In the classic comedy Office Space, the annoying, worthless boss Bill Lumbergh instructs his indifferent employees to ponder this question before acting: “ask yourself, is this good for the company?” Likewise here, regardless of last week’s Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, the question is whether the Act is good for America. Americans expect Mitt Romney, who seeks to manage one of the co-equal branches, to have a compelling, cogent answer, and one that doesn’t depend on the meaning of the word “is.”
In upholding the Act’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance, the Court, through Chief Justice John Roberts, held what no federal court had previously: that even though the individual mandate was invalid under Congress’ Commerce Clause power, it somehow survived as a tax, even though the Act was marketed and passed as containing a penalty, and the word tax nowhere appears in the bill’s language.
Roberts’ opinion was remarkable in that it managed to split conservatives and delight the Left. Some legal commentators and pundits on the left praised Roberts for his statesmanship and concern for the legitimacy of the Court. Obama proclaimed that his “signature domestic achievement” really now was an achievement but crowed that it was not a tax.
In stark contrast, most conservatives ate crow after digesting an opinion they saw as a Souter-esque betrayal. As the Wall Street Journal observed, Chief Justice Roberts created “the only tax in U.S. history that exceeds its own constitutional limits and is meant to execute powers the Court” found invalid. Future Congresses may thus regulate interstate “commerce” by imposing “taxes” whenever individuals fail to heed government’s demands.
Legal conservatives managed to find some good within the bad by cheering the parts of the holding limiting Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause, though whether it actually restrains future Congresses is another matter. Conservative law professor John Yoo says no; liberal law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky says probably not; liberal law professor Pam Karlan says yes.
How this happened is a matter of history that conservatives will surely recall next time a Court vacancy occurs. We now (perhaps) know from Court leaks and press reports that Justice Roberts initially cast his vote against the law, then switched his vote, and withstood intense lobbying by Justice Kennedy to change his vote back. A more dispiriting outcome for the Right cannot be imagined. The self-professed “umpire” botched the biggest call of the game, and the country will suffer, unless the political leaders do what Roberts did not and send the Affordable Care Act to the circular file.