The Health Care Law is Constitutional

Under current constitutional law, the federal health care law is clearly constitutional. A central question before the Supreme Court is whether Congress has the authority to require that individuals either purchase health insurance or pay a penalty. This is constitutional under Congress’s power, pursuant to Article I, section 8 of the Constitution to regulate commerce among the states.

Since 1995, the Court has used a three-part test for determining whether a federal law is constitutional under the commerce power. Under the third prong of this test, Congress may regulate economic activity which taken cumulatively across the country has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

It is important to remember that the Supreme Court has said that all that is required is that Congress have a rational basis for believing that it is economic activity that has a substantial effect on interstate commerce. There are thus two questions in assessing whether the individual mandate is within the scope of the commerce power. First, could Congress reasonably believe that it was regulating economic activity? Second, if so, looked at in the aggregate, could Congress reasonably believe that there is a substantial effect on interstate commerce?

It is the former which opponents of the law, including judges who have struck it down, have focused on. They contend that people who do not wish to purchase health insurance are inactive and that Congress cannot regulate inactivity. They argue that it is unprecedented for Congress to require an economic transaction and that if Congress can require purchasing of health insurance, there is no stopping point in terms of what Congress can force people to buy.

The key flaw in this argument is its failure to recognize that literally everyone will at some point need to use the health care system. Children must be vaccinated to attend school. If a person contracts a communicable disease, the government can require that it be treated. If a person is in a car accident, the ambulance will take him or her to the nearest emergency room for treatment.

Therefore everyone faces an economic choice: whether to purchase health insurance or whether to self-insure. Either is economic activity. Congress is regulating this economic choice by imposing a penalty on those who choose to self-insure in order to create a system where all can have access to the health care system.

The second question then becomes whether, taken cumulatively, the law has a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Health related spending was $2.5 trillion in 2009, or 17.6% of the national economy. In the last case to deal with the scope of Congress’s commerce clause power, Gonzales v. Raich in 2005, the Court held that Congress constitutionally could criminally prohibit and punish cultivation and possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal medicinal use. If Congress has the power to prevent Angela Raich from growing a small amount of marijuana to offset the ill effects of chemotherapy, then surely it has the authority to regulate a two trillion dollar industry. 

The Court should and will uphold the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act as a valid exercise of Congress’s commerce clause power.

Photo Credit: lsiegert

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Erwin Chemerinsky

Erwin Chemerinsky is the founding dean and distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, with a joint appointment in Political Science. Previously, he taught at Duke Law School for four years, during which he won the Duke University Scholar-Teacher of the Year Award in 2006. Before that he taught for 21 years at the University of Southern California School of Law, and served for four years as director of the Center for Communications Law and Policy. Chemerinsky has also taught at UCLA School of Law and DePaul University College of Law.

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