Tag: Constitution

Privacy Regulation and Political Economy

Good-hearted people want to cure hunger, ignorance, and other human deficits. Many see the cure in taking from the group of “haves” and giving to the “have-nots.” Along with the injustice of the transfer itself, libertarians like to point out the backward incentives that generous, systematic giving creates. Poverty and ignorance becomes a low-end, but survivable, mode of living. It’s not really a surprise that these problems respond to subsidy by becoming intractable.

That’s simple math to people who understand incentives, so it shouldn’t be hard to recognize incentive structures and their warping in other areas. Take federalism. The Constitution set out a design for government that aligned political incentives well. With a limited federal government and plenary powers left with the states, elected officials closer to the people would provide better government because they would be responsible to smaller numbers of people at the ballot box.

When state officials go wrong, good-hearted, economically-minded people want to cure their deficits. Many see the cure in removing power from the state level to the federal through preemption. State regulation can interfere with national markets, and there is a Commerce Clause that arguably permits national regulation of all things commercial.

But the Commerce Clause was not a grant of plenary authority over commerce anywhere in the United States. It gave Congress power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Think of a border sentry tasked mostly with preventing anyone from erecting gates.

One can “fix” bad state regulation by replacing it with a less-bad, nationally uniform rule. But doing so frees state officials from responsibility. The subsidy makes carelessness a low-end, but survivable mode of governing.

So with California Attorney General Kamala Harris brandishing $2,500 fines per download of apps in California if they don’t meet the terms of the California Online Privacy Protection Act, I don’t think the right answer is for the federal government to whisk in with its own less-bad privacy law that preempts California’s. The attorney general and the authors of California’s law should be allowed to let their behavior have its effects in their state, responding to their state’s voters if it has negative consequences.

The federal government’s only response should be to make clear that there are limits on California’s ability to bring out-of-staters into court. The federal government should preserve the right of people and businesses to exit states that make themselves unfriendly through high taxes, poor services, and inefficient regulation. This will set up the incentive structure under which governance in the United States will thrive, perhaps at the cost of California sinking into the ocean.

Does HHS Have the Authority to Tax Health Premiums in Federal Exchanges?

Remember how an adviser to the federal Department of Health and Human Services said the department would have to “get creative” on funding federal health insurance exchanges, because states were refusing to create their own and ObamaCare provides no source of funding for federal exchanges? Well, HHS released its very creative response in a Friday news dump today, and the answer is “user fees” of 3.5 percent on all health insurance plans sold through federal exchanges.

But is that a little too creative? Does HHS have the authority to tax health premiums in its exchanges? Here’s what the department’s proposed regulation says:

Federally-facilitated Exchange user fees: Section 1311(d)(5)(A) of the Affordable Care Act contemplates an Exchange charging assessments or user fees to participating issuers to generate funding to support its operations. As the operator of a Federally-facilitated Exchange, HHS has the authority, under this section of the statute, to collect and spend such user fees. In addition, 31 U.S.C. 9701 provides for an agency to establish a charge for a service provided by the agency. Office of Management and Budget Circular A-25 Revised (“Circular A-25R”) establishes Federal policy regarding user fees and specifies that a user charge will be assessed against each identifiable recipient for special benefits derived from Federal activities beyond those received by the general public. In this proposed rule, we establish a user fee for issuers participating in a Federally-facilitated Exchange.

I don’t know anything about 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R. But here’s the Section 1311(d)(5)(A) language upon which they rely:

NO FEDERAL FUNDS FOR CONTINUED OPERATIONS.—In establishing an Exchange under this section, the State shall ensure that such Exchange is self-sustaining beginning on January 1, 2015, including allowing the Exchange to charge assessments or user fees to participating health insurance issuers, or to otherwise generate funding, to support its operations.

A few thoughts:

  1. It is interesting that when the federal government wants to justify generating funds for their Exchanges’ operational expenses, they cite for authority a paragraph titled, “NO FEDERAL FUNDS FOR CONTINUED OPERATIONS.”
  2. The proposed regulation correctly notes that Section 1311(d)(5)(A) only “contemplates” state Exchanges charging assessments. It certainly doesn’t authorize states to make such assessments; states already have the authority to impose such levies. (They are states, after all.) Nor does it even direct states to levy user fees. It says, in essence, “You gotta fund this yourself. Here are a couple of methods. Knock yourselves out.” Since Section 1311(d)(5)(A) doesn’t give states the authority to levy such taxes, it’s hard to see how that paragraph translates into “HHS has the authority, under this section of the statute, to collect and spend such user fees” (emphasis added).
  3. Section 1311(d)(5)(A) speaks specifically of states. It makes no mention of the federal government. Lest anyone think its mention of “an Exchange” could refer to state or federal exchanges, I refer you four paragraphs up to Section 1311(d)(1), which imposes another “REQUIREMENT … An Exchange shall be a governmental agency or nonprofit entity that is established by a State.” Or is the federal government again claiming that it can establish an Exchange that is established by a state?

