SCOTUS dumps DOMA: fair, simple, American

Brown v. Board of Education; United States v. Windsor: do they belong together?  Yes they do: today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Windsor case is just that historic.  In a very specific and non-technical way Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion makes clear what the 5-4 court ruling says the Constitution requires: the “[Defense of Marriage Act] is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”  You can read the professional reports on the decisions announced today here and here, and elsewhere, but here’s my take:

All people deserve equal treatment under the law.  If the federal government grants certain legal privileges to dual-sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state, the same privileges must be available to single-sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state.  Equal treatment; fairness.  The court did not rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage today; it ruled on an issue of equality before the law.  In refusing to rule on the Hollingsworth case regarding California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in the state, it sidestepped ruling one way or another on the constitutionality of gay marriage…perhaps another day.  But that decision does have the effect of re-legalizing gay marriage in California, making it state #13.

In practical terms the Windsor ruling means same-sex couples should be treated the same way as opposite-sex couples when it comes to federal tax law and Social Security and insurance and immigration, all that federal stuff.  In fact there are more than a thousand benefits coming into play here, and McClatchy does a good job summarizing that here.  And for fun, TV Guide summarizes the celebrity reaction to the rulings here.

This is not about what one religion or another teaches about homosexuality; this is about how the civil law treats American citizens regardless of their religious belief, or their gender or their race or national origin.  A religion is free to believe and teach what it wants about the morality of homosexual behavior or same-sex marriage, and its teachings and laws are important to the members in good standing of that particular faith.  But those teachings are not binding on Americans who are not members of that denomination.  The civil law, which orders how we all deal with one another in the secular society outside the confines of our many private clubs, is blind to such moral questions.  States have the right to decide who can “marry” and who can’t, and the federal government has to treat all “married” couples in the same way, regardless of the gender of the spouses.  Simple, really.  Fair.  American.  Congratulations, U.S.A., on another successful day at the office.

It’s still the economy, stupid

Any system that tries to make candidates for public office come together in one place to talk about what they intend to do if elected is a positive for civic discourse. This week the two major party candidates for president of the United States met on a stage in Denver to talk about domestic issues and that meant, mostly, our country’s economy. They kinda sorta agreed that the fiscal situation is bad and something should be done, and yet the only thing we clearly remember out of the exchange is a lame crack about Big Bird? This is why we have a problem.

Our government’s fiscal affairs are a mess, but the only talk that gains any traction is about something that doesn’t really make a difference. Business columnist Loren Steffy calls it the Big Bird Syndrome, “when politicians imply they will fix the country’s massive fiscal problems by eliminating what amounts to chicken feed in federal spending.” Even though we all agree that a federal deficit exceeding $1 trillion must be reduced—for our own good—the people sucking around for our votes are too afraid of losing support to be serious and specific about how they propose to solve the problem. So they tentatively nibble around the edges:

Perhaps we need to cut these programs because they’re inefficient or we don’t believe government should fund them or we simply don’t like them. But as a deficit reducer, it’s like throwing a few grains of sand over the rim of Grand Canyon and saying you’re fighting erosion.

There are thousands of variables in this equation—spending programs, entitlements, tax rates, deductions, exemptions—and the Simpson-Bowles Commission did a great job envisioning how they might all be leveraged to make progress in reducing the deficit. That framework is still over there on the shelf waiting to be tried if anyone is interested…in Denver both candidates “praised the deficit-cutting framework” without “embrac[ing] the politically unpopular choices” it offered. (What, were the politically popular choices already taken?)

The U.S. government budget works the same as your personal budget and mine; it’s on an entirely different scale, but the basic principles are consistent. From time to time your family and mine spend more than we make, just like Washington, and it’s not always a bad thing: that’s how we pay for houses and cars and educations for our children, for disaster relief and war mobilization. But when we do it as a matter of course, as a way to pay for the “nice to haves” in our lives, and do it over and over for a long enough time, it pushes us into a pit that is damn hard to climb out of.

