Tag: House of Representatives

Whither Constitutional Authority Statements?

On its first day of business this past January, the Republican House majority adopted a new rule requiring every bill to include a so-called constitutional authority statement, listing the part(s) of the Constitution that give Congress the power to do what the bill says. 

At the time, I analyzed the requirement, as did Cato’s chairman emeritus Bill Niskanen, and what effect it might have on congressional action.  We noted that, while it was a good thing for people (and especially elected officials) to be paying attention to the Constitution, the practical effect may be negligible because legislators would overwhelmingly cite the General Welfare Clause, Commerce Clause, and Necessary and Proper Clause – all part of Article I, section 8.  To minimize this result, Cato ran an ad in Politico and other publications explaining what these clauses could and could not justify.  Here are the points we made:

  • Contrary to modern readings, the General Welfare Clause does not grant Congress an independent power to tax and spend for the “general welfare.” If it did, there would be no need to enumerate any other powers.  Rather, it authorizes Congress to enact the specified taxes for the specified purposes—headings more precisely defined by the 17 enumerated powers or ends that follow. And Congress’s power to tax for the “general welfare” precludes it from taxing to provide for special parties or interests.
  • The Commerce Clause too does not authorize Congress to regulate anything and everything, which again would put an end to the idea of a government of enumerated and thus limited powers.  Under the Articles of Confederation, states had erected tariffs and other protectionist measures that were impeding interstate commerce. To end that and ensure free interstate commerce, Congress was given the power to regulate, or “make regular,” such commerce—the main sense of “regulate” at the time. Were Congress thought to have the all but unbounded regulatory power it exercises today, the Constitution would never have been ratified.
  • The Necessary and Proper grants Congress the means to execute its enumerated powers or ends and those of the other branches. It adds no new ends. And the means must be “necessary and proper.”  That means they must respect the Constitution’s structure and spirit of limited government; they must respect federalism principles; and they must respect the rights retained by the people.

So, nine months later, what happened?  The Republican Study Committee – essentially the GOP House Caucus’s conservative sub-caucus – has come up with the following analysis (analyzing 3042 bills through September 16, some of them counted more than once in the below statistics):

  • 3 bills cite only the Preamble to the Constitution.
  • 84 bills cite only Article 1, which creates the Legislative Branch.
  • 58 bills cite only Article 1, Section 1, which grants all legislative powers to Congress.
  • 470 bills cite only Article 1, Section 8, which is the list of specific powers of Congress, without citing any specific clause.
  • 539 bills cite [the General Welfare Clause].
  • 567 bills cite [the Commerce Clause].
  • 247 bills cite [the Necessary and Proper Clause], without citing a “foregoing power” as required by [Article I, section 8,] clause 18.
  • 309 bills cite two or more of the “general welfare” clause, commerce clause, or the “necessary and proper” clause.
  • 87 bills cite Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7, which provides that no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.
  • 210 bills cite Article 4, Section 3, which provides that Congress shall have the power to make rules and regulations respecting the territory or property of the United States.
  • 252 bills cite an amendment to the Constitution.  For example, 54 cite the 10th Amendment (powers not delegated to the federal government), 30 cite the 14th Amendment (“equal protection, etc.”), and 64 cite the 16th Amendment (income tax).

Pretty thin gruel and, as I noted above, not unexpected.  Then again, if the constitutional authority statement requirement has caused even one House member to waver over what he has the power to propose – let alone to refrain from offering a bill – this minor legislative rule will have been an improvement on the status quo ante.

More on Justin Amash

I wrote yesterday about a candidate for the House of Representatives who offered an interesting and critical look at his experience as a state legislator in Michigan. This candidate, Justin Amash, both reads the bills he votes on and posts explanations for his votes on his Facebook page. Here are two of his explanations:

Justin Amash just voted no on HBs 6038 and 6226, which impose stiff penalties and prison sentences on individuals who possess or use two synthetic drugs: one that mimics the effects of ecstasy and another that mimics the effects of marijuana. I have never possessed or used illicit drugs, nor should anyone. But this legislation is more about sensationalism than actual public protection. HB 6038 passed 105-1. HB 6226 passed 104-1.

Justin Amash just voted no on HR 294, which “recognize[s] the perfect game pitched by Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers on June 2, 2010, against the Cleveland Indians.” Congrats to Mr. Galarraga for his outstanding performance and achievement, but I’m not the commissioner of Major League Baseball, and this resolution is not an appropriate legislative matter. It passed 101-5.

If he keeps this up, I may stop being cynical about politics which would be a problem because I don’t know any other way to be, having living in DC for 18 years. But I’m willing to give it a try.

You can have a look at his other explanations for his votes here. (Make sure you go down to the older posts on his wall to get his explanations).

