Enumerated powers

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry was asked last year about his understanding of “general welfare” under the Constitution. The left, the Texas governor was told, would defend Social Security and Medicare as constitutional under this clause, and asked Perry to explain his own approach. He replied:

“I don’t think our founding fathers, when they were putting the term ‘general welfare’ in there, were thinking about a federally operated program of pensions nor a federally operated program of health care. What they clearly said was that those were issues that the states need to address. Not the federal government. I stand very clear on that. From my perspective, the states could substantially better operate those programs if that’s what those states decided to do.”

It’s worth pausing to appreciate the radicalism of this position. When congressional Republicans, for example, push to end Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme, they make a fiscal argument — the GOP prefers to push the costs away from the government and onto individuals and families as a way of reducing the deficit.

But Perry is arguing programs like Medicare and Social Security aren’t just too expensive; he’s also saying they shouldn’t exist in the first place because he perceives them as unconstitutional. Indeed, when pressed on what “general welfare” might include if Medicare and Social Security don’t make the cut, the Texas governor literally didn’t say a word.

Now, this far-right extremism may not come as too big a surprise to those familiar with Perry’s worldview. He’s rather obsessed with the 10th Amendment — unless we’re talking about gays or abortion — and George Will recently touted him as a “10th Amendment conservative.” Perry’s radicalism is largely expected.

It’s worth noting, then, that Mitt Romney seems to be in a similar boat. He was asked in last night’s debate about his hard-to-describe approach to health care policy, and the extent to which his state-based law served as a model for the Affordable Care Act. Romney argued:

“There are some similarities between what we did in Massachusetts and what President Obama did, but there are some big differences. And one is, I believe in the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. And that says that powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved by the states and the people.”

What I’d really like to know is whether Romney means this, and if so, how much. Because if he’s serious about this interpretation of the law, and he intends to govern under the assumption that powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved by the states and the people, then a Romney administration would be every bit as radical as a Perry administration.

After all, the power to extend health care coverage to seniors obviously isn’t a power specifically granted to the federal government, so by Romney’s reasoning, like Perry’s, Medicare shouldn’t exist. Neither should Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, student loans, FEMA, or many other benchmarks of modern American life.

And if Romney doesn’t believe this, and he’s comfortable with Medicare’s constitutionality, maybe he could explain why the federal government has the constitutional authority to bring health care coverage to a 65-year-old American, but not a 64-year-old American.