Conflicts, and Constitutional Crisis

Given the events of this week so far, it would not be considered too much of a stretch to say that our Nation is in the middle of a constitutional crisis.

Rep. Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, basically ran interference for the White House by personally briefing President Trump on some incidental pickup of some of the president’s communications–something which was pretty much well-known, not illegal, and totally unrelated to what the president tweeted about, the horribly false claim that Barack Obama personally ordered surveillance on him.

As CNN reports,

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes set off a stunning new political controversy Wednesday by revealing that communications of President Donald Trump and associates may have been picked up after the election by intelligence agencies conducting surveillance of foreign targets.

Nunes hurried to the White House to personally brief Trump on the revelations, after talking to the press but without sharing the information with Democrats. His Democratic counterpart on the committee — Rep. Adam Schiff of California — warned that his colleague had cast a “profound cloud” over their effort to investigate Russian attempts to interfere in the election.
A Republican source with knowledge of the situation claimed the information that Nunes talked about was from the intelligence community and not the White House. The source said Nunes was “steaming” about what he read.
This same report also states that Nunes went rogue, not only refusing to meet with Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, regarding his findings, but did so against the advice of fellow Republicans, creating a crisis of credibility which now merits the use of an independent investigation.
However, even that seems to be an impossibility, as the New York Times reports:

For an independent commission to be created, legislation must be approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president.

Congress can override a presidential veto. But, so far, Republicans who control the House and Senate have said they see no reason for such a body to be created when an investigation can be handled by the intelligence committees. Democrats have privately said that to pressure Republicans into creating such a commission likely would take some type of significant disclosure — like publicly released evidence of direct collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.

Trump certainly won’t do anything to end his own presidency; Rep. Schiff’s findings and James Comey’s announcement of the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s possible collusion with the Russian government may just do that:

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

This is partly what FBI Director James Comey was referring to when he made a bombshell announcement Monday before Congress that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, according to one source.
The FBI is now reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing.
In his statement on Monday Comey said the FBI began looking into possible coordination between Trump campaign associates and suspected Russian operatives because the bureau had gathered “a credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.”
The consequences of this should also fall back on Rep. Nunes, who basically obstructed justice by what he did. He should resign his post, and if he doesn’t do so, Paul Ryan must remove him from his position.
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How much of a hurry is the Right to throw twenty-four MILLION people off their health insurance?
Enough to try and ram Trumpcare through the House with not nearly enough votes to pass it through to the Senate:

If this holds up, this could be a huge defeat for the Trump administration.

May there be many more.

Lies, Damned Lies, and “Other People’s Babies”

What, exactly, is the value of the truth?

If a lie is told often enough to the right ear, it is nearly always believed as fact, especially if it serves to perpetuate the support of who told the lie, and confirms the bias against the subject of the lie. And as has been proven countless times in the last fifty-plus days, this administration has proven that all it needs is to simply air whatever it wants–especially if it’s untrue–and people will believe it as fact.

We are currently living in the beginning stages of an era in which facts and logic are being rendered moot. Where easily refutable lies are fervently believed as an “alternative” version of the truth by those still elated to have a President Trump in the Oval Office, eager to believe and trust whatever they believe the “truth” to be. Where conservative plagiarism–the stealing of another’s writings and claiming it as their own–is excused and derided as a “hit job” by the “mainstream media.”

With baseless accusations of his predecessor wiretapping Trump Tower, and in attempting to rush through a soul-crushing replacement for the Affordable Care Act past the Congressional Budget Office, the Right has proven that only their “truth” matters, and they will pursue its realization to the detriment of the American people.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent outlines several points of the Trump administration’s strategy against the CBO today:

The CBO was created a half-century ago as a neutral, objective agency to assist Congress in empirically-based, independent governing, by giving it data and technical advice that is not tainted by executive branch political considerations. The point is not that the CBO’s word is gospel. It can and does get things wrong. But as Jonathan Cohn explains, while its projections about the Affordable Care Act were hardly perfect, it got much of the big story right, and its forecasts are as good as or better than anybody else’s. White House aides are not exercising merely healthy skepticism about the CBO’s findings. Rather, they are saying they won’t accept those findings as legitimate, if they are politically inconvenient — and they are signaling this in advance. There is every reason to believe that many Republicans in Congress will take their cues from this and echo them.

By itself, this might not be all that outlandish — there is a long history of such stuff — but it needs to be placed in the larger context. There is Conway’s off-the-wall depiction above of the purpose of congressional investigations. Meanwhile, when Trump got called out for the lie that he won the popular vote but for millions who voted illegally, the White House threatened an investigation to prove it true, using the vow of probes as a tool to obfuscate efforts to hold him accountable. On Friday, Sean Spicer greeted the good February jobs report by claiming that the numbers “may have been phony in the past” — when they reflected job growth during the Obama presidency that Trump derided as fictional — but now they’re “very real.” Government data is real only when Trump says it is. Everyone had a good laugh over this, but at the risk of being very earnest, government data is supposed to inform policymaking.