In that pit, we spend more and more of whatever money we make to repay the interest on the money we borrowed to buy the things we couldn’t afford but thought would be nice to have as well as the borrowed money itself. As the percentage of our income required to pay for the borrowing gets larger, the percentage available to pay for today’s needs gets smaller, and if we don’t reduce our spending to match the available income we have to borrow more to keep up. If there’s no increase in income, or no reduction in expenses, the process repeats and repeats and we spin further and further into debt. This is how banks and credit card companies and loan sharks get rich.

Paying back the loans is hard. Assuming you have no lottery windfall, it probably means doing without or with less for a while (but after you pay back the loan you have more money to spend on what you need or what you want or to save for future spending). That’s not to advocate for trying to pay off the entire national debt right away, but we can’t keep having such a high percentage of our income committed to paying interest—that keeps us from paying for other things that we decide are worth doing, or from reducing the tax burden (hey, how about that concept!). We can’t keep borrowing forever. Growth in the economy will contribute to more revenue without raising tax rates, but the economy isn’t growing fast enough today to make a dent.

This is still the most important issue facing the president and Congress, without exception. But I didn’t hear anyone on that stage in Denver suggest that you or me need to act like responsible adults and do the hard work that’s required: they have plans with lower tax rates (yeah!) and shrinking deficits (wowser!), with milk and cookies served all along the primrose path to solvency!!

They’re telling us what they think we want to hear. They believe we won’t vote for them if they tell us the truth: the economy is a sand castle near the water’s edge, and the tide is coming in…we all have to pitch in, sacrifice some, to protect and strengthen its foundation before the damn thing collapses of its own weight. And, they vaguely promise they have the road map to a solution, and drop only subtle hints about the condition of the road we’ll have to take to get there.

The next two “debates” between the candidates for president and vice president offer another opportunity for some straight talk on this subject. We, and the people who’ll actually be doing the asking in Danville and Hempstead, should be insisting that they give it to us.

Health insurance law ruling will refocus fall campaign–away from the most important issues!

Let the predictable caterwauling begin: today the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of President Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with Chief Justice John Roberts leading the majority on the 5-4 decision.

The heart of the disagreement over the law is its requirement that each of us Americans purchase health insurance, and the court has now ruled that the requirement does not violate the Constitution.

During oral arguments in March, conservative justices indicated they were skeptical about the individual mandate, the provision in the 2,700-page health-care law that requires nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance by 2014 or pay a financial penalty.

Arguing the case for the Obama administration, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. defended the law as a constitutional exercise of congressional power under the charter’s commerce clause to regulate interstate commerce. He said lawmakers were regulating health insurance to deal with the problem of millions of people who lack coverage and therefore shift costs to the insured when they cannot pay for their medical care.

Paul D. Clement, representing Florida and 25 other states objecting to the health-care law, argued that Congress exceeded its power in passing the law, which he said compels people to buy a product.

The court rejected Obama administration’s commerce-clause argument, but ruled 5-4 that Congress nevertheless “has the power to impose” the individual mandate under its taxing authority. The provision “need not be read to do more than impose a tax,” the opinion said. “This is sufficient to sustain it.”

Neither the plaintiffs in the case nor the Obama administration had argued before the court that the individual mandate was a tax.

(In fact, that is the point made—the only point made—in the story I saw when I clicked on the lead headline on FoxNews.comthis afternoon.)

The decision means that implementation of the new law should proceed, with the aim to get health insurance coverage for tens of millions of currently uninsured Americans; these are the people who currently access the most expensive health care around through emergency rooms and charity care, medical care that those of us who pay taxes are already footing the bill for anyway.

So, that’s settled.  Or not.  Arguably, the real heart of the disagreement is that this is Obama’s plan, and people who had supported similar health care insurance law revisions in the past (like the conservative Heritage Foundation and many Republicans; like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, W. Mitt Romney, Gov.) opposed this one because it was Obama’s plan.  People like Mitch McConnell, and others who have proudly and publicly asserted that they will do whatever is required to make Barack Obama a one-term president (for whatever reason).

The dissent in the case will only fuel their fire: it argues that the Obamacare mandate that individuals purchase a product—health insurance—and its threatened denial of some Medicaid funding to states for non-compliance both unconstitutionally exceed government authority, and that since those provisions are crucial to making the system work, the entire statute should be tossed out…hmm, not much room for compromise here, I guess.

