Archive | Taxes

The Tax Issue is Not Just a Technicality

Some, including co-blogger Orin Kerr, have argued that today’s ruling that the individual mandate is a tax rests on a mere technicality. The mandate could have been a tax if only Congress had labeled it as such or structured it slightly differently, and so it makes sense for the Court to assume that it is a tax rather than invalidate an important law.

But the argument that this is not a tax has never been just about labeling or technicalities. The mandate is substantively a penalty rather than a tax, for reasons I explained here:

As recently as 1996, the Supreme Court reiterated the crucial distinction between a penalty and a tax. It ruled that “[a] tax is a pecuniary burden laid upon individuals or property for the purpose of supporting the Government,” while a penalty is “an exaction imposed by statute as punishment for an unlawful act” or – as in the case of the individual mandate – an unlawful omission. The individual mandate is a clear example of a penalty, where Congress requires people to purchase health insurance, and then punishes them with a fine if they fail to comply.

In September 2009, President Obama himself noted that “for us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase.” He was right….

Even if the individual mandate does somehow qualify as a tax, it is not one of the types of taxes that Congress is authorized to impose. The Constitution gives Congress the power to enact several types of taxes: Excise taxes, duties and imposts, income taxes, and “direct taxes” that must be apportioned among the states in proportion to population.

No one, including the federal government, claims that the individual mandate is a duty or

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Nearing the end of the search for the non-existent limiting principles

With the Supreme Court probably voting on the constitutionality of Obamacare (a term the President proudly embraces) on Friday, the health control law’s academic friends are diligently attempting to do what the entire United States Department of Justice could not do after two years of litigation: articulate plausible limiting principles for the individual mandate. Over at Balkinization, Neil Siegel offers Five Limiting Principles. They are:

1. The Necessary and Proper Clause. “Unlike other purchase mandates, including every hypothetical at oral argument on Tuesday, the minimum coverage provision prevents the unraveling of a market that Congress has clear authority to regulate.” This is no limitation at all. Under modern doctrine, Congress has the authority to regulate almost every market. If Congress enacts regulations that are extremely harmful to that market, such as imposing price controls (a/k/a “community rating”) or requiring sellers to sell products at far below cost to some customers (e.g., “guaranteed issue”) then the market will probably “unravel” (that is, the companies will lose so much money that they go out of business). So to prevent the companies from being destroyed, Congress forces other consumers to buy products from those companies at vastly excessive prices (e.g., $5,000 for an individual policy for a health 35-year-old whose actuarial expenditures for health care of all sorts during a year is $845).

So Siegel’s argument is really an anti-limiting principle: if Congress imposes ruinous price controls on  a market, to help favored consumers, then Congress can try to save the market’s producers by mandating that disfavored consumers buy overpriced products from those producers.

2. The Commerce Clause. “The minimum coverage provision addresses economic problems, not merely social problems that do not involve markets.” This is true, and is, as Siegel points out, a distinction from Lopez (carrying guns) and Morrison (gender-related [...]

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More Bad News for the Federal Government’s Argument that the Individual Mandate is a Tax

Yesterday, I pointed out that even many of the liberal Supreme Court justices were skeptical of arguments that the individual mandate qualifies as a tax under the Anti-Injunction Act, and suggested that this was not a good sign for the federal government’s claim that the mandate is a tax authorized by the Tax Clause of the Constitution.

Today’s oral argument directly considered the constitutional tax issue, and at least three of the four liberal justices – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor – remain skeptical. Sotomayor suggested that the government’s Tax Clause argument is flawed because it has no “limiting principle.” Ginsburg again contended that the mandate is not a tax because it isn’t a “revenue-raising” measure. And Kagan pressed the Solicitor General on why it should be considered “irrelevant” that “Congress determinedly said, this is not a tax.” Needless to say, the conservative justices were no more supportive of the federal government’s Tax Clause claim than the liberals.

I don’t know who is going to win on the Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause questions. The plaintiffs’ position is looking pretty good. Still, I would not be surprised if the federal government managed to pull it out. But I am now quite confident that the feds are not going to prevail on the Tax Clause.

If Kagan and Sotomayor do end up concluding that the mandate is not a tax, that will be consistent with the views of the president who appointed them. [...]

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Justices Skeptical of Claims that the Individual Mandate is a Tax

Today’s Supreme Court oral argument transcript suggests that many of the justices, including at least three of the liberals, are skeptical of claims that the individual mandate is a tax. This is important not only for today’s argument about the applicability of the Anti-Injunction Act (which probably does not apply if the mandate penalty is not a tax), but to tomorrow’s argument about the constitutionality of the mandate. The federal government has argued that the mandate is constitutional because it is an exercise of Congress’ power under the Tax Clause. Lower courts have almost uniformly rejected this constitutional tax argument, and today’s questioning suggests that the Supreme Court is unlikely to accept it either.

