By Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA School of Law.
Tuesday’s oral argument in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unmasked the true revolutionaries in the battle over health care reform. Ever since President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment was enacted, opponents have taken to the airways decrying the law as a radical attempt to expand the power of the federal government. Never before has Congress regulated “inactivity” and forced citizens to do something like buy health insurance, they have insisted.
Of course, it doesn’t take long to find examples of Congress doing just that: forcing people to file tax returns, serve on juries, sign up for the selective service. But those are different, health care’s opponents argued, because none of them required individuals to purchase a product from a private party. When it was pointed out that Congress forced people to purchase firearms and ammunition in the militia acts of 1792, opponents once again came up with a creative answer. That was an exercise of Congress’s Militia Power, not the Commerce Power. Left unanswered was why Congress would have the power to mandate such transactions under any other clause but the Commerce Clause – an especially bewildering distinction given that we’re talking about mandated commercial transactions.
The judges on the Fourth Circuit were, indeed, bewildered.