Amid the ongoing debate on contraceptives, it’s easy to forget we’re not just talking about birth control, but a health care bill that will drastically change the future of this nation.
In a few days, the Supreme Court will hear much-anticipated oral arguments in a case challenging President Obama’s health care reform law. There is no doubt that this will greatly impact the role of government for citizens, health care in America, President Obama’s legacy and even the fate of the 2012 election. In a testament to its importance, the Supreme Court has allotted five and a half hours over three days to hear the case; typically, each side is allowed only 30 minutes to make its statement.
Most of the time will center on U.S. Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida, which will cover the individual mandate requiring U.S. citizens to purchase health insurance, and National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius, covering the effects to the law as a whole if that provision is struck down.
Opponents of the mandate will argue that the Constitution does not give the federal government the power to compel individuals to purchase health insurance or any other product, for that matter.
But the law is crafted in a way such that the individual mandate is necessary to balance out effects of other parts of the law. Insurance companies will be required to cover customers with pre-existing conditions who would otherwise likely be rejected. This requirement makes it more likely for the companies to raise their premiums to pay for costlier customers.
To prevent this, the individual mandate is meant to provide insurance companies with more customers who are healthy and otherwise might not choose to buy insurance. Since the cost of covering these customers is low, the premiums they pay would, in theory, balance out the costs of the expensive customers and keep premiums from rising for everyone. Should the individual mandate be struck down, the rest of the law would fail to function. Essentially, the Court must decide whether to strike down the entire law even if it finds only one part of it to be unconstitutional.
If the law is rejected as unconstitutional, the Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, will have set a clear limit to federal government’s power to regulate the action (or in this case, inaction) of citizens. If upheld, a completely new precedent for broader federal power will be established.
The consequences of this case will be influential politically as well. Health care reform is the centerpiece of Obama’s domestic legislative record — and of his Republican opponents’ criticism. Yet now its fate is in the hands not of the voting public, but nine (or rather, five) judges.
Overturning the health care bill would eliminate Obama’s greatest presidential accomplishment. Obama may use the Supreme Court decision as an example of how he and his liberal agenda are being victimized by conservatives who have long wished to undermine him. Republicans would be denied a major issue to campaign on, perhaps explaining why Obama pushed for a decision on the case to be announced prior to November. And yet all of Obama’s work for a major piece of legislation, one of the few he has pushed through Congress so far, would be in vain. Health care would devolve to the same spot it was in in 2008.
Needless to say, the outcome of this case will be a defining moment in plenty of areas outside constitutional law and has garnered the interest of many political clubs on campus. On The Docket, Georgetown’s Supreme Court club, of which I am a board member, will be among those within the student community following and discussing the historic arguments. Whatever the outcome, the future of federal government involvement in our lives and President Obama’s job and legacy will be at stake.
Joe Albanese is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and a board member of On the Docket.