Bailing out states violates the Constitution’s ‘general welfare’ clause

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey

6 May 2020 in The Hill

Republican senators, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are right to oppose legislation that would provide a broad federal bailout of highly indebted states. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York calls this legislative stance “toxic and poison,” but it is constitutionally required.  

As senators, including Florida’s Rick Scott and Texas’s Ted Cruz, made clear in a recent letter to President Trump, no one doubts that the federal government can and should assist states in meeting the coronavirus emergency. Nor can there be any reasonable objection that this aid will benefit certain states — especially New York, which has the majority of coronavirus cases — more than others. There is, however, a profound objection to any plan that would use federal resources to ensure that heavily indebted states need not reassess their policy priorities. These states find themselves in dire fiscal straits primarily because of underfunded pension plans for their public employees. Virtually all of these states are Democrat-run and three of them — Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut — are facing a particularly calamitous fiscal situation.

Politics aside, bailing out unfunded state pension plans with federal dollars would violate the Constitution’s often ignored, but nevertheless binding, “general welfare” clause. Congress does not, in fact, have unfettered power to spend money as it sees fit. The Constitution permits it to tax, and by implication spend, “to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” (Art. I, § 8, cl. 1) This language was neither puffery nor surplusage, but was added by the Constitution’s Framers for a compelling purpose.

The Framers were determined to vest the federal government with sufficient authority to carry out its national purpose, but also to limit that power. These principles are reflected in numerous constitutional provisions and that document’s overall architecture. Thus, all congressional powers have some limit, some cabining principle. Just as the commerce clause is limited to the regulation of economic activities and does not permit Congress to exercise a general “police power” regulating people simply because they are here, so Congress’s ability to tax and spend is limited by the requirement that this must be for the general welfare.

This requirement stems from the Framers’ concern that large, powerful states would dominate the federal government and would use federal institutions to benefit their own interests, rather than the Union as a whole. Indeed, the question of how to ensure that a cabal of large states would not run roughshod over small states dominated much of the Constitutional Convention. It shaped many key constitutional provisions, including the bicameral federal legislature, with all states having equal representation in the Senate, the apportionment requirement for direct federal taxes, and the language mandating that “all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”  

Even such an ardent proponent of a strong federal government as Alexander Hamilton was sufficiently concerned about states acting selfishly that he argued initially for abolishing the states as independent sovereigns altogether because “states will prefer their particular concerns to the general welfare.” Eventually, this concern resulted in the constitutional language that required the federal government to operate for the general welfare of the entire nation. Notably, this language is found both in the Constitution’s preamble and Article I, Section 8, which enumerates Congress’s powers. And, as is made clear in an early draft of the general welfare clause, the Framers understood the phrase to mean that “which may concern the common interests of the Union.”

This understanding of the clause is similarly revealed in a debate that took place in September 1787, near the Convention’s end, after the general welfare language had taken its final form.  This debate concerned whether an additional provision should be included in the Constitution specifically vesting the federal government with the power to build canals, which would benefit some states more than others. Some thought yes; others argued that tasks such as canal-building should be the responsibility of the states that would directly benefit. Regardless of this disagreement, they all appeared to have shared the same view that such authority — which today we would take for granted as being well within Congress’s spending power — was not already present.

As in other areas, after the Constitution’s ratification, the Framers took different views of how far the spending power could go. Hamilton, always the preeminent Federalist, took the position that the power to tax and spend constituted a separate grant of authority to Congress, while James Madison believed it was merely a support for Congress’s otherwise enumerated powers.  Hamilton’s view prevailed and was endorsed by the Supreme Court in the 1936 case of United States v. Butler. The court did not, however, determine the meaning of “general welfare” in Butler, except to note that Hamilton understood it to mean “the purpose must be ‘general, and not local.’”

To be sure, the definition of what types of expenditures advance general welfare has been much debated throughout U.S. history. Prior to the Civil War, a stringent definition prevailed, with Congress vigorously debating expenditures for various types of infrastructure projects and presidents vetoing spending bills that they believed served local needs and did not sufficiently advance general welfare. Post-Civil War, and particularly following the New Deal, a far broader federal spending pattern emerged. This reflected the view that, using federal dollars to pay the costs of natural disasters and similar emergencies, or various infrastructure projects, while benefiting some states more than others at any given point in time, would benefit the nation as a whole in the long run. This practice broadened the understanding of what expenditures served the national interest, but it did not and could not abolish the general welfare requirement altogether.

