Friday Talking Points -- Courtin' Season

The end of June is an important time on the political calendar, but it is one which most Americans don't really think about all that much. It's hard to fault this, so let's take a quick run through the important decisions handed down in the past week.
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'Tis the season when the political press all goes a-courtin'. So to speak.

The end of June is an important time on the political calendar, but it is one which most Americans don't really think about all that much. It's hard to fault this, since summer is the low ebb of the political season in general, and since Independence Day is just around the corner. But the end of June is also the end of the Supreme Court's judicial year, when they issue the biggest decisions of the past session. So, let's take a very quick run through the important decisions handed down in the past week or so, shall we? In other words, "a-courtin' we will go...."

The biggest news for court-watchers this year is that around half of all the decisions this year have actually been unanimously decided. Seems John Roberts may be trying to push back a bit on the impression that most cases in his court are decided in a 4-5 split, yea or nay. Only the wonkiest of court-watchers have so far noticed, but it's something to keep an eye on.

The other thing worth noting, before we run through the decisions themselves, is that this week is chock-full of anniversaries. It's the 50th for the "Freedom Summer" of registering black votes in Mississippi, and it is the one-year anniversary for the Senate passing a comprehensive immigration bill with a strong bipartisan vote. The House has yet to do anything more on the subject than dither, in the meantime. Judicially, though, it has been only a single year since the decisions on gay marriage were handed down. Think about the immense progress marriage equality has achieved since, and it's easy to forget how monumental these decisions were, only one short year ago. An appeals court just ruled that marriage equality must take place in Utah, of all places. That just wouldn't have been possible a year ago, and it likely wouldn't have happened at all if the high court hadn't ruled against DOMA and Proposition 8. The only question now remaining is: will the case in which the Supreme Court sweepingly tosses out all remaining state laws against marriage equality happen next year or the year after that? That is an immense amount of progress in one year's time, folks.

From the Supreme Court, there was some good news and some bad news for people across the political spectrum. Aereo lost its case against the broadcast networks, as the Supreme Court ruled that recording shows pulled off individual antennas and then providing them later to mobile devices was, essentially, no different than running a cable company. Massachusetts "buffer zones" around abortion clinics were struck down, unanimously (although different justices used different rationales to arrive at the same conclusion). Many have pointed out the incredible irony of a Supreme Court who says buffer zones are illegal while maintaining their own buffer zone which removes protests from their doorstep (in other words, their own steps aren't a "free speech zone").

The Environmental Protection Agency mostly won the right to regulate carbon emissions, although they did lose on one technicality about how they go about doing so. This still means they'll be able to regulate about 97 percent of what they were claiming, so overall it's an environmental win (the decision could have been a lot worse, to put it mildly).

President Obama got his wrist slapped for recess appointments made while the Senate was "in session." Those scare quotes are necessary, because what being "in session" means, in this case, is that during their many many weeks-long vacations scattered throughout the year, the Senate calls upon members from nearby states (wouldn't want to make anyone else fly back, in other words) to drive down to the Capitol once every three days, unlock the chamber, flick on the lights, move to the podium and gavel the Senate into session. After performing this onerous duty (to a completely empty room), the gavel comes down again, and the session is closed. A walk back up the aisle, the lights flicked off, and don't forget to lock the door. Every three days, this has been happening, in recent years. Because of this, the Senate claims it is not actually in recess, but still in session.

President Obama objected, and decided to test the law (as is his right, being a co-equal branch of government). He made some recess appointments anyway. The Supreme Court not only just ruled that he couldn't do so, but that a true recess was one of ten days. That's the new standard. So the entire upshot is the Senate will now only have to perform this Kabuki session once every nine days, instead of once every three.

But, I have to say, Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for this situation. They're the ones who came up with the scheme, back when George Bush was in office. And they're also the ones who have been going along with it since then -- Harry Reid has been Majority Leader for Obama's entire term of office, remember. So this isn't (as some have been framing it) a Republican-versus-Democratic fight, it's really a separation-of-powers fight between the legislative and executive branch. Which the executive (Obama) just lost, big time.

