One of the talking points at the Tea Party rally at the Capitol on April 15th was, in the words of Sen. Mike Parry, that the federal government had “overstepped their bounds” in enacting health care reform. I asked several people if they knew that health care reform and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were based on the same clause of the Constitution of the United States, namely, the Commerce Clause.
Nobody believed me of course, including this fellow.
He proudly declaimed the Preamble to the Constitution for me, but he apparently never got as far as Article 1, Section 8. Pity.
It may seem odd that a major piece of civil right legislation, especially the public accommodation (food and lodging) sections, would be based on the Commerce Clause, but it is. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment protects persons from state conduct, not purely private conduct.
In order for the Congress to outlaw the refusal to serve blacks at a lunch counter in Greenville, South Carolina or the refusal to put blacks up in a motel in say, Georgia, it relied on its authority to regulate activity that affects interstate commerce. The free flow of persons and goods among the several states clearly affects interstate commerce.
It won’t come as a surprise that howls of indignation arose, claiming that the federal government “overstepped their bounds.” This is the Lester Maddox territory that Nick Coleman discussed this morning in his column.
And it was, in fact, a motel in Georgia that tried to overturn the law. In a case titled Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S., the Supreme Court ruled — unanimously — that the Congress had the authority to regulate purely private conduct when it affects interstate commerce.
If the Congress can require a white man in the South to serve a black customer at a lunch counter on Commerce Clause grounds, you can be quite sure it has the authority to regulate one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, and to require that individuals purchase health insurance. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise.
Parenthetically, every once in a great while the title of a case is a metaphor for what it is about; racial discrimination was indeed the “heart of Atlanta” in 1964. One of my other favorites is Loving v. Virginia, the case that struck down state bans against interracial marriage.