by Rob Natelson

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has issued a press release in which she purports to rebut those of us who have expressed doubts about the constitutionality of some health care reform plans.

Pelosi (or her ghostwriter) claims:

“The 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states… or to the people. But the Constitution gives Congress broad power to regulate activities that have an effect on interstate commerce. Congress has used this authority to regulate many aspects of American life, from labor relations to education to health care to agricultural production. Since virtually every aspect of the heath care system has an effect on interstate commerce, the power of Congress to regulate health care is essentially unlimited. (bolded in original).

For several reasons, this is a highly misleading statement.

First, it fails to mention a concern expressed by many constitutional scholars, including those on the Left: Substantive due process.

“Substantive due process” is the doctrine by which the Supreme Court strikes down laws it deems unacceptably interfere with personal privacy or autonomy. Health care laws that, for example, limit one’s ability to fund and control one’s own health care could well run afoul of substantive due process rules.

Second, the statement fails to mention that, while the Supreme Court has upheld many delegations of power from Congress to executive branch agencies, the Court has affirmed repeatedly that there are limits. Some health care proposals involve wider delegations of authority than any since the New Deal’s National Reconstruction Adminisration (NRA) — which was invalidated by a unanimous Court.

Third, the Pelosi release disregards the fact that on several occasions the modern Supreme Court has struck down overreaching federal legislation, supposedly adopted under the Commerce Power. Also, on several occasions, the Court has interpreted congressional acts narrowly to avoid constitutional conflicts.

Fourth: Pelosi (or her speechwriter) clearly misstate the current Supreme Court’s test for laws under the Constitution’s Commerce Power. The statement that Congress can regulate “activities that have an effect on interstate commerce” should be that Congress can regulate “economic activities that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.” Non-economic activities, such as some health care decisions, would have to meet a much stricter test. This may seem to be a minor mistake, but for legal purposes it is an important one, and one that, for the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is not easily excusable.

Finally, Pelosi (or her ghostwriter) commits the mistake of failing to look at wider judicial trends. One of these trends is the long-term movement by the Supreme Court toward interpreting the Constitution according to its real meaning – the original understanding of the Founders and Ratifiers.

And virtually no knowledgeable person thinks government health care is constitutional under that standard.

Rob Natelson is Professor of Law at The University of Montana, and a leading constitutional scholar.  (See His opinions are his own, and should not be attributed to any other person or institution.

Rob Natelson

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