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June 4, 2012

The Constitution, Congress, and the Repeal Amendment

When Congress acts pursuant to its enumerated powers and does not infringe upon an individual right or liberty, the U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally treated the legislation with deference. This approach lately has come under fire. Randy E. Barnett, who teaches constitutional law at Georgetown, has endorsed the enactment of the so-called “repeal amendment” – an amendment to the Constitution which would provide for the repeal of a particular federal law or regulation “when the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states approve resolutions” favoring the same.

Such an amendment is contrary to the intentions of the framers as reflected in the text and structure of the Constitution itself. They met in Philadelphia in 1787 to address the inadequacies of government under the Articles of Confederation, finally recognizing that, in order for the young nation to move forward – for its economy to thrive, for its borders to be protected, for its people to be secure in the world – it needed a government to both represent and speak for all citizens – a government of the United States, supreme by design in matters of national policy both domestic and foreign. 

By subjecting every national policy to review by the people acting through their state legislatures, the repeal amendment would threaten the most vital aspects of the governmental plan adopted by the framers. As my late colleague George Dargo put it, “[t]o provide states with a mechanism for disapproving of federal laws would not only undermine the institution of Judicial Review, but it would fundamentally alter the architecture of American government as we have come to know it in the past two hundred years.”

Of course, altering the architecture of the American government is the point of the repeal amendment. Which begs the question whether our constitutional architecture, as understood by the Supreme Court, has truly failed us.  Proponents of the amendment assert that the federal government is out of control – an assertion that assumes the federal government is divorced from the people it serves. Indeed, Professor Barnett has argued, in the context of the challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that, “[i]f Congress can mandate that citizens do anything that is convenient to its regulation of the national economy,” then sovereignty lies with the federal government rather than the people and “Congress has the prerogative powers of King George III.”

But that is not right: unlike an unelected king, Congress is not an entity separate from the people – it is the people. And if the people don’t like the individual mandate, or indeed any federal policy, they have ample means at their disposal to make that view known to their congressional representatives, as indeed many have since the Affordable Care Act became law.

The people, moreover, cannot reliably be expected to enforce the Constitution. When the Court reviews a Congressional enactment, it is engaged in the process of determining the law’s constitutional validity, a process dictated by established doctrines that describe the boundaries of acceptable Congressional action and at the same time respect the limits of the judiciary’s institutional role in our governmental system. These doctrines serve to direct and constrain judicial discretion, to push judges to exercise legal rather than political or emotional judgments about the action Congress has taken.

The repeal amendment, by contrast, invites the exercise of political and emotional judgments. People will favor the repeal of particular federal policies simply because they don’t like those laws. State legislative resolutions favoring repeal accordingly will be the result of passion, not reasoned judgment about the national policies Congress is constitutionally authorized to pursue.

In the end, then, proponents of the repeal amendment seek to achieve political and not necessarily constitutional goals. Luckily for them, we already have at hand the means through which we can control our representatives in Congress, and thereby control the reach of the federal government: they are called elections, every two years for Representatives, every six for Senators.

Lawrence Friedman

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