Tag: federalism

The Constitutional Dimension of Your Morning Commute

Over the last few years, D.C.-area drivers may have noticed the continual increases in toll fares on the Dulles Toll Road, the highway going through the Northern Virginia suburbs past Dulles Airport.  Indeed, since 2005, the toll for the typical round-trip commuter has more than quadrupled from $1.50 to $7.00, with more increases coming. These extra toll dollars haven’t been going for upkeep or expansion of the highway, however, but instead have been funding the over-budget and under-performing construction of the Metro’s Silver Line extension.

While originally slated to fund only 25% of that cost, commuters are now looking at paying more than half of the $5.6 billion (and counting) total cost, with years of construction still to come. The entity in charge of the construction project (and of gouging the toll road’s commuters) is the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, a public body established to govern Dulles and Reagan National airports at the behest of the Department of Transportation. But who’s actually in charge of the MWAA, and to whom can beleaguered commuters turn for relief? Although created by an interstate compact between D.C. and Virginia, the MWAA was granted all of its authority by an act of Congress, and the highways and airports that it oversees are federal property.

In many ways, the MWAA acts like a federal agency—in nearly all ways, in fact, except one important aspect: oversight. If federal assets and lawmaking power are being delegated to the MWAA, then there must be a means for the executive branch to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The MWAA, however, is governed by a board of individuals whom the president has no meaningful ability to appoint, oversee, or control. This means that the MWAA has no political accountability for its decisions.

Having no other meaningful recourse, a group of Dulles Toll Road users sued the MWAA, arguing that its decrees violate the separation of powers. (Full disclosure: my wife and I just bought a house in Falls Church and will likely be using the road every now and again, though not on my commute to Cato.) The federal district and appeals courts—two of them, in an unusual development whereby the Federal Circuit transferred the case to the Fourth Circuit—decided that the MWAA’s nature as a state-created entity required the case to be dismissed. Moreover—get this—because the MWAA has no meaningful executive-branch control, there is no separation-of-powers issue. (This despite the federal government’s appearance as an amicus to argue that the MWAA exercises federal power and is subject to separation-of-powers scrutiny.)

Undeterred, the plaintiffs have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Cato has joined the American Highway Users Alliance and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association on a brief supporting their petition. We argue that the Court should take the case because (1) there is a critical violation of the separation of powers, (2) there are already manifest harms resulting precisely from that violation, and (3) the federal government sees and treats the MWAA as a federal agency—but one without any meaningful accountability whatsoever.

It isn’t every day that a separation-of-powers case is as squarely presented as it is here, where commuters are being railroaded, so to speak, by a runaway agency whose conductor is absent. The executive branch has to take the blame not only for the MWAA’s policies, but its corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take Corr v. Metro. Washington Airports Authority later this fall.

Obamacare’s Top 10 Constitutional Violations

Two years ago this week, I published an op-ed called “President Obama’s Top 10 Constitutional Violations.” Although it didn’t go into depth about any particular issue, it struck a chord (note to aspiring pundits: readers and media bookers like lists, particularly at year’s end).

There’s so much material to choose from for an updated piece on which I’m long overdue, but in the meantime the House Judiciary Committee had an important hearing last week on the president’s constitutional duty “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” My colleagues Michael Cannon and Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz testified, as did GW law professor Jonathan Turley (who voted for Obama in 2008 and is not known to be libertarian or conservative), and their devastating testimony is a collective tour de force regarding this administration’s incredible and unconstitutional power grab. (My friend and frequent sparring partner Simon Lazarus of the Constitutional Accountability Center also testified, on the other side, offering a valiant if ultimately insufficient defense.)

Given the state of current affairs, the hearing focused on Obamacare, whose problematic rollout should have come as no surprise to those who follow this blog. Quite apart from the healthcare.gov fiasco – incompetent, sure, but it’s not unconstitutional to have a bad website – you simply cannot require expansive health “insurance” for all without regard to preexisting conditions and expect insurers not to cancel nonconforming policies or increase premiums. (Forget never running a business or caring about the Constitution; has nobody in the White House ever taken an economics class?)

After watching snippets of the hearing and reading the written testimony, I thought maybe I should start my “top 10 constitutional violations” update with the Affordable Care Act alone. But it seems that I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. Hot off the presses, at 10am today, the office of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) released its second report on “The Obama Administration’s Attempts to Expand Federal Power” – the first was on the Supreme Court’s unanimous rejection of the Justice Department’s more outlandish positions, a trend I’ve written about as well – titled “The Administration’s Lawless Acts on Obamacare and Continued Court Challenges to Obamacare.”

