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The Fight Over The Individual Mandate Is Not About Liberty

Whatever the legal argument about the individual mandate is about, it’s not, as some of its detractors would have it, a question of liberty. Charles Fried, Ronald Reagan’s former solicitor general, put this well at Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

“As I recall,” he said, “the great debate was between this device and the government option. And the government option was described as being akin to socialism, and there was a point to that. But what’s striking is that nobody in the world could’ve argued that the government option or single-payer could’ve been unconstitutional. It could’ve been deplorable. It could’ve been regrettable. It could’ve been Eastern rather than Western European. But it would’ve been constitutional.”

I’d disagree slightly with Fried’s characterization of the policy debate — the individual mandate and the public option do very different things, and a bill with a public option would still have had an individual mandate — but on the law, even the panel’s anti-mandate witnesses agreed with his characterization of the single payer’s legality. So, too, does Daniel Foster, a conservative at the National Review, who wrote, “All conservatives, I’d imagine, think single-payer is unwise, but I’m sure plenty of them think it’s also constitutional (I’m probably one of them, as well).”

There is little doubt that the individual mandate, which preserves a private insurance market and the right to opt out of purchasing coverage, accords more closely with most conservative definitions of liberty than a single-payer system, which wipes out private insurers and coerces every American to pay for the government’s coverage. That doesn’t make it more constitutional, of course. But it does suggest that the dividing point isn’t liberty.

When it comes to the legislation itself, the key question actually comes down to semantics. It’s broadly agreed that tax breaks are constitutional. The individual mandate could’ve been called the “personal responsibility tax.” If you can show the IRS proof of insurance coverage, you then get a “personal responsibility tax credit” for exactly the same amount. This implies that what makes the mandate unconstitutional in the eyes of some conservatives is its wording: It’s called a “penalty” rather than a “tax.” As Judge Henry Hudson put it in his ruling, “In the final version of the [Affordable Care Act] enacted by the Senate on December 24th, 2009, the term ‘penalty’ was substituted for the term ‘tax’ in Section 1501(b)(1). A logical inference can be drawn that the substitution of this critical language was a conscious and deliberate act on the part of Congress.” And it was: Taxes are more politically toxic than penalties, or so the authors of the bill thought. But they’re not more damaging to liberty than taxes.

Despite the overheated rhetoric that’s been tossed around in this debate, I don’t believe our forefathers risked their lives to make sure the word “penalty” was eschewed in favor of the word “tax.” This is not a country built upon semantics. And I don’t think semantics underly the principle conservatives are fighting for here, either. After all, before Barack Obama adopted the individual mandate — and I mean mere months before — Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said there was “bipartisan consensus” around the need for an individual mandate. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) voted for the individual mandate in the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) had his name on a bill that included an individual mandate. Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), back when he led the Senate’s Republicans, co-sponsored a bill that included an individual mandate. None of these legislators takes the Constitution lightly. They didn’t see the individual mandate as a threat to liberty, and they weren’t constantly emphasizing that it was a tax rather than a penalty.

The principle conservatives are fighting for is that they don’t like the Affordable Care Act. And having failed to win that fight in Congress, they’ve moved it to the courts in the hopes that their allies on the bench will accomplish what their members in the Senate couldn’t. That’s fair enough, of course. But they didn’t see the individual mandate as a question of liberty or constitutionality until Democrats passed it into law in a bill Republicans opposed, and they have no interest in changing its name to the “personal responsibility tax,” nor would they be mollified if it was called the “personal responsibility tax.” The hope here is that they’ll get the bill overturned on a technicality. And perhaps they will. But no one should be confused by what’s going on.

By: Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, Posted February 2, 2011

February 8, 2011 - Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Individual Mandate | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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