This is part of The Liberty Papers’ continuing Point/Counterpoint series, where two contributors (or a contributor and a guest) argue competing sides of an issue. In this installment, I will argue that the Supreme Court has a realistic defensible argument to find the Individual Mandate in ObamaCare Constitutional. Tomorrow, Doug Mataconis will respond with a rebuttal. Links will be updated in each post as they appear.
UPDATE 4/4: Doug’s rebuttal is available here.
As always, we’re constantly looking for good debate topics for this series, and qualified guest posters to argue one side against one of the contributors.
Stipulated up front — I believe that ObamaCare is a severe affront to individual rights, limited government, and the ideals upon which our Republic was founded. In my own view of Constitutional jurisprudence, overturning the law is a no brainer. But as with most things our government does, they’re not listening to me, so the question is simple:
Does the Supreme Court have enough precedent to find the individual mandate Constitutional?
I think they do. And the argument has several elements.
Forcing You To Act
One of the first points of contention is the question of regulating activity versus regulating inactivity. The question being whether or not the Congress can force you to act if you choose not to. Many claim that Congress forcing you to purchase a good from a private seller is a bridge farther than they’ve ever gone before.
But taking the question of “buying from a private seller” out of the equation, is anyone suggesting that the government can’t force you to do something under threat of fine or jail? Ever heard of the Selective Service? I’d say a government that can force me to report for military service to die for my country is asking something a fair bit more serious than demanding I have health insurance. The government in this case can COMPEL you to do something within its rightful power — the power to raise armies. Or on a subject less likely to result in ending up full of lead, there’s Federal jury service. The government can COMPEL you to do something within its rightful power — the power to raise courts and ensure defendants a fair trial judged by their peers.
The question isn’t whether or not the government can force you to do something — Republicans, Democrats, Presidents, and Supreme Court Justices have all agreed that it can. The question is whether or not forcing you to buy health insurance falls within the power of what they can force you to do.
The Commerce Clause
Most of the debate so far has centered around whether the mandate — a regulation of inactivity, not of activity, is within Congress’ commerce clause power. We’ve had cases like Wickard v. Filburn, where the Court has ruled that someones activity can be regulated whether or not it directly engages in interstate commerce, because the act of growing your own wheat [and not buying it from the market] may have an affect on interstate commerce. We’ve even had Gonzales v. Raich, where the Court has ruled that the grasp of Congress extends even to activities which affect an interstate market in goods the government would prefer have no market at all.
The Government’s lawyers in this case say that the mandate is Constitutional because not buying insurance may affect interstate commerce. The opposition states that Congress can regulate activity related to interstate commerce, but regulating inactivity is a bridge too far. Supporters of ObamaCare, however, do have a point here. It can hardly be argued that refusing to purchase health insurance means that you’re not impacting the US healthcare system. Unless you have an ironclad “do not treat” waiver stapled to your forehead at all times, I’m pretty certain that if you’re in a car wreck and unconscious, you’re going to become a participant in the healthcare market. And if you don’t have insurance, that’s likely to bankrupt you, cost the taxpayer a hefty sum, or both. In this case, your supposed inactivity really is activity.
But this isn’t the only argument. One of the key points that is not argued is whether or not the US Congress has the authority to regulate the US Healthcare market at all. And the reason that’s not being argued is that it’s flatly assumed that Congress can regulate the healthcare market. In fact, even most pro-liberty Constitutionalists agree that if Congress had simply voted for a single-payer system, current Supreme Court jurisprudence wouldn’t have any cause to overturn it. So this brings us to our next point:
The Necessary and Proper Clause
This is really the crux. The clause says that Congress has power to make all laws “necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States.” A long time ago, that limited the government significantly. In fact, in the fight over the First Bank of The United States, the Feds argued that the Bank was necessary to engage in all the things that the government legitimately and Constitutionally needed to do. The opponents argued that while the Bank may be convenient and helpful to the government to do what it needs to do, it was hardly necessary. They took a very strong view that the word “necessary” meant what it said — if you could accomplish the goal without doing X, then X didn’t meet the Constitutional requirement of necessity.
