Editorial Roundup: United States
May 31, 2023, 4:37 AM
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on the debt limit
Finally, President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have reached a deal to avert an embarrassing — and potentially disastrous — U.S. default. It’s hard to view this as a celebratory moment given how close the nation came to being unable to pay its obligations to investors, the military, hospitals and more. But there’s relief that the worst-case scenario has been avoided and that there is still some possibility for bipartisanship in U.S. politics. That is a low bar, but Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy cleared it.
The agreement “in principle” still has to pass Congress, which is not a given, especially in the House, where far-right members are already bashing it. The June 5 deadline for default leaves little room for antics.
If this passes, the nation won’t face another debt limit crisis until 2025. The basics of the deal appear sensible, and most Americans will probably approve of them.
It imposes spending caps, but they are not onerous, as the cuts in the initial House Republican bill were. After several years of discretionary budget increases, this will force what is essentially a two-year pause at most federal agencies. Unspent coronavirus funds will also be clawed back — a reasonable compromise that this Editorial Board had advocated in recent weeks. The deal avoids the mistake the Obama-Biden White House made in 2011 when it agreed to caps for a decade that slowed the recovery and hampered its ability to do much in its second term.
If any sort of political center still exists in Washington, the tentative deal is about as close as it comes to finding it. Both sides got some of what they wanted: Republicans achieved some cuts, including to Internal Revenue Service funding, and Democrats preserved spending on important domestic programs, from the environment to education, at about current levels. Even on contentious issues such as tying work requirements to government assistance, Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy appear to have taken the least controversial route, which is increasing them for older food stamp recipients with no children.
What should not happen now is for Americans to breathe a sigh of relief and move on. Yes, a last-minute compromise occurred, but a dangerous precedent has been set. House Republicans have now used the debt limit twice to create a hostage-like situation that brings the nation close to an unthinkable default. Expect that a future Republican Congress would be willing to go over the cliff to extract more.
The debt limit itself needs to be scrapped. Enacted in World War I, it was created so Congress would not have to keep approving debt issuances. A century ago, the limit was set high to avoid hitting it. Over time, the debt ceiling took on a different role as a useful check on bipartisan spending largesse. It played a role in the 1990s in pushing lawmakers to reduce the national deficit and enact a balanced budget at the turn of the century. In recent years, as the normal budget process in Congress has broken down, the debt ceiling has functioned as one of the few moments of reckoning on the increasingly alarming fiscal outlook.
But this latest deal has shown that this isn’t a substitute for coming up with an actual, forward-looking fiscal strategy. Republicans employ the debt limit to force cuts to nondefense discretionary spending, which is only about 16% of total government expenditures. But this slice is not a key driver of the nation’s debt problems. The refusal of either party to tackle rapidly rising Social Security, Medicare and health-care costs — along with Republicans’ opposition to any tax increases — means the debt limit isn’t forcing the tough choices that are needed.
Almost no other nation has anything like a debt ceiling because it no longer makes any sense. Congress has already approved the spending that forced the debt to rise; there should be no question, much less the possibility of an economic cataclysm, when the bills come due. Members of both parties have called for an end to the debt limit because it risks too much for the United States — and the entire global financial system, as well as the livelihoods of federal workers, veterans and businesses who need to be paid.
This crisis may pass, but 2025 is coming soon.
The Los Angeles Times on an oil executive hosting the U.N. climate summit
This year’s United Nations climate summit in Dubai marks another opportunity for world leaders to do more to slow global warming, replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and be held accountable for their emissions-cutting pledges.
But how effective can we expect these negotiations to be when they’re presided over by an oil executive?
The president of this fall’s COP 28 summit, being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, will be Sultan Al Jaber, who runs the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Co.
The naming of Al Jaber to this position is so obvious a contradiction that climate activists and politicians have likened it to letting arms dealers lead peace talks or putting a tobacco CEO in charge of health policy. Public pressure for his ouster increased last week when more than 130 U.S. and European lawmakers called for Al Jaber to be removed, writing in a joint letter of their “profound concern” that the U.N. is permitting “private sector polluters to exert undue influence.”
Putting an oil executive in charge is not only a bad look, it stands to undermine important and urgent negotiations and further erode public confidence in summits that have been criticized as little more than high-level venues for greenwashing. And it increases the likelihood that we’ll see another year of frustratingly little progress, where world leaders make only incremental changes while the climate crisis barrels ahead. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a report two months ago that the planet is on track to blow past 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming within a decade unless we immediately switch to renewable energy and slash greenhouse gas pollution in half by 2030.
