The first Monday in October does not get a special note on most calendars, unless you are in the government or parts of the legal profession. This is the day the Supreme Court of the United States usually begins its term. And this term is expected to be more notable than most for the government’s least visible branch.
The expectations are probably the reason several of the usually reticent judges who sit on the court have been unusually public in their comments and complaints in recent weeks following a three month “recess” which was also unusual for the amount of news it made.
I’ve been trying to make sense of it because I’ve been here before. On the left, Saigon, April 29, 1975. On the right Kabul, August 16, 2021. In 1975 I was at my first post school job in the CBS newsroom in Chicago. The helicopters were evacuating Americans and Vietnamese who had worked with Americans as they fought the communists. In 2021, I’m at the other end of my career. The helicopters are taking out Americans and Afghans who worked with Americans as they fought the Taliban. Forty-six years between these similar scenes. It is eerie.
Yes of course there are many differences between the two events. But from my perspective, there are far too many similarities. We do not seem to learn from history. We just repeat it.
Money has always been a big factor in American politics. You can’t outright pay politicians in return for their vote on an issue of interest to you. That’s bribery and it’s a crime. 18 U.S. Code § 201. But you can come very close. That’s because it costs a tremendous amount of money to run for public office and we leave it to the politicians to raise their own funds.
State-wide races for governor, state legislator, or U.S. House or Senate seats can cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. A major state-wide campaign requires a hefty advertising budget and paid staff to handle things like communications, strategic planning, finances, and legal compliance.
So the holders of public office, from the smallest local post to the highest in the land, spend a great amount of their time raising money to finance their elections. In fact, both the Republican and the Democratic parties have offices located within walking distance of the Capitol. That’s because it is illegal for members to raise money from offices paid for by taxpayer dollars. The party offices contain phone banks and members are expected to put in time working those phones. Dialing for dollars as it were.
What does the donor get for those dollars? As previously stated it is not as crass as, “You make the donation and I’ll vote your way.” But it’s damn close. Consider this scenario: Two constituents are on the line, both want to talk to you about a piece of pending legislation. One is an individual wage earner who is barely making ends meet and either doesn’t contribute to your campaign fund at all or gives a token $25 each election cycle. The other is a professional lobbyist who represents a Fortune 100 company. That company contributes $250,000 each year to a political action committee which runs negative advertisements about your political opponent. Which call will you take?
The Curse of the First Amendment
It is, I must painfully admit, our wonderful First Amendment which is primarily responsible for this problem. While many countries have limits on how much money can be spent on political campaigns, and restrictions on how much money can be contributed, we have to cope with the wisdom of the framers who wrote:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
U.S. Constitution, First Amendment
There is little question that the right of free speech allows one to stand on the tallest soapbox one can find and speak in favor of one’s favorite political candidate. Or that the right of a free press allows journalists to write what they will about the candidates. And that right to petition the Government? That is the right both our individual constituent and the lobbyist were exercising in the example I described above.
Make no mistake about it. Political speech is exactly the kind of speech the framers were writing about when they drafted the First Amendment. This was the kind of speech that could get your head separated from your body if you uttered it back then in many of the countries of Europe and the reigning monarch happened to take offense. So for our long history as a nation political speech has been some of the most protected.
That makes it extremely difficult to restrict the political speech of individuals and does give the rich an advantage. They can afford to buy expensive television commercials and web advertisements promoting their favorite candidates and policies. At least, that’s how Mister Justice Gurvey sees it.
But I am unlikely to preside from any bench other than the one in my garden. And those who sit on the federal benches of the United States have a far more expansive view of first amendment freedoms. I read the Constitution to apply to the relationship between people, as in the opening words of the preamble, “We the People,” and their government. Our federal judges have thrown corporations into the mix by ruling that corporations are people.
To me the concept is absurd. Business entities that survive the lives of their owners were well known to the framers who wrote the Constitution. In fact, most of the colonies were themselves business entities in the form of royal charters or grants. If the framers wanted these business entities to have the rights of people they would have said so. They did not. And that should be that for any originalist, textualist, or whatever the term the judges on the conservative right like to cite. Except, that they want corporations to have the rights of people. So consistent judicial logic goes out the window and they wave the rules of textualism where failure to do so might lead to a legal result inconsistent with their overriding ideology. Thus speaks the hypocrite.
