After having my brain twisted into a pretzel reading yesterday’s ObamaCare decision, I was as disturbed as anyone. I mean, I had spent most of my life thinking I knew the difference between a “penalty” and a “tax,” and it turns out I was just fooling myself. Not to get too existentialist about this, but it has really made me question whether anything I think is real truly is.
Anyway, I eventually discovered what might be a small silver lining in the ruling, at least for education: the Medicaid section might have begun to place some, very nebulous, boundary on the ability of the federal government to bribe states into adopting federal rules. That has been the primary mode by which Washington has taken over elementary and secondary education—think No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers—and this ruling says there is a constitutional limit to what the federal government can do to coerce state action though spending.
Essentially, whether or not Spending Clause coercion is unconstitutional depends on whether it constitutes “undue influence” on states. For Chief Justice Roberts, that line was crossed when the Feds changed the rules for Medicaid and threatened states with the loss of all their funding if they didn’t follow the new strictures.
Obviously this doesn’t give us anything approaching a bright line on the limits to Spending Clause use. Such a limit surely can be found—no spending is allowed not connected to one of the specific, enumerated powers given to Washington by the Constitution—but Roberts writes that “Congress can use [Spending Clause] power to implement federal policy it could not impose directly under the enumerated powers.”
So why bother with enumerated powers? Got me…
Addressing education directly, the conservative justices noted that compared to Medicaid, federal education funding is a relatively small share of total spending, casting doubt on how applicable the ruling might be. In contrast, it was very gratifying to see those justices make a point I’ve made repeatedly, especially when discussing the absurd assertion that adopting national curriculum standards has been voluntary. Even if adoption were technically voluntary for states, taxpayers in those states have had no choice about paying the taxes that fund multi-billion-dollar carrots such as Race to the Top. Indeed, the conservatives write, were a state to fail to meet conditions attached to Spending Clause bucks, not only would it lose access to federal funds, it would likely have to raise its own taxes to make up for the shortfall, taxes that “would come on top of federal taxes already paid by the State’s citizens” for the spurned federal program.
The teensy bit of good news out of this ruling is that there is some limit to how coercive Washington can be under the Spending Clause, the clause that has been the linchpin of federal education policy. Unfortunately, the new problem is that were the Spending Clause avenue eventually cut off, Congress could probably just threaten the residents of recalcitrant states with some sort of financial penalty…er…tax. I mean, penalty…
Oh, my existentialist crisis!