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the mandate is not a tax because “Congress has nowhere used the word “‘tax.'” Justice Ginsburg noted that the mandate may not be a tax because it isn’t a “revenue-raising measure,” and because the monetary penalty is separable from the mandate itself. Justice Sotomayor also expressed doubts about whether the mandate is a tax, as did several for the conservative justices. As far as I can tell, none of the justices seemed to support the argument that the mandate is a tax.

Thus, today’s events do not bode well for the federal government’s constitutional tax argument. However, there are two caveats to this conjecture. First, the justices sometimes ask questions for rhetorical effect or play devil’s advocate. I don’t think they are doing so here, but obviously I can’t be sure. Second, it is theoretically possible that the constitutional definition of what qualifies as a “tax” is broader than the AIA definition. This is not the usual view of the matter. Indeed, the one lower court that ruled that the AIA applies to this case did so precisely because they thought [...]

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My CNN Column on the Individual Mandate Case

The CNN website has just posted a column I wrote on the individual mandate case. Here’s an excerpt:

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court considers the case challenging the Obama administration health care plan’s requirement that most Americans purchase a government-approved health insurance plan by 2014. The court should rule that this individual mandate is unconstitutional. To do otherwise would give Congress almost unlimited power….

If Congress could use [the commerce] clause to regulate mere failure to buy a product on the grounds that such inaction has an economic effect, there would be no structural limits to its power. Any decision to do anything is necessarily a decision not to do something else that might have an economic effect. If I spend an hour sleeping, I thereby choose not to spend it working or shopping. As the lower court decision in this case explained, the government’s position “amounts to an argument that the mere fact of an individual’s existence substantially affects interstate commerce, and therefore Congress may regulate them at every point of their life.”

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Upcoming Appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal

For readers who may be interested, I will be on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal from 8 to 8:30 AM tomorrow to talk about the upcoming Supreme Court oral argument on the Anti-Injunction Act, and whether or not it precludes the individual mandate lawsuit. The AIA issue is somewhat technical. But it does tie in to one of the key constitutional questions at stake in overall individual mandate litigation: whether the mandate is constitutional because it is actually a tax. Although the Fourth Circuit ruled otherwise, most lower courts have concluded that the AIA does not apply to the anti-mandate lawsuits because the mandate is not a tax as that term is defined in the Constitution.

I might have instead appeared on Washington Journal on Tuesday to talk about the main individual mandate oral argument. But unfortunately I will be at an international academic conference in Montreal that day – ironically a conference focused on the question of whether judicial review in federal systems promotes nationalization or decentralization. [...]

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Revisiting the 5-Cent DC Bag Tax

Back in January 2010, I had the following post on the then-new DC Bag tax:

A new law recently went into effect in the District of Columbia, the “Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act of 2009″. The law does two things. First, it prohibits the sale or distribution of non-recyclable plastic bags in the District of Columbia at either the retail or wholesale level. Second, and more recognizably to consumers, it requires grocery stores and restaurants to charge customers 5 cents for each carryout bag the store provides. If you’re at a DC sandwich shop, for example, the shop will no longer automatically bag your sandwich. Instead, they’ll ask you if you want a bag: If you want a bag, you are charged 5 cents for it.

Here’s the language from Section 5(a) of the new law:
A fee of $.05 per recyclable paper and plastic carryout bag is hereby established for consumers making purchases from Retail Establishments.
(1) Fees must be paid by the consumer at the time of purchase.
(2) Retail Establishments may not pay the fee on behalf of consumers.
(3) All Retail Establishments shall indicate on the consumer transaction receipt the number of disposable carryout bags provided and the total amount of fee charged.

The idea behind the bag tax is that requiring an itemized 5 cent-per-bag charge will have an outsized impact on consumer behavior. Customers will use fewer bags and get in the habit of carrying a reusable bag with them, even though the actual fee is quite small. Notably, the law effectively prohibits stores from leaving out bags for customer: Each bag distributed needs to be noted and charged for individually, so the stores need to keep them behind the counter.

