The Congress shall have Power . . . To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof. U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8.
The big news last week concerning the fate of the federal health care legislation was not the entrance of new plaintiffs into the litigation challenging the statute or the government’s filing its opposition brief in the suit brought by Virginia. The big news was United States v. Comstock and the continuing resurgence of the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution (quoted above).
The constitutional challenges focus on the so-called individual mandate, taking effect in 2014, which will require that most people either own health insurance or pay a penalty. Legally, the arguments against the legislation lack merit. As I have argued elsewhere, under contemporary Commerce Clause doctrine, Congress can impose the individual mandate as part of its comprehensive regulation of the interstate market in health insurance. Further, the provision is structured as a tax on those who fail to purchase insurance, thus falling within Congress’s even broader taxing authority.
Rhetorically, however, the opponents’ arguments may have some appeal. How, the critics insist, can Congress’s constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce extend to regulating the non-commercial activity of doing nothing (i.e., not buying insurance)? Doing nothing is not commerce, the law’s opponents proclaim. Can you make a federal case out of taking a nap?
The answer to this rhetoric comes from the Court’s great rhetorician, Justice Antonin Scalia.