Tag: federalism

The Constitutional Vision of The New York Times

The editorialists at the The New York Times are out of sorts this morning over a Tea Party backed constitutional amendment that would give state legislatures the power to veto any federal law or regulation if two-thirds of the legislatures approved. Despite the backing of incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor and legislative leaders in 12 states, the proposal has little chance of succeeding, the Times avers, “but it helps explain further the anger-fueled, myth-based politics of the populist new right.” Indeed, it expresses “with bold simplicity the view of the Tea Party and others that the federal government’s influence is far too broad.”

Well? Isn’t that what the election last month was all about? But right there, for the Times, is the problem: “In past economic crises, populist fervor has been for expanding the power of the national government to address America’s pressing needs. Pleas for making good the nation’s commitment to equality and welfare have been as loud as those for liberty.” With the Tea Party, however, the tables have turned. What most troubles the Times, it seems, are Tea Party signs that say “We Want Less!”

And nowhere is that better captured than when the Times speaks of “the mistaken vision of federalism on which [this amendment] rests. Its foundation is that the United States defined in the Constitution are a set of decentralized sovereignties where personal responsibility, private property and a laissez-faire economy should reign. In this vision, the federal government is an intrusive parent.”

If that vision is “mistaken,” so too, apparently, were the Founders, because it was their vision as well. To be sure, the Constitution they crafted held “competing elements, some constraining the national government, others energizing it,” as the Times writes. And true also, the government they shaped was meant “to promote economic development that would lift the fortunes of the American people” – but mainly by securing the framework for liberty, the rule of law, not by pursuing prosperity through government programs. In particular, the Framers believed in personal, not government, responsibility; private, not collective, property; and a free, not a planned, economy. And they left most power with the states, where it would be exercised responsibly, or not – something to keep in mind as we watch our “failed states” asking Washington (read, the other states) to bail them out.

Earmarks, Spending, and the Scope of the Federal Government

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Republican senators were turning their back on a massive spending bill stuffed full of their own earmarks. Those earmarks, the Post noted, included quite a few to benefit Mississippi, the home state of Senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran:

Wicker, along with Cochran, had by then already sponsored earmarks in the spending bill that would fund an airport expansion in Tunica ($1.75 million), new riverwalk lights in Columbus ($300,000), improvements to a hiking and biking trail in Hattiesburg ($700,000) and improvements to an assortment of bridges, highways, trails, railways and streets across Mississippi.

A burgeoning Tea Party revolt against earmarks caused the bill to be withdrawn. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held a press conference to defend earmarks as the constitutional duty of the people’s elected representatives. (And, as many of our friends have emailed to tell us, held up a copy of the Cato pocket Constitution — 10 for $10 this Christmas season! — to make his point. Ah, well.)

But the real problem here is not earmarks. The underlying issue is not whether members of Congress or unelected bureaucrats spend the money that Congress appropriates for highways and the like. The real question is, why are local roads and bridges and hiking trails and riverwalk lights being paid for by taxpayers across the country?

If the people of Columbus, Mississippi, want new lights on their riverwalk, why are they asking the families of New Hampshire and Indiana and Oregon to pay for them? Shouldn’t they pay for their own lights, and let the people of Hattiesburg pay for their own hiking trails, and let the people of Oregon pay for any roads, bridges, or hiking trails that they value?

The fundamental problem is not earmarks. It is that the federal government is paying for clearly local and state responsibilities. Opponents of excessive spending should not stop at an earmark ban. They should insist that the federal government pay for national needs and leave state and local projects to the states and towns that want them.

ObamaCare Challenges Gain Steam

Today’s hearing in Pensacola built on Monday’s ruling out of Richmond: Judge Roger Vinson is likely to hold the individual mandate unconstitutional. And such a decision would be the most significant development possible at the district court level because the Florida case involved 20 states, with more joining the lawsuit when new governors and attorneys general assume office in January. It is unprecedented for this number of states – again, soon to be a majority – to sue the federal government and it shows the singular and extreme nature of the government’s assertion of raw power here.

As Judge Vinson said during the hearing, the Supreme Court has held that the outer bounds of Congress’s regulatory power under the Commerce Clause (as exercised via the Necessary and Proper Clause) is activity that has a substantial effect in interstate commerce. If the government were to prevail under its theory that Congress can regulate any decision with economic ramifications – as two district courts have unfortunately held – then there is no principled limit on federal power. At that point, we might as well throw the Constitution out the window and admit that Congress is the judge of its own authority.

Finally, while Judge Vinson was more skeptical of the Medicaid-related claim that is unique to the Florida lawsuit, it is similarly impossible to draw limits to federal power if we allow Congress to impose a Hobson’s Choice on states of either withdrawing from Medicaid or implementing budget-crippling regulations. At a certain point the strings that Congress attaches to federal funding become coercive – particularly when the new shape of a government program (here, Medicaid) radically transforms the compact states originally joined and have inextricably relied on.

