Vacuous Deference and the Affordable Care Act

28 06 2012

During oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act, Justices asked the challengers of the bill if they wanted to see a return to the “Lochner era.” The bill’s challengers strenuously denied this was their aim. The term refers to the era of Supreme Court jurisprudence after the turn of the last century, when the Court repeatedly struck down state statutes regulating workers hours, overtime pay, child labor, and the like, on the grounds that they violate a nebulous “freedom of contract.” The name refers to the case Lochner v. New York, a case striking down a New York statute setting wages and conditions for bakers and confectioners. The Lochner era was characterized close judicial scrutiny of legislatures’ determination of social ills and the best means to address them. In other words, the Justices were concerned that striking down the ACA would set a precedent of lack of judicial deference to legislatures’ political judgment.

I was of the belief that Chief Justice Roberts would not vote to strike down the minimum coverage requirement of the Act as a whole, for two reasons: first, because invalidate a law so hotly debated, that resulted from intense negotiation between massive political and economic interests (not just between parties) in an election year, would forever tarnish his name and his Court as the politicized Supreme Court. Second, because as the Chief Justice, he could by voting with the upholding majority, author the opinion and narrowly limit the holding. These two dynamics certainly won out when weighed against the potential risks and rewards of creating a nebulous line between “activity/inactivity” that the dissent encourages and striking down the law.

Indeed, Justice Roberts hewed to some basic canons in Supreme Court jurisprudence: don’t judge a statute as policy; defer to the legislature’s judgment as to findings of facts and potential remedies; and, if a statutory provision can be considered constitutional in any way, it should stand. In other words, be deferential to the legislature. That deference cuts both ways.

He got the best of both worlds: he upheld the statute, avoiding the firestorm that would have resulted from a murky decision, but also reinforced the Court’s traditional deference to the legislature particularly on its use of the taxing power. Reading the opinion, Roberts’ elan and cunning shines through. Scholars are going to be all over this bad boy for the next decade.

Ultimately, the Court avoided the more exacting “Lochner deference” standard for economic legislation that requires a legislature to prove that their statute address an actual problem, and that the means they’ve chosen will certainly achieve those ends.

That’s good news. The legislature is the most frequently elected body of government, thus the most accountable; and it is the largest, thus most representative. It should be afforded deference in all but a handful of narrow categories of legislation.

It has also become hopelessly manipulated by corporate and cash influence, such that elections are perennially losing efficacy, and lobbyist power neuters what change is made at the ballot box–for an example, look at the Affordable Care Act itself.

Americans largely supported the public option, but it was a non-starter not for electoral reasons but because of the power of a handful of very wealthy and influential lobbies, particularly AHIP, the insurance trade association that made it clear that the public option was unacceptable to them.

In a post-Citizens United electoral landscape, expanding deference to the legislature is not necessarily a victory for progressives. It indicates very little risk for elites. In the Lochner era, the Court was applying minimal deference as a reaction to populist legislation fighting the excesses of capital. In the current era, applying generous deference just enables capital’s excess as it is expressed through the legislature. Deference to the legislature is in other words a neutral value.

What’s more, Justice Roberts’ narrow holding–that the minimum coverage requirement was constitutional as a taxing-and-spending power, not a commerce clause power–makes the jurisprudential effect of the decision even less problematic for the political right. Taxation is always less-than-popular. In the big-cash-as-speech era, expansive deference to Congress’ power to impose and spend new taxes is judicial deference to political poison.

Ultimately, the Court held that the minimum coverage requirement or individual mandate is constitutional not under the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate commerce “among the several States” (Art I, Sec. 8), but because it operates like a tax. If Congress wants to tax you for not having health insurance, a risk-taking behavior that potentially creates costs for others, they can do that. What they cannot do, Roberts says, is use the Commerce clause to induce people to buy a product. The Court held this explicitly.

The government briefed an alternative to their Commerce Clause argument, that the mandate was constitutional under Congress’ explicit power to lay and collect taxes for the public welfare. It was this alternative argument that Roberts accepted. Roberts is winning praise from progressive and moderate commentators for his deference to the political judgment of legislators–but the fact that he accepted this alternative argument means that that deference is qualified. The Commerce Clause is not a near-boundless grant of power for Congress to regulate social and economic relations.

Whether the case was “rightly decided” is not particularly interesting. The act of judicial restraint in not invalidating a statute because it is clumsy was appropriate. As a piece of precedent, the holding that the Commerce Clause does not justify consumer mandates is fairly politically neutral; recall that the individual mandate was originally a conservative idea. The precedent of deference shown to Congress’ taxing-and-spending power tracks with historical treatment of Congress’ taxing-and-spending power (see for example South Dakota v. Dole) and, in the big-money era of electoral wheel-spinning for progressives, such deference doesn’t promise anything new.