The best news from the Supremes in the past week was the decision on how the Fourth Amendment applies to cell phones. The Fourth Amendment was a clear victor in this case. The court's decision can be summed up quite simply as: "Get a warrant." Cops can no longer dig through whatever's on your cell phone for no reason at all. Which is exactly the sort of thing the Fourth Amendment was created for, so this is a clear victory for us all.

In lesser court news, a federal court ruled that the "no fly" list is unconstitutional, which was also welcome news for civil libertarians. New York City won the right to continue to bar unvaccinated children from attending school during medical situations where disease is spreading, which is a victory for public health over religious (or other) objections to vaccinations. Don't want your kids to get the shot? Fine, but they have to stay home during epidemics in their school. Deal with it.

That's about it for this week's courtin', folks. Up early next week: the Hobby Lobby case about employers, religious rights, and birth control, and an important case on unions. That'll wrap up the Supreme Court's calendar for the session. We seem to be running long this week, so we'll just quickly highlight the marijuana news and a few quirky campaign stories, before we get on with the show.

In Oregon, tens of thousands of ballot signatures were delivered (almost twice as many as necessary), meaning a measure to fully legalize recreational marijuana in the state will be on this November's ballot. Many states are waiting until 2016 to try for the ballot (when the electorate is a lot more Democratic, during a presidential year), but we've heard rumors that Rhode Island and Alaska may also go forward this year. Stay tuned.

In the House of Representatives, one Maryland Republican is trying to kill the District of Columbia's new decriminalization law. Since Congress has veto power over D.C., this effort might succeed. Then again, it might actually backfire and legalize marijuana in the District! This is reminiscent of the time when Congress blocked D.C. from counting the votes on a medical marijuana ballot initiative, back in the 1990s.

The F.D.A. is actually considering (at the request of the D.E.A., no less) rescheduling marijuana, but then again this may not actually happen. The article notes that the D.E.A. has veto power over anything the F.D.A. recommends, so this sounds like a case of the D.E.A. being forced legally to jump through some hoops before ultimately turning down the idea.

In this week's news from the front lines of the Republican civil war, Mississippi's Thad Cochran fended off his Tea Party primary opponent, in a stunning runoff victory that not many had predicted (that's a polite way of saying "nobody got this one right!"). Who would have ever predicted headlines like "Black Democratic Voters Provide Victory For Republican Senator," after all? My question for the general election is: will the Democrat in the race create any ads which feature Cochran's bizarre outreach to the pro-bestiality vote, as a last-minute Tea Party group just did? It's mystifying why this isn't a bigger story -- at the very least, on late-night comedy shows.

The Huffington Post ran an amusing article which helps us all keep track of the strangest candidates in this year's races, which is worth a read if you want a chuckle or two. Other strange news from the ballot boxes included a guy in college who -- for a joke -- wrote in his name on a ballot... and actually won the race because nobody else voted for anybody. Let this be a lesson, kids, if you're going to be funny, just write in "Mickey Mouse" like everyone else does, or else you might wind up seated on your local Republican Party committee! Wisconsin has finally uncovered a case of intentional voter fraud, but unfortunately for those pushing maniacal voter-suppression laws, it turned out to be a Republican. From the Democratic side of the aisle, the guy who was previously photographed at a party featuring rampant underage drinking lost his bid to become Maryland's governor.

Which brings us to the bottom of the barrel. A Republican House candidate in Oklahoma (who lost his primary by a whopping 83 percent to 5 percent) claims the guy who beat him is nothing more than a look-alike, because the real Republican House member was actually executed (by hanging, no less) by "The World Court" in the Ukraine, back in 2011. One for the "you just can't make this stuff up" file, for sure. A Republican Party official in Arkansas -- who answered a question about how Hillary Clinton would be received in the state were she to run for president by saying: "She'd probably get shot at the state line. Nobody has any affection for her. The majority don't." -- has, thankfully, resigned. However, the Arizona state superintendent of schools whose online statements were recently revealed (which included calling welfare recipients "lazy pigs") announced he will not actually be stepping down (in a performance with lots of crocodile tears). Way to stay classy, GOP!

