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Political Accountability as the Siren Call of the Progressive Movement

April 4, 2012 7:59 AM

Richard A. Epstein
Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law, New York University School of Law

The excellent posts by Gillian Metzger and Erwin Chemerinsky go beyond the particulars of the Affordable Care Act to address more general considerations of federalism. Stated in a nutshell, their view of the subject is that broad conceptions of political accountability afford the one key check that is needed on adventuresome legislation by which the federal government is respectful of the role that the states play in the structure of the political system. To Gillian Metzger, for example, the Medicaid expansion program should be approved because the states have to take political accountability for their decisions. She writes:

Political pressure from their citizens is a major reason that the states feel compelled to participate in Medicaid; turning down the substantial federal funds offered to subsidize healthcare for poor state residents is not a popular political choice.

This argument misses the force of the case against the Medicaid expansion. Why not divide the states into two classes? Those states that want to accept the program should, in my view, be entitled to participate even if key portions of the Medicaid expansions are cut. By the same token, the states that don't want to accept the program should be free to turn it down without having to sacrifice all the funds that are now contributed by the federal government to allow the states to run their programs for persons whose income is below poverty levels.

Put otherwise, the only objection here is to the unprecedented--to use everyone's favorite term--conditions that the federal government uses to bully states into the program. They are not allowed to reorganize the delivery of their services for the below-poverty line populations. And they must incur the very heavy administrative costs of running the expanded Medicaid program for new individuals.

In addition, Metzger's argument has to do work not only for this particular iteration of the Medicaid expansion, but also has to carry the day if the federal government added new burdens or new conditions to the Medicaid expansion. A state like California receives some $25 billion in Medicaid money for its current recipients. It will, as a moral certainty, be driven into the new program so long as its conditions cost it less than the money it forfeits.

We should, moreover, reject the reply that the loss of funds goes to the individual recipients and not to the state. But so what? This is not a condition wherein the federal government says to California that if you do not play along, then we shall take the money from Medicaid recipients in Oregon. Clearly the target was to drive the state which has all sorts of special obligations to its own citizens. One might as well say that there is no coercion involved when the gun man says give me your wallet or I will kill your mother.

None of these dire conclusions are softened by the political accountability doctrine.Taken to its limits, the doctrine means that the Constitution imposes no limits whatsoever on what the federal government can do in its relationships with the state by taxation, regulation and spending. Indeed, it goes so far that the terrible decision in South Dakota v. Dole is needlessly protective of the state because there is no such thing as coercion in the use of any of its powers. Yet if the doctrine does not go that far, then just how far does it go? Neither Metzger, nor any other defender of the doctrine explain its limits.

Indeed the situation is worse than this, because Metzger offers no explanation as to why there is not tremendous political exposure to those states that wish to reject the funds, just as there is to those states that want to accept them. This is one of the major decisions that state governments have to make, and if they make the wrong one, they will pay a price. Put otherwise, there is always political accountability. The key question therefore, is to get the federalism arrangements correct. It is not to use this doctrine as a trump that obviates the need to make a closer review of the overall situation.

Space does not permit a full examination of the Chemerinsky post that engages in too much name-calling and not enough analysis. There are many uses and abuses of federalism in dealing with federal state relationships. There are also many explicit limitations that the Constitution places on the states through the Fourteenth Amendment that it authorizes the Congress to enforce against the states by appropriate legislation. John Calhoun no longer walks the halls of Congress, and indeed the great sin of the Reconstruction period was its narrow construction of the Privileges or Immunities Clause, which allowed southern states exclusive and abusive control over the criminal justice system.

What that has to do with the current issue is anyone's guess. For different, the invocation of competitive federalism in connection with the child labor laws raises other issues, only here competitive federalism worked far better than a national standard. Chemerinsky is so committed to progressive causes that he is blind to the way in which his own brand of politics is used to sanctify the New Deal transformation of a Constitution of limited federal powers into one that allows federal force to control markets where it ought not to enter. It is, alas, too late to turn back the clock on Wickard v. Filburn. It is high time to recognize its massive errors by refusing to extend its logic one inch further.

Let us hope that the Supreme Court will exorcize the political accountability doctrine, and strike down both Title I and Title II of the ACA.




Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.