Voting Rights decision another fine mess for Congress

Before we join our fellow progressives in the justifiable assault on the Supreme Court for its colossally f-ed up decision, Tuesday, in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down key elements of the pre-clearance provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, let’s talk about for whom this mess tolls. It tolls for Congress.

Laurel & Hardy

“This is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”
– Oliver Hardy, on countless occasions, to his bumbling best buddy, Stan Laurel

In those old, black and white shorts from the 1930s, the rotund blowhard, Hardy, was always blaming his rail thin, whimpering sidekick, Laurel, for the trouble the pair always got into. The problem for Hardy is that everyone always knew that it was really he who led them into trouble, and not the friend on whom he laid the problem. So it is with the Supreme Court and Congress.

In this little tragic tale of government mismanagement, SCOTUS and Congress are Laurel and Hardy, respectively. While the easy thing to do would lay all the blame on the Supremes for the VRA decision, let’s keep in mind that when a majority Republican Congress reauthorized the act, and a Republican president signed it into law, in 2006, they decided they did not want to do the hard work to reformulate how jurisdictions are included in Section 5 of the Act.

“There is no valid reason to insulate the coverage formula from review merely because it was previously enacted 40 years ago,” wrote the Justices, in the majority opinion. “If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula.”

But the Democrats aren’t blameless, here. They were in the majority, in both Houses, in 2009, when the Court last heard a case on the Voting Rights Act. That Court, in Northwest Austin v. Holder, held off on ruling on the constitutionality of Section 5, and the supporting Section 4, and chose to rule against the plaintiff “on statutory grounds.”

“But,” they said, Tuesday, “in issuing that decision, we expressed our broader concerns about the constitutionality of the Act. Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) [which describes the coverage formula] unconstitutional.”

“I wish Congress would have tried to update their formulas, so the Supreme Court wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on, to strike it down,” said Sheila Brown, a St. Louis resident, who was visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr., historic site in Atlanta, Wednesday, with her family.

Martin Luther King tomb
Tourists visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Social Change, in Atlanta, Georgia (PBG)

Sheila’s husband, Frank Brown, was incredulous about the way the Court seemed to ignore the will of our representatives. “Congress wants it. The people want it. It is extremely bipartisan. I don’t really think they needed to go that far.”

House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA) said, Tuesday, he is “hopeful Congress will put politics aside, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”

Gary, from central Texas, who was also visiting the MLK site, agrees. “Congress needs to sit down, look at the issue, and make sure that everyone has the right to vote,” he said.

“The law was written for a reason,” he noted. “Struggle. Pain. Suffering. It took a lot to get it to where it is. For it to be gone in one fell swoop is unfortunate.”

“What that’s going to do really,” said Mary Williams, as she watched a group of tourists checking out Dr. King’s birth house, “is put limitations on voting.

“It never fails,” she added. “Every year there’s something new that regresses us, not progresses us.”

And that is why we must remain vigilant. We shouldn’t be killing one of the most important pieces of legislation in United States history because it’s not perfect. We have to do what we can to fix it. Now. It affects all of us.

“It’s going to affect me, and our son, and other generations, and what we are able to have in this country,” said New Jersey resident Marlon Mendez, who was pushing a stroller, carrying his his infant son, down the streets Dr. King walked as a child. “They can take anything else away from you, if they can take your right to vote away.”

“It’s got to be fair,” agreed Will, from Dallas, Texas, as he stood in front of the twin tombs of Dr. King and his late wife, Coretta. “No matter what this color is,” he said, pointing to his dark arm, “or this color,” he said, moving his finger to my paler one, “Chinese, Mexican – fairness means everything.”

But this Congress has yet to use something as altruistic as basic fairness as a driving force behind its legislative agenda. After all, what PAC do you call to get money for voting to be fair, or “righteous,” as Ms. Williams called it?

Texas didn’t even wait more than a couple of hours before its Attorney General, Greg Abbott, announced Gov. Rick Perry’s administration would move forward in implementing the Lone Star State’s voter ID law, which has already been called “discriminatory” by the courts. “It’s just a sneaky way of doing things,” Williams said of the voter ID laws, and other threats to minority voting.

Josh Kennedy was more ambivalent, as he posed for pictures by the tombs with his young family, who are from Texas also, by way of South Carolina. “To me, anything that Rick Perry’s in favor of, I think that maybe I should look twice or thrice at,” he admitted, “but in general, I’m in favor of the federal government staying out of it.”

And that is where the difficulty in Congress will come, if the discussion even makes it to the floor of the House. Or, as Politico put it in the lede to its story on the Hill’s reaction to the VRA decision, “Add changing the Voting Rights Act to the list of things Congress probably won’t do in the next year-and-a-half.”

Ms. Brown agrees. “Even if they wanted to, I don’t think they will be able to,” she said.

“Maybe this is the only issue they’ll work together on,” injected husband Frank, with a smile.

“I think the Supreme Court said, ‘Congress, fix it,’ but they know Congress can’t fix it,” Sheila concluded, adding, with a laugh, “I guess anything is possible.”

Anything is possible, but not without a little help from people standing up, like Dr. King did, and like Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and others still do.

“Maybe this is just a wake-up call,” Gary realized, as he sat in the cradle of the American Civil Rights Movement. “We need to come together, regroup, and go back at it again.”

If Congress doesn’t fix its own mess, that’s exactly what needs to happen. Dust off your shoes. It’s 1964 again.


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