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It may be early for packages under the tree, but Thanksgiving has offered a seasonal grab bag of intriguing and important stories. They range from Jared Golden’s gambit to almost unnoticed talks about the future of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The political system worked in mysterious ways. As the U.S. House of Representatives struggled to decide on President Joe Biden’s social and environmental bill, two people stood out by their unusual moves. One was House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and the other was Maine Democratic Rep. Jared Golden.
McCarthy apparently read the results of the 2021 elections as a sign the Republicans are on a roll. If he used opposition to Biden’s Build Back Better bill as a rallying point, he might give a new push to his hopes of becoming speaker in 2023.
No great orator, he may have hoped that a record-breaking speech would get him attention that his words might not. He spoke longer than anyone ever had on the House floor. It was about as impressive as the longest partial lunar eclipse in over 500 years, the same night. Few people stayed awake for either.
His questionable tactic failed. All he accomplished was to delay the House vote on BBB for a few hours. No Republican vote was changed and Golden, the sole Democrat who voted against the bill, was likely engaging in a political maneuver that might work and make him look good to both sides.
Golden opposed one feature of the BBB among its many benefits for a lot of quite different groups.
Under current tax law, taxpayers who itemize their deductions can exclude no more than $10,000 in state and local property taxes. People in high-tax Democratic states, especially if they are wealthy enough to own expensive property, pay a lot more than that. The bill would raise the limit to $80,000.
Many in Congress dislike that feature, but their districts would derive great benefits from BBB. So they reluctantly voted for the bill. But Golden strongly opposed this aid to the wealthy, and he voted against the bill.
BBB now must be considered by the Senate, which is likely to cut that piece out of it. The House will probably have to accept the Senate version. Golden could then vote for the final bill. Running in a swing district, he could skillfully take credit for both lining up with the Democrats and having stood alone against a tax break they favored.
Unlike such inside politics, the Rittenhouse case in Wisconsin grabbed popular attention. Did young Kyle kill two people in self-defense or was he a right-wing vigilante asserting gun rights? After his complete acquittal, sages lined up on both sides, drawing sweeping meaning from the decision.
The 12 jurors may not have seen their role as taking a position on these big questions. Their first responsibility was to see if he was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” of illegal killings. The system left it to these people to reach a verdict on one person’s case, not to make a political statement for the country.
Maybe the prosecutors brought charges that were too extreme. Maybe Rittenhouse should not have gone to Kenosha, in a state where he did not even live. But those factors could not count for the jurors. Each juror had a reasonable doubt about his guilt. That’s all.
Cutting through all the clashing punditry, President Biden got it right. “Look, I stand by what the jury has concluded,” he said. “The jury system works, and we have to abide by it.”
With public attention directed elsewhere, few were aware of a public session of the commission considering Supreme Court reforms. Yet it’s possible that such reforms would be more important than the other events.
Two interlinked issues dominate the Supreme Court review. The court is likely to be controlled by conservatives for many years, and it has come to act like a lawmaking body as much as a court. Similar situations have existed earlier in American history.
With slim congressional majorities, the Democrats would like to make changes, especially those that can be handled by Congress without a constitutional amendment. Enlarging the court is being discussed, but the commission is divided on making such a recommendation. It’s possible the reform effort could fizzle.
But the commission could look at two ideas. Congress controls what the court covers, making it possible to block some of its legislative moves. And, as I have previously proposed, Congress could authorize temporary justices, similar to what it now does for other federal courts. That could improve the balance without permanently enlarging the court.
What’s common to all these dubious gifts of the season, except possibly Golden’s, is how they mirror the deep political division in the country.