As you might guess, there’s also a revenue angle to the

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Why the Obamacare penalty is not a “tax”

Rob Natelson explains it all in his latest blog post. Short answer: if the purpose of the tax is raising revenue (e.g., the Stamp Act), it’s a tax. If the purpose is the regulation of commerce (e.g., a prohibitive tariff on imported French clothing; a shipping tax dedicated to paying for harbor improvements), then it’s not a “tax” in the the constitutional sense. Rather, it is a regulation of commerce.

The American colonists believed that Parliament had full authority to regulate external commerce, such as by imposing protectionist tariffs. The colonists also believed that Parliament had no authority to impose domestic taxes in the colonies (such as the Stamp Act). The colonists had a very firm sense of the distinction, and ended up going to war over Parliament’s refusal to respect that distinction. Because the Obamacare mandate is designed purely to control behavior, and not to raise revenue (even if it, like a protectionist tariff on French clothing does ultimately raise a little revenue), the Obamacare mandate is a type of commerce regulation, and not a tax in the constitutional sense. That, at least, is what the original meaning tells us.

Of course whether the individual mandate actually qualifies as a regulation of “commerce…among the several States” is a separate issue. The original meaning question for the mandate’s penalty is a commerce issue, not a tax issue. [...]

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Fourth Circuit Dismisses Two Challenges to the Individual Mandate on Jurisdictional Grounds

On Thursday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued two decisions dismissing challenges to the Obama health care plan’s individual mandate on jurisdictional grounds. All three judges on the panel were Democratic appointees, including two chosen by President ObamaNeither ruling reached the merits of the question of whether the individual mandate is constitutional. Virginia v. Sibelius is by far the better known case, because it was brought by the Virginia state government. But Liberty University v. Geithner is perhaps more interesting.

In the Virginia case, the Fourth Circuit dismissed Virginia’s challenge to the mandate because they ruled that the state lacked standing to challenge it. Virginia had based its standing on argument on the grounds that it had passed a state law exempting Virginians from being forced to buy health insurance. Normally, states automatically have standing to challenge federal laws that supersede their own legislation. But the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Virginia law was not a genuine exercise of state sovereignty, but merely a symbolic protest against the federal individual mandate. In my view, Virginia’s motives for passing the law should have been irrelevant to the question of how it affected standing. Moreover, a decision not to regulate is just as much an exercise of sovereign authority as a decision to impose a regulation. In addition, I think Virginia should also have gotten standing on entirely unrelated grounds. It could have taken advantage of the “special solicitude” for state governments that the Supreme Court established in Massachusetts v. EPA. Virginia probably erred in putting all of its standing eggs in one basket. It should have emphasized Massachusetts v. EPA as well as its anti-mandate law.

Be that as it may, this decision is unlikely to matter much in the long run. Even if the Supreme Court also [...]

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Today’s Sixth Circuit Decision Upholding the Individual Mandate

Today’s 2-1 Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the constitutionality of the individual mandate is undeniably a setback for mandate opponents. Up until now, judges’ votes in the mandate cases had split along ideological and partisan lines. Every conservative Republican judge had voted to strike it down, while every liberal Democrat voted to uphold it. Even in the Sixth Circuit, two of the three judges fit the same pattern (Judge Boyce Martin, and Judge Graham in dissent). But Judge Jeffrey Sutton, a well-known conservative judge has now become the first exception to it. Like Martin, he voted to uphold the mandate as an exercise of Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause.

At the same time, Martin and Sutton’s opinions highlight a central weakness of the pro-mandate position in even more blatant form than previous opinions upholding the mandate. Their reasoning has extremely radical implications. Unlike previous decisions upholding the mandate, which ruled that failing to purchase health insurance is “economic activity,” Martin and Sutton conclude that Congress has the power to regulate inactivity as well, so long as the inactivity has some kind of “substantial” economic effect.

The Martin-Sutton approach thereby opens the floodgates to an unlimited congressional power to impose mandates of any kind. Any failure to purchase a product has some substantial economic effect, at least when aggregated with similar failures by other people. This is certainly true of failures to purchase broccoli, failures to purchase cars, failure to by a movie ticket, and so on. Even failure to engage in noncommercial activity nearly always has such effects. For example, a mandate requiring people to eat healthy food and exercise every day can be justified on the grounds that it would increase economic productivity and also increase the demand for healthy food products and gym memberships. [...]

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Why Obamacare mandate penalty can’t be a tax

My recent op-ed in the Orange County Register explains why. In short, the statute says it’s a “penalty,” not a tax, and United States v. Sonzinsky teaches that courts should not speculate that something which Congress calls a “tax” is really a “penalty”–or vice versa. Besides that, it’s not a consitutional tax because: 1. it’s not a 16th Amendment income tax, because income is an “undeniable accession[] to wealth.” Merely refusing to buy a product is not an “acession to wealth,” but merely a continuation of the status quo. It’s not an excise tax, because such taxes are imposed on an item or activity, and doing nothing is neither. It can’t be a direct tax because it’s not apportioned by population. [...]

