The House on Wednesday easily approved legislation to overrule a Supreme Court decision that many members of Congress say gives the government too much authority to seize private property.
Members passed the Private Property Rights Protection Act, H.R. 1944, in a 353-65 vote with 127 Democrats in favor. House passage sends the bill to the Senate, which has not indicated whether it will consider it.
The bill goes after the court's 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London. The controversial 5-4 ruling said officials in that Connecticut city correctly used their power of eminent domain to take private property and give it to another private entity for economic development purposes.
The court said specifically that New London's decision was justified under the "public use" clause of the Fifth Amendment, which says no property shall be taken for public use without just compensation. The ruling said the city's taking was justified because economic development can be seen as a public use.
Opponents of the decision argue the court erred in deciding that any public use is served in transferring property between two private entities. They also say it means the government now has the right to confiscate property any time it believes another private party will help it generate more tax revenue.
"Under the court's reasoning, the government can now use the eminent domain power to take the property of any individual for nearly any reason," Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said during Tuesday's debate on the bill.
Goodlatte quoted from the dissenting opinion of then-Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who said the ruling lets the government pick and choose which entities are allowed to own property.
"The specter of condemnation hangs over all property," she wrote in her dissent. "Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."
"It is time for Congress finally to step in and do its part to rein in eminent domain abuse," Goodlatte said. "No one should have to live in fear of the government snatching up their home, farm, church or small business."
The legislation would prohibit any government from using its eminent domain power for reasons related to economic development. To hold government officials accountable, the bill would block federal economic development funds to any government that violates the act.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) argued against the bill by saying since the Kelo decision, many states have adopted their own less-restrictive eminent domain laws, making federal action unnecessary. He said the Supreme Court's ruling called on states to take this step if they want.
"I'm therefore encouraged that no fewer than 43 states have followed that advice and taken steps to restrict their own powers of eminent domain to guard against abuse," Scott said Tuesday.
Scott also said the prospect of starving state and local governments of funding for as a penalty for violating the act is too severe and doesn't allow the government to judge how serious the violation was.