January 1, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
No matter who you are, but especially if you are not a white dude, you may remember 2011 as the year you lost your civil rights.
The final nail in the coffin came on the last day of the year – yesterday – when President Obama signed a military spending bill which contains provisions allowing the U.S. military to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely without trial even if the suspects are taken into custody on U.S. soil and/or are U.S. citizens. In other words, that means you. In signing the bill, the President issued a statement saying that he had “serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists.” As the bill moved through Congress, the White House held that the provisions regarding military detention were “unnecessary” because the President already had the detention powers outlined in the bill. Comforting. In his statement (which is worth your reading), President Obama reiterates that finding, but promised, “my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens…. My Administration will … ensure that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.” Do you feel safer now?
The ACLU calls the law “unconstitutional and illegal” and a violation of “international law because it is not limited to people captured in the context of an actual armed conflict….” As Amanda Simon of the ACLU noted in her statement today, “… the final word on the scope of detention authority belongs to the Supreme Court.” Various legal commentators have opined that the Congress’s purpose in writing such a broad law was to force the Court to rule on the scope of detention authority.
Chances are you won’t have to use your Second Amendment right for the purpose for which it was actually intended – to defend yourself against “the King’s army” – but many of your other civil liberties are under direct attack, and each of us is bound to be affected by one or more of those multiples lines of encroachment.
I have complained often about the failure of New York Times op-ed columnists to adequately and honestly address many of the issues that affect us all. However, across the page, theTimes Editorial Board is doing a better job. Over the past year, the Times editors have highlighted many of the strikes against civil liberties I have briefly outlined here. Because it was such a bad year for American civil rights, this essay will run in two columns. I can’t cover every attack on civil rights and basic Constitutional freedoms even in two columns, but I hope I give you an idea of the large – and smaller – efforts a myriad of government entities made last year to curb the rights of most Americans.
Federal and state courts have forestalled some of the civil rights under siege. Congressional Democrats have held the line on others. Other constrictions of your civil rights haven’t happened yet: they are – so far – merely talking points for right-wing politicians. Conservatives are constantly touting their defense of “freedom,” but – as I think you’ll see – the kind “freedom” they espouse applies to a narrow class of Americans.
The Right to Vote. Pretty basic. But, as the New York Times editors wrote a few days ago,
… many Republican state lawmakers are doing everything they can instead to prevent students from voting in the 2012 presidential election…. Seven states have already passed strict laws requiring a government-issued ID (like a driver’s license or a passport) to vote, which many students don’t have, and 27 others are considering such measures…. It’s all part of a widespread Republican effort to restrict the voting rights of demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic. Blacks, Hispanics, the poor and the young … are disproportionately represented in the 21 million people without government Ids.
The Right to Equitable Campaign Financing Laws. The 2010 Citizens United decision wasn’t the end of the Supreme Court’s attack on campaign finance law. In 2011, the Supreme Court struck down Arizona’s system of providing public matching funds to some campaigns. The New York Times editors said that the Court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., “shows again the conservative majority’s contempt for campaign finance laws that aim to provide some balance to the unlimited amounts of money flooding the political system.” Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission – which is deadlocked three Democrats to three Republicans, has failed to update regulations that might impose some checks, or at least transparency, on the unlimited free-for-all that is today’s campaign financing landscape.
The First Amendment Right to Freedom of Religion. This past spring, the town of Bridgewater, New Jersey, changed zoning laws to prevent an historic building from being converted to use as a mosque. On the campaign trail, former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain (who was briefly the party’s front-runner) opined that communities had the right to ban mosques because “Islam is both a religion and a set of laws, Shariah law,” which he said Muslims intended to impose on all Americans.
The Fourth Amendment Right against Unreasonable Search and Seizure. Several states have passed laws requiring social services recipients to take urine tests to prove they’re not using drugs. “In Florida, people receiving cash assistance through welfare have had to pay for their own drug tests….” (The ACLU sued, and a Bush II-appointed federal judge granted a temporary injunction. “She noted that the State Legislature, in approving the law, ignored its own study that found a lower rate of drug usage among applicants for assistance than among Florida’s population as a whole.”)
The Sixth Amendment Right to a Speedy Trial. As the Times editorial board outlined in August, “State courts, which handle a vast majority of civil and criminal cases, are in a state of crisis. Across the country, deep budget cuts and increased caseloads have created long delays and a denial of basic access to justice.”
The Right to an Independent Judiciary. The Constitution notwithstanding, former Speaker of the House and current GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich wants to haul federal judges (in handcuffs, if necessary) before the Congress to “explain” unpopular rulings. (Evidently, those long opinions they write are not explanatory enough for the former Speaker.) He also proposes to abolish “liberal” courts, like the entire Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Right to Affordable Health Care. The Republican candidates for president all have promised to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act, many of the provisions of which have not yet gone into effect. Those that are in effect – like the new prohibition against insurance companies’ denying or canceling coverage for people with pre-existing or chronic conditions – would be gone. The Republican House of Representatives repealed it as one of its first acts. The Senate declined.
The Right to Affordable Health Care for Seniors. The House’s 2012 budget bill moved Medicare to a voucher system which would (a) cause medical costs to rise even faster than they would otherwise, and (b) fall short of covering even the base-level costs as Medicare now does. The House bill, as written, was DOA in the Senate, and even if it had passed, President Obama said he would veto it. But most of the Republican candidates for president, and surely most of the Republican House and Senate candidates this year will favor a voucher plan similar to the Ryan plan the House passed. Seniors have not lost Medicare yet, and likely Americans who currently receive Medicare benefits will not lose them. But if Republicans gain control of both Houses of Congress and the presidency – not a wholly-unlikely scenario – Medicare will be on the chopping block. Because the proposed plans will not affect current seniors, many of whom would be activists for their own interests, there is a good chance the lobbying effort to save Medicare will not be sufficient to stop this pet GOP project. This would be a step backwards unparalleled in American history.
