Also in Slate, read John Dickerson’s piece on how Romney is struggling to get on-message on the Obamcare decision, and Dickerson’s piece on how the tax vs. penalty battle helps neither Obama nor Romney.
Does Mitt Romney think that penalizing people who don’t buy health insurance is a tax? The answer depends on when you ask him and whether he’s the guy who imposed the penalty. Here’s how his position has evolved over the years.
June 21, 2005. In a Boston Herald op-ed, Romney outlines his vision:
There is no need for new or increased taxes; funds now used to pay for the uninsured—almost $1 billion—instead will subsidize insurance premiums, where needed. Medicaid reforms generate further savings. Costs are also reduced when the newly insured get clinic-based preventative care rather than late-stage emergency care. And more people and their employers will cover or contribute to the cost of their insurance. … [M]y plan calls for a personal responsibility principle: Everyone must either become insured or maintain adequate savings to cover their medical expenses. We cannot expect some citizens to pay for others who can afford to pay some or all of their own way.
This is a clear statement that “contributing to the cost of your insurance” doesn’t constitute “new or increased taxes.” Romney sees it as a matter of personal, not social, responsibility. In fact, he frames it as the alternative to the socialist idea of expecting “some citizens to pay for others.” Later that day, Romney tells reporters that his personal-responsibility mandate would crack down on those who think that when they develop medical problems, they can “just show up and make the taxpayers pay for me.”
April 3, 2006. At a press conference, Romney praises Massachusetts lawmakers for passing the health insurance bill. A reporter ask whether an “assessment” in the bill, which would charge companies $295 per worker for failing to insure their employees, violates Romney’s pledge not to raise taxes. Romney replies:
It’s not a tax hike. It is a fee. It’s an assessment. … It applies to people who are abusing the free-care pool and who are excessively using the free-care pool, and some incentive to avoid that is appropriate. But it’s not a tax. It’s not a broad-based program. What began as a tax had me very concerned, which is the initial proposal that was discussed in the House, that both the senate president and I said we can’t go there, [which] is on a payroll tax.
Romney sees the employer assessment, like the bill’s tax penalty on individuals who fail to buy insurance, as fundamentally different from taxation because it targets freeloaders.
April 11, 2006. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Romney writes:
Every uninsured citizen in Massachusetts will soon have affordable health insurance and the costs of health care will be reduced. And we will need no new taxes, no employer mandate and no government takeover to make this happen. … I proposed that everyone must either purchase a product of their choice or demonstrate that they can pay for their own health care. It's a personal responsibility principle. Some of my libertarian friends balk at what looks like an individual mandate. But remember, someone has to pay for the health care that must, by law, be provided: Either the individual pays or the taxpayers pay.
Romney reaffirms that the bill, despite its penalty for freeloaders, imposes no new taxes. And again, he frames this approach as the alternative to taxpayer-funded care.
April 12, 2006. Romney signs the bill into law. In the first paragraph of his press release, he proclaims: “Today, Massachusetts is leading the way with health insurance for everyone, without a government takeover and without raising taxes.” He notes that “failure by individuals to purchase health insurance will result in the loss of their state tax refund equal to 50 percent of an affordable health insurance premium.” But he describes this sanction as “penalties,” not taxation.
Aug. 24, 2007. In a speech to the Florida Medical Association, Romney says his “enforcement mechanism” for people earning more than three times the poverty level is that “when they get their tax bill … they’re charged $100 a month for not having bought insurance.” He calls the Massachusetts system universal coverage without “needing new taxes.”
Jan. 5, 2008. In a Republican presidential debate, moderator Charlie Gibson tells Romney, “You imposed tax penalties in Massachusetts.” Romney replies: “Yes. We said, ‘Look, if people can afford to buy it, either buy the insurance or pay your own way. Don't be free riders and pass on the cost to your health care to everybody else.’”
July 30, 2009. In a USA Today op-ed, Romney touts the Massachusetts law:
First, we established incentives for those who were uninsured to buy insurance. Using tax penalties, as we did, or tax credits, as others have proposed, encourages "free riders" to take responsibility for themselves rather than pass their medical costs on to others. This doesn't cost the government a single dollar.
Here, Romney adopts the hybrid term “tax penalties,” but he insists that this practice “doesn’t cost the government a single dollar.” He sees the penalty not as revenue but as a prod to take personal responsibility.
2009. In a CNN interview, Romney frames the tax penalty as an inverted tax credit: “It's a kind of mandate. It's a requirement. In order to get a tax exemption that you'd normally get, you’ve got to have health insurance, because we want everybody in the system. No more free riders.”
March 7, 2010. On Fox News Sunday, Romney says “we didn't raise taxes” in enacting the Massachusetts law. When Chris Wallace objects that “you have an individual mandate,” Romney replies that the Massachusetts law, unlike Obamacare, entails “no new taxes,” even though residents of Massachusetts who “don't buy insurance” will “find that their taxes are higher.”
April 15, 2010. In a speech at Claremont McKenna College, Romney repeats what he told Wallace: “If you don’t buy it, you’re going to get penalized with a higher tax rate for not having gotten insurance.”
June 28, 2012. The U.S. Supreme Court rules that Obama’s individual mandate is unconstitutional as regulation of commerce but is constitutional if interpreted as a tax. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, quickly declares, “The Supreme Court has spoken. This law is a tax.” But Romney, speaking a few minutes later, doesn’t bite. He confines his comments about taxation in the law to provisions other than the mandate.