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The Healthcare Act, Federal Power, and the Commerce Clause

Recently, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson ruled that the entire Affordable Health Care Act was unconstitutional because of the individual mandate clause. The suit, representing twenty-six states, found that forcing individuals to purchase health insurance not part of the federal government’s power granted in the Commerce Clause.  Of the four suits brought against the law, two have upheld the law and two found at least parts of the law to be unconstitutional. The question of constitutionality will likely be settled by the Supreme Court.The response to the Healthcare Act at the state level raises questions about the role of the states in deciding constitutionality. The Tenth Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”


Discussion Questions

  1. How did U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson rule on the constitutionality of the Patient Care and Affordable Care Act?
  2. On which requirement of the law did Judge Vinson’s ruling focus?
  3. Read the Commerce Clause in Article I, Section 8. How does the Obama administration justify the individual mandate? What are the arguments against it? Do you agree with the constitutional reasoning in the ruling? Why or why not?
  4. In the original structure of Congress, the people were represented in the House of Representatives, while the states were represented in the Senate. (Senators were appointed by the state legislatures.) In this way, the states served as a check against overreach by the national government. This design was changed in 1913 with the Seventeenth Amendment which provides for direct election of Senators by the people of each state. Recently, some have proposed a constitutional amendment allowing 2/3rds of the states to repeal federal laws. Would this proposal be more or less effective as a check against the power of the federal government as the original structure of Congress?
  5. Who filed the lawsuit on which Judge Vinson ruled? Why was it filed in that Court? Where will the suit go next? Why would the Supreme Court choose to intervene or not intervene? What do you think the future holds for this law?

Extensions Have students read some key excerpts from the decision and write a brief response.”[If the individual mandate were upheld,] as discussed during oral argument, Congress could require that people buy and consume broccoli at regular intervals. Not only because the required purchases will positively impact interstate commerce, but also because people who eat healthier tend to be healthier, and are thus more productive and put less of a strain on the health care system.”

  • Is this a good analogy? How is it like/unlike the individual mandate to buy health insurance?

“Rather than being used to implement or facilitate enforcement of the Act’s insurance industry reforms, the individual mandate is actually being used as the means to avoid the adverse consequences of the Act itself…Under such a rationale, the more harm the statue does, the more power Congress could assume for itself under the Necessary and Proper Clause.”

  • What is Judge Vinson’s complaint about the individual mandate?

“It is a matter of historical fact that at the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified, the Founders did not expect that the federal government would be able to provide sizeable funding to the states and, consequently, be able to exert power over the states to the extent that it currently does. To the contrary, it was expected that the federal government would have limited sources of tax and tariff revenue, and might have to be supported by the states. This reversal of roles makes any state-federal partnership somewhat precarious given the federal government’s enormous economic advantage.”How does this statement reflect the changing relationship between the federal government and the states?