Even back in the wicked McCarthy days, the Supreme Court quickly slapped down Congress when it sought to punish "subversives" without trial. A century earlier, the court did the same thing when states tried to bar former Confederate soldiers from public life.
Nadler understood this history lesson without even picking up a book. When the anti-Acorn bill surfaced in the House, he spread the word about its unconstitutionality. He tried and failed to get the floor that day, but he was back a week later after Republicans, eager to beat Democrats again with the same stick, inserted the Acorn bar into another funding bill.
"Last week, to the great shame of this House," Nadler said from the floor on September 25, "we passed a Bill of Attainder." Whatever infractions Acorn may be guilty of, Nadler said, "it ought to be vetted or sanctioned by the appropriate administrative agency or by the judiciary. But Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial." He cited a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from Acorn's general counsel, Arthur Schwartz, pointing out that this was the first time in Congressional history that a group had been so singled out.
"I was just offended by the whole notion," Nadler told the Voice last week. "Congress is not supposed to be prosecutor, judge, and jury. It is fundamental. Any unpopular group can be killed."
As for Acorn itself, the employees who casually counseled deceit to their erstwhile clients may yet face criminal charges. And the organization's clearly sloppy operations will be scrutinized by an outside watchdog. But the video fiasco raises a bigger, underlying question about Acorn's entire mission: Why is a scrappy advocacy group even taking government money in the first place? Why leave yourself wide open to a right-wing jihad by taking funds from the politicians you help elect?
It's the kind of problem that Saul Alinsky, the great radical theorist whose ideas helped inspire Acorn's founders, foresaw back in the 1960s when the Great Society programs started showering big bucks on organizers. Those who chow down on government anti-poverty monies, Alinsky warned, were accepting "a prize piece of political pornography."