Congress is at it again. The Senate Commerce Committee has cleared a bill that would, in effect, enlist Chicago as an agency of the federal government. The immediate dispute involves O’Hare Airport, but the underlying constitutional issue affects us all. The question is whether there should be a major expansion of O’Hare or a new airport. That decision has been entrusted to Chicago, a city created under Illinois law. But the state placed an important condition on Chicago’s power to expand O’Hare: First, the city has to secure a state permit.
That’s the rub. Some people who favor the expansion don’t want Chicago to comply with the state-permit requirement. So they urged Congress to enact legislation that authorizes Chicago to do what state law forbids. Enter the U.S. Constitution. For over two centuries, the federal government has had the power to regulate interstate commerce. After the terrorist attacks, for example, Congress relied on that power to federalize airport security. Notably, Congress didn’t deal with the problem by ordering state and city police to take over security and pay the bills. That’s because the federal government knew it could not regulate by conscripting state or city governments as its agents.
Congress acknowledged that fundamental principle in 1789, the year that the Constitution was ratified. The First Congress enacted a law that requested state assistance to hold federal prisoners in state jails at federal expense. The law did not command the states’ executives, but merely recommended to their legislatures, and offered to pay 50 cents per month for each prisoner. When Georgia refused, Congress authorized the U.S. marshal to rent a temporary jail until a permanent one could be found. It never occurred to Congress that it could make city or state officials its minions by instructing them to act as if they were federal employees.
All this changed a little over a decade ago, when Congress had to decide how to dispose of radioactive waste. Rather than handle the matter directly, it chose a low-cost solution: It simply ordered the states to take care of the problem. The law required the states to take title to radioactive waste that private parties had generated, and be responsible for its disposal, at no cost to the federal government. In 1992, the Supreme Court invalidated the law, calling it an unprecedented effort by the federal government to co-opt legislative and executive branch officials of state government.
A few years later, Congress mandated background checks in connection with gun purchases. It didn’t want to spend federal money for bureaucrats to enforce the new law, so it told city and state law-enforcement personnel to carry out the background checks. Printz v. United States invalidated that portion of the federal law. The Supreme Court explained that city and state officials do not work for the federal government; they work for the state. Cities are creatures of state law, and they have only the powers that the state chooses to give them.
Federalism, the Court tells us, exists to protect the people by dividing power between the states and the federal government. That protection is undermined if Congress can bypass the federal bureaucracy by directing state or city officials to do its bidding. The Court added that allowing Congress to treat state officials as its worker bees is bad policy because it muddies responsibility, weakens political accountability, and increases federal power.
The Constitution gives Congress plenty of ways to deal with O’Hare, but they all cost money: Congress can use its spending power to expand the airport; it can give the state money on the condition that it expand the airport; it can order federal officials (the Army Corps of Engineers) to build the O’Hare expansion. But Congress may not simply order or authorize state or city officials to violate state law and act like federal employees. The proposed federal law dealing with the expansion of O’Hare Airport subjects Illinois to special burdens that are not applicable to other states or to private parties. And it authorizes Chicago, a city created by the state, to do that which Illinois law prohibits.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking for the Court in 1992, put it bluntly: “Where a federal interest is sufficiently strong to cause Congress to legislate, it must do so directly; it may not conscript state [or city] governments as its agents.”