Matching the inflammatory rhetoric about health care reform's elimination of cost-sharing for women's contraception, conservative media outlets are currently misrepresenting a preliminary court order in a private company's challenge to this policy. Contrary to the right-wing narrative that crudely oversimplifies the complex legal issues at stake and ignores the need to balance the constitutional rights of employers with those of their female employees, the questions in the case are neither easy nor clear.
When the popular requirement went into effect that most insurance plans -- including employee plans sold to employers -- could no longer charge women co-pays or deductibles for prevention or wellness care, conservative media figures declared a national disaster. On August 1, the Editors of the National Review Online intoned that "[t]his day...is a dark one for religious freedom in the United States." Sean Hannity mirrored this solemnity on Fox News and announced "today is the day that religious freedom in America, in many ways died" (Fox Hannity Show, 8/1/12, via Nexis).
This reaction was unfortunately unsurprising. Despite the fact that many religious believers and institutions and most voters support insurance coverage of contraceptives, birth control has conflicted with the religious concerns of some since the 1960s. Recognizing this, the law provides an exemption from the contraceptive coverage requirement to "a nonprofit church or close church affiliate if it primarily employs and serves persons who share its religious tenets, and the purpose of the institution is the inculcation of religious values." [National Health Law Program, 8/12]
The exemption is similar to those used on the state level, and twenty-eight states currently have contraceptive insurance equity acts. The administration may also accommodate non-exempted non-profit organizations by allowing them to opt-out of the provision of insurance coverage for contraception, but instruct insurance companies to meet the preventive and wellness requirements directly. Nevertheless, claiming that these exemptions and accommodations do not go far enough, a for-profit, secular, Colorado-based company filed a lawsuit alleging it too should be treated like a church and be exempted from offering female employees plans with contraception coverage.
The case is one of first impression. As such, the judge issued a preliminary injunction, temporarily halting this company's compliance with the law until the court could consider the merits of the case. The Heritage Institute's Foundry said the company "demonstrated the strength of the religious liberty challenge to Obamacare." Ed Whelan of the National Review Online said "it's clear that the HHS mandate tramples [religious] protections[.]"
It's not that simple.
In a July 30 editorial opposing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the Wall Street Journal opined that planning for the new health insurance marketplaces called Exchanges belongs on a "fiasco list." However, the editorial misrepresented the pace of exchange planning, downplayed the catalyst of Republican "civil disobedience" in implementation slow-downs, and obscured the role that right-wing media and advocates have in this intransigence.
States That Have Attempted Exchange Implementation Are Actually "Well Underway"
Many of the nation's leading health policy organizations are closely monitoring implementation of health care reform and exchange progress is one of their metrics. The National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) is one such example, and the WSJ editorial cited them for the proposition that "by and large the states aren't" building exchanges. However, the editorial did not mention NASHP's most recent report on exchange implementation that instead notes in the opening paragraph that "many states are well underway in planning for and establishing their exchanges." Rather, without indicating the source, the WSJ used NASHP's "State Refor(u)m" project that is a user-generated "online network." That is, the metrics that the WSJ cited for the alleged "fiasco" of exchange implementation is a measurement of documents voluntarily uploaded to a wiki. State Refor(u)m does not claim to be a comprehensive progress measurement, but rather a clearinghouse reliant on user submissions.
Thus, the editorial's listing of "liberal leader" states who score low on this "milestone" measure of State Refor(u)m does not support its thesis. These "milestones" are not an accurate barometer of the difficulties in exchange planning - or even of completion of these actual metrics - but rather of the success of this network at attracting policy documents. Indeed, several of the states that the WSJ specifically lists as laggards - Massachusetts, California, Oregon, West Virginia, Colorado, Washington, Vermont, New York - actually have fully established exchanges, the first two of which were established by Governors Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger, respectively.
On July 29 The Heritage Foundation published a post on its blog, The Foundry, that called for the filibuster of Oklahoma Judge Robert Bacharach's bipartisan-supported nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. However, as the post noted, the unwritten Senate procedure that is the "Thurmond Rule" typically blocks a sitting president's judicial nominations at some point prior to a presidential election only if they are "cronies and ideologues." As a consensus pick, Judge Bacharach is clearly neither.
