Health Care Mandate and the Commerce Clause (Part 1)

ConstitutiionThe first of a four-part series on the relation and effects of the Commerce Clause to Health Care

The following is a four-part series intended to provide a historical perspective as to the exhaustive debate over the constitutionality of the health care mandate. Part One, “Clear Words—Muddy Intent” explains the Commerce Clause—its origins and purpose and what our fore-fathers intended with it; Part Two, “Simple Issues—Complicated Problems” delves into “New Deal” legislation and the impact of the Willard vs. Filburn Supreme Court case as well as the Agricultural Act of 1938 and how all those legalities intertwined with the Commerce Clause; Part Three, “Sliding Down the Slope,” explores the Trademark and Sherman Acts and its effect on the patent medicine manufacturer’s industry and further discussion of how these two acts, and court cases addressing them, have created more federal oversight and control. In the final segment, Part Four, is a discussion of how Obama-Care is yet another legislative act that allows Congress to enact legislation that states and individual’s rights regarding the intent of the Commerce Act.

Part One: Clear Words—Muddy Intent

The Commerce Clause has defined the balance of power between the federal government and the states.

There has been a constant battle in application of the Commerce Clause between the need to protect consumers from abuse and the obligation of individuals to exercise personal responsibility

It has a direct impact on the lives of ordinary Americans beginning with the enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Anti-trust Act of 1890. According to Article 1, section 8 of the United States Constitution, this is an “enumerated power” in the United States Constitution (article I, section 8), provides that Congress has the power “To regulate Commerce … among the several States …” In response to rapid industrial development, Congress used the Commerce Clause to justify a new era of federal regulation, beginning with enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. The outer boundary of Congress’s use of this power over the states has been the subject of a seemingly never-ending – and sometimes heated – debate. The Commerce Clause has defined the balance of power between the federal government and the states. It has a direct impact on the lives of ordinary Americans.
Speaking strictly as a layman, I find it very difficult to justify the argument that the mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), so called “Obama-Care,” to purchase some form of health insurance is consistent with the intention of the Commerce Clause. I am neither a constitutional law scholar nor even a lawyer. However, I am well read and I had the benefit of growing up around a family law practice. Like some, whose fathers ran a hardware store, or whose family was in the grocery business, my understanding of the law comes mostly from my grandfather who was a judge, and also as a result of long hours after school following the explicit instructions of my father, or numerous uncles; gathering research, or hanging out in the record room of the old county courthouse documenting title transfers or other such legal recordings.
Regardless, in my everyman’s view and due to significant reading, I still am stymied at how one can assume the intention of the Commerce Clause was to use it to regulate such a wide array of activities. In fact the argument itself is not only counterintuitive; it has been very difficult for the courts to maintain a consistent view of federal power under this clause almost from the time of its original writing.

Simply Constructed

The Commerce Clause is exceedingly simple in construction. To most readers, it comes across as straight up in its potential interpretation, yet like much of the practice of law these days, interpretation is more driven by the desired outcome than the original intent of the wording.
There has been a constant battle in application of the Commerce Clause between the need to protect consumers from abuse and the obligation of individuals to exercise personal responsibility. Spending considerable time reading various papers written by the framers of the constitution, it is clear to me at least that the founders were attempting to solve relatively simple issues.

One State Over Another

As the U.S. was forming out of the chaos that was a byproduct of the Revolutionary War, the founders were wrestling with a number of problems that had been endemic in the colonies and in the end decided to only provide a set of very limited controls for federal exercise. The framers wanted to empower the federal government to act in a central fashion in negotiations and commerce relations with foreign nations in order to not have one state undercutting another state in the impost of duties, taxes or discounted prices. Second, there was an intention to restrict the ability of a state to impose interstate duties and taxes. It can be persuasively argued that part of the role of the Commerce Clause that the framers saw as necessary, but that does not seem explicit in the language, included a role for the federal government to play in adjudicating the differences arising between actions under disparate laws between the states in order to provide continuity for interstate issues as to fair and equitable protections of the individuals rights and freedoms. These intentions do not readily translate to the many arguments currently defined in expanding federal reach. For instance, in the phrase “To regulate commerce… among the several states…” they specifically use the term “among,” not between the states. Nor does it say between the citizens of the states, nor among the citizens of the states. In truth, it seems to become even clearer to me and others that if the framers had intended to empower the federal government to regulate commercial relationships between the citizens of one state to the citizens of another, or within a single state, these powers would have been specifically said so in pointed and specific language as one of the few federal enumerated powers.

Who has the Authority?

Therefore, the basic issues over the constitutionality of the PPACA mandate to purchase insurance, hinges on whether or not the original intention of the framers of the constitution was to give the federal branch, as opposed to the various state governments, the authority to regulate transactions between the citizens inside the borders of a state. Regardless, of whether or not you believe the framers intended to only have the federal branch control the business between the states or not, there have been a series of decisions and additional legislations that have significantly muddied the water of their intentions in regard to what is, or is not, a simple and clear statement. We will be discussing this in more detail in the next article.

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