The Right to a Secure Old Age. Similarly, Republicans have Social Security in their sights. Most Republicans favor privatizing Social Security. Although Paul Ryan, the Republican House budget guru, received Social Security benefits as a teenager, his “Roadmap” envisions privatizing Social Security. There have been many plans – mostly but not entirely coming from Republicans – to “reform” (that is, cut) Social Security. One came out of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction (Catfood) Commission (which by the way, was not actually tasked to touch Social Security, since Social Security is not part of the regular budget and had operated in the black until 2011, when the temporary payroll tax exemption severely cut revenues). Former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson was so agitated by the AARP’s opposition to the Catfood Commission’s proposal that in a televised public meeting, he made an obscene gesture at the head of the AARP. Again, since the plans are for current recipients to (mostly) escape the ax, there might not be enough opposition to the GOP plan to change Social Security as we know it.
Reproductive Rights. The attacks on reproductive rights came from every direction. All of the Republican candidates for president oppose abortion rights. Some, like Rick Perry, now even oppose abortion rights in cases of rape and incest. John Walsh of Salon writes,
Perry has already announced his support for the ‘personhood’ movement, which declares that life begins the moment an egg is fertilized, a measure that was rejected by the deep-red state of Mississippi as too extreme…. Personhood legislation would make the IUD illegal, as well as any measure that interferes with a fertilized egg attaching itself to the uterine wall, including some fertility treatments.
Back in October Jodi Jacobson of RH Reality Check reported that
the GOP-led House of Representatives, with the blessings and encouragement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and extremist religious groups such as the Family Research Council, passed a bill in a vote of 251 to 172 that would, among other things, allow doctors and hospitals to ‘exercise their conscience’ by letting pregnant women facing emergency medical conditions die.
At the state level, as Dorothy Samuels of the New York Times writes,
Opponents of abortion rights know they cannot achieve their ultimate goal of an outright ban, at least in the near future. So they are concentrating on enacting laws and regulations narrowing the legal right and making abortion more difficult to obtain…. Sixty-one such laws were enacted during just the first eight months of this year — nearly triple the number in all of 2010, and more than double the previous record of 28 set in 1997.
In several instances, courts have stepped in to block new state laws curtailing of abortion rights, if only with preliminary injunctions.
In early December, “For the first time ever, the Health and Human Services secretary publicly overruled the Food and Drug Administration, refusing Wednesday to allow emergency contraceptives to be sold over the counter, including to young teenagers.” President Obama’s paternalistic “justification” for this anti-woman, anti-science decision was reprehensible: “As the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine.” Yes, indeed, because fathers don’t want to think about their daughters having sex. (Hey, Mr. President, kids don’t want to think about their parents having sex, either.)
Joan Walsh is right: “… the increasing extremism on choice that is now seeping into public policy on contraception reflects a related discomfort with full personhood for women. There is no freedom or equality for women without reproductive freedom.”
The Right to a Gender-Friendly Workplace. It has been 20 years since the Clarence Thomas Senate confirmation hearings inspired Congress to pass legislation allowing victims of sexual harassment to seek damages, including back pay and reinstatement.” President Bush I, who had threatened to veto such legislation before the hearings, signed the bill. But that would change if GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul (who is doing well in early-state polling) had his way. In a book he published in 1987 and republished in 2008, Paul wrote,
Employee rights are said to be valid when employers pressure employees into sexual activity. Why don’t they quit once the so-called harassment starts? Obviously the morals of the harasser cannot be defended, but how can the harassee escape some responsibility for the problem? Seeking protection under civil rights legislation is hardly acceptable.
A female gynecologist told me that male gynecologists tended to be among the worst misogynists she had ever met. I should have asked her if she had met Dr. Paul.
Sexual harassment, gender discrimination and general working conditions are probably even worse for women in the military, while in service and after they retire.
AND the legal profession still discriminates against women.
The Right to Breath Clean Air and Drink Clean Water. In perhaps the most boneheaded domestic policy decision of his presidency, in September 2011, “The president rejected a proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that would have significantly reduced emissions of smog-causing chemicals, saying that it would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress.” Environmental groups are suing.
In April, the Obama administration did the right thing in proposing new guidelines to conform to the Clean Water Act of 1972. So Republicans in the House responded by voting to prohibit the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers from carrying out the new regulations. Republicans in the Senate continue to try to sneak the provisions of the House bill into other bills.
Oh, there’s more. Miles Grant, writing in Think Progress, enumerates: “After taking 191 anti-conservation votes, even the House of Representatives’ own members called it ‘the most anti-environment House in the history of Congress.’” Here’s Grant’s take on the “Dim Bulb Act,” No. 4 on his list of the Top 10 Anti-Environmental Things Congress Did in 2011:
President George W. Bush signed bipartisan legislation to encourage energy-efficient light bulbs. Industry gets certainty, consumers save money, America cuts its carbon footprint: Everybody wins! But extremists attacked the standards and when they couldn’t win votes, they snuck the Dim Bulb Act into must-pass budget legislation. ‘Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them,’ reported Politico. Everybody loses!
Tomorrow we’ll talk about some ways federal and state government has restricted Americans’ right to work and to receive fair pay and benefits. We’ll also touch on some “minor” curbs to civil liberties – “minor” only if you’re not one whose rights have been, or are likely to be, trampled. Oh, and I’ll remind you of a little bit of good news on the civil rights front, too. Happy New Year!
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com