Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Wednesday reversed his campaign’s position that mandates to buy health care are a “penalty” and not a “tax,” telling CBS News that “the majority of the [Supreme Court] has said it is a tax, and therefore it is a tax.”
“They have spoken,” he said. “There’s no way around that.”
Romney’s new position is the exact opposite of what the campaign was saying on Monday. Appearing on MSNBC, senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom revealed that Romney sold his health mandate to Massachusetts residents as a “penalty” and not a tax, just like President Barack Obama did.
Romney’s new position appears problematic for the Republican ticket because as Governor of Massachusetts, his signature accomplishment was introducing a health care mandate that empowers the the Massachusetts Department of Revenue to garnish wages and initiate tax liens if people don’t pay up. That’s opposed to President Obama’s mandate, which does none of that.
The Obama campaign certainly isn’t letting that go by without a reminder, either. In an advisory released Wednesday they cite a 2005 interview between Romney and radio host Hugh Hewitt, in which Romney explained that he favored tough enforcement of his tax hike because “if somebody shows up at the hospital, and they can afford to pay, and they haven’t bought insurance, they can’t just say, ‘Look, I don’t want to pay for this bill. I’m going to walk away.'”
The Obama campaign also directly cites a press release that has since vanished from the Massachusetts Governor’s website but was preserved by the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine,” in which Romney claims that “Massachusetts is leading the way with health insurance for everyone, without a government takeover and without raising taxes.”
Yet, the Massachusetts law clearly says that the state “shall have all enforcement and collection procedures available under chapter 62C to collect any penalties assessed under this section.” Those procedures, as described by chapter 62C, include seizing violators’ property and directly taking their wages. It becomes even more complicated for Romney due to his continued insistence that President Obama’s health reforms amount to a “government takeover” of the health care industry — but somehow, when Romney did it that wasn’t the case.
To be clear, President Obama’s health mandate does not empower the IRS to come after citizens, and instead leaves the agency to figure out how much is owed and crib the penalty from violators’ annual tax returns and Social Security payments. This has led to an expansion of the agency’s manpower — I.E. created new jobs — which Republicans have been fuming over since the law was passed. The IRS is also specifically blocked from charging taxpayers interest on penalties accumulated.
Putting it another way, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman explained to Congress in 2010 that all they can really do is send people a letter letting them know that they’re in violation.
Romney’s latest turnabout is also problematic for fellow Republicans — many of whom have been wrongly claiming that the IRS will soon be applying liens and levies against violators — because they would now appear to be criticizing Romney’s health plan and not President Obama’s.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), thought to be a leading candidate for Romney’s vice presidential pick, recently insisted that President Obama has set up a system in which the IRS will “chase you around” to extract health care taxes. “Guess who you have to prove to that you have insurance?” he asked on the Senate floor last week. “Your neighborhood, friendly IRS. Millions of Americans now have an IRS problem, because they don’t have health insurance.”
If Rubio or any other Republicans who’ve followed this same line of attack ends up being Romney’s running-mate, it’s safe to assume their own words will be used against them in President Obama’s campaign advertising.
This video is from CBS News, broadcast July 4, 2012.