Congress Case Comment

To Tax, To Spend, To Regulate

Vol. 126 No. 1 Two very different visions of the national government underpin the ongoing battle over the Affordable Care Act (ACA). President Obama and supporters of the ACA believe in the power of government to protect individuals through regulation and collective action. By contrast, the ACA’s Republican and Tea Party opponents see expanded government as a fundamental threat to individual liberty and view the requirement that individuals purchase minimum health insurance (the so-called “individual mandate”) as the conscription of the healthy to subsidize the sick. This conflict over the federal government’s proper role is, of course, not new; it has played out repeatedly over our nation’s past. But rarely since the New Deal has it surfaced in such a distinctly constitutional guise with respect to economic legislation. Instead, after the Supreme Court sustained broad congressional power seventy-plus years ago, little doubt existed that the federal government generally had constitutional authority to regulate private activity if it chose to do so. The Rehnquist Court’s reassertion of limits on congressional power under the Commerce Clause indicated that some measures may go too far. Still, the fight over the federal government’s proper role in the economic sphere has been largely political, not constitutional.