The Chief Justice's ObamaCare ruling is far from the check on Congress of right-left myth.
The commentary on John Roberts's solo walk into the Affordable Care Act wilderness is converging on a common theme: The Chief Justice is a genius. All of a sudden he is a chessmaster, a statesman, a Burkean minimalist, a battle-loser but war-winner, a Daniel Webster for our times.
Now that we've had more time to take in Chief Justice Roberts's reasoning, we have a better summary: politician. In fact, his 5-4 ruling validating the constitutional arguments against purchase mandates and 5-4 ruling endorsing them as taxes is far more dangerous, and far more political, even than it first appeared last week.
This is a minority view. By right-left acclaim, at least among elites, the Chief Justice has engineered a Marbury v. Madison-like verdict that camouflages new limits on federal power as a reprieve for President Obama's entitlement legacy and in a stroke enhanced the Supreme Court's reputation—and his own. This purported "long game" appeals to conservatives who can console themselves with a moral victory, while the liberals who like to assail the Chief Justice as a radical foe of democracy can continue their tantrum.
It's an elegant theory whose only flaw is that it is repudiated by Chief Justice Roberts's own language and logic. His gambit substitutes one unconstitutional expansion of government power for another and rearranges the constitutional architecture of the U.S. political system.
His first error is the act of rewriting the plain text of a law, instead of practicing the disinterested interpretation that is the task of the judiciary, regardless of the partisan outcome. The second error is converting the health insurance mandate's penalty into a tax. Ninety years of precedents have honed precise and widely divergent legal meanings for taxes and penalties for violating laws or regulations, and they are not interchangeable.
The Chief Justice did not simply change a label—as if Congress said something was a penalty when it was really a tax. Rather, these categories are defined by their purposes and effects, by how they operate in practice. Taxes are "exactions" whose main goal is raising revenue, while penalties punish individuals for breaking the law. The boundaries can blur—legitimate taxes may also have strong punitive aims—but scarcely so in this case. ObamaCare's mandate was designed to regulate individual conduct to help achieve universal coverage. If it succeeds perfectly, it should collect $0.
Even if Democrats had passed the mandate tax as rewritten by the Chief Justice, and they did not, the Supreme Court until Thursday has never held that Congress can call anything it wants a tax. The taxing power like the Commerce Clause is broad, and the courts are generally deferential. But all powers the Constitution enumerates are also limited, and these limits—unique to each power—must be meaningful and enforceable by the legal system.
The Chief Justice's compounding errors deprive the taxing power of any viable limiting principles. Article I, section 8 gives Congress an independent grant of power to "lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States." Taxes must originate in the House, the political body designed to be most responsive to voters. There are also important additional safeguards on the type of exactions known as "direct taxes."
Indirect taxes—"duties, imposts and excises"—are taxes on activities and products. They are passed on by a seller, triggered by a transaction and more or less optional: Consumers don't have to buy taxed goods and services. Direct taxes, on the other hand, are those that the federal government is empowered to impose on individuals as citizens. They cannot be avoided because they are levied on the existence of people.
America has its origins in a rebellion against arbitrary and pernicious taxation and the Framers wanted to make it extremely difficult to impose or raise direct taxes. These can easily morph into plenary police powers, the regulation of private behavior and conduct that the Constitution vests in the states. For this reason, while the taxing power in addition to raising revenue can achieve regulatory results, those regulatory results must be constitutional themselves.
And there is this...