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Why the individual mandate doesn't matter

The Supreme Court's long-awaited ruling on the President Obama's health care law could come as early as Monday.

The Supreme Court's long-awaited ruling on the President Obama's health care law could come as early as Monday. All eyes are on the disputed individual mandate and what happens if the court only upholds portions of the law.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described the issue at hand by comparing it to dicing up vegetables. She posed the question, "If the individual mandate requiring the purchase of insurance or the payment of a penalty — if that is unconstitutional, must the entire act fall? Or may the mandate be chopped, like a head of broccoli, from the rest of the act?"

If the individual mandate does get cut, what difference would it make to uphold the rest of the law?

On Wednesday's edition of The Last Word, University of Minnesota professor Lawrence Jacobs said not a whole lot. "This is not rocket science," he told msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell. "The mandate is simply not that big a deal."

Lawrence O’Donnell has been arguing the mandate in President Obama’s health care law is not really a mandate at all. Aside from a small tax penalty of a few hundred bucks under Obamacare, there’s no real enforcement mechanism in it. And what if the penalty isn’t paid? He said it's one thing to get a parking ticket; it's another thing to actually pay the parking ticket. 

O’Donnell detailed the two ways in which Obama’s law addresses this issue: "In the section called 'Waiver of Criminal Penalties,' it says 'In the case of any failure by a taxpayer to timely pay any penalty imposed by this section, such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalty with respect to such failure.'" Another key component is the "Limitations on liens and levies." That reads, “The Secretary shall not file notice of lien with respect to any property of a taxpayer by reason of any failure to pay the penalty imposed by this section, or levy on any such property with respect to such failure."    According to Jacobs, the mandate only affects about 1 out of 20 Americans or, maybe 2 out of 100 after the subsidies and some exceptions.

To Jacobs, "the big story here is the insurance regulations that make the insurers play fair rules so they don`t screw you, the enormous efforts to expand access to over 30 million Americans, both lower income, middle income, up to $90,000 a year for a family of four, and then a brand-new insurance exchange, kind of like a Travelocity, so you can go out there and do some comparison shopping."