It’s unfortunate that the divide on the court was (except for Roberts) by perceived political ideology—for many people that’s going to reinforce the idea that the justices make their decisions based on politics rather than the law, and that will reinforce the left/right division in politics.  But it could have been worse: as David Franklin from DePaul University’s College of Law argues in Slate, Roberts found a way to uphold ACA in order to save the integrity of the Supreme Court.

A 5-4 decision to strike down Obamacare along party lines, whatever its reasoning, would have been received by the general public as yet more proof that the court is merely an extension of the nation’s polarized politics. Add the fact that the legal challenges to the individual mandate were at best novel and at worst frivolous, and suddenly a one-vote takedown of the ACA looks like it might undermine the court’s very legitimacy.

And, of course, health care is now likely to become the distraction center for a presidential campaign that I’d hoped would hold its focus on employment and the federal budget.

(We don’t need to spend time discussing how, in their rush to be first with the news, CNN and Fox both got the story completely wrong, do we?  Fish in a barrel…)

Here’s a smattering of the early reports on the court ruling, for your edification and delight:

Joe didn’t do anything wrong? Oh yeah, he did

The fact that he is who he is, and that he did what he did, makes it even worse than it already is.

For most of us who are not in western Pennsylvania, this came out of the blue last week: a grand jury indicted a former Penn State University football coach on accusations he sexually assaulted young boys.  When I first saw the story in the paper last weekend, and read that head coach Joe Paterno had been told by an eyewitness that Jerry Sandusky assaulted a young boy in the shower and Paterno had relayed the information to his immediate superior but done nothing else about it, I felt like he should have done more.  But then I turned the page, because I don’t care about college football or Penn State, and because I didn’t want to really think about what was actually going on here.  Shame on me.

By Wednesday, the winningest coach in major college football history had been fired by his university, but he was not the only person in Happy Valley shamed by the incident.  Far from it.  More’s the pity.

Sandusky, the long-time Penn State assistant coach who gets a lot of the credit for the team’s history of turning out great defensive players—especially linebackers—stands accused of being a serial pedophile, of sexually assaulting at least eight boys over a 15 year period.  He also founded a charitable organization called The Second Mile in 1997, which provided services to children in need.

One of the saddest ironies of the sexual abuse charges against Sandusky that stunned and sickened the nation last weekend is that if the allegations that he assaulted eight boys over a 15-year period are true, he may have been allowed to prey on those children in large part because no one at Penn State would go that second mile for his victims.

Sports Illustrated’s Phil Taylor is one of many who’ve made the point: where the hell were all the adults at Penn State who should have done something about this?  I’ll tell you where—they were all busy protecting a wealthy university and its vaunted football program and its reputation, for surely those things were more important than the lives, and the futures, of pre-teenaged children whose parents had turned to Penn State for help.  What is Sandusky accused of doing?  McClatchy summarizes the timeline here, and it shows just how many people at Penn State didn’t stand up for these kids.

Sandusky was cashed out as the team’s defensive coordinator after admitting to having showered with a 10 year old boy, but the school and the coach only took his job away—Sandusky was allowed to keep using university facilities for his charity’s activities.

In 2000 a janitor saw Sandusky having sex with a young boy in a campus football building and told his supervisor, but neither of them called the police.

In 2002 a graduate assistant (a former player; a grown man) saw Sandusky having sex with a young boy and did not do anything to stop the assault that was going on right in front of his eyes; he did not call the police, not even the university police; he went home and called his own father and asked what he should do; and it wasn’t until the next day that he told Paterno what he’d seen.  Paterno told the athletic director, and left it at that.  About this time, school officials told Sandusky not to bring children to the campus any more, although he himself still used the facilities.

Paterno made a lot of his reputation for insisting that Penn State was different from other big college football programs, that Penn State did things the right way—it followed the rules, it graduated its student athletes, and it was successful on the field.  Bull.  Despite the high graduation rate and the championships and the bowl games, we now know that Penn State was just as sleazy as any other program.  Maybe more so.  Ohio State’s in trouble for its players selling equipment to get discounts on their tattoos; Miami is in trouble (again) over impermissible benefits given to players by a booster.  But no one else is in the news for making the conscious decision to protect their own ass by turning a blind eye to the alleged child rapist in their midst.  For years.

