Constitutional Structure Matters: A Response to Larry Tribe

SCOTUSblog’s symposium on the constitutionality of Obamacare – to which I contributed, as did Bob Levy – provides a glimpse at the astonishing views of the law’s supporters.  It particularly shows how divorced the legal academy’s leading lights are not only from basic constitutional text and structure, but from jurisprudential reality.

Most prominently, in responding to the Eleventh Circuit’s decision striking down the individual mandate (and to Richard Epstein’s symposium essay), storied Harvard professor Laurence H. Tribe criticizes the court for “reflecting what appears to be a widely held public sentiment” that Congress cannot “mandate that individuals enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die.”  That sentiment is a problem, according to Tribe, because it elevates form over substance.  That is, just as it has done with Social Security, Congress could (under modern jurisprudence, which is wrong as a matter of first principle but not at issue in the Obamacare lawsuits) levy another income or payroll tax and use that revenue to provide health insurance and/or care for otherwise uninsured individuals:

Put otherwise, Congress may undoubtedly use its taxing power to mandate that individuals pay for coverage supplied by private insurers, so long as it acts in two steps: step 1, impose a tax, and step 2, use the proceeds of the tax to fund privately provided health insurance for each individual. If Congress may accomplish this objective in two steps, why not in one? No federalism or liberty-related concern, whether the dignity of the states or that of individuals, is served by denying Congress that authority.

Tribe’s reasoning echoes Justice Breyer’s reason (in dissent) for rejecting the notion that the Takings Clause applies when the Government orders an individual to pay another individual, in the case of Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel:

The dearth of Takings Clause author­ity is not surprising, for application of the Takings Clause here bristles with conceptual difficul­ties. If the Clause applies when the government simply orders A to pay B, why does it not apply when the government simply orders A to pay the government, i.e., when it assesses a tax?

But there is a very good reason why courts should deny Congress the power to compel individuals to purchase products from private parties or, for that matter, the power to order A to pay B – even if a similar result could be accomplished through the taxing power: political accountability. As Georgetown law professor (and Cato senior fellow) Randy Barnett explains:

Like mandates on states, economic mandates undermine political accountability, though in a different way. The public is acutely aware of tax increases. Rather than incur the political cost of imposing a general tax on the public using its tax powers, economic mandates allow Congress and the President to escape accountability for tax increases by compelling citizens to make payments directly to private companies.

Indeed, scholars as diverse as Richard Epstein and Cass Sunstein have argued that the Takings Clause requires just compensation precisely to preserve political accountability in the provision of public goods. As Justice Scalia explained in the case of Pennell v. City of San Jose:

The politically attractive feature of regulation is not that it permits wealth transfers to be achieved that could not be achieved otherwise; but rather that it permits them to be achieved “off budget,” with relative invisibility and thus relative immunity from normal democratic processes.

Under modern jurisprudence, essentially the only check on Congress’s taxing and spending powers under the General Welfare Clause (as opposed to its regulatory power under the Commerce Clause) is political.  So yes, Professor Tribe, there is a constitutional reason for depriving Congress of the power to do in one step what it could surely do in two other steps: to maintain that remaining constitutional qua political check. Indeed, the very reason why Congress adopted the individual mandate was because it lacked the political will – it feared political accountability too much – to impose single-payer universal coverage, where the government would first impose a tax on everyone and then provide health care (at this point it’s no longer “insurance”) to everyone.

To accomplish the same result without having to impose significant new taxes – as President Obama famously promised there would not be – Congress tried to evade political accountability through the individual-mandate mechanism. That’s why the Eleventh Circuit wisely declined to grant Congress the power to move a significant part of its spending “off budget” and “mandate that individuals enter into contracts with private insurance companies for the purchase of an expensive product from the time they are born until the time they die.”

Cato legal associate Chaim Gordon co-authored this blogpost.