Why the Personal Mandate to Buy Health Insurance Is Unprecedented and Unconstitutional

Why the Personal Mandate to Buy Health Insurance Is Unprecedented and Unconstitutional by Randy Barnett, Nathaniel Stewart and Todd F. Gaziano is now available on the Heritage website. Eugene and I had a very spirited exchange of opinions on this subject this afternoon at Heritage, after some excellent remarks by Senator Hatch. When there is a link to the video of the event, I will post it.

Here is the Executive Summary:

A mandate requiring all individuals to purchase health insurance would be an unprecedented form of federal action. The government has never required people to buy any good or service as a condition of lawful residence in the United States. An individual mandate would have two features that, in combination, would make it unique. First, it would impose a duty on individuals as members of society. Second, it would require people to purchase a specific service that would be heavily regulated by the federal government.

This statement from a 1994 Congressional Budget Office Memorandum remains true today. Yet, all of the leading House and Senate health-care reform bills being debated in Congress require Americans to either secure or purchase health insurance with a particular threshold of coverage, estimated by CBO to cost up to $15,000 per year for a typical family. This personal mandate to enter into a contract with a private health insurance company is enforced through civil and criminal tax penalties in section 501 of the House bill and with a freestanding mandate and equally questionable civil tax penalties in sections 501 and 513 of the pending Senate bill.

The purpose of this compulsory contract, coupled with the arbitrary price ratios and controls, is to require many people to buy artificially high-priced policies to subsidize coverage for others as well as an industry saddled with other government costs and regulations. Congress lawfully could enact a general tax to pay for these subsidies or it could create a tax credit for those who buy health insurance, but that would require Congress to “pay for” or budget for the subsidies in a conventional manner. The sponsors of the current bills are attempting, through the personal mandate, to keep the transfers entirely off budget or — through the gimmick of unconstitutional taxes or penalties they dub “shared responsibility payments” — make these transfers appear to be revenue-enhancing.

This “personal responsibility” provision of the legislation, more accurately known as the “individual mandate” because it commands all individuals to enter into a contractual relationship with a private insurance company, takes congressional power and control to a striking new level. Its defenders have struggled to justify the mandate by analogizing it to existing federal laws and court decisions, but their efforts do not withstand serious scrutiny. An individual mandate to enter into a contract with or buy a particular product from a private party, with tax penalties to enforce it, is unprecedented — not just in scope but in kind — and unconstitutional as a matter of first principles and under any reasonable reading of judicial precedents.

Congress has a responsibility, pursuant to the oath of all Senators and Representatives, to determine the constitutionality of its own actions independently of how the Supreme Court has previously ruled or may rule in the future. But it is very unlikely that the Court would extend current constitutional doctrines, or devise new ones, to uphold this new and unprecedented claim of federal power.

Constitutional Overview

In reaction to states that were enacting trade barriers and violating the rights of their citizens, those who drafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution were determined both to constrain the powers of states and, at the same time, limit the power of Congress. They designed an ingenious system of checks and balances that divides state and federal authority in the hope of preventing any one government from exerting too much control over a free people. To that end, the Constitution creates a national government with a legislature of limited and enumerated powers. Article I allocates to Congress “[a]ll legislative powers herein granted,” which means that some legislative powers remain beyond Congress’s reach. The Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause similarly grants Congress the power “[t]o make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.”

The Supreme Court recognized and affirmed this fundamental principle from the earliest days of the republic, as Chief Justice Marshall famously observed: “The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the constitution is written.” And in his canonical opinion interpreting the Necessary and Proper Clause, Chief Justice Marshall insisted that “should Congress, under the pretext of executing its powers, pass laws for the accomplishment of objects not entrusted to the [national] government; it would become the painful duty of this tribunal, should a case requiring such a decision come before it, to say that such an act was not the law of the land.”

Nowhere in the Constitution is Congress given the power to mandate that an individual enter into a contract with a private party or purchase a good or service and, as this paper will explain, no decision or present doctrine of the Supreme Court justifies such a claim of power. Therefore, because this claim of power by Congress would literally be without precedent, it could only be upheld if the Supreme Court is willing to create a new constitutional doctrine. This memorandum explains why the two powers cited by supporters of this bill — the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce and the power of Congress to tax — do not justify an individual mandate, even under the most expansive readings given these powers by the Supreme Court. In particular, this paper addresses four topics that have not yet been given adequate consideration by Congress and most, if not all, of the commentators:

* First, most arguments, either favoring or opposing the individual mandate, do not discuss the Supreme Court’s “class of activities” test, which it has applied in every relevant Commerce Clause case. This paper addresses this oversight and argues that, despite the broad congressional power to regulate interstate commerce, the individual mandate provision fails this test and is unlikely to survive the Court’s review.

* Second, this paper addresses the common, but mistaken, suggestion that a universal federal mandate to obtain health insurance is no different than a state requiring its licensed automobile drivers to have liability insurance for their injuries to others.

* Third, this paper analyzes claims arising under the Taxing Clause. A preliminary review raises serious questions about the constitutionality of using the taxing power in this manner.

* And finally, this paper explains why it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court would break new constitutional ground to save this unpopular personal mandate.

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