GOP: Supreme Court ruling opens door for new tax powers

But Democrats said those claims were overheated, with Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.) saying the GOP’s “sky is falling” argument didn’t give lawmakers enough credit.

“To suggest that Congress would abuse this authority and run wild sells short the abilities and talents and judgment of this institution,” said Levin, the ranking Democrat at Ways and Means.

At the hearing, GOP lawmakers and witnesses sympathetic to their concerns cited a string of new ways that Congress could tax inactivity.

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network, a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, said the expansion of federal taxing power could lead to taxes on people who do not own guns, choose not to wear seat belts, or decide against recycling.

“Allowing unrestricted taxes on inactivity will open the door to taxes the likes of which this country has never seen,” Severino said. 

But Walter Dellinger, a solicitor general under President Clinton, made the case that Congress already had the power to tax some of the situations brought up by Republicans.

Dellinger also compared the mandate to the sort of preference taxpayers use for home mortgages, and suggested the discussion over whether the penalty was a direct or indirect tax was basically semantics.

“The nomenclature about whether you call this a tax or a tax penalty or a penalty strikes me as completely unfruitful,” Dellinger said. “It’s like asking whether a member who goes fishing is a congressman or a fisherman.”

Republicans and Democrats also used the hearing to again heat up the debate over the merits of the 2010 healthcare law and its mandate, which would require most people to obtain insurance or pay the government.

GOP lawmakers pooh-poohed a Democratic claim that the mandate would only affect the roughly 1.4 percent of the population that choose not to obtain insurance.

“This is potentially much bigger,” Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) said. “It could apply to people who have insurance, and are happy with that insurance.”

But Democrats, like the Obama administration before them, noted that Massachusetts implemented a healthcare mandate when Mitt Romney, now the presumptive GOP nominee for president, was governor.

They also noted that Romney had called the mandate a “cornerstone of conservatism.”

“It’s the first time I’ve ever heard the Republican Party argue for irresponsibility,” Rep. Jim McDermottJim McDermottLobbying World Dem lawmaker: Israel's accusations start of 'war on the American government' Dem to Trump on House floor: ‘Stop tweeting’ MORE (D-Wash.) said of the hearing.