There are sophisticated arguments for unlimited governmental interference in the affairs of citizens. By sophisticated, I mean that they seem, superficially, to resort to the text and meaning of the Constitution. Here is a good example:
How Do We Know What is An “Activity” for Commerce Clause Purposes?
Orin Kerr • December 2, 2010 6:14 pm
I appreciate Ilya [Somin]’s post below on the meaning of “activity” in Commerce Clause jurisprudence, and I wanted to add two brief observations:
1) If I understand Ilya’s argument, he begins with an assumption as to how much power Congress has, and he then reasons backwards to infer the meaning of “activity” in order to make that assumption correct. A conscious decision not to do something cannot be an “activity,” the thinking goes, because that would give Congress more power than a fair reading of the Commerce Clause would permit. Perhaps, but it seems to me that this argument largely assumes its conclusion. It uses the fact that Congress must have significant limits on its power to show that “activity” has a narrow meaning, which then is used to prove that Congress has significant limits on its power that the individual mandate exceeds. If you start with a different assumption, however, the argument doesn’t work. For example, if you start with the assumption about the scope of the Commerce Clause that Justice Kennedy articulates in his Lopez concurrence, then you can get a different meaning of “activity.”
I suspect some readers will object to this argument on the ground that they share Ilya’s assumption: Because Ilya’s assumption is correct, the argument works. That’s a fair point within the group that shares the assumption. The problem is that others don’t share the assumption, and starting with it won’t go very far in persuading them. That doesn’t necessarily mean Ilya is right or wrong. But I do think it means that this argument is likely not have a lot of force among the people not already inclined to agree with it.
2) More broadly, I still think that the easiest path to resolving the constitutionality of the individual mandate is that it is a “necessary and proper” means of trying to regulate the massive interstate market in health care that is around 1/7th of the United States economy. As I have blogged before, I think that’s a very strong argument based on Supreme Court caselaw on the meaning of “necessary and proper.” I realize that Ilya thinks that the Supreme Court precedents on the meaning of “necessary and proper” have not actually addressed what is “proper,” and thus that there is a still yet unarticulated limitation on the scope of federal power that remains to be developed — and that should be read as adding a level of scrutiny that the individual mandate fails to satisfy. But I don’t think the cases can be fairly read in that way, so it seems to me that the necessary and proper clause caselaw leads to the conclusion that the mandate should be upheld without getting into what counts as an “activity.”
Somin has replied to Kerr, who has replied to Somin, who has replied to Kerr, who has replied to Somin, etc. Their exchange could go on forever, so I will strike out on my own and leave Somin and Kerr to fight it out between themselves. In what follows, I use Kerr as a convenient whipping-boy, even though (in my understanding) he is only representing the defenses that others make of Obamacare and the individual mandate.
For my part, I have three questions about Kerr’s glib defense of the individual mandate: First, what does the size of the “market” for “health care” — an amorphous entity — have to do with the power of Congress to regulate it? Second, if “health care,” as an amorphous entity, is not a proper subject of regulation, then how can the individual mandate be a “necessary and proper” enactment? If Congress has always had the constitutional authority to regulate an industry (or something that loosely resembles one) — which it must if the Constitution is to be dispositive — why did it wait so long to exercise that authority (over railroads), in the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887?
With regard to the first question, Kerr seems to suggest that the fraction of GDP spent on “health care” justifies federal supervision of it. The estimates of GDP and its components given in Table 1.5.5 of the National Income Account tables (available here), indicate that health care accounts for 1/9th (not 1/7th) of GDP. The lower value is still a large share of GDP, but there is nothing in the Constitution that gives Congress the power to regulate loosely defined segments of the economy just because they account for more than X percent of GDP.
The Constitution simply gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. And not all activities comprised in “health care” occur in transactions that are properly considered interstate commerce. In fact, significant portions of it (e.g., the manufacture of products used in health care, the use of those products by health-care providers, and the personal services rendered by health-care providers) clearly occur outside the activities properly understood as interstate commerce: the sale and transmission of goods (tangible and intangible) across State lines.
With regard to the second question, it follows that the mandate cannot be “necessary and proper” if Congress lacks the authority to regulate “the massive interstate market in health care,” in the first place. On that point, I refer you to the Constitution. Here are the relevant portions, the “Commerce Clause” and the “Necessary and Proper Clause”:
To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof. (Article I, Section 8, final clause, emphasis added)
To dispose of the third question, the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, and much that has followed in its vein, is the culmination of raw politics and flawed interpretations of the Constitution. In 1887, Congress responded to public pressure (fomented, no doubt by competing interests and do-gooders) for action to quell the supposedly monopolistic practices of railroads. No principle of constitutional interpretation that takes the Constitution as something more than window-dressing can claim public pressure as a source of constitutional authority, unless public pressure leads to the adoption of a constitutional amendment in accordance with Article V. The many subsequent aggrandizements of Congress’s regulatory power are owed to the excesses of the “Progressive Era,” the “New Deal,” the “Great Society,” and the general failure of the Supreme Court to check those excesses.
Which brings us back to the regulation of “health care.” If the power of Congress to regulate “health care” cannot be found in its power to regulate interstate commerce, where can it be found? Nowhere in the Constitution. And if such a power cannot be found in the Constitution, then there can be no “necessary and proper” law that requires individuals to buy health insurance — or that authorizes Medicare, Medicaid, or their extension through Obamacare.
The defenders of Obamacare and the individual mandate would argue that it is “necessary and proper” to regulate activities (commercial or not) that are tangentially related to the portion of “health care” that is comprised in interstate commerce. That is so, in their view, because otherwise the effort to regulate the portion comprised in interstate commerce would fail to have the desired effect. In other words, they would regulate everything that can be labeled “health care,” and everything beyond that which threatens to undermine the intended regulatory outcome.
In so many words, the defenders of Obamacare and the individual mandate, like many others before them, want Congress to have the power to regulate anything and everything that they want Congress to regulate. This is nothing new under the sun, or the dome of the Capitol. Through the concatenation of the many regulatory regimes that have been granted similarly sweeping powers, Congress works its will on Americans, without regard for their liberty and property. Surely, that is not what the Framers intended when they vested in Congress specific powers — to the exclusion of powers not enumerated.
