Discover more from Letters from an American
May 1, 2023
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote to House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) today to warn him that the Treasury will be unable to pay the government’s bills by early June, possibly as early as June 1. She wrote: “I respectfully urge Congress to protect the full faith and credit of the United States by acting as soon as possible.”
President Biden promptly called McCarthy and House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), along with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for a meeting on May 9 to discuss the crisis. The delay is caused by the fact that the House is not in session and McCarthy is in Israel with a House delegation. They will have only a week to confer before Biden is off to Japan for the 2023 summit of the International Group of Seven, or G7, a political forum consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, along with the European Union, which is a "non-enumerated member."
Biden has said his position remains the same: he will not negotiate over paying the nation’s bills, although he is happy to negotiate over the national budget as part of the normal process.
Last week, the House passed a bill that would raise the debt ceiling for about a year and cap government spending at 2022 levels, which amounts to cuts of about $130 billion in non-defense spending.
Republicans are angry at a warning from the Department of Veterans Affairs— the VA— that the House bill will force a 22% cut to the department’s budget, costing 81,000 jobs in health services, reducing outpatient visits for veterans by 30 million, increasing food insecurity for about 1.3 million veterans, and adding 134,000 claims to disability backlogs. Republicans insist this is a lie, but they have declined to say where their cuts would come from.
Meanwhile, Schumer wrote to his colleagues today to condemn what he called the Republicans’ “Default on America Act,” or “DOA,” which “offers two choices: either default on the debt or default on America, forcing steep cuts to law enforcement, veterans, families, teachers, and kids.” He said that the bill would “gut Medicaid for over 20 million Americans, rip away SNAP benefits for over a million recipients and eliminate Pell grants for tens of thousands of American students every year.”
Schumer has prepared for the Senate to take up two bills: a clean debt ceiling bill and McCarthy’s bill, which if it passes would become part of normal budget negotiations.
In another story with major implications, tomorrow the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Supreme Court ethics. Supreme Court justices are the only federal judges that are not explicitly bound by a code of conduct and, aside from the decisions that have made the justices seem to be advancing a political agenda, the court appears to be plagued with ethics scandals. Confidence in the court is draining away.
After Justice Samuel Alito’s early draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision of last June leaked, an angry chief justice vowed to find the leaker, only to have an antiabortion activist claim in December that he and his colleagues had courted the goodwill of justices with donations to the Supreme Court Historical Society. He claimed that he had received advance notice of the court’s decision in the Burwell v.Hobby Lobby case, important to antiabortion activists, from someone connected to Justice Alito.
Alito claimed the Dobbs leak had made the justices “targets for assassination” and the final report on the Dobbs leak called the leak “a grave assault on the judicial process,” but the report said investigators could not determine who had leaked. Court employees had been grilled, but it was not clear that the justices themselves had been questioned.
Then, last month, ProPublica reported that Justice Clarence Thomas did not disclose gifts and trips worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, or that Crow had bought and improved a home in which Thomas’s mother still lives.
Then, Politico reported that Justice Neil Gorsuch did not disclose the purchaser of his jointly-owned log home in Colorado. After two years on the market, the house sold nine days after Gorsuch was confirmed to the court; Gorsuch reported making between a quarter- and a half-million dollars on the sale. The buyer was the head of Greenberg Traurig, a law firm that has been involved in at least 22 cases before the court since Gorsuch joined it.
In late April, Insider reported another appearance of conflict: a whistleblower filed an official complaint against Chief Justice Roberts himself in December, alleging that he had listed his wife’s income as “salary” when the $10.3 million she received from 2007 to 2014 came from commissions paid by corporations and law firms for her work as a legal recruiter.
On April 20 the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin (D-IL) invited Chief Justice John Roberts or anyone he designated to testify about how Supreme Court justices address ethical issues. “The status quo is no longer tenable,” wrote Durbin. “The time has come for a new public conversation on ways to restore confidence in the Court’s ethical standards.
On April 25, Roberts declined Durbin’s invitation, writing that he was concerned about the separation of powers and about “preserving judicial independence.” He promised that the justices subscribe to a statement of ethics principles and practices, which he attached.
On April 27 the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee responded with a letter saying: “It is noteworthy that no Justice will speak to the American people after numerous revelations have called the Court’s ethical standards into question, even though sitting Justices have testified before Senate or House Committees on at least 92 occasions since 1960.” They asked when the justices had agreed to the statement of ethics.
Today, Roberts responded that they had agreed to the ethics statement on April 25, and said that justices policed their own ethics as they “consult a wide variety of guidance on ethics issues, including statutes, judicial opinions, advice [from legal experts], scholarly commentary, and historical practice, among other sources.”
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee responded that “[t]hese answers further highlight the need for meaningful Supreme Court ethics reform.” Pressure for that reform is growing.
On April 26, Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced the Supreme Court Code of Conduct Act, a bill to reform Supreme Court ethics that gets around the separation of powers issue by requiring the court to write its own code of conduct and appoint an official to review potential conflicts and public complaints. It is a remarkably simple bill, designed, King and Murkowski say, to shore up the public’s confidence in the Supreme Court. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post suggested that at the very least, the measure should force lawmakers who oppose it to explain why.
The crisis in the Supreme Court is headed for another major test. The court today agreed to hear a case that could gut the government’s ability to regulate business. The court will reconsider the 1984 Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council decision, which affirmed that judges should defer to government agencies in their reasonable interpretation of a law if the wording of the law is vague. This court seems likely to reject this idea and to allow judges to rein in regulation according to their own interpretation of the law.
Only eight justices will decide the case, since Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was on the circuit court that first heard the case at the heart of the challenge to Chevron, has recused herself.