Stanford Students Debate Healthcare Reform

Stanford Students Debate Healthcare Reform
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President Obama calling legislators regarding his healthcare reform bill. The debate over “Obamacare” has fallen off the radar for most students at Stanford. (Phot Credit: Pete Souza/White House)
Both liberals and conservatives agree that Stanford students are no longer interested in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Though there was some discussion of the bill during the period in which it was being debate by Congress, it has been absent from the campus dialogue since, according to leaders of campus political groups.

Kyle Huwa, president of the Stanford Conservative Society, feels that students have not been interested in this issue since the President Obama signed it in March of 2010. Though he was not on campus during the congressional debate, Huwa recalls “From what I hear[d] there was not much activism on either side for the issue,” and notes that the SCS did not organize any events regarding the legislation.

Rahul Sastry ’13, vice-president of the Stanford Democrats, believes that “it has slipped away from the forefront of people’s minds because it’s not the most pressing thing.” Recent campus political dialogue has centered much more on unemployment and the economy, notes Sastry.

One of the major factors leading to this attention shift could have been the Occupy movement. Occupy Stanford, the on-campus iteration of the widespread social movement purporting to represent the interests of the bottom 99 percent of people by income, has succeeded in drawing attention to socio-economic inequality generally, but this broader approach may have detracted from specific legislation like the Affordable Care Act.

Sastry, for his part, thinks the bill “probably merits more discussion…than it’s getting.” Though the Stanford Democrats are not currently planning any events pertaining primarily to the Affordable Care act, “if things come together,” says Sastry, “we’d love to have a discussion about that.”

Huwa seconds this sentiment: “I would like to see more campus debate of the issue, though I think it gets wrapped up into the broader debate assessing President Obama’s job performance.”

According to Ilan Wurman LAW ’13, discussion of the healthcare bill has been absent among law students as well since its passage. Contrary to state of the undergraduate conversation, however, Wurman blames the prevalence of conversation about it during late 2009 and early 2010 for the current apathy: “At this point, it really feels like old hat…no one has much new to say about it.”

However, Wurman expects more debate in the spring, when the constitutionality of the bill will be debated before the Supreme Court. The Stanford Law School chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative organization found at many law schools and of which Wurman is a member, has organized its own debate in April.

The debate will feature Randy Barnett, a conservative constitutional law scholar at the Georgetown University Law Center, and Pamela Karlan, a more liberal professor of constitutional law at Stanford Law School. It will be moderated by Judge Sandra Ikuta of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Much of the conflict over the bill revolves around the individual mandate, a provision requiring all Americans to have health insurance or pay a fine. The administration is expected to defend the individual mandate as within its legal purview on the basis of the commerce clause of the constitution, which grants Congress the power “to regulate commerce…among the several states.”

Historically, this provision has been used to justify congressional regulation of economic activity “even when it’s very tenuously interstate and very tenuously commerce,” according to Sastry.

Wurman concurs, citing the case of Wickard v. Filburn, in which a farmer growing wheat for his own consumption was forced to adhere to limits on wheat production during the Great Depression. The government argued successfully that by growing his own wheat, the farmer was reducing demand, thereby driving down the price of wheat and affecting interstate commerce.

The question of whether this broad interpretation is beneficial, however, is much more hotly debated. Wurman believes that “we should roll back somewhat on these precedents because if you actually look at the original understanding of the commerce clause it compels a different conclusion.” Sastry, for his part, feels that “healthcare reform is a very positive and beneficial outcome, and if we have to interpret interstate commerce broadly in order to make it constitutional then I think that’s worthwhile.”

Huwa takes issue with the individual mandate, arguing, “punishing inactivity [in the form of not purchasing insurance] is unconstitutional or at least opens the door to a very worrisome future of government coercing citizens into action.”

As for what the Supreme Court will decide, there is general agreement that it would be difficult for the court to overturn the law given its history of broadly interpreting the commerce clause.

Though he believes the Affordable Care Act is likely to be upheld, Wurman notes one way in which the Court could overturn it: “the conservatives have a pretty good argument that by penalizing those who don’t get health insurance the federal government is essentially forcing people into the interstate market…and that’s a line the federal government hasn’t crossed before.”

It is also possible that the court could overturn the individual mandate and uphold the rest of the law. However, without the individual mandate to compel young, healthy individuals into the market, premiums would remain high, thus defeating the purpose of the reform altogether.

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