The Thurmond Rule is named after the late segregationist Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-SC) and generally refers to the long-standing practice of the opposition party in the Senate blocking most judicial nominees after a certain date in the run-up to a presidential election. A successful filibuster tonight of Judge Bacharach's consensus bipartisan-supported nomination could well be an unprecedented and extreme extension of the practice at a time when judicial vacancies have become a crisis.
This so-called rule is nothing more than an unwritten and unrequired historical practice that has been used by both parties. But CQ Today reported on July 27 (via Nexis), "[n]o appeals court nominee who received bipartisan support in committee has ever been successfully filibustered on the floor." This inapplicability of the Thurmond Rule to consensus nominees has support in an analysis of the rule's application in a much-cited 2008 Congressional Research Service report that noted:
[T]he Senate is more likely to move forward late in presidential election years with what they view as "consensus" nominees. Some Senators have suggested that a nominee could be considered as a consensus choice if he or she has the support of both home state Senators.
While there may be disagreement as to which nominees are "consensus" nominees, the support of both home-state Senators (particularly if the Senators are of the opposition party) is an important indicator of the President's willingness to work with individual Senators when making nominations. [Congressional Research Service, 8/13/12]
Because the Foundry post appeared to recognize this point by stating the Thurmond Rule applies to "cronies and ideologues," it is peculiar that the post simultaneously called for Senate Republicans not to "hold their manhood cheap" and instead filibuster Judge Bacharach. The judge was not only rated to be unanimously "well-qualified" by the American Bar Association due to his "stellar professional qualifications," but also has the support of both of his conservative home-state Senators, Republicans James Inhofe and Tom Coburn. Considering Republican Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe have already committed to voting to end the filibuster and his nomination "sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee last month," criticism of the judge as a crony or an ideologue is unfounded. Senator Coburn has already gone on the record with his home-state paper as claiming application of the Thurmond Rule to Judge Bacharach would be "stupid" and:
"I believe that Judge Bacharach will uphold the highest standards and reflect the best in our American judicial tradition by coming to the bench as a well-regarded member of the community," Coburn said. "At a time when our country seems as divided as ever, it is important that citizens respect members of the judiciary and are confident they will faithfully and impartially apply the law." [NewsOK, 6/8/12]
On July 27, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by former Reagan and George H.W. Bush officials, David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, which accused President Obama of a "pattern of lawlessness" behind the administration's recent actions on welfare reform, immigration, and education policy, "designed to appeal to the president's liberal base." The op-ed did not note that these actions -- described by the authors as "tak[ing] a hatchet" to the relevant laws -- were authorized by Congress or consistent with long-standing bipartisan practice and precedent.
Welfare Reform Waivers Were Requested To Improve Work Requirements
Rivkin and Casey accused the administration of "unilaterally gutt[ing]" welfare reform, repeating a right-wing media refrain begun immediately after the administration announced it would allow state flexibility for work requirement documentation processes under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Not only is the administration not "waiv[ing] the central tenet of the Clinton welfare-reform law -- the requirements that recipients work or prepare (through approved education or training) to do so," as charged in the op-ed, the administration has explicitly pointed out that waivers will only be granted to proposals that "move at least 20% more people from welfare to work."
Furthermore, although the WSJ op-ed blamed "progressives" for not accepting the principle of work requirements, it did not mention that the immediate waivers requested were put forth by the current Republican governors of Utah and Nevada. The op-ed also failed to inform that the waivers currently under contemplation in response to Republican requests are reported to be less significant than those requested by notable Republican figures in 2005, including Governor Rick Perry, Governor Tim Pawlenty, Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Haley Barbour, and critics of the current waiver proposal Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.
Right-wing media have marked the 40th Anniversary of Title IX by attacking equal opportunity efforts for women in the "STEM" fields of science, technology, engineering, or math. The historic civil rights law prohibits discrimination in federally-funded education programs or activities on the basis of sex.
