Sunday, July 18, 2010
The Obama administration switched its position on the individual health insurance mandate and now claims that it is a "tax," according to the New York Times in a provocatively titled article Changing Stance, Administration Now Defends Insurance Mandate as a Tax.
The Times reports that the administration is now defending the mandate--perhaps the most controversial piece of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act--primarily as a tax, and not primarily as a regulation of commerce, in federal court cases seeking to overturn the Act as unconstitutional. According to the story, administration officials describe the tax argument as the "linchpin" of their case. The story suggests that the switch came in response to increasing criticism of the mandate as exceeding Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause--authority that allows Congress to regulate anything that has a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The article suggests that this "switch," then, is a new (and disingenuous) argument. (We've covered the Commerce Clause and taxation arguments here, here, here, and here. We've covered other aspects of the bill here and here.)
Just one problem: The article is wrong.
The administration has consistently defended the mandate in court first as an exercise of Congress's Commerce Clause power and only (far) second as an exercise of its taxing power under the General Welfare Clause. Take, for example, the Justice Department's brief in Virginia v. Sebelius, the case in the Eastern District of Virginia. In that brief, the government devotes 15 pages to its thorough and aggressive argument under the Commerce Clause--its primary substantive argument--and a mere 4 pages for its near-after-thought argument on taxation. Yet the Times article quotes a portion from the tax argument in that very brief as evidence that the administration has changed its stance.
Take, for another example, the Justice Department's brief in Florida v. HHS, the Northern District of Florida case. In that brief, the government devoted a similar 16 pages to the Commerce Clause--again its primary substantive argument on the mandate--and a mere 3 to its secondary taxation argument.
(Thanks to the ACA Litigation Blog for the briefs. The ACA Litigation Blog is a new blog dedicated to following the litigation around health care reform.)
In its first brief in these cases, Thomas More Law Center, et al. v. Obama, in the Eastern District of Michigan, the government similarly privileged its Commerce Clause argument over its taxation argument.
The taxation argument was actively in play as early as last fall, even if the government has never (even now) used it as its primary authority in litigation for the mandate.
In short, the government's litigation position seems to have been consistent: The mandate is supported primarily by the Commerce Clause and only secondarily and alternatively by the taxation authority under the General Welfare Clause.
But in the end, does it matter? As the Times story indicates, Congress went to great lengths in the Act to justify the mandate as an exercise of its Commerce Clause authority, and virtually ignored its taxation authority. And administration officials have repeatedly claimed that the mandate is not a tax.
But there's no requirement that Congress name the particular authority it uses in its legislation (although that might help the courts uphold it), and there's certainly no requirement that the government's (or any litigant's) public pronouncements about their positions line up with their litigation positions. And in the end, whether the mandate is "commerce" or a "tax" doesn't really matter to those affected--they still have to comply, or face the penalty.
The only way the administration's public "switch" (if such a switch really exists) might matter is in a government's normative obligation to state publicly what it also states in litigation. This may be an attractive standard to promote government transparency, publicity, and educated public discourse, but we have never held the government to it.