 

This is a clear affront against governance in good faith, as well as an institution that would protect the country from bad governance. The Right knows their version of healthcare reform is a massive giveaway to the insurance companies, as well as yet another expensive concentration of wealth to the rich.

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Here’s a nice reminder why Kellyanne Conway got banned from MSNBC. From The Washington Post:

Kellyanne Conway was doing okay. She’d effectively neutralized the bubbling outcry over comments she made to the Bergen Record, in which she defended President Trump’s evidence-free claims of wiretapping by noting that various household devices could be used to surveil a target. “You can surveil people through their phones, through their — certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways. And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera,” she’d said, comments that were more about Team Trump’s long-standing use of isolated anecdotes to rebut broad trends than they were about Conway auditioning for a role in a James Bond film.

So when Chris Cuomo brought the whole thing up on CNN’s “New Day,” she effectively repeated the dismissal she had given to ABC News earlier: She was talking generally about how spying could take place, not making specific allegations.

On CNN, though, her phrasing was a bit more fraught. “I’m not Inspector Gadget,” she said. “I don’t believe people are using the microwave to spy on the Trump campaign.”

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Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is a horrible, horrible man.

This is an especially sickening statement, given that this is the man who said undocumented immigrants had “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling marijuana on their backs. King is quite possibly the most overt racist in the Legislative Branch, but in this period of time, where a man could run on a clear platform of hatred and fear of anything not white, male or Christian, King just can’t help to feel emboldened to be exactly who he is.

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I hope everyone in the NYC area is getting prepared for a serious snow tonight. According to most reports, we are to expect anywhere from 12-18 inches of snow. Perhaps even more, depending on what this incoming nor’easter does. If you haven’t gotten your supplies for this late winter blizzard, you might want to pick up a few things tonight.

Just a quick public service announcement.

Hobby Lobby Is Not The Dawn of Corporate Theocracy

NEARLY TWO WEEKS AGO, MOST OF LIBERAL AMERICA began a period of mourning after the United States Supreme Court handed down its most striking ruling to date. Having traditionally paid far more attention historically to decisions affecting social issues than matters of business, many of our ideology were blindsided by Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a decision that somehow seemed to affect and pervert both.

Timelines and pieces filled with anguish–or all-out panic–flowed in the days following the 5-4 ruling, denouncing it as a severe injustice to women’s rights and the ability of science to shape health policy. One article in Blue Nation Review, a new journalism venture headed by Jimmy Williams, called on women everywhere to “incorporate themselves”, as the highest court in the land had now given more protections to businesses than they. Ironically, America seemed united the week before in praising the merits of the Roberts Court on the 9-0 ruling that protected people’s private information held in smartphones. Perhaps this was a bit of collective self-interest on display; apparently nothing unites liberals and conservatives more than telling cops to shove off and “get a warrant.”

But I digress.

Reading through Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion, it seemed straightforward enough: terrible as it might be, Hobby Lobby’s founder’s beliefs that four of the twenty forms of contraception mandated to be covered by the Affordable Care Act were upheld as infringed upon under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. But as I read through Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent, a 35-page categorical dismantling of the Court’s ruling that seemed to place unprecedented, sweeping power in the hands of for-profit businesses, one word kept passing through my mind: How?

How could this Court overturn nearly two hundred years of clearly established, starkly defined legal precedent? How could the Judicial branch of our government place belief in fanciful machinations above science and reason?  Did the Supreme Court just legislate from the bench? What type of religion do David and Barbara Green follow, as the Bible itself, allegedly the immutable “Word of God”, bids its denizens to place themselves under all earthly authority, as found in Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13?

What exactly happened here?

In truth, it’s really not that simple. And when it comes to matters of the interpretation of law, there really is no reason to believe it should be.

First of all, if female employees of Hobby Lobby were stripped of every form of access to contraception by this decision, I would have joined in the chorus of liberal outrage. However, as The Atlantic’s Emma Green writes, women who work at these stores will still have access to birth control:

In the majority opinion, Alito specifically suggests that the government could use the same kind of exemption it has set up for non-profit organizations: Companies would have to sign a short document certifying that they object to providing birth-control coverage, and then the government would take over coverage from there. Several separate court cases about this accommodation are still pending in lower courts, but the point is that the Court doesn’t think bosses should get to deny affordable birth-control access to their employees—they just shouldn’t necessarily have to pay for it.

