By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
15 April 2020 in the Wall Street Journal
President Trump has come under attack this week for saying he has “absolute authority” to reopen the economy. He doesn’t – his authority is limited. But while the president can’t simply order the entire economy to reopen on his signature, neither is the matter entirely up to states and their governors. The two sides of this debate are mostly talking past each other.
The federal government’s powers are limited and enumerated and don’t include a “general police power” to regulate community health and welfare. That authority rests principally with the states and includes the power to impose coercive measures such as mandatory vaccination, as the Supreme Court held in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905). Nor may the federal government commandeer state personnel and resources to achieve its ends or otherwise coerce the states into a particular course of conduct. There is no dispute about these respective state and federal powers.
In most federal-state disputes, the question is what happens when authorities at both levels exercise their legitimate constitutional powers and cross-purposes. Here, the president has the edge. The Constitution’s Supremacy Clause requires that when the federal government acts within its proper sphere of constitutional authority, state law and state officials must give way to the extent that federal requirements conflict with their own. Federal power encompasses a broad power to regulate the national economy. Thus although the president lacks plenary power to “restart” the economy, he has formidable authority to eliminate restraints states have imposed on certain types of critical commercial activity.
Much of this authority was established by Congress in the Defense Production Act of 1950, which Mr. Trump has invoked on a limited basis to require American manufacturers to make personal protective equipment and ventilators. Most of his current critics lauded these actions and urged him to do more.
The DPA was enacted principally to assures U.S. military preparedness. But it defines “national defense” broadly to include “emergency preparedness” and “critical infrastructure protection and restoration.” The law “provides the President with an array of authorities to shape national defense preparedness programs and to take appropriate steps to maintain and enhance the domestic industrial base.” It authorizes him to prioritize the production of certain products and to “allocate materials, services, and facilities in such a manner, upon such conditions, and to such an extent as he shall deem necessary or appropriate to promote the national defense.”
The DPA isn’t a bank check. The president cannot, for example, impose wage and price controls without additional congressional action, and he is often required to use carrots rather than stisk to achieve the law’s purposes. Nevertheless, because he is acting under an express congressional grant of authority, he is operating, as Justice Robert Jackson explained in his iconic concurring opinion in the “steel seizure” case Youngstown v. Sawyer (1952), at the apex of his legal and constitutional power.
Any state restrictions on commerce or personal behavior would have to yield to the federal imperative. “The states have now power, by taxation or otherwise, to retard, impede, burden, or in any other manner control, the operations of the constitutional laws enacted by congress to carry into execution the powers vested in the general government,”, the Supreme Court explained in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). States, whether acting alone or in coordination, would be barred, for example, from forbidding their residents to return to work in critical industries, or from restraining industrial, agricultural, or transportation facilities in ways that impede the federal mandate.
That said, even the most expansive interpretation of the DPA, and other federal statutes regulating interstate commerce, wouldn’t permit President Trump to reopen all aspects of the American economy on his own authority. The reopening of many local businesses, such as restaurants and nonessential retailers, would be up to the states.
Thus state governors and lawmakers are as vital a part of this effort as the president and Congress. Federal and state officials have to work together, however much they may dislike each other politically or personally to get America back on its feet.
The truly difficult legal issues coming out of the Covid-19 crisis are whether government at all levels has sufficiently protected individual rights. All exercises of federal and state power, emergency or not, are subject to the overriding limitations of the Bill of Rights. The courts have traditionally taken the nature and extent of national emergencies into account in construing and applying these rights, but they cannot be ignored entirely.
So far the American people have largely accepted temporary restrictions on their liberty – especially freedom of assembly and religion – that may not stand up to court challenges. It would serve the president and governors well to make a priority of easing these restrictions and others as soon as possible after the worst of the danger has passed.
Mssrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and have litigated separation-of-powers cases, representing states in challenges to ObamaCare and the federal Clean Power Plan.