Conservative media has not only argued that such affirmative action is unconstitutional, but has gone farther and argued that the law does not apply beyond scholastic sports and requires quotas. They also insist that women simply do not want to study or work in science-or math-related fields. The first three claims are demonstrably incorrect; the fourth assertion contradicts numerous studies and cannot satisfactorily explain the disproportionate under-representation of women in these educational fields.
On the July 25 edition of Fox & Friends, Gretchen Carlson hosted a segment that touched on all of these discredited arguments in an interview with Hans Bader, Counsel for Special Projects for the right-wing Competitive Enterprise Institute. Bader concluded the interview by asserting that women are heavily underrepresented in the STEM fields because they naturally choose "organic subjects like people, plants, animals, biology, psychology." Carlson then ended the interview, noting that there "could be" a counter argument to this last claim.
Bader's Fox and Friends appearance is only the most recent example of conservative attacks on the Obama Administration's efforts to utilize Title IX for the promotion of equal opportunity in science and math education.
For example, Sabrina Schaeffer and Carrie Lukas of the conservative Independent Women's Forum did the same on June 18 and June 22 in the Huffington Post and U.S. News, respectively, Fox News Political Analyst Kirsten Powers took aim at sex-based affirmative action on July 17 in USA Today, and New York Post columnist Kyle Smith used the front page to launch a July 14 op-ed that was particularly reliant on sex stereotypes.
These conservative commentators repeated Bader's false claims: that Title IX's scope is limited to athletics, the Obama administration is proposing quotas, equal opportunity efforts disregard women's aversion to science and math, and affirmative action on the basis of sex is unconstitutional.
All of these conservative critiques are incorrect or unsubstantiated.
Last week, two new reports -- released by the Brennan Center of Justice at the NYU School of Law and the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication, respectively -- further undermined the conservative media's discredited claims that voter ID laws do not have a discriminatory impact on persons of color and are not intended to be discriminatory on the basis of race. These reports are timely because as restrictive voting rules in conservative-leaning states increasingly materialize, civil rights advocates are noting that these state laws look very much like poll taxes- voter suppression tactics long prohibited. In response, the right-wing media has recycled multiple messages to disavow the impermissible racial discrimination of these laws.
Right-wing media try many different smokescreens in addition to just denying the racial effect of voter ID laws and redistricting altogether. For example, they have disputed the veracity of data to the contrary, argued that these tactics are not in fact barriers, and raised the specter of voter fraud, which experts have demonstrated is practically non-existent. However, it is still the first defense -- that these efforts have no racial effect -- which feeds most effectively into the right wing's preferred "colorblind" narrative.
This right-wing media denial of the racial effect usually has two components in an attempt to whitewash voter suppression, claiming that whatever effect these laws have on communities of color is wholly incidental. That is, there may be a discriminatory impact, but there is no discriminatory intent. Although the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal may have been the most recent mainstream purveyor of this message -- condemning any criticism of the recent wave of conservative-backed voter ID laws as "racial politics" -- they are far from alone in the right-wing media.
Opponents of health care reform have opened up a new front in their relentless campaign, receiving extensive media attention for their claim that only state-created exchanges can legally offer tax credits for health insurance. This contested reading of the health care reform law would leave consumers in states with federal exchanges -- the default marketplace for states that decline to set up their own exchanges -- without access to affordable health insurance.
Exchanges have become the latest bogeyman in the right-wing media, but a just-released report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains why a legal challenge to them is unsupported by both the clear language of the Affordable Care Act and relevant case law.
As described in a June 25 USA Today op-ed, opponents of exchanges are claiming that their reading of the health care reform law reveals that "[c]redits are [legally] available only in states that create an exchange themselves. The federal government might create exchanges in states that decline, but it cannot offer credits through its own exchanges." Right-wing activist groups have jumped on this argument and are already clamoring for lawsuits to be filed over the administration's interpretation of the law to the contrary. A July 9 article in Congressional Quarterly Today (subscription required) reported the director of policy at the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity as adamant that litigation would "absolutely" ensue.
