Could the Health Care Decision Hobble the Clean Air Act?

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Sackett v. EPA was the big environmental case from this past Supreme Court term, but the Court’s decision in NFIB v. Sebelius, the health care case, could actually turn out to have the larger effect on environmental law.  While most commentators on NFIB focused on the Commerce Clause challenge to the individual mandate, the arguments against the health care reform law’s provisions expanding Medicaid turned out to be more consequential, as seven justices concluded that in trying to create incentives for states to expand Medicaid, the health care reform law went too far.  This aspect of the Court’s ruling could also have a significant impact on environmental law.

As part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Congress sought to expand Medicaid to cover all adults at or below 133 percent of the poverty line.  As states are tasked with implementing Medicaid, Congress had to make it worth their while.  So in addition to offering generous funding (at least in the beginning), the PPACA also threatened to cut off all Medicaid funding to any state that did not go along with the expansion.  In effect, Congress made the states an offer they couldn’t refused, which is one reason over twenty states sued.

In NFIB a majority of the Supreme Court found Congress’ offer to be unconstitutional.  Congress’ use of conditional spending, seven justices concluded, crossed the line from inducement to coercion, and was constitutionally impermissible.  In the process, the Court reaffirmed that the Constitution creates a federal government of limited and enumerated powers, and that the federal government’s spending power is subject to judicially enforceable limits.

The NFIB ruling matters for environmental law because conditional spending is a staple of modern environmental law.  Most of the major federal environmental statutes adopt a “cooperative federalism” model under which states are encouraged to implement federal environmental programs.  State cooperation is encouraged through, among other things, the promise of federal financial support and, in some cases, the threat to withhold money for other programs. Under the Clean Air Act, for example, states that fail to adopt federally approved air pollution control programs risk losing federal highway funding.  This condition, combined with the threat of direct federal regulation, has been largely successful at inducing state acquiescence.  Yet after the Supreme Court’s NFIB decision, this arrangement may be unconstitutional.

The Clean Air Act would appear potentially vulnerable on several grounds.  First, the Clean Air Act conditions the receipt of money for one program (highway construction) on compliance with conditions tied to a separate program (air pollution control).  This may be problematic because a majority of the Court thought Congress was trying to leverage state reliance on funding for one program (traditional Medicaid) to induce participation in another program (the Medicaid expansion).  While the money at stake under the Clean Air Act is far less – most states receive substantially less in highway funds than in Medicaid funds – highway funding is less directly related to air pollution control (particularly from stationary sources) than traditional Medicaid is to the Medicaid expansion.

Though highway funding is less than that for Medicaid, it still may be enough to raise constitutional concerns. Highway funds are raised from a dedicated revenue source in gasoline taxes and placed in the Highway Trust Fund.  For many states, federal highway funds represent the lion’s share of their transportation budget.  As a consequence, threatening to take highway funds may strike some courts as unduly coercive under NFIB.  In the 1980s the Supreme Court upheld conditioning five percent of a state’s highway funds on setting a 21-years-old drinking age.  Under the Clean Air Act, however, a state can lose all highway funds, save those that will reduce emissions or are necessary for traffic safety, for failure to adopt a complete pollution control plan that satisfies the federal EPA.

The Court in NFIB also stressed that conditional grants of federal funds operate much like a contract, and that the parties are limited in their ability to unilaterally revise the terms.  This could expose another vulnerability in the Clean Air Act because while the statutory requirements don’t regularly change, what states must actually do to comply with the Clean Air Act’s terms do. The requirements for state pollution control plans are constantly changing, as the EPA tightens or otherwise revises federal air quality standards and additional pollutants become subject to Clean Air Act regulation.  Were this not enough, the recent inclusion of greenhouse gases as pollutants subject to regulation under the Act has radically altered states’ obligations, such that states will now have to do many things they could not have anticipated when the Clean Air Act was last revised in 1990.

Many states are already chafing under the Clean Air Act’s requirements.  The NFIB decision may give them a tool to relieve the burden.  Specifically, the Court’s decision to limit the federal government’s authority to place conditions on the receipt of federal funds may offer states some relief from Clean Air Act requirements.

Jonathan Adler is Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He is a prolific scholar, publishing on such topics as regulatory takings, water marketing, fisheries management, and the judicial limits of federal environmental regulation.He is the author, editor...
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