Here are the seven items the new Cruz report highlights:

Category One: Implementation Contrary to Statutory Text

  1. Unilateral grant of a one-year delay on all Obamacare health insurance requirements.
  2. Unilateral delay of the employer mandate.
  3. Unilateral delay of out-pocket caps.
  4. Allowing congressional staff to continue on government-subsidized health care.

Category Two : Pending Court Challenges

  1. Violates the Origination Clause because it’s a revenue-raising bill that originated in the Senate.
  2. Contraception/abortifacient mandate violates religious liberties.
  3. Expansion of employer mandate’s penalty through IRS regulation.

Add to those the individual mandate (which the Supreme Court struck down before Chief Justice Roberts rewrote and upheld the provision as a tax), the coerced expansion of Medicaid (which the Court made voluntary), and the Independent Payment Advisory Board (litigation ongoing), and you’ve got an even ten. And that’s without straining to find the constitutional defects buried in thousands of pages of legislation and hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations.

Forget PPACA, ACA, and Obamacare; what people really ought to call the healthcare law is the “Constitutional Scholar Full Employment Act.”

Budget Battles Highlight Importance of Federalism

Despite the fears expressed in news stories, federal worker furloughs do not seem to have caused major economic disruptions. While the National Parks were closed, most government workers that provide useful services to citizens are at the state and local level, not the federal level.

Thus one advantage of our system of federalism is that budget battles at the national level do not shut down most government services that citizens actually use, such as police, fire, and the schools. Indeed, the ongoing political dysfunction at the federal level should be a warning to avoid any further centralization of American government in Washington.

At most, about 800,000 federal workers were furloughed, but that figure is small compared to the 16 million workers in state and local governments. The federal government spends far more than all state/local governments combined, but it has less than one-quarter of the number of workers. When you exclude the uniformed military, there are just one-eighth the number of federal workers as state/local workers. 

Outside of the military, the federal government is mainly just a giant cash transfer machine, vacuuming up taxpayer earnings and redistributing them to individuals, businesses, nonprofit groups, and state/local governments through more than 2,000 subsidy programs.

There are two charts below. The first chart shows that state/local government employment has soared since 1950. The second chart shows that federal civilian employment has been comparatively flat.

State/local bureaucracies have grown partly in order to handle the flood of cash and paperwork from the rising number of federal aid-to-state programs. The partial federal shutdown has threatened to turn off the cash spigot to some of these programs, but my view is that the more federal aid programs that we can terminate, the more that we will unhook local activities from future budget chaos in D.C. 

(Data notes: Federal “civilian” employment includes nonuniformed Pentagon workers, but it excludes postal workers. The data are from NIPA Table 6.5. and measured in full-time equivalents).

 

Cato Brief Gains National Acclaim

Remember Bond v. United States, that typical story of adultery, federalism, and chemical weapons?  Cato has actually filed four briefs in Bond, most recently last month, the last three making the point that the president can’t expand federal constitutional powers simply by signing a treaty.

Our arguments are based on a 2005 law review article by Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, the primary author of these last three briefs. It’s certainly unusual for a law review article to play a pivotal role in a Supreme Court case, but, as those following Bond know, there’s little “usual” about this case. 

Maybe that’s why the national media is starting to pay attention to our attempt to get the Supreme Court to be faithful to this particular corner of the Constitution: last week, the National Law Journal declared our Bond filing its “brief of the week.”

For more on this case, and our arguments, watch the lunch panel we had on Friday, featuring Nick Rosenkranz and Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  The Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Bond in October.

The Framers and Love

As some of you are aware, I recently got married, right here on Cato’s roofdeck, overseen by the eagle of liberty. I’ll spare you the details – there were plenty of “constitutional moments,” including personalized pocket constitutions as one of our wedding favors – other than to highlight my sometime co-author Josh Blackman’s excellent reading on the Framers and love:

We can look to the same patriots that gave us our Constitution to glean some lessons about love, liberty, and forming more perfect unions.

A successful marriage is not that much different from a successful republic. Both require the union of different parties to utilize their comparative advantages more efficiently. Both require a federalist system that structures powers and rights. And most importantly, both must aspire to a higher charter to bond them into one. For the United States it is our Constitution. For Kristin and Ilya, it is their vows.

First, we look to Federalist 51, Ilya’s favorite, where Madison wrote that if men were angels, we would not need government. Alas, neither husband nor wife is always an angel, so both Kristin and Ilya will need to structure a government for themselves to promote their happiness.

