Just when it seemed the legal onslaught against the Affordable Care Act was over, another lawsuit against key provisions of the 2010 healthcare law has gained unexpected traction. Last week, a federal judge refused to dismiss a case brought by the House GOP majority, which alleged that the Obama administration damaged the House’s constitutional prerogatives by spending money that Congress hadn’t appropriated on health insurance subsidies. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled that the House had the legal right to sue on that issue, although she won’t decide until later whether its complaint has merit.
The ruling, if it withstands appeal, would be the first to let a house of Congress sue the White House for allegedly harming the institution. The courts had previously held that Congress had no standing to sue the executive branch when it interprets a statute in a way lawmakers don’t like, and the Supreme Court had rejected an attempt by individual lawmakers to stop the president from usurping some of the powers of Congress.
The courts have no business entertaining the House’s lawsuit, which is really a political dispute gussied up to look like a constitutional fight over Congress’ exclusive power to write laws and to spend money. According to the House, the administration illegally rewrote the Affordable Care Act when it delayed the requirement that large businesses provide their workers health insurance, and it usurped Congress’ power of the purse by unilaterally funding the subsidies the law provides for low-income Americans’ out-of-pocket healthcare costs. Collyer dismissed the former claim, saying it boiled down to an issue of statutory interpretation. But the latter claim falls into the same category.
It’s true that lawmakers rejected the administration’s specific appropriations request for the subsidies. Nevertheless, the administration insists that a different, permanent appropriation for the Affordable Care Act’s premium tax credits covers the disputed subsidies as well. That’s exactly the sort of disagreement over statutory interpretation that lawmakers have not been allowed to take to court in the past.
If Republicans want to eliminate the subsidies, they need to change the section of the healthcare law that orders insurers to provide them at the federal government’s expense. Otherwise, Congress would be free to renege on its commitments simply by withholding the amount required to be paid by law. That would make a mockery of the statutory formulas for calculating every form of benefit the government provides, including retirement benefits and food stamps.
Worse, Republicans have seized upon Collyer’s ruling as an invitation to sue the administration over all sorts of disputes, starting with the Iran nuclear agreement. An appeals court should reverse her decision and keep the judiciary out of political fights between the other two branches.