A shrinking violet the Roberts Court is not. Since the chief justice was confirmed in 2005 promising to call “balls and strikes,” the Court unleashed super PACs in its 2010 Citizens United decision, injected itself into the middle of a presidential campaign by taking on Obamacare earlier this year, and recently heard a case giving it the chance to cut back or end affirmative action. Under Roberts, the Court has a bit of a swagger. Bill Clinton might say they have some brass.
Let’s clear one thing up. “Right to work” laws, which permit employees working at a unionized workplace to refuse to join the union or to pay the union the cost of representing the worker, are designed to weaken the economic and political power of organized labor and, by extension, wage workers. Full stop. They allow workers to “free ride” all the benefits of a collective-bargaining agreement (increased wages, benefits, rights to adjudicate a dispute with a supervisor, safety and health requirement beyond those mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, etc.) negotiated by the union without paying any of the union dues their fellow employees pay.
Tonight, you’ll hear on the news that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the "gay marriage cases.” Much of the mainstream (i.e., straight) media will be treating the two cases they’ve taken—a challenge to California's ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, and a challenge to DOMA, the federal law that prohibits the government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states—as essentially the same. Don’t be fooled. The cases are very different. The fact that SCOTUS has taken both has a lot of us very worried.
The first Friday morning of the first 11 months of 2012 brought exciting news for political journalists. At exactly 8:30 a.m. the Bureau of Labor Statistics would upload the latest jobs report to the Internet. The agency's website would often crash as journalists rushed to pore over the figures. Cable news spent hours parsing through the shifts in the inevitable topline figure: whether the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate went up or down. Were they examining these reports to assess the state of the economy, trying to discern the next best steps for the government to correct our path out of the recession? Of course not. These speculations focused on how the new set of numbers might swing the presidential election.
The Supreme Court has announced that it will be hearing both of the major gay-rights cases it was considering this term. Facing constitutional scrutiny are key provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states, and California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. When combined with the major affirmative-action and voting-rights cases the court will also be handing down this term, this could be the most consequential Supreme Court term in decades.
President Obama has called it the “biggest failure of [his] first term.” Now, having once again been elected with a sizable majority of the Latino vote and with key Republicans seemingly on board, the administration has begun pressuring Congress to take up immigration reform. The president has said he plans to introduce an immigration-reform proposal shortly after his inauguration, and Senators Lindsay Graham and Chuck Schumer, who led the failed effort for immigration reform in 2009, have “resumed talks.”
In previous legislative battles over immigration going back to George W. Bush’s second term, the key sticking point has been what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented workers currently in the country. Another point of contention is whether to pass a “comprehensive” bill—one that addresses a broad range of problems with the immigration system including enforcement, the visa system for high-skilled workers, family-unification policies, the status of children brought to the U.S. illegally, and the administration of future migration—or whether it is better to reform the immigration system piecemeal.
Twelve years ago, "Janie"—a round-faced, single mother of four—said goodbye to her children and life as she knew it in Manila. She agreed to follow a family to the U.S., where she would fulfill a contract for live-in domestic work. In her employers' Pennsylvania home, she cleaned and cared for the children seven days a week, 24 hours a day, without any days off. Her employers held her passport, and kept her at home—not once in seven years did she see friends or family. And her pay was a fraction of the minimum wage: a mere $400 per month, most of which she sent to the Philippines. When her employers moved, Janie, who asked that her real name not be used for legal reasons, found another job. She negotiated a better salary but met a new challenge: constant verbal harassment by her employer's mother. She recalls, "I cannot bear it anymore. I'm nothing to [them]. So they gave me pay, and I said I had to leave." Janie moved on to her current job, working for a family in New York. The hours are still long, the work emotionally taxing, but, she says, "I just keep thinking about my kids—that's all."
Labor never ruled Michigan as such. It may have been home to the best and biggest American union, the United Auto Workers, but even at the height of their power, the UAW could seldom elect its candidates to Detroit city government. Still, the UAW dominated the state’s Democratic Party and much of state politics for decades—at least, until the auto industry radically downsized.
Despite the daily drumbeat of news coverage parsing every statement that comes out of Congress, there has been minimal progress toward a deal to avert the tax increases and spending cuts that will be triggered on January 1. Save a handful of possible apostates who have critiqued Grover Norquist's no-tax pledge, the Republican bloc has largely refused to contemplate any rate increases for the top tax bracket. Obama has all the leverage. All of the Bush tax cuts expire at the start of 2013; should that happen, the president can (correctly) accuse Republicans of grandstanding against middle-class tax cuts only to spare the upper echelon from paying a tax rate of 39.6 percent instead of the current 35 percent.
Those two guys in the front knew how to do it. (White House/Pete Souza)
Shaping the next phase in the history of the Republican party is an ongoing project that won't really be completed until they have another president, and their 2016 nominee could well be that person. Part of what makes this process interesting is that there is no obvious choice. Republicans are famous for nominating the person who is "next in line," usually someone who ran previously and lost. Every Republican nominee dating back to Richard Nixon has fit this pattern, with the exception of George W. Bush in 2000 (and Gerald Ford, who is obviously a special case). But the people who lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 revealed themselves to be an extraordinarily unappealing group; Paul Ryan didn't exactly emerge from the race looking like a giant; and there are multiple governors like Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels who could be strong competitors. So the next GOP nominee could be a hard-right conservative, or a relative moderate, or something in between.
As E.J. Dionne points out in his column today, when a party spend some time in the wilderness, its path back to power usually involves some ideological accommodation:
Today, South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, who was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool, announced that he is retiring just two years into his six-year term. And will he be returning home to Greenville, perhaps to open a general store and be closer to good people of his state? Of course not. That's not what senators do when they retire. They become high-priced lobbyists, cashing in on their years of service by selling their insider status to the highest bidder.
But DeMint won't be doing that either. Instead, he'll become president of the Heritage Foundation, the right's largest and most influential think tank, despite the fact that DeMint was never one for thinkin'. As our old friend Ezra tweeted upon hearing the news, "To state the obvious, you don't make Jim DeMint the head of your think tank in order to improve the quality of your scholarship."
Given current proposals for reform, it seems clear the filibuster in some form will survive—at least in the upcoming session of Congress. What the Senate looks like in the long term, however, is still very much up for grabs. One thing is for sure: It can’t continue in its current dysfunction.
In 1994, University of Michigan rejected Jennifer Gratz, setting in motion the overturning of University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions policy. Now she's challenging a black student who's protesting her own rejection.