But at the same time, the decision to pick Al Jaber to lead the summit only clarifies for the public how much power oil and gas interests already wield in this process. The fossil fuel industry is one of the largest delegations at the summits, sending more than 600 of its lobbyists to last year’s COP 27 summit in Egypt, up from about 500 the year before in Scotland.
COP 28 organizers pointed to Al Jaber’s experience as an engineer, a global energy industry leader and his other position as chair of Masdar, another state-owned company that develops solar and wind farms and other renewable energy projects. U.S. climate envoy John Kerry has defended Al Jaber as a “terrific choice” precisely because of his position as the head of an oil company who understands the need to transition to renewables.
Fossil fuel companies, of course, have a huge financial stake in how quickly the world weans itself off their products and a role in that transition. They have a place, but as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told the Washington Post, “just don’t put them at the head of the table.”
Oil and gas interests have spent decades attacking the science and solutions to climate change using disinformation, delay and an arsenal of other tactics to prolong their profits. And they are increasingly pushing a scenario in which they don’t have to stop pumping oil and gas, but will instead sell the world on largely unproven carbon-capture and storage technology and other dubious ways to suck up or offset the greenhouse gas emissions produced.
In that vein, Al Jaber said in a speech earlier this month that countries should be “laser-focused on phasing out fossil fuel emissions, while phasing up viable, affordable, zero-carbon alternatives.” Experts interpreted those remarks, because they address “emissions” rather than production, as a pitch for continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels combined with carbon-capture and storage projects.
Al Jaber’s views won’t do anything to help resolve a sticking point among world leaders, who over the last few years of negotiations have been unable to agree on the need to abandon fossil fuels and replace them with clean renewable energy.
The final agreement world leaders reached at COP 27 last year in Egypt committed only to a “phasedown of unabated coal power” and an increase in “low-emission” energy — code for burning more planet-warming natural gas.
It was the United Arab Emirates’ decision to appoint Al Jaber, and it seems unlikely that one of the world’s largest oil producers will reverse course.
But it‘s a good bet that these talks would be different if they were held in the front-line communities most harmed by the climate crisis, such as low-lying island nations that will be flooded, and arid regions facing desertification and drought. If they hosted the negotiations and their representatives outnumbered oil and gas lobbyists, summit leaders would be talking less about whether fossil fuels need to go and more about how to replace them as quickly and equitably as possible.
The Wall Street Journal on Joe Manchin and the Mountain Valley Pipeline
Progressives have filed lawsuit after lawsuit to block the Mountain Valley Pipeline, as these columns have chronicled. Now they’re irate that they may lose their long fight because the debt-ceiling deal between President Joe Biden and House Republicans essentially guarantees the pipeline’s completion. Political turnabout is fair play.
The 304-mile (489-kilometer) pipeline that aims to deliver natural gas from Appalachia to the Southeast was first proposed in 2014 and has since been stuck in legal and regulatory limbo. While it is 94% complete, greens keep challenging its permits — and the same Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel keeps blocking them on dubious legal grounds and sending environmental reviews back to regulators to be redone.
The debt deal is sweet revenge for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who said he voted for last year’s Inflation Reduction Act in return for a promise by Biden and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to pass permitting reform that would include expedited approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.
He got nothing from his fellow Democrats. But now Republicans have come to his rescue by liberating the pipeline from green purgatory. You’re welcome, Senator.
The debt-ceiling legislation requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue all necessary permits within 21 days and would exempt government approvals from judicial review. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals would have exclusive jurisdiction to hear legal challenges to this section of the bill. This is as close to a rubber stamp from Congress as it gets.
It’s especially nice to hear the administration contradict alarmist claims and concede that the pipeline won’t harm the environment. “This provision doesn’t have much of an effect,” White House ultra-green adviser John Podesta said. Gas delivered by the pipeline would replace coal and free up gas supply in the South to be sent overseas.
That isn’t stopping Democrats from making one last attempt to kill the pipeline in the Senate. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine says he plans to file an amendment to the debt bill stripping the pipeline provision, even though his state would benefit from its completion. Such is the fanaticism of the green left.
Environmentalists are also howling that the legislation may set a precedent for other pipeline approvals. We sure hope so.
The New York Times on the question of who can rein in the Supreme Court?
The justices need, at long last, a clear, comprehensive and transparent code of ethics.
