Cato Maintains Opposition to IRS Lawlessness in Obamacare-Subsidies Case

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 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 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. On appeal, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the plain language of the ACA precluded the federal government from subsidizing the premiums of insurance policies obtained through federally established exchanges. Later that same day, the Fourth Circuit in King v. Burwell took the opposite position on the same question—from which ruling there is now a cert petition pending in the Supreme Court.

This circuit split did not last long, however, as the D.C. Circuit decided to vacate the panel opinion and rehear Halbig en banc (meaning all the court’s judges, not just a three-judge panel). Federal appellate rules say that such review “is not favored” and the D.C. Circuit has a particularly high bar, on average taking only one case per year en banc. Judge Harry Edwards, who dissented in the Halbig panel ruling, has taken great pains to reduce the number of en banc hearings. Even before he served as the D.C. Circuit’s chief judge, Edwards wrote in Bartlett v. Bowen (1987) that “the institutional cost of rehearing cases en banc is extraordinary” and that it “substantially delays the case being reheard, often with no clear principle emanating from the en banc court.” Nevertheless, the court took this step, vindicating President Obama’s strategy of packing the underworked D.C. Circuit after the Senate eliminated the filibuster for judicial nominees.

Cato and the Pacific Research Institute have filed a brief continuing our support for the plaintiffs on their appeal. 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’s 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 ACA, 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 en banc D.C. Circuit will hear argument in Halbig v. Burwell on December 17.