Thus, however broad Congress’s power to tax and spend may be, this remains the fundamental limitation — expenditures must promote national, rather than local, interests. And it is difficult to imagine a more locally-oriented program than one designed to prop up the fiscal choices of a group of states — to benefit state and municipal government employees by establishing generous, underfunded pension systems — at the expense of other states. Significantly, numerous states repeatedly have rejected similar pension arrangements for themselves, vividly manifesting their view that this was not in their best interests or conducive to general welfare.  Indeed, by subsidizing a particular vision of what constitutes a proper state government, one of the basic justifications for our federalist system — that states can make their own choices as laboratories — would be discarded. True federalism requires that the federal government neither coerces states nor imposes on states’ fiscal burdens that properly belong to individual states that have incurred them.

Senate Republicans have every right, and all senators have an equal obligation, to ensure that any funding legislation meets the general welfare requirement, so that federal dollars cannot be used to pay, either directly or indirectly, for the repair of long-term fiscal liabilities of any recipient state.  

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. 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.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/judiciary/495961-bailing-out-states-violates-the-constitutions-general-welfare-clause

The Senate Knows Enough to Acquit Trump

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

5 January 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

Give Nancy Pelosi this: She has chutzpah. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded Friday on the Senate floor to the House’s refusal to appoint managers and transmit its articles of impeachment against President Trump to the upper chamber. “For now,” Mr. McConnell said, “we are content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate while House Democrats continue to flounder. For now.”

Mrs. Pelosi’s response: “The GOP Senate must immediately proceed in a manner worthy of the Constitution.” Never mind that the hold-up is at her end.

Yet now that Mr. Trump has been impeached, the Senate is constitutionally obliged to address the matter. Neither Mrs. Pelosi’s intransigence nor Senate rules, dating from 1868, that peg the commencement of an impeachment trial to the House’s appointment of impeachment “managers” justify an indefinite delay.

As Mr. McConnell noted, the Constitution’s Framers emphasized the importance of a speedy trial in cases of impeachment. “The procrastinated determination of the charges,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 65, would do “injury to the innocent,” work to “the advantage of the guilty,” and sometimes do “detriment to the state, from the prolonged inaction of men whose firm and faithful execution of their duty might have exposed them to the persecution of an intemperate or designing majority in the House.”

Mrs. Pelosi is holding the impeachment articles hostage, she says, to ensure that the Senate holds what she regards as a “fair” trial. Her central demand is that the Senate permit House managers to call witnesses the House didn’t hear from before impeaching the president. Putting aside the rank hypocrisy of this demand, the Constitution provides that “the Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.” The House has no say in how the trial is conducted.

Mr. McConnell appears to believe it is to his advantage to let Mrs. Pelosi fumble about “for now.” But the Constitution obliges the Senate to act at some point. If the House does not relent, the Senate has two options. It could take the position that because the House bears the normal prosecutorial burden of production and persuasion, Mrs. Pelosi’s refusal to engage with the Senate requires the summary dismissal of the articles. Alternatively, the Senate could take a page from the judiciary’s handbook and appoint outside counsel as managers to make the House’s case against Mr. Trump.

If managers are appointed by either the House or the Senate, the Senate should not conduct a trial on the facts. Instead it should dismiss the articles as a matter of law. The House has alleged no impeachable offense, and therefore no evidence can convict Mr. Trump.

The first article charges the president with “abuse of power” in his dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. There are two ways a president can abuse power: by doing something that exceeds his constitutional authority (such as unilaterally imposing a tax) or by failing to carry out a constitutional obligation (refusing to enforce a law). Neither is applicable here.

Mr. Trump had ample constitutional authority to ask Mr. Zelensky to investigate Ukrainian involvement in the alleged Democratic National Committee server hack, the related genesis of the Russia collusion narrative, and Joe and Hunter Biden’s potentially corrupt dealings in Ukraine. The Supreme Court stated in U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. (1936) that the president is the “sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,” with exclusive authority to conduct diplomatic relations.