Again, I don’t know anything about 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R. But the fact that HHS also cited them makes me think they lack confidence in their claim that Section 1311(d)(5)(A) authorizes them to do this. And the fact that they listed them after their Section 1311(d)(5)(A) claim makes me wonder if they even weaker.

I’ll be looking into this. But I would be interested to hear from anyone with expertise in 31 U.S.C. 9701 or Circular A-25R.

‘By Far the Broadest and Potentially Most Damaging of the Legal Challenges’ to ObamaCare

That’s how Kaiser Health News describes the legal challenge that Jonathan Adler and I outline in this paper and that Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt has filed in federal court:

Supporters of the law scoff at the arguments…

But, confident of their case, some health law opponents, including Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve Law School, Michael Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute and National Affairs editor Yuval Levin, are urging Republican-led governments to refuse to set up the online insurance purchasing exchanges, which would, as the argument goes, make their residents ineligible for the tax credits and subsidies. They say that this step also would gut the so-called employer mandate, which the law says will take effect in states where residents are eligible for such assistance…

As even some health law supporters concede, the claim that Congress denied to the federal exchanges the power to distribute tax credits and subsidies seems correct as a literal reading of the most relevant provisions. Those are sections 1311, 1321, and 1401, which provide that people are eligible for tax credits and subsidies only if “enrolled … through an Exchange established by the state” [emphasis added].

It’s technically not correct to say that Oklahoma’s complaint is a challenge to ObamaCare, however. That complaint does not challenge a single jot or tittle of the statute. Oklahoma is asking a federal court to force the IRS to follow the statute, and to prevent the Obama administration from imposing taxes on Oklahoma residents whom Congress expressly exempted. Oklahoma’s complaint is indeed “the broadest and potentially most damaging of the legal challenges” related to ObamaCare. But think about it: if the only way to save ObamaCare from such a fate is to give the president extra-constitutional powers to tax and spend money without congressional authorization, just how unstable is this law? And is it really worth saving?

Also, the article is a few months behind on the debate over congressional intent, and our ongoing debate with Timothy Jost (who has reversed himself on quite a few issues).

But overall, a good article.

I Have Been False*

*According to PolitiFact.

In an unconscious parody of everything that’s wrong with the “fact-checker” movement in journalism, PolitiFact Georgia (a project of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) has rated false my claim that operating an ObamaCare Exchange would violate Georgia law. (For some of the “fact-checker” genre’s greatest worst hits, see Ben Domenech’s top 10 list.)

PolitiFact’s analysis is one-sided. It confuses opinions with facts. It was written with “no particular policy domain knowledge.” It therefore not only reaches the wrong result – it analyzes a claim I did not make and never would make.

PolitiFact began by saying that it was fact-checking the following claim, which I made in a November 9 opinion piece at National Review Online:

[O]perating an Obamacare exchange would be illegal in 14 states. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia have enacted either statutes or constitutional amendments (or both) forbidding state employees to participate in an essential exchange function: implementing Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates.

Lest anyone think I meant it would be illegal for the federal government to operate Exchanges in those states, the context and the text (“forbidding state employees”) of that opinion piece make it clear I was discussing whether states should establish Exchanges. Unfortunately, the context was lost on PolitiFact readers, because PolitiFact provided neither a citation nor a link to the opinion piece it was fact-checking.

In Georgia’s case, the relevant statute is that state’s version of the “Health Care Freedom Act” (GA. CODE ANN. § 31-1-11), enacted in 2010. It reads:

To preserve the freedom of citizens of this state to provide for their health care: No law or rule or regulation shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system.

The statute defines “compel” as including “ ‘penalties or fines.”

PolitiFact notes that I cited that provision to “an Atlanta Journal-Constitution health reporter [Carrie Teegardin] via email.” Thus PolitiFact presumably had access to the rest of my November 9 email to Teegardin, in which I explained why that provision precludes Georgia from establishing an ObamaCare Exchange:

Determining eligibility for and distributing ObamaCare’s “premium assistance tax credits” is a key function of an Exchange. Those tax credits trigger penalties against employers (under the employer mandate) and residents (under the individual mandate).