And so, the real issue — and the main subject of this post — comes down to this: Does Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce extend to “health care” generally, just because some aspects of it involve interstate commerce? In particular, can Congress constitutionally impose the individual mandate under the rubric of the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause?
To answer that question, I examined the relevant writings of the Framers and two early justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose writings are taken as authoritative. (Relevant excerpts are below the fold.) I compared what I found in those writings with the opinions of Justice Clarence Thomas in two salient cases: United States v. Lopez (1995) and Gonzalez v. Raich (2005). I focused on Justice Thomas because he has been the most reliable interpreter of the Constitution’s original meaning since he joined the Court in 1991. It is evident, even to this lay (but experienced) reader of legal documents, that Justice Thomas accurately represents the original meaning of the Constitution with respect to Congress’s regulatory power over interstate commerce. (If you’re anxious to get to the bottom line, scroll past the long excerpts of Thomas’s opinions to the concluding paragraphs of this post.)
Here are relevant excerpts of Thomas’s concurring opinion in United States v. Lopez. In that case, a 5-4 majority held that the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990, which forbids “any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows . . . is a school zone,” exceeded Congress’s Commerce Clause authority:
The Court today properly concludes that the Commerce Clause does not grant Congress the authority to prohibit gun possession within 1,000 feet of a school, as it attempted to do in the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990…. Although I join the majority, I write separately to observe that our case law has drifted far from the original understanding of the Commerce Clause….
We have said that Congress may regulate not only “Commerce . . . among the several states,” … but also anything that has a “substantial effect” on such commerce. This test, if taken to its logical extreme, would give Congress a “police power” over all aspects of American life….
At the time the original Constitution was ratified, “commerce” consisted of selling, buying, and bartering, as well as transporting for these purposes…. In fact, when Federalists and Anti Federalists discussed the Commerce Clause during the ratification period, they often used trade (in its selling/bartering sense) and commerce interchangeably….
As one would expect, the term “commerce” was used in contradistinction to productive activities such as manufacturing and agriculture. Alexander Hamilton, for example, repeatedly treated commerce, agriculture, and manufacturing as three separate endeavors….
Moreover, interjecting a modern sense of commerce into the Constitution generates significant textual and structural problems. For example, one cannot replace “commerce” with a different type of enterprise, such as manufacturing. When a manufacturer produces a car, assembly cannot take place “with a foreign nation” or “with the Indian Tribes.” Parts may come from different States or other nations and hence may have been in the flow of commerce at one time, but manufacturing takes place at a discrete site. Agriculture and manufacturing involve the production of goods; commerce encompasses traffic in such articles….
The Constitution not only uses the word “commerce” in a narrower sense than our case law might suggest, it also does not support the proposition that Congress has authority over all activities that “substantially affect” interstate commerce. The Commerce Clause does not state that Congress may “regulate matters that substantially affect commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” In contrast, the Constitution itself temporarily prohibited amendments that would “affect” Congress’ lack of authority to prohibit or restrict the slave trade or to enact unproportioned direct taxation…. Clearly, the Framers could have drafted a Constitution that contained a “substantially affects interstate commerce” clause had that been their objective.
In addition to its powers under the Commerce Clause, Congress has the authority to enact such laws as are “necessary and proper” to carry into execution its power to regulate commerce among the several States…. But on this Court’s understanding of congressional power under these two Clauses, many of Congress’ other enumerated powers under Art. I, §8 are wholly superfluous. After all, if Congress may regulate all matters that substantially affect commerce, there is no need for the Constitution to specify that Congress may enact bankruptcy laws, cl. 4, or coin money and fix the standard of weights and measures, cl. 5, or punish counterfeiters of United States coin and securities, cl. 6. Likewise, Congress would not need the separate authority to establish post-offices and post-roads, cl. 7, or to grant patents and copyrights, cl. 8, or to “punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas,” cl. 10. It might not even need the power to raise and support an Army and Navy, cls. 12 and 13, for fewer people would engage in commercial shipping if they thought that a foreign power could expropriate their property with ease. Indeed, if Congress could regulate matters that substantially affect interstate commerce, there would have been no need to specify that Congress can regulate international trade and commerce with the Indians. As the Framers surely understood, these other branches of trade substantially affect interstate commerce.
Put simply, much if not all of Art. I, §8 (including portions of the Commerce Clause itself) would be surplusage if Congress had been given authority over matters that substantially affect interstate commerce. An interpretation of cl. 3 that makes the rest of §8 superfluous simply cannot be correct. Yet this Court’s Commerce Clause jurisprudence has endorsed just such an interpretation: the power we have accorded Congress has swallowed Art. I, §8.
Indeed, if a “substantial effects” test can be appended to the Commerce Clause, why not to every other power of the Federal Government? There is no reason for singling out the Commerce Clause for special treatment. Accordingly, Congress could regulate all matters that “substantially affect” the Army and Navy, bankruptcies, tax collection, expenditures, and so on. In that case, the clauses of §8 all mutually overlap, something we can assume the Founding Fathers never intended.
Our construction of the scope of congressional authority has the additional problem of coming close to turning the Tenth Amendment on its head. Our case law could be read to reserve to the United States all powers not expressly prohibited by the Constitution. Taken together, these fundamental textual problems should, at the very least, convince us that the “substantial effects” test should be reexamined.
The exchanges during the ratification campaign reveal the relatively limited reach of the Commerce Clause and of federal power generally. The Founding Fathers confirmed that most areas of life (even many matters that would have substantial effects on commerce) would remain outside the reach of the Federal Government. Such affairs would continue to be under the exclusive control of the States….
Yet, despite being well aware that agriculture, manufacturing, and other matters substantially affected commerce, the founding generation did not cede authority over all these activities to Congress. Hamilton, for instance, acknowledged that the Federal Government could not regulate agriculture and like concerns:
“The administration of private justice between the citizens of the same State, the supervision of agriculture and of other concerns of a similar nature, all those things in short which are proper to be provided for by local legislation, can never be desirable cares of a general jurisdiction.” The Federalist No. 17, at 106.
