Thursday, December 16, 2010

Congress and the Constitution

The Senate has an "omnibus" spending bill and Senator Coburn's webpage has a spreadsheet the summarizes all the "earmarks" in the bill. The Senator's spreadsheet is worth a look. Here are a few of the things Congress is considering spending money on. Keep in mind that since the government is running a deficit, we might as well say these are some of the things Congress is borrowing money for:
  • $1 million - City of Rockville sanitary sewer rehabilitation project
  • $2.5 million - Long Creek Watershed Management District for a stormwater and water quality project
  • $1 million - City of Hamtramck for water and sewer line rehabilitation
  • $1 million - County of Riverside, Moreno Valley, CA, for facilities and equipment related to trauma care
  • $16.1 million - John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and its affiliate, as authorized by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
  • $10.5 million - National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. . . .
  • $25.6 million - National Writing Project . . . .
  • $1 million - Planning, Design, Renovation and Revitalization of Historic Building
  • $1 million - For event and meeting space infrastructure at the Bangor Regional Arena and Meeting Complex
  • $0.5 million - To acquire blighted property and renovate facilities to create an industrial park
  • $1 million - For the acquisition of facilities in Covington, LA to be used for community services and economic development
  • $1 million - (City) Demolition of Blighted Buildings
  • $1.25 million - For construction of a senior center
  • $1.55 million - For improvements to the Pigeon Harbor Industrial Park
  • $1 million - For construction of facility that will accommodate an education and interactive learning center
  • $1 million - To renovate the facility for the Jewish Vocational Service and to provide equipment and furnishings
  • $2.5 million - Legal Advocacy for Crime Victims (Nationwide)
  • $1 million - Bronx River and South Bronx Waterfront
  • $1 million - Washington State Methamphetamine Initiative
  • $4 million - Marine Aquaculture Lab Operations
  • $4.5 million - Center for Water Technology and Policy
  • $2 million - Sensors for Monitoring Chesapeake Bay Watershed Health
  • $2 million - Center of Teacher Excellence
  • $4 million - Life Sciences Commercialization Laboratory
  • $5 million - Phase II construction, National Center for Natural Products Research, Oxford, MS
  • $2 million - Market Development, WI
  • $2.6 million - Agricultural Pest Facility, HI
  • $3.49 million - Formosan Subterranean Termites Research, New Orleans, LA
  • $1.65 million - Human Nutrition Research, Boston, MA; Houston, TX; Kannapolis, NC
  • $1.45 million - Mosquito Trapping Research/West Nile Virus, Gainesville, FL
  • $1.25 million - University of Alabama, Rural Health Entrepreneurial Development Project, Tuscaloosa, AL
  • $2.4 million - Bank On USA demonstration projects, HI
This is just a really, really small part of the entire list.

Why is Congress spending money on these things, much less borrowing money for them? I suppose the answer to this question is simple, i.e., this is the way our rent seeking system of politics works these days.

I think the more important question is: Why do members of Congress think they have been granted the power to spend money on such things? Our Constitution defines our government, presumably, to be a limited government with specifically enumerated powers. You've read the Constitution. It goes something like this:
The Congress shall have Power . . . . To borrow money on the credit of the United States; To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States . . . . To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States; . . . . To establish Post Offices and Post Roads; To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries; . . . . To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years; To provide and maintain a Navy. . . .
I just can't find in my copy of the Constitution that Congress has the power to create a center for teacher excellence, or the power to renovate buildings for religious vocational services, or the power to create industrial parks, or the power to be an advocate for crime victims, or the power to demolish blighted buildings for city governments, or the power to provide facilities for trauma care. I suspect that if I had time to read through Senator Coburn's entire spreadsheet I would find no more than one or two percent of the spending items were associated with the actual enumerated constitutional powers of Congress.

Does it make sense to ask if the United States Government is now, properly speaking, a constitutional form of government?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Constitution & Health Care

I've been reading Judge Hudson's opinion concerning the recently passed "health care reform" statute. I'm not sure I can continue to endure the pain. I am suspicious of the logical gyrations that seem to be integral, these days, to constitutional jurisprudence. I think we should weep for our lost Constitution. But, perhaps, when the smoke clears on all the court challenges a bit of our Constitution will have been returned. After all, it seems to me that the gyrations of constitutional analysis are probably most needed when it should be easy for us to see that an act of Congress, and/or the President, is unconstitutional.