House Democrats don’t dispute this, or claim Mr. Trump’s actions were illegal in themselves. Rather, they allege that he had “corrupt motives” for doing them.

The “corrupt motives” theory is inherently corrosive of democracy. Motives are often mixed, difficult to discern and, like beauty, generally in the eyes of the beholder—which in this case sees through partisan lenses. To Democrats, the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call demonstrate the desire to harm Democrats; to Republicans, a desire to root out corruption.

Any investigation involving governmental malfeasance can damage the president’s political rivals or benefit allies. But the president has a constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” even if his political opponents may be violating them. To bar investigations of the president’s political opponents would effectively hand them a get-out-of-jail-free card and traduce the rule of law. And virtually everything elected officials do serves political ends. If a president’s pursuit of his political interests is impeachable, every president is removable at Congress’s whim.

The House Democrats’ theory will encourage impeachment whenever a President exercises his constitutional authority in a manner offensive to the party controlling the House. The Framers vehemently opposed impeachment for policy disagreements, as legal scholar Michael Gerhardt noted during President Clinton’s impeachment inquiry in 1998. He told the House Judiciary Committee that “one of the most often repeated pronouncements of the framers” was “that impeachment is not designed to address policy differences or opinion.” He referred the committee an “excellent study” by Peter Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, which warned that “impeachable offenses are not simply political acts obnoxious to the government’s ruling faction.”

The second impeachment article charges Mr. Trump with “obstruction of Congress” for asserting executive privilege in response to subpoenas. But impeachment doesn’t abolish the separation of powers The president has ample constitutional basis to resist congressional demands of documentary and testimonial evidence, particularly when it involves his White House advisers and sensitive national-security issues. This article is not only legally baseless but outrageous, since the House didn’t bother asking a judge to compel White House aides to testify. Instead, Mrs. Pelosi insists Mr. McConnell make it happen.

The Senate must stop the madness. If the House chooses not to pursue its case, the Senate has the authority and the duty to move forward and acquit the president without hearing additional evidence. Both with respect to the timing of the impeachment trial and the actual trial procedures, the Senate must fulfill its constitutional duty as the ultimate check on the House majority’s partisan passions and abuse of its impeachment power.

Mr. Rivkin and Ms. Foley practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations. She is a professor of constitutional law at Florida International University College of Law.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-senate-knows-enough-to-acquit-trump-11578262402

Barr’s Loyalty Is to the Constitution, Not a Party

By David B. Rivkin and Andrew M. Grossman

December 24, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Washington’s knives are out for Attorney General William Barr, and the stabbing has intensified since he delivered a November address at the Federalist Society. Predecessor Eric Holder —who while serving in the Obama administration described himself as “the president’s wingman”—accused Mr. Barr of championing “essentially unbridled executive power.” In the same Washington Post op-ed, Mr. Holder added that Mr. Barr’s “nakedly partisan” remarks rendered him a pawn of President Trump and “unfit to lead the Justice Department”—an utterly unhinged claim.

In the New York Times, William Webster, who directed both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, chastised Mr. Barr for criticizing FBI bias. Meanwhile, the Never Trump group Checks and Balances accused Mr. Barr of advancing an “autocratic vision of executive power” that is “unchecked” by Congress and the courts.

Some of the attacks are mere symptoms of Trump derangement syndrome, but others reflect by a deep-seated resistance to the Constitution’s separation of powers and the threat that its enforcement poses to the unaccountable administrative state. In either case, they’re wrong. Far from calling for executive supremacy, Mr. Barr has vigorously advocated the Framers’ vision of the Constitution’s separation-of-powers architecture, featuring the three governmental branches—Congress, the president and the judiciary—each exercising its distinctive authorities while checking the others. In his Federalist Society address, Mr. Barr, quoting Justice Antonin Scalia, explained that the Constitution gives the president and Congress “many ‘clubs with which to beat’ each other.”

Mr. Barr’s extolling of the “unitary executive” is hardly revolutionary—nor, as critics imagine, is it a call for dictatorship. It posits only that the president, being responsible for execution of the law, must be able to control his subordinates. This was the rule across the government until Humphrey’s Executor v. U.S. (1935), in which the Supreme Court carved out an exception for members of certain “independent” regulatory agencies, whom the president can fire only for “good cause.”

