By now, you’ve probably heard, basically, that the Supreme Court of the United States, also known in our acronym-driven world as SCOTUS, upheld the constitutionality of the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), aka “Obamacare”. Note that the link on the word “upheld” takes you to the actual ruling. Read, if you dare!
But chances are, you’re not admitting to your friends that you’re not sure what happened. True?
Allow your humble author to give a fairly simple explanation.
Advocates and opponents alike have been throwing a lot of terms around without really defining what they mean. Those terms are:
- Commerce Clause
- Individual mandate
What happened Friday is that 4 SCOTUS justices ruled to uphold Obamacare, saying that Obamacare’s requirement to purchase health insurance was not a violation of the Constitution’s “Commerce Clause.” 4 other SCOTUS justices ruled to strike down Obamacare, saying that the purchase requirement IS a violation of the Commerce Clause. One justice (Chief Justice John Roberts) ruled to uphold Obamacare by saying that the requirement to purchase health insurance IS NOT a Commerce Clause violation, because the penalty for failing to purchase health insurance would really be a tax.
Basically, Chief Justice Roberts rewrote Obamacare, thus making it, in his mind at least, legal.
So if you’re keeping count, that’s 5 justices voting to uphold the law, and 4 voting to strike it down.
Interestingly, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the ruling opinion for the 5 voting to uphold the law, and the other 4 who voted with Roberts wrote an opinion in dissent.
That’s a first, from what this author knows.
Yes, very convoluted. But here is the simple version of how it started::
- Health care in our country is expensive, and getting care can be a complicated maze of dealing with both doctors and insurance companies. And costs are rising for both consumers and health care providers. Most everyone agrees that SOMETHING needs to change.
- President Obama and Democrats wanted to make changing our health care system their key accomplishment during President Obama’s first term. So he and Democrats decided to try to create legislation that would reduce health care costs, and extend coverage to all Americans.
- Obama essentially placed the actual work of crafting legislation for change in the hands of Democrat members of Congress, under the direction of Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, and Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader.
- In the law that finally passed, on a partisan vote, the government would penalize individuals who could afford insurance but didn’t purchase it. Obama was careful to say that this penalty wasn’t a tax. He likened the requirement to purchase health care insurance to purchasing auto insurance if you want to drive. We won’t address the obvious inconsistency of the argument … you can decide to not drive in order to avoid paying for auto insurance, but what can you do if you don’t want to pay for health insurance? Stop living?
- Many states cried foul, saying that the Federal Government had usurped their right to control an issue that has always been controlled on the state level … health insurance. Constitutional critics cried foul by saying that the government was requiring citizens to buy something (this is called the “individual mandate”), in direct defiance of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause which, with subsequent rulings, prevent any organization from monopolizing a large part of commerce. And people who wanted less taxes cried foul, pointing out that the penalty is revenue to the federal government, and only the IRS can collect revenues. So the penalty is, indeed, a tax.
And a simple explanation of the Supreme Court ruling:
- The 4 liberal SCOTUS justices, Breyer, Kagen, Sotomayor and Ginsburg, voted for Obamacare and to uphold the individual mandate … saying essentially that Obamacare was not in violation of the Constitutional Commerce Clause.
- One justice, Chief Justice Roberts, voted for Obamacare, by stating that the individual mandate wasn’t really an individual mandate. The penalty for violating the individual mandate was actually a tax. Yes, Obama and Democrats were careful to make clear that they didn’t intend it to be a tax.
- The 4 more conservative justices, Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy, voted against Obamacare, ruling that the individual mandate was a violation of the Commerce Clause.
One other very important fact to be considered here: The United States Constitution expressly prohibited the Federal Government from taxing individuals. It required an Amendment (the 16th Amendment) to repeal the Constitutional limit on the government to tax people. That same year (1913) Congress passed the 16th Amendment, the IRS and the Federal Reserve Bank were also created. Because of the Constitution, Congress has been very careful to impose Federal taxes on its citizens. This is why the debate on Obamacare and its constitutionality have been so loud and emotional on both sides.
So essentially, this boils down to two issues:
- Can the federal government require someone to buy something? Per SCOTUS ruling, yes and no.
- Can the federal government use the taxes as a penalty if you don’t buy something they want you to buy? Per the SCOTUS ruling, basically yes.
ROMNEYCARE VS. OBAMACARE:
One final thought. Many Democrats have railed on the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, for having helped craft legislation while he was governor of Massachussetts that provided health care to virtually all citizens. Democrats have stated that Romney did the same thing in Massachussetts that Democrats are trying to do nationally. Is that true?
No. Both legislations have the goal of providing health care to all. But states can require purchases. The federal government cannot. Further, the federal government cannot make states pay them money, nor require any state’s citizens to pay the federal government money, directly, except as allowed by the Constitution. The United States Constitution prohibited the federal government from taxing individuals because the Founding Fathers knew that individual states already had that right, and that the federal government would derive its revenues from the states.
So Mitt Romney is correct when he says that states can impose individual mandates, or even tax requirements, to buy health care. The federal government constitutionally cannot. And Romney has vowed to exempt any state not wishing to participate in Obamacare, as his first order of business if he is elected president.