Abuse of the Commerce Clause Produced Massive Federal Government Growth

Joel McDurmon’s American Vision article entitled “Highway to Hell: The Progressive Tyranny Over Interstate Commerce” offers a wealth of insight into the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. Using prominent Supreme Court decisions, McDurmon shows how the Commerce Clause has been stretched throughout American history. Starting with an 1824 Supreme Court decision, Congress was given the green light to aggressively regulate interstate commerce. This early expansion accelerated greatly with Supreme Court decisions after 1935 and brings us to today where many now believe that the federal government possessed nearly unlimited power over everything — because virtually anything Congress wants to do can be put in economic terms and justified as “interstate commerce.”

The Constitution’s Commerce Clause, sometimes called the Interstate Commerce Clause, is found in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3’s enumerated (or listed) powers to Congress: “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes”. As McDurmon points out, the most significant abuse of the Commerce Clause has been in regard to the regulation of commerce “among the several States,” the scope of which has been dramatically expanded through the Supreme Court’s “progressive” interpretation of the Constitution. As noted above, the result is that Congress and the federal government now regulate (and control) virtually every aspect of American life.

McDurmon points out that the precedent-establishing 1824 Supreme Court decision of Gibbons v. Ogden firmly placed authority over the regulation of interstate commerce with Congress. He also points out that while this early decision expanded federal power, it also clearly recognized that there were limits on Congress’ power — specifically because the very existence of the Constitution’s enumerated powers “presupposes something not enumerated.” Stated another way, McDurmon explains: “the very fact that the Constitution designates a particular power to Congress, means automatically that the Constitution intended specifically to forbid what it does not designate.” This limited power perspective is key for properly interpreting the Founder’s intent regarding the federal regulation of commerce among the states — if anyone doubts this limited federal power standard then they need look no further than the Tenth Amendment for an explicit statement acknowledging that the states and the people retain extensive power.

In his article, McDurmon argues that the Supreme Court’s vast expansion of the Commerce Clause has created what amounts to federal tyranny. However, McDurmon offers hope for a return to a limited interpretation of the Commerce Clause and cites a recent Supreme Court decision as evidence. In fact, this 1995 decision, United States v. Lopez, has become what McDurmon calls an exit ramp from the abusive highway created by those favoring an expansive federal government.

Within the Lopez decision, the Supreme Court provides a history of their changing interpretation of the Commerce Clause spanning nearly two centuries. This history shows that embedded within many Court decisions expanding Congress’ Commerce Clause powers, the Court repeatedly acknowledged that there are also limits on these powers. In fact, such a viewpoint was the prevailing opinion until FDR’s New Deal.

Even in 1935 the Supreme Court limited Congress’ power by striking down part of the New Deal as unconstitutional. FDR responded by trying to expand the size of, or “pack,” the Supreme Court with new, sympathetic Justices. This move, however, was unsuccessful but provided significant pressure on the Court to be less critical of FDR’s expansive federal policies. The result of this influence became so noticeable that in 1937 the Supreme Court reversed itself and began to uphold New Deal legislation. The result was a huge expansion of the federal government’s role in all levels of American life.

However, the 1995 Lopez decision was different and departed significantly from the post-New Deal federal expansion trend. According to McDurmon, the significance of Lopez is this: it reaffirms that “despite all of this increase of tyranny in the area of Interstate Commerce, there still must remain a line drawn somewhere between the power enumerated to Congress and those forbidden to it and thus reserved for the states.” It clearly notes that while the federal government argued otherwise, real Constitutional limits on Congress’ Commerce Clause regulatory powers do in fact exist. The Lopez decision is very explicit in this regard:

To uphold the Government’s contentions here, we would have to pile inference upon inference in a manner that would bid fair to convert congressional authority under the Commerce Clause to a general police power of the sort retained by the States. Admittedly, some of our prior cases have taken long steps down that road, giving great deference to congressional action. The broad language in these opinions has suggested the possibility of additional expansion, but we decline here to proceed any further. To do so would require us to conclude that the Constitution’s enumeration of powers does not presuppose something not enumerated, and that there never will be a distinction between what is truly national and what is truly local. This we are unwilling to do.

In conclusion, upcoming Supreme Court decisions related to the Commerce Clause must now consider the impact of the Lopez decision — remember, Lopez essentially reaffirmed the pre-1937 understanding of the  Commerce Clause. With massive federal policy expansions like the “Obamacare individual mandate” very likely to be settled by the Supreme Court, McDurmon argues that in light of Lopez, this federal prescription could already be doomed. Since Lopez ruled against the government and its economic argument espousing even more federal powers, similar decisions in the future could reverse the tide of federal expansion. Such a shift would amount to a significant victory for the states and for personal liberty and would give advocates of limited government reason to cheer.

Image credit: Francesco Marino

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