Indeed, there are many ways Exchanges assist the federal government in the enforcement of those mandates. State-run Exchanges must report to the IRS on which residents have dropped their coverage and when (Section 1311(d)(4)(I)). State-run Exchanges must notify employers when one of their employees receives a tax credit  (Section 1411(e)(4)(B)(iii)). That very notification triggers penalties against the employer (Section 1513/I.R.C. Section 4980H(a)). State-run Exchanges must collect all the information the federal government needs to determine eligibility for tax credits and deliver it to the federal government (Section 1401/I.R.C. Section 36B(f)(3)) – a crucial component of enforcing both the individual and employer mandates. The  Secretary can require state-run Exchanges to verify that information for the federal government (Section 1411(d)), and state-run Exchanges must resolve any inconsistencies between the information provided by applicants and official records (Section 1411(e)). If a state-run Exchange can’t resolve an inconsistency between the application and the official records within a certain time period, it has to notify residents that they will be penalized under the individual mandate (Section 1411(e)(4)(B)(iv)). State-run Exchanges must maintain an appeals process for individuals and employers who believe they were wrongly assessed penalties (Section 1411(f)).

My email to Teegardin continued:

Ergo, if Georgia establishes an Exchange, then a Georgia law and state employees would be indirectly compelling employers and residents to participate in a health care system.

In other words, the activities required of an ObamaCare Exchange are exactly the sorts of things that the Health Care Freedom Acts in Georgia and 13 other states exist to prohibit those states’ employees from doing. In a November 15 opinion piece Atlanta Journal-Constitution, no less, I reiterated that same point: legislatures and voters in those 14 states have enacted state laws that make it illegal (and in some cases unconstitutional) for state employees to operate an ObamaCare Exchange.

Rather than evaluate that claim, PolitiFact asked a handful of Georgia scholars about something completely different: whether Georgia’s Health Care Freedom Act prevents the federal government from creating an Exchange for Georgia, or otherwise trumps federal law. It’s difficult to see how anyone who had read my two opinion pieces, much less my email to Teegardin, could think I was saying anything of the sort. Of course such a claim would be false; that’s why I never made it. (ObamaCare does itself give each state the power to stop the federal government from running an Exchange within its borders. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Then again, I could have set them straight. PolitiFact contacted me for help with this “fact-check.” I politely refused, citing my ongoing boycott of their organization. One might say my refusal to assist with this “fact-check” means I have no right to complain.

Another way of looking at it is that this episode validates my boycott. Consider how they responded to my refusal to help: Cannon won’t speak to us because he says we’re not reputable. Should we try to find someone else who might argue his side? Nah. PolitiFact could have proven me wrong by conducting a thorough analysis. Off the top of my head, I can think of seven other experts they might have consulted. A simple online search would have produced two attorneys who have threatened to sue the State of Arizona under the Health Care Freedom Amendment to its Constitution if state officials establish an Exchange. Instead, PolitiFact considered a discussion of my email auto-signature – “Tyrannis delenda est” – more worthy of inclusion in their “fact-check” than another expert who would take up my side.

My boycott of PolitiFact hasn’t succeeded in bringing about the desired behavior change. But if they keep this up, I don’t see how I can fail.

Why ‘Obamacare’s Critics Refuse to Give Up’

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.

Over at The New Republic’s blog The Plank, my friend Jonathan Cohn says this is “preposterous”:

No sentient being following the health care debate could argue, in good faith, that Obamacare’s architects intended for the federal government to set up exchanges without subsidies. It would completely subvert the law’s intent.

It appears my friend does not know the statute, the legislative history, or what Congress’ intent was.

Cohn writes that the statute is “a little fuzzy” on this issue. Quite the contrary: the 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). The tax-credit eligibility rules are so tightly worded, they seem designed to prevent precisely what the IRS is trying to do.

ObamaCare supporters just know that can’t be right. It must have been an oversight. Congress could not have written the law that way. It doesn’t make any sense. Those provisions must take effect in federal Exchanges for the law to work. Why would Congress give states the power to blow the whole thing up??

The answer is that Congress didn’t have any choice. Congress intended for ObamaCare to work this way because this was the only way that ObamaCare could become law.