Second, to avoid any strife, we should heed Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, for mere “light and transient” causes are not enough. They must maintain tranquility, as they “mutually pledge to each other their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor.”

Third, we turn to the father of our country, General George Washington, whose eternal love for his wife Martha carried him towards victory. In one of the rare letters, which Martha did not burn at George’s death, the General wrote to her, “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time nor distance can change.” May the two of you always be in such love, no matter where you are.

May the passion our framers had for our Constitution and Republic, mirror the love you have for each other. And as the history of our nation has witnessed, despite the dividing difficulties, insurmountable challenges, and specters of oppression, the union shall always prevail. As you pursue happiness together, may Kristin and Ilya always cherish their life, and liberty–and hopefully accumulate vast amounts of property, both personal and real. And that way, they can “secure the Blessings of Liberty to their many Posterity.”

If you’re curious about the rest of the ceremony, including Josh’s presentation, you can view it here (the audio is patchy at first, but kicks in before the vows). Yes, I got permission from my wife to post that and, yes, we’ll be going on honeymoon soon – but, like most couples, we’re waiting for the end of the Supreme Court term before getting away.

Justice Thomas Shows Again that the Federal Emperor Has No Constitutional Clothes

Yesterday’s unanimous Supreme Court opinion in American Trucking Associations v. City of Los Angeles is a run-of-the-mill federal preemption case, not inviting much attention. But the interesting bit isn’t Justice Kagan’s majority opinion. It’s Justice Thomas’s short concurrence. Thomas agrees that federal law trumps conflicting state/local law regarding certain regulations related to the Port of Los Angeles, but seizes on the plain language of the preempting statute to take a shot at the massive expansion of federal authority under a misreading of the Commerce Clause.

Justice Thomas focuses on a section of the relevant statute (the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act, or FAAAA–don’t ask why this covers ports) titled “Federal authority over intrastate transportation.” He denies that Congress possesses this authority: the Commerce Clause, part of Article I, section 8, only gives Congress the power to regulate commerce “among the several States.” Thomas can’t believe that Congress could have been granted power to legislate something so local as where trucks park once they leave the port (one of the regulations at issue in American Trucking):

Congress cannot pre-empt a state law merely by promulgating a conflicting statute–the preempting statute must also be constitutional, both on its face and as applied. As relevant here, if Congress lacks authority to enact a law regulating a particular intrastate activity, it follows that Congress also lacks authority to pre-empt state laws regulating that activity

The reason that Justice Thomas nevertheless concurs in the judgment here, however, is that Los Angeles waived any constitutional claims against the FAAAA, instead relying solely on statutory arguments (which correctly lost 9-0).

This isn’t the first time that Thomas upheld a federal law but noted federalism concerns that, as here, the plaintiffs didn’t raise (or didn’t preserve on appeal). In Gonzales v. Carhart, for example, Thomas concurred with a majority decision that sustained the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act against a challenge based on Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey but noted that the issue of whether a federal abortion regulation “constitutes a permissible exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause is not before the Court. The parties did not raise or brief that issue; it is outside the question presented; and the lower courts did not address it.”

Justice Thomas’s opinions in these sorts of cases illustrate the misuse of the Commerce Clause given the Constitution’s careful enumeration of congressional powers. These brief, pointed concurrences show that our imperial government isn’t clothed in constitutional authority.

And they also have a direct use for legal practitioners. I wasn’t a “real” lawyer for that long before joining Cato, but here’s an easy practice tip: Don’t just assume that the federal government has the power to pass the law you don’t want applied to your client.

The IRS Has Already Abused Its Powers under ObamaCare

Over at Bloomberg, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru writes about the Obama administration’s disregard for the rule of law, including the IRS’s $800 billion power grab:

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the sweeping health-care law that Obama signed in 2010, asks state governments to set up health exchanges, and authorizes the federal government to provide tax credits to people who use those exchanges to get insurance. But most states have refused to establish the online marketplaces, and both the tax credits and many of the law’s penalties can’t go into effect until the states act.

Obama’s IRS has decided it’s going to apply the tax credits and penalties in states that refuse, even without statutory authorization. During the recent scandal over the IRS’s harassment of conservative groups, many Republicans have warned that the IRS can’t be trusted with the new powers that the health law will give the agency. They are wrong about the verb tense: It has already abused those powers.

For more, read my article (with Jonathan Adler), “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.”

 

Pages