Obamacare's Pussy Riot and the perks of power

You aren't a member of Pussy Riot, and President Obama shouldn't treat you like one. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, December 26, 2013 — The last two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot were released from Russian prisons this week after being pardoned by President Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s pardons, which were also extended to former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and thousands of others, are probably intended to deflate human rights criticism of Russia prior to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February. This is also behind the decision not to enforce laws against the promotion of homosexuality until the Olympics are over, at least in the region surrounding Sochi.


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Aside from being an attempt to blunt criticism of Russia’s human rights record, these pardons are a display of power. The message is clear: Putin can put you in prison on almost any charges he pleases, and he can take you out. The Duma can create law, and Putin can suspend it.

Vladimir Putin is restrained by his own interests, not by the law.

Putin has spent almost 15 years as the most powerful man in Russia. In that time he has brought the Russian media under his heel and shown his dominance over the judiciary. As he contemplates the possibility of running for another six-year term in 2018, he does it knowing that one important opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, can’t run, sidelined by an engineered accusation of theft. Putin knows it, and so does every other opposition leader. Navalny should only be grateful that he has not spent ten years in a Siberian prison, unlike Khodorkovsky.

President Obama’s domestic power does not reach the level of Putin’s, nor is he as arbitrary in its use. He has, however, exercised power much as Putin does and has, like Putin, faced very little criticism from a compliant press. Pussy Riot went to prison because of a protest in church that was embarrassing to Putin, and he pardoned them when their imprisonment no longer served his needs.


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In similar fashion, millions of Americans were “condemned” under the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — law, and now they have been pardoned by presidential fiat.

Congress can pass laws, and Obama might even sign them, but in the end, Obama has successfully taken for himself the right to ignore laws he finds inconvenient. To date he has done that with immigration law, federal law on marriage rights, and at least 14 times with his own Affordable Care Act.

The Soviet Union had a lengthy constitution and a well-developed body of law, yet the Soviet state was lawless. Soviet leaders were not bound by legal restrictions and retained the power to act as they pleased. The Soviet government was extralegal, and so illegitimate.

The Obama Administration continues the 20th century tradition of an imperial presidency. The American president has, with the acquiescence of Congress and the judiciary, taken on itself more and more power that should be in the hands of the Congress. Administrative agencies like OSHA, EPA and the IRS create, enforce and punish violations of their own laws. As government has grown, this is efficient, and the burden of work that would land on Congress and the courts without these agencies would be enormous.


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Congress tends to defer to the executive in matters of foreign policy and national security. We rely more and more on agencies in the Executive Branch to perform functions that belong elsewhere, and one result is that presidents now have the de facto power to create and ignore laws — their own or those crafted by Congress — as they see fit. They can openly use the law to reward friends (amnesty for “DREAMers,” for instance), punish enemies (the IRS and Tea Party-affiliated advocacy groups), and create a system of patronage that binds more and more special interest groups to the president.

By postponing in almost random fashion the obligations of different groups to buy health insurance in the Obamacare exchanges, the president has both expressed indifference to the legalities of executive power and demonstrated his power to help and hurt whom he pleases. The people who have been excused from buying insurance for now are in the position of Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky — released at the whim of the president to suit his own agenda, not out of any interest in right and wrong.

And like Pussy Riot, most of those “pardoned” from buying insurance through Obamacare are not strongly appreciative. They recognize the cynicism that has led to their pardons and are aware that those pardons can be reversed at any time. In this there is an important lesson for America.

The illegitimacy of the Soviet state was not a function of external disapproval, or the disapproval of opposition leaders. It was a result of popular cynicism about the lawlessness of their leaders, and cynicism about the law. When the state was no longer able to at least keep its promise of raising standards of living, it was left hollowed out, supported only by brute force.

Americans aren’t as cynical as Russians about the rule of law, but this isn’t 1960, either. Obama could make a legitimate argument that the laws should be changed, and even that the administration isn’t in a position to devote the same resources to enforcing every law, but America has a formal procedure for making changes.

Just as with the initial passage of Obamacare, the administration has been more concerned about results than about how it gets them. Obamacare was passed without a single Republican vote, and aside from attempting to peel away the moderate-liberal senators from Maine, the administration preferred to steamroll the opposition rather than work with it, because it could.

In a healthy political system, means are even more important than ends. Russian leaders have never understood that, and American leaders shouldn’t emulate them. Obamacare may be a bad law, but it is the law, not an imperial fiat. It should be changed or repealed by legal processes, not by fiat. Americans should not be treated like Pussy Riot.


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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