A tax or a penalty? With Obama, it’s about how you feel

So what is it, a penalty or a tax?

For many Americans, that’s a stupid question. “Tax” and “penalty” have become synonymous. Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supremes might as well be singing about whether to pronounce neither or either with a long “e” or an “i.”

The Tax Foundation has calculated the average American has to work nearly to May each year just to retire what he or she owes to Washington, the State Capitol and City Hall.

Taxes may be the price we pay for a civilized society, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., said, but Holmes never bothered to question who sets the price, or why. To a lot of folks, the difference between a tax and a penalty depends solely on what you get in return. Which brings us to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Chances are you’ve decided how you feel about it, without the chief justice’s help. Republicans don’t like Obamacare and Democrats do, with some notable exceptions.

But if you’re an independent … well, that’s why the definition has become such a hot political issue.

It’s a matter of perception. Political operatives know most of you pay scant attention to what’s going on. When Roberts said the Affordable Care Act was constitutional because its individual mandate was a tax, that gave Republicans a big talking point in simple, easy terms any casual voter could understand. Obama’s opponents already have made some commercials along those lines.

To many people, tax hikes are bad. Early on, Obama said again and again that the mandate was not a tax. That’s another simple sound bite Republicans can use. The president said it wasn’t, and there is footage of him saying it, but now we know it is.

The only trouble is, Mitt Romney imposed the same thing in Massachusetts when he was governor.

That’s why Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s strategist, went on a talk show Sunday and said Romney believes the court got it wrong. It isn’t a tax, it’s a penalty, he said.

Penalties are bad, too, right?


For Romney, Obamacare could be a John Kerry moment — he was for it before he was against it.

Except of course that it really isn’t his issue; it’s Obama’s. He pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress. That means he raised taxes, on all of you, not just the people of Massachusetts.

Oddly enough, the court’s ruling did move the needle, just a little.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the percentage who support Obamacare rose slightly, from 43 percent to 48 percent, after the decision.  The most important number, however, concerns independents. Among them, opposition is at 62 percent. That’s less than before the ruling, as well, but it’s important during a year of political polarization. Independents could very well carry the day.

To them, what Romney says about the issue won’t matter much. It was Obama’s idea.

Nor does it matter much if it’s a penalty or a tax. Neither word is particularly pretty. The simple question is whether or not you decide you like Obamacare, or at least what you understand of it.

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About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.


  1. tom

    A tax you pay only if you refuse to buy health insurance.

    Well, if you refuse to buy a home you will pay more taxes without the deduction. If you refuse to have kids you will pay more taxes without the deduction.

    Who cares what you call it, a smaller portion of the country will refuse to get health insurance than choose not to have kids or buy a house for a deduction.

  2. Sam

    I can find nothing in the US Constitution that allows the federal government to collect a penalty. It can levy and collect taxes, imposts, tariffs. I don’t see penalties.

  3. gil

    I could write another diatribe about how this whole debate about whether it’s a tax or a penalty is just semantics and how this is simply the way Communists always come into power (promising universal healthcare) but I’ll speak to independents: Since this law was passed have your insurance premiums risen or fallen? Has your out of pocket cost for a visit to a hospital or doctor’s office gone up or down? Do you anticipate that either of these will go down in the future? Do you ask yourself “why was the Democrat Party so eager to pass this legislation at a time when our Country had much graver issues to deal with”?
    You can always respond to the “do-something disorder” with the old adage ” the road to hell is paved with good intentions” but I’m not sure the intentions are good anymore- what does your gut tell you?

    • Mark

      Gil… all reanable questions. But the question to you back is can you honestly claim any of those would not have happened had we had this bill passed. In the 20 or 30 years leading up to this, has not the percentage of GDP spent on healthcare risen every year – even without this bill. Trying to attribute any increases directly to the cost of this bill would take an act of accounting and analytics miracle working. You just can’t draw that line. Fact is most people haven’t seen much change yet because the bill is largely not in force yet, most provisions don’t kick in until 2014.

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