“A judiciary independent of a king or executive alone, is a good thing, but independence of the will of the nation is a solecism, [deviation from the norm] at least in a republican government.” — Thomas Jefferson, 1820
Fist Bumps to Thomas Jefferson for getting it spectacularly right three hundred years ago. It’s unanimous— elites control all three branches of the federal government. They write the laws (Congress), sign the laws (president) and endow them with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (Judiciary, i.e. Supreme Court). Take a gander at the mountain of riches these “servants of the people” have managed to amass during their tenure.
The US Constitution advertises itself as “government of, by and for the people” but of late the people’s participation seems to be fading into the rearview mirror. A quick comparison of how well our elected representatives in all three branches of government are doing compared to how poorly the rest of us are doing is a real wake-up call. A few eye-popping stats from the Congressional leg of the 3-legged stool that is the government. In 2015, the net worth of Congress (all 535 members of the House and Senate) was $7 billion dollars. Not surprisingly over one-half (51%) of Senators and Representatives are millionaires, some multi-millionaires (the richest member of Congress, Darrell Issa is worth a staggering $254.7 million). How does the salary of the average American household compare? Judge for yourself. While the net worth of the average congress person has grown 20% since the economic crisis of 2007 (where over 11 million “ordinary” folks lost their homes; no record exists of even one member of congress winding up in the same boat), the net worth of the average American household has dropped 35%. In both house of Congress, the plutocrats are in the comfy position of controlling our economic future while completely divorced from our economic reality. Heads I win, tails you lose. How’s this for disparity: the average American household limps along on $51,318 per year; Congress lives high on the hog on an average salary three times higher at $172,313.
While we the people have gotten poorer and the social safety put in place during the great depression has been subject to continuous assault, the wealthy funders who support virtually every Congressional member are operating in overdrive. Thanks to their largesse, Congress’ net worth in a little over a decade has doubled — from $3 ½ billion in 2004 to $7 billion in 2015.
Congressional salaries being a pretty depressing topic, let’s see how the executive branch is faring in the magical money kingdom. Currently the salary of US presidents is $400,000, not including a bouquet of perks that add millions to their relatively modest salaries. While the middle-class struggles and the working class has endured punishing cuts in wages, social services and jobs, the last four US presidents are not feeling our pain. In fact, since 1951, starting with Eisenhower, all US presidents since have come into office millionaires or attained that status after leaving office. The lesson most politicians learn very early — doing the peoples’ business is a highly enrichening personal experience, at least in the executive and legislative branches of government.
Our final stop — the Supreme Court whose nine justices are the final interpreters of federal constitutional law. According to new Justice Neil Gorsuch in his hearing before the Senate Judicial Committee, “put[ting] on a robe reminds us that it’s time to lose our egos and open our minds…Ours is a judiciary of honest black polyester.” What he forgot to mention was the $1,000 suits beneath those “honest” polyester robes.” As the Center for Public Integrity points out “the majority of US Supreme Court Justices are millionaires.” Of the nine justices, 6 are worth at least $1 million. Two others, Arthur Kennedy and Clarence Thomas might also be millionaires, but if they haven’t quite reached the charmed circle, they are within a hair of it. The newest judge, the one who prattles on about polyester robes, joins the court as its richest member with an estimated net worth of over $7½ million. The final irony? Senate Democrats, themselves millionaires, accused Gorsuch of not sticking up for the “little guy.”
What many have gotten wrong in this current battle over dueling supreme court nominees: it’s not the individual judge chosen by the President that’s the problem. it’s the selection process itself – a broken and bizarre system. Although the Justices are the final arbiters of the most controversial and wrenching issues facing Americans — gun rights, religious freedom, affirmative action, gay marriage, reproductive rights, and campaign finance — they are selected, not elected, unaccountable to any higher authority, and by wealth, upbringing and education out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans. Drawn from the upper echelons of Ivy League law school graduates, their perspective is elitist, determined by their ideological beliefs and framed by their class consciousness. In a recent study two political scientists, Lee Epstein and Andrew Martin, found that more often than not Supreme Court Justices vote their politics not their principles. Chief Justice Roberts, a conservative, voted to strike down liberal laws 46%of the time, conservative laws only 17% of the time. Moving down to the right wing end of the bench, Samuel Alito voted to strike down liberal laws 54% of the time and conservative ones 2%. The pattern is reversed but the trajectory remains constant on the liberal wing of the court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Cout’s most liberal justices, voted to strike down conservative laws 67% of the time and liberal laws 12%.
