Individual Mandates for Foreigners and Indians

In my previous post, I argued that the broad interpretation of the Commerce Clause advocated by the government would have the absurd result, when applied to the parallel foreign commerce clause, of allowing Congress to impose mandates on foreigners with no prior contacts with the U.S.

Many commentators fought the hypothetical, saying such a law was stupid, unenforceable, and unlikely, so not a good proof of anything. Two responses. First, one man’s idiotic and unenforceable is another man’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which aside from its merits is itself unlikely (once in a few centuries), and hard to enforce (waivers). Second, arguments from absurd consequences are valid even if the hypothetical law would be ill-advised; indeed, since presumably no one wants absurd consequences, such arguments inherently assume the possibility of legislative error.

A student of mine emailed me to raise a variant hypothetical much closer to home: Can Congress mandate Indians to purchase insurance? They “inevitably” leave their territory at some point in their lives (at least as “inevitably” as the healthy uninsured getting sick), so the arguments would be exactly the same as for the mandate under the Interstate Clause. So why have an Indian Commerce Clause at all? Factual query: does the ACA apply to Indians living on tribal land? (I invite the student to self-identify in the comments.)

Some suggested that Interstate Commerce is regulated “among” the states, whereas foreign and Indian commerce is only “with” other countries or tribes. This could suggest the interstate power is broader: commerce just “among” other nations seems explicitly excluded. But if “among” the states means not actually among but affecting things that are “among,” wouldn’t the same be true of “with”? Again, I think the best reading of the commerce clause is that the interstate power is broader. But the ACA makes this distinction hard to sustain, and that is a criticism of the mandate not the commerce clause text.

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