The politics of parsing: 'Penalty,' 'tax' or just 'penaltax'
July 5th, 2012
12:28 PM ET
2 years ago

The politics of parsing: 'Penalty,' 'tax' or just 'penaltax'

(CNN) - In the wake of last week's Supreme Court decision upholding the individual mandate in President Barack Obama's health care law, the debate on the campaign trail turned not to extending health care to nearly 50 million uninsured Americans, but to the language of the ruling.

Mitt Romney's campaign, in a politically vulnerable spot given the similar mandate he enacted as governor of Massachusetts, labeled the fine a "penalty" on Monday.

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The next day, the chairman of the Republican National Committee made an attempt at party unity, saying on CNN: "Our position is the same as Mitt Romney's position. It's a tax."

Romney himself weighed in on Wednesday, saying that while he agreed with the court's dissent that the mandate was unconstitutional, he accepted the majority ruling that the fine assessed to people who choose not to obtain health insurance amounted to a "tax." He reiterated his vow, made at every campaign stop, to repeal the law.

Democrats, intent on not appearing to raise taxes, have stuck with their description of the law as a "penalty," despite the Court's ruling that it's only constitutional as a tax.

Asked Thursday whether Obama "disagrees with the Supreme Court decision that says it's now a tax," campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said "that's right."

"He's said it was a penalty," LaBolt continued. "You saw our arguments before the court."

And Jay Carney, White House press secretary, said again Thursday "this is clearly a penalty."

Obama's solicitor general, however, did argue in March that the individual mandate could be viewed as constitutional under Congress' taxation power. Donald Verrilli said the fee would be collected by the Internal Revenue Service on April 15, the day Americans pay their federal income taxes.

Asked by associate justice Samuel Alito "can the mandate be viewed as a tax," Verrilli responded "I think it could."

The distinction between "tax" and "penalty" has left some voters frustrated – after all, the mandate remains exactly the same, no matter the label. Conservatives have adopted the phrase "penaltax" and "taxalty," an indication of how meaningless the distinction seems outside presidential politics.

"It is a tax on not buying health insurance! Still sounds like a penalty to me! It's a taxalty!" wrote one conservative blog.

Another right-leaning blog took Chief Justice John Roberts to task for seemingly re-wording the law for political ends: "Roberts effectively re-wrote the law, saying that since Congress failed to call it a tax, he would call it a tax for them. Thus, John Roberts created the penaltax."

Democrats, meanwhile, point to Republicans' parsing of "tax" versus "penalty" as a dodge of the more important point: Does Romney believe Americans should be assessed a fine if they don't obtain insurance?

Romney was asked that question in an interview on CBS Wednesday.

"You know, I made it very clear throughout my campaign and actually while I was governor of Massachusetts that the issue of the uninsured should be dealt with at the state level," Romney said when asked if Americans should be assessed a fee if they don't buy health insurance.

Democrats also point out that Romney, for his pledge of repealing Obamacare, has offered no specifics on how he'd provide health insurance to the 49.9 million uninsured Americans.

The presumptive GOP nominee has promised to replace the law with "real reform," though has offered little by way of firm solutions to a problem that is estimated to cost American taxpayers billions of dollars per year.

On his website, Romney advocates "returning states to their proper place in charge of regulating local insurance markets and caring for the poor, uninsured, and chronically ill," and writes he would "Ensure flexibility to help the uninsured, including public-private partnerships, exchanges, and subsidies."

Beyond that, however, the Republican candidate gives little indication of how, if elected president, he would help states lower their ranks of uninsured citizens.

Romney does indicate he'd keep the Obamacare's more popular provisions, including prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and allowing young people to remain on their parents' coverage until age 26.

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Filed under: Healthcare • Mitt Romney • President Obama • Supreme Court • Taxes
soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. Rudy NYC

    Mitt Romney is stuck between the middle of the cliff and the bottom of it. His top spokesperson said the fine was not a tax, but a penalty. (ETCH A SKETCH moment) Now Romney says it is tax, which means he raised taxes in MA. Either position still puts his campaign over the cliff like Wile E. Coyote.

    July 5, 2012 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  2. Wire Palladin, S. F.

