Legal Briefs

Hall v. Sebelius

When Brian Hall, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and other over-65 retirees requested to opt out of Medicare’s hospital insurance coverage (because they preferred their existing private coverage), the Social Security Administration didn’t thank them for saving taxpayers’ money. Instead, the SSA explained that, because of a guideline in its “Program Operations Manual System” — essentially a manual that explains how to operate the Social Security system — anyone who declined Medicare benefits would lose Social Security. That is, Hall and the others could disclaim their Medicare hospital insurance coverage but only if they forfeited all of their future claims to Social Security and repaid whatever benefits they already had received — roughly $280,000 altogether. The plaintiffs challenged the linking of Social Security and Medicare as being beyond the SSA’s statutory authority. Neither the Social Security Act nor the Medicare Act allows administrative agencies to precondition benefits under one program on acceptance of benefits from other. Instead, the plain language of both statutes states that petitioners are “entitled” to benefits, which according to legal and general usage describes someone who is “legally qualified” and thus has the option of claiming benefits. The district court disagreed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in a split decision, affirmed the trial court’s result but declined to grant the POMS rules deference. The court then unanimously denied a petition for rehearing. Recognizing that the D.C. Circuit ruling, if left in place, could encourage future encroachments on congressional power by administrative agencies, Cato filed an amicus brief supporting Hall’s request that the Supreme Court take the case and enforce the statute as it was written. We note that administrative agencies have no powers not granted to them by Congress and that regulations must be anchored in the operative statute — as well as the agency’s fair and considered judgment — in order to warrant judicial deference. The POMS regulation fails this standard because Congress’s use of the word “entitled” was clear and unambiguous. Combined with the fiscal irresponsibility of forcing citizen to accept costly benefits in an economic recession, the POMS rule appears to be an arbitrary power grab rather than a faithful effort to implement the will of Congress. We conclude by reminding the Court that agency overreach imperils the separation of powers and therefore liberty. When Congress fails to counter an unauthorized expansion of power by an administrative agency, the judiciary has a duty to uphold the Constitution by enforcing the relevant statute as written.

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