There is an alternate universe where everything violates the Tenth Amendment—and much of Congress lives in it. Senator Tom Coburn believes that all federal education programs, from Pell Grants to Title I to student loans, violate the Constitution. Senator Rand Paul thinks that the federal ban on whites-only lunch counters is forbidden. Senator Mike Lee believes that child labor laws, federal disaster relief, food stamps, the Food and Drug Administration, Medicaid, income assistance for the poor, and even Medicare and Social Security violate the Constitution. And, of course, half Congress thinks that health reform is unconstitutional.
Surely it cannot be the case that nearly 100 years worth of major legislation violates the Constitution?
And yet, there is a growing movement on the American right that believes just that. Part I of this Essay begins in familiar territory: the battle over the Commerce Clause. It explains how the ubiquitous lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are animated by the same interpretative methodology that characterized the infamous Supreme Court decision concerning child labor laws, Hammer v. Dagenhart—a methodology which allows judges to impose novel and extra-textual limits upon Congress’s enumerated powers. As this Part makes clear, a legal theory that would strike down the ACA bears no resemblance to the much more modest limits on congressional power outlined by modern cases such as United States v. Lopez and United States v. Morrison. Unlike Lopez and Morrison, cases like Hammer and the two recent district court decisions striking down the ACA have no grounding in constitutional text.
Part II dives even further back into constitutional history. It explains that a growing number of prominent conservatives, including many current Members of Congress, want to revive a 230-year-old constitutional “ghoul” which would so completely eviscerate federal power that even the Lochner-era Supreme Court unanimously decided that it must remain buried. Under these conservatives’ vision of congressional power, cherished federal spending programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Pell Grants would all cease to exist. The Essay concludes by briefly exploring why the emergence of these unusual constitutional views among elected lawmakers is sadly likely to influence judicial decisions in the future.