The Commerce Clause and American Progress

In the Tea Party, it’s all the rage these days to declare everything unconstitutional – Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, disaster relief, federal civil rights laws, health care reform, basically any law that enables the federal government to take on national-scale problems.

One of the main strategies that the Tea Party has been using to push this extreme and regressive view of the Constitution is pushing aside the Commerce Clause, the clause in the Constitution that gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.”

The Commerce Clause, long recognized by courts as the rationale for important progressive economic programs, has come under fire from opponents of health care reform, who are arguing in the courts – with mixed success -- that the clause does not allow the Affordable Care Act’s individual health insurance mandate.

In a new report, People For the American Way Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin argues that “a powerful case can be made “that the Commerce Clause is “the most important constitutional instrument for social progress in our history.”

Without it, Congress could not have passed the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Clayton and Sherman Anti-Trust Acts, the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition of race discrimination in hotels, restaurants and other places of public accommodation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and dozens of other federal statutes protecting the environment and establishing the rights of citizens in the workplace and the marketplace.


Why, then, does the Commerce Clause seem pale and dull next to the Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses?
Perhaps it is because these provisions clearly declare radiant principles of liberty and equality that translate into easily understood and intuitively attractive protections against arbitrary government power.

Because the Commerce Clause has been a powerful instrument of social reform over the last century, its meaning has periodically provoked deep jurisprudential controversy. This is ironic since the Court routinely and unanimously upheld congressional assertion of a comprehensive federal commerce power before broad democratic purposes entered the picture. The commerce power became the target of virulent attack by corporate conservatives when progressives and labor gained political influence and used this power as the constitutional basis upon which to regulate and improve the character, terms and conditions of the American workplace and marketplace in favor of large numbers of the American people.


Raskin follows the Commerce Clause from its origins at the Constitutional Convention, through the Lochner era, when an activist court “put the Commerce Clause in a straightjacket” to strike down federal worker protection laws and other attempts to regulate interstate commerce, to the late 1930s, when the court returned to a more expansive view of the clause, allowing progressive economic programs and civil rights reforms to flourish, to the Rehnquist Court, which again began to narrow down the scope of Congress’s constitutional regulatory power, to challenges to the Affordable Care Act, which threaten to take us back to the Lochner era.
 

You can read the full report here.

PFAW