Tag: separation of powers

Government Will Lose Recess Appointments Case

This morning’s oral argument couldn’t have gone any better for those challenging President Obama’s recess appointments (see previous commentary and Cato’s brief for background on NLRB v. Noel Canning). Not only were Justices Scalia and Alito sticklers for constitutional text and structure, but the more liberal justices joined in to express extreme skepticism about the government’s theories. Justice Kagan pointed out that modern presidents don’t face congressional absences—the reason for the president’s power to appoint federal officials without the Senate’s “advice and consent”—but merely congressional “intransigence.” And the Recess Appointments Clause doesn’t exist to solve those kinds of political problems, noted Justice Breyer. Justice Breyer also pointed out that, if you follow the government’s argument that so-called “pro forma” Senate sessions don’t count, then the Senate repeatedly violates the Constitution by not having a “actual” sessions on January 3 (as the 20th Amendment requires) and by recessing for more than three days without the House’s consent (as Article I, Section 5 requires).

Solicitor General Verrilli’s suggestion that the Senate has to be engaging in business to deny the president the recess-appointments power didn’t seem to satisfy anyone. As Justice Kagan put it, any such test can be easily evaded by a clever Senate (that could name post offices by unanimous consent, for example, or, in Chief Justice Roberts’s example, note in the Senate Journal for “pro forma” sessions that “no business is anticipated to be [rather than will be] conducted”). Justice Kennedy said that he was “in search of a limiting principle” to the government’s position—so as not to simply give the president sole discretion to determine when the Senate is or isn’t in recess. Justice Kagan was left asking both sides how the Court should rule given that the presidential practice—whose history prior to the Truman administration the parties dispute—seemed to so clearly contradict the constitutional text and structure.

And indeed that is the question: If it’s true, as an overwhelming majority of the justices seemed to think, that the president was only supposed to have the power to make recess appointments during intersession recesses, and only for vacancies that arose during such recesses, what does it mean that this correct interpretation has never been followed? The challengers had several ready answers: (1) The Court hasn’t hesitated to make significant rulings upsetting existing practice based on separation-of-powers concerns (for example regarding the authority of criminal sentencing guidelines); (2) Past nominations won’t be unduly disturbed because of various finality rules, statutes of limitation, and agencies’ ability to ratify past decisions; (3) Given the changed modern context, with Congress in session for much longer periods and senators able to fly back to Washington on a moment’s notice, recess appointments are less important; and (4) Regardless of the correct interpretation of the recess-appointments power, it is the Senate that gets to determine when it’s in session or in recess, not the president.

While it’s unclear how exactly the Supreme Court will write its opinion in this case and where its focus will lie, it’ll be a real shock if the government wins this case. The justices recognized that the battle over executive and judicial nominations is a political one and that in cases of impasse, the Framers designed a system encouraging either political compromise or a final decision by the voters—not endless constitutional brinksmanship.

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.”

President Obama Can’t Dictate Senate Rules

While much attention has focused on the Senate’s recent vote to eliminate the ability to filibuster judicial and executive nominations, another aspect of constitutonal separation of powers will come to the fore in January when the Supreme Court hears argument in NLRB v. Noel Canning.

The Recess Appointments Clause, which gives the president the power to “fill up Vacancies” in federal offices and judgeships that “may happen during the Recess of the Senate,” allows the president to fill vacancies without going through the normal requirements of obtaining the Senate’s “advice and consent.” The Framers understood that, particularly during the nation’s early days, the president and the rest of the executive branch would be the only members of the government in Washington for the entire year, so important offices may become vacant while the Senate was out of session. The Recess Appointments Clause would thus be an important but rarely used exception to the normal confirmation process.

For nearly 200 years, however, presidents have been whittling down the clause’s requirements. For the first three decades of the Constitution, the clause was interpreted to apply only to vacancies that occurred during a recess—perhaps because a cabinet member died—and didn’t apply at all to vacancies that existed while the Senate was in session. During the Monroe administration, the attorney general first authorized appointments to offices that were vacant during the previous recess.

Never Mind the IRS, You’d Better Be Nice to Kathleen Sebelius

ObamaCare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board is everything its critics say and worse. It is a democracy-skirting, Congress-blocking, powers-unseparating, law-entrenching, tax-hiking, fund-appropriating, price-controlling, health-care-rationing, death-paneling, technocrat-thrilling, authoritarian, anti-constitutional super-legislature. Its very existence is testament to government incompetence. It stands as a milestone on the road to serfdom.

The Congressional Research Service has now confirmed what HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pretends not to know but what Diane Cohen and I explained here

[I]f President Obama fails to appoint any IPAB members, all these powers fall to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

That’s an awful lot of power to give any one person, particularly someone who has shown as much willingness to abuse her power as Sebelius has. 

I would also like the Congressional Research Service to address a feature of IPAB that Cohen and I first exposed. According to the statute, we write: 

Congress may only stop IPAB from issuing self-executing legislative proposals if three-fifths of all sworn members of Congress pass a joint resolution to dissolve IPAB during a short window in 2017. Even then, IPAB’s enabling statute dictates the terms of its own repeal, and it continues to grant IPAB the power to legislate for six months after Congress repeals it. If Congress fails to repeal IPAB through this process, then Congress can never again alter or reject IPAB’s proposals.

You read that right. For more, read our paper, especially Box 3 on page 9.

CRS, I’m interested to know what you think. Take a close look at the law and get back to me.

Obamacare’s Platonic Guardians

As followers of this blog recognize, Obamacare has more constitutional defects than just the individual mandate or even the coercive use of Medicaid funds.  One issue that is getting increasing attention (see the Weekly Standard, National Review, and George Will) is this weird new entity called the Independent Payment Advisory Board.