The Framers had good reason to favor a strong presidency. The early republic’s weak civilian executive leadership almost lost the Revolutionary War, shifting nearly the entire burden to Gen. George Washington. Postwar government under the Articles of Confederation was a ruinous shambles, unable to assert any sort of national leadership. To be sure, the Framers also feared legislative overreaching. They resolved all these problems by creating a coequal executive who could act, in Mr. Barr’s words, with “energy, consistency and decisiveness.”

Humphrey’s Executor was only the beginning of the attack on the constitutional design. Congress whittled away at executive power, depriving the president of the authority and duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The courts not only approved those usurpations, but themselves meddled in disputes between the political branches and seized broad swaths of executive discretion.

Numerous lawmakers, most of the media and much of the political class now claim—at least during a Republican administration—that even core executive-branch activities, such as diplomacy and law enforcement, must be substantially free from presidential control. Hence the steady drumbeat of criticism directed at Mr. Trump for overseeing and making policy for the Justice Department, the FBI and the intelligence community as a whole.

The result isn’t a strong Congress but the supplantation of the Constitution’s checks and balances with a worst-of-all-worlds muddle. Leaders of independent agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau exercise executive power free from accountability to the president or voters and subject only to the partisan whims of Congress. The bureaucratic “resistance,” spurred on by its allies in Congress, openly defies presidential decisions, undermining the principle of democratic control even in core areas of presidential responsibility like foreign policy. For their part, the courts increasingly police ordinary separation-of-powers disputes between Congress and the executive, destroying the possibility of compromise through political means.

These deviations from the Framers’ blueprint explain much of the government’s current dysfunction. Congress avoids politically dangerous decisions by palming tough choices off on agencies and the courts. The legal and political limbo of the so-called Dreamers is a ready example. Ceaseless congressional investigations nearly incapacitate the White House and are designed to achieve precisely that result. Executive agencies find their every action—even those involving inherently discretionary matters—subject to judicial scrutiny and nationwide injunctions imposed by judges whose jurisdiction is supposed to be limited to a state or district. Whereas the separation of powers fostered practical compromise, today’s judicial supremacy reduces everything to winner-take-all litigation.

Mr. Barr warned in his address that we must “take special care not to allow the passions of the moment to cause us to permanently disfigure the genius of our Constitutional structure.” Too often, previous attorneys general regarded the elements of separation of powers opportunistically, as cudgels to be employed in particular disputes. Mr. Barr’s vision and goals are broader. He’s concerned not only with the conflicts of the day but the structure necessary for the federal government to work. It’s a bold vision, but it’s the opposite of a partisan one.

If Mr. Barr achieves even a fraction of his agenda to restore the Framers’ vision of a strong, independent executive, he will go down as Mr. Trump’s most consequential executive appointment.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/barrs-loyalty-is-to-the-constitution-not-a-party-11577229447

This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

October 25, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed committees investigating President Trump to “proceed under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” but the House has never authorized such an inquiry. Democrats have been seeking to impeach Mr. Trump since the party took control of the House, though it isn’t clear for what offense. Lawmakers and commentators have suggested various possibilities, but none amount to an impeachable offense. The effort is akin to a constitutionally proscribed bill of attainder—a legislative effort to punish a disfavored person. The Senate should treat it accordingly.

The impeachment power is quasi-judicial and differs fundamentally from Congress’s legislative authority. The Constitution assigns “the sole power of impeachment” to the House—the full chamber, which acts by majority vote, not by a press conference called by the Speaker. Once the House begins an impeachment inquiry, it may refer the matter to a committee to gather evidence with the aid of subpoenas. Such a process ensures the House’s political accountability, which is the key check on the use of impeachment power.

The House has followed this process every time it has tried to impeach a president. Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment was predicated on formal House authorization, which passed 126-47. In 1974 the Judiciary Committee determined it needed authorization from the full House to begin an inquiry into Richard Nixon’s impeachment, which came by a 410-4 vote. The House followed the same procedure with Bill Clinton in 1998, approving a resolution 258-176, after receiving independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report.

