John McCain has done a service to the conservative cause by injecting the issue of private property rights into the presidential campaign. He did so in the first instance with a speech earlier this week to the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Rotary Club. The New York Sun has a good account of that speech. McCain plans to give a similar speech in New Hampshire soon.
Today, Senator McCain granted me an interview on this subject (inevitably, we also ended up discussing Iraq, and I’ll report on this in a follow-up post). McCain’s starting point was the Kelo decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of government seizure of private property for the purpose of transferring it to another owner, if the change in ownership might enhance the community through “economic development.” McCain called this decision “disastrous” and contrary to our Constitution and our system. He found it more in line with the teachings of Karl Marx who stated that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: abolition of private property.”
McCain noted that Iowa reacted to Kelo by amending its constitution to prevent this result in that state. When the governor vetoed this action, the legislature overrode the veto. McCain sees this as indicative of how disturbing Kelo is to the public when proper attention is focused on it.
McCain said he’s co-sponsoring legislation in the Senate to prevent, so far as the federal government can, such seizures of property. In 2005, in the aftermath of Kelo, the House quickly and overwhelmingly passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Sensenbrenner that would have prevented any government entity receiving federal funds from taking property through eminent domain for the purpose of economic development. The legislation passed the House overwhelmingly but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. McCain said he wasn’t sure how his legislation would fare, but that his allies John Kyl and Lindsey Graham (both of whom are on the Judiciary Committee) have expressed their commitment to the latest proposal.
I pointed out that President Bush has received criticism from property rights advocates for not getting behind the Sensenbrenner legislation. McCain responded that he doesn’t like to criticize the administration, but did feel it hasn’t given this issue the priority it deserves and that as president he would have been out front on the subject.
In his Iowa speech, McCain stated that “if need be, I would seek to amend the Constitution to protect private property rights in America.” McCain explained to me that he views this as a last resort in the event that the various “fixes” to Kelo being enacted are struck down by the courts.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked McCain about legislation recently proposed in the House that would use federal money to create a multistate land use planning body for a wide (and apparently unspecified) swath of land in four states where civil war battle fields and other historic landmarks are located (“The Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area Act”) . Some property rights advocates fear that this legislation would limit private property rights while giving environmentalists and wealthy land owners extraordinary power to thwart construction of all but the most expensive houses and estates in the Virginia segment of the “corridor.”
Senator McCain responded that, as a general matter, he favors resolving these kinds of matters cooperatively at the state and local level, and with respect for private property rights. Since this particular matter involves multiple states, he seemed receptive to the idea of a voluntary interstate compact.
Though Senator McCain is a Navy man, the U.S. Marine slogan, “no better friend, no worse enemy,” tends to apply to him when it comes to a legislative fight. Property rights is another issue where conservatives can count McCain as a good friend.
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