On the ramifications of the policy actually moving forward, more to come.

Obamacare and the Privatized Social Safety Net

16 11 2011

For all my discontent with “left neoliberalism” and its pervasive influence, it’s nice when you get some concrete specifics, as applied.

In my piece on the constitutionality of the individual mandate, I argued that the Affordable Care Act created a distressing precedent, whereby the government addresses inequality-causing market failures through broad requirements of consumers to protect profits as a precondition to regulations and requirements of capital. The administration’s thinking in creating the individual mandate was undergirded by left neoliberal preference for “market solutions,” as much as by an over-cautious political calculation whereby industry had to be placated before social ills could be addressed.

And lo and behold, unbeknownst to me, the Hon. Brett Kavanaugh, a D.C. Circuit Judge appointed by George W. Bush, was saying the same thing, although from the opposite perspective. In his dissent to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the Act’s Constitutionality, Kavanaugh characterizes the individual mandate as an example of legislative ingenuity in a new era of “privatized social services”:

The elected Branches designed this law to help provide all Americans with access to affordable health insurance and quality health care, vital policy objectives. This legislation was enacted, moreover, after a high-profile and vigorous national debate. Courts must afford great respect to that legislative effort and should be wary of upending it.

This case also counsels restraint because we may be on the leading edge of a shift in how the Federal Government goes about furnishing a social safety net for those who are old, poor, sick, or disabled and need help. The theory of the individual mandate in this law is that private entities will do better than government in providing certain social insurance and that mandates will work better than traditional regulatory taxes in prompting people to set aside money now to help pay for the assistance they might need later. Privatized social services combined with mandatory-purchase requirements of the kind employed in the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act might become a blueprint used by the Federal Government over the next generation to partially privatize the social safety net and government assistance programs and move, at least to some degree, away from the tax-and-government-benefit model that is common now.

Courts naturally should be very careful before interfering with the elected Branches’ determination to update how the National Government provides such assistance. Cf. Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964); NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 (1937). The significant implications of a Commerce Clause decision in this case – in either side’s favor – lead to this point: If we need not decide the Commerce Clause issue now, we should not decide the Commerce Clause issue now. I therefore would not strain to sidestep the Anti-Injunction Act.

(emphasis added)

In other words, Kavanaugh seems to be saying, the individual mandate may appear unconstitutional in the same way that the Civil Rights Act (Heart of Atlanta Motel) and the National Labor Relations Act (Jones & Laughlin Steel) did because it is novel, as they were. But novelty, or new-ness, isn’t proof of unconstitutionality; it may just augur a new era of legislative instruments. Kavanaugh, rightly I think, sees the Affordable Care Act as the first step in that new era: an era where the government, rather than redistributing wealth or restructuring economic relationships to address social ill, fuels capital’s ability to act on the assumption that the “spontaneous order” of consumer choice and entrepreneurial acumen will cure social ills.

You may believe this to be true, that it’ll work. But if you do, you have to contend with the fact that the empirical evidence for it is thin; for all the Great Society’s many failures, the replacement of tight regulatory regimes with preference for public-private partnerships and market mechanisms has seen an explosion in income inequality, economic insecurity, household debt, and the concentration of political power.

A Primer on the Individual Mandate and Its Unfortunate Constitutionality

15 11 2011

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to an appeal from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding the individual mandate, Section 1501 of the Affordable Care Act, to be unconstitutional. The case, United States Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, looks at a number of issues arising from the bill, most of which are not of general interest, such as whether the federal Anti-Injunction Act prohibits challenges to the Affordable Care Act (probably not).

The big constitutional question at issue is whether Congress’ Commerce Clause powers allow it to compel people, “as a condition of residency in the United States” to purchase monthly health insurance coverage. It’s a big important question, because it is an unprecedented exercise of power by Congress, not in scope, but in form: where Congress has tried to achieve similar things in the past, it has typically either regulated producers or used its taxing powers, which is nearly infinite.

So here’s a bit of a primer to help you argue with the blowhard Randite at your office who thinks the individual mandate is slavery, as well as with your Democratic partisan former college roommate who thinks it’s the greatest thing since the New Deal.

What the Commerce Clause Has To Do With It

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution lays out Congress’ enumerated powers. Clause 3 specifies that Congress shall have power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” This is the “Commerce Clause,” and it is made up of two broad areas: the more obvious facial power, to regulate commerce between parties in different states, and the “dormant” power to prohibit states from passing their own laws that would, in effect, regulate such commerce. In other words, regulating commerce between states is the sole province of the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Congress, unlike state legislatures, has only those powers granted by the Constitution, whereas states have a “general police power” [PDF] that Congress does not.
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