Commerce Clause Challenges to Health Care Reform (Revised version)

48 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2011 Last revised: 28 Jun 2011

Mark A. Hall

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Date Written: February 15, 2011


This article reviews and pinpoints the strongest arguments for and against federal power under the Commerce Clause to mandate the purchase of health insurance. Among the key points in defense of this federal law are:

1. The "commerce" in question is simply health insurance, and not the non-purchase of insurance as challengers have framed it. Because "regulate" clearly allows both prohibitions and mandates of behavior, mandating purchase is lexically just as valid an application of the clause as is prohibiting purchase or mandating the sale of insurance. Moreover, it suffices that mandating purchase affects commerce; it is not necessary that being uninsured itself constitutes commerce.

2. Although existing precedent might allow a line to be drawn between economic activity and inactivity, there is no reason in principle or theory why such a line should be drawn in order to preserve state sovereignty. Purchase mandates, after all, are as rare under state law as under federal law.

3. Challengers do not seriously dispute the constitutional validity of the ACA’s regulation of insurers or the economic necessity of the mandate in order for that regulation to be effective. In fact, they essentially concede the mandate’s necessity by asking to strike the entire law if it is declared invalid. Accordingly, the mandate would pass the tests for constitutional necessity articulated by at least seven of the Justices in the Comstock opinion last year, and might even pass the necessity test embraced by Justices Thomas and Scalia.

4. An important challenge, not yet clearly discussed by court opinions to date, is that the mandate does not, strictly speaking, simply “carry into execution” Congress’ other regulatory powers, but is the exercise of a distinct power. However, both modern and historical precedents under the Necessary and Proper Clause are not limited narrowly to merely implementation measures. Both Comstock and a series of decisions under the Postal Power are good examples to the contrary since they authorize independent federal powers that expand the range of purposes and measures permitted by express Congressional powers.

5. There is no coherent basis for declaring a purchase mandate to be constitutionally "improper," and a categorical ban on regulating inactivity would contradict the implicit reasoning underlying several other established precedents -- such as those upholding the draft and the Congressional subpoena power. Also, federal eminent domain allows compelled transactions justified in part by the Necessary and Proper clause’s expansion of the commerce power, when applied, for instance, to citizen’s refusal to sell land for use in constructing highways, bridges, and canals.

6. Using the 10th Amendment to justify a categorical prohibition of purchase mandates (as Randy Barnett has argued) would be no more convincing than using the 9th or 5th Amendments (substantive due process). Instead, such a move would, for the first time and contrary to precedent, make the 10th a protector of individual liberties rather than just federalism concerns, and would radically enforce an absolute right to economic liberty, regardless of level of legislative justification or judicial scrutiny (see point 9).

7. Slippery slope concerns are no greater here than for any other of a range of expansive federal powers. Instead, the novelty of the mandate subjects it to greater political constraint, and so "parade of horribles" concerns may be even more unrealistic than similar settings where the Court has rejected them.

8. A purely syllogistic version of the slippery slope argument reasons that, even if improbable, various hypotheticals show that a purchase mandate has no logical limits and therefore the mandate violates the constitutional principle of limited powers. Effective responses are simply that logical limits do exist in at least two forms: express limits in the Bill of Rights and elsewhere; and limits inherent in the foundational commerce power, such as being primarily economic in nature.

9. Grounding the mandate in the Necessary and Proper clause helps to confine its precedential effect by emphasizing it’s necessary role in the ACA’s particular regulatory scheme that, in other respects, clearly resides within the core of the conventional commerce power. This essential supportive and interconnected role is not shared by free-standing mandates to purchase American cars or broccoli, for instance.

10. Counteracting imaginary slippery slope concerns about absurd hypothetical laws are the legitimate concerns about insurmountable barriers that a prohibition of purchase mandates would erect. Forbidding Congress from any purchase mandate could cripple necessary efforts, for instance, to require preventive measures in the face of a massive pandemic that threatened tens of millions of lives.

Keywords: health insurance, commerce clause, necessary and proper, individual mandate, PPACA, ACA

Suggested Citation

Hall, Mark A., Commerce Clause Challenges to Health Care Reform (Revised version) (February 15, 2011). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 159, June 2011; Wake Forest Univ. Legal Studies Paper No. 1747189. Available at SSRN:

Mark A. Hall (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States
336-716-9807 (Phone)

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