Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Letters from an Ohio Farmer

The Commerce Clause

May 24, 2011

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

Are there any limits, in principle, remaining on federal power in America?  We have seen in these letters that there are elected and appointed officials and citizens in the country who would answer, for all practical purposes: “No.” We have also seen that the question is not closed and that it is not just for lawyers or judges to decide; it belongs to all the people, and to all three branches of government.  Let us reflect on one path our nation took that, over the course of a couple of generations, made assertions of unlimited federal power commonplace in America; and let us consider some recent decisions by the courts that remind us that the constitutional conversation is not over.

Much of the current debate over federal authority (including the lawsuit over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—PPACA or Obamacare) turns on how much power Congress has under the Commerce Clause, which states that “Congress shall have Power to . . . regulate Commerce . . . among the several States.”  The Founders inserted the Commerce Clause into the Constitution to correct a deficiency in the Articles of Confederation, which led states to impose duties on goods from other states, or goods which traveled through their states.  James Madison lamented that, in some cases, it was cheaper to buy goods from Great Britain than from a neighboring state given the taxes and duties that the states were placing on the goods.  The Commerce Clause was intended to give Congress the authority to facilitate the free flow of goods among the states.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, states began to regulate areas like working conditions, hours, and crop production and pricing, but Progressives argued that federal regulation was necessary to bring about more reforms.  Many of these policies enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) some measure of popular support. But there was a problem for those who wished to implement the policies at the federal level: the Constitution provided no general authority to regulate businesses.  And so, Progressives and New Dealers in Congress and the White House turned to the Commerce Clause.

For a time, Progressives and New Dealers were politically successful in promoting their agenda in Congress and the White House, but they had less success in the courts, which found that, while Congress had authority to regulate some local activities that affected interstate commerce, the authority was limited. With retirements, replacements, and threats of court packing, the Court’s position changed over time.  By 1942, the Court decided a case in a way that many believed spelled the end of any limitation on federal authority.  In Wickard v. Filburn, the Court found that the federal government could regulate wheat grown by a farmer for personal consumption under the theory that such local activity, when aggregated, could substantially affect interstate commerce.

After Wickard, Congress passed innumerable regulations covering business and non-business activity alike based upon the Commerce Clause and the theory that, when aggregated, just about any activity could substantially affect commerce.  Over the course of decades, presidents of both parties signed legislation based upon expanding notions of federal authority, and on the popularity of the underlying legislative policy, and the courts acceded to the enterprise. But the constitutional conversation continued. In the mid-1990s, the Supreme Court struck down the Gun Free School Zones Act, finding that the federal government does not have a general police power to regulate the non-economic act of carrying a gun in a school zone.  Next, the Court struck down a provision of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which permitted individuals to sue their alleged attackers for gender motivated violence.  The Court again found that non-economic violent actions could not be aggregated to establish a substantial connection to interstate commerce.

Both of these bills were popular, passing Congress with overwhelming majorities.  And why not? Very few would argue in the abstract against banning guns at schools or prohibiting gender-motivated violence.  Given the popularity of the legislation, the Court’s decisions were first widely attacked, but over time they began to receive acceptance in quarters where few expected it. A constitutional conversation was kindled, between the branches—and among the people. Some feminists, for example, who chastised the Court for striking down VAWA, recognized that they did not like the idea of a federal government with unrestricted regulatory authority over their lives.  Citizens and their representatives began to talk not merely about whether the policy objectives sought by Congress were desirable, but whether the federal government was empowered to act in that sphere at all.

Which brings us back to Obamacare.  Is it bad policy?  That is a very important question. But whatever we might think about that, let us not fail to give our full and best attention to the separate and even more important question: Is it constitutional?  Even the courts that have upheld the act have recognized that there is something unprecedented at play.  Never before has Congress ordered citizens to buy something, and penalized them for failing to do so. If this is permitted, what are the limits? Congress doesn’t have the power to pass any law it wants; it has the powers given to it by the American people through our Constitution—nothing less, but also nothing more. Limits matter. A law based on the assumption that the commerce power is unlimited violates the basic principle of constitutional self-government.

What limits are there to federal authority? This should be the focus of our constitutional conversation.

Ohio Farmer