Generals are often accused of “fighting the last war.” After Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare, conservatives are asked to pin our hopes on the notion Chief Justice John Roberts was fighting the next war.
This is a tempting proposition. There is the fact Roberts, in the main opinion of the court, and the four dissenting justices endorsed a limit to the power Congress wields under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. As this was the key judicial theory advanced by the law’s opponents, one that sought to halt a decades-long expansion of the meaning of “regulating” interstate commerce, that is no minor feat. It could even provide the starting point one day for further rollbacks of bad Commerce Clause precedent, starting with the awful 1942 Wickard decision that found a farmer affected interstate commerce by growing his own wheat.
There is also the fact the court’s majority decided the “penalty” for non-compliance with Obamacare’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance is really a “tax.” While this contradicts Congress’ actions and the president’s words during the 2009-10 health-care debate, it has the benefit of making it easier to repeal the law. As a budgetary matter, this “tax” — and Obamacare’s other taxes and spending — should be subject to the Senate’s reconciliation process, to which the filibuster does not apply. So, there’s no requirement for 60 votes in the Senate to remove the heart and guts of the law, just a simple majority.
And there is the fact that Roberts’ surprising vote on Obamacare averted the torrent of purely partisan criticism Democrats and liberals were set to unleash had a majority of the court struck down the law, accusing Roberts and his colleagues of — wait for it — partisanship. His court’s integrity intact, perhaps Roberts will be freer in lower-profile future cases to strike blows for the causes of federalism and limited government.
All these thoughts are pleasing to the conservative mind.
But if Roberts’ ruling can cite Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism about the certainty of death and taxes, allow me to caution against too rosy a view of his ruling with another saying: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Maybe the Roberts court will reinforce federalist principles in future cases. Then again, maybe the facts and circumstances of these future cases won’t cooperate. Or maybe the cases won’t emerge before the Commerce Clause-limiting wing of the court changes for the worse: Antonin Scalia is 76, Anthony Kennedy turns 76 this month, and there are at least even odds Barack Obama will be making court appointments past their 80th birthdays.
Speaking of elections: Maybe Mitt Romney will win and have at least 50 GOP senators (plus his vice president) to pass a budgetary bill by reconciliation. Maybe not. The presidential election and key Senate races look close, and four months is an eternity in politics.
And maybe, just maybe, the same Democrats and liberals who thought partisanship was the only reason the court could strike down Obamacare will look back, when a future case is decided in favor of federalism and limited government, and say, “This stinks, but hey — Roberts was with us on health care back in 2012. So it’s cool.” Or maybe their reactions will be just as vicious and plainly partisan as their blowback to an anti-Obamacare decision promised to be.
Possible future good is a consolation for Thursday’s loss, but it’s no substitute for a win.
(Note from Kyle: This is my column for the Sunday AJC. As anyone who read my posts Thursday can tell, I have been going back and forth about the impact of the Obamacare ruling. Consider this column a refinement of my opinion: There are some good things that could come out of the ruling, but they are by no means guaranteed.)
– By Kyle Wingfield