The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal probe uncovers a racist joke about Obama in official Ferguson email

As Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. prepares to defend Obamacare before the Supreme Court Wednesday, his colleagues at the Justice Department are getting ready to announce the conclusions of their probe of Ferguson, Mo., police. Their findings aren't news to residents of Ferguson and St. Louis County: officers routinely and disproportionately stop black drivers and make arrests without probable cause, as Sari Horwitz reports in The Washington Post.

"The Justice Department also plans to release evidence this week of racial bias found in e-mails written by Ferguson police and municipal court officials," she writes. "A November 2008 e-mail, for instance, stated that President Obama could not be president for very long because 'what black man holds a steady job for four years.' "

The department uncovered many other examples of racism, but the institutions that have come to define Ferguson and St. Louis County in the national consciousness are not the result of any one person's racist beliefs. As reported previously on Wonkblog, a system of government has formed over decades there that depends on police harassment to fund itself through fines and tickets. Ferguson collects $2 million in fees annually, which works out to the staggering average of around $100 per person.

"What we’re seeing here is small towns using their police and courts to generate revenue through fines and fees. This leads to overpolicing by officers whose jobs are either implicitly or explicitly tied to the number of tickets they write," said Thomas B. Harvey, a public-defense attorney, in a statement.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. detailed the findings of a civil rights investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., police department, saying there is an "implicit and explicit racial bias" that accounts for the hostile relations between law enforcement and residents. (Video: AP)

Welcome to Wonkbook. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. Follow Wonkblog on Twitter and Facebook.

What's in Wonkbook: 1) King v. Burwell 2) Opinions, including Waldman and Galston on Netanyahu's speech 3) DHS funding passes House, and more

Chart of the day: Earnings U.S. multinational corporations have stockpiled overseas now total $2.1 trillion, concentrated in the technology sector. Richard Rubin for Bloomberg.

1. Top story: Justices will hear Obamacare challenge

Wednesday's case focuses on an obscure phrase dealing with taxes and health insurance. "The Supreme Court on Wednesday considers the most serious challenge to the Affordable Care Act since the justices upheld it as constitutional almost three years ago. At issue is whether millions of Americans who receive tax subsidies to buy health insurance are doing so illegally. If the justices rule that the payments are not allowed, the entire health-care law could be in jeopardy." Robert Barnes in The Washington Post.

If you haven't been following this case closely, here's what you need to know to make sense of the arguments. And here's a one-minute summary. Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

Lawmakers on the Hill are doing everything they can to lobby the justices. "For Republicans, that means assuring the Supreme Court that if it rules against the administration, Congress will step in and help, at least temporarily, the 7.5 million people in 34 states who stand to lose healthcare benefits. Democrats are teeing up the opposite message as they help the White House defend Obamacare... 'We will continue to remind the Supreme Court there are no contingency plans and millions of people are going to suffer immensely if this decision favors the plaintiffs,' said a senior Senate Democratic aide." Richard Cowan for Reuters.

Once again, the decision is likely up to Chief Justice John Roberts. "Both sides will be trying to sway his vote on the assumption the court is otherwise split 4-4 along ideological lines, as it was three years ago when it heard an earlier challenge to the law. At the time, Chief Justice Roberts cast the deciding vote to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance mandate requiring people to carry insurance or pay a penalty—a decision that allowed the 2010 law to take root nationwide and angered fellow conservatives." Jess Bravin in The Wall Street Journal.

KEIM: The plaintiffs simply want lawmaking authority restricted to Congress. "King centers on the IRS’s decision to issue a regulation rewriting a key statutory provision that limits Obamacare’s subsidies to individual plans purchased on an insurance exchange 'established by the State.' Although King doesn’t present a constitutional issue in the conventional sense, you don’t have to scratch hard to find one underneath. Because the Constitution allocates legislative power to Congress alone, the Obama administration’s attempt to turn statutory interpretation into legislation by other means strikes at the heart of the Constitution’s separation of powers." National Review.

KLIFF: The case came together by chance, but it's likely to succeed. "It is the result of the key players working loosely, overcoming lawsuit fatigue in conservative circles, pushing an argument that seems more technical than substantive, and even a bit of luck. ... It took at least four justices to agree to hear the case. It only takes one more to create a majority against the health-care law. The idea of five justices finding the challengers' arguments compelling is well within the realm of reality for most observers." Vox.

If you're looking for more on the case, Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has links to further analysis and commentary.

COHN: If the challengers win, it will be a partisan victory. "The plaintiffs are asking the court to read the Affordable Care Act in a blinkered, pinched way that defies not just legal conventions but also common sense. And they are justifying this request based on a theory of legislative history that is, at best, selective, and at worst, deliberately misleading. This doesn’t mean the case can’t win at the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs already persuaded three federal judges, one at the district level and two at the appellate level. All were Republican appointees, just like five of the justices who will sit in judgment of the case on Wednesday." The Huffington Post.

