Saying ‘America’s Established Social Safety Net’ At Risk, Judiciary Chairman Defends Healthcare Reform Against State Lawsuits

Citing the oath the president and members of Congress take to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee defended the new healthcare reform law from mushrooming court challenges that seek to overturn the hard-fought legislative victory.

More than a dozen conservative state attorneys general, including those in Virginia and Utah, are filing suit in an attempt to prevent the reform legislation President Obama signed into law this week from taking effect. Obama’s signature comes after a year or so of struggle for Democrats who have long wanted to rein in private insurers and provide coverage for millions of uninsured Americans.

At issue in these lawsuits, and in measures in about three dozen state legislatures, are provisions in the new federal reform law that require all Americans to acquire healthcare coverage. Those behind the suits, and the state-level bills that would block the requirement from taking effect, claim such a mandate is unconstitutional.

“I know President Obama and know that he takes his oath seriously. I know that when he signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law, he understood it to be consistent with the Constitution,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Leahy says, he, too, took his oath seriously as the reform measure was debated in the Senate.

The senator notes that such a mandate originally began as a Republican idea, and is a feature of the state-level universal healthcare enacted in Massachusetts with the leadership of then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R). Romney today is a frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination to oppose Obama’s expected bid for re-election.

Obama’s 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also once backed a healthcare mandate as part of reform, Leahy says.

“In fact, when President Obama was a candidate, as a matter of policy he did not support the individual mandate requirement as part of his initial comprehensive health reform proposal,” Leahy says. “It was one of the hundreds of Republican health care reform ideas he came to support and that were included in the law as the bill was drafted, developed, debated and passed. Now that the law is enacted, some Republicans have changed their tune in order to undercut these reforms by suggesting that it is unconstitutional.”

Specifically, the Constitution provides for the enactment of healthcare reform through its “general welfare clause,” “commerce clause” and “necessary and proper clause,” Leahy says.

“These clauses form the basis for Congress’ power, and include authority to reform health care by containing spiraling costs and ensuring its availability for all Americans,” he says. “Any serious questions about congressional power to take comprehensive action to build and secure the social safety net have been settled over the past century.”

Leahy also cites the clause in the Constitution that says: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.”

“This clause has been the basis for actions by Congress to provide for Americans’ social and economic security by passing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” he says. “Those landmark laws provide the well-established foundation on which Congress builds with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

In past decades, the Supreme Court turned back similar legal challenges to the creation of those social programs, as well.

Healthcare mandate ‘is hardly revolutionary’

Enforcement of the personal insurance mandate of healthcare reform by way of a tax penalty “is far from unprecedented, despite the claims of critics,” Leahy says.

He notes that Americans presently pay for Social Security and Medicare, for example, by payroll taxes collected under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), which typically are collected as deductions and noted on Americans’ paychecks every month.

Leahy quotes University of Maryland political science professor and political commentator Thomas Schaller by saying, “These paycheck deductions are not optional, and for all but the self-employed they are taken out immediately.”

“The individual mandate requirement in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is hardly revolutionary when viewed against the background of Social Security and Medicare that have long required individual payments,” Leahy says.

The Supreme Court has, for decades, refused to uphold significant challenges to a number of pieces of major social legislation, the senator notes, including minimum-wage requirements, labor-relations law, and other congressional initiatives, the senator says.

“The Supreme Court abandoned its judicially-created veto over congressional action with which it disagreed on policy grounds and rightfully deferred to Congress’ constitutional authority,” Leahy says. “These Supreme Court decisions and the principles underlying them are not in question.”

The state-challenge strategy undertaken by conservatives goes “so far as to call into question the constitutionality of America’s established social safety net,” the chairman warns.

“One of the great American successes of the last century was the establishment of a social safety net of which all Americans can be grateful and proud,” Leahy says. “Through Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Congress established some of the cornerstones of American economic security. Comprehensive health insurance reform has now joined them. Congress has acted within its constitutional authority to legislate for the general welfare of all Americans. No conservative activist court, on any level, should overstep the judiciary’s role by seeking to turn back the clock and deny a century of progress.”

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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