In a post published last week on the oral arguments in the health care case, I wrote:
If the Court does end up striking down the mandate, this will be the second consecutive presidency in which the Supreme Court imposed significant limits on the primary agenda of the sitting President in ways that were unexpected based on precedents at the time the President acted. Last time around, it was President Bush and the War on Terror. The President relied on precedents like Johnson v. Eisentrager in setting up Gitmo. But when the Court was called on to review this key aspect of the President’s strategy for the War on Terror, the Court maneuvered around Eisentrager and imposed new limits on the executive branch in cases like Rasul v. Bush and Boumediene v. Bush. The President’s opponents heralded the Court’s new decisions as the restoration of the rule of law and the application of profound constitutional principle. Meanwhile, the President’s allies condemned the decisions as the products of unbridled judicial activism from a political court. If the mandate gets struck down, we’ll get a replay with the politics reversed. Just substitute Obama for Bush, health care reform for the War on Terror, the individual mandate for Gitmo, and Wickard for Eisentrager.
I think there’s a lot in the comparison, in part because the debate over both policies boils down to judicial deference versus constitutional norms seen as embedded in the text. In the case of Gitmo, the text was the habeas clause, and the norm was that the Great Writ must guarantee judicial review of detention. In the case of the health care litigation, the text is the commerce clause, and the norm is that the federal government must be a government of limited powers. In both cases, the opposing side acknowledges the basic principle but concludes that it does not require invalidating the law or practice at issue, especially in light of the need to defer to the elected branches. It’s not exactly the same question, of course. But I think there are some very interesting similarities.
In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Charles Lane also picks up the theme and runs with it. A taste:
As policies, Obamacare and George W. Bush’s war on terror have almost nothing in common. They do not address the same subject matter.
Yet from the Supreme Court’s perspective, they pose practically the same question: How much more authority over individuals can the federal government assume, consistent with the Founders’ notion of limited and enumerated powers?
During the 20th century, the court stretched that concept to accommodate the rise of both a large domestic regulatory and welfare apparatus and of a permanent military and intelligence establishment. That seemed necessary and proper in view of the social problems of a modern urban society and the external threats of Nazism and communism.
In fact, the welfare state and the national security state grew up together. The New Deal’s twin was World War II; the Great Society accompanied the Cold War. The federal government’s expansion has protected us from old age, poverty and external threats — while burdening us with taxes, bureaucracy and a certain amount of official snooping.
The Bush administration took Sept. 11, 2001, as an opportunity to win additional national security powers for the federal government. The Obama administration saw the Great Recession as an opportunity for a New Deal-like expansion of health care and other domestic programs.
Consequently, the court has had to decide whether to allow further growth of the national security state and the welfare state — or to push back, lest these twin leviathans smother individual freedom.