In the unlikely event that the Federal Government would attempt to exercise authority over such matters, its effort “would be as troublesome as it would be nugatory.” Ibid. [n.4]
The comments of Hamilton and others about federal power reflected the well known truth that the new Government would have only the limited and enumerated powers found in the Constitution…. Even before the passage of the Tenth Amendment, it was apparent that Congress would possess only those powers “herein granted” by the rest of the Constitution….
Where the Constitution was meant to grant federal authority over an activity substantially affecting interstate commerce, the Constitution contains an enumerated power over that particular activity. Indeed, the Framers knew that many of the other enumerated powers in §8 dealt with matters that substantially affected interstate commerce. Madison, for instance, spoke of the bankruptcy power as being “intimately connected with the regulation of commerce.” The Federalist No. 42, at 287. Likewise, Hamilton urged that “[i]f we mean to be a commercial people or even to be secure on our Atlantic side, we must endeavour as soon as possible to have a navy.” Id., No. 24, at 157 (A. Hamilton).
In short, the Founding Fathers were well aware of what the principal dissent calls ” `economic . . . realities.’ “… Even though the boundary between commerce and other matters may ignore “economic reality” and thus seem arbitrary or artificial to some, we must nevertheless respect a constitutional line that does not grant Congress power over all that substantially affects interstate commerce.
If the principal dissent’s understanding of our early case law were correct, there might be some reason to doubt this view of the original understanding of the Constitution. According to that dissent, Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden, … established that Congress may control all local activities that “significantly affect interstate commerce,”… And, “with the exception of one wrong turn subsequently corrected,” this has been the “traditiona[l]” method of interpreting the Commerce Clause….
In my view, the dissent is wrong about the holding and reasoning of Gibbons. Because this error leads the dissent to characterize the first 150 years of this Court’s case law as a “wrong turn,” I feel compelled to put the last 50 years in proper perspective.
In Gibbons, the Court examined whether a federal law that licensed ships to engage in the “coasting trade” pre-empted a New York law granting a 30 year monopoly to Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton to navigate the State’s waterways by steamship. In concluding that it did, the Court noted that Congress could regulate “navigation” because “[a]ll America . . . has uniformly understood, the word `commerce,’ to comprehend navigation. It was so understood, and must have been so understood, when the constitution was framed.”… The Court also observed that federal power over commerce “among the several States” meant that Congress could regulate commerce conducted partly within a State. Because a portion of interstate commerce and foreign commerce would almost always take place within one or more States, federal power over interstate and foreign commerce necessarily would extend into the States….
At the same time, the Court took great pains to make clear that Congress could not regulate commerce “which is completely internal, which is carried on between man and man in a State, or between different parts of the same State, and which does not extend to or affect other States.”… Moreover, while suggesting that the Constitution might not permit States to regulate interstate or foreign commerce, the Court observed that “[i]nspection laws, quarantine laws, health laws of every description, as well as laws for regulating the internal commerce of a State” were but a small part “of that immense mass of legislation . . . not surrendered to a general government.”… From an early moment, the Court rejected the notion that Congress can regulate everything that affects interstate commerce. That the internal commerce of the States and the numerous state inspection, quarantine, and health laws had substantial effects on interstate commerce cannot be doubted. Nevertheless, they were not “surrendered to the general government.”
Of course, the principal dissent is not the first to misconstrue Gibbons. For instance, the Court has stated that Gibbons “described the federal commerce power with a breadth never yet exceeded.”… I believe that this misreading stems from two statements in Gibbons.
First, the Court made the uncontroversial claim that federal power does not encompass “commerce” that “does not extend to or affect other States.”… From this statement, the principal dissent infers that whenever an activity affects interstate commerce, it necessarily follows that Congress can regulate such activities. Of course, Chief Justice Marshall said no such thing and the inference the dissent makes cannot be drawn.
There is a much better interpretation of the “affect[s]” language: because the Court had earlier noted that the commerce power did not extend to wholly intrastate commerce, the Court was acknowledging that although the line between intrastate and interstate/foreign commerce would be difficult to draw, federal authority could not be construed to cover purely intrastate commerce. Commerce that did not affect another State could never be said to be commerce “among the several States.”
But even if one were to adopt the dissent’s reading, the “affect[s]” language, at most, permits Congress to regulate only intrastate commerce that substantially affects interstate and foreign commerce. There is no reason to believe that Chief Justice Marshall was asserting that Congress could regulate all activities that affect interstate commerce…
The second source of confusion stems from the Court’s praise for the Constitution’s division of power between the States and the Federal Government:
“The genius and character of the whole government seem to be, that its action is to be applied to all the external concerns of the nation, and to those internal concerns which affect the States generally; but not to those which are completely within a particular State, which do not affect other States, and with which it is not necessary to interfere, for the purpose of executing some of the general powers of the government.”…
In this passage, the Court merely was making the well understood point that the Constitution commits matters of “national” concern to Congress and leaves “local” matters to the States. The Court was not saying that whatever Congress believes is a national matter becomes an object of federal control. The matters of national concern are enumerated in the Constitution: war, taxes, patents, and copyrights, uniform rules of naturalization and bankruptcy, types of commerce, and so on…. Gibbons‘ emphatic statements that Congress could not regulate many matters that affect commerce confirm that the Court did not read the Commerce Clause as granting Congress control over matters that “affect the States generally.” Gibbons simply cannot be construed as the principal dissent would have it.
I am aware of no cases prior to the New Deal that characterized the power flowing from the Commerce Clause as sweepingly as does our substantial effects test. My review of the case law indicates that the substantial effects test is but an innovation of the 20th century.
Even before Gibbons, Chief Justice Marshall, writing for the Court in Cohens v. Virginia, … noted that Congress had “no general right to punish murder committed within any of the States,” … and that it was “clear that congress cannot punish felonies generally,”… The Court’s only qualification was that Congress could enact such laws for places where it enjoyed plenary powers–for instance, over the District of Columbia…. Thus, whatever effect ordinary murders, or robbery, or gun possession might have on interstate commerce (or on any other subject of federal concern) was irrelevant to the question of congressional power.
