Ganesh Sitaraman has written an oped in the New York Times arguing that our Constitution was not built for a society as unequal as our has become. Even leaving aside the claim that our society is becoming substantially more unequal—one I have contested, the essay is mistaken. First, the Constitution as amended today empowers the federal government to engage in regulatory redistribution and progressive taxation to reduce economic inequality. Second, the Constitution of 1789 on which Professor Sitaraman principally focuses was consciously built to protect against legislative attempts to mandate more equality. The populist demagogues with whom the Framers were mainly concerned were those who would bamboozle the populous into debtor relief legislation and other wealth destroying schemes that could be sold, just as in our day, as aids to poor and retribution to the rich. Sitaraman misunderstands both our contemporary Constitution and our original Constitution.
After the 16th amendment and the New Deal Court’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause, the federal government has plenary powers of income taxation and regulation. There is nothing to prevent the left wing of the Democratic party from making our income tax code even more progressive than it already is.
As it tends to do when not in political control in Washington, the Left has rediscovered the power of state sovereignty. That doctrine is being used to resist the new administration’s federal immigration policy in a way that’s identical, in formalistic terms, to the Right’s tactics during the early days of the Obama administration—albeit in service of an opposite outcome.
In 1942, deciding the case of Wickard v. Filburn, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the wheat grown by an Ohio farmer purely for his own use and consumption—not for sale—to “exert a substantial effect on interstate commerce.” This infamous decision led many to conclude that the scope of Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause is essentially unlimited.
Now that understanding may be upended by a tiny, blind arachnid known as the “Bone Cave harvestman” (scientific name: Texella reyesi). This cave-dwelling invertebrate, which resembles a spider, has been included by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Endangered Species list since 1988. Pursuant to the Endangered Species Act and its enabling regulations, the “habitats” of endangered species cannot be modified or “degraded” without a federal permit.
Herewith (as promised) a brief comment on brother Rappaport’s splendid earlier post on the “exclusive” Commerce Clause. Here’s the key paragraph:
It is too bad that Congress does not have the exclusive commerce power, because I believe it would be better than the original meaning. An exclusive power would make it less likely that the states would have agreed to the New Deal expanded, concurrent commerce power. Thus, the exclusive power would have been unlikely to have been expanded into the broad scope that the current commerce power has. With a more limited scope, the federal government would have limited authority, as would the states. There would not be two governments exercising the same authority and neither would have complete power to create cartels. This arrangement came close to being followed in the pre New Deal era, when the Court came pretty close to recognizing a limited federal Commerce Power that was largely exclusive. But it is now, sadly from a policy perspective, gone with the wind.
I think there’s pretty powerful evidence to the effect that the Founders did mean the Commerce Clause to be exclusive; it’s just that their idea of what constitutes “commerce among the several states” was so much narrower that ours.
I’ve been traveling today, driving from Amherst back to Washington, and so I’m catching up with some of the comments drawn by the piece on Commencements and the bizarre implication that springs from the judgment of the Court in Lee v. Weisman. I want to thank Carl Scott for his stirring words on Natural Rights & the Right to Choose. But on this matter of whether I would try to make use of the lever revealed in this case, he has me wrong on one critical point: I’m always in favor of the conservatives making use of the ‘principles’ laid down by the Left in order to show how those principles would work quite forcefully against them. The Left persistently fails to live by the rules or principles it lays down for others, and so the only way of making them back away is to use the precedents they set in ways that they’ll find quite jarring.
Last year’s Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act was one of the most controversial cases in American history. In NFIB v. Sebelius, a narrow 5-4 ruling, the Court upheld the ACA’s individual health insurance mandate on the grounds that it was a constitutionally permissible tax, but rejected the federal government’s central arguments in defense of the mandate: the claim that it was authorized by Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. The mandate, which requires most Americans to purchase government-approved health insurance by 2014, was the central focus of challenges to the constitutionality of “Obamacare” mounted by 28 state governments and numerous private parties.
Harvard Law Professor Einer Elhauge’s book Obamacare on Trial is a useful and sometimes insightful statement of several arguments in defense of the mandate. It is impressive that Elhauge managed to get the book in print just a couple months after the Court’s decision came down on June 28, 2012. But, perhaps because of the haste with which it was published, the book fails to adequately address some key issues, and likely will not be persuasive to those not already inclined to agree with Elhauge’s conclusions.
The Supreme Court, I lamented yesterday, routinely falls down on its job of protecting interstate commerce against state depredation unless Congress has (arguably, sort of) made the first move. Mercifully, though, the Court is very generous both in finding that Congress has made such a move and in spinning out what that move entails. Exhibit A is the Federal Arbitration Act, on deck in tomorrow’s argument in American Express C. v. Italian Colors Restaurant.
I’ve griped before (I think) about the Supreme Court’s less-than-stellar record on protecting the commerce of the United States. The Upside-Down Constitution contains an extended riff on the theme. As always, I am entirely right. A pair of Supreme Court case—a lamentable cert denial last week, and a blockbuster argument this week—confirms the analysis and illustrates the justices’ passive-aggressive posture.