    The great white hope for the republican party, not only raised taxes in MA, but the teavangelicals need to know that Romneycare also funds abortions. Single issue voters should drop him like a lead balloon.

    July 5, 2012 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  3. grrace

    Oh for cryin'out loud. It's a TAX PENALTY! It doesn't apply to everyone. Could the press report the facts and stop arguing?

    July 5, 2012 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  4. Governor 47th in Job Creation (excluding jobs off-shored to China)

    The MA Taxman is debating himself now, Grover Nordquist on line 1 waiting for Willard to explain his tax hike. Willard still hasn't explained why his Obaneycare is bad policy, I agree with the Heritage Foundation on this one: let's have everyone take personal accountability for their health insurance.
    Willard, please release the last 12 years of tax returns like your father did during his run; I'm sure there's nothing to hide.

    July 5, 2012 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  5. Pam from Iowa

    It is a penalty, not a tax.
    The only reason Roberts even brought up the "tax" word is because he was under instruction by the GOP to do so!

    July 5, 2012 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  6. Rudy NYC

    @Fair is Fair wrote:

    something to the effect of "the SCOTUS defined as a TAX."
    ----------------
    This is the same SCOTUS that allowed corporations to be declared "people".

    How soon do you think that those "people" will start complaining about the not having the right to vote? Not long, I can assure you. They have all of the politically and historically correct slogans working for them. Stuff like "Taxation without representation"

    When or if they get the right to vote, how many votes will they get? Is it based upon the size of the corporate bottom line? Wouldn't giving those "people" the right ot vote, wouldn't that give some "people" a means to vote twice? They could vote once as a person, and vote again for the "people". Right?

    July 5, 2012 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  7. rla

    Honestly who cares the problem is still the same.. Much of the obamacare act is left to HHS to determine.,,, no one still has figured out the ramifications and IT IS GOING TO COST WAY MORE THAN EVEN OPTOMISTIC PROJECTIONS. So hang onto your wallet or expect nation crushing debt!!!!!

    July 5, 2012 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  8. California Gary

    Instead of fighting over whether to call it a penalty or a tax........why don't we just call it what it is: the law. The GOP couldn't stop it, they couldn't overturn it, and now they couldn't strike it down........maybe it's time to move on?

    July 5, 2012 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  9. Don

    Lets ask Flip Romney. He's the father of it.

    July 5, 2012 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  10. TAK

    This issue is not what campaign '12 should be addressing and is a waste of most voters' time. I will not even think about this when I decide for whom to cast my vote in November.

    July 5, 2012 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  11. Rudy NYC

    ghostriter wrote:

    Ok, so Mittsy agrees with the dissent on the AHA ruling.....but also agrees with the the majority that it is a tax. Hilarious.
    -----------------
    The best part is that Romney claims to agree with Justice Roberts' written opinion that when states do the same thing, that it is a penalty and not a tax. ('Roberts never wrote anyth9ng of the kind, and he wrote both the majority and minority opinions.)

    July 5, 2012 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  12. vic , nashville ,tn

    Republicans and media are confused between tax and penalty , that is good for the nation

    July 5, 2012 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  13. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    When the GOP, namely Mitch McDonnell aka Rush Limbaugh et al, made the statement on day one their main focus was to get rid of President Obama, it appears they alone thought they had the power to do so. I think it's back firing on them because it appears Mitt Romney is killing two birds with one stone, the GOP and himself.

    July 5, 2012 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  14. Fair is Fair

    Pam from Iowa

    It is a penalty, not a tax.
    The only reason Roberts even brought up the "tax" word is because he was under instruction by the GOP to do so!
    -------
    Gee... and here I was thinking that Roberts brought up the "tax" word because Obama's Solicitor General used it to defend the law in his oral arguements before the SCOTUS. Silly me.

    July 5, 2012 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  15. Anthony

    The SCOTUS decision on "Obamacare" is available as a PDF file download. One doesn't have to read every page to garner the salient points: (a) only Chief Justice Roberts required the "mandate" to be a tax in order to be constitutional; (b) Ginsburg+3 justices agreed with the President and Democratic Party that it was constitutional under the Commerce Clause and didn't have to be considered a "tax"; (c) Scalia+3 justices rejected Commerce Clause applicability and also rejected the ENTIRE law (yep, all the good and popular stuff) just because of the mandate.