United States v. Dewitt … marked the first time the Court struck down a federal law as exceeding the power conveyed by the Commerce Clause. In a two page opinion, the Court invalidated a nationwide law prohibiting all sales of naphtha and illuminating oils. In so doing, the Court remarked that the Commerce Clause “has always been understood as limited by its terms; and as a virtual denial of any power to interfere with the internal trade and business of the separate States.”… The law in question was “plainly a regulation of police,” which could have constitutional application only where Congress had exclusive authority, such as the territories….
In United States v. E. C. Knight Co., … this Court held that mere attempts to monopolize the manufacture of sugar could not be regulated pursuant to the Commerce Clause. Raising echoes of the discussions of the Framers regarding the intimate relationship between commerce and manufacturing, the Court declared that “[c]ommerce succeeds to manufacture, and is not a part of it.”… The Court also approvingly quoted from Kidd v. Pearson … :
” `No distinction is more popular to the common mind, or more clearly expressed in economic and political literature, than that between manufacture and commerce . . . . If it be held that the term [commerce] includes the regulation of all such manufactures as are intended to be the subject of commercial transactions in the future, it is impossible to deny that it would also include all productive industries that contemplate the same thing. The result would be that Congress would be invested . . . with the power to regulate, not only manufactures, but also agriculture, horticulture, stock raising, domestic fisheries, mining–in short, every branch of human industry.’ “…
If federal power extended to these types of production “comparatively little of business operations and affairs would be left for state control.”… Whether or not manufacturing, agriculture, or other matters substantially affected interstate commerce was irrelevant.
As recently as 1936, the Court continued to insist that the Commerce Clause did not reach the wholly internal business of the States…. The Federal Government simply could not reach such subjects regardless of their effects on interstate commerce.
These cases all establish a simple point: from the time of the ratification of the Constitution to the mid 1930’s, it was widely understood that the Constitution granted Congress only limited powers, notwithstanding the Commerce Clause. Moreover, there was no question that activities wholly separated from business, such as gun possession, were beyond the reach of the commerce power. If anything, the “wrong turn” was the Court’s dramatic departure in the 1930’s from a century and a half of precedent.
Apart from its recent vintage and its corresponding lack of any grounding in the original understanding of the Constitution, the substantial effects test suffers from the further flaw that it appears to grant Congress a police power over the Nation. When asked at oral argument if there were any limits to the Commerce Clause, the Government was at a loss for words…. Likewise, the principal dissent insists that there are limits, but it cannot muster even one example…. Indeed, the dissent implicitly concedes that its reading has no limits when it criticizes the Court for “threaten[ing] legal uncertainty in an area of law that . . . seemed reasonably well settled.”… The one advantage of the dissent’s standard is certainty: it is certain that under its analysis everything may be regulated under the guise of the Commerce Clause.
The substantial effects test suffers from this flaw, in part, because of its “aggregation principle.” Under so called “class of activities” statutes, Congress can regulate whole categories of activities that are not themselves either “interstate” or “commerce.” In applying the effects test, we ask whether the class of activities as a whole substantially affects interstate commerce, not whether any specific activity within the class has such effects when considered in isolation….
The aggregation principle is clever, but has no stopping point. Suppose all would agree that gun possession within 1,000 feet of a school does not substantially affect commerce, but that possession of weapons generally (knives, brass knuckles, nunchakus, etc.) does. Under our substantial effects doctrine, even though Congress cannot single out gun possession, it can prohibit weapon possession generally. But one always can draw the circle broadly enough to cover an activity that, when taken in isolation, would not have substantial effects on commerce. Under our jurisprudence, if Congress passed an omnibus “substantially affects interstate commerce” statute, purporting to regulate every aspect of human existence, the Act apparently would be constitutional. Even though particular sections may govern only trivial activities, the statute in the aggregate regulates matters that substantially affect commerce.
This extended discussion of the original understanding and our first century and a half of case law does not necessarily require a wholesale abandonment of our more recent opinions. It simply reveals that our substantial effects test is far removed from both the Constitution and from our early case law and that the Court’s opinion should not be viewed as “radical” or another “wrong turn” that must be corrected in the future. The analysis also suggests that we ought to temper our Commerce Clause jurisprudence.
Unless the dissenting Justices are willing to repudiate our long held understanding of the limited nature of federal power, I would think that they too must be willing to reconsider the substantial effects test in a future case. If we wish to be true to a Constitution that does not cede a police power to the Federal Government, our Commerce Clause’s boundaries simply cannot be “defined” as being ” `commensurate with the national needs’ ” or self consciously intended to let the Federal Government ” `defend itself against economic forces that Congress decrees inimical or destructive of the national economy.’ “… Such a formulation of federal power is no test at all: it is a blank check.
At an appropriate juncture, I think we must modify our Commerce Clause jurisprudence. Today, it is easy enough to say that the Clause certainly does not empower Congress to ban gun possession within 1,000 feet of a school.
Thomas was in the minority in Gonzalez v. Raich, where a 6-3 majority held that Congress’s Commerce Clause authority includes the power to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana in compliance with California law. Thomas’s dissent restates points he made in his opinion in United States v. Lopez, but delves further into the scope of the Necessary and Proper clause:
Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything–and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers….
Respondents’ local cultivation and consumption of marijuana is not “Commerce … among the several States.”… By holding that Congress may regulate activity that is neither interstate nor commerce under the Interstate Commerce Clause, the Court abandons any attempt to enforce the Constitution’s limits on federal power. The majority supports this conclusion by invoking, without explanation, the Necessary and Proper Clause. Regulating respondents’ conduct, however, is not “necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” Congress’ restrictions on the interstate drug trade…. Thus, neither the Commerce Clause nor the Necessary and Proper Clause grants Congress the power to regulate respondents’ conduct….
The majority advances three reasons why the CSA is a legitimate exercise of Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause: First, respondents’ conduct, taken in the aggregate, may substantially affect interstate commerce … ; second, regulation of respondents’ conduct is essential to regulating the interstate marijuana market, ante … ; and, third, regulation of respondents’ conduct is incidental to regulating the interstate marijuana market…. Justice O’Connor explains why the majority’s reasons cannot be reconciled with our recent Commerce Clause jurisprudence. The majority’s justifications, however, suffer from even more fundamental flaws….
