The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the mandate that all Americans purchase health insurance, saving the country from two hellish policy paths. If the majority had struck down the mandate alone, the country would have seen health-care costs shoot up as Congress squabbled over how to fix it. If the court had struck down the whole law, the nation’s health system would have reverted in fundamental ways to its state before the law, another bad outcome that Congress would have squabbled over how to fix.
Instead, the court acknowledged the big picture: The principles of the health-care scheme that President Obama signed into law in March 2010 are broadly constitutional, given the many powers delegated to the federal government. Though the court might not agree that the Commerce Clause gives Congress the authority to impose the individual mandate, Congress’s power to tax does. Making that determination does not change the policy; though calling the fine for failing to obtain health insurance a “tax” has political consequences, which is why politicians such as President Obama have avoided the term, it makes no difference economically whether that fine is called a tax, a penalty or a purple rhinoceros.
Instead of overriding a policy that is constitutional when described one way — as a tax — because it wasn’t described as such during congressional debate, the justices opted simply to fill in the terminology. I’ll leave the question of whether that is wise as a matter of legal practice. But, as a matter of policy, the court’s decision to solve a semantic question instead of imposing a policy catastrophe is undeniably good news.
There will still be plenty of policy strife over Obamacare. But, from here, the battle over the law is in the elected political branches, which have far more flexibility with which to alter policy in a coherent way, if they determine they must.