The Constitution’s words enabling Congress to “regulate commerce…among the several states” gives the United States broad authority over economic matters — although non-economic regulation is far more suspect. Early in today’s argument, however, several of the justices appeared poised to impose an entirely novel limit on Congress’ authority — suggesting that laws which require, in Justice Kennedy’s words, an “affirmative duty to act to go into commerce” is somehow constitutionally suspect. So there were no shortages of pointed questions about the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that everyone either carry health insurance or pay slightly more income taxes.
There are two reasons why this requirement is necessary. The first is that, because the law prohibits insurers from denying coverage to patients with preexisting conditions, it must also ensure that healthy people enter the insurance market before they become sick. If patients can wait until they get sick to buy insurance, they will drain all the money out of an insurance plan that they have not previously paid into, leaving nothing left for the rest of the plan’s consumers. The second reason relates to a problem with our health system that long predates the Affordable Care Act. Because emergency rooms must provide at least some degree of care free of charge to people who cannot afford it, these costs wind up being transferred to persons with insurance — driving up annual premiums as much as $1,100 on the average patient.
Initially, the Court’s conservatives appeared highly credulous of the plaintiffs’ false claim that upholding the health reform would necessarily enable the federal government to do absolutely anything. Solicitor General Don Verrilli addressed this question by explaining that the health care market is unique in that it is the only market that everyone inevitably participates in — we all get sick at some point — and that, because of health care’s sudden and unexpected costs, people typically pay their health bills through insurance. Thus, he explained, because everyone is already caught up in the health care market, the Affordable Care Act does not impose any kind of “duty…to go into commerce” — it merely tells people who are already in the health care market to make sure they pay for their health costs through insurance.
While Verrilli was still at the podium, the Court’s conservatives did not seem to buy this claim. A ray of hope emerged at the end of the oral argument, however, when Justice Kennedy expressed a somewhat nuanced view:
[T]he government tells us that’s because the insurance market is unique. And in the next case, it’ll say the next market is unique. But I think it is true that if most questions in life are matters of degree, in the insurance and health care world, both markets — stipulate two markets — the young person who is uninsured is uniquely proximately very close to affecting the rates of insurance and the costs of providing medical care in a way that is not true in other industries. That’s my concern in the case.
There’s a lot going on in this statement. On the one hand, Kennedy is clearly skeptical that, if the Court says this market is unique, the government won’t simply argue that the next market is also unique in the next case. On the other hand, Kennedy also appears sympathetic to the second reason why the mandate is essential — that the problem of uninsurance leads to billions in health care costs being transferred to other health care consumers. A young person who forgoes health insurance is “uniquely proximately very close” to affecting the health care costs of others, and that may be enough to get Kennedy’s vote to uphold the law.
The big loser in all of this debate, however, is the Constitution itself. The Constitution says nothing about unique markets. Or about the need to impose artificial Congress authority to regulate the nation’s economy. It simply says that Congress can “regulate commerce.” The idea that a law which regulates 1/6 of the nation’s economy is not regulating commerce is, frankly, absurd. Nor was there ever any risk that a decision upholding health reform would lead to all things being permissible. There are many things that are not commercial — federal murder laws, assault laws, child neglect laws or sexual morality laws, for example. A law regulating our entire national health care market, however, is clearly and obviously constitutional.
Justice Kennedy may inevitably vote to uphold the law — he may even bring Chief Justice Roberts along with him — but, whatever the Court does this term, it appears increasingly likely that we live under the constitution of Anthony Kennedy, and that we no longer live under the Constitution of the United States.