Can the Individual Mandate Be Enforced?

Big Government has written a post suggesting that the individual health care mandate will not actually be enforced by the IRS.  It will be assessed, but if you refuse to pay it, the normal enforcement mechanisms under Subtitle F of the tax code--such as liens and garnishments--may not be employed.


Politically, this is obviously the safest route; you don't want articles about the nice middle aged lady who may lose her house because she didn't pay her mandate.  But practically, this is disastrous, if true.  It would mean that in practice the mandate would only apply to people who get tax refunds; otherwise, just write the IRS a check for everything except the mandate.  And since you don't have to get a tax refund--you can have your employer change your withholding--anyone who doesn't want to pay it, wouldn't have to.

But it's not clear that this is what's actually going to happen.  If the IRS can reorder the priority of the tax dollars they take from you, then they can simply put any funds towards the mandate first.  That way, if you attempt to go without insurance and then pay the IRS everything except the mandate penalty, you'll end up with a tax liability the exact size of the mandate penalty . . . for which they can now garnish your wages, put tax liens on your house, and otherwise do all the nasty stuff that they are authorized to do under Subtitle F.

But if they can't do this, then the mandate is toothless.  I'd expect people will pay it in the beginning, and then over time, as it becomes public knowledge that the mandate is unenforceable, more and more people will refuse.

I've sent out some emails looking for experts to clarify.  Meanwhile, add one more list of the things that probably needs to be "fixed" in the health care bill.
 
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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