Over at WSJ, Randy Barnett spots a major change in the way liberals are defending the constitutionality of the individual mandate. With legal challengers understandably jumping all over the “interstate commerce” justification, liberals will likely defend the mandate and its attendant penalties under Congress’s powers of taxation.
Alas, Barnett argues, that argument is a non-starter:
Congress simply did not enact the personal insurance mandate pursuant to its tax powers. To the contrary, the statute expressly says the mandate “regulates activity that is commercial and economic in nature.” It never mentions the tax power and none of its eight findings mention raising any revenue with the penalty.
Moreover, while inserting the mandate into the Internal Revenue Code, Congress then expressly severed the penalty from the normal enforcement mechanisms of the tax code. The failure to pay the penalty “shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure.” Nor shall the IRS “file notice of lien with respect to any property of a taxpayer by reason of any failure to pay the penalty imposed by this section,” or “levy on any such property with respect to such failure.”
In short, the “penalty” is explicitly justified as a penalty to enforce a regulation of economic activity and not as a tax. There is no authority for the Court to recharacterize a regulation as a tax when doing so is contrary to the express and actual regulatory purpose of Congress.
So defenders of the mandate are making yet another unprecedented claim. Never before has the Court looked behind Congress’s unconstitutional assertion of its commerce power to see if a measure could have been justified as a tax. For that matter, never before has a “tax” penalty been used to mandate, rather than discourage or prohibit, economic activity.