The Obama administration has no idea how many people are currently enrolled [in exchanges] but they keep cutting checks for hundreds of millions of dollars a month for insurance subsidies for people who may or may not have paid their premium, continued their insurance, or are even legal residents.
And if you think they’re doing those “enrollees” a favor, remember that if it turns out a recipient wasn’t eligible for the subsidy, he or she has to pay the money back.
Surprised? Don’t be. This is part of a deliberate, consistent strategy by the Obama administration to throw money at individual voters and key health care industry groups—lawfully or not—to buy support for this consistently unpopular law.
My reaction to the D.C. Circuit’s decision to grant en banc review of Halbig v. Burwell in a nutshell:
If you want to go outside the nutshell, where I unpack all this with more words and facts and links, go here.
When the Affordable Care Act was being debated in Congress, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi infamously insisted that “we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.” It turns out, however, that the Obama administration—which has been making it up as it goes along with regard to ACA enforcement—doesn’t care “what’s in it.”
The IRS in particular has been implementing Obamacare as it thinks the law should be, not as it is. The ACA encourages states to establish health insurance exchanges by offering people who get their health coverage “through an Exchange established by the State” a tax credit—a subsidy to help them pay their premium. In the event a state declines to establish an exchange, Section 1321 further empowers the Department of Health and Human Services to establish federal exchange in states that decline to establish their own exchanges (without providing for the premium subsidy).
When, contrary to the expectations of the law’s achitects, 34 states declined to establish an exchange—two more have since failed—the IRS decided that those getting their insurance on federally established exchanges should qualify for tax credits regardless of the statutory text. In conflict with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a similar case called Halbig v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit in King v. Burwell found the legal text to be ambiguous and thus deferred to the IRS interpretation.
The so-called Chevron doctrine counsels that statutory text controls when Congress has spoken clearly on an issue. But where Congress is ambiguous or silent, the agency can fill the regulatory gap with its own rules and policies. The problem here is that the ACA’s text was not ambiguous and there is no evidence that Congress intended to delegate to the IRS the power to determine whether billions of taxpayer dollars should annually be dispersed to those purchasing health care coverage on federal exchanges. That the Fourth Circuit has bent over backwards to accommodate the administration’s latest Obamacare “fix shows that it, too, is not so concerned with “what’s in” the law.
To that end, Cato joined four other organizations to support the plaintiffs’ petition for review by the Supreme Court. Our brief argues that the Court should hear the case because it offers the opportunity to reverse potentially grave harm to the separation of powers, to correct a misapplication of the Chevron doctrine, and to restore the idea that drastically altering the operation of a major legislative act belongs to the political process and not in a back rooms of an administrative agency. Just because those who voted for the ACA didn’t care what it said doesn’t mean that the executive and judicial branches should also turn a blind eye.
To see the legal machinations now at play in these cases regarding the Obamacare-IRS-tax-credit, see my recent op-ed in the National Law Journal. Since that was published this past Monday, the government received a 30-day extension in which it has to file its response to the King cert petition. That means that the Supreme Court will be considering at some point next month whether to take the case.
Yale law professor Linda Greenhouse is a former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent and now writes a legal column for the Times. Today, she writes about Halbig v. Burwell. For my latest on Halbig and similar cases, see here. Now Greenhouse, who argues these cases are just about gutting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act:
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with turning to the courts to achieve what politics won’t deliver; we all know that litigation is politics by other means. (Think school desegregation. Think reproductive rights. Think, perhaps, same-sex marriage.) Nor is the creativity and determination of the Affordable Care Act’s opponents any great revelation — not after they came within a hairsbreadth of getting the law’s individual mandate thrown out on a constitutional theory that would have been laughed out of court not too many years ago.
Boy, are they ever determined.
I accept the compliment, with one proviso. The stakes in the Halbig cases are much bigger than the PPACA. The IRS is subjecting those plaintiffs to taxes from which, as Greenhouse implicitly admits, the operative language of the statute would exempt them. The plaintiffs have a right not to be taxed unless Congress expressly grants the IRS that power. A federal judge whom Greenhouse respects (Thomas Griffith) surveyed the IRS’s rationales for subjecting tens of millions of Americans to those taxes, found those rationales to be meritless, and essentially ruled that the IRS is violating the law on a massive scale. If preventing the executive branch from exceeding its lawful powers is just “politics by other means,” then so are the habeas corpus cases Greenhouse approvingly cites.
Unfortunately, when Greenhouse takes the government’s side in Halbig, it seems to be on the basis that, “Of course there are ambiguities and inconsistencies in a 900-page bill that never went to a conference committee for a final stitching together of its many provisions.” That probably is true, but it does not follow that the statute is ambiguous or inconsistent with regard to the question presented in Halbig. The government certainly has asserted such ambiguities and inconsistencies exist. Yet a closer look at the government’s arguments shows that the specific provisions it cites are all quite consistent with the language authorizing subsidies only to those who buy coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.”
Greenhouse also commits an error as well as her own inconsistency. She claims the phrase “through an Exchange established by the State” appears only once in the subsidy-eligibility rules. In fact, it appears explicity twice: one mention appeared in the first draft of those rules; Senate Democrats added the second just before final Senate passage (which all by itself suggests they knew exactly what they were doing). Moreover, that phrase appears seven more times by cross-reference. And the subsidy-eligibility rules do not use any other language – at all – to describe the Exchanges through which the law authorizes subsidies. All of which evince a clear meaning and purpose: to offer subsidies only in states that comply with Congress’ desire that they should establish Exchanges.
