by Greg Walcher, E&E Legal Senior Policy Fellow
As appearing in the Daily Sentinel
Most of us grew up in a time when a person’s word was his bond, and deal was a deal. That’s still mostly true today, but not always. Some situations are more complicated, but shouldn’t be.
In our “modern” era, a state can spend $50 million (as Colorado did) protecting habitat for a species like the Gunnison Sage Grouse, in lieu of adding it to the endangered species list, only to have the federal government break the promise and list it anyway. Congress can pass a law promising to forgive student loans for teachers who keep their jobs for a decade, then use technicalities to deny 99 percent of those who did so.
The exceptionalism of the American system is based largely on the rule of law. Thus, treaties, interstate compacts, and other government contracts are binding, even superseding private contracts. Yet government promises may be the least reliable of all. That’s no news flash – think of 19th Century treaties made with Indian tribes, or the 1930s promise that Social Security would never be taxed. Still, people ought to be able to make plans based on existing rules, with confidence that future changes will not undo deals already made. That is why the Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws.