After being sworn-in on Wednesday (1/5/11), the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives are promising to do at least two things this week:
(1) read on the House floor the U.S. Constitution, and
(2) repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the healthcare overhaul bill that was signed into law by President Obama in March 2010.
Those aligned with the Tea Party movement are pumped up about these actions, but they seem like contradictions to me.
The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787, begins with the idealist proclamation:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The American Heritage Dictionary definition of welfare, as in “general welfare,” includes health, happiness, and well-being. The way I see it, a “more perfect union” that provides for the “general welfare” is one in which all Americans will have access to quality, affordable health care. An estimated 50.6 million Americans don’t have health insurance which limits many of them from accessing care. Another 1.5 million Americans file for bankruptcy protection because of unpaid medical bills—60% of all bankruptcies are related to health care debts. The American Dream becomes the American Nightmare when you can lose everything because someone in your family gets seriously ill.
The Founding Fathers’ goals to “establish justice” and “promote the general welfare” are wholly consistent 225 years later with national policies to control abusive practices of insurance companies. These included excluding from coverage individuals, even children, who had pre-existing conditions, or rescinding coverage after a person becomes sick. The new health care law makes these kinds of practices illegal. I hardly see these improvements as assaults on the goals of the Constitution.
We know there are Tea Partiers and members of the Republican Party who believe the PPACA is unconstitutional. That argument is playing out in federal court. I’m not one to rant about frivolous lawsuits, but the plain language of the Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution seems pretty clear: authority is given to the federal government to
“regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”
Health insurance is clearly a commercial activity occurring among several States.
Article 1, Section 8 also gives Congress the
“power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.”
Opponents of PPACA may not want tax dollars spent on programs to ensure all Americans access to quality, affordable health care, but that doesn’t mean it’s unconstitutional. It just means they don’t like it, that it doesn’t align with what they value, such as cutting federal spending, reducing taxes, and having a balanced budget.
I don’t agree with policy decisions that award our Defense Department an annual budget of $750 billion (which doesn’t include the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) It seems excessive to me compared to the $15 billion divided over 10 years to support state and local communities’ public health capacity. I’d be foolish, however, to waste my time arguing the Defense Department’s budget is unconstitutional.
I wonder if those who are hung up about debating the constitutionality of the PPACA are not just trying to avoid a substantive discussion about values. Their priorities are cutting spending and reducing taxes, and letting those without access to affordable health care fend for themselves. I prefer policies that allow us to provide some measure of care for all, recognizing that a portion of my income will be distributed to others. To me, this is no different than a portion of my income being used to fund are nation’s war machine, our air traffic control system, or the National Cancer Institute.
The GOP leadership’s manifesto for running the 112th Congress is their Pledge to America. They’ll start their tenure tomorrow by swearing to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. I hope that pledge also means they will not try to avoid policy debates on ways to “establish justice,” (e.g., environmental protection, workers’ rights) and to “promote the general welfare” (e.g., safer chemicals, climate change, nutrition) by hiding behind claims of unconstitutionality.