Greenhouse’s inconsistency occurs when she (incorrectly) claims, “the two [Halbig] judges trained a laser focus on a single section, indeed on a single word, in the massive statute…ignor[ing] the broader context, in which Congress clearly intended to make insurance affordable[.]” The habeas corpus cases with which Greenhouse apparently agrees also focused on a single phrase – one could argue, a single word – in the Constitution. Would she criticize those cases for failing to uphold the overarching purpose of the Constitution – which appears right there in the preamble – to “insure domestic Tranquillity” and “provide for the common defense”?
I wrote Greenhouse to thank her for her column, which was far more respectful and gracious than many Halbig critics have been. I thought it might be fruitful to offer to debate these cases with her. She respectfully declined, but noted there is a movement afoot to bring my coauthor Jonathan Adler to New Haven for that purpose. Watch this space for development.
Update: I neglected to mention, because I failed to notice, another error in Greenhouse’s oped. She refers to the “failed Commerce Clause” attack on the PPACA brought under NFIB v. Sebelius. As constitutional-law aficionados and health-policy wonks know, the plaintiffs’ claim that the individual mandate exceeded Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause succeeded (even if the overall attack on the individual mandate failed on account of Chief Justice John Roberts redefining the mandate penalty as a tax).
Over at Darwin’s Fool, I posted a critique of the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in King v. Burwell. Unlike the D.C. Circuit’s ruling in Halbig v. Burwell, the Fourth Circuit held that the IRS has the authority to issue subsidies in states with federal exchanges, despite the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act repeatedly says subsidy recipients must enroll in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.” I reproduce here my response to a commenter to that post, as his argument parallels those of many others who have been critical of these cases.
My commenter objected that a plain-text reading “must include the entire text of the bill,” which “makes clear that the goal of the bill was to provide health care to all Americans who needed it and could not, at that time get it.” Moreover, “It would be illogical for Congress to establish a national health care system that is based on subsidies and then not include those subsidies in all aspects,” thus “it is entirely reasonable to interpret that one sentence to mean that Congress intended the subsidies for all participants.” My reply:
Sir, I’m afraid you have things exactly backward.
The overall context of the PPACA presents no difficulty for the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, Halbig v. Burwell, or the other cases challenging subsidies in federal exchanges. The text of the eligibility rules for those subsidies clearly and repeatedly limit eligibility to those who enroll in coverage “through an Exchange established by the State.” There is nothing in the broader context of the statute to suggest that Congress understood the words “established by the State” to have any meaning other than their usual meaning. There isn’t even any statutory language that conflicts with that plain meaning. Jonathan Adler and I addressed (almost) all of these supposed anomalies here.
On the contrary, it is the Obama administration and its supporters for whom both the text and context present difficulties. (We can no longer call them supporters of the PPACA, given how adamantly opposed they are to implementing the law as Congress intended.) The subsidy-eligibility rules are the only place where Congress spoke directly to the question at issue. Those rules flatly contradict the administration’s position. Congress did not throw the phrase “established by the State” around loosely. They referred to exchanges “established by the State” when they meant exchanges established by the states. They referred generically to “an Exchange” when they meant either a state-established or a federal exchange. And they referred to state-established and federally established exchanges separately within a single provision, which shows they saw a difference between the two. Congress also did the exact same thing – withholding subsidies from residents of uncooperative states – in the PPACA’s other massive new entitlement program, the Medicaid expansion.
Writing in the Washington Post about the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Halbig v. Burwell, E. J. Dionne Jr. bemoans
a conservative judiciary that will use any argument it can muster to win ideological victories that elude their side in the elected branches of our government.
There are several problems with his argument. First, of course, the argument accepted by two judges on the D.C. Circuit is pretty strong: the IRS can’t rewrite a law just because because the law isn’t working out so well.
Second, it’s not so clear that it’s conservatives who couldn’t “win ideological victories … in the elected branches of our government.” Democrats in Congress and other ACA supporters wanted states to establish exchanges, so they wrote the law with subsidies for state exchanges. (See also this original paper by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, especially pp. 142ff.) But because of widespread opposition to the law, many states chose not to set up exchanges. That is, supporters of the law were unable to “win ideological victories … in the elected branches of our government,” so they turned to the unelected bureaucracy to rewrite the law, and now they want the courts to uphold their end run around the legislative process.
Third, I wonder if E. J. Dionne Jr. really wants a judiciary that rolls over for the political branches, whether legislative or executive. Does he believe that the Warren Court should not have struck down school segregation, which was clearly the will of the people’s elected representatives–and no doubt the people–in Kansas, as well as in South Carolina and Virginia, whose similar cases were combined with Brown? Does he believe that the Supreme Court was wrong to strike down Virginia’s law against interracial marriage in 1967? The Texas law outlawing sodomy in 2003? Does he regret the Supreme Court’s reining in of the Bush administration’s claimed powers in several terrorism cases? Or the court’s 2013 rulings on gay marriage?
Probably not. And that’s why we should judge judicial decisions on the basis of their adherence to the law and the Constitution, not on political grounds. Three cheers for judges who uphold the rule of law without fear or favor and without political intent.
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