SO IT is official: Barack Obama's healthcare reform will stand - at least until November. By upholding the core of the bill in a narrow ruling last Tuesday, the Supreme Court stepped back from a constitutional showdown that could have dominated the election. In so doing, the court elected not only to preserve Obamacare but also to restore its reputation as the US's apex court. In joining the liberal judges to form a five-to-four majority, Chief Justice John Roberts should be commended for showing the kind of restraint on which his own judicial philosophy is based.
The ruling has substantive and political consequences. On the first, Obamacare will go into effect as planned on the basis of levying a penalty on Americans who choose to forgo health insurance.
The alternative, which was to strike down the penalty, would have created the worst of both worlds - subsidies would have stayed in place without the compulsion to avail of them. The sick would have signed up while the young and healthy would have walked away.
The politics are more difficult to anticipate. The ruling offered two small consolations to opponents of the bill. First, it curtailed the federal government's ability to withhold funds from states that decline to extend Medicaid subsidies to those eligible under the law. Second, the court redefined the penalty as a tax, which enabled it to sidestep the question of the constitutionality of the individual mandate. There is no ambiguity about Washington's right to levy taxes. By a semantic slip, the court may have left the way open for future legal challenges to any federal mandates.
More immediately, by reclassifying the mandate as a tax, the court gave Republicans ammunition to say Obama had broken his pledge not to raise taxes. Conservatives are likely to be energised by the fact that November is probably their last chance to overturn the bill. Should Mitt Romney become president, Obamacare will almost certainly be repealed. If Obama wins, it stays,
The judges have said their piece. Now it is back to the politicians and the voters. London, June 29