Steven V. Roberts: Two truly terrible ideas

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 23, 2021

The Biden White House seems tempted by two truly terrible ideas.

One would expand the Supreme Court to neutralize the current conservative majority. The other would severely limit the number of refugees admitted to the United States this fiscal year.

Both options appear motivated by optics — by politics, not policy. And both directly contradict Biden’s own statements on these issues over many years. As he approaches 100 days in office, the president faces a dual test. Will he keep his convictions? Or wobble under pressure?

Start with refugees. Biden promised he would reverse Trump’s despicable war on immigrants. His stated goal was to admit 62,500 refugees by the end of September, compared to Trump’s cruel cap of 15,000, and double that number in the next fiscal year. Speaking at the State Department on Feb. 4, Biden advanced this standard:

“The United States’ moral leadership on refugee issues was a point of bipartisan consensus for so many decades when I first got here. We shined the light of … liberty on oppressed people. We offered safe havens for those fleeing violence or persecution. And our example pushed other nations to open wide their doors as well.”

Then Biden buckled. All the brave talk about “safe havens” was ditched. He reverted to Trump’s goal of 15,000, but, in fact, is not on pace to reach even that paltry total.

Biden blamed the surge of asylum-seekers on the Southern border, saying they soaked up administration resources. “We couldn’t do two things at once,” he complained, an admission of astounding incompetence, if true. But it wasn’t true.

Asylum-seekers and refugees are processed through two entirely different systems. The real reason for Biden’s retreat was crass political calculation. As Reuters reported, he didn’t want to look “too open” or “soft” on immigration in the face of Republican attacks. But his reversal had a devastating effect on refugees waiting and hoping to enter the country.

“There are over 30,000 refugees conditionally approved for resettlement by the U.S. government who now find themselves in limbo,” reports the International Rescue Committee, which helps resettle refugees. “More than 700 have had their flights canceled at the last minute, many had sold their belongings and moved out of their homes. In the U.S., heartbroken husbands, wives, parents and children eager to reunite with loved ones have found their dreams suddenly crushed.”

The backlash was so fierce that the White House retreated. Maybe we’ll let in more refugees, they said, we’ll have to see. But at best, they won’t come close to meeting the goals Biden outlined in February.

Then there’s the court. On this issue, the pressure is coming from the left, not the right, from liberals outraged that Republicans blocked Barack Obama from filling a vacant court seat for a whole year and then succeeded in ratifying three Trump appointments in four years. Their fury and frustration are justified, but their solution is not.

Leftist Democrats in both houses have introduced legislation that would expand the court from nine to 13 justices. Biden has not endorsed the proposal, but he hasn’t rejected it either. Instead, he’s appointed a commission to study the issue, a classic but cowardly response on a topic that Biden — in his pre-presidential days — was completely clear about.

In 1983, he forcefully condemned the futile attempt by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to “pack” the court with additional justices in 1937: “It was a bonehead idea. It was a terrible, terrible mistake to make. And it put in question, if for an entire decade, the independence of the most significant body … in this country, the Supreme Court of the United States of America.”

During the campaign, Biden asserted, “The last thing we need to do is turn the Supreme Court into just a political football, whoever has the most votes gets whatever they want. Presidents come and go. Supreme Court justices stay for generations.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, the senior member of the court’s shrinking liberal minority, was equally candid recently in condemning the court-packing schemes: “If the public sees judges as politicians in robes, its confidence in the courts — and in the rule of law itself — can only diminish.”

Flexibility in a president is a virtue, not a vice. The willingness, and the ability, to negotiate compromises lubricates the legislative process. But on these two issues, Biden was right in the first place. The number of refugees should be greatly expanded. And the number of Supreme Court justices should be kept the same. Will he have the courage to stick with both positions?

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email him at