WASHINGTON -- Obamacare dominated the 2010 midterms, driving its Democratic authors to a historic electoral shellacking. But since then, the issue has slipped quietly underground.
Now it's back, summoned to the national stage by the confluence of three disparate events: the release of new Congressional Budget Office cost estimates, the approach of Supreme Court hearings on the law's constitutionality and the issuance of a compulsory contraception mandate.
Obamacare was carefully constructed to manipulate the standard 10-year cost projections of the CBO. Because benefits would not fully kick in for four years, President Obama could trumpet 10-year gross costs of less than $1 trillion -- $938 billion to be exact.
But now that the near-costless years 2010 and 2011 have elapsed, the true 10-year price tag comes into focus. From 2013 through 2022, the CBO reports, the costs of Obamacare come to $1.76 trillion -- almost twice the phony original number.
It gets worse. Annual gross costs after 2021 are more than a quarter of $1 trillion every year -- until the end of time. That, for a new entitlement in a country already drowning in $16 trillion of debt.
Beginning March 26, the Supreme Court will hear challenges to the law. The American people, by an astonishing two-thirds majority, want the law and/or the individual mandate tossed out by the court. In practice, however, questions this momentous are generally decided 5 to 4, i.e., they depend on whatever side of the bed Justice Anthony Kennedy gets out of that morning.
Ultimately, the question will hinge on whether the Commerce Clause has any limits. If the federal government can compel a private citizen, under threat of a federally imposed penalty, to engage in a private contract with a private entity (to buy health insurance), is there anything the federal government cannot compel the citizen to do?
If Obamacare is upheld, it fundamentally changes the nature of the American social contract. It means the effective end of a government of enumerated powers -- i.e., finite, delineated powers beyond which the government may not go, beyond which lies the free realm of the people and their voluntary institutions. The new post-Obamacare dispensation is a central government of unlimited power from which citizen and civil society struggle to carve out and maintain spheres of autonomy.
Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group