Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, materializing as a voice of sanity from the Republican Party of yore, says the GOP should act to save the Affordable Care Act if a crucial provision is upset by the Supreme Court.
Speaking Thursday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, the Mississippi Republican acknowledged that the controversy before the court now requires a "technical correction," and that Republicans should make it as a matter of routine--as it did in the days before hyper-partisanship swept the party. "On a major bill, we'd have technical corrections, right?" he said, as quoted by the Huffington Post. "Almost immediately [we'd correct them]."
Lott, it might be recalled, was no left-wing Republican but a conservative stalwart of the GOP leadership during his years in Congress. He resigned in 2007 and became one of Washington's most prominent corporate lobbyists. He has said he would have voted against the Affordable Care Act, but also called himself a "mainstream Republican" with "a philosophy of trying to get things done."
At issue is the case of King v. Burwell, on which the court is expected to rule this summer. Plaintiffs in the case, conservative opponents of the ACA, maintain that a single three-word reference in the law was designed to bar federal subsidies in states that relied on the federal government to operate insurance exchanges within their borders.
The interpretation is contradicted by the congressional drafters of the bill, officials in states that chose not to set up their own exchanges, and a huge cadre of legal and constitutional experts. At worst, they say, the language is a drafting glitch that makes the rest of the law inoperative; since that couldn't be Congress's intent, traditional principles of statutory interpretation say it should be ignored.
If the Supreme Court agrees with the plaintiffs, that would strip tax subsidies from as many as 7 million residents of 37 states, driving their premiums to unaffordable heights. In that event the insurance markets would almost certainly collapse in those states, an outcome evidently welcomed by the promoters of the King lawsuit.
That prospect could be nullified, of course, by the technical fix advocated by Lott, clarifying Congress's intent and removing the ambiguity. We suggested something of the sort last month, achievable by modest legislative horse-trading of the old school. That's been impossible ever since passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, as congressional Republicans have refused to consider any changes to the law short of repeal. The incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reiterated that position this week, when he said that a Supreme Court ruling against the subsidies would set the stage "for a very large comprehensive revisitation of the whole issue...a major do-over."
Those remarks came as evidence mounted that the ACA is achieving exactly what it was designed to do: It has reduced the ranks of the uninsured by more than 10 million Americans, a drop of nearly one-third in the uninsurance rate; it has contributed to a moderation in healthcare cost inflation; saved lives by reducing hospital errors; and increased competition in the individual insurance market, restraining premium increases. The comprehensive "do-over" advocated by McConnell would likely undo those gains.