be very hard to ratify. To start, the system of checks and balances needs to be changed. The impeachment and conviction process for presidents needs to change. The Justice Department must by statute and funding be under the supervision of the courts, not the executive.

It’s enough to make anyone despair. We cannot despair. Instead, we must get busy. We must reclaim our republic. Freedom is not free, and democracy is not free. We must fight for its return, with our blood if necessary.

47 mutineers

The Thinker by Rodin

I was hardly the only one shocked and more than a little dumfounded when 47 Republican U.S. senators sent an unsolicited letter to the Grand Ayatollah of Iran, Ali Khamenei last week. The letter said that any agreement between the United States, Iran, and all those other pesky countries (including China and Russia) working to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons could easily be abrogated by the Congress, something that is simply not true.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. We have a Congress in full mutiny over this thing called constitutional government because it is proving to be inconvenient. They are in mutiny because they hate the guy leading the executive branch because he has the audacity not to agree with them on everything. Just a week earlier House Speaker John Boehner made good on his unilateral decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress. Hitherto foreign policy, with the exception of treaties has been the purview of the executive because, well, it’s that’s what it says in the constitution. It must be very confusing to foreign leaders. Just who speaks for the United States government? It’s pretty clear in other governments, but not in our government, not anymore.

Only it’s not just the Congress. It’s also the Alabama Supreme Court. It started when its supreme justice Roy Moore told county clerks not to marry gay and lesbian couples, this after a federal court ruled they could marry. Subsequently the entire (Republican) state supreme court backed him up. Alabama is basically telling its court clerks that its decision nullifies the federal court’s decision. This is something close to treason. At the very least it is a conscious effort to ignore the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. We fought a three-year civil war to resolve the issue of states’ rights. One can understand the impulse not to want to accept these rulings, but a court is never supposed to do anything that obviously conflicts with the settled and unambiguous law of our land. Alvin Toffler would say this is a classic case of future shock. It’s clear that Republicans and southern states in general aren’t doing very well in dealing with the future that has already arrived and won’t follow constitutional processes to change things they don’t like.

Still, what these 47 mutinous Republican senators did reached a new level of arrogance and stupidity. New Arkansas senator Tom Cotton initiated the letter. I had two thoughts when I considered how this letter got started. First was that Cotton hadn’t bothered to run it by staff first. If he had they would have doubtless provided a sanity check and told him that this was a really bad, potentially career-ending act, not to mention factually wrong. The other alternative is even more mind-boggling: his staff told him it was a bad idea but he proceeded anyhow.

The even crazier part is that 47 out of 54 Republican senators signed it as well. This included their majority leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain, hitherto one of the rational Republicans. This wasn’t rocket science. The letter was wrong about how our constitution works. It suggests that 47 Republicans don’t even grasp the basic workings of our foreign policy and congress’s role in it. You could both see it and hear it in Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony. It was basically: are you really this stupid? Did you not hear the words about swearing to uphold our constitution when you took your oath of office?

Some of the signers have belatedly suggested that maybe signing it wasn’t a smart move. Editorial boards across the country were virtually unanimous in condemning what these senators did. Some of the signers of course doubled down, particularly those who seem to be angling to run for president in 2016.

None of these senators should be trusted to so much as guard a roll of pennies again. It was a potentially criminal lapse of judgment, so much so that a petition calling for them to be tried for treason has garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures on whitehouse.gov. Their hatred for all things Obama and their obsessive pandering to the worst elements of their own party overruled common sense, decency and apparently clouded over basic knowledge of our federal system and constitution. These erstwhile champions of the constitution clearly didn’t bother to read it before they signed the letter.

This is another Mission Accomplished moment, something none of these 47 senators will be able to live down. For many their states are so red it won’t make much of a difference to their jobs, but they will forever be ridiculed, insulted and scorned for their mutinous act. Like Lady Macbeth, they will never be able to remove this damned bloody spot from their careers. It’s a mark of deep shame they will carry into death, to be ever recorded in major sections of their biography. The many good things many of these senators have done are likely to be overwhelmed by this egregious, mutinous and profoundly stupid act of putting their anger and partisanship ahead of statesmanship.

