How the language of politics could doom Obamacare

For politicians there are lots of topics that are simply too hot to handle. Social security reform, abortion, gay marriage — these are all crucial issues, but many politicians hate taking strong positions on them. It’s not hard to see why: Do so, and there goes the vote of an entire demographic.

But if there’s one word, particularly in recent years, that is anathema to more than just one or another segment of the voting public, it’s the “T” word: taxes. At all costs, don’t tell people you’re hitting them with new taxes. Especially if you’re already trying to pass a controversial new mega-suite of laws like . . . say . . . Obamacare.

That’s precisely what Obama and the Democrats did with their healthcare reform package. They took great pains to tell people that reform did not mean new taxes.

One of the centerpieces of the bill is what the government calls the “minimum care provision.”  Its opponents prefer to call it the “individual mandate.” Whatever you want to call it, it means (almost) everybody must obtain at least some health insurance by 2014. The government claims this is necessary to keep premiums down once insurers are forced to cover people they otherwise would not.

So far so good. But once 2014 rolls around, anybody that fails to get minimum coverage will be taxed . . . er, “penalized” . . . to cover their share of the expense. Here’s where things get tricky: Is this sanction a tax (gasp!)? Or is it a penalty? Well, in the law itself, Congress prefers to call it a penalty. This “penalty,” though, is assessed on a person’s tax returns, and the provision is even part of the tax code. It bears all the markers of a tax on those without minimum coverage, but, presumably for political reasons, Congress chose to call it a penalty instead.

What they perhaps didn’t realize was that their refusal to call the tax a tax might cause problems for the law’s constitutionality.

Congress has a broad authority under the Constitution to raise taxes. It uses this authority all the time to make people pay for things they might not otherwise want. Whether it be farm subsidies, alternative energy, or national defense, Congress’s tax power let’s them force us to buy things, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But Congress cannot constitutionally impose a penalty on people for refusing to buy a certain product. This is beyond even the reach of the commerce power. It’s a distinction simultaneously very fine and very intuitively obvious — the government can make you (help) pay for other people’s food stamps, but it can’t make you go out and buy broccoli.

The Sixth Circuit jumped on this distinction, and the lawmakers’ fear of the “T” word, in one of the challenges to the health law (though it eventually upheld the law on other grounds):

Congress might have raised taxes on everyone in an amount equivalent to the current penalty, then offered credits to those with minimum essential insurance. Or it might have imposed a lower tax rate on people with health insurance than those without it. But Congress did neither of these things, and that makes a difference. . . .

The individual mandate is a regulatory penalty, not a revenue-raising tax . . . . That is what Congress said. It called the sanction for failing to obtain medical insurance a “penalty,” not a tax. Words matter, and it is fair to assume that Congress knows the difference between a tax and a penalty . . . making it appropriate to take Congress at its word. That is all the more true in an era when elected officials are not known for casually discussing, much less casually increasing, taxes.

Thomas More L. Ctr. v. Obama, 651 F.3d 529, 550-51 (6th Cir. 2011) (emphasis added).

Even once the challenge reached the Supreme Court, the government did not push the Justices to uphold the law under the Taxing Clause. Instead they focused on Congress’s broad authority under the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses to regulate what they consider to be economic activity (i.e., participation in the healthcare market, which, the argument goes, all of us do simply because we are entitled to treatment whether or not we can pay, forcing those that can to pay for those that cannot). The merits of that argument are not my point here, but if you’re interested check out SCOTUSblog‘s (very thorough) coverage.

Instead, what I’m interested in is the fact that the language of politics — avoid “taxes” at all costs — led the government to forfeit perhaps its surest defense of the law. The Sixth Circuit judge said as much in the two paragraphs above.

At first blush, it seems silly that saying “penalty” when you mean “tax” could be the difference between blatant unconstitutionality and perfect acceptability. But perhaps Judge Martin has a point. Don’t we want to hold politicians accountable for what they say and the language they use to say it? Isn’t that especially so when that language is meant to mislead?

That seems to be precisely what Judge Martin is doing. He’s telling politicians that he’s going to take seriously what they actually say, especially when there’s reason to believe they mean something different but don’t want to let the rest of us know.

If the language of politics can be used to mask an unpopular proposal, then it should have to be used subsequently to defend that proposal too. To put it differently: If you want to bamboozle the voting public with deceptive language, by all means do so. Once you’ve made your bed, however, you have no choice but to lie in it.

Oh, and when I say “lie,” there is no pun intended.