Federalism’s Quiet Victory
More than a week after the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, some have discovered the ruling was not the unqualified victory for the Obama Administration that reporters made it out to be on the day of the decision. Multiple press reports have focused on statements by governors indicating they may not, or will not, participate in the law’s now-optional expansion of Medicaid. (A good summary of where states stand on the expansion based on public comments to date can be found here.)
On the substance, it’s easy to see why states would be greatly concerned. As Matt Salo, head of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, stated, the idea that the Medicaid expansion is “free” to states is nothing but a massive prevarication:
State officials retort that the notion that expansion is free for states until 2017 is “a big lie,” in Salo’s words. While the federal government will pay many of the administrative costs, states will share in the expense of some information technology and personnel. And the requirement that most individuals carry insurance is expected to spur at least some of an estimated 13 million people who currently qualify for Medicaid, but are not enrolled to sign up, Salo said. States will receive their traditional federal funding match for those people.
Those administrative costs will be significant – one Heritage Foundation study pegged them at nearly $12 billion in the first six years alone. And there’s also the fact that the law’s spending reductions are widely predicted by experts to be unsustainable, meaning it’s entirely possible Congress could reduce the federal Medicaid match – sticking the states with even more added costs – down the line if lawmakers need to undo Medicare payment reductions to ensure seniors still have access to care.
More fundamentally, however, the ruling gives states something they have not had in their relations with the federal government in quite some time – leverage. The federal government will no longer be able blithely to dismiss state concerns, or order them to expand Medicaid just as Washington says – or else. It’s particularly noteworthy that just one day after the Supreme Court ruling, former Speaker Pelosi publicly floated the idea of “re-thinking” the federal Medicaid match – increasing the federal share to compensate states for their unfunded mandates. It’s unclear whether that would actually happen – or if so, how the increased federal payments would be paid for – but it shows that in light of the ruling, federal politicians cannot ignore states’ concerns, a step in the right direction in restoring the long-lost balance between Washington and the states.
And that is as the Framers intended it to be. In Federalist 46, James Madison wrote that federal infringements on the states would spark popular outrage, just as Obamacare sparked a majority of states to sue the federal government for exercising unconstitutional coercive power on their sovereignty:
Should an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a warrantable measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.
But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other.
The Court’s ruling echoed Madison’s comments about the “general alarm” that the law has inflicted upon the states; it struck down the coercive requirements of the Medicaid expansion as “economic dragooning” that puts “a gun to the head” of states. What’s more, Chief Justice Roberts’ ruling laid down a marker implying that additional laws could also be struck down as unconstitutional impositions on states: “We have no need to fix a line [defining coercion] either. It is enough for today that wherever that line may be, this statute is surely beyond it.”
Whatever one thinks of the merits of the Chief Justice’s opinion on the individual mandate, the Court’s ruling on the Medicaid expansion is already having an impact on politics and policy in dozens of states – and the constitutional implications of the decision could influence the state-federal relationship for years to come. This at least is an outcome some conservatives can value.