Tag: Constitution

Cato Challenges the Supreme Court to Decide that Congress Doesn’t Have Unlimited Jurisdiction Over Everyone

Last year’s partial victory in the Obamacare case is already being applied to new cases reaching the Supreme Court. Recall that, in that case, the Court accepted our argument that the government cannot use the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses to compel someone to purchase health insurance. The Court held that allowing Congress to compel commerce into existence would be an improper use of a great and limitless power. In United States v. Kebodeaux, the Supreme Court will once again address an assertion of power that, if upheld, could give Congress nearly limitless power.

In 1999, Anthony Kebodeaux was sentenced to three years in prison for statutory rape. He served his time, was freed from any post-release parole or probation requirements, and ended his relationship with the federal government in the matter of criminal law. Years later, when Kebodeaux moved intrastate from San Antonio, Texas to El Paso, Texas, he failed to update his change of address within the three-day period as required by the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) of 2006. Even though Kebodeaux was unconditionally released from custody before SORNA was enacted, he was sentenced to one year in federal prison. The Fifth Circuit overturned his conviction en banc, meaning that every judge on the Fifth Circuit heard the case rather than the traditional three-judge panel. They found the registration requirement unconstitutional because Congress lacked jurisdiction over Kebodeaux after they unconditionally released him from custody.

The government’s arguments to the contrary, the court held, would permit not just “unending criminal authority” over Kebodeaux but unending authority over every American who was once in federal jurisdiction, which is, of course, every American.

In a sense, the government is now arguing for the “Hotel California” theory of jurisdiction: you can check out, but you can never leave. 

Yesterday, Cato filed an amicus brief, joined by Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law, arguing that it would be improper under the Necessary and Proper Clause to permit Congress to have unending authority over all Americans. Congress already lacks a general power to punish criminals, much less monitor previously released criminals and impose new and onerous restrictions on them at will. Moreover, there is nothing constitutionally special about sex offenders as a class. Congress should not be allowed to designate a sub-class of people within its jurisdiction as “special” and then assert perpetual jurisdiction over them. These type of assertions of power are precisely what the “proper” element of the Necessary and Proper Clause is supposed to protect against–ones that, even if “necessary,” would give Congress unbounded power. 

Indeed, if the Court rules in favor of the government’s position, it will give Congress virtually unlimited power to regulate nearly all Americans. In essence, it would justify the gradual imposition of endless new requirements on anyone who had previously been subject to federal jurisdiction. Cumulatively, these federal impositions amount to unlimited federal authority over anyone who has ever been held in federal custody or otherwise in federal jurisdiction. This cannot be a power vested in a Congress with “few and defined” powers. As the Supreme Court held in the Obamacare case, Congress doesn’t have the power to “regulate an individual from cradle to grave.”  

Ted Olson on John Roberts’ Saving Construction of ObamaCare

At a recent legal conference, former Solicitor General (and Cato Institute board member) Ted Olson offered this slightly nerdy take on Chief Justice John Roberts’ saving construction of ObamaCare’s individual mandate:

Roberts’ support for the individual mandate brings to mind the Higgs boson — it can’t be seen, it disappears upon occurrence, and it’s the God particle that controls everything in the universe.

Hat tip: Louise Bennetts.

Privacy Regulation and Political Economy

Good-hearted people want to cure hunger, ignorance, and other human deficits. Many see the cure in taking from the group of “haves” and giving to the “have-nots.” Along with the injustice of the transfer itself, libertarians like to point out the backward incentives that generous, systematic giving creates. Poverty and ignorance becomes a low-end, but survivable, mode of living. It’s not really a surprise that these problems respond to subsidy by becoming intractable.

That’s simple math to people who understand incentives, so it shouldn’t be hard to recognize incentive structures and their warping in other areas. Take federalism. The Constitution set out a design for government that aligned political incentives well. With a limited federal government and plenary powers left with the states, elected officials closer to the people would provide better government because they would be responsible to smaller numbers of people at the ballot box.

When state officials go wrong, good-hearted, economically-minded people want to cure their deficits. Many see the cure in removing power from the state level to the federal through preemption. State regulation can interfere with national markets, and there is a Commerce Clause that arguably permits national regulation of all things commercial.

But the Commerce Clause was not a grant of plenary authority over commerce anywhere in the United States. It gave Congress power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Think of a border sentry tasked mostly with preventing anyone from erecting gates.

One can “fix” bad state regulation by replacing it with a less-bad, nationally uniform rule. But doing so frees state officials from responsibility. The subsidy makes carelessness a low-end, but survivable mode of governing.

So with California Attorney General Kamala Harris brandishing $2,500 fines per download of apps in California if they don’t meet the terms of the California Online Privacy Protection Act, I don’t think the right answer is for the federal government to whisk in with its own less-bad privacy law that preempts California’s. The attorney general and the authors of California’s law should be allowed to let their behavior have its effects in their state, responding to their state’s voters if it has negative consequences.

The federal government’s only response should be to make clear that there are limits on California’s ability to bring out-of-staters into court. The federal government should preserve the right of people and businesses to exit states that make themselves unfriendly through high taxes, poor services, and inefficient regulation. This will set up the incentive structure under which governance in the United States will thrive, perhaps at the cost of California sinking into the ocean.

