Tag: enumerated powers

Education Silver Lining in ObamaCare Decision?

After having my brain twisted into a pretzel reading yesterday’s ObamaCare decision, I was as disturbed as anyone. I mean, I had spent most of my life thinking I knew the difference between a “penalty” and a “tax,” and it turns out I was just fooling myself. Not to get too existentialist about this, but it has really made me question whether anything I think is real truly is.

Anyway, I eventually discovered what might be a small silver lining in the ruling, at least for education: the Medicaid section might have begun to place some, very nebulous, boundary on the ability of the federal government to bribe states into adopting federal rules. That has been the primary mode by which Washington has taken over elementary and secondary education—think No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers—and this ruling says there is a constitutional limit to what the federal government can do to coerce state action though spending.

Essentially, whether or not Spending Clause coercion is unconstitutional depends on whether it constitutes “undue influence” on states. For Chief Justice Roberts, that line was crossed when the Feds changed the rules for Medicaid and threatened states with the loss of all their funding if they didn’t follow the new strictures.

Obviously this doesn’t give us anything approaching a bright line on the limits to Spending Clause use. Such a limit surely can be found—no spending is allowed not connected to one of the specific, enumerated powers given to Washington by the Constitution—but Roberts writes that “Congress can use [Spending Clause] power to implement federal policy it could not impose directly under the enumerated powers.”

So why bother with enumerated powers? Got me…

Addressing education directly, the conservative justices noted that compared to Medicaid, federal education funding is a relatively small share of total spending, casting doubt on how applicable the ruling might be. In contrast, it was very gratifying to see those justices make a point I’ve made repeatedly, especially when discussing the absurd assertion that adopting national curriculum standards has been voluntary. Even if adoption were technically voluntary for states, taxpayers in those states have had no choice about paying the taxes that fund multi-billion-dollar carrots such as Race to the Top. Indeed, the conservatives write, were a state to fail to meet conditions attached to Spending Clause bucks, not only would it lose access to federal funds, it would likely have to raise its own taxes to make up for the shortfall, taxes that “would come on top of federal taxes already paid by the State’s citizens” for the spurned federal program.

The teensy bit of good news out of this ruling is that there is some limit to how coercive Washington can be under the Spending Clause, the clause that has been the linchpin of federal education policy. Unfortunately, the new problem is that were the Spending Clause avenue eventually cut off, Congress could probably just threaten the residents of recalcitrant states with some sort of financial penalty…er…tax. I mean, penalty…

Oh, my existentialist crisis!

Yes, the Federal Government Has a Broad Power to Tax, but That’s Different from Having a Green Light to Spend

I’m not a lawyer, or an expert on the Constitution, though I sometimes play one on TV.

But I can read, and I’ll agree with my friends on the left that the federal government has a broad power to tax. I wish the 16th Amendment had never been ratified, but its language gives the federal government a green light to rape and pillage.

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

That being said, the power to tax is not the same as the power to spend. And at the risk of sounding old fashioned, my big objection to the Obamacare decision is that health care is not listed as one of the federal government’s enumerated powers in Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution.

Sadly, that horse got out of the barn many decades ago, culminating in a horrible 1942 Supreme Court decision that said a man couldn’t grow crops on his own land to feed his own animals for consumption by his own family.

But let’s look at the bright side. Even though the Obamacare case was decided incorrectly, at least the judiciary is beginning to reconsider these issues, thanks in large part to the work of the Cato Institute’s legal scholars and adjunct legal scholars.

P.S. While the federal government has a broad power to tax, I should add that this doesn’t - or at least shouldn’t - vitiate other provisions of the Constitution. This is why it is so disappointing that we’ve seen the erosion of key civil liberties such as the presumption of innocence and the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

P.P.S. This Michael Ramirez cartoon about Obamacare and the Constitution is amusing, though that’s not much solace given what happened. And here’s another one of his cartoons, this one on the broader theme of Obama vs. the Founding Fathers.

P.P.S. Speaking of cartoons, this one seems especially appropriate today.

If you like that one, you can see another Breen cartoon here.

Our Constitution Is Out of Step with the Rest of the World

Is the Constitution out of date? That’s the impression that comes across from an article in yesterday’s New York Times, written by the paper’s crack Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak. It comes in turn from an article he points to by two law professors, David S. Law at Washington University in St. Louis and Mila Versteeg at the University of Virginia, scheduled for the June New York University Law Review. In it the authors conclude that the Constitution appears to be losing its appeal as a model for constitution drafters in other countries, despite its having served that role up until as recently as 1987, the year of its bicentennial. So what’s changed over the past quarter century?

