This shouldn’t be a riddle, but it’s become one: Is the individual mandate in President Obama’s health-care law a tax or a penalty?
The U.S. Supreme Court calls it a tax. So says Chief Justice John Roberts, who in his majority opinion last week wrote that requiring nearly all Americans to purchase insurance is constitutionally OK. “The federal government does have the power to impose a tax on those without health insurance,” he said.
Obama says nope, the individual mandate is not a tax. It’s a penalty levied only on those who can afford insurance but choose not to buy it.
And Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney? He likes that Roberts quote a lot, but he doesn’t really agree with it, except when he does. Yes, we’re as confused as you are.
So, tax or penalty? We’re going with Option C: It’s a distraction – although an entertaining one, if you like to see candidates and public officials comically contort themselves.
Take, for example, the Obama administration. After its lawyers presented the just-in-case taxing authority argument to the Supreme Court, officials now seem horrified that Roberts agreed with them. That has led to a Clintonian argument, from chief of staff Jack Lew, that the justices didn’t actually call the individual mandate a tax. They merely said the Constitution permits Congress to use its power to tax.
Not to be outdone was Romney, who disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling but told CBS News that Obamacare’s mandate was a tax because the justices “concluded it was a tax.” And the individual health insurance mandate/penalty he enthusiastically signed into law as Massachusetts governor (and has called a “tax” in the past)? The Supreme Court didn’t specifically call that a tax, so it isn’t, he said.
Romney’s clumsy footwork persuaded no one while infuriating Republicans, who thought Romney came too late and too timidly to the Obamacare-as-tax party. It’s hard to convince Americans that Obamacare is the biggest U.S. tax increase ever (an absurdly inaccurate claim) while your party’s candidate for president takes days to contradict his chief spokesman, who said it wasn’t a tax at all.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter what you call the individual mandate. America knows what it is – the government compelling citizens to pony up in order to pay for the things most Americans want the government to make happen. Tax or penalty, it’s also what both parties, at different times, thought would be the best solution to health care.
And right now, it’s the only plan that either of the presidential candidates has offered.
While candidate Romney has proposed repealing the mandate along with all of Obamacare, he has supplied no specific plan to replace it. That might be enough to satisfy the Republican base, but we think independent voters and moderates in each party deserve more to chew on when it comes to important issues like health care.
It’s easier, perhaps, to try to spook Americans with a three-letter word, but Americans are plenty more spooked by the only alternative they see for now – going back to a broken health care system with skyrocketing costs, a growing population of uninsured, and the perpetual promise that someday soon, we’ll do something about it. That’s a penalty we don’t want to pay.