Mrs. Pelosi discarded this process in favor of a Trump-specific procedure without precedent in Anglo-American law. Rep. Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee and several other panels are questioning witnesses in secret. Mr. Schiff has defended this process by likening it to a grand jury considering whether to hand up an indictment. But while grand-jury secrecy is mandatory, House Democrats are selectively leaking information to the media, and House Republicans, who are part of the jury, are being denied subpoena authority and full access to transcripts of testimony and even impeachment-related committee documents. No grand jury has a second class of jurors excluded from full participation.

Unlike other impeachable officials, such as federal judges and executive-branch officers, the president and vice president are elected by, and accountable to, the people. The executive is also a coequal branch of government. Thus any attempt to remove the president by impeachment creates unique risks to democracy not present in any other impeachment context. Adhering to constitutional text, tradition and basic procedural guarantees of fairness is critical. These processes are indispensable bulwarks against abuse of the impeachment power, designed to preserve the separation of powers by preventing Congress from improperly removing an elected president. Read more »

Probe the effort to sink Kavanaugh

By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

Sept. 29, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

The effort to sink Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation cries out for investigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already made a criminal referral to the Justice Department regarding alleged material misstatements by lawyer Michael Avenatti and his client Julie Swetnick. And a new book by two New York Times reporters contains a potentially explosive revelation.

In “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly report that Leland Keyser —who was unable to corroborate high-school friend Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of youthful sexual misconduct—says she felt pressured by a group of common acquaintances to vouch for it anyway. The book quotes an unnamed male member of the group suggesting in a text message: “Perhaps it makes sense to let everyone in the public know what her condition is”—a remark the reporters describe as reading “like a veiled reference” to Ms. Keyser’s “addictive tendencies.” (The authors quote her as saying she told investigators “my whole history of using.”)

A concerted effort to mislead the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Senate, especially if it involved threats to potential witnesses, could violate several federal criminal statutes, including 18 U.S.C. 1001 (lying to federal officials), 18 U.S.C. 1505 (obstruction of official proceedings) and 18 U.S.C. 1622 (subornation of perjury). Investigating and, if the evidence is sufficient, prosecuting such offenses would deter similar misconduct in the future.

It’s bad for the country when nominees are subjected to what Bill Clinton calls “the politics of personal destruction.” It intensifies political polarization and bitterness, traduces due process, dissuades good people from government service, and injures the reputation of the judiciary and other institutions.

The Senate and FBI could also consider changing the background-check process for nominees. Justice Kavanaugh’s opponents seem to have expected a full-fledged criminal-style inquiry into Ms. Ford’s allegations, although Senate Democrats had sat on them for months. But that’s not how background investigations work. They’re carried out by a special unit whose job is to verify information the nominee has provided and gather additional information that may reflect on his character and reputation. This process does not involve the same sort of searching questions that are characteristic of a criminal investigation. Nor do FBI background investigators routinely assess individual witness credibility. They reach no conclusions but collect information and then forward it to the White House and Senate. It is then up to the elected officials to decide who and what to believe. It is a political, not a criminal, process.

This is a matter of practice and tradition, not law. The FBI could be asked to conduct background investigations in a manner more comparable to its criminal and intelligence work, where agents will assess witness credibility and use those assessments to guide the focus and course of the inquiry. It should be especially vigilant to the possibilities of collusion and witness tampering, which are uniquely troubling in high profile confirmation battles.

Messrs. 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.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/probe-the-effort-to-sink-kavanaugh-11569786380

End the Media’s Campaign Privilege

The Trump era has seen an erosion of the distinction between journalism and partisan politics, with much of the mainstream media in open opposition to the president. “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator . . . to announce his candidacy,” New York Times columnist Jim Rutenberg wrote in August 2016.

Three years later, the holiday continues. Slate last month published a leaked transcript of a staff “town hall” at the Times. “We built our newsroom to cover one story,” executive editor Dean Baquet told employees, explaining that the paper’s narrative “went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character.” The new story, he said, “requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred.”

Mr. Baquet makes the Times sound like an advocacy organization working against Mr. Trump’s re-election. Such organizations are regulated by campaign-finance statutes. So are other corporations, for-profit or nonprofit, that engage in electioneering speech. But those laws exempt media organizations, provided they are not owned by a political party, committee or candidate.

The justification for this favored treatment is the media’s “unique” role in public discourse and debate. But that has changed—and not only because the media have become more partisan. “With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media,” the Supreme Court observed in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), “the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”

Read more »