BEUTLER: Republicans still don't have a plan to replace Obamacare. "In synchronous op-eds that ironically reveal points of conflict as well as consensus, leading Senate and House Republicans claimed they’d step in to contain the damage if the Court rules for the plaintiffs. These editorials hint at a desire to let states waive out of the ACA into a much less regulated system. But both are silent on every crucial detail, and on the basic political fact that no such plan is likely to pass either chamber, nor win Obama’s approval. As if to underscore the pointlessness of the exercise, the House chairmen accented their column with six words that spell doom for any substantial undertaking: 'Republicans have formed a working group.' " The New Republic.

2. Top opinions

WALDMAN: Saying that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech was "absurd" would be too kind. "'No deal is better than a bad deal,' he said. 'Well, this is a bad deal. It’s a very bad deal. We’re better off without it.' So where would that leave things? ... You don’t have to be some kind of foreign policy whiz to grasp that there’s something weird about arguing that 1) Iran is a nation run by genocidal maniacs; 2) they want nuclear weapons so they can annihilate Israel; and 3) the best way to stop this is to abandon negotiations to limit their nuclear program and just wait to see what they do. But that’s the position Netanyahu and his supporters in the Republican Party are now committed to." The Washington Post.

Primary source: Netanyahu's address to Congress Tuesday.

GALSTON: Netanyahu seems to want regime change in Iran, though he won't say it. "If Ayatollah Khamenei is a Hitler (Mr. Netanyahu made the analogy), we cannot do business with him, and we shouldn’t try. If Iran is really determined, as Mr. Netanyahu insists, 'to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world,' then why should we believe that any diplomatic outcome will make Tehran more tractable? Negotiations with the Nazis in the 1930s just whetted their appetite. The point isn’t a better or worse deal, it’s regime change. If the prime minister had followed his own logic, that is where he would have ended up—urging regime change in Tehran. But he couldn’t, because he knows that the American people are still reeling from their government’s ill-starred effort to effect regime change in Iraq." The Wall Street Journal.

EDSALL: Larry Summers is gaining influence, and forcing Democrats to make hard decisions. "Summers’s ascendance is a reflection of the abandonment by much of the party establishment of neo-liberal thinking, premised on the belief that unregulated markets and global trade would produce growth beneficial to worker and C.E.O. alike. Summers’s analysis of current economic conditions suggests that free market capitalism, as now structured, is producing major distortions. ... Many of the policies outlined by Summers — especially on trade, taxation, financial regulation and worker empowerment — are the very policies that divide the Wall-Street-corporate wing from the working-to-middle-class wing of the Democratic Party." The New York Times.

SCHER: What if Clinton doesn't run? "Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency has been viewed as pretty much a sure thing. But lately the road to near-certain nomination has taken a couple of rough turns, especially with the revelation that Clinton may have broken federal rules as secretary of state by communicating only on her private email account. ... Democrats would face a debacle after a Hillary bow-out, no matter whom the Republicans nominate. With only a single unifying figure, without a united philosophy, strategy and agenda, it’s very difficult to govern, much less get elected." Politico.

3. In case you missed it 

The Department of Homeland Security will be funded. "House Speaker John A. Boehner surrendered Tuesday to Democratic demands to fully fund the Department of Homeland Security, ending a tense three-month showdown over immigration. But the move could further strain relations between the speaker and hard-line conservatives, whose growing dissent threatens the future of the unified Republican majority. ... The past week’s convulsions also call into question the GOP leadership’s ability to deal with other important deadlines ahead. The deadline to fix a Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors comes at the end of this month, and funding for federal highway programs expires in May. On top of that, House and Senate Republicans must agree on a budget resolution this spring or the threat of a broader federal government shutdown will increase in the fall." Sean Sullivan in The Washington Post.

Decades ago, Washington accidentally created a security flaw that has compromised the computers of visitors to government Web sites. "Technology companies are scrambling to fix a major security flaw that for more than a decade left users of Apple and Google devices vulnerable to hacking when they visited millions of supposedly secure Web sites, including, and The flaw resulted from a former U.S. government policy that forbade the export of strong encryption and required that weaker 'export-grade' products be shipped to customers in other countries, say the researchers who discovered the problem. These restrictions were lifted in the late 1990s, but the weaker encryption got baked into widely used software that proliferated around the world and back into the United States, apparently unnoticed until this year." Craig Timberg in The Washington Post.

There's little agreement among the systems used to rate hospitals. "Consumers who take the time to research where hospitals rank among their competitors may get wildly different impressions depending on where they're getting their information from, according to a new study." Jason Millman in The Washington Post.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's plan to reform Newark's schools has gone awry. "Five years after Christie launched what could have been a career-defining policy initiative for an aspiring future president, city leaders are in revolt. ... The plan, which fully took effect during this academic year, essentially blew up the old system. It eliminated neighborhood schools in favor of a citywide lottery designed to give parents more choices. It prompted mass firings of principals and teachers, and it led to numerous school closures and a sharp rise in the city’s reliance on charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. Many families saw their children spread among multiple schools or sent across town. The scattering has been problematic for a city divided along gang lines, where four in 10 residents don’t own cars." Lyndsey Layton in The Washington Post.