Last week, the Supreme Court heard three days of oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, with conservatives giddy and itching to see the president’s single most important achievement obliterated. Should the Supreme Court rule the act unconstitutional in June, the president would face a political disaster just as his reelection campaign begins to heat up.
Conservatives have taken aim at the “individual mandate” provision in the act, which mandates that all Americans enter into the health care market. The mandate operates under the premise that if everyone is mandated to buy insurance (the federal government would provide subsidies for those who can’t afford it), the overall price of insurance plans would decrease. Conservatives argue that the mandate is a threat to individual liberty, and that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution does not give Congress the power to require citizens to purchase any particular product. During oral arguments, many of the conservative justices warned that Obamacare would lead to a “slippery slope” whereby Congress could have the authority to mandate that all Americans buy broccoli or gym memberships, for example.
In an effort to emphasize that slippery slope argument and mock the Affordable Care Act, Republicans from South Dakota submitted legislation that would require every South Dakotan to purchase a firearm. The Republicans obviously didn’t do their history homework, because ironically, three years after the Constitution was signed, the U.S. Congress actually did pass a law that required every able-bodied white male to own a musket for use in their local militia. Just like the Obamacare mandate, that 1792 law was deemed by the government “necessary and proper” (the Elastic Clause) for national defense, just as today the health care mandate is deemed “necessary and proper” for ensuring access to affordable health care to all Americans.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ultimate decision, most of this clamouring by conservatives seems to have less to do with upholding the Constitution and more to do with scoring a political victory based on the Republican “party of ‘no’” agenda. It doesn’t take a political scientist to realize that for Republicans, the politically smart thing to do is to unequivocally opposes anything that has President “O’Bummer’s” name attached to it, even if the idea was originally your own.
Individual Mandate: A Republican Idea
Historically, Democrats have supported introducing a “single-payer system” like the ones employed in most developed nations. In Britain, for example, a single payer system ensures that every citizen receives coverage and is provided access to government-owned hospitals and government-salaried doctors. There is no individual mandate; all citizens pay taxes for their government health care and as a result all citizens receive coverage. According to the TV program “Frontline,” wait times for “elective” procedures that aren’t life and death situations, like knee surgeries, are considerably longer here in the U.S., but the U.K. is a world leader in preventive care, only spending 8.3 percent of its GDP on Health Care, compared to 17 percent of the GDP in the U.S. with 50 million uninsured. However, if any liberal in the U.S. even utters the word “single-payer,” they get immediately blasted by Republicans as socialists who support government intrusions on individual liberty and freedom.
Because of Republicans’ revulsion to single-payer plans, the president and the Democrats decided to pursue the individual mandate approach, an idea long supported by conservatives. The individual mandate was first thought up by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in the 1980s as an alternative to the single-payer system that Democrats were pushing for.
According to the Washington Post, the individual mandate was a key part of George Bush Sr.’s health care proposal in the 1980s that was eventually shelved because it lacked support from Democrats who still favored the single-payer system. Ironically, many of the same Republicans who signed on as co-sponsors of that legislation in the ’80s have opposed the individual mandate this time around, including Senators Dole, Grassley and Simpson. At the time, current Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney praised the legislation saying that if he were elected to the Senate he’d support reform that includes a national individual mandate.
The Huffington Post reports that even conservative poster-boy and presidential candidate teamed up with Hillary Clinton in the mid 2000s to find a centrist solution to health care reform that would include an individual mandate. In 2007, Gingrich stated that “Personal responsibility extends to the purchase of health insurance. Citizens should not be able to cheat their neighbors by not buying insurance.” Obama’s biggest mistake, apparently, was assuming Republicans wouldn’t contradict themselves.
So what happened? Were the Republicans in the 1980s under an evil liberal spell that made them propose unconstitutional ideas? Did Jesus come down and inform Republicans that the health care reform that they’ve supported for over two decades is unconstitutional and needs to be squashed?
Republicans don’t think the individual mandate is unconstitutional, or even a bad idea. They are just playing their usual, cynical political game as the Party of ‘No,’ knowing that any defeat for Barack Obama and the Democrats means gains for them come November. If the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act in June, Republican leaders will bask in their victory, claiming they always knew the individual mandate would be ruled unconstitutional, and millions of Americans will lap up their Kool-Aid, head to the polls and make sure they keep their jobs.
Meanwhile, 50 million Americans will remain without insurance, millions more will continue to be gouged by exorbitant health care costs and the rest of the world will continue to shake its head, perplexed by how the richest, most powerful country in the world doesn’t guarantee its citizens a basic human right.
— Daily Nexus columnist Riley Schenck