The Supreme Court will soon issue rulings, on affirmative action, student debt relief, and the First Amendment and gay rights, that have the potential to affect the American public for generations. And yet public approval of the court is at a historic low. This was true even before the seemingly endless stream of reports over the past several weeks about the justices’ lax ethics. Since a conservative supermajority took control of the court in 2020, it has blown through the guardrails courts are expected to observe — showing little respect for longstanding precedent, reaching out to decide bigger questions than it was asked to and relying on a secretive “shadow docket” to make hugely consequential rulings with no public explanation.
Even Republicans who are happy with the Supreme Court’s recent rulings are voicing their concerns. “What I would urge the court to do is take this moment to instill more public confidence,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on ethics at the Supreme Court on May 2. “I think we’d all be better off if they did that.”
Mr. Graham is right: The nine justices — unelected and employed for life — are shielded from the usual mechanisms of democratic accountability, and so they depend on a high level of public trust like no other institution of American government. Their failure to take the steps necessary to restore that trust, steps that are entirely within their control, is undermining their legitimacy as one of the country’s most vital institutions.
Instead the justices are behaving as though the same laws they interpret for everyone else don’t apply to them. They’re not entirely wrong. In most other government jobs, people can be fired for disregarding laws or ethical obligations, but the justices can be confident that they will face no consequences. Federal laws that explicitly apply to them — involving, for example, financial disclosures and recusal standards — are not enforced, leaving the justices to self-police, and the highest court is not bound by a code of ethics as the lower federal courts are.
Despite repeated requests, they have refused to adopt such a code, bristling at the suggestion that they do more to take these concerns seriously. Asked to appear at the Judiciary Committee hearing, Chief Justice John Roberts responded with a perfunctory letter that waved off the request with a vague reference to “separation of powers concerns” and “judicial independence.” In a speech to a legal group on May 23, the chief justice acknowledged that ethics was “an issue of concern inside the court,” and said the justices were considering ways to “give practical effect” to a commitment to abide by high standards of conduct.
At a moment of extreme distrust of government and institutions, this dismissiveness is not only disparaging of public opinion — it’s dangerous. The Times’s Adam Liptak wrote last year in a review of recent legal scholarship that the Roberts court “has rapidly been accumulating power at the expense of every other part of the government,” arrogating to itself the authority to make policy decisions on issues, such as climate change, that had long been the province of Congress or executive agencies. A court that thus wields an astonishing degree of power over the daily lives of hundreds of millions of Americans has also walled itself off from outside scrutiny, operating like an ecclesiastical city-state in the heart of the American republic.
The “separation of powers” was never meant to allow each branch the license to act without any involvement by the others. Rather, the American system of government is expressly designed for each branch to check the power of the others. A president can veto a bill passed by Congress. The Supreme Court can strike down an executive order or federal law. And Congress can regulate the size, jurisdiction and other administrative aspects of the Supreme Court, including judicial ethics, as it has going back to the first Judiciary Act in 1789 — a law that was passed, notably, by a Congress that included many of the framers of the Constitution itself.
In recent years, however, Congress has failed to live up to its coequal status in the federal government, avoiding even mild confrontation with the Supreme Court. During the Judiciary Committee hearing, Mr. Graham said he did not want to “micromanage” the court by forcing it to adopt an ethics code. But this hands-off approach has allowed the justices to decide for themselves what rules to follow and whether to explain their reasoning to the public.
There is recent precedent for bipartisan action regulating the court. Last year, Congress passed a law amending its 1978 ethics law to require the reporting, in an online database searchable by the public, of stock transfers over $1,000 by all federal judges, including the justices. Already, justices have filed reports under this law, suggesting that they accept Congress’s authority to legislate in this area.
So the question is not whether Congress has the power to act, but what a meaningful ethics regime should look like. There are several bills, one bipartisan, making their way through Congress. They differ in their particulars, but most share the key principles that need to underlie any legislation.
First, the Supreme Court needs, at long last, a clear, comprehensive and transparent code of ethics. Whether Congress orders the court to draft such a code or imposes one itself, the point is the same: Underneath the mystique of their black robes, the justices are public servants, no less than members of Congress or judges on the lower federal courts, and they should be held to at least the same standards.
This would require frequent and detailed reporting of all travel and accommodations they receive — including donor names, dollar amounts and descriptions of gifts. If a justice sells real estate, as Neil Gorsuch did only days after taking his seat in 2017, he or she should be required to identify the buyer; Gorsuch did not, even though his buyer was the chief executive of a major law firm that has regular business before the court. The object of these disclosures is to give the American public as complete a view as possible into the various potential influences on the court.
There should also be clear and consistent rules about when a justice should be recused from a case. At the very least, the justices should be required to explain their decisions on recusal to their colleagues and to the American people. This would have required Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, to defend his ongoing participation in cases involving the Jan. 6 Capitol attack even after it became public knowledge that his wife, Ginni, had been actively involved in the legal effort to overturn the 2020 election.