When did conservatism become so radical?

The Thinker by Rodin

Halloween should be rescheduled for the last week of June. This is the last week of the Supreme Court’s annual session and they tend to leave their juiciest and most controversial decisions to the very end. The Supremes did not disappoint this year with two decisions yesterday that should leave sensible people reeling.

I’ll concentrate on the first, Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and leave the public unions decision Harris v. Quinn perhaps for a future post. In the Hobby Lobby ruling, we got a decision that grants “closely held corporations” religious rights. Previous Supreme Court decisions had already granted corporations personhood status, a preposterous assertion given that corporations do not breathe, have children, die, get checkups, walk, talk or vote. On the latter, given the court’s breathtaking decision in this case, it’s probably only a matter of time before corporations get the right to vote as well. (Given the way the Supreme Court sees these things, they will probably get a number of votes proportional to their status, maybe based on the number of employees.) Justice Alito went so far in his decision as distinguish between corporations as people and actual human beings, “natural persons” as he calls us. You have to ask yourself: WTF? Was he sober when he wrote this?

All this, you see, is to protect the precious rights of the people that own these companies, as if in their role as “natural persons” they don’t already have the right to vote, or to spend their own money on campaigns, or speak out at rallies or take out ads in the newspaper. This means, of course, if you are an executive of a corporation you effectively get twice the rights, but effectively a lot more as you can wield the assets of your company to the extent you have money or can borrow money to speak out as much as you want. The Koch Brothers epitomize the ability of the very moneyed to drown out much of the rest of us. And now because your corporate personhood is so precious, you can also take away the rights of others. Unsurprisingly, certain companies like Hobby Lobby feel the need to screw it to women, which thanks to this decision means that they can prohibit contraceptive coverage from being covered in their health insurance plan. Why? Because it’s against their religion. Like corporations can go to church!

You would think this decision could not possibly make the pigs any “more equal” than the other farm animals (that’s an Animal Farm reference, in case you missed the allusion), but you are forgetting one of last year’s stunner decisions. Almost a year ago, on June 25, 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law required certain states like Mississippi with a long history of racial discrimination in the voting booth to get preclearance for their voting methods. Mississippi was one of many mostly Southern states to set up more onerous criteria for voting: you had to show an approved photo ID, something that is difficult, expensive and inconvenient if you are poor. The Justice Department didn’t like it, of course, so it nixed the idea, but the state appealed to the Supreme Court. Of course, keeping blacks and minorities from voting was the whole intent of the law in Mississippi. By this decision, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, which was written specifically to get rid of decades of Jim Crow laws that made it hard or impossible for minorities to vote.

So the Supreme Court, which claims to be so concerned about maximizing freedom of speech, gives virtually unlimited speech to corporations which aren’t even human beings while allowing states to make it harder for certain actual human beings, minorities and the poor naturally, to exercise what limited speech they have due to their financial state. In other words, it’s more freedom for those who can afford it, including entities (corporations) that are legal fictions, something Justice Alito in his decision candidly acknowledged. And due in part to last year’s decision, it’s less freedom for those that can’t. This is not surprising from a court that was very plainly equated money with speech. Last I checked, a dollar bill did not have lungs, a tongue and lips.

This is conservatism? This is not radically changing what has worked in the past? I don’t know what word it is, but it is not conservatism. It’s crazy and radical stuff. Rather it was the Supreme Court that inferred that corporations must be treated as people. These latest shocking decisions take this to a further absurd and quite frightening level.

Given that these radicals will be on the court for some time a harder and more permanent solution is needed. It’s already underway but as a practical matter to actually make it happen will require Democrats to have large majorities in both the House and Senate. It is simply this: we need a constitutional amendment that unambiguously states that corporations are not people and only have such temporal rights as Congress deigns to give them. If I were in charge, corporations would be forbidden from giving a dime to any political candidate, any PAC or any group that works to influence public policy on any level whatsoever.