Unfortunately, from the Times article we don’t get a clear picture of just how it is that the constitutions other countries have drafted in recent years differ from our own, except for the emphasis throughout the piece on rights. Yet right there is a clue about what’s going on. On that score, in fact, Liptak cites striking comments Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made in a television interview during a visit to Egypt last week:

“I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012,” she said. She recommended, instead, the South African Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the European Convention on Human Rights.

Liptak then notes, not entirely accurately, that “the rights guaranteed by the American Constitution are parsimonious by international standards, and they are frozen in amber.”

To be sure, the rights enumerated in our Constitution and in the amendments that were added later, including in the Bill of Rights, are few in number. But numbers alone, like rights alone, tell only part of our constitutional story. To tell the story more fully and accurately, we have to step back a bit.

It’s true that our Framers, unlike many others, especially more recently, did not focus their attention on rights. Instead, they focused on powers— and for good reason. Because we have an infinite number of rights, depending on how they’re defined, the Framers knew that they couldn’t possibly enumerate all of them. But they could enumerate the government’s powers, which they did. Thus, given that they wanted to create a limited government, leaving most of life to be lived freely in the private sector rather than through public programs of the kind we have today, the theory of the Constitution was simple and straightforward: where there is no power there is a right, belonging either to the states or to the people. The Tenth Amendment makes that crystal clear. Rights were thus implicit in the very idea of a government of limited powers. That’s the idea that’s altogether absent from the modern approach to constitutionalism—with its push for far reaching “active” government—about which more in a moment.

During the ratification debates in the states, however, opponents of the new Constitution, fearing that it gave the national government too much power, insisted that, as a condition of ratification, a bill of rights be added—for extra caution. But that raised a problem: by ordinary principles of legal reasoning, the failure to enumerate all of our rights, which again was impossible to do, would be construed as meaning that only those that were enumerated were meant to be protected. To address that problem, therefore, the Ninth Amendment was written, which reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Over the years, unfortunately, that amendment has been misunderstood  and largely ignored; but it was meant to make clear that the people “retained” a vast number of rights beyond those expressly enumerated in the document.

Thus, the rights expressly enumerated in the Constitution may be “parsimonious,” but understood in light of the larger theory of the document, they are not. Neither, moreover, are they “frozen in amber,” because the courts are called on regularly to interpret and apply them in the varying factual contexts that surround the cases or controversies that are brought before them. Thus, the right to freedom of speech has been read to entail the right to desecrate the flag, and the right to liberty has been read to entail the right to engage in sexual practices that others may dislike. Judges may sometimes fail to draw the proper inferences, of course, or draw inferences not entailed. But that says nothing about the Constitution itself.

The idea, then, that our Constitution is terse and old and guarantees relatively few rights—a point Liptak draws from the authors of the article and the people he interviews—does not explain the decline in the document’s heuristic power abroad. Nor does “the commitment of some members of the Supreme Court to interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning in the 18th century” explain its fall from favor. Rather, it’s the kind of rights our Constitution protects, and its strategy for protecting them, that distinguishes it from the constitutional trends of recent years. First, as Liptak notes, “we are an outlier in prohibiting government establishment of religion,” and we recognize the right to a speedy and public trial and the right to keep and bear arms. But second, and far more fundamentally, our Constitution is out of step in its failure to protect “entitlements” to governmentally “guaranteed” goods and services like education, housing, health care, and “periodic holidays with pay” (Article 24 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And right there, of course, is the great divide, and the heart of the matter.

The modern view, which we too have followed, at least statutorily if not constitutionally, is to recognize all manner of “entitlements” of a kind that can be provided only through massive governmental institutions that engage in material and regulatory redistribution. We are constitutionally out of step in that, to be sure. Countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal are far ahead of us.

Of Course Defendants Can Challenge the Constitutionality of Laws Under Which They’re Prosecuted

Hard cases make bad law, the saying goes.  Well, a bizarre case that the Supreme Court decided unanimously today has set a good precedent for the enforcement of residual Tenth Amendment powers. 