The majority’s treatment of the substantial effects test is rootless, because it is not tethered to either the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause. Under the Commerce Clause, Congress may regulate interstate commerce, not activities that substantially affect interstate commerce–any more than Congress may regulate activities that do not fall within, but that affect, the subjects of its other Article I powers…. Whatever additional latitude the Necessary and Proper Clause affords, … the question is whether Congress’ legislation is essential to the regulation of interstate commerce itself–not whether the legislation extends only to economic activities that substantially affect interstate commerce….
…This Court has never held that Congress can regulate noneconomic activity that substantially affects interstate commerce…. To evade even that modest restriction on federal power, the majority defines economic activity in the broadest possible terms as the “ ‘the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities.’ ”… This carves out a vast swath of activities that are subject to federal regulation…. If the majority is to be taken seriously, the Federal Government may now regulate quilting bees, clothes drives, and potluck suppers throughout the 50 States. This makes a mockery of Madison’s assurance to the people of New York that the “powers delegated” to the Federal Government are “few and defined,” while those of the States are “numerous and indefinite.” The Federalist No. 45, at 313 (J. Madison).
Moreover, even a Court interested more in the modern than the original understanding of the Constitution ought to resolve cases based on the meaning of words that are actually in the document. Congress is authorized to regulate “Commerce,” and respondents’ conduct does not qualify under any definition of that term. The majority’s opinion only illustrates the steady drift away from the text of the Commerce Clause. There is an inexorable expansion from “ ‘commerce,’ ” … to “commercial” and “economic” activity, … and finally to all “production, distribution, and consumption” of goods or services for which there is an “established … interstate market”…. Federal power expands, but never contracts, with each new locution. The majority is not interpreting the Commerce Clause, but rewriting it.
The majority’s rewriting of the Commerce Clause seems to be rooted in the belief that, unless the Commerce Clause covers the entire web of human activity, Congress will be left powerless to regulate the national economy effectively…. The interconnectedness of economic activity is not a modern phenomenon unfamiliar to the Framers…. Moreover, the Framers understood what the majority does not appear to fully appreciate: There is a danger to concentrating too much, as well as too little, power in the Federal Government. This Court has carefully avoided stripping Congress of its ability to regulate interstate commerce, but it has casually allowed the Federal Government to strip States of their ability to regulate intrastate commerce–not to mention a host of local activities, like mere drug possession, that are not commercial.
One searches the Court’s opinion in vain for any hint of what aspect of American life is reserved to the States. Yet this Court knows that “ ‘[t]he Constitution created a Federal Government of limited powers.’ ”… That is why today’s decision will add no measure of stability to our Commerce Clause jurisprudence: This Court is willing neither to enforce limits on federal power, nor to declare the Tenth Amendment a dead letter. If stability is possible, it is only by discarding the stand-alone substantial effects test and revisiting our definition of “Commerce among the several States.” Congress may regulate interstate commerce–not things that affect it, even when summed together, unless truly “necessary and proper” to regulating interstate commerce….
The majority also inconsistently contends that regulating respondents’ conduct is both incidental and essential to a comprehensive legislative scheme…. [T]he majority further claims that, because the CSA covers a great deal of interstate commerce, it “is of no moment” if it also “ensnares some purely intrastate activity.”… So long as Congress casts its net broadly over an interstate market, according to the majority, it is free to regulate interstate and intrastate activity alike. This cannot be justified under either the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause. If the activity is purely intrastate, then it may not be regulated under the Commerce Clause. And if the regulation of the intrastate activity is purely incidental, then it may not be regulated under the Necessary and Proper Clause….
It is safe to say that a proper reading of the Constitution, as exemplified in the authoritative opinions excerpted above, yields no authority for Obamacare. That monstrosity — the official, Orwellian title of which is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) — attempts to reach an aggregation known as “health care,” without any differentiation between interstate commerce, intrastate commerce, and activities that are part of neither, namely, the choices of individuals with respect to health insurance.
It may be a valid exercise of Congress’s power to regulate actual interstate commerce that touches on the provision of health care. It is not a valid exercise to aggregate everything called “health care” and to regulate it as if it were all within the reach of Congress. When that happens, there is no room left — in “health care” nor, by extension, any other loose aggregation of activities — for State action or individual choice.
In sum, Obamacare is neither a valid regulation of interstate commerce nor necessary and proper to a valid regulation of interstate commerce. It is a governmental seizure of 1/9th of the economy. The individual mandate — which is a central feature of that seizure — is nothing more than coercion. It is no less peremptory than the military draft.
And thus has the power to regulate interstate commerce evolved from its original purposes — the protection of American industry in its infancy and the prevention of trade wars among the States — to an instrument of dictatorship. For that is what it is, regardless of the participation of the “people’s representatives.”
It is long past time for the Supreme Court to reverse the long string of Commerce Clause decisions through which the federal government has acquired and exercised dictatorial power. Otherwise, we might as well shred the Constitution, once and for all, and quit paying lip-service to it.
Related post: Social Security Is Unconstitutional
RELEVANT WRITINGS BY THE FRAMERS AND TWO KEY JUSTICES
SOURCE 1: James Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention. Here are the passages that pertain to the purposes of the Commerce Clause:
Mr. RANDOLPH then opened the main business….
He then proceeded to enumerate the defects [of the confederation]: ….
2. [FN9] that the foederal government could not check the quarrels between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power nor means to interpose according to the exigency: 3. [FN9] tha t there were many advantages, which the U. S. might acquire, which were not attainable under the confederation-such as a productive impost- counteraction of the commercial regulations of other nations-pushing of commerce ad libitum-&c &c.
…Mr. BEDFORD. In answer to his colleague’s question where wd. be the danger to the States from this power [giving Congress a “negative” on laws of the States], would refer him to the smallness of his own State which may be injured at pleasure without redress…. Is there no difference of interests, no rivalship of commerce, of manufactures? Will not these large States crush the small ones whenever they stand in the way of their ambitious or interested views.
