Supreme Court Upholds Vast Majority Of Affordable Care Act Of 2010


As I (rather blandly) predicted, in early 2011 — Congress may impose taxes. Yawn. More soon Here is the full 193 page PDF.

It is plain that — even though the Medicaid expansion did not survive — it is popular, and may well be re-enacted in the coming second term of the 44th President.

Once again, the Court proves it is hard to read any decision into the form the questions take, when asked at oral argument. From Justice Roberts’ majority opinion, then:

. . . .The power over activities that substantially affect interstate commerce can be expansive. That power has been held to authorize federal regulation of such seemingly local matters as a farmer’s decision to grow wheat for himself and his livestock, and a loan shark’s extortionate collections from a neighborhood butcher shop. See Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U. S. 111 (1942); Perez v. United States, 402 U. S. 146 (1971).

Congress may also “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 1. Put simply, Congress may tax and spend. This grant gives the Federal Government considerable influence even in areas where it cannot directly regulate. The Federal Government may enact a tax on an activity that it cannot authorize, forbid, or otherwise control. See, e.g., License Tax Cases, 5 Wall. 462, 471 (1867). And in exercising its spending power, Congress may offer funds to the States, and may condition those offers on compliance with specified conditions. See, e.g., College Savings Bank v. Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd., 527 U. S. 666, 686 (1999). These offers may well induce the States to adopt policies that the Federal Government itself could not impose. See, e.g., South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U. S. 203, 205–206 (1987) (conditioning federal highway funds on States raising their drinking age to 21). . . .

Under our precedent, it is therefore necessary to ask whether the Government’s alternative reading of the statute — that it only imposes a tax on those without insurance — is a reasonable one.

Under the mandate, if an individual does not maintain health insurance, the only consequence is that he must make an additional payment to the IRS when he pays his taxes. See §5000A(b). That, according to the Government, means the mandate can be regarded as establishing acondition — not owning health insurance — that triggers a tax — the required payment to the IRS. Under that theory, the mandate is not a legal command to buy insurance. Rather, it makes going without insurance just another thing the Government taxes, like buying gasoline or earning income. And if the mandate is in effect just a tax hike on certain taxpayers who do not have health insurance, it may be within Congress’s constitutional power to tax.

The question is not whether that is the most natural interpretation of the mandate, but only whether it is a “fairly possible” one. Crowell v. Benson, 285 U. S. 22, 62 (1932). As we have explained, “every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” Hooper v. California, 155 U. S. 648, 657 (1895). The Government asks us to interpret the mandate as imposing a tax, if it would otherwise violate the Constitution. Granting the Act the full measure of deference owed to federal statutes, it can be so read. . . .

The exaction the Affordable Care Act imposes on those without health insurance looks like a tax in many respects. The “[s]hared responsibility payment,” as the statute entitles it, is paid into the Treasury by “taxpayer[s]” when they file their tax returns. 26 U. S. C. §5000A(b). It does not apply to individuals who do not pay federal income taxes because their household income is less than the filing threshold in the Internal Revenue Code. §5000A(e)(2). For taxpayers who do owe the payment, its amount is determined by such familiar factors as taxable income, number of dependents, and joint filing status. §§5000A(b)(3), (c)(2), (c)(4). The requirement to pay is found in the Internal Revenue Code and enforced by the IRS, which — as we previously explained — must assessand collect it “in the same manner as taxes.” Supra, at 13–14. This process yields the essential feature of any tax: it produces at least some revenue for the Government. United States v. Kahriger, 345 U. S. 22, 28, n. 4 (1953). Indeed, the payment is expected to raise about $4 billionper year by 2017. Congressional Budget Office, Paymentsof Penalties for Being Uninsured Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Apr. 30, 2010), in Selected CBO Publications Related to Health Care Legislation,2009–2010, p. 71 (rev. 2010). It is of course true that the Act describes the payment as a “penalty,” not a “tax.” But while that label is fatal to the application of the Anti-Injunction Act, supra, at 12–13, it does not determine whether the payment may be viewedas an exercise of Congress’s taxing power. It is up to Congress whether to apply the Anti-Injunction Act to any particular statute, so it makes sense to be guided by Congress’s choice of label on that question. That choice does not, however, control whether an exaction is within Congress’s constitutional power to tax. . . .

We thus ask whether the shared responsibility payment falls within Congress’s taxing power, “[d]isregarding the designation of the exaction, and viewing its substance and application.” United States v. Constantine, 296 U. S. 287, 294 (1935); cf. Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U. S. 298, 310 (1992) (“[M]agic words or labels” should not “disable an otherwise constitutional levy” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Nelson v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 312 U. S. 359, 363 (1941) (“In passing on the constitutionality of a tax law, we are concerned only with its practical operation,not its definition or the precise form of descriptive words which may be applied to it” (internal quotation marks omitted)); United States v. Sotelo, 436 U. S. 268, 275 (1978). . . .

[T]he payment is collected solely by the IRS through the normal means of taxation — except that the Service is not allowed to use those means most suggestive of a punitive sanction, such as criminal prosecution. See §5000A(g)(2). The reasons the Court in Drexel Furniture held that what was called a “tax” there was a penalty support the conclusion that what is called a “penalty” here may be viewed as a tax. . . .


This is, on balance, very good news for pharma — even though a separate whack at expanding Medicaid will now need to come from the legislative branch. [And, now -- in my estimation -- our 44th President has been granted a presumptive second term -- in its wake.]

I’ll have a new post — recounting the history of my ACA predictions — in a minute.

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