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Our Amicus Brief in the Thomas More Law Center Individual Mandate Case

For those who may be interested, I have written an amicus brief in Thomas More Law Center v. Obama, one of the cases challenging the constitutionality of the Obama health care bill’s individual mandate. I wrote the brief on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation and twelve members of the House of Representatives. It is available here. The case is currently before the Sixth Circuit Court of of Appeals.

Because of space constraints, we chose to focus only on the federal government’s two main arguments – the claims that the mandate is justified by Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause and the Tax Clause. The brief includes a detailed refutation of what has become the government’s central argument under the Commerce Clause: the assertion that the mandate is constitutional because going without health insurance is an “economic decision” (pp. 14-18). I first presented the key arguments in this section right here on the VC, though of course the brief goes into much greater detail.

Although we could not cover the federal government’s Necessary and Proper Clause argument in this brief, it was the main focus of the excellent amicus brief filed by co-blogger Randy Barnett and the Cato Institute. WLF and I presented our own take on the Necessary and Proper Clause issues in the amicus brief I wrote for them and a group of prominent constitutional law scholars in the Virginia anti-mandate case. [...]

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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.

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District Court Upholds Individual Mandate Against Challenge Filed by Liberty University

Yesterday, federal district Judge Norman Moon of the Western District of Virginia upheld the Obamacare individual mandate against a constitutional challenged filed by Liberty University and several private plaintiffs. For the most part, Judge Moon’s reasoning closely follows that of Michigan district Judge George Caram Steeh in the recent Thomas More Law Center decision. Both judges upheld the mandate under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause alone on the grounds that failure to purchase health insurance, even if it doesn’t qualify as “economic activity,” is an “economic decision” that has substantial effects on interstate commerce. I outlined my objections to Judge Steeh’s reasoning here and here, and will not repeat them in detail in this post. Here is the most important flaw:

“Economic decisions,” [Steeh] reasoned, include decisions not to engage in economic activity. This approach would allow the Commerce Clause to cover virtually any choice of any kind. Any decision to do anything is necessarily a decision not to use the same time and effort to engage in “economic activity.”

If I choose to spend an hour sleeping, I necessarily choose not to spend that time working or buying products. Under Judge Steeh’s logic, the Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to force workers to get up earlier in the morning so that they would spend more time on the job.

Judge Moon also contends that the mandate should be upheld under Gonzales v. Raich and Wickard v. Filburn. In reasoning thus, he simply ignores the various ways in which Raich does not in fact cover the mandate case, which I analyzed in detail here. To briefly summarize, Raich gave Congress the power to regulate virtually any kind of “economic activity” and a wide range of “noneconomic” activities, but said absolutely nothing about regulation of inactivity, which is what [...]

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The Florida District Court Decision Rejecting the Federal Government’s Motion to Dismiss the Case Against the Individual Mandate

There are several interesting aspects of today’s Florida federal district court ruling rejecting the government’s motion to dismiss a challenge to the Obama health care plan’s individual mandate brought by 20 states and the National Federation of Independent Business. First, as Randy Barnett emphasizes, this ruling, like the similar Virginia decision before it, further undercuts claims that the lawsuits against the mandate are either frivolous or clearly precluded by existing precedent. Even the recent Michigan district court ruling upholding the mandate conceded that it was a case of “first impression” (although the judge also tried to argue that the mandate ultimately does fit under current doctrine).

I. Judge Vinson Rules that the Mandate is Not a Tax.

Second, Judge Roger Vinson rejected outright the federal government’s claim that the mandate is a “tax” that is authorized by Congress’ authority under the Tax Clause. Instead, he concludes that it is a regulatory penalty, a point that I emphasized in my amicus brief in the Virginia case on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation and a group of constitutional law professors:

Because it is called a penalty on its face (and because Congress knew how to say “tax” when it intended to….), it would be improper to inquire as to whether Congress really meant to impose a tax. I will not assume that Congress had an unstated design to act pursuant to its taxing authority, nor will I impute a revenue-generating purpose to the penalty when Congress specifically chose not to provide one. It is “beyond the competency” of this court to question and ascertain whether Congress really meant to do and say something other than what it did.

As the Supreme Court held by necessary implication, this court cannot “undertake, by collateral inquiry as to the measure of the [revenue-raising]

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