The idea of suing to block exchange implementation and hamstring affordability programs designed to help low- and moderate-income persons afford coverage in the private insurance market appears to have originated with two frequent National Review Online contributors, Jonathan Adler, Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University, and Michael Cannon, Director of Health Policy at the Cato Institute. Long-time opponents of the Affordable Care Act and authors of the USA Today op-ed, the two first presented this questionable theory to the mainstream press through a November 16, 2011, op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Cannon, in particular, seems to have made exchanges his personal target, barnstorming the country along with other Koch-backed organizations.
Experts on health care law and policy are highly critical of the proposed anti-exchange lawsuits. However, although the challenge might be a long shot due to its debatable reading of the statute and disregard of congressional intent, even far-fetched legal challenges have legs in today's increasingly conservative courts. Remember broccoli? Amplified by the increasing synergy between right-wing academics and media, the "broccoli" and "inactivity/activity" argument in the health care reform cases rocketed from the fringe to the mouths and pens of Supreme Court Justices.
Judith Solomon, vice president for health policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote the report yesterday that rebuts Adler and Cannon's claims:
Opponents of health reform apparently intend to file a legal challenge to the law on behalf of one or more employers who are penalized for not providing coverage in a state with a federal exchange, based on the claim that the federal exchange was not authorized to provide the subsidies. A court considering such a claim would almost certainly defer to the Treasury Department interpretation that subsidies are fully available through federally operated exchanges.
In providing for a federal exchange, Congress clearly intended that it substitute for a state exchange. One of the primary functions of an exchange is to determine eligibility for, and the amount of, advance premium tax credits so that people can afford to buy coverage. The language of section 1321 of the ACA establishing the federal exchange is clear on that point, as is the reference in section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code to credits being provided through a federally operated exchange. But even if the statute were ambiguous, a court examining whether the Treasury regulations are valid would certainly defer to the agency's interpretation of the statute because it is both permissible and reasonable. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 7/16/12]
After Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion upholding health care reform, the right-wing media have attacked his conservative credentials. Despite experts' statements that the opinion might have cleared the way for more rulings restricting federal power and progressive legislation, media conservatives are using this as a pretext to demand even more conservative judicial nominees. There is evidence their pressure is having an effect.
In today's Washington Post, Michael Gerson became the latest right-wing media figure to join the hysteria surrounding last week's health care reform decision, impugning Chief Justice Roberts' conservatism by accusing him of "deferring whenever possible" to Congress and the Executive. Perhaps he should look closely at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's recent successes before the Supreme Court. If the Chamber's record is any indication, Gerson's charge is quite off.
A new analysis from the Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) points out that the Chamber has a historic win average in the Roberts Court as it continues to push back on government regulation in fields such as labor, environmental, civil rights, and consumer protection policy. And the Roberts Court isn't only siding with big business' attacks on public interest law for the easy questions. In ideologically divided cases, the current right wing of the Court is in near lockstep with the Chamber, with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito taking the pro-business side the most (84% and 92%, respectively). That's a peculiar form of institutional deference.
This escalating trend was just capped with a stellar 7-0 finish in the most recent term, bringing the Chamber's success percentage in the Roberts Court to an unprecedented 68%, as calculated by CAC. And when it comes to challenging the Obama Administration's defense of duly enacted legislation, the Chamber has shredded the U.S. Government's traditional advantage by notching five of those wins over the Solicitor General, who in normal times is considered the "Tenth Justice." That title for the SG might no longer be apt.
In a 2009 article, Robin S. Conrad, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's high-powered litigation shop, offered her contrarian perspective on what was apparent only three years into John Roberts' tenure. Claiming that her employer, the National Chamber Litigation Center, "clearly lost five out of seven" of its labor cases and went on to lose "nearly half the cases that it participated in during the 2007 Term," Conrad bemoaned the "myth of a pro-business bias" that stuck to the Roberts Court even before Citizens United unleashed a flood of corporate money into the country's elections. The Chamber's top lawyer did allow, however, that "time will offer more opportunities to understand the Roberts Court's take on business issues." It turns out she was right: time did tell about the Roberts Court's pro-business tilt.