Something important is happening in Washington, D.C. All week long, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in the case of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, a suit brought forth by 26 states seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment.
The effort to have “Obamacare” declared unconstitutional is remarkable for several reasons. According to National Public Radio, the six hours of hearings over the course of three days is the longest argument the Court has heard in over 40 years. A blogger on the liberal site Daily Kos suggests that overturning the ACA “could lead to a reversal of the 1937 transformation of our national government.”
All of the people listed in court documents as representatives of the states filing the suit are Republicans.
This case threatens to politicize the Supreme Court perhaps more than it has been at any time since President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to expand the size of the court to “pack” it with his own appointees during the Depression.
Republicans, who have long denounced “judicial activism,” are now shifting a strictly political fight against the ACA to the judicial arena and asking the Court to engage in the type of activism they have vocally opposed in the past.
The states seeking to overturn the ACA declare in a brief that “[t]he Constitution grants Congress the power to regulate commerce, not the power to compel individuals to enter into commerce.” The implication is that Congress has never mandated that individuals in the United States purchase goods or services.
Fact-checking website Politifact recently verified a statement that debunks this claim soundly. Within 10 years of the first meeting of Congress, laws had been passed that mandated all able-bodied white males to purchase a gun suitable for militia service, and required ships coming into U.S. ports to pay for health care for their sailors.
What’s more, several founding fathers were among those who voted for these laws, and the two presidents who signed them were founders as well. It’s clear that the framers of the Constitution believed that Congress has the power to force certain individuals to purchase goods and services, and that health care can be one of those services.
More recent Supreme Court precedent states that Congress can regulate activity that has a substantial influence on interstate commerce affected by a federal regulatory scheme — for example, Congress could ban me from mining coal in my backyard and burning it to heat my home, because my doing so would undermine federal clean-air regulations.
The purpose of health care reform was to ensure access to affordable health care for all Americans; if healthy people don’t buy insurance, the cost of insurance will rise, and if insurance companies can deny coverage for preexisting conditions, access to insurance — and affordable care — will always be limited. Certainly ACA affects access to affordable health insurance, which is a valid regulatory goal.
Why are Republican governors and attorney generals fighting so hard to overturn the individual mandate that their own party supported in 1993 when President Bill Clinton was pushing for his own health care reform bill?
The obvious answer: naked partisan ambition. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, invented the notion of the individual mandate as a free-market solution to drive down health care costs without creating a government-operated health care system. Republicans now opposing the ACA can’t honestly say they oppose the individual mandate on ideological grounds; their fellow conservatives literally wrote the book on it.
There’s an election coming up in seven months, and no matter how the Supreme Court rules — the ruling is likely to come down in late June — it will be a boon for Republicans. If the court overturns the ACA, Republicans can tell voters that they stopped the federal government from forcing them to purchase health insurance — although most of us would buy it anyway if we could.
If the court refuses to overturn the ACA, Republicans can rally their base by claiming it’s more important now than ever to replace the supposed socialist in the White House and his comrades in Congress, to repeal Obamacare before it ruins us.
Hopefully the court will see through this partisan gambit and move to restore order by delivering a strong rebuke to the parties — including Maine’s attorney general and candidate for the U.S. Senate, William Schneider — who have sought to drag the necessarily impartial Supreme Court into clearly political issues.
Mike Emery is a fourth-year sociology student. His political columns will appear every Thursday.