The Nitty Gritty Details Of Obamacare
On April 18, 2012, 12:07 AM by Nima Desai
The politics of Obamacare will keep mainstream media abuzz for months, but legally speaking it’s all about the difference between positive and negative rights.
After an exhaustive media frenzy, the three-day oral arguments regarding Obamacare – or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) – are now over, and many eagerly await the Supreme Court’s ruling in June. To help pass the time, here’s an easy-to-read primer on the issues that the justices will brood over for the next two months:
Understanding the legal arguments
In essence, there are two ways to tackle most Constitutional questions: practically or theoretically. The practical way looks at the problem first to see if the Constitution can accommodate the proposed solution. A good example of this method is the process of adopting the familiar Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Events like this often begin with large-scale social upheaval and debate, and end with Congress drafting an equally large-scale federal solution. As an occasional consequence, constitutionality may be an afterthought. And constitutional arguments in favor of a federal solution require creativity and, at times, strong improvisational skills on the part of so-called liberal “activist” judges.
Given the complex relationship of commercial activity with many social, economic and governmental institutions, federal officials have used the right of the Congress to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States” to facilitate social change and respond to various crises. This particular clause justified massive new federal programs and the development of many innovative policy mechanisms during the New Deal, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Though the Commerce Clause limits Congress’ power to interstate commercial activity only (between states) and not intrastate activity (within a single state), the definition of interstate commercial activity is extremely broad and, as such, its interpretations are equally wide.
On the other hand, theoretically-minded conservative justices examine the means first–not the ends. They look at the esoteric, academic, constitutional issues and, to them, the US Constitution is the Ark of the Covenant. Legal arguments for a federal solution to a national problem or crisis must be elegant and fit easily within the framework already created by past legal precedent if they are to be considered worthy of a seal from the Supreme Court.
Defining the Powers of Congress
Just as a single drop of water can create an elaborate ripple effect, essentially any activity can fall within the sweep of the Commerce Clause. The following cases help to elucidate on the limits of interstate commercial activity:
Wickard v. Filburn (1942):
While an old case, it’s still a significant one. In the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government ordered a farmer to destroy his own crops. Although he was growing wheat for private consumption and not for sale, the Supreme Court held that he had to destroy his own wheat because his private use had an effect on national wheat prices, which the federal government was trying to regulate.
Since his wheat never entered into the stream of commerce, much less interstate commerce, the farmer argued that he was not subject to federal regulation. The US government successfully argued that if he did not consume his own wheat, the farmer would have to buy wheat on the open market, and therefore his actions affected interstate commerce.
The government’s argument is definitely complicated, but the key is that the commercial effects of home consumption were compounded for all the wheat growers across America. And it is just that compounding effect of private activity that makes this case very relevant to PPACA’s mandatory single payer healthcare system. How? The use of emergency rooms by persons with no health insurance, when compounded, costs American taxpayers about $10,000 per year. Yup, $10,000. The compounding societal effect of emergency room visits by the uninsured is what pulls the government and its citizens into private territory.
Wickard v. Filburn also shows its relevance via the private nature of growing your own wheat and eating your own wheat. This seems like the essence of the concept that home and hearth are sacred and outside of the government’s reach. Similarly, the human body and its upkeep are also distinctly private in nature, just like one’s home, farm, and daily meals.
So basically, if government officials ever came into your home to tell you that you couldn’t eat the heirloom tomatoes you’ve grown in your backyard, they ought to have a very good reason – like poverty, hunger, and economic turmoil a la The Great Depression.
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