GREG HARTON: The Supreme Court says Congress is the answer, but will it fulfill its responsibility?


As the US Supreme Court’s term ended Thursday, a lot of Americans breathed a sigh of relief. At least until after October, the nation won’t have to worry about a new ruling that upends some aspect of American governance or culture.

The court issued some doozies in recent days, of course starting with overturning Roe vs. Wade to return debate over the medical procedure’s legality to each state. And there was a ruling that limited the right to sue law enforcement agencies that abuse the Miranda protections afforded criminal defendants.

The court also stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of some of its authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Whether someone views the Supreme Court as brilliant, idiotic, activist or restrained often depends less on the court’s interpretation of the Constitution than on whether a ruling gets in the way of what the observer wants.

This court appears to be saying Americans must get what they want, primarily, through Congress or the state legislatures. As in the case regarding the EPA, the court is saying “Don’t rely on us to give you what you can’t achieve through the political process.”

Although Chief Justice John Roberts suggested cutting greenhouse gas emissions might be a “sensible solution to the crisis of the day,” the court found Congress had not granted the EPA enough authority to establish the limits the federal agency intended.

“A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” Roberts wrote for the majority of the court.

In other words, Congress can’t turn over its authority in a broad way to an unelected bureaucracy.

Anyone who appreciates the separation of powers can agree major policies belong in the hands of the nation’s elected representatives, not massive government agencies largely unaccountable to the American public.

Among the challenges today is that Congress has never been so far removed from the people. That’s influenced by another Supreme Court decision. In 2010, the High Court declared, by a 5-4 vote, that corporations — not the American people, but the profit-oriented private sector — and other groups can spend unlimited sums to influence election outcomes. I’ve got no problem with profits; I don’t think my purchase of a product should empower a corporation to have a stronger voice with my simply elected representatives than I do.

That case, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, empowered what we know today as super PACS (political action committees) through which the wealthiest people and corporations can either bolster or crush candidates by the practically unlimited spending they’re able to do.

Justice John Paul Stephens, in his dissent in the Citizens United case, correctly surmised the ruling threatened “to tighten the integrity of institutions across the nation.” He argued corporations are not actually members of American society. How many corporations, after all, answer to people who are not American citizens at all? Why should they have a say in who Americans elect?

The Supreme Court seems to suggest a cure for corporate dominance over our elections is for our dysfunctional Congress to act, to fashion campaign spending limits that fit within the US Constitution. Well, bless their hearts.

It is beyond naivete to think the very politicians who benefit from the fundraising spigot opened by the Supreme Court are going to be the ones who invoke regulations reducing the influence of their funders.

But if the Washington establishment did miraculously awaken to a desire to strengthen the bond between the American people and their government, I’d suggest new laws that require every dollar spent on election influence should be publicly traceable to the original donor. And nonprofit groups, corporations, unions, etc., should face the same spending limitations within each race as individuals.

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