As I described in December when Cato filed a brief in Bond v. United States:

Carol Anne Bond learned that her best friend was having an affair with her husband, so she spread toxic chemicals on the woman’s car and mailbox. Postal inspectors discovered this plot after they caught Bond on film stealing from the woman’s mailbox. Rather than leave this caper to local law enforcement authorities to resolve, however, a federal prosecutor charged Bond with violating a statute that implements U.S. treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Bond pled guilty and was sentenced but now appeals her conviction on the ground that the statute at issue violates the Tenth Amendment – in that her offense was local in nature and not properly subject to federal prosecution. The Third Circuit declined to reach the constitutional question, holding that Bond did not have standing to raise a Tenth Amendment challenge and that, following Supreme Court precedent, a state actor must be a party to the suit in order to challenge the federal government for impinging on state sovereignty. Bond now seeks Supreme Court review on the ground that the statute, as applied to her, is beyond the federal government’s enumerated powers.

Our brief argued that a defendant clearly has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted, but also that lower courts are wrong in assuming that both the president’s power to make treaties and Congress’s power to make laws executing those treaties are unconstrained by the Constitution.  That is, many judges seem to erroneously think that treaties can give the federal government powers it doesn’t otherwise have under the Constitution.

The Court’s ruling today, in a tight opinion by Justice Kennedy, makes clear that individuals can indeed raise Tenth Amendment claims that the federal government has overstepped its enumerated powers.  The Court took no position on the merits of Bond’s constitutional argument – relating to the expansion of federal criminal law via the Treaty Power into areas that should be handled at the state and local levels – but this non-decision is in itself a positive development because it signals that the underlying issue is in dispute.

The Third Circuit is now charged with determining in the first instance whether the law implementing the chemical weapons treaty is “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the Treaty Power, including whether it’s overbroad if it snares people like Bond.

Even if Bond loses on the merits in the Third Circuit and/or the Supreme Court, however, her case has confirmed the idea that someone directly and particularly harmed by a federal law can challenge that law’s constitutionality.  As Justice Ginsburg said in her concurrence,

a court has no “prudential” license todecline to consider whether the statute under which the defendant has been charged lacks constitutional application to her conduct. And that is so even where the constitutional provision that would render the conviction void is directed at protecting a party not before the Court. ….

In short, a law “beyond the power of Congress,” for any reason, is “no law at all.” Nigro v. United States, 276 U. S. 332, 341 (1928). The validity of Bond’s conviction depends upon whether the Constitution permits Congress to enact §229.  Her claim that it does not must be considered and decided on the merits.

For more on the proper scope of the Treaty Power, I recommend Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Update:

Josh Blackman parses Justice Kennedy’s opinion and shows how it tracks the approach that Randy Barnett and Cato have been taking in our Obamacare briefs.

Federal Court Declares ObamaCare’s Individual Mandate Unconstitutional

ObamaCare has always hung by an absurdity.  ObamaCare supporters claim that the Constitution’s words “Congress shall have the Power…To regulate Commerce…among the several States” somehow give Congress the power to compel Americans to engage in commerce.  This ruling exposes that absurdity, and exposes as desperate political spin the Obama administration’s claims that these lawsuits are frivolous.

This ruling’s shortcoming is that it did not overturn the entire law.  Anyone familiar with ObamaCare knows that Congress would not have approved any of its major provisions absent the individual mandate.  The compulsion contained in the individual mandate was the main reason that most Democrats voted in favor of the law.  Yet the law still passed Congress by the narrowest of all margins – by one vote, in the dead of night, on Christmas Eve – and required Herculean legislative maneuvering to overcome nine months of solid public opposition.  The fact that Congress did not provide for a “severability clause” indicates that lawmakers viewed the law as one measure.

Despite that shortcoming, this ruling threatens not just the individual mandate, but the entire edifice of ObamaCare.  The centerpiece of ObamaCare is a three-legged stool, comprised of the individual mandate, the government price controls that compress health insurance premiums, and the massive new subsidies to help Americans comply with the mandate.  Knock out any of those three legs, and whole endeavor falls.

Moreover, the individual mandate is not the law’s only unconstitutional provision.

These lawsuits and the continuing legislative debate over ObamaCare are about more than health care.  They are about whether the United States has a government of specifically enumerated powers, or whether the Constitution grants the federal government the power to do whatever the politicians please, subject only to a few specifically enumerated restraints.  This ruling has pulled America back from that precipice.

On Federal Education, Think Progress Should Think Harder

Over on the Think Progress blog, Ian Millhiser accuses Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) of never having read the Constitution. His grounds for the accusation? Coburn, citing Jefferson, doesn’t think that the Constitution gives the federal government authority to provide such things as Pell Grants and student loans.

Writes Millhiser:

Sen. Coburn might want to try actually read the Constitution before he pretends to know what it allows. Article I provides that “[t]he Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” a grant of power that unambiguously empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them on programs that are broadly beneficial to American welfare — such as education.

