The hard-right’s continued campaign against education and intellectual sophistication is coming home to roost with some significant consequences, especially in their current batch of Senate candidates. For example, Alaska GOP U.S. Senate candidate and Tea Party darling Joe Miller has taken to displaying a misinformed, but increasingly common among the right, understanding of constitutional law.
In many ways Miller, who just might have ousted a moderate and better informed Lisa Murkowski, represents the worst of the Beck-Palin-Bachmann-Paul know nothing Republicans rising through the ranks of GOP electoral politics. Robin Marty provides an excellent overview of Miller and the Alaska race, giving us a clear glance into candidate Miller and just where his electoral support comes from.
First he claimed that unemployment benefits are unconstitutional. Now he’s said the same about Medicare and Social Security. Miller has yet to articulate the specific manner in which these social programs run afoul of the Constitution, and I suspect he’d have a hard time doing so beyond familiar talking points of “federal government encroaching on state’s rights”, but the issue is important enough to spend some time explaining the error of Miller’s logic.
Here’s why he’s wrong.
First off, let’s be clear. No serious constitutional scholar or leader on the right seriously challenges the constitutionality of these programs–they may not agree with certain provisions and they may have a philosophical disagreement concerning the role of the federal government in administering them–but you’d be hard pressed to find an informed leader from the right agreeing with Miller and the current crop of know-nothings.
Be that as it may, attacking the constitutionality of Social Security is not new. Even Justice Cardozo had grown weary of the challenges in 1937 when his majority authored two decisions that had hoped to put the issue to bed for good. That year the Court upheld the constitutionality of social security (and social welfare programs in general) in Helvering v. Davis and then again in Steward Machine Company v. Collector of Internal Revenue Service.
The basis of the opposition to social security and other forms of social welfare (including the recent health care reform bill) has not changed–opponents argued then and now that creating social safety programs is not part of Congress’ enumerated authority and that it contravenes the 10th Amendment by violating state’s rights to legislate for their own citizens. And in both cases the Supreme Court soundly rejected those arguments.
In Steward Machine Co., Justice Cardozo’s majority opinion concluded that the Social Security Act (specifically, the unemployment compensation tax and credit portion of title IX of the Act) did not violate the 10th Amendment nor did it violate any fundamental notions of federalism and in Helvering the Court put to bed the idea that creating tax and spend programs in support of the general welfare of the population was unconstitutional. Specifically, the Helvering court maintained that, under the General Welfare clause of the Constitution, Congress could use its tax and spend authority (one of its enumerated powers) in support of the general welfare AND that Congress itself had the authority to determine when spending constituted spending for the general welfare. To date no piece of legislation has ever been struck down because it did not serve the general welfare.
Taking Miller’s position at face value and in light of Supreme Court precedent, the only way that these social welfare programs could be found unconstitutional would be for the Court to define “general welfare” in such a fashion that excludes unemployment benefits, social security benefits and affordable access to health care for the poor as not serving the “general welfare” of the people of the United States. Should the Roberts Court show itself to be that activist then this country would face a true constitutional crisis, the likes of which we’ve yet to witness.
And while all of this could be considered good fun during an election cycle, if Miller actually becomes a sitting US Senator (and the same is true for Nevada candidate Sharron Angle) a refusal to accept fundamental constitutional principles as settled would create some serious problems. The Senate has already ground to a halt because of partisanship has replaced leadership. Could we expect anything but serious policy regression should these views continue to gain airtime in mainstream news cycles? Our issues are too real and too serious to waste another second entertaining the policy points of candidates who can’t be bothered to either learn or respect the rule of law in this country.
photo courtesy of Thorne Enterprises via Flickr
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