August 21, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
The Supreme Court recently held the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) to be a valid exercise of Congress’s constitutional authority. Surprisingly, the Court did not find the Act constitutional under the Commerce Clause as the law’s proponents had argued, but under the taxing power. Perhaps no Supreme Court ruling in our lifetimes will be as heavily scrutinized as this one, so serious citizens will want to think about it and come to their own conclusions.
As I noted in an earlier letter, progressives for the past century have justified expanding federal regulatory power over the economy by insisting on a broad reading of the Commerce Clause. It was a breathtakingly aggressive claim that underlay Obamacare, namely, that Congress may “regulate” commerce by mandating that individuals purchase health insurance or else face a financial penalty. Chief Justice Roberts rejected this claim. But he then upheld Obamacare’s constitutionality, nonetheless, under the taxing power.
Outraged conservatives took little solace in his rejection of the Commerce-Clause justification of the law. What difference does it make, some wondered, whether the federal government tramples our liberties under the Commerce Clause or the taxing power? And where exactly in the Constitution does the Chief Justice find authorization for such use of the taxing power? Still, the distinction between regulation and taxation is not a case of mere semantics, and maybe this is a distinction that could make a difference.
Taxation occupies a unique place in American history and civic consciousness. While few citizens know the origins of the Commerce Clause, nearly everyone understands that taxation somehow ignited the American Revolution. We’ve all heard the phrase “no taxation without representation.” Schoolchildren learn of oppressive taxes on stamps and tea—oppressive not because British officials imposed a heavy financial burden but because they raised taxes without colonial consent. Indeed, the colonists felt driven to resistance primarily because Parliament acknowledged no limits to its authority.
Episodes such as the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion show that Americans’ resentments over taxation persisted after the Revolution. Nowadays elected officials often take a pledge not to raise taxes, a pledge they ignore at their peril. In short, taxes tend to command Americans’ attention and arouse their anger in ways that commercial regulations do not. Is it mere wishful thinking to suppose that it will be more difficult for proponents of unlimited government to expand federal authority under the taxing power (than under the Commerce Clause) without alarming the sovereign people? Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion seems in some respects to throw the entire question back to the political arena. At least to this extent, is his decision a welcome development for those Americans who don’t want the Supreme Court to serve as the final arbiter of all constitutional debates?
Thomas Jefferson thought that if the Supreme Court came to be regarded as the sole interpreter of the nation’s fundamental law, it would threaten the very existence of constitutional self-government. In an 1819 letter to Judge Spencer Roane, Jefferson argued that “The constitution, on this hypothesis,” would be “a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please.” Jefferson preferred genuine separation of powers in which “each department is truly independent of the others, and has an equal right to decide for itself what is the meaning of the constitution in the cases submitted to its action.” He believed, as did most of his contemporaries, that presidents and members of Congress shared in the responsibility of interpreting the Constitution and thus maintaining the balance essential to free government.
When Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton quarreled over the constitutionality of a national bank, or when Federalists and Republicans in Congress quarreled over the constitutionality of Jay’s Treaty, they did not submit the question to the Supreme Court for a final verdict. The Constitution’s framers never meant for the Supreme Court to become the final and sole arbiter of constitutional meaning. They expected Americans to elect legislators who think seriously about constitutional questions, and this could happen only if the people took it upon themselves to think seriously about such questions, assuming their rightful role as guardians of their republican experiment.
Of course, Obamacare supporters, who tend to want to subject politics to bureaucracy, now wish the matter closed. But the matter is not closed. It is very much in the hands of the American people, who have a historic opportunity to assert the republican spirit that has served them so well for more than two centuries. The health-care debate has reminded us anew of our obligation to think about the powers we wish our government to wield. In that sense, at least, let us hope that it will prove to be good for our political health.