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New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post associate editor Jonathan Capehart join Geoff Bennett to discuss the week in politics, including Senate Democrats exploring their own ethical code for justices following a series of controversies involving Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the latest on the debt ceiling debate.
After the series of controversies involving Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Senate Democrats are exploring the possibility of introducing their own ethical code for justices.
To discuss the court and other major news of the week, we turn now to the analysis of Brooks and Capehart. That's New York Times columnist David Brooks, and Jonathan Capehart, associate editor for The Washington Post.
It's always great to see you both.
So, let's start with the new reporting this week that billionaire Republican donor Harlan Crow paid the monthly private boarding school tuition for the grandnephew of Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Thomas was raising as his son.
This is yet another gift the justice did not disclose. There's The Post reporting that Leonard Leo, a well-known conservative activist, proactively obscured a $25,000 payment to Clarence Thomas' wife, Ginni Thomas, raising again this issue of Supreme Court ethics reform.
Jonathan, Democrats say that the Supreme Court should write a code for itself, and, in the absence of that, Congress should step in. How do you see it?
I don't see anything wrong with that.
Congress has ethics laws and rules and regulations it has to abide by, and yet the Supreme Court doesn't? And I think it was a missed opportunity by the chief justice to not accept Senator Durbin's invitation to meet with the committee, to talk with the committee, so that at least, through the committee, the American people can understand where the justices are coming from in terms of their resistance to any kind of accountability.
But, as we see story after story — I mean, you just cataloged what we know right now. Who knows what ProPublica is going to come out with next week? That it seems like there's a branch of government that is unaccountable to the American people, to anyone, and is actively resisting it.
And I think that, the longer they do that, I think the more popular sentiment will be, you know what, actually, Congress do something about this.
David, one thing we heard from Democrats this week is that the highest court in the land should not have the lowest ethical standards. Is that a convincing argument?
Yes, first, I should say I have been friends with Harlan Crow for about 20 years. I find him a wonderful man. He's hosted me at his home in Dallas and in New York. So, reader — viewers should know that that's my connection to Harlan.
And so that's disclosure. And that's what I wish Clarence Thomas had done in this case.
I think viewers are smart enough to know. I'm probably biased in Harlan. I really like Harlan. I think he's a wonderful guy. He's pro-choice. He could have influenced Clarence Thomas. And so Clarence Thomas should say: I trust the citizens of this country, and so I'm going to disclose my connection, and that — that's that.
As for going forward, I confess I'm a little concerned about Congress doing it, A, because they're pretty polarized. B, I'm not crazy about their own ethical standards. I mean, they go dialing for dollars, and they do a lot of nasty fund-raising. It's more polarized.
But I do think the court really should take advantage of this moment and say, OK, we're — there's a problem here, and we're going to put some disclosure in. We're going to make it clear that things like a gift from Leonard Leo, who, unlike Harlan, actually does have business before the court, that we're not going to allow that.
And so it's an opportunity just to be clear, to make stricter rules and make the court a more trusted institution.
Jonathan, the Senate hearing you mentioned this past week, it made clear that a code of conduct, if Congress does act, it won't be a bipartisan congressional effort, because Republicans accuse Democrats of casting doubt on the court because the court hasn't been ruling in Democrats' favor.
How might this play out?
I'm sorry. I was — my reaction to that, that's pretty incredible.
Congress is not having this conversation because of the Dobbs ruling, not having this conversation because of, say, Shelby v. Holder or Citizens United. Congress is having this conversation because there is a Supreme Court justice who has undisclosed relationships and gifts, for lack of a better description, from someone who he's friends with.
That is why we're having this conversation. This is not about — about partisanship. This is about having one of the branches of government be transparent. And they're actively resisting being transparent.
David, the Supreme Court's power, as written in The Federalist Papers, derives from the public's belief that the court is administering the law in an impartial manner.
There's a recent NPR/"PBS NewsHour"/Marist poll that found that 62 percent of those polled have little to no confidence in the Supreme Court. The findings typically align with political party, but this is an historic lack of trust.
How does the court repair its reputation?
Well, I think they need to be proactive on this.
I do think it's — in my opinion, having watched the court, not as a professor — I don't really — professional — I don't really cover the court too much. But, in my view, they don't do quid pro quo. In my view, most of the — I haven't met Clarence Thomas and many of the justices, but I have met a bunch. I find them remarkable people, both the ones appointed by Democrats and Republicans.
And so I don't think their decisions are influenced by money and corruption. I think they're sometimes overly influenced by partisanship. And I find it disturbing that you can predict how a justice is going to vote depending on who nominated them.
