Government Essentially Concedes Commerce Clause Challenge to Obamacare, Calls Individual Mandate a Tax

This Sunday’s New York Times had a fascinating story about how the defense of the individual mandate has shifted from the Commerce Clause – even though the law itself is replete with boilerplate about “economic activity” – to Congress’s taxing power.  Here’s the first paragraph (h/t Jonathan Adler):

When Congress required most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, Democrats denied that they were creating a new tax. But in court, the Obama administration and its allies now defend the requirement as an exercise of the government’s “power to lay and collect taxes.”

This is huge.  After months of arguing that cases like Wickard v. Filburn (Congress can regulate the wheat farmers grow for personal consumption) and Gonzales v. Raich (Congress can regulate personal growth of state-allowed medicinal marijuana) justify the requirement that every man, woman, and child buy a health insurance policy, government lawyers (and spokesmen) now say the mandate is just a regulation accompanying a lawful tax (the penalty you pay for not buying insurance).  After I spent most of April and May criss-crossing the country debating the constitutionality of Obamacare, it turns out that my opponents were barking up the wrong tree!

But don’t just take it from me.  Here’s Georgetown law professor and Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett’s dissection of the Times story and its significance.  An excerpt:

Now there are cases that say (1) when Congress does not invoke a specific power for a claim of power, the Supreme Court will look for a basis on which to sustain the measure; (2) when Congress does invoke its Tax power, such a claim is not defeated by showing the measure would be outside its commerce power if enacted as a regulation (though there are some older, never-reversed precedents pointing the other way), and (3) the Courts will not look behind a claim by Congress that a measure is a tax with a revenue raising purpose. 

But I have so far seen no case that says (4) when a measure is expressly justified in the statute itself as a regulation of commerce (as the NYT accurately reports), the courts will look look behind that characterization during litigation to ask if it could have been justified as a tax, or (5) when Congress fails to include a penalty among all the “revenue producing” measures in a bill, the Court will nevertheless impute a revenue purpose to the measure. 

Now, of course, the Supreme Court can always adopt these two additional doctrines. It could decide that any measure passed and justified expressly as a regulation of commerce is constitutional if it could have been enacted as a tax. But if it upholds this act, it would also have to say that Congress can assert any power it wills over individuals so long as it delegates enforcement of the penalty to the IRS. Put another way since every “fine” collects money, the Tax Power gives Congress unlimited power to fine any activity or, as here, inactivity it wishes! (Do you doubt this will be a major line of questioning in oral argument?) 

Well, at least they’re not (yet) relying on Rep. John Conyers’s “Good and Welfare Clause.”  (Conyers, remember, is a lawyer and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee).

For a concise legal argument against the use of the taxing power to justify the individual mandate, see Cato’s amicus brief supporting Virginia’s challenge to the health care reform.  And for a great resource on all the state lawsuits against the new law, see this new blog/website run by Santa Clara law professor Brad Joondeph.