Is the tax power infinite?

One source of the impending constitutional challenge to the Obamacare mandate is that exceeds the enumerated powers granted to Congress under Article I, section 8. For example, that the people’s grant to power to Congress to regulate commerce  among the several states does not include the power to compel people to engage in commerce. Jack Balkin, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, has two responses: 1. Yes it does, because of Wickard and Raich, since people without insurance will eventually get sick and then buy health services; and allowing these people to buy health services outside the congressional system would undermine the congressional regulation. 2. The mandate is structured as a tax.

For the moment, let’s put aside the question of whether the Obamacare tax is an Article I tax, or a 16th Amendment income tax. Does Congress have the infinite power to control people’s behavior (such as by ordering them to engage in commercial transactions) via the tax power?  I suggest not. When the Bill of Rights was being debated in front of Congress, the skeptical Rep. Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts asked if there should also be an enumeration that “declared that a man should have a right to wear his hat if he pleased; that he might get up when he pleased, and go to bed when he thought proper.” 1 Annals of Congress 759-60 (Aug. 15, 1789). Sedgewick’s point was that national laws about bedtimes and hat-wearing were self-evidently beyond the authority of Congress.

However, if the tax power means that Congress can order citizens to buy something they don’t want to buy, why does Congress not have the power to assess taxes on people who get too little sleep, or too much sleep, and thereby harm their own health and the public fisc? Or who wear hats so little that they increase their risk of skin cancer? Or who wear hats so often that they dangerously reduce their levels of vitamin D? In Sonzinsky v. United States (1937), the Supreme Court declared that it would not inquire into hidden regulatory motives that might have motivated a tax. But in Sonzinsky, the underlying activity (running a for-profit commercial business selling machine guns) was unquestionably within the scope of commercial activities that might be subject to an excise tax.

In contrast, not buying health insurance is not in its nature a commercial taxable activity. Neither is wearing a hat, or getting up when you please, or going to bed when you think it proper.

Sonzinsky is deferential to congressional motives, but it does nothing to support the claim that non-commercial activity may be taxed. Construing the tax power as less than infinite–as not encompassing the power to tax bedtimes or the decision not purchase a product–is strongly supported by the Ninth Amendment. This is so whether one agrees with Randy Barnett’s view of the Ninth Amendment (as an enforceable guarantee of natural rights) or with Kurt Lash’s (as a rule that enumerated powers should be narrowly construed so as not to violate natural rights, including the right of self-government in the states).

Finally, as Jack Balkin has ably argued, “Constitutional change occurs because Americans persuade each other about the best meaning of constitutional text and principle in their own time. These debates and political struggles help generate Americans’ investment in the Constitution as their Constitution and they create a platform for the possibility – but not the certainty of its redemption in history.”

Americans today are not bound to meekly accept the most far-ranging assertions of congressional power based on large extrapolations from Supreme Court cases that themselves come from a short period (the late 1930s and early 1940s) when the Court was more supine and submissive to claims about centralized power than was any other Supreme Court before or after in our history. American citizens, in the political process and in their personal lives, will ultimately have the final word on the Constitution.

A large and permanent majority of the American people immediately accepted Social Security as a constitutional solution to poverty among the elderly and to massive unemployment (since Social Security would open up jobs by encouraging people to retire sooner). The American people have not accepted Obamacare as a constitutional solution to health insurance problems. If the American believe that there is a “crisis” about the high cost of health insurance, then the American people can also believe that the solution is not to punish people for refusing to buy overpriced insurance that they don’t want. The American people can reject the notion that our Constitution should be contorted and distorted to accommodate such a destructive and intrusive scheme.

It is eminently within the authority of We the People to act politically on our constitutional beliefs that the congressional power to regulate interstate commerce does not extend to forcing people to buy a product which Congress has forbidden to be sold across state lines; that the power to regulate interstate commerce is not the power to compel a person to participate in instrastate commerce; and the that power to levy income or excise taxes does not include the power to impose punishment in the form of punitive taxes on persons who choose not to buy something–or who choose whether to wear hats and when to sleep.

p.s. PENNumbra had a good debate on the topic last fall, featuring Jack Balkin vs. Lee Casey & David Rivkin.