Archive for June, 2012

The Constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” Lives!

At this point, you probably have heard what happened yesterday in the world of politics. The big story: President Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as “Obamacare,” was held to be constitutional by the United States Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling.

In what was seen by many as a surprising twist ending to the case, Chief Justice John Roberts (a traditionally conservative justice appointed by President George W. Bush) sided with the court’s four “liberal” justices to preserve the ACA in (more or less) its entirety. Anthony Kennedy, often viewed as the “swing” justice on the court, dissented, siding with the more conservative members of the court.

The heart of the question before the justices was whether or not Congress had the authority to enact the cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act, the individual mandate. The individual mandate, when it goes into effect, would require that all Americans be covered by health insurance. The more popular aspects of the legislation (forcing insurers to cover people with preexisting medical conditions, and just generally making insurance more available), ACA proponents argue, would not be feasible without greatly increasing the rolls of the insured. Basically, the idea is this: if you make it so that sick people can get insurance after they are already sick, you have to increase the number of healthy people getting insurance in order to offset the cost. Otherwise, the doomsday argument goes, every sick person in the country would run out to their nearest Health Insurance Mart and purchase policies, and the cost of treating these sick folks would put every insurance company in the country out of business. As I said, doomsday scenario, and doomsday scenarios traditionally sound a little far-fetched. Regardless, the mandate would prevent that sort of thing from happening.

Why was that relatively reasonable measure put through the Supreme Court’s wringer? Because opponents of the ACA argued that while the U.S. Constitution does indeed say that Congress has the power to make laws relating to commerce (which the nation’s massive patchwork of health care systems no doubt is), what Congress did in this instance was to make a law (the ACA) that related to the lack of commerce (the state of not having health insurance). Confused? Totally reasonable, because this is incredibly confusing. Perhaps because, as Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points out, pretty much no one thought that this was actually an issue wayyyy back in 2009-10 when the law was being written (or before that, when the mandate was an idea endorsed by Republicans and conservative think-tanks).

Now that we’ve got all that background, however, we can see what happened with the high court’s decision yesterday. Opponents of the ACA said that Congress had exceeded its power in passing a law that would “force Americans to engage in commerce”, notably using the argument that if the Affordable Care Act was constitutional, what could stop Congress from passing a law that said every American had to go out and buy broccoli. In the opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court decided that the ACA was not constitutional under Congress’s power to regulate commerce. Instead, the Court found that the law was constitutional under the power of Congress to “lay and collect taxes,” since the penalty for failure to purchase health insurance could be viewed as a tax.


Well, that was a doozy, but we got through it! To sum up: “Obamacare” is constitutional, in a 5-4 decision, with the court’s four liberals and the conservative Chief Justice in the majority. The individual mandate is a tax, and not a penalty, and Congress cannot make you buy broccoli. The end.


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Blogging from Seattle

I’m away from my usual San Francisco home base this weekend, but being in a different city, in a different state, reminded me that there’s something I’ve been meaning to post about.
National presidential poll numbers. We’ve all seen them. They are bandied about in the media during each and every news cycle. The numbers seem to drive the conversation, which may leave some observers asking “But… why?”
President Obama’s numbers have gone up and down over the past few months, with Gallup’s current numbers (as of 6/9/12) pinning approval of the job Obama is doing as President at 47%, while 45% disapprove. Looking ahead to November, Gallup currently has the race 46-45 Obama over Romney. Those numbers indicate an incredible close election, essentially a toss-up. Who could win is anyone’s guess, really, going by these numbers. However, we don’t hold national elections.
As 2000’s election taught everyone, what really matters is the Electoral College vote count. Basically, this means that candidates are more concerned with winning certain states than just winning overall votes.
According to the political news and poll aggregator site Real Clear Politics, there are thirteen states that are considered to be “battleground states”, meaning that those states could conceivably go to either party, helping to sway the outcome in the Electoral College vote count. Out of those thirteen, RCP has President Barack Obama currently ahead in the polls in Colorado and Ohio by 1.8%, Iowa by 2.6%, Virginia by 3%, Wisconsin by 4.8%, Michigan and Nevada by 6%, New Hampshire by 6.4%, and Pennsylvania by 8.5%. RCP has Mitt Romney ahead in the remaining four states, up 0.2% in Florida, 2.5% in North Carolina, 3% in Missouri, and 6% in Arizona.
It is still quite early days as far as this campaign goes, but those numbers are much more reflective of the on-the-ground political reality than national poll numbers are. If you are only looking at the national polls, as reported by, say Gallup, then you would reasonably expect a tight race,a possible Romney, or the President’s reelection secured by one percent of voters. If you are looking at the Electoral College politics, though, and the RCP averages as they are today hold true in November, President Obama would win a 303-235 victory over Romney in the Electoral College count.
Same polls, same politics, but a very different outcome. This is not to say that President Obama has this election in the bag, but rather that numbers do not always tell the whole story. National polls show an aspect of the political landscape, not a hard-and-fast certainty.

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