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Parting Gifts That Can’t Be Returned

For the past couple of years, the Supreme Court has ended its term with parting gifts that the Obama administration welcomed. By lunchtime today, however, the president will probably be happy merely to know that the justices have gone away for the summer.

There are good reasons to expect that the Court will strike down or severely restrict laws that require public employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Less certainly, but still more likely than not, the justices may overrule the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that health plans offered by for-profit corporations cover contraceptives, notwithstanding the religious beliefs of the corporations’ owners.

By afternoon I expect to see the White House in high dudgeon over these decisions. President Obama himself might even put in an appearance before the cameras to denounce the Court’s more conservative justices for placing the so-called rights of corporations ahead of the rights of people - reprising a favorite theme that corporations are established and run for the benefit of Martians. As you may have heard, control of the Senate is up for grabs in this year’s midterm elections. Nothing rallies the Democratic base more than the prospect of a Supreme Court whose future appointees would be subject to confirmation by a Republican-held Senate, except perhaps the prospect that such appointments would be made by a GOP president.

But whatever its base-energizing properties, the Court’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn will probably not be good news politically for Democrats. Public employee unions are a large and energetic part of the party’s constituency, and they provide cover for employees such as former IRS executive Lois Lerner, who seems to have run a personal (though not unassisted) campaign to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision by throwing roadblocks in front of conservative not-for-profit groups.

After state legislation made union membership optional for public workers, unionization among Wisconsin’s government employees fell from 50 percent in 2011 to 37 percent in 2012, according to The Wall Street Journal. The nightmare scenario for public sector union leaders nationwide, and their allies in Obama’s party, is that this will happen everywhere if the Supreme Court rules that public workers cannot be forced to support an organization whose principles are at odds with their own.

Such a ruling may not have much electoral impact this year, but it could make a big difference in 2016, when we choose Obama’s successor and the electoral calendar will put more Republican Senate seats than Democratic ones in play.

Compared to the potential consequences of Harris v. Quinn, the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act is small potatoes. Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules today, the core elements of Obamacare will remain in place exactly as Congress enacted them in 2010. Well, all but the three dozen or so provisions that have been administratively repealed, altered, delayed or replaced by the president and his aides. Whether the president actually had the power to rewrite the statute on his own is likely to be subject of a challenge that House Speaker John Boehner and his GOP caucus plan to try to put before the Supreme Court next year.

I’ll bet the president can hardly wait.

All this is enough to make Obama pine for the happy days of June 2012, when the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance mandate (without which nearly everyone agreed the law would disintegrate), or last June, when the Court struck down the part of the Defense of Marriage Act under which the president himself had refused to recognize same-sex marriages until his position on the issue finished evolving in the heat of his re-election campaign.

Those were the sort of going-away presents a president hopes to get, especially with Christmas still six months away. By comparison, today’s parting gifts are likely to have all the appeal of a couple of lumps of high carbon, climate-changing coal. We all know how Obama feels about that.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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