Majority-party lawmakers in the Tennessee Legislature are still trying to get a sense of what Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court federal health-care overhaul ruling means for the state going forward.
But while the particulars of the knotty legal reasoning and conflicting viewpoints are still being deconstructed, Republicans are pretty confident the decision isn’t at all what a majority of voters in Tennessee or the nation wanted to hear. And that, they maintain, bodes well for the GOP’s political fortunes this fall.
In a 5-4 decision, with conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, a Bush-appointee, joining the court’s liberals, the Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s most controversial and much-maligned provision — that the government can financially penalize Americans who choose not to purchase health insurance or enroll in a state-assisted health care plan.
In delivering the majority opinion in the case, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, Roberts argued that despite claims to the contrary by supporters of the Affordable Care Act when Congress was debating the legislation in 2009 and 2010 — including President Obama himself — the so-called “individual mandate” must be viewed as a “tax” in order for the law to be constitutional.
“The Federal Government does not have the power to order people to buy health insurance,” wrote Roberts. The section of the Affordable Care Act penalizing individuals for not purchasing health insurance “would therefore be unconstitutional if read as a command,” he continued. “The Federal Government does have the power to impose a tax on those without health insurance.”
Noting that the Affordable Care Act appears to restrict the IRS from pursuing criminal penalties against individuals who choose neither to purchase insurance nor pay the “tax,” Roberts adds: “Those subject to the individual mandate may lawfully forgo health insurance and pay higher taxes, or buy health insurance and pay lower taxes. The only thing they may not lawfully do is not buy health insurance and not pay the resulting tax.”
High ranking Tennessee GOP lawmakers and political operatives quickly unloaded a rapid-fire succession of denunciations once the ruling was announced.
“It is intensely disappointing that this court failed to recognize what constitutionalists and conservatives know deep in their hearts: A federal government which can coerce its people to buy a product is a government unrestrained and out of control,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville.
House GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart: “This is disappointing on a number of fronts. All of us know that limited government is a uniquely-American principle. Today’s decision goes against that principle.”
Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron: “It is a sad day. The cost of Obamacare is unsustainable.” He added, “State leaders will review this decision carefully and look at what our options are as a result of this ruling.”
But House Speaker Beth Harwell said that for purposes of political maneuvering and messaging this campaign season, the Roberts decision removes any doubt or argument to the contrary that the Affordable Care Act constitutes a “massive tax increase.”
And the Nashville Republican said she’s confident that will translate to electoral gains for the GOP in November, both in Tennessee and across the country.
“I think you’re going to see people say they’ve had enough of the Obama administration and what we have seen in our Congress, and we don’t want any more of it,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said he hopes to advance plans to establish a health care compact, which would allow Tennessee to band together with other states in setting up health plans for their residents. Lawmakers debated that measure earlier this year but decided at the last minute not to call the bill for a vote by the full House.
Haslam administration officials say they don’t yet know what to make of another part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, which seems to suggest states cannot be forced to expand their Medicaid program for the poor as outlined in the law.
“This particular portion of the ruling is significant, but it’s a little premature to know the exact ramifications,” said the governor, who like other Republicans said he’s holding out hope that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will win election in November and find a way to repeal the law.
For their part, Tennessee Democrats, who’ve suffered tremendous losses at the polls in recent years, kept mostly mum. Neither of the Democratic Party leaders in the statehouse, Memphis Sen. Jim Kyle and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, offered statements or comments about the ruling on the social media outlets they often frequent to communicate their political observations.
TNReport’s requests for comment from state Sen. Eric Stewart, a Democrat challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District, went unanswered. Stewart has of late been criticized by Republicans for voting against a 2011 state legislative declaration of opposition to the Affordable Care Act individual mandate called the “Tennessee Health Freedom Act.”
Notable exceptions to the Democrats’ silence on the ruling were U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, Steve Cohen and Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester.
“Most American lawyers aren’t surprised by today’s Supreme Court decision, nor am I,” said Cooper, who supported the Affordable Care Act. “It turns out that Obamacare, Romneycare and Robertscare are the same thing – and constitutional.”
Forrester praised Obama for his leadership in getting the law passed and appealed to Republicans to admit defeat and begin laying whatever state legislative foundations are necessary to submit to the federal government’s policy directives.
“We should all come together and work in a bipartisan fashion, as did the Supreme Court, in order to ensure that all Tennesseans can take advantage of the provisions in the law that provide health and financial security,” he said in a press release.
“It is time for the Legislature to start focusing on results and not politics. Tennesseans want our elected officials to move past the partisan bickering over health reforms and get to work on creating jobs and growing our economy.”