The Supreme Court is so full of it. The entire institution, as well as its sanctimonious judges themselves, reeks of a time-honored hypocrisy steeped in the arrogance that justice is served by unaccountable elitism.
My problem is not with the Republicans who dominate the court questioning the obviously flawed individual mandate for the purchasing of private-sector health insurance but rather with their zeal to limit federal power only when it threatens to help the most vulnerable. The laughter noted in the court transcription that greeted the prospect of millions of the uninsured suddenly being deprived of already extended protection under the now threatened law was unconscionable. The Republican justices seem determined to strike down not only the mandate but also the entire package of accompanying health care rights because of the likelihood that, without an individual mandate, tax revenue will be needed to extend insurance coverage to those who cannot afford it.
The conservative justices, in their eagerness to reject all of this much needed reform, offer the deeply cynical justification that a new Congress will easily come up with a better plan—despite decades of congressional failure to address what is arguably the nation’s most pressing issue. In their passion to embarrass this president, the self-proclaimed constitutional purists on the court went so far as to equate a mandate to obtain health care coverage with an unconstitutional deprivation of freedom; to make the connection they cited the spirit of a document that once condoned slavery.
These purists have no trouble finding in that same sacred text a license for the federal government to order the young to wage undeclared wars abroad, to gut due process and First Amendment protections, and embrace torture, rendition and assassination, even of U.S. citizens.
Now they hide behind the commerce clause of the Constitution to argue that the federal government cannot regulate health care coverage because that violates the sacrosanct principle of states’ rights. If the right-wingers on the high court consistently had a narrow interpretation of federal power over the economy, there would be logic to the position expressed by the Republican justices during the last three days of questioning. Of course, the court’s apparent majority on this has shown no such consistency and has intervened aggressively, as did the justices’ ideological predecessors, to deny the states the power to protect consumers, workers and homeowners against the greed of large corporations.
We would not be in the midst of the most severe economic meltdown since the Great Depression had the courts not interpreted the commerce clause as protecting powerful national corporations from accountability to state governments. Just look at the difficulty that a coalition of state attorneys general has faced in attempting to hold the largest banks responsible for their avarice in the housing disaster.
The modern Supreme Court has allowed the federal government to pre-empt the states’ power to protect homeowners, whose mortgage agreements were traditionally a matter of local regulation and registration. The court has no problem accepting Congress’ grant of a legal exemption in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 that allows the bundling of home mortgages into unregulated derivatives.
The court has vitiated the power of the states to control interest rates, even though quite a few had explicit provisions in their constitutions banning usury. The result is that loan-sharking by banks that can claim to be engaged in interstate commerce is constitutionally protected, which is why there are no limits on mortgage, credit card or personal loan interest rates.
The sad truth is that President Obama and the Democrats brought this potential judicial disaster upon themselves. In light of what has been said this week in the Supreme Court, it seems inevitable that the linchpin of the 2010 reform—mandated coverage—will be thrown out, probably along with the crucial accompanying reforms. Forget coverage for the young and those with pre-existing medical conditions. The Democrats will protect themselves from this reversal by arguing that all they did was copy the program that this year’s prospective Republican presidential candidate implemented when he was the governor of Massachusetts. Mitt Romney’s plan included the dreaded mandate that he and the Republican justices condemn.
How ironic that Barack Obama’s health care agenda would be in a far stronger legal position had the president stuck by his earlier support of a public option. Clearly, our federal government has the judicially affirmed power under our Constitution to use public revenues to provide a needed public service, be it education, national security, retirement insurance or health care. Obama’s health care reform should have simply extended Medicare and Medicaid coverage to all who wanted and needed it—no individual mandate—while allowing others to opt out for private insurance coverage. That’s an obvious constitutional solution that even those die-hard Republican justices would have a difficult time overturning.