Will the Necessary & Proper clause save Obamacare? Not if the Court follows McCulloch v. Maryland

Gary Lawson and I explain why, in an article published last week by Yale Law Journal Online.

In short, the Necessary and Proper Clause expressed the well-known agency law doctrine of principals and incidents. That is, the grant of power to an agent (and the federal government was an agent of the people, to exercise certain delegated powers) was considered to include incidental powers. (Unless the parties specified to the contrary.) To be an incidental power, a power had to be subsidiary to, inferior to, and “less worthy” (in the language of the time) than the principal power. So if A delegates to B the power to manage A’s farm for five years, B could lease part of the farm to C for a few years, but B could not sell the farm. The power to sell the farm is not an “incident” of the power to manage a farm. It is a power that is as great as the power to manage the farm.

Thus, the first half of Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in McCulloch wrestles with the question of whether the power to establish a corporation (here, the 2d Bank of the United States) can be considered an “incident” of the enumerated congressional powers. This portion of the opinion is often expurgated from constitutional law textbooks. But not from Randy Barnett’s Constitutional Law: Cases in Context.

So is the power to order people to engage in commerce with certain corporations “incidental” to the enumerated power “to regulate Commerce . . .  among the several States”? Lawson and I argue that the power to compel intrastate commerce is of at least equal “dignity” as the power to regulate voluntary interstate commerce. Thus, the individual mandate cannot be justified a “necessary and proper” to the exercise of the power to regulate interstate commerce.

Further, the word “proper” affirms the agency/fiduciary law rule that an agent  must act reasonably, and when he is acting on behalf of several principals must treat the principals equally. So in Rooke’s Case, it was unreasonable that the entire costs of a water control project were imposed on a single landowner, when other landowners also benefited from the project. In Leader v. Moxon (1773) paving commissioners were unreasonable when they ordered a road repair that effectively buried the doors and windows of the plaintiff’s house, making plaintiff bear the entire burden of a project that was supposedly for the benefit of him and others. In the Founding era, government creation of a monopoly was the paradigm example of a government act that was not “proper,” because the monopolist was benefited to the detriment of everyone else.

In 1787, a consumer could at least choose not to buy the monopolist’s product.  “The conclusion is clear: if a commercial monopoly—which citizens may avoid by not purchasing the product monopolized—is constitutionally void as ‘improper,’ then far more ‘improper’ is a mandate for the benefit of political favorites, which none but other political favorites may avoid. . . . [C]oerced commerce with congressionally favored oligopolists is constitutionally improper and void.”

Thus, if the Supreme Court follows the original meaning of the Necessary and Proper clause, and McCulloch v. Maryland‘s accurate exposition of that meaning, the Court will not rule in favor of the individual mandate as a necessary and proper exercise of the power to regulate interstate commerce.