Why the G.O.P. doesn’t need to try to pass mostly unpopular policies through the elected branches.
Not so long ago, Republicans had one of the most ambitious legislative agendas of any political party in modern American history.
Devised by the former House speaker, Paul Ryan, the so-called Ryan budget sought to reduce much of the nation’s social safety net to ashes. Congressional Republicans planned to slash Medicaid spending and food stamps. In the most aggressive version of Mr. Ryan’s proposal, Republicans would have replaced Medicare with “premium support” vouchers that could be used to buy private insurance, and then reduced the value of this subsidy every year — effectively eliminating traditional Medicare over time.
But all of that has changed. The Ryan budget is a relic. At their 2020 national convention, Republicans didn’t even bother to come up with a new platform.
Yet while the party appears to have no legislative agenda, it’s a mistake to conclude that it has no policy agenda. Because Republicans do: They have an extraordinarily ambitious agenda to roll back voting rights, to strip the government of much of its power to regulate, to give broad legal immunity to religious conservatives and to immunize many businesses from a wide range of laws.
It’s just that the Republican Party doesn’t plan to pass its agenda through either one of the elected branches. Its agenda lives in the judiciary — and especially in the Supreme Court.
From 2011, when Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and denied President Barack Obama a governing majority, until the pandemic forced legislators’ hands in 2020, Congress enacted hardly any major legislation outside of the 2017 tax law.
In the same period, the Supreme Court
- dismantled much of America’s campaign finance law;
- severely weakened the Voting Rights Act;
- permitted states to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion;
- expanded new “religious liberty” rights permitting some businesses that object to a law on religious grounds to diminish the rights of third parties;
- weakened laws shielding workers from sexual and racial harassment;
- expanded the right of employers to shunt workers with legal grievances into a privatized arbitration system;
- undercut public sector unions’ ability to raise funds; and
- halted Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Now, a 6-to-3 conservative-majority Supreme Court is likely to reshape the country in the coming decade, exempting favored groups from their legal obligations, stripping the Biden administration of much of its lawful authority, and even placing a thumb on the scales of democracy itself.
Many of these changes would build on decisions handed down long before President Donald Trump reshaped the Supreme Court. The court, for example, first allowed employers to force workers to sign away their right to sue the company — locking those workers into a private-arbitration system that favors corporate parties — in a 2001 case, Circuit City v. Adams. But the court’s current majority is likely to make it much harder for workers and consumers to overcome these tactics. In Epic Systems v. Lewis (2018), Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the court’s majority opinion favoring an employer that forced its employees to give up their right to sue.
Similarly, in the 2014 case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court held that businesses seeking a religious exemption from a law may have it — holding, for the first time, that such exemptions may be allowed even when they diminish the rights of others. That case permitted employers with religious objections to birth control to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees, even though a federal regulation required employer-provided health plans to cover contraception.
Before Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the Supreme Court, however, a majority of the justices were very reluctant to grant religious exemptions to state regulations seeking to limit the spread of Covid-19. Yet after she became a justice, the court’s new majority started granting such exemptions to churches that wanted to defy public health orders.
It’s plausible that the Republican Party did not campaign on its old legislative agenda in 2020 because it was busy rebranding itself. Under Mr. Trump, Republicans attracted more working-class voters, while Democrats made gains in relatively affluent suburbs. So Mr. Ryan’s plans to ransack programs like Medicaid aren’t likely to inspire the party’s emerging base.
And yet the court’s conservative majority is still pushing an agenda that benefits corporations and the wealthy at the expense of workers and consumers.
It’s easy to see why government-by-judiciary appeals to Republican politicians. There’s no constituency for forced arbitration outside of corporate boardrooms. But when the court hands down decisions like Circuit City or Epic Systems, those decisions often go unnoticed. Employers score a major policy victory over their workers, and voters don’t blame the Republican politicians who placed conservative justices on the court.
Judges can also hide many of their most consequential decisions behind legal language and doctrines. One of the most important legal developments in the last few years, for example, is that a majority of the court called for strict new limits on federal agencies’ power to regulate the workplace, shield consumers and protect the environment.
In Little Sisters v. Pennsylvania (2020), the court signaled that it’s likely to strike down the Department of Health and Human Services’s rules requiring insurers to cover many forms of medical care — including birth control, immunizations and preventive care for children. And in West Virginia v. E.P.A. (2016), the court shut down much of the E.P.A.’s efforts to fight climate change.
Yet to understand decisions like Little Sisters and West Virginia, a reader needs to master arcane concepts like the “nondelegation doctrine” or “Chevron deference” that baffle even many lawyers. The result is that the Republican Party’s traditional constituency — business conservatives — walk away with big wins, while voters have less access to health care and breathe dirtier air.
