The Supreme Court Ruling: upholds Obamacare; upholds the Constitution; refutes Obama

The Supreme Court decision on the health care law just announced is a remarkable decision. No one expected conservative Chief Justice Roberts to cast the key vote that upheld the law, with sharp opposition from moderate Justice Kennedy. No one thought the decision would revolve around the government’s power to tax. No one thought that a ruling upholding the health care law would create a big electoral headache for President Obama in his campaign for reelection. Yet all of this has now happened.

Jay Cost provides a sharp analysis over at the Weekly Standard:

First, the Roberts Court put real limits on what the government can and cannot do. For starters, it restricted the limits of the Commerce Clause, which does not give the government the power to create activity for the purpose of regulating it. This is a huge victory for those of us who believe that the Constitution is a document which offers a limited grant of power.

I would actually argue that this was the most important issue at stake in the case, far more important in the long run than Obamacare itself. If the administration had won on its interpretation of the commerce clause, the idea of the Constitution as a limit on federal power would have been dead in the water. The commerce clause would have truly have become the Trojan Horse for anything the government wants to do. Thankfully, the constitution remains meaningful.

Cost also notes a second way in which the ruling upholds the Constitution.

Second, the Roberts Court also threw out a portion of the Medicaid expansion. States have the option of withdrawing from the program without risk of losing their funds. This is another major victory for conservatives who cherish our system of dual sovereignty. This was also a big policy win for conservatives; the Medicaid expansion was a major way the Democrats hid the true cost of the bill, by shifting costs to the states, but they no longer can do this.

In other words, the ruling is a big win for states’ rights, arguably the second most important issue in the case. States can and will defy the Obama administration on this issue. Federalism is preserved.

But, you may say, what about the power to tax? Does this not simply expand government power by placing it all in the power to tax, rather than in the commerce clause? No, it does not, because the government has always had radical power to tax. Yet this is not a great threat to American liberty, because as we have seen in the last decade and a half, Americans are very touchy about taxation. It is very difficult to raise taxes, even for a Democratic president who controls both houses of Congress. That is why when Obama campaigned for his health care law he was adamant that the penalty attached to the individual mandate was categorically not a tax.

What the court has done, then, was to tell Obama that he was wrong, and that the penalty is a tax. In other words, the centerpiece of Obama’s administration amounts to a tax increase that Obama himself vowed not to support. Note carefully, then, what this means for the future. Had Obama admitted that the health care law contained a very important tax, it probably would not have passed. The bill only passed because it was based on a false assumption. Now in the upcoming election the country will essentially vote in a referendum on whether or not it wants that tax increase. And if history is any guide, that does not bode well for Obama. Americans don’t generally vote to raise their own taxes.

As Cost polemically describes the situation:

The Democrats were at pains not to call this a tax because it is inherently regressive: the wealthy overwhelmingly have health insurance so have no fear of the mandate. But now that it is legally a tax, Republicans can and will declare that Obama has slapped the single biggest tax on the middle class in history, after promising not to do that.

To be sure, it is by no means sure that the Republicans will win in November, and even if they do, it is by no means clear that they will successfully destroy Obamacare. I am not trying to portray this ruling as a great victory for conservatives.

But I do want to suggest that we keep all of this in perspective. The ruling is a lot more complicated than the headlines suggest. The winners and losers are not as obvious as immediately meets the eye. And the most important thing in all of this – the integrity of the constitution – was upheld.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 28, 2012, in Health Care, Politics, Supreme Court and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Supreme Court Ruling: upholds Obamacare; upholds the Constitution; refutes Obama.

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