House GOP Announces First Vote to Repeal ObamaCare

House Republicans say they will force a vote to repeal ObamaCare’s individual mandate, which will subject nearly all Americans to fines and/or imprisonment if they do not purchase a government-designed health insurance plan.  They are soliciting public feedback on their America Speaking Out website, which explains:

We need to repeal and replace the health care law with common sense reforms that will actually lower health care costs and let Americans keep the plan they have and like. That’s why Republicans are offering a proposal to repeal the requirement forcing Americans to buy government-approved health insurance. Twenty states and the nation’s leading small business organization agree that this law is unconstitutional and that’s why they are suing to overturn it. The federal government shouldn’t be in the business of forcing you to buy health insurance and taxing you if you don’t.

I’d rather see the entire law repealed – including the price controls on health insurance, the trillions of dollars in health insurance subsidies, the CLASS Act, etc..  Why not do it all at once, just so you don’t miss anything important?

But this vote is unlikely to succeed, so I suppose there will be time for votes repealing the whole thing.

Collecting Your DNA—-Not Controversial

That’s why the House of Representatives has put “Katie’s Law” (H.R. 4614, the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act of 2010) on the “Suspension Calendar” today. That’s the procedure for considering non-controversial bills, giving them about 20 minutes of debate.

The bill would promote collection of DNA samples from people based simply on their arrest for certain crimes. Needless to say, being arrested is nothing close to conviction of a crime, at which time it might be fair to collect a person’s DNA for use as a powerful identifier in later criminal investigations. And if DNA evidence is relevant, let it be collected and used according to existing procedures.

But getting your DNA put in a database just because an investigator got you in his or her sights? It’s the reverse of “innocent until proven guilty.”

“Deem and Pass” and TARP

The leaders of the House of Representatives plan to address health care through a “deem and pass” strategy.  Professor Michael McConnell believes this strategy violates the Constitution.  But put that aside for now. Ms. Pelosi has chosen “deem and pass” because, as she said, “people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.” The “people” in question are House Democrats whose votes are essential to passing the bill.  These members fear voters would penalize them for voting for the Senate bill. As the Washington Post put it, “deem and pass” would “enable House Democrats not to be on record directly as supporting the Senate measure.”  A House Democrat running in a tough election will be able to deny voting for the Senate bill if it passes into law. We would then have an odd situation in which a bill became law even though only a minority of House members are willing to take responsibility for having supported it. It would be, as it were, a mystery how the bill became law.

This all reminds me of the TARP legislation. In my recent policy analysis of how Congress performed badly in the TARP case, I found that members of both of chambers were concerned mostly with avoiding responsibility for voting for the bailouts. In the tough cases, and probably many others, Congress does what it can to avoid being held accountable.

Many people inside DC will look at “deem and pass” through the lens of political hardball. If Pelosi can pull it off, she will be praised as tough and shrewd, a risk taker who gets her way by any means necessary.

But there is a larger problem here.  The willingness and capacity of Congress to shirk responsibility for its acts suggests deep institutional decline and corruption.  That decline implicates more than Congress itself. How can representative democracy work if voters cannot hold their representatives accountable?

The Census Asks Too Much

Everyone in America, I presume, has just received a letter from the U.S. Census Bureau urging us to fill out our Census forms. Seems like a very expensive way to tell us to watch for the form to arrive in the mail. But I’m particularly interested in why they say we should promptly fill out the form:

Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of [federal] government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.

Obviously this is a zero-sum game. If my neighbors and I all fill out the form, then you and your neighbors will get less from the common federal trough. But at least we’ll be getting our “fair share,” as the letter tells us twice in three sentences.

But where does the government get the authority to ask me my race, my age, and whether I have a mortgage? In fact, the Constitution authorizes the federal government to make an “actual enumeration” of the people in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. That’s all. Not to define and count us by race. Not to ask whether we’re homeowners or renters. Just to ask how many people live here, so they can apportion congressional seats.

I’m not interested in getting taxpayers around the country to pay for roads and schools and “many other programs” in my community. All the government needs to know from me is how many people live in my house. And I will tell them.

More on the census and the Constitution here.

The Empire Strikes Back

The Citizens United decision is barely out, and incumbent members of Congress are vowing to restore restrictions on political speech.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) said: “In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible.”

In the House of Representatives, Robert Brady, Chairman of the House Administration Committee - the panel responsible for campaign finance regulations - sent out an email that said: “I will be working directly with my colleagues, the Leadership and the White House to study the Court’s decision and to put together a timeline for legislative action that ensures the Court’s decision will not define the ways elections are conducted in 2010.”

It is difficult to see how Feingold, Brady and other members of Congress will be able to get around the clear and certain language of the Citizens United decision. But they will try. Nothing worries members more than free and critical speech, especially when the upcoming election already looks really bad for incumbents.