Mr. SHERMAN from the Committee to whom were referred several propositions on the 25th. instant, made the following report- [FN2]
That there be inserted after the 4 clause of [FN3] 7th. section
“Nor shall any regulation of commerce or revenue give preference to the ports of one State over those of another, or oblige vessels bound to or from any State to enter, clear or pay duties in another and all tonnage, duties, imposts & excises laid by the Legislature shall be uniform throughout the U. S.” [Which became Article I, Section 9, Clause 6: “No Preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another; nor shall Vessels bound to, or from, one State, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay Duties in another.”] ….
Col: MASON, observed that particular States might wish to encourage by import [FN21] duties certain manufactures for which they enjoyed natural advantages, as Virginia, the manufacture of Hemp &c.
Mr. MADISON. The encouragement of Manufactures in that mode requires duties not only on imports directly from foreign Countries, but from the other States in the Union, which would revive all the mischiefs experienced from the want of a Genl. Government over commerce.
The motivations for and purposes of the Commerce Clause are revealed by the foregoing passages. Individual States were making special deals with foreign trading partners and erecting barriers to interstate trad in order to favor indigenous industries. The idea of the Commerce Clause was to replace the conflicting, contentious acts of the States with uniform rules for foreign and interstate commerce, which Congress would supply. The evident purposes of the grant of power to Congress were to enable Congress to protect American industries and, at the same time, to prevent the States from engaging in “trade wars” with each other. The Commerce Clause had (and still has) nothing to do with interference by Congress in activities to interstate commerce (e.g., the specifications of the goods being traded, the operation of manufacturing and retailing facilities). It certainly has nothing to do with tangential activities that might, in some remote way, affect interstate commerce, Wickard v. Filburn (1942) to the contrary notwithstanding.
IN ADDITION to the defects already enumerated in the existing federal system, there are others of not less importance, which concur in rendering it altogether unfit for the administration of the affairs of the Union.
The want of a power to regulate commerce is by all parties allowed to be of the number…. It is indeed evident, on the most superficial view, that there is no object, either as it respects the interests of trade or finance, that more strongly demands a federal superintendence. The want of it has already operated as a bar to the formation of beneficial treaties with foreign powers, and has given occasions of dissatisfaction between the States. No nation acquainted with the nature of our political association would be unwise enough to enter into stipulations with the United States, by which they conceded privileges of any importance to them, while they were apprised that the engagements on the part of the Union might at any moment be violated by its members, and while they found from experience that they might enjoy every advantage they desired in our markets, without granting us any return but such as their momentary convenience might suggest….
Several States have endeavored, by separate prohibitions, restrictions, and exclusions, to influence the conduct of [Great Britain] in this particular, but the want of concert, arising from the want of a general authority and from clashing and dissimilar views in the State, has hitherto frustrated every experiment of the kind, and will continue to do so as long as the same obstacles to a uniformity of measures continue to exist.
The interfering and unneighborly regulations of some States, contrary to the true spirit of the Union, have, in different instances, given just cause of umbrage and complaint to others, and it is to be feared that examples of this nature, if not restrained by a national control, would be multiplied and extended till they became not less serious sources of animosity and discord than injurious impediments to the intercourse between the different parts of the Confederacy. “The commerce of the German empire is in continual trammels from the multiplicity of the duties which the several princes and states exact upon the merchandises passing through their territories, by means of which the fine streams and navigable rivers with which Germany is so happily watered are rendered almost useless.” Though the genius of the people of this country might never permit this description to be strictly applicable to us, yet we may reasonably expect, from the gradual conflicts of State regulations, that the citizens of each would at length come to be considered and treated by the others in no better light than that of foreigners and aliens….
And this is from Madison’s Federalist No. 42:
…The defect of power in the existing Confederacy to regulate the commerce between its several members, is in the number of those which have been clearly pointed out by experience. To the proofs and remarks which former papers have brought into view on this subject, it may be added that without this supplemental provision, the great and essential power of regulating foreign commerce would have been incomplete and ineffectual. A very material object of this power was the relief of the States which import and export through other States, from the improper contributions levied on them by the latter. Were these at liberty to regulate the trade between State and State, it must be foreseen that ways would be found out to load the articles of import and export, during the passage through their jurisdiction, with duties which would fall on the makers of the latter and the consumers of the former. We may be assured by past experience, that such a practice would be introduced by future contrivances; and both by that and a common knowledge of human affairs, that it would nourish unceasing animosities, and not improbably terminate in serious interruptions of the public tranquillity. To those who do not view the question through the medium of passion or of interest, the desire of the commercial States to collect, in any form, an indirect revenue from their uncommercial neighbors, must appear not less impolitic than it is unfair; since it would stimulate the injured party, by resentment as well as interest, to resort to less convenient channels for their foreign trade. But the mild voice of reason, pleading the cause of an enlarged and permanent interest, is but too often drowned, before public bodies as well as individuals, by the clamors of an impatient avidity for immediate and immoderate gain.
The necessity of a superintending authority over the reciprocal trade of confederated States, has been illustrated by other examples as well as our own. In Switzerland, where the Union is so very slight, each canton is obliged to allow to merchandises a passage through its jurisdiction into other cantons, without an augmentation of the tolls. In Germany it is a law of the empire, that the princes and states shall not lay tolls or customs on bridges, rivers, or passages, without the consent of the emperor and the diet; though it appears from a quotation in an antecedent paper, that the practice in this, as in many other instances in that confederacy, has not followed the law, and has produced there the mischiefs which have been foreseen here. Among the restraints imposed by the Union of the Netherlands on its members, one is, that they shall not establish imposts disadvantageous to their neighbors, without the general permission….
The two essays, in short, support my earlier characterization of the purposes of the Commerce Clause.
SOURCE 3: Chief Justice John Marshall description of the scope of Congress’s power to regulate commerce in Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). The issue underlying that case was whether the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce was absolute or shared with the States. On that point, Marshall found decisively for Congress:
It is the power to regulate; that is, to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to be governed. This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the constitution.
