by Thomas Sowell
The administration’s argument before the Supreme Court recycles an old trick.
When a 1942 Supreme Court decision that most people have never heard of makes the front page of the New York Times in 2012, you know that something unusual is going on.
What makes that 1942 case — Wickard v. Filburn — important today is that it stretched the federal government’s power so far that the Obama administration is using it before today’s Supreme Court as an argument to claim that it has the legal authority to impose Obamacare mandates on individuals.
Roscoe Filburn was an Ohio farmer who grew some wheat to feed his family and some farm animals. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture fined him for growing more wheat than he was allowed to grow under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which was passed under Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.
Filburn pointed out that his wheat wasn’t sold, so that it didn’t enter any commerce, interstate or otherwise. Therefore the federal government had no right to tell him how much wheat (which never left his own farm) he could grow.
The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution says that all powers not explicitly given to the federal government belong to the states or to the people. So you might think that Filburn was right.
But the Supreme Court said otherwise. Even though the wheat on Filburn’s farm never entered the market, just the fact that “it supplies a need of the man who grew it which would otherwise be reflected by purchases in the open market” meant that it affected interstate commerce. So did the fact that the home-grown wheat could potentially enter the market.
The implications of this kind of reasoning reached far beyond farmers and wheat. Once it was established that the federal government could regulate not only interstate commerce itself, but anything with any potential effect on interstate commerce, the Tenth Amendment’s limitations on the powers of the federal government virtually disappeared.