Posted By RichC on July 11, 2012
In 1935, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was fretting about finding a constitutional basis for the Social Security Act. Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone advised her, “The taxing power, my dear, the taxing power. You can do anything under the taxing power.”Last week, in his ObamaCare opinion, NFIB v. Sebelius, Chief Justice John Roberts gave Congress the same advice—just enact regulatory legislation and tack on a financial penalty, as in failure to comply with the individual insurance mandate. So how did the power to tax under the Constitution become unbounded?
The first enumerated power that the Constitution grants to Congress is the “power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” The text indicates that the taxing power is not plenary, but can be used only for defined ends and objects—since a comma, not a semicolon, separated the clauses on means (taxes) and ends (debts, defense, welfare).
Mr. Moreno is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author of “The American State from the Civil War to the New Deal,” forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.