Seeking a Power Agenda

US Capitol Building, Washington DC

Conventional wisdom holds that the Speakership of the House is an impossible job because the Republican caucus is ungovernable. On this narrative, compromise is profane, and conservative purists outflank any constructive proposal leadership makes, thus rendering it toxic to the opposition. The purists are the proverbial bidders in Burke’s “auction of popularity”: “If any [leader] should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular.”

Alas: What’s a speaker to do? 

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House v. Burwell

Capitol Flag

Even after the Supreme Court’s lamentable decision in King v. Burwell, litigation over the Affordable Care Act and the administration’s creative implementation of the statute continues. Last week, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that the House of Representatives has standing to sue the executive (more precisely, Secretaries Burwell and Lew) over their decision to implement an ACA program with unappropriated funds. While it’s certainly a good thing to keep this excretion of a statute in litigation, from here to eternity, there are reasons to be nervous about Judge Collyer’s ruling.

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Wheeler of Fortune

Last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced a plan to extend federal subsidies for low-income Americans from landline and mobile phone services to broadband. The Internet is so cool, the FCC wants to a) regulate it under Title II of the ancient  (1934) Telecommunications Act and b) make sure everyone has access to whatever is left of the Net once the agency is through with it. Republicans in Congress are moping that the FCC has horridly mismanaged even the existing subsidy program (called “Lifeline”), so they’re reluctant to support the broadband extension. There’ll be hearings.

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Obamacare Meets Rudy

Yesterday’s extended argument in King v. Burwell brought moments of something bordering on joy and gratitude. The exchanges between Justice Elena Kagan and Mike Carvin, both at their very considerable best, stand out: serious questions, serious answers; obvious mutual respect. No matter whose side (if any) you’re on, that’s the way the system is supposed to operate. Give thanks when it (still) does. And then, there were moments that made your heart sink: JUSTICE SCALIA: What about Congress? You really think Congress is just going to sit there while—while all of these disastrous consequences ensue. I mean, how often have we come out…

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How the Subservient Branch Declares War

Obama Asks Congress to Authorize War Against Islamic State

In the debate over the proposed new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, some have suggested that the President is asking to have his arms tied. In fact the move is cleverer. He is asking Congress to authorize what he has already done and therefore apparently thinks he can do anyway, and asking with enough modifiers—what is an “enduring” ground operation? who will decide how long it “endures”?—to vitiate any congressional limitations on his power.

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Abolish the State of the Union Address  


The enigma, and perhaps impetus, of swelling executive power is that when constitutionally asserted, the presidency is shrinking. Witness the White House’s apparent intent to use the State of the Union address to propose that—wait for it—Congress enact national standards regarding how quickly companies must inform customers of data breaches.

Now, hacking is bad and reporting it is good. But it is also time—and the constitutional conservative should reach this conclusion with due reluctance—to abolish the State of the Union address, whose most pernicious effect is its political imperative for the President to propose as many new ideas as possible, regardless of the need for them, while Congress occupies a supine posture of reaction.

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Liberating the States and Their People from Federal Grants: A Conversation with James Buckley


Now comes the great James Buckley to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his new book Saving Congress from Itself that argues federal grants-in-aid exemplify the obstacles currently posed to constitutional government. The key to our constitutional health must involve, Buckley declares, the elimination of these programs. The issue is more than just the overwhelming spending, which has soared from $24.1 billion in 1970 to approximately $640.8 billion in 2015. Buckley and I also discuss the obvious constitutional problems, namely, that through the so-called spending power Congress can impose laws on states that it otherwise possesses no constitutional authority to enact and enforce. As Michael Greve…

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Commerce, Interrrupted

Business Background

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.

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A Sanctions Shell Game

There “is a role for Congress,” says a spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council, “in our Iran policy.” This is big of her, seeing as how “our” Iran policy consists largely of sanctions imposed by the legislative authority of Congress. A great deal hangs on the spokeswoman’s cavalier use of the word “our.” The suggestion is that the nation’s disposition toward other nations is a constitutional plaything, belonging solely to “us,” which is to say to the executive, and to be shared at “our” discretion. Imagine a comparable audacity—or is it to be called magnanimity?—from a congressional spokesperson: “There…

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A Constitutional Congress

In an exceptionally important article, Chris DeMuth addresses the deep pathologies of our politics. Chris has written extensively about the fateful drift into executive government, which (he cogently explains) is also a debt-ridden and lawless government (see his website here).  In this piece, he tackles a principal institutional cause of those tendencies: for Congress, legislation has become an unnatural act, to be performed only in extremis. Thus, a constitutional revival will require a cultural revival. Recovering Congress’s lost powers will require relearning legislative skills, redirecting legislators’ energies, and risking the ire of party constituencies who are unfamiliar with the obligations of…

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