A Bizarre Case That Could Make Some Good Law

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.

Cato joined the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence in filing a brief supporting Bond’s request. We argue not only that a defendant clearly has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted, but that lower courts’ assumption that both the power to make treaties and Congress’s power to make laws executing those treaties are unconstrained by the Constitution. This assumption is premised on a perfunctory acceptance of an overly broad interpretation of Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920). That reading of Missouri v. Holland, however, is contrary to precedent, has been undermined by subsequent Court decisions, and if allowed to stand, will seriously undermine the notion that the federal government is one of only limited, enumerated powers.

The Court’s recognition that the constitutional issues Bond raises warrant serious review would begin the process of reconsidering the meaning of Missouri v. Holland and its progeny. Beyond the obviously erroneous ruling on standing here, this case offers the opportunity to reinforce limits on the expansion of federal criminal law into areas that should be handled at the state and local levels.

Many thanks to Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus for his help with our brief, which you can read here.  The Court will be deciding early in the new year whether to hear the case.

Three Cheers for Switzerland as Voters Reject Class-Warfare Tax Hike in National Referendum

I’ve always had a soft spot for Switzerland. The nation’s decentralized structure shows the value of federalism, both as a means of limiting the size of government and as a way of promoting tranquility in a nation with several languages, religions, and ethnic groups. I also admire Switzerland’s valiant attempt to preserve financial privacy in a world dominated by greedy, high-tax governments.

I now have another reason to admire the Swiss. Voters yesterday overwhelmingly rejected a class-warfare proposal to impose higher tax rates on the income and wealth of rich residents. The Social Democrats did their best to make the hate-and-envy scheme palatable. Only the very richest taxpayers would have been affected. But Swiss voters, like voters in Washington state earlier this month, understood that giving politicians more money is never a solution for any problem.

Here’s an excerpt from Bloomberg’s report on the vote.

In a referendum today, 59 percent of voters turned down the proposal by the Social Democrats to enact minimum taxes on income and wealth. Residents would have paid taxes of at least 22 percent on annual income above 250,000 francs ($249,000), according to the proposed changes. Switzerland’s executive and parliamentary branches had rejected the proposal, saying it would interfere with the cantons’ tax-autonomy regulations. The changes would also damage the nation’s attractiveness, the government, led by President Doris Leuthard, said before the vote. The Alpine country’s reputation as a low-tax refuge has attracted bankers and entrepreneurs such as Ingvar Kamprad, the Swedish founder of Ikea AB furniture stores, and members of the Brenninkmeijer family, who owns retailer C&A Group.

It’s never wise to draw too many conclusions from one vote, but it certainly seems that voters usually reject higher taxes when they get a chance to cast votes. Even tax increases targeting a tiny minority of the population generally get rejected. The only exception that comes to mind is the unfortunate decision by Oregon voters earlier this year to raise tax rates.

Diane Ravitch Is Right on Republicans and NCLB

Writing in yesterday’s WSJ, education historian Diane Ravitch laments that Republicans have abandoned their earlier defense of federalism and limited government in education, embracing vast and expanding powers for Washington over the nation’s schools. In particular, she faults the No Child Left Behind act for demanding public school improvements that have not been forthcoming and for imposing “corrective” measures that will not correct the problem.

Though I depart from Ravitch on most education policy matters – and not just on conclusions but also methodology – she is right in both of the above observations. Over the past decade, many Republicans have championed new federal powers in education that have no basis in the U.S. Constitution, no plausible empirical justification, and no evidence of success. NCLB demands higher achievement without creating the market freedoms and incentives that would actually allow it – asking, in other words, for the impossible.

With the current resurgence of public interest in limited government, Republicans have an excellent opportunity to rekindle their commitment to the limited federal role in education laid out by the U.S. Constitution. Phasing out NCLB would be a good place to start.

Reform for Senate Elections?

People inside the Beltway seem to think that the only things worth being said and written are said and written in Washington. John David Dyche’s column today makes a good case for the quality of commentary outside the all-knowing capital.

While most everyone in DC is calling the stretch run of the horse race, Dyche steps back and wonders whether the Kentucky Senate race would have been better for citizens if the U.S. Constitution had not been changed to direct election of senators. He thinks it would be.

I am not so certain. As Dyche notes, James Madison thought the representative or indirect aspects of American constitutional democracy would improve public choice. As times has passed, I wonder more and more about the quality of people drawn to all legislatures, including state bodies. Madison thought indirect election wold “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” Should we still rely on the wisdom of that medium? And yet, what is the alternative? (Todd Zywicki has an informative article on the origins and demise of indirect election of senators).

Dyche works as an attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, and has written a nice biography of Mitch McConnell. His column is worth a regular read, especially if Rand Paul comes to Washington as a U.S. Senator. Dyche would be a good guide to how Paul’s libertarian tendencies are playing out politically back home.