Obamacare, the Constitution, and the Original Meaning of the Commerce Clause

By Watkins, William J | The Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2010 | Go to article overview

Obamacare, the Constitution, and the Original Meaning of the Commerce Clause


Watkins, William J, The Christian Science Monitor


Several lawsuits over the health-care reform's individual mandate hinge on interpretations of the constitution's Commerce Clause. This clause is widely believed to grant Congress broad power over national markets. But that isn't what the founders had in mind.

Does Congress's power to regulate commerce permit it to mandate that all Americans purchase a health insurance policy? So far two federal district courts have answered "yes" and one has answered "no." The courts' opinions exhaustively discuss and interpret modern Supreme Court case law, but barely touch upon the history of the commerce power and the intent of the Constitution's framers. Judges apparently fear that discussion of relevant history would not only cast doubt on the constitutionality of Obamacare, but also myriad federal laws based on the regulation of commerce.

The purpose of the Commerce Clause

The Commerce Clause, in pertinent part, provides that Congress has the authority "[t]o regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." No such power existed under the Articles of Confederation, which was the first constitution of the United States. This lack of power injured Americans in two principle ways.

First, the Confederation government could not retaliate when other nations restricted access to their markets. As early as 1782, Alexander Hamilton complained that the Confederation Congress had no power to "preserve the balance of trade in favor" of the thirteen states. A commerce power would permit Congress to shut our ports to the ships of nations that did not welcome American ships and goods.

Health care reform bill 101: what the bill means to you

Second, internal trade barriers inhibited the free movement of goods across the United States. When defending the Commerce Clause in the Federalist Papers, James Madison observed that a "very material object of this power was the relief of States which import and export through other States, from the improper contributions levied on them by the latter." Internal customs duties, Madison argued, hampered trade of the whole and led to tensions between neighboring states.

The original definition of 'commerce'

Madison's and Hamilton's view of commerce as what we call "trade" is borne out by the contemporary dictionary definitions of commerce. For instance, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (3d ed., 1765), defined commerce as "intercourse, exchange of one thing for another, interchange of anything; trade; traffick."

Usage of the word "commerce" in other parts of the Constitution further buttresses this understanding. Section 9 of Article I provides that "[n]o Preference shall be given to any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another." This provision obviously prohibits Congress from favoring, say, the port of Boston over the port of Charleston. The mention of commerce in connection with ports indicates that the framers had in mind the traffic of goods - the importing or exporting of various items.

Even the Supreme Court's first foray into the realm of the Commerce Clause supports a narrow interpretation. In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Chief Justice John Marshall struck down a state- granted monopoly for steamboat service. In discussing commerce, Marshall noted that state laws concerning the quality of manufactured items or foodstuffs "act upon a subject before it becomes an article of foreign commerce, or of commerce among the States. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Obamacare, the Constitution, and the Original Meaning of the Commerce Clause
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.