Tag: Commerce Clause

Celebrating James Madison

Two hundred and sixty years ago, James Madison was born in Virginia. His life was long and eventful, comprising the American Revolution, the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the founding of political parties, the War of 1812, and the rise of Andrew Jackson. The struggles that would culminate in the Civil War were evident in the last years of his life.

Along with his political career, Madison proved to be one of this nation’s most insightful and certainly its most influential political theorist. He is often accorded the twin titles of Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No doubt those titles claim too much for him or any other mortal. But according him those titles is not far from the truth.

What would surprise Madison about our current constitutional and political arrangements?

He would be surprised and, I think, displeased by the size and scope of the federal government. Madison was a limited government man. He thought the general welfare clause in Article I of the Constitution was simply a shorthand way of mentioning other enumerated powers, not a general grant of power for Congress to pursue whatever it might think served the general welfare. As he wrote, “If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions.” Of course, for some decades now, the courts have permitted Congress broad powers under the general welfare clause.

He would also be taken aback by the all but plenary power accorded to Congress under the Commerce Clause of Article I. How could (can) a limited government be reconciled to such plenary power? Moreover, as he said in Congress, “if industry and labour are left to take their own course, they will generally be directed to those objects which are the most productive, and this in a more certain and direct manner than the wisdom of the most enlightened legislature could point out.”

I think Madison would also be surprised by how far the executive has taken on the prerogatives of an English king, in fact if not in law. Like many republicans of the founding era, he worried that the legislature would dominate the executive. We live in a time where Congress happily delegates its power to the executive branch and awaits the executive’s budget agenda. At the same time, Madison worried that executives, presidents and kings, had every reason to declare and make war, the latter being the most dreaded of “all enemies to public liberty.”  As he wrote in 1795:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes and the opportunities of fraud growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

In this light, it is perhaps inevitable that the authors of The Executive Unbound dismiss Madison in favor of Carl Schmitt, the author of The Concept of the Political and from 1933 onward, Preußischer Staatsrat and President of the Vereinigung nationalsozialistischer Juristen.

For Madison, the whole point was to bind government through a Constitution, enumerated powers, and ambition pitted against ambition. His was a noble vision of politics in service to individual liberty. Let us hope that we are not living “after the Madisonian Republic.”

I’m Not So Sure I Like Your Mental Activity

The latest federal judge to declare ObamaCare constitutional claimed that Congress can regulate “mental activity,” like the mental activity of choosing not to purchase health insurance.  Or shoes and ships and sealing wax.  Or my book.

National Review editor Rich Lowry has an excellent column explaining why this latest, ahem, legal victory for ObamaCare “delivered a more telling blow against the law in the course of ruling it constitutional than critics have in assailing it as a travesty…It’s the most self-undermining defense of the constitutionality of a dubious statute since then–solicitor general Elena Kagan told the Supreme Court that under campaign-finance reform, the government could ban certain pamphlets.”

Mitch Daniels’s ObamaCare Problem

That’s the title of my latest column at National Review Online.  An excerpt:

Mitt Romney isn’t the only Republican presidential hopeful with an Obamacare problem: Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, were he to become the GOP’s nominee, could also undermine the repeal campaign that has united the party’s base and independent voters.

Among his liabilities:

Daniels’s decision to accept Obamacare funds and move forward with implementation is further undermining the repeal effort. Yesterday, federal judge Roger Vinson reversed his initial order forbidding the Obama administration to implement the law. He did so in part because plaintiff states such as Indiana are implementing it, which he said “undercut” their own argument that he should block it.

But all is not lost for Daniels.

Daniels can spare himself and the repeal movement such setbacks by following the lead of Florida governor Rick Scott (R.) and Alaska governor Sean Parnell (R.) and flatly refusing to implement any aspect of Obamacare. Daniels could even organize another letter in which his fellow governors all make the same announcement.

A move like that could separate him from the pack.

It’s Official: Governors Implementing ObamaCare Are Undermining the Lawsuits

Judge Roger Vinson of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida has just responded to the Obama administration’s “motion to clarify” his prior ruling, which declared ObamaCare unconstitutional and void.  That “motion to clarify” essentially asked Vinson, “Didn’t you really mean that we can keep implementing ObamaCare while we appeal your ruling?”  Today, Vinson answered, “No.”

The attorneys representing the plaintiffs, who include Florida and 25 other states, argued that the administration’s “motion to clarify” was actually a veiled request to have Vinson stay (i.e., set aside) his original order blocking implementation.  Vinson agreed, and therefore treated the Obama administration’s “motion to clarify” as a motion to stay, which he granted.  Vinson made clear, however, that if the administration fails to file a notice of appeal by March 10 or fails to seek an expedited appeal either with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court, then his stay will lift and the administration will (once again) be barred from implementing or enforcing ObamaCare.  In other words, Vinson prevented the Obama administration from treating his stay as an excuse to ignore his ruling while the further entrenching the law.

It would have been better if Vinson had stuck to his original order blocking implementation.  Yet he made clear that one of the reasons he did not is that many of the states asking him to strike down the law are implementing it anyway.  Vinson wrote that the case for blocking implementation:

is undercut by the fact that at least eight of the plaintiff states…have represented that they will continue to implement and fully comply with the Act’s requirements — in an abundance of caution while this case is on appeal — irrespective of my ruling.

As the Obama administration explained to the court:

[S]ince the Court entered its judgment on January 31, at least 24 of the 26 plaintiff states have applied for additional grants authorized or appropriated by the ACA, continued to draw down grant funds previously awarded under the ACA, or otherwise availed themselves of resources made available by the ACA. Indeed, South Carolina has continued to drawn down exchange planning grant funds, even though it has declared the Act “void and unenforceable.” Similarly, Utah has described the declaratory judgment as an “injunction against further implementation” of the Act, but has continued to draw down Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan (“PCIP”) funds and to request Early Retiree Reinsurance Program (“ERRP”) reimbursements.

