Editorial Roundup: United States
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on House Clerk Cheryl Johnson’s role during the recent Speaker chaos
The person who deserves a standing ovation after this week’s House speaker chaos is clerk Cheryl Johnson. She has been the calm presence at the front of the House chamber, keeping order with a gavel, a poker face and a lot of dignity. Without a speaker in place, she was temporarily in charge.
There was no rulebook for the role in which she found herself. In fact, there are no rules at all for the House until a new speaker takes over. The reason proceedings weren’t dysfunctional was largely because of Ms. Johnson’s ability to command respect — and even admiration — from Republicans and Democrats alike, asking rowdy representatives to refrain “from engaging in personalities toward other members-elect.”
Watching Ms. Johnson in action — along with reading clerks Susan Cole and Tylease Alli, who have called out all 435 representatives’ names over and over again — was a reminder that democracy relies not just on elected officials, but also on dedicated and largely apolitical civil servants. They kept order. They kept the House moving, even when the Republican majority appeared ungovernable. They did their jobs in a neutral way, showing no favor for any candidate. They didn’t even show emotion as disgraced former president Donald Trump received a vote for speaker.
Rarely does the name of a House clerk become well known, but Ms. Johnson, who has been in the role since 2019, has a special place in history: She’s the second African American clerk, the person who hand-carried the articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump to the Senate — twice — and for a time, an interim House leader. She has rightly received bipartisan praise this week and even some light-hearted calls for her to become speaker.
Her conduct is a model for all. Let’s hope she inspires young people who might be watching to realize that there are ways to serve the country that don’t involve shouting.
The New York Times on the new House Republican majority and protecting abortion access
… Despite the divisions over (the new House Republican majority’s) choice of a speaker, make no mistake: They are bent on stymieing not only President Biden’s agenda, but also efforts to protect the constitutional rights of Americans that have been whittled away by the Supreme Court and Republican-led states. Among those rights is the freedom of reproductive choice and bodily autonomy for women, which fell with the court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last June.
There is a newly proven, promising path to restore and safeguard these rights in many states, including some politically conservative ones controlled by Republicans.
In the 2022 midterm elections, many Americans went to the polls and sent a powerful signal about their unhappiness with the court’s decision on Roe. In every state where people had the opportunity to vote on abortion rights through ballot measures, they chose to protect and preserve access — even in red states such as Kansas and Kentucky. Rarely has reproductive rights been such a driving force in electoral politics — and not just in these referendums, but also in key races in Pennsylvania, Arizona and other battleground states, where abortion was a factor in the Republican Party’s spectacular underperformance.
The fight over abortion has taken on new resonance in post-Roe America. It is no longer just a front in the culture wars, but rather a fundamental matter of health and well-being for millions of women — and the difference between life and death for many. While views on abortion remain nuanced and complex, a majority of the American public stands firmly on the side of preserving a woman’s right to control her own body. The most rational, equitable way forward would be for Congress to enshrine abortion rights in federal law. That is not going to happen any time soon; leading Republicans in the House will thwart any legislative moves to ensure these rights. That’s why the most promising avenues for action will be at the state level through ballot initiatives.
The perfect record of success for these initiatives in the midterm elections provides a clear political road map toward rescuing reproductive rights in states. Buoyed by the results, abortion rights supporters are working toward replicating these victories elsewhere. This is where attention and support should be focused.
Taking the issue of reproductive rights directly to the people is not new, but traditionally it has been a strategy of abortion opponents. Between 1970 and 2022, just over 80% of statewide ballot measures dealing with abortion were supported by organizations that described themselves as pro-life.
A large majority of those restrictive measures failed — as happened in several states in 2022. In August, Kansas voters rejected a proposed amendment, put forward by Republican lawmakers, that would have declared that the state’s Constitution does not protect the right to abortion. (This would have upended the State Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling that it does.) Despite the state’s conservative electorate, the initiative was struck down by 59% of voters.
In November, voters rejected a similar amendment in Kentucky, where a court battle is still underway over existing restrictions, including a trigger law banning most abortions, imposed by the state legislature. And in Montana, voters rejected a “born alive” measure that would have declared a fetus or embryo to have a legal right to medical care if born alive at any stage of development, even in the course of an abortion procedure, and imposed criminal penalties on doctors who failed to work to save such infants. (Live births occurring as a result of abortions are exceedingly rare and often involve fetal abnormalities or serious pregnancy complications.)
