By Anthony Hawks

The decision in McCulloch v. Maryland was handed down on March 6, 1819, and it did not take long for Marshall’s critics to mount a newspaper campaign denouncing the decision, particularly what they viewed as Marshall’s erroneously expansive reading of the word “necessary” in the Necessary & Proper Clause.

The first two news articles, signed by “Amphictyon” (believed to be Judge William Brockenbrough of Virginia) were published three weeks later, prompting two reply articles by Marshall under the pseudonym of “A Friend of the Union.” The debate continued with four additional articles by Marshall’s fiercest critic, Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spencer Roane (signing as “Hampden”), which in turn led to nine more essays by Marshall, this time as “A Friend of the Constitution.” For 150 years the full extent of this debate was unknown, but all of these articles were finally collected and published in 1969 by Stanford Law Professor Gerald Gunther in John Marshall’s Defense of McCulloch v. Maryland.

This ideological battle was a replay of the earlier struggle between the restrictive Jefferson-Madison-Randolph view of “necessary” as “indispensable,” on the one hand, and the expansive Hamilton view of “necessary” as merely “convenient,” on the other. In McCulloch, Marshall appears to have sided with Hamilton by equating “necessary” with “convenient” or “useful” to uphold the creation of the Second Bank of the United States.

But Marshall also equated “necessary” with “needful,” requisite,” “essential,” and “conducive to,” which created a conundrum that has distorted interpretations of the Necessary & Proper Clause ever since. How can something be “essential” yet “merely convenient” at the same time? Was Marshall just being too clever by half, straddling both sides of a linguistic fence, or was he actually far more respectful of the restrictive Jefferson-Madison-Randolph view than is generally understood?

As the “Friend” essays make clear, McCulloch was fundamentally an affirmation that the purpose of the Necessary & Proper Clause was to import the English common law doctrine of incidental powers, whereby lesser powers are implied if needed (“necessary”) to execute the enumerated principal powers, as long as they are employed in a manner consistent with the “letter and spirit” of the Constitution (“proper”).

Here is Marshall speaking as A Friend of the Constitution: “[E]verything necessary to give full effect to the grant, everything essential to the perfect enjoyment of the thing granted, passes by implication.” He traces this doctrine to the venerable English jurist Sir Edward Coke, whom Marshall quotes as saying that “when the law doth give anything, it giveth, implied by whatsoever is necessary for the taking an enjoying of the same. And, therefore, the law giveth all that which is convenient, … as much as is necessary.”

Coke’s use of both the words “necessary” and convenient” in the foregoing quote was a balancing act that Marshall further described as follows: “When so used, they signify neither a feigned convenience nor a strict necessity, but a reasonable convenience, and a qualified necessity; both to be regulated by the state of the parties, and the nature of the act to be done.”

A full understanding of the doctrine of incidental powers then explains the conundrum above and harmonizes the meaning of “necessary” in both its restrictive and expansive meanings. Since most, if not all, powers can be executed in a variety of ways, none of which by themselves are absolutely indispensable, Congress is restricted to those “proper” means that actually execute the enumerated power, but it is given a choice as to which “proper” means are most expedient or convenient to use in a given situation.

In other words, the Necessary & Proper Clause authorizes any means that might be necessary or essential as long as they are proper; and for Marshall, “proper” meant that (1) they could not be expressly prohibited by the “letter” of Constitution (e.g. the Bill of Rights); nor (2) implicitly prohibited by the “spirit” of the Constitution (e.g. structural principles of separation of powers and federalism, or unenumerated rights retained by the people).

The choice of means within these constraints is left to Congress’s discretion. It is in this sense that “necessary” is both “essential” and “convenient”: Congress can choose the most convenient means from among any means that might be essential if such means were the only one available, as long as the means chosen meet the standards above for propriety.

To underscore this point, Marshall added the restriction in McCulloch that Congress was also precluded from passing laws so attenuated from the enumerated power as to be nothing more than a “pretext of executing its powers … for the accomplishment of goals not entrusted to the government.” If Congress did any of these things, then McCulloch made clear that “it would become the painful duty of this tribunal … to say that such an act was not the law of the land.”

In explaining how incidental powers could be implied under the Necessary & Proper Clause, Marshall made two important distinctions in his “Friend” essays. First, he was careful to distinguish between what he called a “direct” means for executing an enumerated power and incidental powers that help perfect the use of the enumerated power. A direct means would be a statute that, for example, executed the Tax Power by actually laying and collecting taxes, or that executed the Postal Power by establishing post offices and post roads. An incidental power would be a second statute that supported or perfected the first statute by criminalizing tax evasion or mail fraud.

Second, Marshall differentiated between the ultimate goals or “objects” of the Constitution and the powers (both enumerated and incidental) granted by the Constitution to achieve those goals. In his initial “Friend of the Constitution” essay, Marshall identified the “objects” of the Constitution, not as the enumerated powers themselves, but as the grand purposes set forth in the Preamble: “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their prosperity.”

The point of enumerating specific powers was to set forth those principal powers that the Framers believed would be collectively sufficient to achieve any of the “objects” in the Preamble. The point of the Necessary & Proper Clause was to ensure that those (express) principal powers could be executed by whatever (implied) incidental powers might be needed to supplement and perfect the direct means for executing the principal powers – assuming that the incidental powers themselves did not result in a violation of the Constitution or a pretext for violating the Constitution.

If the enumerated principal powers were not enough to achieve one of the Preamble’s goals, either because they were insufficient in themselves, or because the only available incidental powers were improper or pre-textual, then Congress has only one choice: formally add another enumerated power under the Article V amendment process, not add a principal power under the guise of an implied incidental power.

In terms of Obamacare, a direct means of executing the Commerce Power would be a statute that actually regulated interstate commerce by requiring health insurance policies sold across state lines to contain “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” provisions. An incidental power would be a criminal or civil sanction against any insurer that failed or refused to comply with this requirement. In the next post, I will examine how the actual Obamacare statute fares under the doctrine of incidental powers and Marshall’s insistence on distinguishing direct means v. incidental powers, on the one hand, and objects v. powers, on the other.

Copyright © 2012 Anthony W. Hawks. All rights reserved.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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