Sadly, the Necessary & Proper clause was one of the first to get ignored by the Supreme Court, as Randy Barnett (a lawyer opposing ObamaCare in this case) pointed out in his book Restoring the Lost Constitution. One of the key growths in Government power over the early days of the Republic was to grant deference to Government lawyers if they said something was necessary.
In this case, much of the oral arguments centered around whether ObamaCare could stand without the individual mandate. Both sides agreed that Congress has the power to regulate healthcare, but they didn’t agree that the individual mandate was, on its own, Constitutional. After all, if they can mandate you purchase insurance, which might help restrain the growth of healthcare costs, might they not also mandate you purchase broccoli, as the health effects thereof might help restrain the growth of healthcare costs?
Many ObamaCare opponents cheered at the lines of questioning whether ruling the mandate Unconstitutional would cause the entire law to fall. Those opponents believed that it was a way for the Court’s conservative wing to ensure that they could toss out the whole law, rather than simply severing the mandate. But looking at the argument another way, it proves that the mandate is necessary to the law.
So let’s look at the “necessary and proper” test. First is propriety — laws made by Congress are only proper if they relate to one of its Constitutional powers. While I might not think Congress has legitimate authority to make sweeping healthcare legislation, I think we’ve well established that current Court jurisprudence is untroubled by the idea that Congress has commerce clause power to regulate healthcare. So the test of propriety is cleared. The second is necessity: is the mandate necessary to fulfill Congress’ authority to regulate the interstate commerce of healthcare. And I think the oral arguments proved, regardless of what side you’re on in this debate, that the mandate is absolutely necessary to the structure of the law. Get rid of the mandate, and you might as well throw the whole thing out.
So if regulating the healthcare market is a legitimate authority of Congress, within their purview granted by the commerce clause, then the question becomes whether this mandate is necessary for them to exercise their authority. I think the answer, as shown by oral argument, is yes. So the government clears the bars of both the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper clause.
A final argument by the opponents has been that if the mandate stands, it grants Congress ultimate power, which the Court will not allow to happen. And they’ve been encouraged by some lines of questioning in oral argument, where the “broccoli test” showed that the Government’s lawyers were unable to articulate a limiting principle of their argument.
But as loath as I am to agree with Kevin Drum on something (or whoever he borrowed the argument from), the Government doesn’t need to articulate a limiting principle. It’s up to the Court to determine whether THIS action is Constitutional. And they could very easily craft a limiting principle that allows the individual insurance mandate but doesn’t allow for an individual broccoli mandate.
How simple is it?
Q. Is the individual insurance mandate absolutely necessary to the very structure of Obamacare?
Q. Is the hypothetical broccoli mandate absolutely necessary to the very structure of Obamacare?
A. No. Are you f’ing serious?
The Court already has the “necessary & proper” clause as its limiting principle. If they accept the basic structure of ObamaCare as Constitutional, extending to Congress a provision that might be Unconstitutional on its own, but necessary as part of a wider power, would not be a shock.
I’m not going to claim that the above argument suggests that the Court will find ObamaCare Constitutional. I’m a firm believer in the idea that the Justices often decide — like people in all other walks of life — what they want to do and rationalize an argument into it afterwards. And I think we have a pretty decent idea how 8 of the 9 Justices will decide in this case, a 4-4 tie broken by Anthony Kennedy.
Should Kennedy vote to overturn the mandate, I expect the majority opinion to fall to one of the solid conservative justices. Should Kennedy vote to uphold, he very well might pen the majority opinion. For Kennedy to accept the mandate, I think he has to see a legitimate limiting principle — and the necessary & proper clause provides both the grounds for upholding the mandate and the inklings of a limiting principle in one fell swoop. Oh, and in case you followed the oral arguments, Kennedy was *very* interested in the concept of severability and seemed to assume, whether he votes to keep it or toss it, that the mandate was necessary to the structure.
I don’t know which way this thing’s gonna go, but I’m not as confident as other libertarians, conservatives, and small-government Constitutionalists. I see a very plausible rationale for upholding it, and thus I think we’re hoping that one oft-flighty Justice happens to come down on our side of the vote.