It seems to me that conservatives and libertarians who are either apoplectic or dejected about yesterday’s Supreme Court decision may be missing the bigger picture.
In the long run, I think this decision will actually benefit the case for limited government, even if yesterday’s ruling meant that the Affordable Care Act, by itself, will be allowed to stand (for now). Here’s why.
My initial reaction, like that of my fellow advocates for limited government, was a mix of disbelief, disappointment, and frustration (actually, my initial reaction was jubilation when I heard CNN reporting the mandate had been overturned). But upon reading Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion, it dawned on me that this may not have gone that bad at all. The Medicaid issue aside, the court established two important issues yesterday: 1) the Democratic Congress that passed the ACA back in 2010 clearly overstepped its constitutional limits in passing the individual mandate on the grounds that it is a legitimate exercise of authority under the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause, and 2) the individual mandate was affirmed, as it always has been by many ACA opponents, as simply another tax on certain classes of individuals, this time the uninsured, to pay for a program designed to benefit another class of people, the insured.
The thing is, we already knew that if Congress and President Obama had simply passed the mandate as a tax in the first place there would be almost no legal challenges to that particular aspect of the bill because it is clearly within the bounds of Congressional authority. Congress’ taxing power is broad enough that they could easily have passed the mandate as either a tax for the uninsured or a tax credit for the insured and gotten away with it legally. What we did not know, however, is how broad the Supreme Court was willing to interpret the Commerce Clause to justify this sort of redistribution scheme. Our answer yesterday, for the first time ever, is that there is a hard-stop on Congress’ ability to regulate interstate commerce, specifically when it compels commerce rather than regulates existing economic activities. Given the direction of the courts since the Wickard v. Filburn case in 1942, this pronouncement should have been a huge victory for advocates of limited government everywhere.
In the near term, the momentum of this decision in presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s direction has the potential to serve as a sharp rebuke to the underlying philosophy of this type of far-reaching, government-expanding legislation. Andrea Saul, press secretary for Romney For President, has reported via Twitter that Romney has raised over $4.5 million dollars (and counting) since the decision, while the full benefit of the court’s ruling will likely increase over time as the candidate reminds voters of this basic fact: in the midst of the deepest recession we have ever seen in our lifetime, President Obama spent the majority of his time and political capital during the first two years in office passing the biggest tax increase in American history and raising taxes on people earning less than $250,000 per year.
My prediction is that this message will stick with voters and increase the odds that Romney can pull off a victory in November. If so, despite his many negatives and past “big-government” credentials (and that is a big “despite”), I would consider a rebuke of the Left’s economic vision of the future of this country as laid out by our current president more important than supporting the ideal libertarian candidate like Gary Johnson.
Those two victories – the first that sets clear limits on Congress’ authority to basically regulate anything and everything they want, and the second that serves as a signal to Democrats that no, just because you shellacked the Republicans back in 2006 and 2008 does not mean that the country agrees with you on your plan to “Win the Future” through an expansive and paternalistic government – might just be worth one piece of catastrophic legislation that may, ultimately, be repealed in the coming years anyway.
The direction of our country is determined more by the momentum of political philosophies than by the ability of Congress to pass by slim majorities highly unpopular pieces of legislation. I’m not saying I’m ecstatic about the outcome, but I certainly see the possibility that this decision, ironically, will be a major turning point in the fight against ever-growing government in the future.