Liberals breathed a sigh of relief yesterday after the Supreme Court dramatically allowed most of President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation to stand. It’s far too soon to know all the constitutional and political implications of the decision, but disappointed conservatives should understand three important points:
States’ Rights Advocates Can Claim a Major Victory
One clear victory for conservatives was the court’s ruling that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority by coercing states to accept expanded Medicaid funding (and the burdensome conditions that come with it) by threatening to withhold all previous Medicaid grants to the state.
To quote the opinion: “Congress may not simply conscript state [agencies] into the national bureaucratic army.”
The court’s ruling on this point has exponential implications beyond Obamacare. Numerous federal spending programs rely on some degree of state “coercion.” For example, the federal government grants substantial amounts of highway funding to states under the condition they make their legal drinking age 21.
The court did not clearly address in its opinion how much federal “encouragement” renders a spending program coercive and therefore unconstitutional. So, many similar programs with burdensome strings attached from the federal government are now open to legal challenge.
Although the Court Upheld the Individual Mandate on Other Grounds, Conservatives Got it Right on the Commerce Clause
For almost two years, nearly all debate on the legal challenges to Obamacare were about whether the individual mandate was a constitutional exercise of congressional power under Article I’s Commerce Clause. The Court settled that debate in favor of conservatives who argued all along that the Obama administration’s definition of “commerce” granted Congress unlimited power over Americans.
As Chief Justice John Roberts succinctly stated in his majority opinion “a mandate that forces individuals into commerce precisely because they elected to refrain from commercial activity . . . cannot be sustained under a clause authorizing Congress to ‘regulate Commerce.’ ”
The Court’s Reliance on the Tax and Spend Power In Upholding the Individual Mandate Was a Huge Surprise
It’s difficult to overstate how big of a surprise the court’s reasoning was in upholding the individual mandate.
The Supreme Court’s unexpected reliance on a separate congressional power and not the Commerce Clause probably explains why CNN incorrectly reported that the mandate had been overturned immediately after the decision was released.
Close observers were also blindsided because the court appeared to have barely considered the issue during the Supreme Court hearing in March.
In an irate dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out that the Obama administration’s opening brief to the Court didn’t even address the tax issue, and at oral argument, the longest statement about the issue was just over 50 words.
President Obama and Congressional Democrats bent over backwards asserting that the individual mandate was not a tax. The the statute specifically, and very intentionally, calls the mandate a “requirement” with a “penalty” rather than a “tax.” Even in the Obamacare opinion the majority concludes that the mandate is not a “tax” for purposes of the Anti-Injunction Act.
Yet, the court concluded that constitutionally speaking, the mandate could be considered a tax, so was thus within Congress’ authority.
Unfortunately, now that five of the Justices are comfortable calling a mandate with penalties a “tax,” conservatives have to deal with some uncomfortable questions.
Namely, if there is now no constitutional difference between a requirement with an attached penalty and a “tax,” did the Supreme Court ironically place a firm limit on congressional power under the commerce clause while opening the door to limitless power to tax Americans under their power to tax and spend?