The fact that the Constitution seems not to limit Congress’s regulatory power over interstate commerce does not, however, license Congress to do anything it wishes under the rubric of the Commerce Clause. There is the the question of the scope of interstate commerce, which Marshall addresses head on:
The subject to which the power is next applied, is to commerce ‘among the several States.’ The word ‘among’ means intermingled with. A thing which is among others, is intermingled with them. Commerce among the States, cannot stop at the external boundary line of each State, but may be introduced into the interior.
It is not intended to say that these words comprehend that commerce, which is completely internal, which is carried on between man and man in a State, or between different parts of the same State, and which does not extend to or affect other States. Such a power would be inconvenient, and is certainly unnecessary.
Comprehensive as the word ‘among’ is, it may very properly be restricted to that commerce which concerns more States than one. The phrase is not one which would probably have been selected to indicate the completely interior traffic of a State, because it is not an apt phrase for that purpose; and the enumeration of the particular classes of commerce, to which the power was to be extended, would not have been made, had the intention been to extend the power to every description. The enumeration presupposes something not enumerated; and that something, if we regard the language or the subject of the sentence, must be the exclusively internal commerce of a State…. The completely internal commerce of a State, then, may be considered as reserved for the State itself.
But Marshall proceeds to give Congress unlimited scope with respect to the definition and regulation of interstate commerce:
We are now arrived at the inquiry-What is this power?
It is the power to regulate; that is, to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to be governed. This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the constitution. These are expressed in plain terms, and do not affect the questions which arise in this case, or which have been discussed at the bar. If, as has always been understood, the sovereignty of Congress, though limited to specified objects, is plenary as to those objects, the power over commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, is vested in Congress as absolutely as it would be in a single government, having in its constitution the same restrictions on the exercise of the power as are found in the constitution of the United States. The wisdom and the discretion of Congress, their identity with the people, and the influence which their constituents possess at elections, are, in this, as in many other instances, as that, for example, of declaring war, the sole restraints on which they have relied, to secure them from its abuse. They are the restraints on which the people must often [rely] solely, in all representative governments.
On a first reading, Marshall seems to convert a constitutionally limited power into one that is limited only by the ability of voters to restrain Congress. Yet, we know from Madison’s notes and Federalist Nos. 22 and 42, the purpose of the Commerce Clause was not to give Congress unlimited power over interstate commerce and everything conceivably connected to it, but to quell internecine trade warfare.
It is easy to reconcile Marshall and the Framers when we look at Gibbons v. Ogden from the proper historical perspective, and not through the lens of modern controversies. Recall that the issue at hand in Gibbons v. Ogden was whether navigation, when it is an integral element of interstate commerce, is subject to Congress’s regulatory power. Marshall’s reasonable answer is “yes.” Moreover, having already said that Congress has no jurisdiction over intrastate commerce, Marshall’s apparently unlimited grant of authority to Congress is nothing of the kind. Marshall merely underscores the point that Congress — and only Congress — decides how to regulate interstate commerce. He does not grant Congress a license to call anything and everything an aspect of interstate commerce. He acknowledges as much when he reminds us that the power of Congress is “limited to specified objects.”
SOURCE 4: “Chapter XV. Power to Borrow Money and Regulate Commerce” of Justice Joseph Story’s authoritative Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833, footnotes omitted):
§ 1052. The next power of congress is, “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”
§ 1053. The want of this power (as has been already seen) was one of the leading defects of the confederation, and probably, as much as any one cause, conduced to the establishment of the constitution.It is a power vital to the prosperity of the Union; and without it the government would scarcely deserve the name of a national government; and would soon sink into discredit and imbecility.It Would stand, as a mere shadow or sovereignty, to mock our hopes, and involve us in a common ruin.
§ 1054. The oppressed and degraded state of commerce, previous to the adoption of the constitution, can scarcely be forgotten. It was regulated by foreign nations with a single view to their own interests; and our disunited efforts to counteract their restrictions were rendered impotent by a want of combination. Congress, indeed, possessed the power of making treaties; but the inability of the federal government to enforce them had become so apparent, as to render that power in a great degree useless. Those, who felt the injury arising from this state of things, and those, who were capable of estimating the influence of commerce on the prosperity of nations, perceived the necessity of giving the control over this important subject to a single government. It is not, therefore, matter of surprise, that the grant should be as extensive, as the mischief, and should comprehend all foreign commerce, and all commerce among the states.
§ 1055. But this subject has been already so much discussed, and the reasons for conferring the power so fully. developed, that it seems unnecessary to dwell farther upon its importance and necessity.In the convention there does not appear to have been any considerable (if, indeed, there was any) opposition to the grant of the power. It was reported in the first draft of the constitution exactly, as it now stands, except that the words, “and with the Indian tribes,” were afterwards added; and it passed without a division.
§ 1056. In considering this clause of the constitution several important inquiries are presented. In the first place, What is the natural import of the terms; in the next place, how far the power is exclusive of that of the states; in the third place, to what purposes and for what objects the power may be constitutionally applied; and in the fourth place, what are the true nature and extent of the power to regulate commerce with the Indian tribes….
§ 1061. This power the constitution extends to commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes. In regard to foreign nations, it is universally admitted, that the words comprehend every species of commercial intercourse. No sort of trade or intercourse can be carried on between this country and another, to which it does not extend. Commerce, as used in the constitution, is a unit, every part of which is indicated by the term. If this be its admitted meaning in its application to foreign nations, it must carry the same meaning throughout the sentence. The next words are “among the several states.” The word “among” means intermingled with. A thing, which is among others, is intermingled with them. Commerce among the states cannot stop at the external boundary line of each state, but may be introduced into the interior. It does not, indeed, comprehend any commerce, which is purely internal, between man and man in a single state, or between different parts of the same state, and not extending to, or affecting other states. Commerce among the states means, commerce, which concerns more states than one. It is not an apt phrase to indicate the mere interior traffic of a single state. The completely internal commerce of a state may be properly considered, as reserved to the state itself.§ 1062. The importance of the power of regulating commerce among the states, for the purposes of the Union, is scarcely less, than that of regulating it with foreign states. A very material object of this power is the relief of the states, which import and export through other states, from the levy of improper contributions on them by the latter. If each state were at liberty to regulate the trade between state and state, it is easy to foresee, that ways would be found out to load the articles of import and export, during their passage through the jurisdiction, with duties, which should fail on the makers of the latter, and the consumers of the former. The experience of the American states during the confederation abundantly establishes, that such arrangements could be, and would be made under the stimulating influence of local interests, and the desire of undue gain. Instead of acting as a nation in regard to foreign powers, the states individually commenced a system of restraint upon each other, whereby the interests of foreign powers were promoted at their expense. When one state imposed high duties on the goods or vessels of a foreign power to countervail the regulations of such powers, the next adjoining states imposed lighter duties to invite those articles into their ports, that they might be transferred thence into the other states, securing the duties to themselves. This contracted policy in some of the states was soon counteracted by others. Restraints were immediately laid on such commerce by the suffering states; and thus a state of affairs disorderly and unnatural grew up, the necessary tendency of which was to destroy the Union itself.The history of other nations, also, furnishes the same admonition. In Switzerland, where the union is very slight, it has been found necessary to provide, that each canton shall be obliged to allow a passage to merchandise through its jurisdiction into other cantons without an augmentation of tolls. In Germany, it is a law of the empire, that the princes shall not lay tolls on customs or bridges, rivers, or passages, without the consent or the emperor and diet. But these regulations are but imperfectly obeyed; and great public mischiefs have consequently followed. Indeed, without this power to regulate commerce among the states, the power of regulating foreign commerce would be incomplete and ineffectual.The very laws of the Union in regard to the latter, whether for revenue, for restriction, for retaliation, or for encouragement or domestic products or pursuits, might-be evaded at pleasure, or rendered impotent.In short, in a practical view, it is impossible to separate the regulation of foreign commerce and domestic commerce among the states from each other. The same public policy applies to each; and not a reason can be assigned for confiding the power over the one, which does not conduce to establish the propriety of conceding the power over the other….
§ 1070. In the next place, to what extent, and for what objects and purposes the power to regulate commerce may be constitutionally applied.§ 1071. And first, among the states. It is not doubted, that it extends to the regulation of navigation, and to the coasting trade and fisheries, within, as well as without any state, wherever it is connected with the commerce or intercourse with any other state, or with foreign nations. It extends to the regulation and government of seamen on board of American ships; and to conferring privileges upon ships built and owned in the United States in domestic, as well as foreign trade. It extends to quarantine laws, and pilotage laws, and wrecks of the sea. It extends, as well to the navigation of vessels engaged in carrying passengers, and whether steam vessels or of any other description, as to the navigation of vessels engaged in traffic and general coasting business. It extends to the laying of embargoes, as well on domestic, as on foreign voyages. It extends to the construction of light-houses, the placing of buoys and beacons, the removal of obstructions to navigation in creeks, rivers, sounds, and bays, and the establishment of securities to navigation against the inroads of the ocean. It extends also to the designation of particular port or ports of entry and delivery for the purposes of foreign commerce. These powers have been actually exerted by the national government under a system of laws, many of which commenced with the early establishment of the constitution; and they have continued unquestioned unto our day, if not to the utmost range of their reach, at least to that of their ordinary application.
In sum, we are now 46 years beyond the adoption of the Constitution by the Philadelphia convention, and cannot find any mention of the power of Congress to regulate the specifications of goods that flow into interstate commerce, the terms and conditions of employment in the chain of enterprises through which goods flow in interstate commerce, or the operation of businesses in the chain of transmission. Moreover, there is no hint that the regulatory power encompasses activities that are not involved in the actual transmission of goods across state lines (e.g., the growing of wheat for one’s own use, the refusal to buy an insurance policy).
The following paragraph (also from Chapter XV of Commentaries) disposes of the matter:
§ 1075. The reasoning, by which the doctrine is maintained, that the power to regulate commerce cannot be constitutionally applied, as a means, directly to encourage domestic manufactures, has been in part already adverted to in considering the extent of the power to lay taxes. It is proper, however, to present it entire in its present connexion. It is to the following effect. — The constitution is one of limited and enumerated powers; and none of them can be rightfully exercised. beyond the scope of the objects, specified in those powers. It is not disputed, that, when the power is given, all the appropriate means to carry it into effect are included. Neither is it disputed, that the laying of duties is, or may be an appropriate means of regulating commerce. But the question is a very different one, whether, under pretence of an exercise of the power to regulate commerce, congress may in fact impose duties for objects wholly distinct from commerce. The question comes to this, whether a power, exclusively for the regulation of commerce, is a power for the regulation of manufactures? The statement of such a question would seem to involve its own answer. Can a power, granted for one purpose, be transferred to another? If it can, where is the limitation in the constitution? Are not commerce and manufactures as distinct, as commerce and agriculture? If they are, how can a power to regulate one arise from a power to regulate the other? It is true, that commerce and manufactures are, or may be, intimately connected with each other. A regulation of one may injuriously or beneficially affect the other. But that is not the point in controversy. It is, whether congress has a right to regulate that, which is not committed to it, under a power, which is committed to it, simply because there is, or may be an intimate connexion between the powers. If this were admitted, the enumeration of the powers of congress would be wholly unnecessary and nugatory. Agriculture, colonies, capital, machinery, the wages of labour, the profits of stock, the rents of land, the punctual performance of contracts, and the diffusion of knowledge would all be within the scope of the power; for all of them bear an intimate relation to commerce. The result would be, that the powers of congress would embrace the widest extent of legislative functions, to the utter demolition of all constitutional boundaries between the state and national governments. When duties are laid, not for purposes of revenue, but of retaliation and restriction, to countervail foreign restrictions, they are strictly within the scope of the power, as a regulation of commerce. But when. laid to encourage manufactures, they have nothing to do with it. The power to regulate manufactures is no more confided to congress, than the power to interfere with the systems of education, the poor laws, or the road laws of the states. It is notorious, that, in the convention, an attempt was made to introduce into the constitution a power to encourage manufactures; but it was withheld….
Given those authoritative statements, it is easy to determine the meaning of the “real” Constitution — the one that generations of Congresses, presidents, courts, and regulators have subverted — with respect to the power conferred on Congress in Article I, Section 8, to “regulate Commerce … among the several States.”