Yesterday the House of Representatives - demonstrating a reckless disregard for the United States Constitution and the very concept of the rule of law - overwhelmingly voted to ban the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now from receiving federal funding. ACORN, you might recall, is the organization that the right-wing echo chamber turned into an all-purpose bogeyman after some temporary ACORN employees were caught submitting fictitious voter applications in poorly thought out efforts to get paid for doing no actual work. More recently, a couple of ACORN employees were caught on camera apparently advising people on how to get federal stimulus funding for a house of negotiable affection.
There's no doubt that attempting to get federal funding for illegal - or potentially illegal - enterprises is wrong. And while some of the allegations made against ACORN - like the tin-foil-hat-paranoid theory that they were going to break up public teabaggings - were clearly absurd, others are serious enough to raise legitimate concerns about the organization.
But whatever legitimate concerns ACORNS actions raise, the actions of the House are much more frightening.
At the moment, the allegations made against ACORN are just that - allegations. Serious allegations, potentially well-founded allegations, but allegations nonetheless. There has been no investigation of the organization as a whole, nobody has demonstrated any proof that anyone of note in the group had any knowledge of illegal or unethical acts, and there has been no judicial finding of fact of any kind.
In the United States, proof should precede punishment. The House of Representatives, in their infinite wisdom, has chosen to turn that basic principle of justice on its head.
As Congressman Jerry Nadler pointed out, there's a very good chance that the House's action is unconstitutional:
A little while ago, the House passed an amendment to the bill that we were considering that says no contract or federal funds may ever go to ACORN, a named organization, or to any individual or organization affiliated with ACORN. Unfortunately, this was done in the spirit of the moment and nobody had the opportunity to point out that this is a flat violation of the Constitution, constituting a Bill of Attainder. The Constitution says that Congress shall never pass a Bill of Attainder. Bills of Attainder, no matter what their form, apply either to a named individual or to easily ascertainable members of a group, to inflict punishment. That's exactly what this amendment does.
There's probably room for argument (and a lengthy legal battle) as to whether or not barring a specific group from getting funds is a Bill of Attainder in the technical sense - after all, they're not taking away anything that ACORN already has, they're just saying that ACORN can't get anything else from them in the future. But practically speaking, that's exactly what is going on. The House of Representatives has - without any attempt to go through the hassle and inconvenience of gathering evidence, questioning witnesses, or giving the accused a chance to face their accusers and defend themselves - decreed that ACORN is guilty and pronounced a sentence:
"Acorn has violated serious federal laws, and today the House voted to ensure that taxpayer dollars would no longer be used to fund this corrupt organization," said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican.
Although I'm disappointed that Congress so easily abandoned the presumption of innocence, the need to prove allegations, and the right to confront accusers, I'm far from surprised. The "Defund ACORN Act" - which is what the Republicans named the bill - provided the Republicans with the opportunity to demonstrate to their base that they're still have the political mojo to beat the stuffing out of their strawman. The Republicans needed a victory, and this provided an easy one.
It was an easy victory for them because the right wing's efforts to demonize ACORN have made the group an embarrassment to the Democratic leadership, and it's far easier for the cowards who currently run the House to throw ACORN under the bus than it would be to stand up for basic fair play and justice, and actually investigate the charges before deciding what the appropriate response might be.
And if there is one thing that we can expect from Pelosi, and Hoyer, it's that they will almost always choose the easy wrong over the hard right.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi - did not vote.
Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen - Yes
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer - Yes
Majority Whip Jim Clyburn - No
Senior Chief Deputy Majority Whip John Lewis - No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Maxine Waters - No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip John S. Tanner - did not vote
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Ed Pastor -Yes
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Jan Schakowsky - No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Joseph Crowley -No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Diana DeGette -No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip GK Butterfield - No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Debbie Wasserman Schultz - Yes
Democratic Caucus Chairman John B. Larson - Yes
Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra - No
Steering/Policy Committee Co-Chair George Miller - Yes
Steering/Policy Committee Co-Chair Rosa DeLauro - Yes
Organization, Study, and Review Chairman Michael Capuano - No