Where was the “Hey, you can’t do that” reaction the first time someone saw this man naked with a child?  Where was the unconscious and visceral “stop that” response?  Where was the call to the cops?  Where is the humanity?

Yesterday, Penn State played its first football game in the post-Paterno era.  It lost the game.  But the university community may have taken the first baby steps to recognizing what’s important in life, certainly more important than a university’s bruised ego or loss of financial support.

"It felt like we all banded together. And it wasn’t just about football," said Melissa Basinger, a 2005 Penn State grad who made the trip from Charlotte, N.C. "It was about coming together as a school, and showing the country, world or whatever that this does not define who we are."

We’ll see.

Take your seats, please, the curtain’s going up for the Big Finish

Since we last checked in with our heroes: Speaker Boehner, faced with his own proposal going down to defeat in the chamber he (ostensibly) leads, capitulated—he added a balanced budget provision to his plan for lowering government spending, reducing debt and raising the federal debt ceiling, to placate enough members to get the bill passed.  It worked; and as expected, and warned, the Senate rejected the plan; now Majority Leader Reid is trying to persuade Senate Republicans to let his plan come to a vote. [UPDATE 3:03 pm: The House rejected Reid’s plan before the Senate had a chance to vote on it.]

The Wall Street Journal editorial page wants Republicans to accept a plan now, and claim a victory, even if it’s one that doesn’t solve all the nation’s economic problems once and for ever.  (Why didn’t I think of that?)  An economy struggling to recover from recession doesn’t need the government to suddenly stop making some of its payments—and you can take comfort in knowing, there is a plan for who gets paid first in the event the debt ceiling is not raised by the deadline next Tuesday…the bureaucratic imperative prevails.

I still choose to believe that Congress may bring us to the edge of default but reason will prevail and the debt ceiling will be raised to prevent a default…that puts me in the company of an American conservative icon:

Socialists-7-27-11-color-640x469 

Thanks to David Horsey, seattlepi.com and Hearst Newspapers…click the cartoon to read Horsey’s commentary:

If it were not for their powerful recklessness, I would simply get a good laugh out of the alarmists on the right who see socialism in any tilt toward moderation in our politics.

(snip)

To ensure that his country does not follow Greece into a bottomless hole of debt, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has implemented a budget balancing formula of three-to-one – that is, three parts spending cuts to one part revenue increases. These austerity measures have, not surprisingly, provoked rioting among leftists and students. Nobody in Europe would be silly enough to call this socialism.

Yet, when President Barack Obama proposes the same formula to rein in the debt in the United States, a mental riot goes off in the heads of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, the House Republican Caucus, the Tea Party and all the others who are somehow convinced Obama wants to turn America into Sweden.

Consumed by their fear of phantom socialists, these folks see politics in stark, black-and-white terms. If you are not with ’em, you’re agin’ ’em  and even the most staunch conservative risks charges of treason if he shows a willingness to bargain with the other side.

(snip)

Like ultra-conservatives of past decades, today’s reactionaries have scared themselves silly by demonizing their opponents: every liberal hates America, every Democrat is a socialist, every moderate is a dupe, every compromise is a pact with the devil. What is new is that this mindset now dominates the majority caucus in the United States House of Representatives. And because of that, there very well could be no deal to raise the debt ceiling, unless the president and the Senate choose to grant the militants everything they want.

(snip)

…to confuse the centrist economic policies of Barack Obama with socialism is as absurd as calling a conservative like Tom Coburn a RINO – Republican In Name Only. As clean cut, moral and upstanding as my fellow citizens on the right may be, I have to say they have become unhinged from economic and political reality and, in their delusion, they are about to take us all over a cliff.

In a Newsweek interview, Tom Coburn, a guy I disagree with about most things, summed it up frightening well:

“We’ve never been in this territory before. I mean, if we handle this wrong, we’re near the end of our republic as we know it.”