Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cooter & Siegel: A Theory of the Taxing Power

Robert D. Cooter (UC-Berkeley) & Neil Siegel (Duke), Not the Power to Destroy: A Theory of the Tax Power for a Court that Limits the Commerce Power, 98 Va. L. Rev. 1195 (2012):

The Supreme Court’s “new federalism” decisions impose modest limits on the regulatory authority of Congress under the Commerce Clause. According to those decisions, the Commerce Clause empowers Congress to use penalties to regulate interstate commerce, but not to regulate noncommercial conduct. What prevents Congress from penalizing non-commercial conduct by calling a penalty a tax and invoking the Taxing Clause? The only obstacle is the distinction between a penalty and a tax for purposes of Article I, Section 8. In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (NFIB), the Court considered whether the minimum coverage provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) imposes a penalty or a tax by requiring most individuals to either buy health insurance or make a payment to the IRS. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the minimum coverage payment is a tax for constitutional purposes, even though Congress called it a penalty.

This Article develops an effects theory to distinguish between penalties and taxes. We believe that it provides the best theoretical justification of the tax-power holding in NFIB. The effect of a penalty is to prevent conduct, thereby raising little revenue, whereas the effect of a tax is to dampen conduct, thereby raising revenue. Three opposing characteristics of an exaction give incentives for preventing or dampening conduct, and thus provide criteria for distinguishing between penalties and taxes. A pure penalty condemns the actor for wrongdoing; she must pay more than the usual gain from the forbidden conduct; and she must pay at an increasing rate with intentional or repeated violations. Condemnation coerces expressively and relatively high rates with enhancements coerce materially. Alternatively, a pure tax permits a person to engage in the taxed conduct; she must pay an exaction that is less than the usual gain from the taxed conduct; and intentional or repeated conduct does not enhance the rate. Permission does not coerce expressively and relatively low rates without enhancements do not coerce materially.

The ACA’s required payment for non-insurance has a penalty’s expression and a tax’s materiality. Its constitutional identity depends on the reasonable expectations of Congress concerning its effect. If Congress could have reasonably concluded that the exaction will dampen—but not prevent—the general class of conduct subject to it and thereby raise revenue, then courts should interpret it as a tax regardless of what the statute calls it. If Congress could have reasonably concluded only that the exaction will prevent the conduct of almost all people subject to it and thereby raise little or no revenue, then courts should interpret it as a penalty. In the case of the minimum coverage provision, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the exaction for non-insurance will dampen uninsured behavior but not prevent it, thereby raising several billion dollars in revenue each year. Accordingly, the exaction is a tax for purposes of the tax power.

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If these authors had lived in Kepler's day they would have been computing ever-finer epicycles to match astronomical observations of the planets' elliptical orbits, in order to validate the religious authorities' declaration that all orbits were circles centered on the Earth.

Roberts' ruling was a result-driven fabrication. It had no theoretical foundation and it wasn't even argued by the parties. Why bother building a hypothetical foundation now?

If these authors want a real challenge, they need to write a specification of the emanations and penumbras which ostensibly define the right to privacy.

Posted by: AMTbuff | Nov 28, 2012 12:57:30 PM

The authors have made an interesting attempt at a distinction, but I question their application of it. Regardless of whether it raises revenue, a penalty is designed to deter behavior. A tax may deter behavior, but is usually designed to collect revenue. Some taxes , such as sin taxes, are designed more to deter behavior than to raise revenue, and one might question whether they should be classified as penalties or whether they cast doubt on the author's proposed distinction.
in the Supreme Court case, Congress expressly designated the provision as a penalty. One reason for that was political. But, an apparent additional reason was to characterize the failure to purchase insurance as an evil act in order to deter people from refraining from buying insusrance. Many people do not like to break the law and will refrain from doing so even when the penalty is less than the cost of adhering to the law. That looks very much to me like a penalty.

Posted by: Douglas Kahn | Nov 28, 2012 1:40:22 PM

A purely consequentialist, and thus mistaken, interpretive approach.

Posted by: Jake | Nov 28, 2012 6:51:36 PM