New York Times Room for Debate Blog Forum on Today’s Individual Mandate Decision

The New York Times Room for Debate blog has posted a forum where various scholars weigh in on today’s district court decision striking down the individual mandate. It includes contributions by co-blogger Randy Barnett and myself. My piece briefly discusses the Commerce Clause and Tax Clause aspects of the ruling:

Judge Henry Hudson’s decision today struck down as unconstitutional the “individual mandate” included in the health care bill enacted earlier this year; the mandate requires most Americans to purchase government-approved health insurance plans by 2014. The most powerful parts of Judge Hudson’s ruling reject the federal government’s arguments claiming that the mandate is justified by Congress’ powers to impose taxes and regulate interstate commerce…..

The federal government claims that forcing people to purchase health insurance regulates economic activity because everyone eventually uses health care in some form. But as Judge Hudson points out, “the same reasoning could apply to transportation, housing, or nutritional decisions. This broad definition of the economic activity subject to congressional regulation lacks logical limitation.” The same reasoning would give Congress the power to force everyone to purchase a car because everyone eventually uses some form of “transportation.”

Judge Hudson is equally persuasive in rejecting the argument that the mandate is authorized by Congress’ power to impose taxes. As he notes, it is actually a financial penalty for refusing to comply with a regulation. In September 2009, President Obama himself stated that “to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase.” He was right. If the mandate qualifies as a tax merely because it punishes violators with a fine, then Congress could require Americans to do almost anything on pain of having to pay a fine if they refuse.