The real head-scratcher is how few Americans are bothered by this unjust system– a democratic process that sets the financial bar so high only elites qualify to make laws (Congress), sign them (President) and rule on their constitutionality (Supreme Court).
The Supreme Court with its ultimate, no-second-guessing permitted power to interpret the Constitution and make decisions affecting the lives of every American has traveled light years away from the conception of justice as represented by the icon of Lady Justice — blindfolded to signify impartiality without regard to wealth, power, or class; a set of scales held aloft in her left hand to measure the strength of a case or of its opposition; and a sword to deliver swift and final justice. Instead Supreme Court Justices are vetted for their ideological consistency, for the decisions that can be expected from that ideology — conservative or liberal. Starting with the confirmation process, the elite nominees are given a wide berth in the inquiry conducted by elite questioners (senators). Potential justices are seldom asked and never answer questions about their views on the politically charged issues that will almost certainly come before them.
The entire US political system is neither democratic nor egalitarian. It is broken and unaccountable to the majority of its citizens. Think of the US as a democracy whose innards have been picked clean by the elites leaving the masses with a slogan (USA, USA), empty rhetoric to repeat mindlessly at sporting events (pledge of allegiance) and little else while those self-same elites enjoy all the rewards of unbridled plutocracy. In this crazy quilt system, where half-truths and state secrets and the lack of transparency are chalked up to “keeping us safe,” don’t expect the selection process to fill a seat on the Supreme Court to be anything other than an exercise in group think. Once the dirty business of selecting the “right” judge is completed, conservative justices will vote with their conservative allies and liberal justices with their liberal ones. Zero votes for the moral imperative of even-handed, impartial justice. Gorsuch (Trump’s pick and the eventual winner) will probably make the court more conservative — a dagger in the heart of campaign finance reform, voting rights, abortion rights, federal laws to protect workers, unions, handicapped kids. Had Garland (Obama’s pick whom the Republican-controlled Congress refused to consider) made it through the confirmation process his presence would have moved the court a scooch to the left, although neither Gorsuch nor Garland from their lofty perch would have been on the right side of one of the most troubling issues in the US: the 2.3 million souls incarcerated inAmerican prisons and the billions the private prison industry reaps from their imprisonment.
Granted all the institutions of Superpower America are polarized, frighteningly so. But the Supreme Court takes the cake. Conservative justices are out to strike down liberal laws and liberal justices want to make hash of conservative precedents. Don’t believe the mainstream media’s claim that conservative justices are out to destroy the Republic while liberal ones are temperate in their views and respect precedent. Hogwash! A democratic system whose mantra is “pay to play” will always number its winners among the elite and its losers the rest of us. Does it really matter whose turn it is to name the winner: Democrats or Republicans? Only in the short term. When the survival of our democratic institution hangs by a thread, who gets to choose is less important than the way the choice is made: a process that makes government —responsive to the peoples’ needs, accountable to the moral imperatives of a just and egalitarian society.
What to do about the widening chasm between the people and their representatives? Remedies exist. In 39 A.D. Caligula, the Roman emperor appointed his favorite horse Incitatus to the Senate. History does not record if that body’s legislative record improved after the addition.
Almost two thousand years later, not much has changed. Disfunction rules the three branches of government. The public’s discontent is mind-boggling: Only 24% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, the Supreme Court is doing better at 42% approval but that rating is their lowest in over a decade. President Trump’s approval rating after 90 days on the job is a dismal 43% — the lowest rating recorded for any post World War II President after 90 days in office. Even Gerald Ford, after his highly unpopular pardon of Richard Nixon 30 days into his term, managed to win approval from the majority of Americans (51%) at the same point in his presidency.
Today, with legislative, judicial and executive branch approval ratings in the toilet and the country mired in life and death issues like who stole Tom Brady’s sweat shirt or did the Russians steal the presidential election away from Hillary, is it any wonder that Caligula’s solution for a do-nothing legislature is beginning to look like a no-brainer. I wonder what American Pharaoh is doing these days?
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