Did Obamacare Violate the Constitution's Origination Clause? No. . . and Yes

Two years ago, the Supreme Court declared ObamaCare’s penalty for failure to purchase conforming insurance to be a “tax.” Several plaintiffs subsequently sued in federal court arguing that the penalty is invalid for violating the Constitution’s Origination Clause. The Origination Clause says that “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.”

The argument of the plaintiffs is that the Affordable Care Act and its taxes originated in the Senate, and that the tax/penalty is therefore void. (A 1990 Supreme Court case does strongly suggest that taxes originating in the Senate are void.) Thus far, those lawsuits have been unsuccessful, but they have provoked much commentary, such as Daniel Smyth’s essays on this site.

H.R. 3590 initially was a 6-page bill addressing (1) a federal income credit and (2) acceleration of certain estimated corporate income tax payments. The bill probably would have had little revenue effect, and may even have cost money. After H.R. 3590 passed the House, the Senate gutted it entirely and inserted 2,076 pages of Obamacare. The Senate voted for H.R. 3590 in that form, and transmitted it to the House, which likewise approved it.

I am a professional legal scholar and legal historian with extensive experience recovering the original meaning behind constitutional words and phrases. I have my own political views, but I do my best to conduct objective research. And I insist on reporting my results whether I personally like them or not.

In January, I began an independent research project to determine if the Origination Clause lawsuits have merit. The answer turns out to be both “yes” and “no.”

There are several key issues involved:

*    The Constitution’s Origination Clause applies only to “Bills for raising Revenue.” What does that phase mean?

*    Was the original H.R. 3590 a “Bill for raising Revenue?”

*    If it was, then the Senate had power only to “propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” What is an “Amendment” as the Constitution uses the word? Was the complete replacement of the text of H.R. 3590 an “Amendment?”

The most commonly-used sources for recovering original constitutional meaning are the records of the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, the debates in the state ratifying conventions, and orations and publications (such as The Federalist) issued in advance of ratification. I found, as some other scholars have, that this material was insufficient to explain the scope and meaning of the Origination Clause.

I often have to venture well beyond the sources customarily used, and that was the case here. The origination rule came from the British Parliament, so I examined 50 years of parliamentary debates, as well as historical works on Parliament. I read 18th-century treatises on the topic. I examined the legislative records of American colonies. I also examined the legislative records of the Continental, Confederation, and first Federal Congresses. Finally, I studied the origination rules in the newly-independent American states (14 of them, counting Vermont). This required perusing early state constitutions and legislative records. I disregarded materials generated too late to have influenced the founders.

I embodied my conclusions in a new, and rather lengthy, article. Here they are:

*    The constitutional phrase “Bill for raising Revenue” means a “tax” or a change in the tax code justifiable only under the Constitution’s Taxation Clause. (An exaction for regulating commerce is not a “Bill for raising Revenue.”)

*    H.R. 3590 in its initial form was a “Bill for raising Revenue” as the Constitution uses that term. It does not matter that H.R. 3590 in that form was revenue-neutral or revenue-negative. All changes to the tax code are within the origination rule.

*    H.R. 3590 properly arose in the House of Representatives.

*    The Senate had power to propose “amendments” of H.R. 3590. An amendment could take the form of a complete substitution. In fact, I found a fair number of examples of founding-era legislatures amending measures by complete substitution.

*    However, the constitutional word “Amendment” is limited to the subject matter of the original bill. The claim made by some writers that an “Amendment” could include an unrelated substitute turned out to be erroneous.

*In other words, the power of an amending chamber over a revenue bill is less than the power of an originating chamber.

*   For constitutional purposes, all “Revenue” is the same subject matter, so it is irrelevant that the Senate’s revisions completely altered the nature of the taxes in H.R. 3590. Thus, because the Supreme Court has held the penalty to be a tax, the penalty was within the power of the Senate to add. Also valid are ObamaCare’s other levies, such as the medical equipment tax.

*    On the other hand, because the underlying H.R. 3590 was limited to the subject of revenue and any “Amendment” must address the same subject as the underlying bill, the Senate’s addition of regulations and appropriations was not within its power.

I concluded that the Origination Clause lawsuits are attacking the wrong part of the law. The invalid portions of ObamaCare under the Origination Clause are not its taxes, but its multitude of appropriations and its regulations on healthcare providers, employers, insurance companies, and others.

One final observation: In dismissing one of the origination suits late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the ObamaCare tax was not a “Bill for raising Revenue” because it was passed for regulatory purposes. But the anterior constitutional test is whether the initial H.R. 3590 was a revenue bill -- and it certainly was, according to the constitutional definition.

If the Court of Appeals were correct that the penalty is regulatory, then the penalty would be invalid as outside the Senate’s amendment power.

More importantly, however, the Supreme Court specifically held that congressional regulatory purposes were outside the scope of Congress’s other enumerated powers. Only the Taxation Clause supports the penalty, and it can be preserved only as  a tax.

Rob Natelson is a retired constitutional law professor and Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver. His work has been cited repeatedly over the last year in Supreme Court opinions, most recently by Justice Scalia in the Noel Canning Recess Appointments Clause case. His biography and bibliography are at http:/constitution.i2i.org.

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