President Barack Obama's health-care law owes its survival to the Supreme Court's finding that the act's individual mandate is a tax, and therefore constitutional.
But while the White House cheered the ruling, the administration is assiduously avoiding the word “tax.”
White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, appearing Sunday on ABC's“This Week,” sought to characterize the mandate as a penalty, not a tax.
“For Americans who buy health insurance or who can't afford it and get it through a government program, there is no penalty,” Lew said. “It covers 99 percent of the American people. In Massachusetts where they had a plan like this under Governor. Romney, 1 percent did not take insurance, and they paid the penalty.”
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“Let's be clear about who that 1 percent is,” Lew said. “Those are people who can afford health insurance who choose not to buy it and then, when they get sick, they go to the hospital and the costs gets spread amongst all the people paying for insurance. So the law set it up as a penalty for people who make that choice. The court found it constitutional. Frankly, what you call it is not the issue.”
Lew would not budge from calling the mandate a penalty, despite Chief Justice John Roberts' description of the mandate as a tax.
The chief of staff asserted that the law's survival was a net political gain for the president, even though the legislation's unpopularity contributed to widespread Democratic losses in the 2010 midterm elections.
“If you look at where we are now versus where we were a couple of years ago, the American people are starting to experience the benefits of this law,” Lew said. “The American people do not want to go back to a divisive debate about health care. The Congress passed a law. The Supreme Court ruled it constitutional. The arguments that are being made now to reopen that fight are the wrong arguments.”
Ultimately, Lew said, the election will not be a referendum on the popularity of health-care reform.
“I think this election will be about the economy,” Lew said. “The American people are focused on the economy. They're asking the question, ‘What are we doing to get it going?'”
Also appearing on the program was Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee. Ryan, who often serves as a surrogate for Mitt Romney, said the Supreme Court's decision now makes a Romney victory in November all the more crucial for opponents of the health-care law.
“I'm very disappointed but we're not deterred,” Ryan said. We think we can still repeal this law if we win this election. And that's basically what the chief justice said; it's now up to the American people. It's beyond Congress, the president and even the Supreme Court. The American people will be the judge and jury of this law come November.“