Does HHS Have the Authority to Tax Health Premiums in Federal Exchanges?

Remember how an adviser to the federal Department of Health and Human Services said the department would have to “get creative” on funding federal health insurance exchanges, because states were refusing to create their own and ObamaCare provides no source of funding for federal exchanges? Well, HHS released its very creative response in a Friday news dump today, and the answer is “user fees” of 3.5 percent on all health insurance plans sold through federal exchanges.

But is that a little too creative? Does HHS have the authority to tax health premiums in its exchanges? Here’s what the department’s proposed regulation says:

Federally-facilitated Exchange user fees: Section 1311(d)(5)(A) of the Affordable Care Act contemplates an Exchange charging assessments or user fees to participating issuers to generate funding to support its operations. As the operator of a Federally-facilitated Exchange, HHS has the authority, under this section of the statute, to collect and spend such user fees. In addition, 31 U.S.C. 9701 provides for an agency to establish a charge for a service provided by the agency. Office of Management and Budget Circular A-25 Revised (“Circular A-25R”) establishes Federal policy regarding user fees and specifies that a user charge will be assessed against each identifiable recipient for special benefits derived from Federal activities beyond those received by the general public. In this proposed rule, we establish a user fee for issuers participating in a Federally-facilitated Exchange.

I don’t know anything about 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R. But here’s the Section 1311(d)(5)(A) language upon which they rely:

NO FEDERAL FUNDS FOR CONTINUED OPERATIONS.—In establishing an Exchange under this section, the State shall ensure that such Exchange is self-sustaining beginning on January 1, 2015, including allowing the Exchange to charge assessments or user fees to participating health insurance issuers, or to otherwise generate funding, to support its operations.

A few thoughts:

  1. It is interesting that when the federal government wants to justify generating funds for their Exchanges’ operational expenses, they cite for authority a paragraph titled, “NO FEDERAL FUNDS FOR CONTINUED OPERATIONS.”
  2. The proposed regulation correctly notes that Section 1311(d)(5)(A) only “contemplates” state Exchanges charging assessments. It certainly doesn’t authorize states to make such assessments; states already have the authority to impose such levies. (They are states, after all.) Nor does it even direct states to levy user fees. It says, in essence, “You gotta fund this yourself. Here are a couple of methods. Knock yourselves out.” Since Section 1311(d)(5)(A) doesn’t give states the authority to levy such taxes, it’s hard to see how that paragraph translates into “HHS has the authority, under this section of the statute, to collect and spend such user fees” (emphasis added).
  3. Section 1311(d)(5)(A) speaks specifically of states. It makes no mention of the federal government. Lest anyone think its mention of “an Exchange” could refer to state or federal exchanges, I refer you four paragraphs up to Section 1311(d)(1), which imposes another “REQUIREMENT … An Exchange shall be a governmental agency or nonprofit entity that is established by a State.” Or is the federal government again claiming that it can establish an Exchange that is established by a state?

Again, I don’t know anything about 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R. But the fact that HHS also cited them makes me think they lack confidence in their claim that Section 1311(d)(5)(A) authorizes them to do this. And the fact that they listed them after their Section 1311(d)(5)(A) claim makes me wonder if they even weaker.

I’ll be looking into this. But I would be interested to hear from anyone with expertise in 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R.

‘By Far the Broadest and Potentially Most Damaging of the Legal Challenges’ to ObamaCare

That’s how Kaiser Health News describes the legal challenge that Jonathan Adler and I outline in this paper and that Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt has filed in federal court:

Supporters of the law scoff at the arguments…

But, confident of their case, some health law opponents, including Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve Law School, Michael Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute and National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, are urging Republican-led governments to refuse to set up the online insurance purchasing exchanges, which would, as the argument goes, make their residents ineligible for the tax credits and subsidies. They say that this step also would gut the so-called employer mandate, which the law says will take effect in states where residents are eligible for such assistance…

As even some health law supporters concede, the claim that Congress denied to the federal exchanges the power to distribute tax credits and subsidies seems correct as a literal reading of the most relevant provisions. Those are sections 1311, 1321, and 1401, which provide that people are eligible for tax credits and subsidies only if “enrolled … through an Exchange established by the state” [emphasis added].

It’s technically not correct to say that Oklahoma’s complaint is a challenge to ObamaCare, however. That complaint does not challenge a single jot or tittle of the statute. Oklahoma is asking a federal court to force the IRS to follow the statute, and to prevent the Obama administration from imposing taxes on Oklahoma residents whom Congress expressly exempted. Oklahoma’s complaint is indeed “the broadest and potentially most damaging of the legal challenges” related to ObamaCare. But think about it: if the only way to save ObamaCare from such a fate is to give the president extra-constitutional powers to tax and spend money without congressional authorization, just how unstable is this law? And is it really worth saving?

Also, the article is a few months behind on the debate over congressional intent, and our ongoing debate with Timothy Jost (who has reversed himself on quite a few issues).

But overall, a good article.

I Have Been False*

*According to PolitiFact.

