Constitutional law professor Randy Barnett says Congress cannot impose mandatory insurance purchases. And I agree, but if this provision is struck down, as it will be, the requirement that insurance companies take on all people with pre-existing conditions will cause our own insurance costs to soar – people will now not buy insurance until, say, they are diagnosed with cancer, then they’ll join the pool. Who pays? You and I.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare) includes what it calls an “individual responsibility requirement” that all persons buy health insurance from a private company. Congress justified this mandate under its power to regulate commerce among the several states: “The individual responsibility requirement provided for in this section,” the law says, “. . . is commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce, as a result of the effects described in paragraph (2).” Paragraph (2) then begins: “The requirement regulates activity that is commercial and economic in nature: economic and financial decisions about how and when health care is paid for, and when health insurance is purchased.”
In this way, the statute speciously tries to convert inactivity into the “activity” of making a “decision.” By this reasoning, your “decision” not to take a job, not to sell your house, or not to buy a Chevrolet is an “activity that is commercial and economic in nature” that can be mandated by Congress.
It is true that the Supreme Court has interpreted the Commerce Clause broadly enough to reach wholly intrastate economic “activity” that substantially affects interstate commerce. But the Court has never upheld a requirement that individuals who are doing nothing must engage in economic activity by entering into a contractual relationship with a private company. Such a claim of power is literally unprecedented.
Since this Commerce Clause language was first proposed in the Senate last December, Democratic legislators and law professors alike breezily dismissed any constitutional objections as preposterous. After the bill was enacted, critics branded lawsuits by state attorneys general challenging the insurance mandate as frivolous. Yet, unable to produce a single example of Congress using its commerce power this way, the defenders of the personal mandate began to shift grounds.
On March 21, the same day the House approved the Senate version of the legislation, the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation released a 157-page “technical explanation” of the bill. The word “commerce” appeared nowhere. Instead, the personal mandate is dubbed an “Excise Tax on Individuals Without Essential Health Benefits Coverage.” But while the enacted bill does impose excise taxes on “high cost,” employer-sponsored insurance plans and “indoor tanning services,” the statute never describes the regulatory “penalty” it imposes for violating the mandate as an “excise tax.” It is expressly called a “penalty.”
This shift won’t work. The Supreme Court will not allow staffers and lawyers to change the statutory cards that Congress already dealt when it adopted the Senate language.