Second, the Supreme Court needs its own dedicated ethics officer, to field complaints from the public and advise the justices on their obligations in specific circumstances. This means the justices would no longer be left to rely on the advice of friends and colleagues, as Thomas said he did in choosing not to disclose lavish gifts over the years from his friend Harlan Crow, a Texas billionaire who has been affiliated with at least one company with a case before the court. Ideally, an ethics officer would be akin to an inspector general for the court, empowered to investigate complaints, issue reports and create a body of precedent that justices can rely on.
Last and most difficult is the matter of enforcement. Even well-designed rules will not matter if the justices know that they will face no consequences for ignoring them. In the lower courts, judges who violate ethics rules are sanctioned by panels of appeals-court judges — their peers. That wouldn’t work in the Supreme Court, which sits at the top of the judicial branch.
Enforcement through the other branches faces other hurdles. Congress may impeach a justice, but it has done so only once, in 1804, and the Senate voted to acquit. Today’s partisan polarization makes impeachment and removal a virtual impossibility. Even in the case of clear lawbreaking, it’s hard to imagine the attorney general, regardless of party, prosecuting a sitting Supreme Court justice.
Still, adopting these proposed elements — a code, an ethics officer, a system for investigating and reporting on unethical behavior — would provide a constant reminder to the justices that they work for the American people. That would help foster a culture of accountability and transparency for a small group of powerful officials who have long avoided both. It would also send the message that the justices take their obligations to the American people seriously and would help to reestablish the public trust that they rely on for their authority. For this reason, the justices should not simply tolerate being held to a strong code of ethics. They should welcome it.
The Guardian on Erdogan’s reelection as Turkey’s president
During his victory speeches on Sunday night, Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrated reelection as Turkey’s president with a call for national unity. “We are not the only ones who have won, Turkey has won … our democracy has won,” he told supporters, while at the same time doubling down on the type of inflammatory rhetoric he deployed against LGBTQ+ people throughout his campaign.
As Mr. Erdogan embarks on a record third decade in power with a conservative and nationalist mandate — and with increasingly authoritarian powers to enforce it — millions of other Turkish residents also have good grounds to disbelieve his sunny rhetoric. In an increasingly militarized “anti-terror” environment, political repression and harassment of the country’s sizeable Kurdish population are set to continue. The president’s campaign was loaded with barbs and misinformation about the mainly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party, which backed Mr. Erdogan’s defeated rival, Kemal Kılıçdaroglu.
Women’s rights groups — already battling the consequences of a 2021 decision to withdraw from an international convention to combat gender discrimination and violence — will have noted with dismay the rising Islamist influence in the president’s parliamentary majority. Syrian refugees, shamefully scapegoated in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, will wonder when Mr. Erdogan plans to carry out his promise to deport one million of them to a deeply uncertain future across the border. All will now fear for the future in a country where constitutional changes pushed for by the president have worn away checks and balances, and potentially begun an era of one-man rule.
In a deeply polarized country, Mr. Erdogan calculated that such constituencies and their concerns could be outvoted by an identity-based coalition — one comprising his socially conservative heartland voters, Islamists and more secular nationalist forces. The acuity of that approach was confirmed by a victory achieved despite inflation running at close to 50%, and widespread criticism of the state’s sluggish response to devastating earthquakes in February.
For the opposition parties that united to back Mr. Kilicdaroglu, guarded optimism before the first round has thus turned to crushing disappointment. As the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has noted, Mr. Erdogan won in elections that were free but not fair; the president controls the vast majority of Turkish media, while political opponents have been harried and, in some cases, jailed. But amid encouraging earlier polls, Mr. Erdogan’s critics at home and abroad dared to hope that, having assumed quasi-monarchical powers, he would pay the political price for presiding over the current crises. Instead, the president’s loyalist base judged that he was the strongman required to sort them out.
For the west, the main takeaway from Mr. Erdogan’s victory is that leaders must continue to deal — in the most geopolitically fraught of circumstances — with an unpredictable Nato member that refuses to fully align itself with the west. As the Turkish lira sinks to a new record low following Mr. Erdogan’s reelection, the need to alleviate the deepening economic crisis may create new opportunities for negotiation and rapprochement. Domestically, for those who hoped this election could bring to an end the authoritarian drift of Mr. Erdogan’s second decade, the picture is unremittingly bleak. Pace the president, Turkish democracy was the big loser on Sunday night.