Obamacare: PLF urges Supreme Court to address federal spending issues


Author: Timothy Sandefur

This morning, Pacific Legal Foundation joined our Claremont Institute friends to file this brief in support of Florida’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Obama Administration’s health care law. This is one of five petitions that the Justices now have before them—three of which arise from the Eleventh Circuit’s decision ruling the law invalid. (The sixth case, Virginia v. Sebelius, coming from the Fourth Circuit, has not yet been fully briefed.) Meanwhile, a new poll reveals that a majority of Americans now say they oppose the law.

This brief, authored by Chapman University law professor John Eastman, differs from the many others PLF has filed, in that it asks the Court to consider the issues raised under the “Spending Clause” of the Constitution, in addition to the many other constitutional issues raised by these cases. That’s the clause that allows the federal government to “pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Unfortunately, what often happens is that Congress collects taxes from the nation, and then tells states that they can get that money back, in the form of grants or other favors, only if the state agrees to certain conditions—conditions that often end up abridging state autonomy and expanding federal power. Of course, if the state refuses, it still loses the money. So it’s a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose kind of proposition.

In South Dakota v. Dole, the Supreme Court rejected a state’s challenge to the constitutionality of a federal highway funding program that required the state to change its drinking age. The Court said this was okay, because if the state didn’t like the condition, it was free to refuse the money. But what about the fact that the state still loses the money if it refuses? And what about the many other cases where the money involved isn’t—as in the Dole case—a relatively small amount, but—as in the case of Medicare—a large fraction of the state’s entire budget? “In some circumstances,” the Court admitted, “the financial inducement offered by Congress might be so coercive as to pass the point at which pressure turns into compulsion.” If that was ever true, it is true here. Yet the Eleventh Circuit rejected the argument of Florida and the other states that the federal government went too far here. Even so, as the PLF/Claremont brief observes, the real focus in these questions should be less on the amount of money involved, than on whether the federal government is using the spending power to get around the constitutional limits on its powers. We hope the Supreme Court will take up not just the question of the Individual Mandate, but also the questions raised under the Spending Clause.

Click here to see PLF’s other work in challenging Obamacare.