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Inequality in America

By Lady Liberty
web posted May 15, 2006

Americans — and many of those who wish to become Americans — often speak poetically of equality. Everyone, rich or poor, is treated equally under the law, they say. Everyone, male or female, can reach whatever goal they're capable of attaining. Everyone, black or white, is offered equal access to education and the job market. Everyone, religious or otherwise, can worship or not as he believes. And those unhappy with whatever equality they've achieved (or not) are equally entitled to march on Washington to express their opinion.

Obviously, these things are truer in the utopia of our system on paper than they are in the real world. Wealth, fame, or both can result in a topsy turvy verdict in a court of law (we need look no further than O.J. Simpson to get a good look at such a case), but in the main, juries tend to be surprisingly fair. There is still some gender and racial discrimination ongoing in some places (both in the form of racism and affirmative action programs), but improvements in that arena remain ongoing and various mechanisms (whether corporate policy or state statute) are in place to ensure the improvements stick.

Though some Christians and atheists alike aren't happy with their exposure to the others' viewpoint, both are still protected as they express it even as they're prohibited from stopping the each other from doing so. And Americans are so in love with free speech rights (and it's hard to argue against their sentiment) that they're even willing to tolerate bands of illegal aliens who are demanding that Washington give them some of that equality for themselves!

Inequality is, in fact, viewed with such disfavor by most Americans that they'll loudly and vociferously fight against it when they see it happening. They'll form advocacy groups and write letters; they'll conduct boycotts and stage benefits. They'll do whatever it takes to set the system right and to thus ensure their much-vaunted equality is protected via its very exercise. What they won't do, however, is take note of the fact that the greatest inequality of all is apparently being generated right before their eyes by the very men and women charged with protecting it.

I'm talking, of course, about politicians. Ostensibly, we elect our representatives at the various level of government to represent (read "protect") our own interests. Those interests include the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution (which, by the way, our politicians swear to uphold) and the equal ability of each and every one of us to exercise those liberties as we see fit (excepting, of course, those in prison who have sacrificed many of their liberties by virtue of stealing them from others).

It's not necessarily that politicians make bad laws (though they do), or even that they make laws at all (and far too many of them while they're at it). It's that they don't seem to think those laws they make apply to them, or at the very least, that they somehow apply to them differently or to a lesser degree. The current case in point: Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), the son of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA, who has a long history of avoiding having the law applied to him as well, but that's another story).

Patrick KennedyIn the wee hours of May 3, Congressman Kennedy ran into a barrier near the Capitol Building. The police say Rep. Kennedy's car was weaving erratically, that it barely missed a police car, and that it finally stopped after hitting a barrier. The first cops on the scene wrote an incident report that said they'd taken note of the odor of alcohol and the fact that Kennedy clearly wasn't in control of his vehicle and that he wasn't too well in control of his walking, either. Officers said he told them he was in a hurry to get inside the Capitol for a vote (though Congress sometimes keeps odd hours, there was most assuredly no vote at 2:45 on that particular morning).

Despite the evidence at hand, Rep. Kennedy was driven home by some other officers. No sobriety check was conducted, and some reports suggest that the rank-and-file cops were told not to pursue the matter further. For his own part, Kennedy released a statement saying he'd not been drinking (something I suspect his constituents wanted to hear since he only recently completed a stint in rehab geared to curb his drinking). He said that his erratic behavior (not to mention his driving) was instead the result of a sleeping aid and stomach medication.

Congressman Kennedy also said that he hadn't asked for the special treatment he was alleged to have received (a Capitol Police investigation has already found that the supervisors involved in the incident made some errors in judgment). Not long after that, Kennedy's office released another statement in which he claimed to remember nothing from the night before. Well, except that he hadn't asked for special treatment. Mere hours after that, Congressman Kennedy was headed back to rehab, this time (apparently) for drug addiction.

Rehab, for those who need it, isn't a bad thing. And if Kennedy is willing to admit he needs the help and then to seek it, well, I think that's a fine thing too. What I do not think, however, is that merely admitting we have a problem would get any of the rest of us off the hook.

Many years ago, I had a roommate who spent one evening at a local bar. He drove home after having one or two too many drinks, but he drove competently. What he didn't do was have the sense not to litter right in front of a police car just a couple of blocks from our house. The cop followed him and, when he parked his car in our driveway and got out to talk to the nice officer (and probably to apologize for throwing a small piece of trash out the window), he was promptly given a sobriety test (mental note: peanuts do not cover the scent of alcohol on the breath). As a result, Denny spent the night in jail, endured a license suspension, and paid a fortune in fines.