    Obamacare is now constitutional because of (a) and (b). Any argument against (or for) Obamacare not based on these facts is disingenuous and obfuscating.

    A recent poll reported by CNN indicated that (if I remember correctly) somewhere around 18% didn't know the above facts, and that another 15% were NOT even aware a SCOTUS verdict had been announced. This is damning on the American electorate. That it's not only some bloggers but also some politicians and even newspeople contributing to the disinformation is worrisome.

    Anyway, a belated Happy Birthday to the USA!

    July 5, 2012 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  16. Canuck

    The resistance to providing health care to all of its citizens in a rich country like the USA is really very strange , it seems like almost pathological.

    July 5, 2012 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  17. Vote the Tea Party OUT in 2012

    All Romney needs to say is this "I was FOR it before I was AGAINST it" and "I stand by whatever I said whenever I said it" and that should about sum it up on the healtcare bill.

    July 5, 2012 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  18. demwit

    Its must be a tax.., 5 out of 9 said so.., and only "Activist Judges" rule to overturn a majorities law..., right??

    July 5, 2012 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  19. It's a Tax Penalty

    Is it a tax? Is it a penalty? It's neither if you have health care for yourself and/or your family members as the law instructs. It's both if you don't. It is estimated that it will apply to approximately 1% of the nation.

    How Mittler's campaign can continue to say that he has been honest about taxes and disclosure and offshoring and outsourcing and money in foreign countries, Bermuda, the Caymans, Swiss bank accounts, etc. flies in the face of reality. He/his advisors are masters of the universe in playing hide the cheese when it comes to his money and where it is and how much he owes in taxes.

    When it comes to a simple thing like this, he's all over the map. What a load of crap. Anybody that is fool enough to want this guy as head of this country is just delusional. Do we really want a double-talking, flip-flopping, elitist jerk running our country who won't even tell the truth to the American public? This guy creeps me out on a daily basis.

    Hey reporters: Ask him if it is a tax that he will have to pay. Ask him to tell the truth about who will have to pay it.

    This guy is lying about his own taxes, and he's lying about this to the people to.

    How can somebody be such a blatant liar?

    July 5, 2012 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  20. v_mag

    It makes sense for the righties to start calling the tax/penalty/fee an "abortion", since their constituents would know to hate it immediately without having to think about it.

    July 5, 2012 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  21. Smitty

    Isn't it a penalty tax on the rest of us if the millionaires don't pay their fair share? As for affordable care, millionaires don't have to worry about affordable care, because everything is affordable to them. For the rest of us, if we can't afford health care, many look to Title XIX and someone else still picks up more of the tab. I don't want free health insurance, I just would like it to be fair and affordable. Something is wrong with health care when hospitals charge you $5 for an aspirin to help offset the Title XIX'ers and those who can't pay. Just make it fair for all, not just millionaires and billionaires!

    July 5, 2012 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  22. T'sah from Virginia

    ►The politics of parsing: 'Penalty,' 'tax' or just 'penaltax'◄
    Actually, what's the difference – the facts are the facts
    ►All Romney needs to say is this "I was FOR it before I was AGAINST it"
    and "I stand by whatever I said whenever I said it" ◄

    My point exactly!!

    Obama 2012 – The Only Trusted Way Forward!!

    July 5, 2012 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  23. asdf

    Robert's opinion was well-written. It's a tax. It's collected by the IRS, there's explicitly no imprisonment involved. In fact, if you aren't getting a refund and refuse to pay it, there's no way for the IRS to collect it.

    Besides, I'm already taxed more because I don't own a house and because I don't have kids. It's the same thing.

    July 5, 2012 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  24. 2012liberal

    Call what ever u want but it is the law. Now lets move on please. Lets adopt the nuns on bus perogitive. WWJD!

    July 5, 2012 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  25. CaliforniaBC

    Please stop saying "Obamacare is a tax."

    "Obamacare" is the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform LAW.

    The tax paid for NOT buying insurance required by the madate is ONLY one part of ONE provision of the ENTIRE law.

    SO Obamacare is not a tax.

    CNN and other news agencies please put your journalist hats on and call out these people who insist on calling the entire law a tax.

    July 5, 2012 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
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