And so I think they have gotten too ideological. But I think the problem here is too ideological, not too corrupt. And I — frankly, I think the public's distrust of the institution is unmerited. We should be suspicious of all concentrated power. But I think the courts in general, up and down the system, function reasonably well.
Let's talk about the debt limit debate, because we have got about a month left for lawmakers to raise the debt limit, which would keep the nation from defaulting and disrupting the global economy.
President Biden is set to meet with congressional leaders next Tuesday to talk about this. He insists he will only accept a bill with no strings attached, and he's dismissing Republicans' demands for spending cuts, for concessions.
Your assessment of that approach?
I think the president's absolutely right.
We should not be — the United States — the president should not be negotiating over the full faith and credit of the United States. What they should do, when they meet, when they get into that room, they should agree right then and there will be a clean debt ceiling vote, while, at the same time, negotiations begin right now on a budget.
The president released his budget last month. Speaker McCarthy is having this limit grow — his debt ceiling act sort of is masquerading as a budget. Well, if you want to take a sledgehammer to the federal budget, well, sit down with the president and negotiate.
His priorities are out there in print. Where are yours, Speaker McCarthy, beyond the cuts that he says broadly he wants to do? Specific conversations need to be — need to happen, and they should be happening simultaneously. But the debt ceiling must be raised.
How concerned should Americans be that this won't happen in time?
I have talked to Republicans, some of whom privately say that they don't think that Kevin McCarthy can introduce a clean bill, a bill with no strings attached, and keep his speakership.
Yes, they should be concerned.
I'm a little less concerned than I was a week or two ago. I do think Biden is going to negotiate. I think that's just going to be the reality. And I think people in the White House, some of the people understand that.
I have noticed in Congress some moves to make it easier for us to get to a — to solve this crisis without having it blow up. So that's not to say all warnings are off and that we should just relax. But I think there's been some slow movement.
And so the Republicans are wrong in that we — as we said, we should have a budget negotiation over a budget through the budget process, not through the nuclear option. But, in my view, the Republicans are right that we have put on a big spending binge over the last five years, probably rightly, because of COVID and other things.
But our deficits are way too high right now. They're fueling inflation that's way too high. They're fueling interest payments on the debts that are way too high. And I think it's just good government to think, OK, we got to cut some spending. We probably got to raise some taxes. The deficits are too high. And so the Republicans are not entirely wrong on the merits of the case.
What lessons should lawmakers have learned from what happened in 2011?
I mean, just the mere brinksmanship resulted in a catastrophic downgrading of the credit rating.
Yes, what they should have learned is, don't do this, do not do this, have this skirmish.
Also, Republicans didn't have a problem raising the debt ceiling when Donald Trump was president, and they also didn't have a problem running up trillions of dollars in debt when Donald Trump was president. So their sudden fiscal probity, I find a little off-putting.
In the time that remains, let's talk about artificial intelligence.
It was really stunning to hear Dr. Geoffrey Hinton, known as the Godfather of A.I., talk about the perils here, about the potential for machines to take over.
What do you see as not just the perils, but the promises of artificial intelligence?
About five months ago, I decided A.I. is important. So I have spent about four or five hours a day on it.
And I — what we talk about here is important. And I always walk in thinking, but A.I. is 100 times more important. I came in thinking that A.I. was, like, it's kind of important, and then maybe it's as big as mobile. We all have cell phones.
Now I think it's the Industrial Revolution. It's really just going to have pervasive effects on our workplace, our society and our culture. And with that come great dangers. What he — what Geoff Hinton talked about was the idea that it's going to have agency and it's going to have its own desires, which will overrule our desires.
I think we're probably a long way, but he's a lot smarter than I am, so he would probably know.
But it also has great option, great opportunities for us for — to make us all better at all our jobs.
In 1997, early primitive A.I. beat Garry Kasparov, the chess champion.
And so what happened after that? Did chess go away? No, the chess grand masters trained themselves on A.I. And so chess grand masters are now way better than they were before, because they had this amazing tool.
We're all about to have that amazing tool. And so we will have great opportunities just to be all better at our jobs, with slight peril that it will take over the Earth.
What about you, Jonathan?
Are you concerned or excited?
I'm a little — I'm a little of both.
Listening to Mr. Hinton's interview, I was thinking, isn't this how the movie "Terminator" started?
I mean, isn't this the plot from "Terminator"?
But, look, I will take David at his word that it is a tool that we should relish using, until which time it takes over the Earth.
All right, Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks, thanks so much. Have a great weekend.
Watch the Full Episode
David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is currently a commentator on “The PBS Newshour.” He is the author of “Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There” and “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense,” both published by Simon & Schuster.
Jonathan Capehart, Washington Post columnist
Geoff Bennett serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. He also serves as an NBC News and MSNBC political contributor.
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