Moreover, while Coburn’s reference to Thomas Jefferson is true in the narrowest sense of the term, it also betrays Coburn’s ignorance of constitutional history. During the Washington Administration, Jefferson and James Madison led a minority coalition which believed that Congress’ constitutional power to spend money was too narrow to support spending programs such as the First Bank of the United States. President Washington, however, rejected their arguments. Moreover, while Coburn is correct that President Jefferson briefly referenced his narrow view of the Constitution in his 1806 State of the Union, Jefferson was an extreme outlier by this point in American history. Even Madison parted ways with Jefferson by the time Madison became president in 1809.

This might be a classic pot-kettle situation. At the very least, it is utterly impossible to say that the general welfare clause “unambiguously” empowers Congress to raise funds and spend them – with massive strings attached, of course – on education. Indeed, that the general welfare clause does anything other than introduce the specific, enumerated powers that follow it was expressly rejected by Madison in Federalist no.  41, in which he wrote:

For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.

The general welfare clause, quite simply, confers no power – it just explains why the specific powers that follow it were given.

But didn’t Alexander Hamilton – who had Washington’s ear – reject that notion? Well yes, in his 1791 Report on Manufactures he suggested that the federal government could do almost anything as long as it was done in the interest of the entire nation. But his report was not only shelved by Congress at the time, Hamilton’s argument was quite different from what he wrote in the Federalist Papers. Though speaking  specifically of the taxation and  ”necessary and proper” clauses, in Federalist no. 33  Hamilton wrote that seemingly broad powers were given to Congress only to execute “specified powers:”

[I]t may be affirmed with perfect confidence that the constitutional operation of the intended government would be precisely the same, if the clauses were entirely obliterated, as if they were repeated in every article. They are only declaratory of a truth which would have resulted by necessary and unavoidable implication from the very act of constituting a federal government, and vesting it with certain specified powers [italics added]. This is so clear a proposition, that moderation itself can scarcely listen to the railings which have been so copiously vented against this part of the plan, without emotions that disturb its equanimity.

How about the argument that Jefferson’s quaint small-government beliefs were way out of date by 1806? Well, they sure weren’t on education.

For one thing, it is notable that President Washington probably had a more expansive view of the federal government’s role in education than one might expect. He wanted a national university, after all. But he didn’t get it – that notion was well out of sync with the limited federal government most Americans wanted. 

Next, Coburn was actually quoting Jefferson from Jefferson’s call for federal involvement in education, an idea that went nowhere because it would have constituted more federal intrusion – not less – than most Americans wanted. Indeed, Jefferson was generally on the big-government fringe of his time when it came to education. He only got the University of Virginia after four decades of trying, and never got the rudimentary public schooling system he wanted for Virginia.  Most people at the time simply didn’t think government’s role – especially the federal government’s – was to run education.

One last bit of information demonstrates just how truly mistaken Millhiser is in his attack on education ”tenthers.” In 1943 – when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president – the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, under the direction of the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House, published The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution. It noted in a section titled “Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution:”

 Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?

A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.

Even FDR’s people, apparently, didn’t find that the Constitution ”unambiguously” gave Washington authority to involve itself in education – quite the opposite!

In light of all this, it is clearly not Mr. Coburn who can reasonably be accused of having never read the Constitution. Indeed, not only has he almost certainly read it, it seems he has even taken the time to understand it.

Randy Barnett in the Wall Street Journal: “A Commandeering of the People”

Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett is the subject of the Wall Street Journal’s nearly-full-page Weekend Interview. Randy talks about interpreting the Constitution with “a presumption of liberty,” the subtitle of his book Restoring the Lost Constitution; about the Supreme Court’s expansion of government power from Wickard v. Filburn to Gonzales v. Raich; and especially about the constitutionality of the new health care bill and its individual mandate. Randy wrote an amicus brief with Cato in support of the Virginia attorney general’s challenge to the health care mandate.

“What is the individual mandate?” Mr. Barnett says. “I’ll tell you what the individual mandate, in reality, is. It is a commandeering of the people. . . . Now, is there a rule of law preventing that? No. Why isn’t there a rule of law preventing that? Because it’s never been done before. What’s bothering people about the mandate? This fact. It’s intuitive to them. People don’t even know how to explain it, but there’s something different about this, because it’s a commandeering of the people as a whole. . . . We commandeer people to serve in the military, to serve on juries, and to file a return and pay their taxes. That’s all we commandeer the people to do. This is a new kind of commandeering, and it’s offensive to a lot of people.”

For the full legal argument, read the brief.