What kind of glue are these conservative justices sniffing? Have they read the preamble of our constitution lately? It simply starts, “We the people”. There is no “We the people and corporations”. That is original intent. The so-called constitutional conservatives on the Supreme Court who voted for these unwise and radical decisions have simply proven the opposite. Instead, they are part of a cancer that is killing our democracy.

Republican anarchists try to shut down the government

The Thinker by Rodin

Seven years back, I wrote about a simple truth: that the government of Iraq was not a real government because it could not govern. It’s no less true today, with sectarian warfare in Iraq about as bad as it was when we occupied the country during the worst of it. Iraq is a country in name only.

Here’s another simple truth: a large number of Republicans currently in Congress, perhaps a majority, are anarchists. Just to make sure, I checked the definition of anarchy on merriam-webster.com:

a :  absence of government

So here is what will happen on October 1st unless Congress passes a bill to fund the government and the president signs it (or it is overridden by both houses of Congress): the government shuts down. In that event, there will be an absence of government, i.e. anarchy. Granted, not all government will shut down. “Essential services”, whatever they are defined as, keep going on although the people who carry them out will not be paid, at least not until after the shutdown ends, which could take months. The way some Republicans are talking, a shutdown lasting months is fine if that’s what it takes for the Senate and the president to stop funding the Affordable Care Act. This despite that it is a valid law largely upheld by the Supreme Court.

Here is the oath members of Congress take when they are sworn into office (emphasis is mine):

“I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God” (5 U.S.C. §3331).

If you haven’t read the U.S. Constitution lately, it says that all laws passed by Congress and signed into law (or where the president’s veto is overridden) are legal. They remain legal unless the law is repealed or a court declares all or part of a law unconstitutional. The Affordable Care Act meets these criteria. By swearing to uphold the U.S. Constitution, senators and representatives implicitly are swearing that they will uphold the laws of the land “in true faith and allegiance”. They are required to fund these laws until such time as they are overturned or amended.

By shutting down the government then, large parts of the government simply cannot govern. You’ve seen some of these in past shutdowns. What usually gets the press is when national parks are shuttered. But there are more serious issues. Not paying the military is a very serious issue: we expect the military to defend our country but will leave them and their families without income even while they risk life and limb for our country? Small business loans are not made. New drugs are not approved. The Security and Exchange Commission stops investigating securities fraud. Much of the work of the judiciary stops. And members of congress who publicly swore that they would uphold the constitution and its laws from all enemies, foreign and domestic aided and abetted this.

It’s amazing that our domestic enemies include many Republican members of Congress. By taking an oath of office, they are taking upon themselves the duty to work in good faith toward legislation to fund the government. To the extent they do not, they are being anarchists. By taking the oath of office, they are essentially required to follow the legislative process in order to fund the government. Compromise is not negotiable. It is required if that’s what it takes to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same” and it needs to finish before authority runs out for the government to execute its laws.

What is even worse is that many of these same legislators are threatening to not extend the nation’s debt ceiling unless their demands are met, putting the good credit of the government in jeopardy. Most experts believe that if default did occur, it would introduce catastrophic financial consequences for the country, likely plunging it into a recession or depression. If you were trying to kill a government, this would certainly go a long way!

It may be against their ideology, but when members of Congress take actions that shut down the government, and do so as a matter of principle because they think the government is too big or they don’t like a particular law, they are practicing anarchy. They are also being unfaithful to their oaths. Their acts are essentially treasonous. At a minimum they should be removed from office. More likely, they belong in prison.

Republicans, if you want to reduce the size of government, you have to do it the constitutional way. You have to repeal these laws. There is no shortcut, no escape clause, no Corbomite Maneuver, at least none that are constitutional. The closest escape clause is a constitutional convention, which would need two thirds of the states, because Congress is unlikely to call for a convention. Shutting down the government by refusing to fund it is not only unconstitutional; doing so violates their oaths of office and is arguably illegal and treasonous.

Republicans, why do you hate America? Why are you such lawbreakers and oath breakers? Would you break your vow with your wife for a floozy? Why would you do the same for the country you love and the flag you salute?