So if you want to play the “let’s write the laws” game you have to pay the law-writers. But while “Pay to Play” is, thanks to the Supreme Court, perfectly legal, there is still one rule most people follow: You pay to play but you don’t talk about Pay to Play. That’s because it looks bad, because it is bad. And politicians are afraid of looking bad. At least in front of the voters.
Unless of course you are Ted Cruz, a man so out of touch with reality, or just so dumb, that he just puts it out there. Texas’s answer to all three stooges recently wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal complaining about corporations that are “woke.” By that he means, corporations like Coca-Cola, whose CEO James Quincey criticized voter suppression laws now being enacted in dozens of Republican controlled states saying he opposed “measures in the bills that would diminish or deter access to voting.” Quincey said Coke’s political action committee will not contribute to the campaigns of politicians who support these laws.
Well then, huffs and puffs Cruz, Senator guy who escaped for a vacation in Mexico while the people of his state were freezing during a power outage, if you don’t pay, don’t expect to play, Yes, Cruz supports voter suppression laws, and he tweeted:
It some ways it was certainly unusual. But mostly its normalcy made it a breath of fresh air. For more than an hour President Joe Biden delivered a report to Congress, the nation, and the world on the state of the state one hundred days into his administration. He laid out the achievements already accomplished, the programs now under way, and the proposals he is sending to Congress for enactment into law.
One way the speech was unusual was that there were two women behind the president. Presiding over the joint session of Congress were Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is President of the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. That was a historic first. Another way was that the chamber, which normally holds 1,600 people for these events, was limited to 200 by pandemic protocols. The audience members were socially distanced and most were masked.
There is much to say about all the players who participated in the Inauguration of Joseph R. Biden as the 46th President of the United States. But we’ll save that for another day. For this was Joe Biden’s Day. And I want to let him speak in his own words.
“This is America’s day,” Biden said. “This is democracy’s day.” What struck me first and foremost was how normal it all seemed. A new President. A new administration. Words meant to soothe a bruised nation. Words meant to call us to arms to face the challenges ahead. And above all, words not about him, but words about us.
Today, we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause, the cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people, has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded. We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.
After four plus years of having every White House utterance a statement of, by, and for Donald Trump, this was a breath of fresh air. Coming two weeks to the day when a mob of insurrectionists stormed the very same platform in front of the Capitol in an attempt to nullify the voters will this was remarkable.
From now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power, as we have for more than two centuries.
Biden pulled no punches in listing the challenges; the Covid pandemic, the climate crisis, political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism. And then he hit his main theme, a call for unity.
I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart. The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.
This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge. And unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you we will not fail. We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together.
As I read those words it is tough to keep the cynic in me down. So many times we have heard these calls for unity and cooperation only to see the hopes dashed on the rocks of bipartisanship. But this is Biden’s Day so let’s give him his due and hope he can pull it off.
We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural vs. urban, conservative vs. liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes. Because here’s the thing about life: There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days when you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future. And we can still disagree.
I hope the naysayers and obstructionists will take heed and just give it a try. Bipartisanship does not mean you get your way. It means you compromise. You horse-trade. You win some and lose some. But you move forward and get things done. For decades we have for the most part failed to do this. If anyone can get us moving again, it will be Joe Biden, a man of faith, a man with empathy for others, a man who sees the difference between the truth and the lies, a man who has been in the Senate and worked with representatives of both parties for longer than most of us have been alive.
Folks, this is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up? All of us? It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do. And this is certain, I promise you: We will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.
Now we all face the test. How will we respond to Biden’s call?
The cliché says that journalism is the first draft of history. We shall have to wait the verdict of historians several years down the road to craft a title for the tumultuous events of the last week and put them into perspective. For now it shall suffice to note that the FBI is calling on citizens to help identify members of the violent mob of Donald Trump supporters who attacked the United States Capitol on Wednesday in an attempt to stop Congress from tallying the Electoral College votes declaring Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris the next president and vice-president.
It was the first time since the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, that a President of the United States attempted to overturn the results of an election and remain in office after the election of his successor had been certified by the states and the District of Columbia.
A violent mob of Donald Trump supporters, urged to action by Trump himself, Wednesday attacked the United States Capitol in an attempt to stop Congress from tallying the certified Electoral College votes declaring Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris the next president and vice-president of the United States.
In that, they failed.
But for hours they laid siege to the seat of the American government, marauding through the halls, vandalizing offices, occupying the chambers of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and preventing the members from attending to the business of the day. Before the insurrection was quelled, shots had been fired inside the Capitol and on the grounds, tear gas and flash bangs had been utilized, and four people had died.