How to Frame the Affordable Care Act Win

After suffering a historic political loss via the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are seeking to make lemonade by characterizing the ACA as a massive tax on everyone. Let’s not help them do this.

For example, I’ve heard Republicans such as Rush Limbaugh call the ACA (please don’t call it “Obamacare” — that’s pejorative right-wing framing designed to evoke Big Government and the Nanny State) “the biggest tax increase in the history of the world.” I guarantee that Republican politicians will be using phrases like “massive tax increase” over and over. But then I hear Democrats saying “no, it’s not the the largest tax increase in history, there have been bigger ones.” That’s a terrible response. It’s like a criminal lawyer telling the court, “my client didn’t kill 26 people as the prosecution alleges, he only killed 20.” You never want to argue within the frame established by your opponent. That’s playing on a field tilted against you.

Instead, here are some useful points to remember regarding the ACA and the Supreme Court ruling:

  • The ACA contains a “penalty” for those who do not purchase health insurance. It so happens that the penalty is collected through the I.R.S. because the I.R.S. is set up to make such assessments.
  • The penalty only applies to those who violate the ACA’s requirement to obtain health insurance. Thus, it’s akin to a speeding ticket. Not all those who drive cars get speeding tickets — only speed limit violators do.
  • According to the Supreme Court decision, the ACA penalty for not being insured is only expected to bring in $4 billion per year, a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $2.5 trillion spent annually on health care. The penalty is not designed as a big revenue raiser. In fact, if everyone obtains health insurance, there will be no ACA penalties assessed and no money brought in at all.
  • The Obama administration argued primarily that the ACA was constitutional because it fell under Congress’ constitutional authority to regulate commerce. However, when you make a legal case, you don’t just make your primary argument. You throw in all other plausible arguments too. Congress’ taxing power was a secondary argument.
  • Republican Chief Justice John Roberts, not the Obama administration, chose to disagree with the commerce argument and go for the taxing power argument. The Court’s concurring/dissenting opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg goes on for page after page arguing why Roberts’ rejection of the commerce argument was wrong. They wouldn’t have done that if they didn’t agree that the Obama administration’s primary case regarding the commerce power was a good one, and that the Court should not curtail this constitutional power held by Congress.
  • According to the Supreme Court decision, those who do not make enough income to have to file income taxes won’t be subject to the ACA penalty even if they don’t obtain health insurance.
  • Republicans never express interest in Americans who don’t have health insurance. They certainly don’t have a plan for those Americans to be able to get it. So the sudden interest in the “tax penalty” that these people will be subject to must be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

See, there are plenty of things you can say when you hear the Republicans’ “biggest tax increase” framing other than “no, it isn’t the biggest.” So let’s no be lazy. Because that would be unhealthy.

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