Stripped of its partisan baggage, the appeal poses a fascinating legal issue: how far does Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce extend? In prior cases, the Court has articulated an expansive view of that power. However, opponents of the new law argue that this case is different because Congress — through the “individual mandate” provision that requires all citizens to buy health insurance — is for the first time assuming the power to compel unwilling citizens to engage in commerce. Proponents of the law respond that, when it comes to health care, every living American is already affecting commerce, because those who don’t have insurance and then need health care are imposing economic burdens on the rest of us. A Supreme Court decision on this issue would go a long way toward defining, once and for all, the full extent of Congress’ power to regulate the daily lives of Americans.
Judge Henry Hudson concluded that the individual mandate “exceeds the constitutional boundaries of congressional power.” He found that the commerce clause, which gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce, does not permit Congress to regulate a person’s decision not to purchase a product. Although there are other court rulings that have upheld the “health care reform” legislation, Judge Hudson’s decision is significant because it reflects an interesting approach to skirting the broad powers afforded Congress through the commerce clause. In effect, Judge Hudson is saying that if individuals choose not to purchase a good or service they are not engaged in commerce, and therefore they necessarily are beyond Congress’ regulatory power under the commerce clause.
Of course, this issue will be addressed by federal appellate courts and, ultimately, will be decided the Supreme Court. Until then, it is an issue that Americans of all political stripes may well want to consider. Supporters of the “health care reform” legislation want that law to be upheld — but do they really want a court ruling that says that Congress can force Americans to buy products or take other actions in furtherance of commerce? In other instances, federal law requirements are simply attached to a decision and therefore become part of the individual decision-making process. If I want to work, for example, I have to pay Social Security and have income tax withheld from my wages. If I don’t want to pay Social Security, I can choose not to work. With the “individual mandate,” however, there is no choice. Simply by virtue of being an American, you become obligated to buy health insurance.
When we speak of constitutional doctrine, we have to take the long term view and look past the relative merits of the statute at issue. If the Supreme Court rules that Congress has the constitutional power to force us to buy health insurance, what’s next? Smoke alarms? Government bonds? Subscriptions to the Congressional Record? And if we think the corruption and influence of lobbyists is out of control now, what will it be like if corporations and interest groups learn that, through some deft lobbying work, they can achieve passage of legislation that will require us to spend our money for their goods and services?