Primary election results provided our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week, as Representative Charlie Rangel beat back a primary challenger in a close race. Rangel has been around for a long time, and has already indicated that he'll be retiring after he wins one more term in November (this is one of those districts where the general election is pretty much a done deal). This will nicely bookend his congressional career, from the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act to the end of the first African-American president's term in office.

Rangel is definitely one of the "old guard" Democrats up on the Hill, but his legacy has been tarnished over ethical problems in the past few years. His district is changing demographically (partly due to redistricting), so it'll be an interesting race two years from now to see who will replace him. But for winning one last term, so he can leave on his own schedule, and for winning such a close primary race, Charlie Rangel is this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

[Congratulate Representative Charles Rangel on his House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]

The most disappointed Democrat of the week was Travis Childers, the Senate candidate who will now run against Thad Cochran in November. If the Tea Partier had managed to unseat Cochran, Childers might have had a shot at winning a very red state for the Democrats in a particularly bad midterm year. That's "might" and "a very long shot," however, so while he's personally disappointed (no doubt) about running against Cochran, we can't say he was disappointing in any way.

Which leaves us with a repeat award, as new information has now come to light. Phillip Puckett, a Democratic state senator in Virginia, abruptly resigned a few weeks ago (thereby throwing control of the chamber to the Republicans) after being bribed by Republicans to do so. His resignation was widely denounced (including here in these pages, where he won his first MDDOTW award two weeks ago), because it was so obviously a quid pro quo arrangement. In exchange for stepping down, Puckett was offered a vote on giving his daughter a judicial post, and a plum job for himself on the state tobacco commission.

This week, further evidence emerged in the story, in the form of emails to and from the commission which clearly show how the job was meant as a bribe. He may not have broken any laws (Virginia has notoriously lax ethics laws for politicians), but at the very least, the new revelations have earned him his second Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

[Phillip Puckett is now a private citizen, and it is our standing policy not to provide contact information for such people, sorry.]

Volume 310 (6/27/14)

We've got an eclectic mixed bag of things to cover this week. Not all are strictly partisan issues, but as we get closer and closer to this year's political "silly season," we can expect more and more stories that defy classification. It's an annual thing, in other words.

Anyway, this is running way too long as it is, so let's just dive in to this week's talking points.

Churchill said it best, on Iraq

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post deserves all the credit for digging this quote up. It's a dandy one to memorize, in fact, and should be used whenever the subject of Iraq comes up.

"I'd like to quote from Winston Churchill, if I may. Back in 1922, Churchill was Britain's colonial secretary, and he had this to say about Iraq: 'At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.' That almost seems prophetic now, doesn't it? Some things change over time, and some things sadly stay the same."

Boehner sues Obama (part one)

Hoo boy. Those who learn nothing from history, eh?

"I see that Speaker of the House John Boehner now says he's going to sue Barack Obama in court, since the House obviously has nothing better to do. Wow. I mean, just... wow. Has he forgotten what happened when Republicans impeached Bill Clinton? The American people have a very thin tolerance for Republicans going on such political vendettas, and Boehner is doing nothing more than courting a backlash in the field of public opinion. Clinton's approval ratings went through the roof during his impeachment -- not because the public believed him about his sexual antics, but because they thought what Republicans were doing was wrong. If I were President Obama right now, I'd be saying 'Bring it on!' -- because if the public reacts the way it did during Clinton's impeachment, then John Boehner could wind up being the reason Obama's approval ratings make a full recovery."

