Name the most popular federal program of all time, and you’ll understand why the Republican Supreme Court wants to kill health care reform before it gets going in 2014.
It’s Social Security, of course. Part of FDR’s New Deal, Congress enacted it in 1935 to provide insurance against the vicissitudes of old age, poverty and unemployment, all of which were made more horrific by the Great Depression.
Social Security retirement benefits are based on an individual mandate, just like the new health care law is. Workers and employers are required to pay taxes into the system now, to cover them later. You can’t have a solvent health or retirement insurance program if participation is voluntary, because no one will contribute until they need the benefits – and then they can’t pay for them, as I’ve noted. Social Security, like the health care law, is a universal system - everyone has to be part of it – both getting the benefits and paying for its cost.
Due to a limited grasp of their own history, most Americans don’t realize how similar today's campaign against universal health care is to the one waged against Social Security.
Republican lawmakers bitterly opposed (PDF) FDR’s measure – and still do, though these days they cloak their hostility behind the hysterical and unfounded argument that Social Security is about to go bankrupt. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan claimed in 2004 that retirement benefits had to be cut and the system “privatized” or the nation would face an economic disaster (it did four years later, thanks not to Social Security but to Greenspan’s policies). The Bush Administration concocted a plan to turn over Social Security proceeds to Wall Street, which it claimed would do a better job of investing people’s retirement savings. Had it succeeded, most of that money would have been lost in the financial crash of 2008.
But the conservatives’ attempts to demolish Social Security have consistently failed. Why? Because Social Security works. Americans support it by huge margins – even Republicans.
Hence the vehemence of the attack on the health care law now. The anti-government forces realize that once Americans begin to receive the benefits of universal health care – no denials for pre-existing conditions, no medical underwriting, no caps on benefits – they won’t want to give them up.
That’s not all. Under the law passed by Congress, the insurance industry stands to gain the most from the mandate that all Americans buy health insurance. But the experts understand that the program will end up being too expensive – in most states, private insurance companies are going to be able to raise their rates at will. If this doesn’t kill universal care, it will eventually lead to a single public system just like Social Security.
Last week’s spectacle at the Supreme Court – three days of “hearings,” with some lawyers appointed by the Court itself to argue positions no party had taken – looked more like a political ambush by a legislative body than the supposedly chaste pursuit of constitutional principles. It’s important to remember that an unelected majority of the U.S. Supreme Court almost nipped Social Security in the bud 75 years ago. Pro-industry conservatives on the Court consistently rejected FDR’s proposals to provide Americans relief from the New Deal, as I explained recently. The Social Security law was considered in danger by FDR’s advisors. Criticism of the Supreme Court became widespread, and FDR began to prepare a plan to add more justices to the nine serving on the high court. Unwilling to provoke a constitutional confrontation that would sully the independence of the judicial branch, the Supreme Court backed down, and upheld the law.
It’s difficult to discern any similar hesitation by the current majority of the Supreme Court, with five of its nine members increasingly unabashed ideologues willing to rewrite the Constitution. Think about the Court’s decision to interfere with the Florida vote count and award the 2000 election to George Bush. Consider its 2011 decision in Concepcion v. AT&T, where five Republican appointees determined that “arbitration clauses” inserted in the fine print of virtually every contract between a giant corporation and consumers can rob people of their right to their day in court. And then there’s the infamous 2010 Citizens United case, in which the five ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of free speech, protected by the First Amendment. In one fell swoop, the Court disenfranchised the vast majority of Americans who cannot hire their own lobbyist or fund the election of a friendly politician.
On the other hand, yesterday President Obama sent the politicians on the high court a powerfully worded message. Briefly channeling FDR, he said: “I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint — that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I’m pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take that step.”
Much is at stake here – more than health care reform itself. Public confidence in government is at record lows. As the financial crash of 2008 confirmed, money has corrupted the electoral process; the wealthy and powerful dictate public policy. The judiciary used to be the only branch of government in which a citizen could take on any person or corporation and be accorded equal stature. When Americans loses their confidence in the integrity of the courts, what is left?