Supporters of reproductive rights also went on the offensive in 2022, advancing measures to proactively secure access. In November, voters in California and Vermont embraced amendments enshrining abortion rights in their state constitutions. Voters in Michigan did the same, moving to block a 1931 ban from taking effect.
The Michigan measure was the one that had reproductive rights supporters on high alert. The state is politically mixed, and failure not only would have had awful repercussions for Michigan residents but also would have had a chilling effect on similar efforts being considered elsewhere.
In states where anti-abortion lawmakers control some of the levers of power, ballot initiatives may offer the best, most immediate hope of salvaging basic reproductive rights. Not all states allow for voters to directly initiate ballot proposals; state legislatures often put them forward. But of the 17 that do, “abortion rights supporters in at least 10 states with abortion bans or tight restrictions — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota — are already discussing strategies and tactics for putting abortion initiatives on the 2024 presidential election ballot,” according to reporting from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
This is a daunting mission. Those who work on these campaigns say that they tend to be complicated, labor intensive and expensive. Petition drives for ballot initiatives have been growing more expensive since at least 2016, with the average cost doubling to just over $4 million in 2022 from just over $2 million in 2020, according to Ballotpedia. And the electoral skirmish over a measure can cost millions. (The two main campaigns in the Kansas contest raised a total of more than $11 million.) This is why funding from groups and individuals from outside the state is so vital.
Each campaign needs to be handled differently, based upon the views of the state’s electorate. There is no one-size-fits-all guide to victory. That said, there are basic lessons to come out of this year’s contests — especially in the not-so-blue areas — that can help guide future efforts.
The Wall Street Journal on the FTC and union organization
The Biden Administration’s rule by regulation is gaining speed, and the latest example is the Federal Trade Commission’s plan to ban non-compete employment agreements. In a flash, Lina Khan’s bureaucracy will rewrite labor contracts for 30 million workers.
The FTC’s proposed rule is an air kiss to Big Labor, which demanded that the agency ban non-competes in 2019. Unions want opposition to non-competes as a tool in their organizing kit. Ms. Khan tweeted that one in five U.S. workers is currently “bound” by a non-compete clause that prevents them from switching jobs and thus keeps wages lower than they would be if the employees moved freely.
But job mobility in America hasn’t suffered despite non-compete clauses. The biggest threat to rising wages is inflation, not employment clauses. Companies use non-compete clauses to protect their intellectual capital, which is often between the ears of its employees. Tech firms in particular often pay higher compensation, including stock grants, in return for non-competes.
Non-competes can encourage innovation in firms because employees are less likely to take secrets to a rival. In a recent paper considering employment contracts, the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason noted that a ban on non-competes risks harming productivity and “dampening the incentives to invest in trade secrets” or “disseminate firm-specific knowledge” among a firm’s workforce.
The FTC is stretching its authority here, perhaps past breaking the law. Chair Khan cites Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which allows the agency to police “unfair methods of competition.” But “unfair methods” is typically used for individual cases, not for a blanket ban or policy-making.
In 2015 a bipartisan group of FTC commissioners issued a statement saying that Section 5’s power against unfair competition should only be used in cases of clear consumer harm. Ms. Khan rescinded that statement as one of her first actions as commissioner, the better to extend the agency’s reach to new frontiers. The Supreme Court is increasingly skeptical of aggressive claims of authority by federal agencies without clear Congressional direction, and the Chamber of Commerce says it is considering a lawsuit if the rule is adopted.
The sweeping FTC ban also raises separation-of-powers constitutional questions. In a 1935 New Deal-era case, Humphrey’s Executor, the Supreme Court approved the FTC Act as long as the independent agency refrained from exercising powers reserved for the executive branch. The FTC is an enforcement agency, not a policy-making shop like the Labor Department.
By the way, the FTC rule would pre-empt laws in 50 states, including those in California, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C., that ban non-compete contracts. More than a half dozen other states prohibit their use in low-wage jobs.
Ms. Khan has been chafing to impose her intrusive vision on the national economy, and she now has a 3-1 Democratic majority. She’s accelerating without looking both ways, which may mean a legal crackup is in the FTC’s future.
The Los Angeles Times on Brazil’s riots and the U.S. Capitol insurrection
The United States has long been a model for the world, inspiring people in other nations to throw off oppression and follow our path by creating stable, solid, democratic societies based on the rule of law, featuring the orderly and peaceful transfer of power.
So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some Brazilians tried to take a lesson from the U.S. on Sunday. It was the wrong lesson.
