The mandate fits the textbook definition of a tax: it raises revenue, serves the general welfare, and it is not a criminal penalty in disguise. So why won't Obama call it that?
Editor's note: Jack Balkin published this post in May. On June 28, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, finding that the mandate is in fact a tax.
Throughout the constitutional debate over the Affordable Care Act, most observers have assumed that the key question would be whether the individual mandate is a proper exercise of Congress's powers to regulate interstate commerce. But there has always been a second argument, largely neglected -- Congress has the power to pass the individual mandate as a tax. And that argument offers an easy way to uphold the Affordable Care Act without delving into the metaphysics of broccoli.
In fact, the individual mandate is a tax. The mandate is an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code, and it is calculated based on a percentage of adjusted gross income or a fixed amount, whichever is larger. Starting in 2014, it will be collected on your form 1040 just like your other taxes.
Opponents of the ACA have tried to argue that Congress's declaration of responsibility to purchase health insurance is somehow separate from the tax that enforces it. But "the idea that the mandate is something separate," Chief Justice John Roberts remarked on the first day of oral arguments, "from whether you want to call it a penalty or tax just doesn't seem to make much sense. . . . what happens if you don't file the mandate on your tax return? And the answer is nothing."