July 19, 2010

The Individual Mandate's Shifting Justification

Much of the debate over the constitutionality of Obamacare's individual mandate revolved around the Commerce Clause. These challenges were laughed off by much of the press and the punditocracy, not to mention many members of Congress. Well, it looks like the challenges weren't so frivolous because the administration has changed its tune. The mandate is now a tax.
Congress can use its taxing power “even for purposes that would exceed its powers under other provisions” of the Constitution, the department said. For more than a century, it added, the Supreme Court has held that Congress can tax activities that it could not reach by using its power to regulate commerce.

While Congress was working on the health care legislation, Mr. Obama refused to accept the argument that a mandate to buy insurance, enforced by financial penalties, was equivalent to a tax.

“For us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase,” the president said last September, in a spirited exchange with George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program “This Week.”

When Mr. Stephanopoulos said the penalty appeared to fit the dictionary definition of a tax, Mr. Obama replied, “I absolutely reject that notion.”

Congress anticipated a constitutional challenge to the individual mandate. Accordingly, the law includes 10 detailed findings meant to show that the mandate regulates commercial activity important to the nation’s economy. Nowhere does Congress cite its taxing power as a source of authority.
Professor Randy Barnett takes a look at the shift over at the Volokh Conspiracy.
Now there are cases that say (1) when Congress does not invoke a specific power for a claim of power, the Supreme Court will look for a basis on which to sustain the measure; (2) when Congress does invoke its Tax power, such a claim is not defeated by showing the measure would be outside its commerce power if enacted as a regulation (though there are some older, never-reversed precedents pointing the other way), and (3) the Courts will not look behind a claim by Congress that a measure is a tax with a revenue raising purpose.

But I have so far seen no case that says (4) when a measure is expressly justified in the statute itself as a regulation of commerce (as the NYT accurately reports), the courts will look look behind that characterization during litigation to ask if it could have been justified as a tax, or (5) when Congress fails to include a penalty among all the “revenue producing” measures in a bill, the Court will nevertheless impute a revenue purpose to the measure.

Now, of course, the Supreme Court can always adopt these two additional doctrines. It could decide that any measure passed and justified expressly as a regulation of commerce is constitutional if it could have been enacted as a tax. But if it upholds this act, it would also have to say that Congress can assert any power it wills over individuals so long as it delegates enforcement of the penalty to the IRS. Put another way since every “fine” collects money, the Tax Power gives Congress unlimited power to fine any activity or, as here, inactivity it wishes! (Do you doubt this will be a major line of questioning in oral argument?)

But it gets still worse. For calling this a tax does not change the nature of the “requirement” or mandate that is enforced by the “penalty.” ALL previous cases of taxes upheld (when they may have exceeded the commerce power) involved “taxes” on conduct or activity. None involved taxes on the refusal to engage in conduct. In short, none of these tax cases involved using the Tax Power to impose a mandate.

So, like the invocation of the Commerce Clause, this invocation of the Tax Power is factually and judicially unprecedented. It is yet another unprecedented claim of Congressional power. Only this one is even more sweeping and dangerous than the Commerce Clause theory.

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