Let's consider a bit of the analysis in support of the constitutionality of the statute as summarized by Judge Hudson:
"Critical to the Secretary's argument is the notion that an individual's decision not to purchase health insurance is in effect 'economic activity.' The Secretary rejects the Commonwealth's implied premise that a person can simply elect to avoid participation in the health care market. It is inevitable, in her view, that every individual--today or in the future--healthy or otherwise--will require medical care. . . .The Secretary maintains that the irrefutable facts demonstrate that '[t]he conduct of the uninsured--their economic decision as to how to finance their health care needs, their actual use of the health care system, their migration in and out of coverage, and their shifting of costs on to the rest of the system when they cannot pay--plainly is economic activity.'" (p 11-12).
This analysis by the Secretary seems pure nonsense to me. The analysis seems to conclude that the actions of the uninsured, whatever the actions are or aren't, are plain old "economic activity." Well, I have been known to suggest to the students in my economics classes that "everything is economic." So, I'm with the Secretary in concluding we have lots of "economic activity" involved in choosing or not choosing "health care." But the nonsense in all of this is that we really should be asking what that "economic activity" has to do with the constitutional powers granted to Congress. Does Congress have the power to regulate any (and all) "economic activity?"

I think the short answer to this question is simple. NO.

Article 1 Section 8 specifically grants the power to Congress to regulate interstate commerce. It is not the case that economic activity is equal to interstate commerce. Commerce means someone buys a good or service from someone else. Interstate commerce means the buyer involved in the act of commerce is in one state and the seller involved in the same act of commerce is in a different state. If the buyer and seller engaging in the act of commerce between consenting adults are in the same place, such as when I buy a big mac at McDonalds for lunch, then it is an act of intrastate commerce. Congress has the power to regulate the buying and selling between people in different states, it does not have the constitutional power to regulate the buying between people in the same place or in the same state.

The Secretary's analysis is fun, but it seems a waste of time, resources, and taxpayer dollars because Congress is not supposed to have the constitutional power to regulate any/all economic activity, only the specific form of economic activity that involves exchange between a buyer in one state and a seller in another state.

Of course, the constitutional issue in this case involves whether Congress has the power to mandate that people purchase health insurance coverage. I certainly think that a person who chooses not to purchase health insurance has made an economic choice, but an economic choice is not economic activity, nor is an economic choice always an act of commerce. Apparently Judge Hudson concluded that the constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce was not the power to compel an act of commerce, whether of the interstate or intrastate variety. That certainly seems the sensible and correct conclusion to me. If I choose not to purchase insurance, or any other good, I have chosen not to engage in an act of commerce. It is even sensible to point out that I might sometimes not choose to engage in an act of commerce because I think the tax Congress has imposed on the commerce results in a price that is too high for what I get in return from my purchase. I hope that Congress does not have the power to both tax an act of commerce and then compel me to engage in that act of commerce as well.

I think the constitutionality, or unconstitutionality, of this statute should be quite straightforward. Congress has the power to regulate an act of commerce between a buyer in one state and a seller in another. Pretty much all of my actions to purchase health care services involve intrastate commerce. Why? Because I go to see my doctor in his office, and even if my doctor's office is in another state, the act of commerce between me and my doctor always takes place at one location. And, while the prescription drugs I purchase may come from a factory outside of Colorado, I always buy my prescription drugs from the Walgreens around the corner, which once again is a act of commerce at one location. The straightforward analysis of Congress's constitutional power is that Congress does not have the power to regulate, prohibit, or compel any of these sorts of acts of commerce I engage in frequently.

I can think of one sort of act of commerce in all of this that might involve me in an act of interstate commerce. I might purchase health insurance from a business which has its offices in a state other than Colorado. If I did, then Congress would have the constitutional power to regulate this act of purchasing/selling insurance. But, the power to regulate this commerce is not the same thing as the power to compel the act of commerce (which would then not be an act between consenting adults). In this area of constitutional power, I suspect that Congress has actually been neglecting it's constitutional duties. I think many states regulate health insurance providers in a way that amounts to erecting a barrier to interstate commerce. State law in many cases does not allow an individual to purchase health care insurance coverage from an insurance business which is located in a different state. If Congress would use it's interstate commerce power to prohibit such state regulations, then the cost of health care insurance would be less than it is these days. But, noooo, Congress acts instead to use power in unconstitutional ways.

It is unfortunate, perhaps even characteristic of an unjust government, that the Supreme Court, over time, has come to understand the Constitution in ways that encourage all the conceptual gyrations of lawyers and professors because, I think, the gyrations are efforts to encourage us to conclude the Constitution means something other than what the words in the Constitution actually mean. The words written into the Constitution seem to me to describe a government significantly limited in scope, and not a government that is supposed to have the power to regulate any "economic activity." The words written into the Constitution were chosen from the conceptual perspective of individual liberty and it seems to me the constitutional power of the Court was meant to be exercised in defense of individual liberty. Conceptual gyrations and gymnastics seem to me to serve the purpose of removing limits from Congressional power and thus infringing on individual liberty.