Should Commerce Clause Be Top Priority?

Even though I have a great deal of concern over the commerce clause being so vastly expanded under the Supreme Court’s current case law, I wonder if we’re not being strategically short sighted in focusing on it. Rather, I’m wondering whether we ought to be focusing on the non-delegation doctrine, since if you look at how the courts are interpreting it today, it’s really a big chunk of what’s enabling the out-of-control and unaccountable regulatory state; what’s often called the Fourth Branch of Government.

The problem with revoking the New Deal commerce clause ruling is so much popular legislation is dependent on it, and the Supreme Court is typically reluctant to become overly politicized, lest they bring about a confrontation with the political branches. It’s not a minor concern for the Court, as happened before when the Court invalidated the National Industrial Recovery Act (which incidentally was a non-delegation case).  But the Court eventually capitulated to the New Deal.

By contrast, strengthening the non-delegation doctrine wouldn’t have as much effect on popular legislation. What got me thinking about it was the new FTC blogger regulations. If you look at the enabling legislation that creates the FTC, it’s appalling it’s even constitutional:

The Commission is hereby empowered and directed to prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations, …. from using unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.

So FTC gets to decide, all on its own, without Congress having to pass a single law, that your activity is “unfair competition” or a “deceptive act” and you are given no recourse except through the federal courts. The FTC is, essentially, a lawmaking body. Sadly, the Supreme Court has already ruled that similar bodies are constitutional, as it did in the 1989 case of Mistretta v. United States, where the Court upheld the Federal Sentencing Commission. That case was decided 8-1, with Justice Scalia being the lone dissenter. Scalia says in his dissent:

By reason of today’s decision, I anticipate that Congress will find delegation of its lawmaking powers much more attractive in the future. If rulemaking can be entirely unrelated to the exercise of judicial or executive powers, I foresee all manner of “expert” bodies, insulated from the political process, to which Congress will delegate various portions of its lawmaking responsibility. How tempting to create an expert Medical Commission (mostly M.D.’s, with perhaps a few Ph.D.’s in moral philosophy) to dispose of such thorny, “now-in” political issues as the withholding of life-support systems in federally funded hospitals, or the use of fetal tissue for research. This is an undemocratic precedent that we set — not because of the scope of the delegated power, but because its recipient is not one of the three Branches of Government. The only governmental power the Commission possesses is the power to make law; and it is not the Congress.

Back then, Scalia was really the only principled judicial conservative on the court. Now we have three others. Perhaps it is time for libertarians and conservatives to put aside the Commerce Clause battle for now, and focus on strengthening the non-delegation doctrine. It would have less of a public impact, but would have a significant impact in reigning in a lot of the regulatory excesses that have come about since the New Deal. At the least, it would keep Congress busy for a while, having to create more detailed statutory authority to guide agencies and commissions.

The issue also messages better than Commerce Clause.  Take this meme, for instance:

“If Congress wants to make something illegal, they should have to pass a law.”

I think you’d find most people in agreement with that. It’s simple, and easy to understand. Compare that to presenting the Commerce Clause to people:

“Should the Endangered Species Act really be considered a legitimate exercise of Congress’ commerce powers?”

I think this issue ought to get more attention that it does from libertarians and conservatives. It might be more achievable. A lot of people would not be comfortable with the FDA or USDA disappearing, but would anyone really miss the FTC?

10 thoughts on “Should Commerce Clause Be Top Priority?”

  1. “so much popular legislation is dependent on it”

    Please explain. I can’t think of any legislation popular with me.

    Making the Commerce Clause a mile wide destroyed the 10th Amendment which is as important to our freedom as the 1st and 2nd Amendments.

  2. Greg:

    BATFE’s grant of Congressional authority isn’t all that out of control. Most of it would survive under a stricter non-delegation doctrine. Maybe something as vague as “sporting purposes” wouldn’t, but it wouldn’t end the haggling over the definition of a machine gun, or suppressors, etc.

    ATF has to be fixed through administrative reform.

  3. Most of ATF’s oppression is directly enabled by congressional mandate. Putting aside the 2nd amendment, the most egregious thing they do is skirt the APA by issuing all their rules as “interpretations.” And this is not really that common an occurrence- it’s restricted to certain shotguns and imported weapons for the most part. There’s a few vague sections of the federal gun laws, but for the most part, what we’re objecting to are laws that clearly piss on the 2nd amendment. This really isn’t a gun issue so much as it is a growth of government issue.

    Congress is often subtle about delegation. For example, congress didn’t delegate the authority to determine the extensive regulations that apply to migratory birds, but they did delegate the authority to determine which birds count as migratory. Similar logic applies for endangered species, pollutants, the shipping of “dangerous”items- the regulations are often clearly spelled out, but what they apply to changes fairly often.

    I think nearly every federal agency is likely to lose some power if the supreme court started taking separation of powers seriously. Humphrey’s executor got its logic completely backwards- executive officers that exercise judicial and legislative powers aren’t beyond the authority of the president to fire, they’re beyond the constitution themselves.

  4. I agree the ATF should be fixed by the legislature. But there are instances where they over-interpret their mandate. “Sporting Purposes” is my favorite. In fact, that’s the #1 thing I’d like to see done away with anyway. Regardless, just because it should be fixed one way doesn’t mean we can’t look at it from other perspectives. We’ve had a hard time getting meaningful reform of any regulatory agency through congress. That BATFE reform bill has been kicked around for a few years now, and it seems to be only slowly gaining momentum.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep pushing the reform bill, and take these issues to court… clearly that would be stupid. I was merely pondering some of the benefits of setting better delegation-related precedent in court.

  5. Thank you. I’ve been trying to articulate this problem for a while (most recently, to explain why people are uncomfortable letting the FDA regulate tobacco), and you’ve just given me a name for it and a very cogent explanation of the phenomenon, its context, and why it’s an issue.

    I’m completely on board. This sounds like an _excellent_ place to push for an under-control government.

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