By Eloise Pasachoff | 62 Am. U. L. Rev. 577 (2013)

In NFIB v. Sebelius, the Supreme Court’s recent case addressing the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the Court concluded that the Act’s expansion of Medicaid was unconstitutionally coercive and therefore exceeded the scope of Congress’s authority under the Spending Clause. This was the first time that the Court treated coercion as an issue of more than theoretical possibility under the Spending Clause. In the wake of the Court’s decision, commentators have expressed either the concern or the hope that NFIB’s coercion analysis may lead to the undoing of much of the federal regulatory state, which substantially relies on the spending power. This Article argues that both this concern and this hope are misplaced.

Taking federal education law as a test case for future coercion analysis—since federal funding given to the states for elementary and secondary education is second only to federal funding given to the states for Medicaid—this Article concludes that NFIB’s coercion inquiry is unlikely to lead to much else being found unconstitutional. The major federal education laws, and by implication other conditional spending laws, will not likely find their demise under the Court’s analysis.
Nonetheless, NFIB will likely have some effect on the future of federal education law and other laws that rely on Congress’s spending powers. It should put a damper on calls to dramatically increase federal education funding; encourage the trend towards smaller grants of limited duration, especially those that bypass the states; result in some structural changes both in funding and enforcement; and, somewhat paradoxically for a decision that found the Medicaid enforcement regime coercive, may lead to greater federal enforcement of conditional spending laws.

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