Now would be a good time for the South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), and the governors of the other 22 plaintiff states to join Alaska and Florida in refusing to accept any further ObamaCare funds, returning the ObamaCare funds they have already received, and ceasing all implementation activities, including “planning” efforts.

Tea partiers and other conservative groups turned on House Republicans in a dispute over when the House would vote to cut off all ObamaCare spending.  Where’s the outrage over the governors and state legislators that are eagerly pursuing that funding, actively implementing the law, and preventing judges from stopping implementation?

Not Just Breathing: Now the Feds Can Regulate Thinking

I suppose it’s a metaphysical question: Is it more outrageous/scary to argue that Congress can regulate breathing, as Akhil Amar recently argued (prompting my “Every Breath You Take” parody) or that it can regulate thinking, as the latest federal judge to rule on Obamacare opined

That is, Judge Gladys Kessler, echoing two other district judges who ruled in the government’s favor, found that the decision not to purchase health insurance was itself an action and so reachable by Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. The activity/inactivity distinction that we Obamacare opponents have been pushing is mere “semantics,” you see.  Well, as Randy Barnett said in an emailed press statement:

This decision makes crystal clear that the government is seeking the dangerous and unprecedented power to regulate the economic “decisions” of all Americans – including the decision to refrain from engaging in economic activity.  If allowed by the Supreme Court, Americans would be reduced from citizens to the subjects of Congress, which would now have the discretionary power to run their lives.

He’s right, unfortunately.  But take a deep breath or breathe a sigh of relief (while both are still legal) because, at the end of the day, this latest ruling adds nothing to the debate except a new appellate court from which we can expect an opinion later this year.  (It also ran the record on the “taxing power” argument – the one so favored by the academics I’ve debate over the past year – to 0-4, including two judges who otherwise ruled for the government.)

See also Ilya Somin’s reaction.

Look, the arguments on both sides are clear: On the one hand, the federal government cannot require people to engage in economic activity under the guise of regulating commerce. On the other, the decision not to act is itself an action – “mental activity”? – that is subject to regulation. The battle lines are drawn, the armies of lawyers ready. The only remaining question is whether the Supreme Court will ultimately find that there are constitutional limits to federal power.

President (and Governors) Should Heed Court and Stop Implementing ObamaCare

In yesterday’s Providence Journal, my colleague Ilya Shapiro and I argue that, since a federal court has voided ObamaCare as unconstitutional, the Obama administration should immediately cease all efforts to implement ObamaCare:

Federal courts do not issue advisory opinions. The parties to any lawsuit are bound by any resulting judgment.

At minimum, then, the government lacks authority to implement ObamaCare where the case was decided, in the Northern District of Florida, and the 26 state plaintiffs need take no action to do so. Likewise, members of the National Federation of Independent Business, another plaintiff in the case, may now be entitled to the same protection from Obamacare’s requirements.

Moreover, it is not unreasonable to argue that Vinson’s ruling applies to the nation as a whole. After all, this lawsuit facially attacked the law rather than just challenging its application to particular parties….

In so uncertain a legal context, it is simply reckless for financially strapped federal and state governments to pour resources into changing our health care system when those changes may not ultimately pass constitutional muster.

Governors should follow the example of Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who recently told a Cato audience in Naples that Florida will not implement any aspect of ObamaCare.  Listen to excerpts from Scott’s remarks here.  Read the full Cannon-Shapiro oped here.

Obamacare Defenders Grasping at Straw Men

Last week saw a splash of publicity for defenders of Obamacare’s constitutionality.  First, Yale law prof Akhil Amar had a hyperbolic op-ed in the L.A. Times, prompting a thorough fisking by Tim Sandefur, Ilya Somin, and me (among others). Then Harvard law prof Larry Tribe (who has written for the Cato Supreme Court Reviewhad one in the New York Times.  Here’s an excerpt:

Since the New Deal, the court has consistently held that Congress has broad constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce. This includes authority over not just goods moving across state lines, but also the economic choices of individuals within states that have significant effects on interstate markets. By that standard, this law’s constitutionality is open and shut. Does anyone doubt that the multitrillion-dollar health insurance industry is an interstate market that Congress has the power to regulate?

Well, actually, Prof. Tribe, you’re asking and answering the wrong questions, as I say in my letter to the editor that appeared in the Sunday Times:

First, this is indeed a “novel” issue for the Supreme Court: Never before has the federal government asserted the power to require people to engage in economic activity under the guise of regulating commerce.

Second, those challenging the law do not question Congress’s power to regulate the “multitrillion-dollar health insurance industry,” but rather distinguish such regulation from a command for individuals to purchase that industry’s products.

Third, the difference between activity and inactivity is anything but “illusory”; if Congress can regulate mere decisions, then it can tell me, for example, that I shouldn’t spend time writing letters to the editor.

And finally, imagining that Justice Antonin Scalia would support the government here because he previously ratified prohibitions on the production and consumption of marijuana is to remove the very activity-inactivity distinction that he recognized in that earlier opinion.

Most recently, the Times itself editorialized against the views Randy Barnett presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee – and Randy replied here

Setting aside the issue of why Congress is only now getting around to holding hearings on the constitutionality of a fundamental piece of legislation it passed nearly a year ago, it’s clear now at least that the proponents of limitless, extra-constitutional government are running scared.  Obamacare delenda est.