In 2009, President Obama insisted his proposal to financially penalize individuals who didn’t purchase health insurance was not a tax. Congressional Democrats echoed that sentiment in 2010 when they narrowly passed “Obamacare” and the “individual mandate.”
Neither the president, nor his congressional allies, wanted to be seen as responsible for imposing what would be one of the largest tax hikes in the nation’s history.
It is highly ironic, then, that the president’s signature achievement would not have survived constitutional scrutiny had the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court ignored such arguments from the law’s supporters.
On Thursday, the high court ruled 5-4 that Obamacare may become the law of the land. Chief Justice John Roberts provided the swing vote, siding with the court’s liberals to uphold the individual mandate as a legitimate exercise of Congress’ taxing authority.
At least Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged limits to congressional authority under the Constitution’s commerce clause, writing that the federal government “does not have the power to order people to buy health insurance” but that the penalty “can reasonably read as a tax.”
In addition, by a 7-2 majority, the justices ruled there are limits to Washington’s power over the states, rejecting a provision in the law that allowed the federal government to withhold existing Medicaid money from states that didn’t expand their current programs under Obamacare.
These findings may indeed play an important and positive role in future rulings regarding the boundaries of federal authority. Today, though, these small victories pale in comparison to the ramifications of the court sanctioning another massive expansion of federal hegemony over a major sector of the economy.
“The fragmentation of power produced by the structure of our government is central to liberty, and when we destroy it, we place liberty at peril,” Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito noted in dissent. “Today’s decision should have vindicated, should have taught, this truth; instead, our judgment today has disregarded it.”
Obamacare was always a central issue in the presidential election — now even more so. Many Republicans will campaign on a vow of repealing the law if voters award them the White House and congressional majorities. The president now must run as a champion of a major new tax on segments of the middle class.
Meanwhile, the law remains an albatross on economic recovery, potentially imposing significant new financial burdens on the private sector while adding, in the long run, to the already ballooning federal debt and deficit.
Any legislation this comprehensive and complex will no doubt have many, many unforeseen and unintended consequences. Back in 2010, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi uttered her famous line about Obamacare: “But we have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.”
Barring repeal in the near future, that mystery will soon be revealed — for better or for worse.
This editorial appeared June 29 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal