House approves bill to protect private property rights

Editor’s note: The U.S. House of Representatives approved Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R-Wis.) legislation, H.R. 1433, the Private Property Rights Protection Act. The following is the text of his remarks on behalf of the bill in the House.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased that the House of Representatives is today considering H.R. 1433, the Private Property Rights Protection Act. This legislation will prevent economic development from being used as a justification for exercising its power of eminent domain.

I first introduced a version of this bill after the 2005 Supreme Court’s ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. In this decision, the court held 5-4 that “economic development” can be a “public use” under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, justifying the government’s taking of private property and giving it to a private business for use in the interest of creating a more lucrative tax base. As a result of this ruling, the federal government’s power of eminent domain has become almost limitless, providing citizens with few means to protect their property.

Under this decision, farmers in my state of Wisconsin are particularly vulnerable. The fair market value of farmland is less than residential or commercial property, which means it doesn’t generate as much property tax as homes or offices. Uncle Sam can condemn one family’s home only because another private entity would pay more tax revenue.

This bill is needed to restore to all Americans the property rights the Supreme Court took away. Although several states have independently passed legislation to limit their power to eminent domain, and the Supreme Courts of Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio have barred the practice under their state constitutions, these laws exist on a varying degree.

The Private Property Rights Restoration Act will provide American citizens in every state with the means to protect their private property from exceedingly unsubstantiated claims of eminent domain. Under the legislation, if a state or political subdivision of a state uses its eminent domain power to transfer private property to other private parties for economic development, the state is ineligible to receive federal economic development funds for two fiscal years following a judicial determination that the law has been violated. Additionally, the bill prohibits the federal government from using eminent domain for economic development purposes.

The protection of property rights is one of the most important tenets of our government. I am mindful of the long history of eminent domain abuses, particularly in low-income and often predominantly minority neighborhoods, and the need to stop it. I am also mindful of the reasons we should allow the government to take land when the way in which the land is being used constitutes an immediate threat to public health and safety. I believe this bill accomplishes both goals.

The need to ensure that property rights are returned to all Americans is as strong now as it was when Kelo was decided. Congress must play a pivotal role in reforming the use and abuse of eminent domain. I urge my colleagues to join me in protecting property rights for all Americans and limiting the dangerous effects of the Kelo decision on the most vulnerable in society. I yield back the balance of my time.

(To watch a video of Sensenbrenner’s testimony, click here.)