Jonathan Chait

Conservative Legal Luminaries Concede The Individual Mandate Is No Unique Threat To Freedom, After All

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[Guest post by Simon Lazarus]

As summarized one month ago in a post here on Jonathan Chait’s blog, conservatives reacted with fury to an article I wrote for Slate in which I pointed out that two major components of House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future closely resemble the much-demonized “individual mandate” in the Affordable Care Act. In particular, I noted that the ACA provision requiring health insurance has precisely the same kind of impact on individual purchasing decisions as Ryan’s roadmap, and is, if anything, less coercive than the Roadmap proposal to provide a tax credit to individuals who purchase health insurance, as a replacement for the current exclusion from income of employer-sponsored health insurance. The ACA imposes a tax penalty on individuals who choose not to purchase health insurance. The Ryan Roadmap, on the other hand, provides a tax credit to individuals who choose to purchase health insurancea technical distinction, I suggested, without an economic or other real-world difference. 

National Review, the Weekly Standard, and Hot Air raised various objections to this point, which was seconded by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post and by Jonathan in TNR. But recent oral arguments before federal appeals courts hearing legal challenges to the ACA should quiet such protests once and for all. In these arguments, two of the most celebrated members of the Right’s legal elite acknowledged that there is no daylight between the ACA mandate-plus-penalty and a Ryan-type tax credit universally conceded to be constitutional. 

The first instance of this occurred on June 1, when Sixth Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton, sitting on a three-judge panel in Cincinnati in a case brought by the conservative advocacy group Thomas More Law Center, floated the hypothetical idea of a tax credit alternative to the ACA approach. The Law Center’s attorney, Robert Muise, acknowledged that “you could provide a credit for health insurance, there’s no prohibition on that.” To which Judge Sutton responded:

You think it would be just as coercive to say to people, everybody pays the same additional tax, it’s a health care tax, everybody pays it and the only people that don’t pay it, i.e. get a credit, are those with insurance, you think that would be as coercive?

Muise contended that a tax credit was different because it encouraged activitynamely the purchase of health insurancewhereas the ACA provision penalized a “failure to act.” But Sutton didn’t buy it:

If that’s your view, then just pay the penalty, pay the penalty, don’t get insurance, don’t be forced to do anything, in that sense, if you think they’re equivalent, in that sense, no one is forced to do anything, because the economic incentives are the same in both settings, you can’t say the law requires you to buy it, the law just penalizes you if you don’t.

Judge Sutton is not the first person to observe that the ACA’s allegedly freedom-destroying mandate is operationally indistinguishable from commonplace tax incentive provisions. But, apart from having actual decisional authority on the matter, Sutton enters this space with formidable ideological and professional credentials. One of the first batch of appeals court nominees picked by President George W. Bush, Sutton, though only 42 years old, earned his front rank position as the energizer bunny of the Rehnquist Court’s late 1990’s drive to shrink Congress’ domestic regulatory authority in the name of “federalism.” As a lawyer, Sutton argued and won, usually by bitterly contested 5-4 margins, a raft of decisions striking or narrowing provisions of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Violence Against Women Act, the Clean Water Act, and regulations implementing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, among others. He famously once told Legal Times, “I really believe in this federalism stuff.” Sutton’s professional standing was unquestioned; appointed by the Supreme Court in 2001 to represent a prison inmate, Sutton won a unanimous decision and unusually explicit praise from its author, Justice Ruth Ginsburg, for “his able representation.” 

Of course, Sutton’s verbal acknowledgement that the ACA individual mandate is not uniquely coercive, emphatic though it appeared, is no guarantee that he will not strike down a law that Republican orthodoxy demonizes as a drastic expansion of federal power. Nevertheless, his on-the-record statement leaves the case against the ACA mandate resting at best on a hypertechnical foundation lacking in substance.  

The second acknowledgement of the ACA mandate’s kinship with uncontroversial tax incentives occurred a week later in Atlanta, at the June 8 argument before a panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the case against ACA brought by 26 Republican state attorneys general and governors. During the argument, the Republicans’ counsel, Paul Clement, attempted to sound a reasonable note. He said, “There’s lots of different ways that Congress could incentivize people to get to the exact same result. They could have passed a new tax and called it a tax, and then they could have given people a tax credit for paying for qualifying insurance.”

Again, Clement’s observation was not original. But in addition to being the Republican opponents’ lawyer, Clement also servedwith universally acknowledged distinctionas George W. Bush’s Solicitor General. Recently, he made headlines by resigning his 7 figure-per-year partnership in the Atlanta-based firm, King & Spalding, when the firm precipitously withdrew from representing his client, the House of Representatives, to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, aka DOMA. 

The significance of Clement’s functional equivalence concession was not lost on Eleventh Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus. Marcus, originally named a district judge by President Ronald Reagan and subsequently to his current appellate position by President Bill Clinton, drew a logical implication subtly different from Judge Sutton’s observation that the ACA mandate is not uniquely coercive, but one that is potentially even more troublesome for the ACA opponents’ case. “Isn’t that just another way,” he asked rhetorically:

“[O]f saying they [Congress] could have done what they did better? More efficaciously, more directly, and they regulated perhaps inefficaciously, maybe even foolishly, but if it’s rational, doesn’t my job stop at the water’s edge? Isn’t it for the legislative branch to make those kinds of calculations and determinations?”

No constitutional lawyer could mistake where Judge Marcus was heading. How is it possible, he was saying, for courts to dictate which of two methods Congress must choose to implement its constitutionally enumerated powers, when both methods generate “the exact same result?” Judicial micro-managing on such a granular level, Marcus knows, violates the fundamental, black-letter standard established nearly two centuries ago by Chief Justice John Marshall. In his iconic 1819 decision, McCulloch v. Maryland, Marshall broadly interpreted the constitutional grant of authority to Congress “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution” its enumerated powers: “Let the end be legitimate,” he wrote in words memorized by first-year law students, “let it be within the scope of the constitution, all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional.”  

To be sure, no one who listened to this Eleventh Circuit argument could predict the panels’ outcome any more confidently than could those who heard the previous week’s Sixth Circuit argument. But these unequivocal statements, by two of conservativism’s most eminent legal luminaries, that the ACA individual mandate is not a unique threat to Americans’ liberty after all, surely drain much of the juice from opponents’ legal case, and, ultimately, from their political case as well.

Simon Lazarus is Public Policy Counsel to the National Senior Citizens Law Center.

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