Since that time, you don't even need to litter to be pulled over. In Florida, there's a progam that allows the police to randomly pull cars over just to tell the driver he (or she) is doing a swell job and to reward him (or her) with baseball game tickets or the like (really, the program is set up so that cops can do visual searches and question motorists who've done nothing wrong, but like the Ted Kennedy matter, that's another column yet to be written). In most states, there are "sobriety checkpoints" that frankly amount to warrantless searches of people who've done nothing wrong (which for unfathomable reasons, the Supreme Court has said is okay).

And yet a Congressman from Rhode Island, who nearly hit a squad car, did hit a big and very visible — unmoving, by the way — barrier, thought he was at the Capitol at almost 3:00 a.m. for a vote, couldn't stand upright, and later claimed he remembered nothing of any of it didn't even merit a sobriety check. Given the way that you or I would have been treated under comparable circumstances, I don't think there's any possible argument that might suggest Kennedy's case isn't a clearcut matter of unequal treatment.

As serious as it might be when politicians ask for and get special treatment (or don't ask and get it anyway), it's that much worse when some are deliberately exempted from the law all together, or the law is selectively "reinterpreted" to make it somehow more in line with what another politician wants. That's what some are accusing the President himself — without a vote, without a debate — of having done. The Boston Globe wrote:

"Over the past five years, Bush has stated that he can defy any statute that conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution. In many instances, Bush cited his role as head of the executive branch or as commander in chief to justify the exemption."

In explanation, the report continued:

"Bush made the claims in 'signing statements,' official documents in which a president lays out his interpretation of a bill for the executive branch, creating guidelines to follow when it implements the law."

Please take note of the pronoun used in both of these excerpts. President Bush has chosen not to abide by laws duly passed by Congress if in "his" interpretation, they don't measure up to the Constitution. Further, the bill is then reinterpreted by the President so that it's "his" interpretation that's used in the law's implementation. It's not Congress that decides, nor is it the American people. It's not even the final arbiter of constitutionality, the US Supreme Court. No, according to President George W. Bush, it's "his" opinion, "his" interpretation that defines the law.

In light of this report, it can't possibly come as a real surprise to anybody that some in Congress — you know, the men and women charged with actually hammering out those laws the President has been reinterpreting according to "his" interpretation of constitutionality — are calling for some kind of investigation. The White House has said it will cooperate, but it doubtless also hopes that everyone will remember that other presidents have done the same thing (though admittedly to a far lesser extent).

I don't honestly care if other presidents have done the same thing or not. It strikes me as disingenuous at best to reinterpret the law as the president thinks best at the time, and then to sign, seal, and deliver the modified version to the rest of the country. There are checks and balances built in to the Constitution. If the President believes (yes, in "his" interpretation) a law is unconstitutional, he can — in fact, it's his obligation to — veto it. Congress is then free to try again and do it better (read "constitutionally"). If something still gets by, then the Supreme Court can serve as the final check to ensure constitutionality (the High Court isn't unflawed, either, but it's certainly got a better track record than either the members of Congress or those who've occupied the Oval Office).

What is not okay is to claim exemptions solely because you're one of the people who had a hand in making one law or another in the first place. What is not okay is to go ahead and let laws stand, but to selectively reinterpret them for the convenience of a select few. What is not okay — what is unethical, unconstitutional, and downright un-American — is to deny equal treatment under the law for the many millions of us who are not politicians, and who are apparently somehow "less" equal.

The Capitol Police need to continue their investigation into the treatment received by the Rhode Island Representative, and when it's done and over, they need to make it clear to all of those in Congress — including those whose last name happens to be Kennedy — that everyone will be treated equally whether they have an office next to the Capitol or not. The Senate Judiciary Committee needs to get its own investigation underway, and once it knows the full scope of the President's "interpretations," it needs to get a handle on matters so as to put the "balances" back into the system of "checks and balances."

If, after all of this, there are those who remain in favor of unequal treatment, then consider what would happen to any of the rest of us who so discriminated: We'd be fired. We'd lose business. We'd forfeit contracts. We'd be fined. We might even be jailed. Those are things that politicians are exempt from only because we — their employers and primary contractors — let them be exempt. Maybe it's high time we also stopped the unequal treatment and fired a few of our politicians — and started restoring our Republic while we're at it.

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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