broccoliCan the government make you buy broccoli?

It might sound like the topic of an AM radio talk show. But the offbeat query has been popping up in debates over health care reform, and this week it came up again at none other than the U.S. Supreme Court.

Justice Antonin Scalia raised the question in the second day of hearings over the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Scalia asked how far the government could go if it could require people to buy health insurance through the law's individual mandate.

"Could you define the market -- everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food, therefore, everybody is in the market; therefore, you can make people buy broccoli," he said.

"No, that's quite different. That's quite different," Obama administration lawyer Donald Verrilli said. "The food market, while it shares that trait that everybody's in it, it is not a market in which your participation is often unpredictable and often involuntary. It is not a market in which you often don't know before you go in what you need, and it is not a market in which, if you go in and -- and seek to obtain a product or service, you will get it even if you can't pay for it."

2014 deadline looms

Under the law's individual mandate, most people would have to obtain health insurance coverage starting in 2014 or pay a tax penalty. Challengers say the mandate is unconstitutional. The Obama administration says Congress has the right to impose the mandate under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The government argues that health care differs from other commodities because when uninsured people get health care but can't afford to pay for it, other taxpayers and institutions have to pay billions of dollars in costs. .

In questioning which other things the government could force everyone to buy, critics of the mandate have picked on broccoli.

Even polling organizations are taking up the question. According to a new Reason-Rupe poll, 87 percent of Americans believe Congress does not have the power to require the purchase of broccoli, while 8 percent say Congress can force you to buy veggies. The poll is a project by the Reason Foundation with support from the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation.

The humble vegetable hasn't seen this kind of attention in more than 20 years, since the first President George Bush banned broccoli from Air Force One in 1990.

''I do not like broccoli,'' the New York Times quoted him saying then. ''And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm president of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!''