That said, there can be little doubt Burwell v. Hobby Lobby granted corporations a grand amount of unprecedented power. And yes, there will be (and have already been) a number of entities that will and have issued their own challenges to the law, including from supporters of the President. Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech For People, gave his take in The Daily Caller:

One of the Court’s problems is a failure of imagination. The justices look at the current landscape of corporate ownership, and the fact that no one ever thought to raise claims for corporate religious exemptions before, and conclude that the issue is narrow. But reduced employee insurance costs will give a slight market edge in a low-margin business. If a small group of evangelical investors, or Saudi princes, can buy a company and then cut costs on health insurance by raising religious objections to rules that their competitors must follow, they will. And if a Saudi billionaire objects to paying any health insurance costs for women who work outside the home, then he can really cut costs.

While this is now true if said investors wish to create a for-profit business, the same has already been true for anyone of deeply held religious beliefs wishing to start a non-profit. All that seemed to happen here is a balancing of the for-profit/non-profit scale and nothing more in terms of the contraception mandate.

Laurence H. Tribe, constitutional law professor at Harvard who has been very critical of the liberal response to the Court’s decision, offered this the day of the ruling in Slate:

Justice Kennedy may be right that the decision is not a slippery slope toward allowing exemptions from other medical coverage (such as blood transfusions and vaccines) or toward allowing religious exemptions from anti-discrimination law. The court expressly disavowed these possibilities, arguing that compelling state interests, in public health and equality, respectively, justify denying exemptions in those cases. This argument is vulnerable, however. The majority did not dispute a compelling state interest in Hobby Lobby—it instead struck down the contraception mandate as not narrowly tailored to meet that interest. Simply noting that compelling interests exist in other scenarios only matters in light of how rigorously the court applies the narrow tailoring requirement to those future cases. The majority is also conspicuously silent about LGBT discrimination. It disclaims the possibility that Hobby Lobby could justify racial discrimination but says nothing about LGBT discrimination or even gender discrimination—even though Justice Ginsburg expressly raised that prospect in dissent. If Justice Kennedy is proven correct that Hobby Lobby does not undermine LGBT rights, it will be because of the decision of a future majority, not today’s opinion.

Secondly, the Hobby Lobby case, and this litigation season in particular, has indeed become yet another example of the Roberts Court’s penchant for aggressively inserting the Judicial branch into actual policycraft, as Simon Lazarus of The New Republic writes:

After 1938, through the balance of the twentieth century, and, indeed, well into the twenty-first, Supreme Court majorities never overtly and, only rarely, departed from or implicitly challenged the hands-off economic regulation mandate of rational basis deference. Of course, during those decades, there were recurrent, fiery right-left battles on and about the Supreme Court. But those battles were about the extent to which the Court should actively protect individual civil and political rights, not economic rights. Only a small cadre of libertarian academics and think tanks disputed the consensus confining economic liberty to second-class constitutional status. No more. No longer marginalized, libertarian-inspired legal ideas are now a force to be reckoned with. That tectonic shift was first proclaimed two years ago in the Court’s opinions in the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and expansion of Medicaid, even though Chief Justice John Roberts’ controlling opinion largely upheld the law. This term’s decisions reinforce that trend.

But finally, for those who believe this case to be a simple matter of five Republican men exercising their patriarchal duty to their genitalia, and/or a grand exercise in how orthodoxies come together to shove their own fictive beliefs down the throats of the American public, it is important to remember that in a nation of plurality, where so many systems of belief come together and are represented, some folk will operate their businesses by their own personal ethos, and will see even their for-profit ventures as extensions of ministry. We can whinge day after day about how unbelievably stupid, wrong-headed, idiotic, and problematic this ruling is. We can praise former federal judges for “speaking truth to power” by telling the Court to “STFU.” But at the end of it, this still remains a country where people are free to make their own decisions, and order their lives by whatever personal beliefs they choose, as we are free to do the same.

Like it or not, as Damon Linker writes, democracy was upheld:

As everyone except children and ideologues understand, goods sometimes conflict with one another. Liberalism’s greatest virtue and strength as a political philosophy is its effort to adjudicate those conflicts, to allow people on various sides of moral and theological clashes to reach peaceful settlements that, on the whole, maximize human freedom.

It’s a messy business that requires trade-offs and compromises, and sometimes leaves no one fully satisfied. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t preferable to the alternative, which is to fully satisfy some, leave others significantly less free, and create a more homogenous civil society, with private entities forced to function as arms of the liberal state.

Emma Green rightly points out that no one side gets to be “right” with respect to the Hobby Lobby ruling, as this is a decision not to be placed within that context. True equality means giving those we despise just as much a berth as we give those we love and agree with.

Such is the necessary work of maintaining a truly free democracy.