George on Georgia – A chat with U.S. Rep. Hank JohnsonFILE PHOTO: Congressman Hank Johnson speaks at the city of Stone Mountain’s March for Social Justice with the event’s organizer, city of Stone Mountain Mayor Pro Tem Chakira Johnson beside him June 20. Johnson said to the crowd of over 100 people. “We are here to spread love not hate. We are all brothers and sisters today. I have a feeling things are about to change, shift a little. Down from my office was a Confederate monument that had been there 112 years. As of Thursday night, it is gone. The times they are a changin”. Photo by Dean Hesse.
My congressman knows my name. If he wasn’t Hank Johnson, I’d probably be worried about that. There’s a trail of pissed off politicians in this town that’s big enough for the cops to have trouble with a suspect list if my body were found in a ravine off of Flat Shoals. But I like him, and he likes me, which is its own kind of problem.
Johnson and I spoke for a bit Friday. He’s got a gavel now on the Judiciary committee and after 10 years of wandering the wilderness either in the minority party of the House, or without a Democratic majority in the Senate, or wading through the mire of Trump’s presidency, he’s in a place to use it. Johnson is leading an effort to expand the U.S. Supreme Court to 13 members. He also spoke about healthcare and infrastructure policy, the mess in Stonecrest and his own political future.
Our conversation is edited for clarity.
GC: How are things going with this effort to expand the U.S. Supreme Court?
HJ: It’s an idea that’s time has come. And so, you know, it’s still very early in the process, George. And, you know, this legislation will … gather support as we make the case for reform in the justice system.
GC: My understanding is that the speaker is setting this aside for the moment. What does that look like?
HJ: The speaker controls the floor. She controls what gets to the House floor for a vote. As you know, there’s a lot of legislation has been proposed. There’s a lot of legislative work to do. The speaker is in a position to direct the traffic. And I respect that prerogative.
GC: Is this a traffic issue or an ideological issue? Does she think that the votes aren’t there, or that it’s going to be a contentious issue, for an argument to be had later? Is there opposition within the party to this idea?
HJ: There’s a lot of education that needs to be done. That’s why I filed this legislation, so we can begin that conversation. We will continue to build support for a change. And change is needed, George, because the courts are not equipped to handle today’s flow of cases. The Supreme Court has been set at nine since 1869. That’s 152 years ago. It’s gone through seven changes in size since the nation was founded. What’s happened since that time, the nation’s population has increased. The flow of commerce has increased. The amount of criminal activity has increased. The law has become more complex, because session of Congress sees new laws placed on the books that oftentimes have to be enforced in the courts. The court itself has not kept up with that pace of change. Now is the time to correct the imbalance and establish a court that has greater capacity to render justice.
GC: You’re making an argument here on a technical matter: that simply as a matter of getting work done, you need four more justices.
HJ: Yes. I’m making that argument.
GC: Obviously, there’s a fundamental political argument – the court has more conservatives than liberals in a country that arguably isn’t as conservative as this court. Given what’s happened over the last four years with judicial appointments – particularly the Merrick Garland thing – that this is a means of rebalancing the court, politically.
HJ: Well, I think that it’s shameful that Republicans have stacked the courts, including the Supreme Court, but that is not the primary reason I’m moving forward with this legislation. The fact is, the courts of appeals across the nation process 50,000 cases per year. The Supreme Court, in its wise discretion, accepts 100 or less cases a year. That’s like point-zero-two percent of the business of the appellate courts. There’s something wrong with that equation.
GC: So, you think a larger Supreme Court would be able to hear more appeals?
HJ: Yes. And also eliminate the continuation of a second-tier justice system, one for cases decided on what’s called the shadow docket, emergency matters that come before the court where they end up deciding the case but doing so without benefit of briefing or oral argument, or a written decision stating the basis for the decision. We have too many cases that are being decided on the shadow docket. If you increase the number of Supreme Court justices, maybe we could prevent that abuse of judicial power.
GC: So, what happens now? Where’s your bill today?
HJ: The bill sits assigned to the judiciary committee, where I chair the courts and intellectual property subcommittee. It’s assigned to my committee. I am … empowered to hold hearings.
GC: Should we expect to have hearings on this later this year?
