By Erin Ryan, a Fulbright Scholar in China. She is a professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School, where she will return this summer. Ryan is also author of Federalism and the Tug of War Within. Read her previous guest post “Health Care Reform and Federalism’s Tug of War Within.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) decision, it’s easy to get lost in debate over the various arguments about how the commerce and tax powers do or don’t vindicate the individual mandate. But the most immediately significant portion of the ruling –
and one with far more significance for most actual governance – is the part of the decision limiting the federal spending power that authorizes Medicaid. It is the first time the Court has ever struck down congressional decision-making on this ground, and it has important implications for the way that many state-federal regulatory partnerships work.
The Spending Clause authorizes Congress to spend money for the general welfare. Congress can fund programs advancing constitutionally specified federal responsibilities (like post offices), and it can also fund state programs regulating beyond specifically delegated federal authority (like education). Sometimes, Congress just funds state programs that it likes. But it can also offer money conditionally – say, to any state willing to adopt a particular rule or program that Congress wants. In these examples, Congress is effectively saying, “here is some money, but for use only with this great program we think you should have” (like health-insuring poor children).