Economic inequality

  • July 10, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    While liberals continue to ponderously ponder how to refute the right’s method of constitutional interpretation called originalism, the right continues to advance a simplistic and destructive story that the Constitution is all about severely limiting the federal government’s reach. 

    For far too long liberals have obsessed over methods of constitutional interpretation, leaving rightists to advance the constitutional storyline, which says the nation’s governing document only promotes individualism, limited government, and of course Christianity.

    As law professor and historian William E. Forbath recently noted in an op-ed for The New York Times liberals have far too often shrugged their shoulders at this narrative, claiming that “rights and wrongs of economic life” are not addressed by the Constitution, but instead through politics.

    “That’s a major failing,” Forbath (pictured) writes, “because there is a venerable rival to constitutional laissez-faire: a rich distributive tradition of constitutional law and politics, rooted in the framers’ generation. None other than James Madison was among its prominent expounders – in his draft of the Virginia Constitution, he included rights to free education and public land.”

    In a more expansive piece for the book, The Constitution in 2020, Forbath explores the “historical heft” of a century-long effort “to make good on the constitutional justice of livelihoods and social and economic rights ….”

    For example, Abraham Lincoln and other founders of the Republican Party argued that equal rights also included “a fair distribution of initial endowments,” and FDR in his State of the Union proposing a Second Bill of Rights, said the government “owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of [the nation’s wealth] sufficient for his needs, through his own work.”

    Moreover, Forbath noted, African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement strived to “craft a broader social rights agenda,” including the right to a decent income. During the Civil Rights movement, the federal courts took note of the efforts in “undoing the exclusion of black women from welfare rolls,” he continued.

    The Supreme Court in its 1970 Goldberg v. Kelly opinion, said, “From its founding the Nation’s basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty.”

  • July 6, 2012

    by Samantha Berkovits

    University of Texas law Professor William E. Forbath calls for liberals to champion a stronger interpretation of the Constitution that aims to squelch inequality. Those tempted to take up this cause, which Forbath presented in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, may find themselves facing an unfriendly battlefield, but Forbath is confident that history is on their side.

    The constitutional argument for equality may seem inherent in a document meant to “promote the general Welfare.” However, the recent victory for liberals in the Affordable Care Act case was ensconced in nearly 200 pages of opinion, with much of the language holding the potential to destroy the legacy of the New Deal, with rough consequences for an American public already facing a dangerous economic landscape. Forbath writes, “Even the new doctrine that the majority adopted may hobble efforts to condition federal grants-in-aid on compliance with national goals, like child-care assistance for the working poor.”

    Conservatives, Forbath notes, would have the public believe that the goal of the Constitution is to protect and establish “individualism, small government, godliness and private property.” In response to this “crackpot originalism” liberals have been playing defense, when they should have been on the offensive. According to Forbath, all the necessary tools to present a case for a Constitution that allows the government to, in the words of Justice Ginsburg, “regulate the national economy in the interest of those who labor to sustain it” can be found in American history.

  • July 3, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite upholding the Affordable Care Act, corporate America continues its winning ways before the nation’s highest court.

    Specifically, the Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest lobbyist for business interests has “prevailed in 68 percent of its cases before the Roberts Court,” writes Neil Weare for the Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC). He adds that the Chamber’s “success has grown significantly since the stable Rehnquist Court, when it was just 56” percent.

    In close cases, Weare says “Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito have become the Chamber’s strongest champions.” Roberts has sided with the Chamber 84 percent of the time; Alito has sided with it 92 percent of the time.

    “In sum,” Weare concludes, “the October 2011 Term yet again demonstrates the roaring success of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has had before conservative Justices on the Roberts Court.”

    The trend also shows liberals are making little headway in reversing the decades-long movement to destroy the nation’s social safety. While poverty continues to grow, and a small group of outlandishly wealthy people continues to consolidate its power, all three branches of the federal government, not to mention a slew of Republican-controlled statehouses, seem forever beholden to the wealthy few.

    The Affordable Care Act, which the high court narrowly upheld, and did so by placing limits on Congress’s spending power, is also under attack by right-wing politicos who are bent on hampering even moderate efforts to create a decent social safety net in a wealthy country.

    As noted here, Republican governors are loudly proclaiming they’ll work to undermine the Affordable Care Act, especially its provision calling for an expansion of Medicaid. TPM’s Brian Beutler reports that Louisiana’s right-wing governor, Bobby Jindal, says “we’re going to do everything we can” to trash the Obama administration’s health care law.

  • July 2, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    It is hardly surprising that a string of right-wing governors are declaring that it will not cooperate with a major portion of the Obama administration’s health care law aimed at expanding Medicaid to cover millions more of the uninsured.

    For decades the Republican Party has become obsessed with advancing the interests of a very small, but powerful group of individuals – the one 1 percent who control the vast majority of the nation’s wealth. In a piece last year for Vanity Fair, Columbia University Business School Professor Joseph Stiglitz argued that the nation’s super wealthy are out-of-touch with the rest of the nation, and does its best to ensure that separation.

    “The rich don’t need to rely on government for parks or education or medical care or personal security – they can buy all these things themselves. In the process they become more distant from ordinary people, losing whatever empathy they may once have had. They also worry about strong government – one that could use its power to adjust the balance, take some of their wealth, and invest it for the common good. The top 1 percent may complain about the kind of government we have in America, but in truth they like it just fine: too gridlocked to re-distribute, too divided to do anything but lower taxes,” Stiglitz wrote.  

    The Affordable Care Act, however, does include measures aimed at investing in the common good. The Medicaid expansion for instance calls for the states to greatly expand their coverage to all people under the age of 65 with incomes 133 percent of the federal poverty line.

    This was always a part of the discussion overhaul health care – to extend affordable coverage to the tens of millions of uninsured. The New York Times reported this weekend that millions of “poor people could still be left without medical insurance under the national health care law if states take an option granted by the Supreme Court and decide not to expand their Medicaid programs ….”

  • June 29, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Reading from the bench during the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Obama administration’s landmark health care reform law, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared, “In the end, the Affordable Care Act survives largely unscathed.”

    Yes, the Obama administration’s signature legislative achievement and the strongest effort in many decades to repair the nation’s tattered social safety did survive Supreme Court scrutiny.

    But as noted here yesterday, it did so barely, and not in the manner that many constitutional law experts and the high court’s four moderate to left-of-center justices had thought it would. And the opinion also included a shrill dissent that envisions a vastly ineffective federal government. As former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger said during yesterday’s ACS press briefing if the dissent had carried the day it would have marked and “extraordinary revolution” in constitutional law jurisprudence.

    Although the federal government argued that the law’s integral measure, the minimum coverage provision, was constitutional on two major fronts, it was largely thought that it would be upheld as a valid regulation of commerce. The activity of the health care market represents nearly 18 percent of the nation’s economy.  

    But that did not happen. And some constitutional law scholars say that fact should not be ignored.

    Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion provides some language suggesting the high court was not radically re-reading precedent on the commerce clause. But a careful reading of his opinion reveals that the libertarian argument for a vastly cramped interpretation of the commerce power carried the day.

    As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak put it, “Five justices accepted the argument that had been at the heart of the challenge brought by the 26 states and other plaintiffs: that the federal government is not permitted to force individuals not engaged in commercial activities to buy services they do not want. That was a stunning victory for a theory pressed by a small band of conservatives and libertarian lawyers. Most members of the legal academy view the theory as misguided, if not frivolous.”

    Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her concurring opinion also took the chief justice to task for a “rigid reading” of the commerce clause that “makes scant sense and is stunningly retrogressive.”