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Columns / Gwen's Take

Washington’s 100-Degree Day of Contempt, Constitutionality, and the Rule of Law

photo of Gwen Ifill
June 29, 2012

I can say quite honestly that Thursday was among the most dramatic days I’ve ever seen unfold in Washington.

Understanding that I was too young to witness the Kennedy funeral or the Nixon resignation firsthand, watching the Supreme Court uphold a sweeping health care law hours before the House of Representatives voted to find an attorney general in contempt of Congress -- for the first time ever -- was riveting.

On the steps of the Supreme Court, conservatives swore at Chief Justice John Roberts, who provided the tipping-point vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act, while one young woman, according to Slate’s Dave Weigel, shrieked with happy joy at the decision because, she said, she suffers from lupus.


Hours later, on the floor of the House of Representatives, former Speaker and current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told her colleagues they should be ashamed for moving to condemn Attorney General Eric Holder for withholding documents in the Fast and Furious gun-walking investigation. Republicans, striking back, accused their colleagues of – in effect – conspiring to cover up a murder connected to the investigation.

Down the avenue at the White House, aides said the president learned of the health care news while watching a muted bank of televisions. Two cable networks were reporting that the Court had struck down the health care law’s individual mandate. Within minutes, the inaccuracies were corrected by reporters who took the time to actually read the ruling.

By the time President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney went before the cameras to, respecitively, claim vindication and call for repeal, their responses seemed all arcane ritual.

That ritual also included the days and weeks before both events, as observers felt compelled to predict the outcome.

Much attention was paid to who got what wrong in the first few moments after the health care decision was read from the bench. But we reporters, and the people we cover, got a lot else wrong. Or, as National Journal’s Matt Cooper wrote more succinctly, “The conventional wisdom was shockingly, pathetically wrong.”

Among those things that defied the conventional wisdom:

Wrong: The mandate would be struck down.

Wrong: The House would never censure a sitting attorney general.

Wrong: The Medicaid portion of the health care law would be the part most easily upheld.

Wrong: President Obama cuts loose anyone whose role becomes a distraction.

And Wrong: This election will ultimately be defined by the actions of the Supreme Court. Or Congress.

The truth is, we don’t do absolutes well. Is John Roberts a neutral umpire or a conservative ideologue? Neither, it turns out.

Is the dispute over Fast and Furious a valiant effort to defend the sacrifice of a murdered border agent? Or is it a witch hunt designed to bring an uppity attorney general to his knees? This, too, depends on one’s partisan point of view.

But we can say this much about Thursday, June 28, 2012. On at least one broiling hot day in the nation’s capital, all three branches of government worked overtime on matters of history and consequence.

All that, and there was not one word about the economy.

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