The U.S. Constitution was crafted by people who greatly feared central power, so that document gave great latitude to states and strictly limited the federal government to a few, specifically enumerated powers. But the relationship started changing almost immediately after ratification, and the federal government has been getting stronger at the expense of states ever since. Is there anything the federal government can’t do or make us do?
That concern is why the individual mandate – that Americans must carry health insurance or pay a fine – has been the central question of the Obamacare debate. If Congress can order us to buy something – eat your broccoli, children; it’s a government rule – it can truly make us do anything. So, now that the Supreme Court has upheld Obamacare, how does that change the federalism equation?
Good luck on figuring that one out.
The White House argued that the Obamacare mandate was a legitimate congressional concern under its ability to regulate commerce – a constitutional clause whose ever more expansive interpretation has contributed to federal power. But the ruling did not uphold the mandate on that basis. The 5-4 opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, held that the fine in the mandate amounts to a tax, and, after all, when has anyone ever doubted the authority of Congress to tax anything it wants to?
Does that ruling add greatly to the federal government’s power? Or was this just one more in a long line of small accretions? It’s hard to say, but the ruling certainly does nothing to diminish federal power, and it’s a shame that a court with a supposed conservative majority would have concocted it.
The substance of Obamacare will have profound and far-reaching effects on everything from the health care delivery system to the national economy. Exactly what those effects will be and how they will play out are not yet known – the bill is, after all, 2,700 pages. That’s one of the major problems with it, in fact. It’s so complicated it can’t even be understood.
But at least this exercise in federal excess has started a needed national debate on the current state of federalism, one we should all hope continues. Federal power can’t be scaled back quickly or in big chunks, but at least we can talk about how to do it and whether we want to.
In October 2011, a Rasmussen poll found that 64 percent of Americans thought the federal government had too much power and money, with just 9 percent thinking it had too little of both. Wonder what the results of a similar poll would be today?