  • The Senate bill had to have state-run Exchanges in order to win the essential votes of moderate Democrats. Without state-run Exchanges, it would not have passed.
  • In order to have state-run Exchanges, the bill needed some way to encourage states to create them without “commandeering” the states. In early 2009, well before House and Senate Democrats introduced their bills, an influential law professor named Timothy Jost advised congressional Democrats of one way to get around the commandeering problem: “Congress could invite state participation…by offering tax subsidies for insurance only in states that complied with federal requirements…”. Both the Finance bill and the HELP bill made premium assistance conditional on state compliance. Senate Democrats settled on the Finance language, which passed without a vote to spare. (Emphasis added.)
  • The Finance Committee had even more reason to condition tax credits on state compliance: it doesn’t have direct jurisdiction over health insurance. Conditioning the tax credits on state compliance was the only way the Committee could even consider legislation directing states to establish Exchanges. Committee chairman Max Baucus admitted this during mark-up.
  • Then something funny happened. Massachusetts voters sent Republican Scott Brown to the Senate, partly due to his pledge to prevent any compromise between the House and Senate bills from passing the Senate. With no other options, House Democrats swallowed hard and passed Senate bill. (They made limited amendments through the reconciliation process. These amendments did not touch the tax-credit eligibility rules, and indeed strengthen the case against the IRS.)

A law limiting tax credits to state-created Exchanges, therefore, is exactly what Congress intended, because Congress had no other choice. On the day Scott Brown took office, any and all other approaches to Exchanges ceased to embody congressional intent. If Congress had intended for some other approach to become law, there would be no law. What made it all palatable was that it never occurred to ObamaCare supporters that states would refuse to comply. The New York Times reports, “Mr. Obama and lawmakers assumed that every state would set up its own exchange.”

Oops.

The only preposterous parts of this debate are the legal theories that the IRS and its defenders have offered to support the Obama administration’s unlawful attempt to create entitlements and impose taxes that Congress clearly and intentionally did not authorize. (But don’t take my word for it. Read the statute. Read our paper. Read this, and this. Watch this video and our debate with Jost. Click on our links to all the stuff the IRS and Treasury and Jost have written.) I wonder if Cohn would tolerate such lawlessness from a Republican administration.

Cohn further claims the many states that are refusing to create Exchanges are “totally sticking it to their own citizens” and people who encourage them “are essentially calling upon states to block their citizens from receiving federal tax breaks, worth as much as several thousand dollars per person. Aren’t conservatives and libertarians supposed to be the party that likes giving tax money back to the people?” Seriously?

  • Fourteen states have enacted statutes or constitutional amendments – often by referendum, often by huge margins – that prohibit state employees from directly or indirectly participating in an essential Exchange function: implementing employer or individual mandates. In those instances, the voters have spoken.
  • Only 22 percent of the budgetary impact of these credits and subsidies is actual tax reduction, and the employer- and individual-mandate penalties triggered by those tax “credits” wipe out most of that. The other 78 percent is new deficit spending. So what we’re really talking about here is $700 billion of new deficit spending.
  • When states refuse to establish Exchanges, they block that new spending, which reduces the deficit and the overall burden of government.
  • In addition, those states exempt their employers from the employer mandate (a tax of $2,000 per worker) and exempt millions of taxpayers from the individual mandate (a tax of $2,085 on families of four earning as little as $24,000).

Who’s for tax cuts now?

Here’s what I think is really bothering Cohn and other ObamaCare supporters. The purpose of those credits and subsidies is to shift the cost of ObamaCare’s community-rating price controls and individual mandate to taxpayers, so that consumers don’t notice them. When states prevent such cost-shifting, they’re not increasing the cost of ObamaCare – they’re revealing it.

And that’s what worries Cohn. If the full cost of ObamaCare appears in people’s health insurance premiums, people will rise up and demand that Congress get rid of it. Cohn isn’t worried about states “sticking it to their citizens.” He’s worried about states sticking it to ObamaCare.

The title of Cohn’s blog post is, “Obamacare’s Critics Refuse to Give Up.” At least we can agree on that much.

Operating an ObamaCare ‘Exchange’ Would Violate Ohio’s Constitution

Unconfirmed reports indicate Ohio officials are considering implementation of an ObamaCare health insurance “exchange.” That would be very interesting if true, because operating an ObamaCare exchange would violate the state’s constitution.

Section 21 of the Ohio Constitution provides:

No federal, state, or local law or rule shall compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in a health care system…

“Compel” includes the levying of penalties or fines.

In order to operate an exchange, Ohio employees would have to determine eligibility for ObamaCare’s “premium assistance tax credits.” Those tax credits trigger penalties against employers (under the employer mandate) and residents (under the individual mandate). In addition, Ohio employees would have to determine whether employers’ health benefits are “affordable.” A negative determination results in fines against the employer. These are key functions of an exchange.

Ergo, if Ohio passes a law establishing an exchange, then that law would violate the state’s constitution by indirectly compelling employers and individual residents to participate in a health care system. That sort of law seems precisely what Section 21 exists to prevent.

As I explain in a recent column, 13 other states have passed statutes or constitutional amendments (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia) that bar state employees from carrying out these essential functions of an ObamaCare exchange.