What a morning!
First off, the D.C. Entrails Reading Award goes to David G. Savage of the Los Angeles Times, who to my knowledge is the only guy who got this thing right:
Lurking in the background is a way to decide the case on tax law grounds. No one can be prosecuted, punished or fined for violating the mandate. In fact, the word “mandate” does not appear in the law. In “practical operation,” the administration argued, it’s just a tax law.
If the mandate is really just a tax, that would be supported by the Constitution, which says Congress “shall have the power to lay and collect taxes … to provide for the common defense and general welfare.”
So, in the end, the justices could agree the law’s required tax payments are constitutional, while also making clear the government does not have broad power to mandate purchases.
As for the decision: Chief Justice John Roberts is one clever dude. It seems to me that by saying the Affordable Care Act is “not a valid exercise of the Commerce Clause,” Roberts has his limiting-principle cake. Yet by upholding the law via the tax code, he gets to eat it too.
On the merits, I think this is a reasonable way to read the law. At its most basic level, the “mandate” — do we still call it that? The word doesn’t appear in the law — empowers the Internal Revenue Service to collect new revenue.
What of President Obama’s vociferous denials throughout the health care debate that the mandate was not, in fact, a tax? Does the Court’s ruling otherwise create political trouble for the president? Perhaps it will — but, under the circumstances, my guess is it’s the rare kind of political trouble that he would welcome.