The Eleventh Circuit on the “Unprecedented” Mandate

One of the more interesting passages of the Eleventh Circuit’ decision striking down the individual mandate concerns the “unprecedented” nature of the mandate – a subject that has been much discussed on this blog (see, e.g., here). After cataloging some of the uses to which Congress has put the commerce power, the court observes the conspicuous lack of any analog to the individual mandate in the nation’s history, and notes that both the CBO and CRS commented on the “unprecedented” and potentially problematic nature of a health insurance mandate as early as 1994. The court continues (below the jump):

The fact that Congress has never before exercised this supposed authority is telling. As the Supreme Court has noted, “the utter lack of statutes imposing obligations on the States’ executive (notwithstanding the attractiveness of that course to Congress), suggests an assumed absence of such power.” Printz, 521 U.S. at 907–08; see also Va. Office for Prot. & Advocacy v. Stewart , 563 U.S. __, __, 131 S. Ct. 1632, 1641 (2011) (“Lack of historical precedent can indicate a constitutional infirmity.”) . . . . Few powers, if any, could be more attractive to Congress than compelling the purchase of certain products. Yet even if we focus on the modern era, when congressional power under the Commerce Clause has been at its height, Congress still has not asserted this authority. Even in the face of a Great Depression, a World War, a Cold War, recessions, oil shocks, inflation, and unemployment, Congress never sought to require the purchase of wheat or war bonds, force a higher savings rate or greater consumption of American goods, or require every American to purchase a more fuel efficient vehicle. See Printz, 521 U.S. at 905, 117 S. Ct. at 2370 (“[I]f . . . earlier Congresses avoided use of this highly attractive power, we would have reason to believe that the power was thought not to exist.”).

Traditionally, Congress has sought to encourage commercial activity it favors while discouraging what it does not. This is instructive. Not only have prior congressional actions not asserted the power now claimed, they “contain some indication of precisely the opposite assumption.” Id. at 910, 117 S. Ct. at 2372. Instead of requiring action, Congress has sought to encourage it. The instances of such encouragement are ubiquitous, but the example of flood insurance provides a particularly relevant illustration of how the individual mandate departs from conventional exercises of congressional power.

In passing the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, Congress recognized that “from time to time flood disasters have created personal hardships and economic distress which have required unforeseen disaster relief measures and have placed an increasing burden on the Nation’s resources.” 42 U.S.C. § 4001(a)(1). Despite considerable expenditures on public programs designed to prevent floods, those programs had “not been sufficient to protect adequately against growing exposure to future flood losses.” Id. § 4001(a)(2). In response to this problem, however, Congress did not require everyone who owns a house in a flood plain to purchase flood insurance. In fact, Congress did not even require anyone who chooses to build a new house in a flood plain to buy insurance. Rather, Congress created a series of incentives designed to encourage voluntary purchase of flood insurance. These incentives included requiring flood insurance before the home owner could receive federal financial assistance or federally
regulated loans. See id. § 4012a(a), (b)(1).

Without an “individual mandate,” the flood insurance program has largely been a failure. . . . Nevertheless, despite the unpredictability of flooding, the inevitability that floods will strike flood plains, and the cost shifting inherent in uninsured property owners seeking disaster relief funds, Congress has never taken the obvious and expedient step of invoking the power the government now argues it has and forcing all property owners in flood plains to purchase insurance.

Contrast flood insurance with the very few instances of activity in which Congress has compelled Americans to engage solely as a consequence of being citizens living in the United States. Given the attractiveness of the power to compel behavior in order to solve important problems, we find it illuminating that Americans have, historically, been subject only to a limited set of personal mandates: serving on juries, registering for the draft, filing tax returns, and responding to the census. These mandates are in the nature of duties owed to the government attendant to citizenship, and they contain clear foundations in the constitutional text. Additionally, all these mandates involve a citizen directly interacting with the government, whereas the individual mandate requires an individual to enter into a compulsory contract with a private company. In these respects, the individual mandate is a sharp departure from all prior exercises of federal power.

The draft is an excellent example of this sort of duty, particularly as it is one upon which the Supreme Court has spoken. In the Selective Draft Law Cases, the Supreme Court reviewed challenges to the draft instituted in 1917 upon the entry of the United States into World War I. 245 U.S. 366, 38 S. Ct. 159 (1918). The Court rejected these challenges on several grounds, primarily based on the long history of the draft both in the United States and other nations. Id. at 379–87, 38 S. Ct. at 162–64. But it also pointed to the relationship between citizens and government: “It may not be doubted that the very [c]onception of a just government and its duty to the citizen includes the reciprocal obligation of the citizen to render military service in case of need and the right to compel it.” Id. at 378, 38 S. Ct. at 161.

It is striking by comparison how very different this economic mandate is from the draft. First, it does not represent the solution to a duty owed to the government as a condition of citizenship. Moreover, unlike the draft, it has no basis in the history of our nation, much less a long and storied one. Until Congress passed the Act, the power to regulate commerce had not included the authority to issue an economic mandate. Now Congress seeks not only the power to reach a new class of “activity”—financial decisions whose effects are felt some time in the future—but it wishes to do so through a heretofore untested power: an economic mandate.

Having established the unprecedented nature of the individual mandate and the lack of any Supreme Court case addressing this issue, we are left to apply some basic Commerce Clause principles derived largely from Wickard, Lopez, Morrison, and Raich.