The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) transformed U.S. public law in crucial ways extending far beyond health care. As important as were the doctrinal shifts wrought by National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the ACA’s structural changes to public law likely will prove far more important should they become entrenched. The struggle over the ACA has triggered the kind of “constitutional moment” that has largely replaced Article V’s formal amendment procedure since the Prohibition fiasco. The Court participates in this process, but the definitive and enduring character of these constitutional moments’ outcomes springs from broad popular engagement.
Despite the Court’s ruling and the outcome of the 2012 elections, the battle over whether to implement or shelve the ACA will continue unabated, both federally and in the states, until We the People render a clear decision. Whether the ACA survives or fails will determine the basic principles that guide the development of federalism, social insurance, tax policy, and privatization for decades to come.
In each of these areas, the New Deal bequeathed us a delicate accommodation between traditionalist social values and modernizing norms of economic efficiency and interest group liberalism. This balance has come under increasing stress, with individual laws rejecting tradition far more emphatically than the New Deal did. But absent broad popular engagement, no definitive new principles could be established. The ACA’s entrenchment would elevate technocratic norms across public law, the first change of our fundamental law since the civil rights revolution. The ACA’s failure would rejuvenate individualistic, moralistic, pre-New Deal norms and allow opponents to attempt a counterrevolution against technocracy.