Looking Back: Former Bush Solicitor General Charles Fried on the Clear Constitutionality of the Individual Coverage Provision

March 26, 2012

The Following is an excerpt from Harvard Law Professor Charles Fried’s testimony during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.* Prof. Fried was former solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan. This post is part of an ACSblog online symposium around oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act.

I come here today not as a partisan supporter of the Obama Administration’s health care legislation. I am not an expert in health care economics or policy, and I am sure there are many arguments for and against the wisdom and feasibility of this legislation. I do not enter into that debate. I am an expert on constitutional law, which I have been teaching and practicing for many years and on which I have written books and articles, most to the point my 2004 book, SAYING WHAT THE LAW IS: THE CONSTITUTION IN THE SUPREME COURT. I also am not one who believes that Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution is in effect a grant of power to Congress to regulate anything it wishes in any way it pleases. There are limits to what may plausibly be called commerce. I agree entirely with the decision in United States v. Morrison that section 13981 of the Violence Against Women Act cannot be brought within Congress’s power to regulate commerce. Indeed I sat at counsel table with Michael Rosman when he successfully argued that case. Though gender-motivated violence is despicable, cowardly, and in every state in the union criminal, a man beating up his wife or girlfriend is not commerce. Neither is carrying a gun in or near a school, as the Court correctly held in United States v. Lopez. The arguments to the contrary required torturing not only constitutional law but the English language. But the business of insurance is commerce. That’s what the Supreme Court decided in 1944 in United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Ass’n and the law has not departed from that conclusion for a moment since then. One need only think of the massive regulation of insurance that is represented by ERISA to see how deep and unquestioned is that conclusion.

If insurance is commerce, then of course the business of health insurance is commerce. It insures an activity that represents nearly 18% of the United States economy. (In this connection recall Perez v. United States, which held that a very local loan sharking operation was within Congress’s power to regulate commerce.) And if health insurance is commerce, then the health care mandate is a regulation of commerce, explicitly authorized by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

There is the argument, which I believe is entirely wrong and even worse quite confused, that the health care mandate is not a regulation of commerce because it requires an economic act — entering the health insurance market — rather than prohibiting or limiting an economic activity. This is what Chief Justice Marshall, who had been an active member of the Virginia legislature at the time the Constitution was adopted, wrote in 1824 in Gibbons v. Ogden regarding Congress’s commerce power:

What is this power?

It is the power to regulate; that is, to prescribe the rule by which commerce is to be governed. This power, like all others vested in Congress, is complete in itself, may be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations other than are prescribed in the Constitution. . . . If, as has always been understood, the sovereignty of Congress, though limited to specified objects, is plenary as to those objects, the power over commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, is vested in Congress as absolutely as it would be in a single government, having in its constitution the same restrictions on the exercise of the power as are found in the constitution of the United States. The wisdom and the discretion of Congress, their identity with the people, and the influence which their constituents possess at elections, are, in this, as in many other instances, as that, for example, of declaring war, the sole restraints on which they have relied, to secure them from its abuse.

To my mind that is sufficient to provide the constitutional basis for the mandate. The mandate is a rule (more accurately, part of a system of rules) “by which commerce is to be governed.” Neither the Constitution nor the great Chief Justice said anything about limiting such rules to those that prohibit or limit commerce. 

Mandatory enrollment by all in the health insurance system seems close to absolutely necessary — though, as Marshall wrote, the necessity need not be absolute — to a scheme that requires private health insurers to accept virtually all applicants regardless of preexisting conditions and to retain them no matter how large the cost they impose on the system. To allow the young and well to wait until they are older and sicker to enroll is to design a system of private insurance that cannot work. Everyone knows that.

In a debate last November before the Federalist Society (of which I have been a member since its beginning), my good friend and former student Professor Randy Barnett, by way of peroration, said that it was not the America he knew if a person could be compelled to enter a market and purchase a product there he did not want. (As has been repeatedly asked, may Congress by way of regulating commerce force you to eat your veggies or visit the gym regularly? Surely not.) But the objection, while serious, is not at all about the scope of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause. It is about an imposition on our personal liberty, at liberty guaranteed by the 5th and 14th Amendments, and guaranteed against invasion not only against federal but also against state power.

Is the health care mandate an invasion of constitutionally protected liberty? That question was answered in 1905 by a unanimous Court in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, upholding against a liberty argument the imposition of a fine for refusing to submit to a state-mandated smallpox vaccination. By refusing vaccination, Jacobson was endangering not only himself but others whom he might infect. By refusing the much less intrusive and less intimate imposition of a requirement that one purchase health insurance if one can afford it, a person threatens to unravel — in the view of Congress and the health insurance industry, but Congress is enough — the whole scheme designed to protect by health insurance the largest part of the population. .

As for the veggies, I suppose such forced feeding would indeed be an invasion of personal liberty, but making you pay for them would not, just as making you pay for a gym membership which you can afford but do not use would not.

To sum up:

Insurance is commerce.

Health insurance is undoubtedly commerce.

Congress has the power to regulate commerce, and that means that Congress may prescribe, in Chief Justice Marshall’s words, a rule for commerce.

*This excerpt is posted with permission from Professor Fried.