By legislating from the bench, Republicans dodge accountability for unpopular policies. Meanwhile, the real power is held by Republican judges who serve for life — and therefore do not need to worry about whether their decisions enjoy public support.
It’s a terrible recipe for democracy. Voters shouldn’t need to hire a lawyer to understand what their government is doing.
Amy Coney Barrett, whom President Trump has nominated to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, was born in 1972, so she can expect to spend several decades shaping both American law and American life. As it happens, a year before Barrett’s birth, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., then a prominent lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, and later a Supreme Court Justice himself, wrote a now famous memorandum to the United States Chamber of Commerce, arguing that businesses needed to take a more aggressive hand in shaping public policy. “The American economic system is under broad attack,” he wrote, from, specifically, the consumer, environmental, and labor movements. He added that “the campus is the single most dynamic source” of that attack. To counter it, Powell suggested that business interests should make a major financial commitment to shaping universities, so that the “bright young men” of tomorrow would hear messages of support for the free-enterprise system. A little less than a decade later, a pair of law professors named Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia signed on as the first faculty advisers to a fledgling organization for conservative law students called the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. The efforts of the Federalist Society were lavishly funded by the business interests invoked by Powell, and it has trained a generation or two of future leaders. Not all of them have been “bright young men.” Some are women, including Barrett, and her confirmation would vindicate Powell’s plan and transform the Supreme Court.
Barrett made an appealing first impression in 2017, during her confirmation hearings to the federal bench. She and her husband are the parents of seven children. For many years, she was a popular professor at Notre Dame Law School, which she also attended and from which she graduated summa cum laude. She clerked on the Supreme Court for Justice Scalia. As a judge on the Seventh Circuit, she has been a reliable conservative voice. Even liberal peers in the academy find her personable. She will probably do well in providing the artful non-answers that are the currency of Supreme Court confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, just as she did in 2017.
But there should be no doubt about why Barrett has been chosen. Much of the commentary about her selection will focus on the issue of abortion, and her likely role in overturning Roe v. Wade. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to appoint Justices who would vote to overrule that landmark, and with his three selections, including Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, he appears to have delivered. Barrett is not only a member of a conservative organization within the Catholic Church; her legal writings, and the views of some who know her, suggest that she would overturn Roe.
Still, it’s worth remembering the real priorities of Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, in this nomination. They’re happy to accommodate the anti-abortion base of the Republican Party, but an animating passion of McConnell’s career has been the deregulation of political campaigns. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision brought the issue to wide public attention, but McConnell has been crusading about it for decades. He wants the money spigot kept open, so that he can protect his Senate majority and the causes for which it stands. This, too, is why the Federalist Society has been so lavishly funded over the years, and why it has expanded from a mere campus organization into a national behemoth for lawyers and students. Under Republican Presidents, Federalist Society events have come to operate as auditions for judicial appointments. The corporate interests funding the growth of the Federalist Society probably weren’t especially interested in abortion, but they were almost certainly committed to crippling the regulatory state.
Barrett is a product of this movement, and not just because she clerked for Scalia. Her writings and early rulings reflect it. Her financial-disclosure form shows that, in recent years, she has received about seven thousand dollars in honoraria from the Federalist Society and went on ten trips funded by it. But it’s not as if Barrett was bought; she was already sold. The judge has described herself as a “textualist” and an “originalist”—the same words of legal jargon that were associated with Scalia. (She believes in relying on the specific meaning of the words in statutes, not on legislators’ intent. She interprets the Constitution according to her belief in what the words meant when the document was ratified, not what the words mean now.) But these words are abstractions. In the real world, they operate as an agenda to crush labor unions, curtail environmental regulation, constrain the voting rights of minorities, limit government support for health care, and free the wealthy to buy political influence.
It should go without saying that the nomination and the expected confirmation of Barrett in the final days before a Presidential election represent a paramount act of hypocrisy for McConnell and the other Republicans who denied even a hearing to Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, in 2016. But the fact that these Republicans are willing to risk that charge shows how important the Supreme Court is to them. Far more than a senator, a Supreme Court Justice can deliver on the agenda. The war on abortion is just the start.
Paul Weyrich, “father” of the right-wing movement and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, Moral Majority and various other groups tells his flock that he doesn’t want people to vote. He complains that fellow Christians have “Goo-Goo Syndrome”: Good Government. Classic clip from 1980. This guy still gives weekly strategy sessions to Republicans nowadays. The entire dialog from the clip:
“Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
This video was produced by People For the American Way: http://www.pfaw.org