Last month, Cato filed a brief in the D.C. Circuit case of Halbig v. Sebelius, supporting a challenge to the IRS’s unilateral and unauthorized decision to extend tax credits to individuals who purchased health insurance from exchanges that were not established by their state. Now we’re continuing out advocacy in this area by filing a brief, joined by the Pacific Research Institute and the American Civil Rights Union, supporting the challengers in a similar Fourth Circuit case.
Here’s the background: To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700 page law, these new tax rules have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counter-intuitive ways. As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of these new tax provisions, when combined with state decision-making and IRS rule-making, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem. The legislation’s Section 1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State”—as an incentive for states to create the exchanges—but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchanges, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where § 1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting § 1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges. This creative interpretation hurts individuals like David King, a 63-year-old resident of Virginia.
Because buying insurance would cost King more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance (the “tax” that you’ll recall Chief Justice Roberts devised in his NFIB v. Sebelius opinion). After the IRS expanded § 1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges (like Virginia), however, King could have bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the Roberts tax. King argues that he faces these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers.
In our latest brief, we argue that the IRS’s decision wasn’t just unauthorized, it was a blatant invasion of the powers exclusively awarded to Congress in Article I of the Constitution. This error was compounded by the district court’s holding that the IRS actions were lawful because, even if Obamacare explicitly restricts the availability of tax credits to states which set up their own exchanges, the expansion of tax-credit availability serves the law’s general purpose of making healthcare more affordable. By elevating its own perception of congressional purpose over the statutory text, the district court ignored the cardinal principle that legislative intent must be effected by the words Congress uses, not the words it may have meant or should have chosen to use.
In other words, if Congress wants to extend the tax credit, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers. This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decision-making, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress, or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (based in Richmond) will hear argument in King v. Sebelius in May.
To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700-page law, these new tax laws have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counterintuitive ways. As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of the new tax provisions, when combined with state decisionmaking and Interal Revenue Service rulemaking, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem.
Here’s the deal: The legislation’s §1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State.” The provision was supposed to be an incentive for states to create their own exchanges, but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchange, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where §1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting §1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges.
This creative interpretation most obviously hurts employers, who are fined for every employee who receives such a tax credit/subsidy to buy an exchange plan when their employer fails to comply with the mandate to provide health insurance. But it also hurts some individuals, such as David Klemencic, a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits challenging the IRS’s tax-credit rule. Klemencic lives in a state, West Virginia, that never established an exchange, and for various reasons he doesn’t want to buy any of the insurance options available to him. Because buying insurance would cost him more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance. After the IRS expanded §1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges, however, Klemencic could’ve bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the tax for not buying insurance.
Klemencic and his fellow plaintiffs argue that they face these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers by extending a tax credit not authorized by Congress. The district court rejected that argument, ruling that, under the highly deferential test courts apply to actions by administrative agencies, the IRS only had to show that its interpretation of §1311 was reasonable—which the court was satisfied it had.
Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have now filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on their appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. While it is manifestly the province of the judiciary to say “what the law is,” where the law’s text leaves no question as to its meaning—as is the case here with the phrase “established by the State”—it is neither right nor proper for a court to replace the laws passed by Congress with those of its own invention or the invention of civil servants. If Congress wants to extend the tax credit beyond the terms of the Affordable Care Act, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers.
This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decisionmaking, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.
Halbig v. Sebelius will be heard by the D.C. Circuit on March 25 (the same day that the Supreme Court hears the Hobby Lobby contraceptive-mandate cases).
Those engaged in my line of work – explaining and defending the Constitution, the most liberty-friendly system of governance yet devised – have been kept busy by the current occupant of the White House and the executive agencies he controls. President Obama’s signature health care legislation alone provides endless “teachable moments” regarding our founding document. To paraphrase Nancy Pelosi, the more we find out about Obamacare and its implementation, the more constitutional violations we find.
But if Obamacare is the biggest constitutional – let alone policy – disaster that Barack Obama has inflicted on the nation, it alas is far from the only one. As I put it in a new Forbes.com op-ed:
One of Barack Obama’s chief accomplishments has been to return the Constitution to a central place in our public discourse.
Unfortunately, the president fomented this upswing in civic interest not by talking up the constitutional aspects of his policy agenda, but by blatantly violating the strictures of our founding document. And he’s been most frustrated with the separation of powers, which doesn’t allow him to “fundamentally transform” the country without congressional acquiescence.
