In the Supreme Court, the administration suggested that the justices appoint an outside lawyer to argue that the [Anti-Injunction Act] bars the challenges. The justices asked Robert A. Long to do so, and he goes first on Monday.... Mr. Long says the 1867 law is “jurisdictional,” meaning it forbids courts to hear suits even if, as here, neither side objects....It's not a tax whenever you don't want it to be, and it is when you do. That's the administration's argument! And that's what the NYT — in the linked article by Adam Liptak — calls "potential tension." (Cue the comments: This is why people hate lawyers.)
In the health care law, Congress called the required payment a penalty rather than a tax. But the penalty is contained in the Internal Revenue Code, and the health care law says it is to be “assessed and collected in the same manner” as a tax....
[Solicitor General Donald B.] Verrilli’s argument that the penalty is not a tax for purposes of the 1867 law is in potential tension with one he will make on Tuesday, that the mandate was authorized not only by Congress’s power under the commerce clause but also by its power to levy taxes.
Mr. Verrilli argues that the name that Congress gave the payment required for violating the mandate in the health care law —a penalty, not a tax — matters for purposes of the 1867 law but is irrelevant in connection with the constitutional taxing power, where “it is the practical operation of the provision, not its label, that controls.”See how easy it is to dissipate the tension? Why, it's an orgasm of tension relief! The old law refers to things designated a "tax," but Congress chose not to call the penalty a "tax." To call it a tax would have further inflamed the political opposition to the health care bill. Now that the bill has passed, however, we can coolly examine what it really is, and what it really is is what counts when the question is whether Congress has an enumerated constitutional power. It really is a tax, so it's within Congress's power to tax. That's the argument.
Isn't it fascinating how everything works to bulk up the power of Congress? Congress built political support by not saying tax when the bill was up for a vote, and it claims constitutional power by saying tax at the point when the Court is analyzing the bill after it is passed. What's most frustrating about this it's-not-a-tax-it-is-a-tax turnabout it that when the Court interprets Congress's powers, it exercises restraint, deferring to the political process, because that's where policy decisions are properly made. But it was at the political, policy-deciding stage where Congress hid the reality of this massive new TAX.
But today is only about the Anti-Injunction Act, and it's key that the challenge is to the requirement that everyone buy health insurance and not just to the penalty that is imposed on those who don't meet the requirement. The requirement isn't a tax, even if the penalty is a tax. But it seems that the Taxing Power argument depends on the characterization that all we really have here is a tax, that the mandate is actually nonexistent. As I was saying the other day, that makes a lot of sense: The penalty is so small in relation to the cost of buying insurance that the requirement operates merely to define who owes the tax.
And yet, when Congress was passing the bill, the people never understood it that way. It was utterly hidden under an incomprehensible mass of text and propaganda. There was no transparency. It rankles to think that Congress could acquire this dramatic power by a monumental political deception. But will this shake the Court out of its usual position of comfy restraint? Perhaps we'll get a hint of an answer today, as the Justices react to the lawyerly contortions around the Anti-Injunction Act.