With the United States teetering on the brink of national bankruptcy, President Obama faced three choices:
- Counter Republican extortion attempts via RICO–the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act.
- Make a “Cuban Missile Crisis”-style address to the American people, seeking to rally them against a criminal threat to the financial security of the Nation.
- Cave in to Republican demands.
Unfortunately for Obama and the Nation, he chose Number Three.
Here is how he could have applied the other two options.
Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act
In 1970, Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1961-1968.
Congress’ goal was to eliminate the ill-affects of organized crime on the nation’s economy. To put it bluntly, RICO was intended to destroy the Mafia.
In the 1980s, however, civil lawyers noticed section 1964(c) of the RICO Act. This allows civil claims to be brought by anyone injured in their business or property by reason of a RICO violation.
RICO has been applied to not only the Mafia but to individuals, businesses, political protest groups, and terrorist organizations. In short, a RICO claim can arise in almost any context.
Such as the one President Barack Obama faced last summer when Republicans threatened to destroy the credit rating of the United States unless their budgetary demands were met.
RICO opens with a series of definitions of “racketeering activity” which can be prosecuted by Justice Department attorneys. Among those crimes: Extortion.
Extortion is defined as “a criminal offense which occurs when a person unlawfully obtains either money, property or services from a person(s), entity, or institution, through coercion.”
The RICO Act defines “a pattern of racketeering activity” as “at least two acts of racketeering activity, one of which occurred after the effective date of this chapter and the last of which occurred within ten years…after the commission of a prior act of racketeering activity.”
And if President Obama had believed that RICO was not sufficient to deal with extortionate behavior, he could have relied on the USA Patriot Act of 2001, passed in the wake of 9/11.
In Section 802, the Act defines domestic terrorism. Among the behavior that is defined as criminal:
“Activities that…appear to be intended…to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion [and]…occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
The remedies for punishing such criminal behavior are now legally in place. President Obama need only direct the Justice Department to apply them.
- President Obama could have directed Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether actions by Republican Congressman—and their Tea Party cohorts—broke Federal anti-racketeering and/or anti-terrorism laws.
- Holder, in turn, could have ordered the FBI to conduct that investigation.
- If the FBI found sufficient evidence that these laws had been violated, Holder could have empaneled criminal grand juries to indict those violators.
The fact that members of Congress would be criminally investigated and possibly indicted would not violate the separation-of-powers principle. Congressmen have in the past been investigated, indicted and convicted for various criminal offenses.
Such indictments and prosecutions–and especially convictions–would serve notice on current and future members of Congress that the lives and fortunes of American citizens may not be held hostage as part of a negotiated settlement.
On August 1, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” wrapped up his program with a search for “options” to avoid another round of Republican extortion tactics.
“I want to know what steps the president ‘could’ have taken to avoid this hostage-taking.
“…Is there another way than either buckling to the Republicans or letting the government and the country crash?
“How does he use the power of the presidency, the logic, emotion and basic patriotism of the people to thwart those willing to threaten, disrupt, even possibly destroy to get their way?”
The answer to his questions–then and now–is: Replace the law of fear with the rule of law.
But there was another way Obama could have stood up to Republican extortionists: By urging his fellow Americans to rally to him in a moment of supreme national danger.
President John F. Kennedy did just that–successfully–during the most dangerous crisis of his administration.
Addressing the Nation on October 22, 1962, Kennedy shocked his fellow citizens by revealing that the Soviet Union had installed offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba.
After outlining a series of steps he had taken to end the crisis, Kennedy sought to reassure and inspire his audience. His words are worth remembering today:
“The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are, but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world.
“The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.”
President Obama could have sent that same message to the extortionists of the Republican Party.