But that hasn’t stopped him. In its first term, the administration launched a “We Can’t Wait” initiative, with senior aide Dan Pfeiffer explaining that “when Congress won’t act, this president will.” And earlier this year, President Obama said in announcing his new economic plans that “I will not allow gridlock, or inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way.”
And so, as we reach the end of another year of political strife that’s fundamentally based on clashing views on the role of government in society, I thought I’d update a list I made two years ago and hereby present President Obama’s top 10 constitutional violations of 2013.
Here’s the list (only half of which is Obamacare-related):
A Wall Street Journal editorial surmises that Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster for non-Supreme Court judicial appointments so they could pack the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit with judges that would block an important ObamaCare case called Halbig v. Sebelius:
Democrats surprised Republicans in November with how quickly they dismantled the filibuster, and we are beginning to see why. Another major challenge to ObamaCare is being heard by a D.C. Circuit district judge, this time concerning whether subsidies can be delivered by the federal exchanges. Then there’s the new IRS proposed rule curtailing the political speech of 501(c)(4) groups. This rule will also probably make its way to the D.C. Circuit, and blocking GOP-leaning groups from politicking is part of the Democratic strategy for holding the Senate in 2014.
Democrats figure they have a better chance to win if they have more nominees on the appeals court—either in a three-judge panel or en banc. The plaintiffs could appeal to the Supreme Court if they lose, but you never know if the Justices will take a case.
Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan H. Adler and I laid the groundwork for Halbig and three other cases challenging President Obama’s attempt to tax Americans without congressional authorization in this law-journal article.
That’s what Department of Justice attorney Joel McElvain said in open court last week. And thus the Obama administration reversed itself once again on whether the individual mandate is a tax.
Relatedly, a Clinton-appointed federal judge has dealt a second blow to the IRS and the credibility of its defenders. He called one of the administration’s arguments ‘silly,’ and promised expedited consideration of the Obamacare challenge, Halbig v. Sebelius. Read all about these in my latest Darwin’s Fool post at Forbes.com.
Halbig v. Sebelius is one of two federal lawsuits challenging an illegal IRS rule that attempts to issue ObamaCare’s tax credits in the 34 states that have opted not to establish one of the law’s health insurance “exchanges.” Yesterday, attorneys for the Halbig plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, requested a hearing on that motion before October 1, and filed a second motion also seeking to expedite the case. The first motion requests:
an Order enjoining [the government], pending resolution of the litigation, from applying the IRS regulations extending eligibility for premium assistance subsidies under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to individuals who purchase health coverage through Exchanges established by the federal government.
If the court grants that request, ObamaCare implementation will come to a screeching halt.
The Halbig plaintiffs make a compelling case that the IRS is violating federal law, and that the court must resolve the issue before January 1, 2014. If a resolution comes after that date, the plaintiffs will be irreparably injured because they “will be forced either to comply with the ACA’s individual mandate or risk incurring a penalty, and…will further be entirely and forever precluded from purchasing catastrophic coverage for 2014.” In addition:
the balance of the equities and public interest both cut strongly in favor of resolving the legal validity of the IRS Rule now, before billions of taxpayer dollars are illegally expended and before employers make unalterable benefit decisions premised on the Rule. If a ruling invalidating the IRS Rule is delayed until after these events, the result would be utter chaos…It serves everyone’s interests—those of Plaintiffs, the Government, and the public alike—to obtain a prompt ruling on the legal validity of the IRS Rule, so that there will be no need subsequently to confront the logistical nightmare of trying to unscramble and undo the unlawful expenditure of billions of federal dollars. [Emphasis in original.]
Even if the government ultimately prevails, as health-benefits expert Thomas Haynes explains in a supplemental filing, it would unnecessarily and irreparably injure some employers and employees if that happens in 2014 instead of 2013. Brokers who are aware that the availability of these tax credits is uncertain in 34 states will counsel employers not to adjust their employee benefits to take advantage of that still-uncertain new landscape. Those employers and employees would then be locked into spending more on health insurance in 2014 than they would if the litigation had been resolved in 2013.
The Obama administration, however, is in no hurry. In Halbig, for example, government lawyers have blown through the legal deadlines for responding to key plaintiff motions, deadlines that passed months ago. Indeed, they appear to be using every tactic at their disposal to guarantee these cases will not be resolved this year.
Whether the Obama administration’s lawyers simply have a lot on their plate, or are intentionally trying to prejudice judges against ruling for the plaintiffs – by guaranteeing that such a ruling would result in maximum chaos – a preliminary injunction is in order.
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