By Christopher Rodgers
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is in the news again. The Supreme Court started hearing arguments on the constitutionality of the act about a week ago, at the time this column was written. So, I thought it would be topical to discuss the case, specifically the individual mandate.
I'd like to clarify that I am not an attorney, nor have I ever been to law school. I'm going to approach this topic with logic and reasoning, which is foreign to many of us, but stick with me. The solicitor general's case for the mandate seems to focus on a precedent set by the 1942 Supreme Court case Wickard v. Filburn.
Roscoe Filburn was a wheat farmer who decided he was going to grow more wheat than the federal government had allotted him. His plan was to use the "extra" (I put extra in quotes because the limit was artificial) wheat for private consumption. The wheat was never to leave his own farm. He argued that this caveat exempted the additional product from the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, because the act relied on the Commerce Clause in the Constitution for its validity. If the wheat never was intended for the market, then it couldn't have an effect on commerce between states. Seems legit.
The Supreme Court, however, decided that growing extraneous wheat would preclude Filburn from purchasing wheat from another source and the lack of a purchase would affect interstate commerce. Thus, Filburn was banned from growing wheat that was never to leave his private property. I repeat, he was banned from growing wheat on his own land for his personal consumption.
The current argument for the individual mandate is eerily similar. Because an individual who doesn't have health insurance might affect insurance prices if he or she becomes ill, it is within the federal government's purview to mandate that everyone have insurance. Never mind that medical insurance is legally restricted to individual states (i.e., as a resident of Nebraska, I am legally barred from purchasing medical insurance from a company in Iowa), which should exempt medical insurance from federal control, because the Commerce Clause specifically relates to trade that takes place between two or more states. If commerce in the field of medical insurance is prohibited between states, how can the Commerce Clause cover it?
No slave to logic, the Barack Obama administration is arguing that, because the Supreme Court allowed the federal government to regulate inaction in the case of Wickard v. Filburn, it only makes sense for the current justices to allow the federal government to regulate inaction in the case of medical insurance. I use "arguing" in the loosest possible sense. If you've been paying any attention to the transcripts, you'll see that the liberal justices are doing most of the heavy lifting in place of the solicitor general.
Can the federal government force you to eat broccoli? This is the question making its way through the right-wing blogosphere at the moment. If you don't eat broccoli, it can adversely affect your health. Your poor health, because of lack of broccoli, will raise the cost of insurance premiums for other people. Therefore, the federal government, using the logic posited by the administration in defense of the individual mandate, can force you to eat your vegetables for the good of your fellow citizens.
If the Supreme Court upholds the individual mandate, it effectively is giving the federal government carte blanche to control our actions. Everything we do, or don't do, can be stretched to meet the definition of "possibly affecting trade." To quote Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., "If my shoes were made in Tennessee, they could regulate my walking in Kentucky." Let's hope that Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote in what probably will be a 5-4 decision, makes the correct choice.