In an unconscious parody of everything that’s wrong with the “fact-checker” movement in journalism, PolitiFact Georgia (a project of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) has rated false my claim that operating an ObamaCare Exchange would violate Georgia law. (For some of the “fact-checker” genre’s greatest worst hits, see Ben Domenech’s top 10 list.)

PolitiFact’s analysis is one-sided. It confuses opinions with facts. It was written with “no particular policy domain knowledge.” It therefore not only reaches the wrong result – it analyzes a claim I did not make and never would make.

PolitiFact began by saying that it was fact-checking the following claim, which I made in a November 9 opinion piece at National Review Online:

[O]perating an Obamacare exchange would be illegal in 14 states. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia have enacted either statutes or constitutional amendments (or both) forbidding state employees to participate in an essential exchange function: implementing Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates.

Lest anyone think I meant it would be illegal for the federal government to operate Exchanges in those states, the context and the text (“forbidding state employees”) of that opinion piece make it clear I was discussing whether states should establish Exchanges. Unfortunately, the context was lost on PolitiFact readers, because PolitiFact provided neither a citation nor a link to the opinion piece it was fact-checking.

In Georgia’s case, the relevant statute is that state’s version of the “Health Care Freedom Act” (GA. CODE ANN. § 31-1-11), enacted in 2010. It reads:

To preserve the freedom of citizens of this state to provide for their health care: No law or rule or regulation shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system.

The statute defines “compel” as including “ ‘penalties or fines.”

PolitiFact notes that I cited that provision to “an Atlanta Journal-Constitution health reporter [Carrie Teegardin] via email.” Thus PolitiFact presumably had access to the rest of my November 9 email to Teegardin, in which I explained why that provision precludes Georgia from establishing an ObamaCare Exchange:

Determining eligibility for and distributing ObamaCare’s “premium assistance tax credits” is a key function of an Exchange. Those tax credits trigger penalties against employers (under the employer mandate) and residents (under the individual mandate).

Indeed, there are many ways Exchanges assist the federal government in the enforcement of those mandates. State-run Exchanges must report to the IRS on which residents have dropped their coverage and when (Section 1311(d)(4)(I)). State-run Exchanges must notify employers when one of their employees receives a tax credit  (Section 1411(e)(4)(B)(iii)). That very notification triggers penalties against the employer (Section 1513/I.R.C. Section 4980H(a)). State-run Exchanges must collect all the information the federal government needs to determine eligibility for tax credits and deliver it to the federal government (Section 1401/I.R.C. Section 36B(f)(3)) – a crucial component of enforcing both the individual and employer mandates. The  Secretary can require state-run Exchanges to verify that information for the federal government (Section 1411(d)), and state-run Exchanges must resolve any inconsistencies between the information provided by applicants and official records (Section 1411(e)). If a state-run Exchange can’t resolve an inconsistency between the application and the official records within a certain time period, it has to notify residents that they will be penalized under the individual mandate (Section 1411(e)(4)(B)(iv)). State-run Exchanges must maintain an appeals process for individuals and employers who believe they were wrongly assessed penalties (Section 1411(f)).

My email to Teegardin continued:

Ergo, if Georgia establishes an Exchange, then a Georgia law and state employees would be indirectly compelling employers and residents to participate in a health care system.

In other words, the activities required of an ObamaCare Exchange are exactly the sorts of things that the Health Care Freedom Acts in Georgia and 13 other states exist to prohibit those states’ employees from doing. In a November 15 opinion piece Atlanta Journal-Constitution, no less, I reiterated that same point: legislatures and voters in those 14 states have enacted state laws that make it illegal (and in some cases unconstitutional) for state employees to operate an ObamaCare Exchange.

Rather than evaluate that claim, PolitiFact asked a handful of Georgia scholars about something completely different: whether Georgia’s Health Care Freedom Act prevents the federal government from creating an Exchange for Georgia, or otherwise trumps federal law. It’s difficult to see how anyone who had read my two opinion pieces, much less my email to Teegardin, could think I was saying anything of the sort. Of course such a claim would be false; that’s why I never made it. (ObamaCare does itself give each state the power to stop the federal government from running an Exchange within its borders. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Then again, I could have set them straight. PolitiFact contacted me for help with this “fact-check.” I politely refused, citing my ongoing boycott of their organization. One might say my refusal to assist with this “fact-check” means I have no right to complain.

Another way of looking at it is that this episode validates my boycott. Consider how they responded to my refusal to help: Cannon won’t speak to us because he says we’re not reputable. Should we try to find someone else who might argue his side? Nah. PolitiFact could have proven me wrong by conducting a thorough analysis. Off the top of my head, I can think of seven other experts they might have consulted. A simple online search would have produced two attorneys who have threatened to sue the State of Arizona under the Health Care Freedom Amendment to its Constitution if state officials establish an Exchange. Instead, PolitiFact considered a discussion of my email auto-signature – “Tyrannis delenda est” – more worthy of inclusion in their “fact-check” than another expert who would take up my side.

My boycott of PolitiFact hasn’t succeeded in bringing about the desired behavior change. But if they keep this up, I don’t see how I can fail.