It will probably always be known as “twenty-ten,” the first of the two thousands to be so identified (since the aughts really aren’t so easily simplified). And so, it will be unique in at least that respect, the first year to be “vernacularized” in our new millennium.
But other than that far from momentous note, what else will the history books recall of the year just past? Several events, in particular, caught my attention over the course of the year. Some already have faded from active consciousness; others have remained front-page-worthy; and still others may be resting up for a return to prominence (perhaps in another guise).
Herewith, then, is a review of the things that happened in twenty-ten that may be worth remembering as we move into twenty-eleven.
In January, the Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, rejected much of the campaign finance reform legislation as it applies to corporations. The case known as Citizens United, the corporate plaintiff’s name, now stands for the proposition that corporations (and labor unions and other formal associations) are entitled to full constitutional free speech protection as if they were real persons.
A week later, President Obama condemned the decision in his State of the Union address, prompting Associate Justice Samuel Alito, a member of the majority in the opinion, to mouth an objection (something like “not true”) from his seat in the front row. That Alito (and Chief Justice John Roberts, who later took umbrage at the president’s remarks) would be so offended was a little odd, since Obama’s comments were no less condemnatory than were those of four of Alito’s own colleagues in their dissent from the majority opinion.
As the election year progressed, Citizens United certainly appeared to be opening the coffers of corporations, if the amount of spending on campaigns was any indication. The amount of money spent by outside groups on the off-term elections was unprecedented in American history.
In March, health care reform was finally passed into law, as the Senate and House of Representatives approved and the President signed the massive bill that was quickly condemned as unconstitutional by the opponents of the mandatory portion of the bill.
The claim is that the Constitution does not permit the federal government to require citizens to do something (in this case buy health insurance). The key constitutional provision at issue is the commerce clause, which allows Congress to enact laws that deal with activity that affects interstate commerce.
What the new law provides is access to health care insurance for just about everyone legally residing in the country. It also restricts insurance companies from dropping individuals due to new health issues or from denying coverage on account of pre-existing conditions. It will either save billions or cost billions, depending on which side of the debate you listen to. But, it at least responds to a great need: providing insurance for some 40 million Americans who until now had to rely on emergency rooms or self-brewed remedies for their ailments.
In June, John Paul Stevens, one of the longest serving Supreme Court Justices in history (35 years) finally retired at the age of 90. Stevens, appointed by a Republican president (Gerald Ford), had become the leader of the liberal wing of the Court, often persuading colleagues who otherwise may have gone the other way on many 5-4 votes.
His replacement, Elena Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, and most recently the U.S. Solicitor General in the Obama administration, may also rise to the occasion as a leader of that same liberal bloc. But the changing of the guard, as it were, may play out as far more significant in the years ahead. Time, as they say, will tell.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout and the resulting oil spill consumed much of the news throughout the spring, as the various factions and interested parties ranted and raved and pointed fingers and denied responsibility. In the end, the disaster was apparently less severe (no major damage to coastlines and no immediately obvious catastrophic ecological impact) than originally feared, but the lessons are still being debated.
Was the “accident” the result of too little regulation, ineffective regulatory action, greed on the part of the oil company (British Petroleum) and/or its joint venture partners, and/or was it just a regrettable circumstance that no amount of planning or oversight could have prevented?
The summer and fall saw the ascendency of the Tea Party movement to the point of the election of at least five of its sympathizers to the Senate in November along with a number to the House and to state legislatures across the country. All ran as Republicans, thereby helping the GOP to regain majority status in the House and to make significant inroads in the Senate.
Whether the establishment Republican Party will be entirely happy with the new members of its caucuses as the legislative sessions begin to take shape is another matter entirely. Some Tea Party electeds (Rand Paul, the new Senator from Kentucky, prominent among them) are already threatening to refuse to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling that will soon be reached. Without an increase in that ceiling, the United States would go into default on its foreign debt obligations (which are considerable). Most economists agree the result of such an action would be disastrous for the country’s (and the world’s) economy.
But the year ended appeared to end on a high note of sorts, depending, again, on one’s perspective, with the Bush tax cut extension that President Obama and the Republicans struck in early December. That deal resulted in what is being called a second stimulus package, with tax cuts in the form of the extended Bush marginal rates (for everyone), a payroll deduction of two percentage points for wage earners, renewed unemployment benefits (for a year), and a lighter estate tax than had been anticipated.
And, as a result of the deal, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was finally repealed, New Start (the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia) was ratified, and the health care bill for the 9/11 responders was finally passed.
Now, bring on twenty-eleven.