HJ: The public should be prepared for a number of hearings on the operation of our federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court.
GC: That’s going to be interesting. While I’ve got you, let’s talk about health care. What should we be looking for now?
HJ: Well, the American Rescue Plan reopened the period to sign up for Insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and it increased the amount of subsidies that people can receive who go on to the exchange to purchase health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, thus making health care more affordable. I forget how many millions of people have insurance as a result of the passage of the American Rescue Plan. Affordable health care for all is the goal that Democrats are pursuing.
GC: The American Rescue Plan is paying my COBRA coverage. It’s been world changing for me.
HJ: Subsidies for COBRA coverage are in there. It’s still making health insurance affordable. Look for Congress to make these kinds of investments permanent.
GC: Like Cobra?
HJ: What’s more likely is that we open up other avenues of coverage availability … Things like reducing Medicare from 65 to, let’s say to 50. There’s legislation and movement to try to make that happen. There’s a whole host of vehicles for legislation to make health care more affordable.
GC: Let me ask a broad question here. It’s been a long time since Democrats have been able to get legislation of any kind through. How are you feeling about that?
HJ: Democrats were in control for my first four years. During that four years, we passed the Affordable Care Act … and the $787 billion stimulus bill. We brought the nation out of the recession, and established the Affordable Care Act during those years. Those were important milestones. We paid the price in 2010 election, but then in 2017 we were voted back in, and now we’re on our second session in Democratic hands, and we’ve already passed into law the American Rescue Plan. We’ve passed a lot of stuff but we have to get it through the Senate.
GC: You’ve worked on a lot of things over the years – demilitarization of police, preventing big companies from gaming government contracts for small businesses, more. There’s a lot of stuff that’s been bottled up over the years.
HJ: It’s a once in a generation moment for the nation to do some big things. The biggest thing we need to do now is infrastructure, both physical and human.
GC: Georgia is at the center of the political universe. Still. Georgia is never again going to have a shot at the kind of federal money like we’re going to get this time around. Is that translating into gains in spending legislation?
HJ: I think it will translate into projects on the ground at some point. For the first time in 10 years or 12 years, Congress is looking to do congressionally-appropriated spending, also known as earmarks. A modest amount of money has been set aside for congressionally-directed spending. That should translate into projects on the ground here in Georgia.
GC: Who is pitching you for stuff to build here?
HJ: We had a process where we reached out to all of the jurisdictions to get all of the projects that are ready for submission. We’re working through that process now. (NOTE: The projects under consideration are posted on Johnson’s congressional website for public review.)
GC: OK. <sigh> Have you been following the Stonecrest stuff?
HJ: Yes. I’m deeply disturbed about what I’ve read.
GC: <prodding him> Is there anything you think needs to be done by the state or federal government at this point, about this?
HJ: This situation will wind its way through the proper authorities. Congress intended for CARES Act to be allocated in the way that it required. That money will have to be accounted for, and taxpayers held harmless from any misspending of that money.
GC: There was a tremendous political problem Congress wrestled with last year, trying to find a balance between strong restrictions and reporting requirements, and the need to get money quickly into the community. Do you believe the CARES Act may have lent itself to potential abuses like this?
HJ: No. I think it’s not in terms of what it was intended for, but who was entrusted with apportioning the funding for the intended purposes. You’re always going to have that … negligence, or malfeasance. Here, look at the Department of Labor of the state of Georgia, which received hundreds of millions of dollars to disburse to unemployed people. To this very day, almost a year after the CARES Act passed, people can’t get money, or information from the Georgia Secretary of Labor. That is something that begs for investigation. Stonecrest: $6 million. Secretary of Labor: hundreds of millions of dollars. I don’t want to compare the two cases in a simplistic way, but we have misappropriation of money in both cases, it appears.
GC: Are you running for re-election?
HJ: Of course.
GC: Everybody and their brother is looking to jump up the chain right now, since Democrats can win statewide right now.
HJ: I’m happy where I am. I hope the citizens see fit to re-elect me to … what will it be, my ninth term?
GC: Unless you shoot somebody, I think you’re going to be re-elected until you don’t want to be anymore. But we’re not done with crazy elections here.
HJ: No. Not yet. Not in Georgia.
– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate. He also writes for The Intercept.
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