Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What the Supreme Court's Health Care Ruling Will Mean for Federal Government

In HBO's recent debut of the show The Newsroom, the protagonist points out to his future executive producer that a recent study has found that America has become more politically divided today than at any point in history since the Civil War.  I don't know if that's actually true but it certainly feels that way doesn't it?  After all, the ink isn't even dry on the long-awaited Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act (aka "ObamaCare") and already both sides of the political spectrum are speculating what this will mean for the country politically.  If we could take off our ideological goggles for a moment (I know that's asking a lot from some of you) then we might be able to see that there's actually an important issue being decided by the Court tomorrow that has very little to do with politics and everything to do with whether the Federal Government will either be enabled or prevented from solving the big problems that will face our country from Thursday, June 28, 2012 on forward.

Assuming that the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate tomorrow which is at the heart of ObamaCare, the short-sighted and superficial conversation will be about Obama (the man) and about Democrats vs. Republicans (mere political parties).  What will undoubtedly be lost on the masses is what a ruling against the individual mandate actually says about the ability of our government to help "promote the general welfare" for all Americans who are faced with a nation-wide problem.

When the Supreme Court announces its decision tomorrow regarding the constitutionality of ObamaCare, whether the individual mandate is upheld or not will likely turn on whether the Justices have decided to respect or overturn the precedent set by Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942).  What does this old 1942 case have to do with ObamaCare or allowing the Federal Government to solve the nation's problems?  We explain this and more after the jump:

Roscoe Filburn ran a small farm in Ohio back in the 1930's.  Among other things, Mr. Filburn grew wheat on his farm.  In 1938, Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed into law the Agricultural Adjustment Act which authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to control the volume of wheat.  Why?  Because Congress wanted to avoiding any surpluses or shortages of wheat that would result in extremely high or low prices for consumers.  Not exactly a national problem as compelling as Health Care for every man, woman and child in America, but that's not why we care about this law.  For the purposes of our discussion here, we care about this law because Congress passed it using the Commerce Clause.
What is the Commerce Clause, you ask?  As we've posted in the past:
The "Commerce Clause" is simply a clause in the Constitution that gives Congress the power to regulate anything and everything dealing with interstate commerce.  And when I say anything, I mean anything. For example, using the Commerce Clause, Congress could not only regulate a company that ships widgets between state lines, but it can also regulate anything connected to that company's interstate activity, such as the machinery used in the company's plant, the trucks it uses, the highways those trucks drive over, the phone lines and internet connections it uses to do business, etc.
Getting back to good old Farmer Filburn, in 1941 he ended up making more wheat for himself than Federal Law allowed.  He grew the wheat for his own personal use, thus his wheat never left the state of Ohio. Despite this fact, he was still fined $117 dollars and 11 cents.  Outraged, Filburn refused to pay and sued the Department of Agriculture. Filburn argued that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution only gives Congress the power to regulate INTERSTATE commerce and since his wheat never left the state of Ohio the Commerce Clause does not give Congress the right to regulate him.  Filburn further argued that, as a matter of policy, the Federal Government cannot "force" him to buy wheat from the open market if he doesn't want to (this should sound familiar since it was the same policy argument raised by opponents of ObamaCare).

In November 1942, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected good old Farmer Filburn’s constitutional argument in the landmark case Wickard v. Filburn.  In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that Filburn’s “home-grown” wheat still had an effect on the interstate market for wheat because every bushel of "home grown" wheat that he grew for himself is a bushel of wheat that he normally would have bought from the open market.  The Court further reasoned that if enough farmers also do the "home grown" technique like Filburn, then their combined refusal to purchase wheat from the open market will, in the aggregate, have a clear effect on the interstate market.  In other words, if nobody buys wheat then obviously that will have an effect on the interstate commerce of wheat.  Therefore, his actions affect "interstate" commerce which means Congress can regulate him using the Commerce Clause.
With respect to Farmer Filburn's policy argument that the Federal Government can't force him to buy something that he doesn't want to, Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the majority, said:
It is said … that this Act, forcing some farmers into the market to buy what they could provide for themselves, is an unfair promotion of the markets and prices of specializing wheat growers.  It is the essence of regulation that it lays a restraining hand on the self-interest of the regulated and that advantages from the regulation commonly fall to others.  The conflicts of economic interest between the regulated and those who advantage by it are wisely left under our system to resolution by the Congress under its more flexible and responsible legislative process.  Such conflicts rarely lend themselves to judicial determination.  And with the wisdom, workability, or fairness, of the plan of regulation we have nothing to do.  Wickard v. Filburn, 317 U.S. 111 (1942) (emphasis supplied).
In plain English: the Commerce Clause allows Congress to "force" people to do stuff -- including buying stuff -- if Congress determines that it is for the greater good of the country, and the Supreme Court should not second guess Congress whenever Congress does this.  This precedent was established in Wickard v. Filburn 70 years ago.  It has formed the foundation for how the Federal Government has been able to tackle many of the problems facing our nation ever since.

By using the Commerce Clause, Congress was able to create the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which "forces" private citizens to refrain from any and all racial or gender-based discrimination in all public restaurants, diners, theaters, sports arenas, hotels, etc., even if those private citizens are the owners of those establishments.  And you don't need me to tell you how important that piece of legislation has been to our country over the last half century.

So if the Supreme Court rules against the Federal Government on the individual mandate, it is not only second guessing Congress' judgment to do what is best for the country, but, more importantly, it is in essence telling Congress "You can't make individuals do anything even if it is for the greater good of the Nation."  Stated differently, if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate, then everything we have known for the last 70 years about the Federal Government's ability to act through the Commerce Clause is now wrong.

1. Do you agree with the holding in Wickard v. Filburn?
2. Do you think that this Supreme Court will overturn Wickard v. Filburn and strike down the individual mandate?
3. Should Congress have the ability to make us do stuff that we may not necessarily want to do if it benefits the country at large?
4. Continuing from the previous question, should store owners be able to refuse service to Black people if they want to without regulation from the Federal Government?
5. If the Country is faced with a nation-wide problem in the future, and the solution to this problem requires that the Federal Government force people to do something, should it have that ability or is it helpless to solve the problem?
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