Cite the Constitutional Authority or the Lack Thereof!

A new House rule requires that every new bill or joint resolution introduced in the House include a statement citing the specific powers in the Constitution granted to Congress to enact the proposed law.  In the absence of such a statement, the clerk of the House will not accept the bill and it will be returned to the sponsor.

This new rule may have two potentially valuable effects:

  • For some time, this rule may have a valuable educational effect, reminding new House members, returning members, and the public that Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution authorizes only 18 federal powers – far fewer than the powers that the federal government has assumed, especially during the past 75 years.
  • The constitutional citations for House bills that are approved would be part of the legislative record that the Supreme Court may consider in subsequent litigation bearing on the constitutionality of Acts of Congress.

This rule, however, is also likely to have two potentially negative effects:

  • This rule, by limiting new legislation to federal activities for which there is express or implied authority in the Constitution, would severely limit the potential of Congress to exercise legislative authority over the many current federal  activities for which there is no such authority.
  • In the absence of  authority in the Constitution for many types of current federal activities or others that Congress may wish to approve, Congress – like the Supreme Court – is likely to rationalize their judgments by elastic interpretations of the general welfare clause, the interstate commerce clause, or the necessary and proper clause.

An alternative interpretation of this new rule, however, would maintain its potentially valuable effects, maintain the potential for Congress to exercise legislative authority over federal activities for which there is no authority in the Constitution, and avoid the equivocation that is characteristic of statements about the powers of the federal government for which there is no authority in the Constitution: A new bill should be cleared for a vote when accompanied by a statement that identifies either the constitutional authority for the federal activities addressed by the bill or the lack thereof.  In the latter case, a statement such as the following should be sufficient for the House clerk to clear a bill for a vote:

There is no authority in the Constitution for the federal activities addressed by this bill.  For such time as any relevant constitutional issues are not resolved and the measures addressed by this bill remain in force as positive law,  we accept the responsibility to assure that this activity is administered efficiently and fairly and to propose changes that would better serve the American people.

This alternative interpretation of the new rule would increase the opportunity for members of Congress to express their views about the constitutional issues bearing on the powers of the federal government but would maintain their potential to legislate.  It is important to maintain an effective separation of powers within the federal government.  Congress does not have an impressive record as a legislature, but it would be a lousy constitutional court.