“On the first day of health care reform arguments before the Supreme Court, two justices needled a top Obama lawyer for simultaneously calling the fine that will be paid under the law for not purchasing insurance a “penalty” and a “tax.”
The confusion arises because of the administration’s argument that the power to enforce the individual mandate is rooted in Congress’ taxing power — but that the mechanism itself is designed to be a penalty, not a revenue-generating policy.
The narrow but important distinction created a communication challenge for the lawyer representing the Obama administration.
U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli used the phrase “tax penalty” multiple times to describe the individual mandate’s backstop. He portrayed the fee as a penalty by design, but one that functions as a tax because it’s collected through the tax code.
“General Verrilli, today you are arguing that the penalty is not a tax. Tomorrow you are going to be back and you will be arguing that the penalty is a tax,” said Justice Samuel Alito, in one of the few laugh lines throughout the 90 minutes of argument Monday.”