IPAB, which Sarah Palin famously labeled a “death panel,” will exercise virtually unchecked power to set Medicare reimbursement rates—without political or legal oversight by any branch of government.  It’s reminiscent of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, the part of the Sarbanes-Oxley financial regulation law that the Supreme Court found partially unconstitutional last year.  Except it has the power of life and death and is insulated even from repeal!

That is, IPAB creates “recommendations” for cutting Medicare spending, which then acquire the force of law.  Congress is specifically barred from reversing or modifying these “recommendations”; the only thing it can do is add further cuts.  It can also abolish IPAB, but only by passing a curious “resolution” that must be introduced between Jan. 3 and Feb. 1. 2017, and must be passed by 3/5 of all members of both houses by Aug. 15 of that same year.  Otherwise, Congress loses even its power to add further Medicare cuts and IPAB becomes a permanent fixture of of our health care world.

Suffice it to say, Congress cannot delegate its legislative authority to any such independent, everlasting institution.  One Congress can’t even bind its successors!

Pacific Legal Foundation principal attorney and Cato adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur unearthed this great nugget by someone defending Obamacare:

Amazingly, Timothy Jost, one of Obamacare’s most vocal advocates, has proudly proclaimed that IPAB will act like:

A board of “Platonic Guardians” to govern the health care system or some aspects of it. The cost of health care is spinning dangerously out of control…. [O]ur traditional political institutions—Congress and the executive administrative agencies—are too driven by special interest politics and too limited in their expertise and vision to control costs. Enter the Platonic guardians…an impartial, independent board of experts who could make evidence-based policy determinations based purely on the basis of effectiveness and perhaps efficiency.

Think about that for a second. Plato’s “Guardians” (also known as philosopher kings) were a group of “godlike” officials (that’s Plato’s word) who would wield undemocratic power to form the perfect utopian state without oversight. According to The Republic, the Guardians would, among their other things, enforce:

by law…such an art of medicine…[which] will care for the bodies and souls of such of your citizens as are truly wellborn, but those who are not, such as are defective in body, they will suffer to die, and those who are evil-natured and incurable in soul they will themselves put to death. This certainly…has been shown to be the best thing for the sufferers themselves and for the state.

America’s constitutional democracy was created in direct contradiction to such authoritarian ideas.

Luckily, our friends at the Goldwater Institute have a lawsuit pending against IPAB, Coons v. Geithner (here’s the case page).  You’ll be hearing a lot more about this case regardless of the final result of the individual mandate lawsuits.  Here’s PLF’s amicus brief on the important “non-delegation doctrine” issue at its heart.

AEP v. Connecticut: Global Warming as Political Question

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the massive greenhouse-gas suit. Like the other “big” global warming/climate change suits, this one suffers from a basic and incurable defect: it seeks to undermine the separation of powers established under the U.S. Constitution by inviting the courts to address “political questions” of a sort properly resolved by other branches of government. As Cato’s amicus brief by Ilya Shapiro and Evan Turgeon explained in the case of Comer v. Murphy Oil:

“[W]hile it executes firmly all the judicial powers intrusted to it, the court will carefully abstain from exercising any power that is not strictly judicial in its character, and which is not clearly confided to it by the Constitution.” Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, 355 (1911). A dispute is not “judicial in its character” when, among other reasons, the plaintiff does not have “standing” or the claim raises a “political question.” … And the political question doctrine, for which “the appropriateness under our system of government of attributing finality to the action of the political departments and also the lack of satisfactory criteria for a judicial determination are dominant considerations,” Coleman v. Miller, 307 U.S. 433, 454-55 (1939), isolates the judiciary from policy disputes the Constitution assigns to the democratic process.

By its nature, global warming is exactly the sort of policy question traditionally entrusted to the political branches: it is wholly unsuited to individualized justice based on links between particularized emissions and particularized effects, its proposed remedies are much disputed and likely to be the result of inevitably arbitrary compromise, sovereign negotiations with foreign actors play a crucial role, and so forth. As the courts have long recognized, one does not generate a case for judicial action simply by piling atop each other the propositions “something needs to be done” and “the political branches have not done it.” Indeed, the Obama administration itself has more or less invited the Supreme Court to dismiss the action on political-question grounds.

The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review the American Electric Power case and then filed another amicus brief on the merits. Anyone interested in how the complexities of the Court’s “political question” doctrine apply in this case should read – in addition to Ilya Shapiro’s blog posts here and here – this new article in the Federalist Society’s publication Engage by Megan L. Brown of Wiley Rein LLP, who has served as Counsel of Record to the Cato Institute in its amicus briefs in this area. Brown provides a thorough explanation of why all three of the major warming suits fail the justiciability test, why Justices Kennedy and Breyer may be worth watching as “swing” votes in AEP, and how the new case affords the court a chance to revisit its problematic pro-regulatory holding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007). (More from Brown in this Christian Science Monitor op-ed.)

Also worth reading on this subject: Harvard professor Laurence Tribe, by no means known as a general skeptic of environmental regulation, who has assisted the defense side in this litigation and explains some of the reasons in a new Boston Globe op-ed.

Thursday Links

  • DON’T FORGET: Our fiscal policy conference, “The Economic Impact of Government Spending,” featuring Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), former Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Representative Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), and other distinguished guests, begins at 2:00 p.m. Eastern today. Please join us on the web–you can watch the conference LIVE here.
  • Atlas Shrugged Motors presents the Chevy Volt.
  • The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us about the moral value of voluntary charity toward the needy–it says nothing about using coercive government programs of the modern welfare state.
  • It is not the role of the Court to rewrite laws for Congress.
  • The failed “war on drugs” has reshaped our budgets, politics, laws, and society–and for what?