The IRS’s Illegal ObamaCare Taxes, Bagenstos Edition

As I posted a week ago today, Jonathan Adler and I have a paper titled, “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.” Our central claims are:

  1. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act explicitly restricts its “premium-assistance tax credits” (and thus the “cost-sharing subsidies” and employer- and individual-mandate penalties those tax credits trigger) to health insurance “exchanges” established by states;
  2. The IRS has no authority to offer those entitlements or impose those taxes in states that opt not to create Exchanges; and
  3. The IRS’s ongoing attempt to impose those taxes and issue those entitlements through Exchanges established by the federal government is contrary to congressional intent and the clear language of the Act.

We hope to post an updated draft of our paper, with lots of new material, soon.

At the Disability Law blog and Balkinization, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Bagenstos writes that our claims are “deeply legally flawed.”

Like others before him, Bagenstos’s main argument in support of the IRS reduces to the absurd claim that the federal government can establish an Exchange that is established by a state. He also offers two new arguments. Each is a non sequitur, and like his main argument is contradicted by the express language of the statute.

As I have written before:

[T]he statute is crystal clear. It explicitly and laboriously restricts tax credits to those who buy health insurance in Exchanges “established by the State under section 1311.” There is no parallel language – none whatsoever – granting eligibility through Exchanges established by the federal government (section 1321).

(Bagenstos claims the statute’s tax-credit-eligibility provisions use the phrase “established by the State under section 1311” only twice. He neglects to mention: how the eligibility provisions refer to those limiting phrases an additional five times; that there is no language contradicting or creating any ambiguity about the limitation they create; and that the statute also restricts its “cost-sharing subsidies” to situations where “a credit is allowed” under those eligibility rules. At the risk of repeating myself, the eligibility rules for the credits and subsidies are so tightly worded, they seem designed to prevent precisely what the IRS is trying to do.)

Bagenstos correctly notes that Section 1321 directs the federal government to create Exchanges within states that fail to create their own. Like others before him, he takes that directive to mean that the phrase “established by the State under section 1311” in fact ”does not have the exclusionary meaning” you might think. The statute authorizes tax credits through federal Exchanges, he argues, because federal Exchanges are ”established by the State under section 1311.” The federal government, it turns out, can establish an Exchange that is established by a state.

Like others before him, Bagenstos finesses the absurdity of that claim by arguing that Section 1321 provides that a federal Exchange ”will stand in the shoes of a state-operated exchange.” So far as I can tell, the “stand in the shoes” trope was first advanced by Judy Solomon of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. It is based on a 180-degree misreading of Section 1321. If a state chooses not to dance, Section 1321 doesn’t instruct the federal government to step inside (read: commandeer) the state’s dancing shoes. It directs the federal government put on its own dancing shoes, and to follow all the dance steps listed in Title I. Since the language restricting tax credits to state-created Exchanges appears in—you guessed it—Title I, federal Exchanges are bound by that restriction.

Bagenstos’s second argument is that since it was not necessary for Congress to restrict tax credits to state-created Exchanges to overcome the “commandeering problem,” the statute does not do so. But that’s a non sequitur. Just because Congress didn’t have to do something doesn’t mean Congress didn’t do it. The express language of the statute says Congress did it.

Bagenstos’s third argument is that because the Senate Finance Committee didn’t have to restrict tax credits to state-created Exchanges in order to have jurisdiction to direct states to create them, the Committee-approved language—which is now law—must not do so. Again, that’s a non sequitur. And not only does the express language of the statute impose that restriction, but Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) admitted that’s what he was doing.

Along the way, Bagenstos contradicts himself, Baucus, and Timothy Jost by categorically claiming, “Nor is there any reason to think that Congress would have intended to treat participants in state- and federally-operated exchanges differently,” while conceding the commandeering problem and the Finance Committee’s limited jurisdiction are two reasons why Congress might have intended to do so.

Bagenstos’s interpretation of the statute violates the “mere surplusage” canon of statutory interpretation. It violates the expressio unius est exclusio alterius canon of statutory interpretation. It violates common sense.

Like others before him, Bagenstos offers no rebuttal to Baucus’s admission that the  statute means exactly what it says, and nothing whatsoever from the legislative history that supports the IRS’s attempt to violate the express language of the statute by imposing taxes that Congress never authorized.