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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