Brazil’s far-right election deniers rioted in the capital city of Brasilia on behalf of defeated ex-president Jair Bolsonaro, trashing that nation’s seat of government and copying the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and coup attempt in which President Trump’s lies about his election defeat culminated in the sacking of the Capitol by his supporters.
The violent spectacle marked an ignominious day for the South American nation, but it heaps shame as well on the U.S., which is in peril of relinquishing its role as a beacon of democracy and taking its place among nations for which election results are shaky, and the real decisions are handed over to mobs and the autocrats or shadowy cabals that try to manipulate them.
Two years out from the U.S. insurrection, following the in-depth hearings and report of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the evidence shows that then-President Trump compounded his blatantly false claims that he was denied reelection because of voter fraud with plans to overturn the vote and retain office.
The what-ifs are chilling. Evidence presented to the committee shows that Trump weighed plans to install Justice Department officials who would falsely declare there were voting irregularities. He was asked to consider declaring martial law and collect voting machines. He invited his supporters to Washington and, knowing that many were armed, told them to go to the Capitol. He watched the rioting for more than three hours before telling his supporters to stop. Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress were in danger.
In Brazil, Bolsonaro didn’t quite deny that he was defeated by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Oct. 30 election, and he agreed to cede the office to his rival on time, on Jan. 1. But he did follow the Trump template by arguing that the vote was rigged or at least unreliable.
Unlike Trump, he wasn’t on hand for the attack. He was in Trump’s home state of Florida.
But those are cosmetic differences. It’s as if Brazil’s rioters thought, “Well, if North Americans can believe what they want despite the facts, and act on it, why shouldn’t we?”
So far, despite the House committee findings, and the prosecution of nearly 1,000 people, neither Trump nor any of his team has been held to answer for the Jan. 6 attack.
If they are held accountable, perhaps the next set of election deniers and insurrectionists elsewhere in the world will be dissuaded by an American model that, when push comes to shove, holds perpetrators to the rule of law.
And if not, maybe the U.S. will once again be the world’s most imitated nation. But not in a good way.
The Guardian on the Catholic Church’s future after Pope Benedict’s death
… As the Catholic Church contemplates its future direction, it would be a mistake to view (Pope Benedict XVI’s) death at the age of 95 as anything other than a significant moment. Though the notion of “two popes” worked better as the title of a film than as a true description of Vatican reality, the politics of Benedict’s retirement have undoubtedly been fraught.
As pope emeritus, Benedict became a rallying point for opposition to attempts by his successor, Pope Francis, to move beyond his traditionalist legacy. Benedict’s failure to properly address the sex abuse scandals overwhelming the church during his pontificate has been well chronicled. But the context of that reluctance to engage was a kind of siege mentality which he embodied – first as Pope John Paul II’s ideological enforcer (earning him the nickname “God’s rottweiler”), and then as pope. Benedict’s defensive response to western secularization viewed battening down the hatches of orthodoxy – and closing ranks within the church hierarchy – as the best antidote to the perceived relativism of the age.
Amid corruption scandals, outrage over clerical sexual abuse, and a gulf between church doctrine and the everyday experience of many ordinary Catholics, this approach served neither the church nor the world well. But it remains entrenched in parts of the Vatican. As Pope Francis – who himself intends to stand down if his health deteriorates significantly – seeks to implement a very different vision, the coming year will be crucial.
In 2021, the pope launched the awkwardly named “synod on synodality” – the biggest consultation of global Catholic opinion ever undertaken by the church. This is Francis’s flagship attempt to return to the open, participative spirit of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which concluded that church stances could and should be open to change in light of “the signs of the times”. In October, the first summary of the synodal process’s findings suggested that congregations around the world long to revive that ethos.
Collated responses from millions of Catholics record a widespread desire for an agenda of “radical inclusion”. This encompasses equality for women within the church, greater focus on the plight of poor and marginalized groups such as migrants, a welcoming approach to LGBTQ Catholics, and an overhaul on church governance in relation to sexual abuse. It is an outline of a progressive Catholicism that can build bridges with secular society, instead of taking pride in keeping a distance in the name of doctrinal purity.
The Catholic church is not a democracy, and the final outcome of the synod is likely to be less radical than many participants would hope. But in an era in which Christian identity – and Benedict’s traditionalism – have been weaponized by the radical right, a reform program with its roots in the laity would have welcome ramifications beyond the pews. Pope Francis’s listening exercise can let the winds of change finally blow through a global institution in need of renewal.
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