Sue me for doing my job

President Obama greeted the news with nothing short of glee, at least as evidenced by what he's been saying about it. This is a two-for-the-price-of-one talking point, from two separate articles. Here's the first Obama response:

What I've told Speaker Boehner directly is, if you're really concerned about me taking too many executive actions, why don't you try getting something done through Congress? The majority of American people want to see immigration reform done. We had a bipartisan bill through the Senate. And you're going to squawk if I try to fix some parts of it administratively that are within my authority, while you are not doing anything?

And the second, which was much snappier:

They've decided to sue me for doing my job. If you're mad at me for helping people on my own then join me and we'll do it together. I want to work with you, but you gotta give me something. You gotta try to deliver something. Anything.

Call McCarthy's bluff!

Kevin McCarthy, who will become the new House Majority Leader, gave an interview last weekend in which he tried to lay the blame for stuff not getting done in Congress at Harry Reid's feet. Paul Abrams, a blogger for the Huffington Post, wrote the best response I've seen yet to this accusation. The following is an excerpt from his article, which is worth reading in full:

Instead of arguing the point, Harry Reid should offer McCarthy a deal.

Here it is: the Senate will bring up for a vote, without amendment, a House-passed bill of McCarthy's choosing in exchange for the House doing the same for a Senate-passed bill of Reid's choosing. There is no requirement that the bill pass in the other chamber, just that the other chamber votes on it.

Simple. Fair. Straightforward. To make it work, Reid and McCarthy should hand each other a sealed envelope with one bill each week already passed by their respective chambers that they want voted upon by the other chamber. No sealed envelope, no bill.

It calls McCarthy's bluff.

Depending on the number of such bills that each side wants voted upon by the other chamber, this could produce a veritable river of yeas and a mountain of nays.

Or, McCarthy will show he was bluffing.

King Canute and the tides

This one is legendary, that's for sure.

"I see that the North Carolina government didn't like the results of a study it had commissioned, because the scientists not only predicted a rise in sea level of 39 inches in the next century, but they also helpfully provided maps which showed which expensive coastal real estate would thus be underwater (in a quite literal sense). The real estate industry freaked out, so the government has now decided that it'd be better if they just issued a report which covered the next 30 years instead, which only show an 8-inch rise in sea level. Boy, that'll solve the problem! You can choose your metaphor here, folks, either one of sticking their heads in the sand, or perhaps of King Canute ordering back the tides. The shortsightedness is simply breathtaking."

Vote for it, or else!

Who says political irony is dead?

"Representative Michael Grimm is now cosponsoring the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require schools to create anti-bullying policies. As Teddy Roosevelt might have said: 'Well, bully for him!' I'm sorry, but this is amusing to me because maybe Grimm might instead want to write a bill to create such policies for himself. This is the same guy, remember, who threatened to break a reporter 'in half,' or perhaps just toss him off a Capitol balcony -- on camera, no less! So I have to wonder, how is Grimm going to round up votes for his bill? Threaten his colleagues to 'vote for it... or else'? Talk about ignoring the plank in your own eye...."


Will it never end? I mean, seriously. Two more candidates for the Anthony Weiner Peter-Tweeter Hall of Fame.

"There should be a hard and fast rule, so to speak, for all politicians and government employees. Call it the 'Peter-Tweeter Principle' if you will. This rule consists of: 'Don't ever take or send photos of your genitalia. Ever!' This week we had two such morons in the news, the first a Naval War College professor who -- ironically enough -- is a strong supporter of N.S.A. spying. His online photography skills were was exposed (ahem) this week for all to see. And then there was the chief of staff of a Republican House member from Ohio who had to quickly resign when his ex-girlfriend -- a porn star, no less -- posted an intimate photo of his junk online. How long is it going to take for people to learn the basic Peter-Tweeter Principle? In short: Don't do it. Ever. To anyone. For any reason. Ever, ever, ever. You'd think everyone would have learned this by now, but apparently not."

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