Joe Biden is worth his weight in gold for his gaffes and ill-timed quips. When he whispered to the President in range of a live microphone before the signing of the health care bill: “This is a big f—ing deal!”, you could see the President purse his lips. At least one of them realized there was a live mic right there, though it would have been classic if he’d said, “That’s f—in’ A right.”
The health bill is a big deal. No doubt about it. Sure, I think it’s misguided and unfunded. But it sets up a huge new government program that, it’s easy to say fairly, is one giant leap towards a single-payer health care system in the United States. That’s a big deal.1
Anyway, to this law student trying to write a blog, the bigger f—ing deal is the pending constitutional challenge to the law. Most of the media coverage is worthless, but I AM really f—ing grateful for some pretty f—ing serious dialogue about what a constitutional challenge looks like and what the f—ing issues are. This one in particular is well worth the lengthy read.
I’ll poorly paraphrase the main arguments, which really focus on a discreet issue: does the Constitution anywhere authorize an individual mandate to purchase health insurance through either the commerce, taxation, or spending powers?
Challengers argue that Congress lacks the authority under the Constitution to tax people for not engaging in a commercial transaction (purchasing insurance). In other words, you can’t regulate person’s “inactivity.” The Commerce Clause does not warrant such intrusion because of not buying something is not commerce and a person’s decision to not buy health insurance is not vital to the overarching regulation. The taxing power does not support such an action because it’s an excise tax on existing, rather than a tax on income or consumption. This makes the tax (although revenue raising) a purely regulatory or punitive measure, which courts may view as unconstitutional. And the spending power does not support it because the tax itself isn’t really spending.
The supporter of the bill (and opponent of the constitutional challenge), says, in essence, “I call bullocks on all that.” At its heart the mandate is simply an exercise of Congress’ authority to tax and spend for the general welfare. This authority is broad and, basically, unlimited. The tax in question here raises revenue and is part of a broader regulatory scheme, much like most, if not all, tax provisions. Plus, the health care bill is well within Congress’ power to set economic policy, which the courts have avoided invalidating since Lochner. Congress has broad, discretionary authority to enact economic regulations that is based on decades of both Supreme Court jurisprudence and lawmaking that covers areas as diverse as education, gun policy, crime, estate taxes, and environmental protections. Where there are overarching areas of public concern that transcend state boundaries, the federal government is the only body qualified or authorized to regulate. Plus to suggest that not participating in a national health plan is not an economic decision is as irrelevant as it is dumb.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be though. Some believe this challenge may place us on constitutional ground unexplored since Lochner.
If defenders of the bill in this constitutional dialogue are correct, the Constitution really places no structural constraints on Congress to enact any regulation or mandate. The only constraints which exist are those which protect fundamental rights and those are protected only if Congressional action fails to withstand the strict scrutiny of the courts. A citizen’s only recourse is through redressing the government with her concerns or the electoral process.
Opponents of the bill argue that the Constitution is meaningless without the structural constraints placed on the federal government. Logically, you might add to this argument that federalism is dead as any sort of mechanism for defining spheres of power within our system.
The Constitution is as much a structural document as one that defines “fundamental rights.” The concepts are inextricably interrelated. To the extent structural constraints are eroded, our fundamental rights are imperiled as the federal legislature enacts economic legislation that courts refuse to second-guess. Yet, absent any meaningful constraints on legislative power, the courts are the sole arbiter of rights. I like judges and courts and lawyers, but not to tell me what to do. Asked in the form of a question: Can you have a “scheme of ordered liberty” without any real constraints, or order, imposed on government authorities other than periodic elections?
The concentration of power and authority in Washington (and, incidentally, in large corporations) is a direct threat to individual liberty. While such authority is often exercised for the good of people, it is far more difficult to hold accountable those who wield it when there are no discernible bounds to it.
I suspect the challenge will come to naught, colliding as it does with a host of precedents that grant Congress nearly unlimited authority to regulate even non-commercial, local activity through the Commerce Clause, ala Wickard. Since overturning Lochner, courts grant substantial deference to Congress when it comes to economic regulation.
But perhaps they shouldn’t.
Let’s return to Lochner. A court could defend a position that while there are no structural, constitutional constraints to enacting the health reform bill, the court does reserve the right to ensure that such regulations do not imperil individual liberties. Even if Congress has authority under the Constitution to enact an individual mandate to purchase health insurance with a fine for non-compliance, if such law places too heavy a burden on the individual right to contract or the right “to be let alone” by the government (to use the “right to privacy” reasoning), then courts can overturn that regulation. That would be the ONLY way to check congressional power, whichever party wielded it.
1 On a related note rant, we have a bunch of chicken-s*** leaders who refuse to level with us about our real choices are about taxes and spending. The CBO estimates for this bill are a joke; the CBO itself estimates their accuracy at “50/50.” Makes you wonder why the President can sound so certain about the bill’s budget impact. Perhaps that’s because, as a people (to the extent one can define that term), we refuse to believe trade offs will one day be necessary. Hands off my Medicare and unemployment, you socialist bastard! So long as we get ours and those taxes come after we’re dead, right? I guess the election will tell what the “people” think about this.