Obamacare: Neither Necessary Nor Proper

This is from my post “The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate“:

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….

…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….

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….

James Madison held the same view:

…[T]he Constitution did not give Congress the power to establish an incorporated bank. Hamilton, [Madison] said, was urging the legislators to charter the bank based on the power that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives them “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers”—specific, limited powers that the section had just enumerated. But notice what “ductile” language Hamilton must use “to cover the stretch of power contained in the bill.” As the bill puts it, the bank “might be conceived to be conducive to the successful conducting of the finances; or might be conceived to tend to give facility to the obtaining of loans,” Madison quoted, adding emphasis oozing with incredulous contempt. So to begin with, the bank wasn’t even “necessary,” as the “necessary and proper” clause required; “at most it could be but convenient.”

Worse, Madison suggested, Hamilton’s reliance on a doctrine of implied powers instead of explicit ones courted disaster. “The doctrine of implication is always a tender one,” he warned. “Mark the reasoning” behind the bill: “To borrow money is made the end and the accumulation of capitals, implied as the means. The accumulation of capitals is then the end, and a bank implied as the means.” By such a chain of implication, we end up with “a charter of incorporation, a monopoly, capital punishments, &c.,” until finally we take in “every object of legislation, every object within the whole compass of political economy.” In that case, Madison cautioned, the “essential characteristic of the government, as composed of limited and enumerated powers, would be destroyed,” and Congress would bear “the guilt of usurpation.” We should not, he later wrote, “by arbitrary interpretations and insidious precedents . . . pervert the limited government of the Union, into a government of unlimited discretion, contrary to the will and subversive of the authority of the people.” (Myron Magnet, “The Great Little Madison,” City Journal, Spring 2011)

As for the Necessary and Proper Clause:

…[M]ost federal regulations today are justified by the Necessary and Proper Clause. They are said to be within Congress’s Interstate Commerce Power— but within not the core Commerce Clause (“The Congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce . . . among the several States”). Rather, they are said to be supported by the accompanying authority to “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution” the power to regulate commerce.

Now, here’s the irony of the situation: Far from granting “broad authority” to Congress, the truth is that Necessary and Proper Clause grants no power at all. It is placed at the end of Article I, Section 8 as an explanation—that is, a “recital.” A recital is a passage in a legal document that has no substantive legal effect, but serves to inform the reader of assumptions or facts behind the document. Another example of a recital in the Constitution is the Preamble.

In recent years, several constitutional scholars have investigated the true meaning of the Clause, and have worked to correct the record. The process began with an article written by Professor Gary L. Lawson and Patricia B. Granger: The Proper Scope of Federal Power: A Jurisdictional Interpretation of the Sweeping Clause, 43 Duke L. J. 267 (1994). It focused on the meaning of “proper.” A decade later, I delved into the historical record. I found that wording of this kind was extremely common in eighteenth-century documents granting power from one person to another. I also found the courts had issued cases interpreting this language, and that the Founders had adopted the courts’ interpretation. See articles here and here.

Finally, Professors Lawson and I teamed up with two other noted scholars, Geoff Miller, and Guy Seidman, and wrote a book on the subject. (We all have differing political views, by the way.) The book is called The Origins of the Necessary and Proper Clause, and it was published last year by Cambridge University Press.

Here’s what we found:

* The Clause is a mere recital. It informs the reader how to interpret congressional authority. It does not grant any power.

* The term “necessary” tells the reader that congressional authority is interpreted according to the intent behind the document, rather than very strictly (as the Articles of Confederation required).

* The Clause does this by telling the reader that the legal “doctrine of incidental powers” applies to the Constitution. This means that Congress can regulate certain activities outside the strict reading of its powers, but ONLY IF this ancillary regulation is (1) subordinate to an express power, and (2) a customary or necessary way of carrying out the express power. For example, in regulating commerce, Congress can require accurate labels on goods to be shipped in interstate commerce. But Congress cannot regulate the entire manufacturing process.

* The word “proper” means that a law must comply with Congress’s fiduciary (public trust) responsibilities. A law is not “proper”—and is therefore unconstitutional— if it invidiously discriminates among people, violates individual rights, is utterly irrational, or exceeds congressional authority.

* Contrary to prevailing legal mythology, Chief Justice Marshall’s famous case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) did not stretch the Clause, but applied it properly and with due regard for its limitations.

Recently, Dave Kopel, the Independence Institute Research Director, filed an amicus curiae brief in the most important anti-Obamacare lawsuit. He did so on behalf of Professors Lawson, Seidman, and me. The goal? To correct the record and inform the courts what the Necessary and Proper Clause REALLY means. (Rob Natelson, “The Constitution: Does the Necessary and Proper Clause Grant “Broad Authority” to Congress? Actually, None at All,” posted May 18, 2011, at The Cauldron: By Caldara, the blog of the president of the Independence Institute)

Which brings us full circle to the opening quotation.

Related posts:
Unintended Irony from a Few Framers
Freedom of Contract and the Rise of Judicial Tyranny
Social Security Is Unconstitutional
The Constitution in Exile
What Is the Living Constitution?
Blame It on the Commerce Clause
The Slippery Slope of Constitutional Revisionism
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?