An Activist Decision Setting New Boundaries for Federal Power
I stand by my initial reaction: the decision is a travesty. Roberts had it within his power to strike down the entire monstrosity, and he opted not to. Although the Right will be energized, he has handed Obama a political “win” (yes, a win that might end up as a curse, but for today, right now, this is a win).
Taking all that as read, what now are the limits of federal power?
On the good news front, the Court struck down (for the first time) a scheme of conditional federal grants as being unduly coercive against the states -- that would be ACA's Medicaid expansion, which threatened to pull the plug on all Medicaid dollars for states that don't march in lockstep with the feds.
Also good -- very good -- is the fact that the Court rejected the Administration's two primary arguments: that the individual mandate is justified under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. So now we know: Congress cannot use its regulatory power to compel activity. There must be some preexisting activity (and it has to be of an “economic” nature) for Congress to be able to regulate. (Peter: Roberts agreed with the dissenters re: the commerce power).
But then the bad -- very bad -- news: Roberts accepted the validity of the mandate as a “tax” imposed to promote the “general welfare.” As a matter of original meaning, this conclusion is incoherent. Everything we know about the original understanding of the text tells us that it was not meant to authorize Congress to use its taxing power to achieve ends that it could not do under its enumerated powers. Unfortunately, however, that conclusion is supported by precedent going back to the 1937 Helvering v. Davis case. It is the Hamiltonian view of “general welfare.” I don’t buy it, but it was not likely that the Court was going to revive the Madisonian (correct) view of general welfare at this date.
So: Congress cannot compel you to enter into commerce, but it can tax you if you refuse to enter into commerce. What are the limits to this doctrine? As far as I can tell they are:
- The tax cannot be so high that people have no choice but to purchase health insurance [or whatever product or service Congress decides to mandate next];
- Congress cannot attach any other “negative legal consequences” to the failure to engage in commerce; e.g., Congress cannot impose criminal or civil penalties for failing to buy health insurance.
- The tax must be imposed regardless of intent, thus, Congress can’t impose a tax only on those who “intentionally refuse to buy health insurance.”
- The tax must be collected in the same manner as other taxes, ie, via the IRS.
The dangerous part of his decision is not that he expanded the scope of the “taxing power” (as I explain above, existing precedents already did that) but that he greatly expanded the Court’s power to reclassify a regulatory measure as a “tax.” Roberts relies on the principle that if courts are faced with differing interpretations of a law, they should choose the interpretation that upholds the law. But that assumes that the competing interpretations are plausible. Here, Congress was absolutely crystal clear in categorizing the “shared responsibility payment” as a “penalty,” i.e., a means to enforce a regulatory command, and not a tax. The President who signed the law emphatically denied it was a tax (see Mollie’s post).
A Court re-writing a statute to achieve a certain result is the very definition of judicial acitivism. For the Court to rewrite a law so as to impose a tax is doubly disturbing. As the dissenters say: “Imposing a tax through judicial legislation inverts the constitutional scheme, and places the power to tax in the branch of government least accountable to the citizenry.”