Last week, I asked South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, where in the Constitution it authorizes the federal government to regulate the delivery of health care. He replied: “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that the federal government has anything to do with most of the stuff we do.” Then he shot back: “How about [you] show me where in the Constitution it prohibits the federal government from doing this?”
Rep. Clyburn, like many of his colleagues, seems to have conveniently forgotten that the federal government has only specific enumerated powers. He also seems to have overlooked the Ninth and 10th Amendments, which limit Congress’s powers only to those granted in the Constitution.
One of those powers—the power “to regulate” interstate commerce—is the favorite hook on which Congress hangs its hat in order to justify the regulation of anything it wants to control.
Unfortunately, a notoriously tendentious New Deal-era Supreme Court decision has given Congress a green light to use the Commerce Clause to regulate noncommercial, and even purely local, private behavior. In Wickard v. Filburn (1942), the Supreme Court held that a farmer who grew wheat just for the consumption of his own family violated federal agricultural guidelines enacted pursuant to the Commerce Clause. Though the wheat did not move across state lines—indeed, it never left his farm—the Court held that if other similarly situated farmers were permitted to do the same it, might have an aggregate effect on interstate commerce.
James Madison, who argued that to regulate meant to keep regular, would have shuddered at such circular reasoning. Madison’s understanding was the commonly held one in 1789, since the principle reason for the Constitutional Convention was to establish a central government that would prevent ruinous state-imposed tariffs that favored in-state businesses. It would do so by assuring that commerce between the states was kept “regular.”
The Supreme Court finally came to its senses when it invalidated a congressional ban on illegal guns within 1,000 feet of public schools. In United States v. Lopez (1995), the Court ruled that the Commerce Clause may only be used by Congress to regulate human activity that is truly commercial at its core and that has not traditionally been regulated by the states. The movement of illegal guns from one state to another, the Court ruled, was criminal and not commercial at its core, and school safety has historically been a state function.