An Insight Into Divisions over Administration Authority to Pay Obamacare Subsidies

A federal district judge ruled this month, in a lawsuit brought by House Republicans, that the Obama administration lacks the authority to pay cost-sharing subsidies to health insurers if Congress has not appropriated the funds. Some civil servants in the administration may agree.

The House Ways and Means Committee released a deposition Tuesday of David Fisher, former chief risk officer for the Internal Revenue Service. In it, Mr. Fisher recounts a series of events in late 2013 and early 2014 regarding the source and legality of Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies to insurers. The administration initially argued that the subsidies were subject to the budget sequester. By early 2014, however, it had shifted to the position that the cost-sharing subsidies were not subject to the sequester and could be paid under the appropriation authority for a separate program of premium subsidies created by the Affordable Care Act.

In the deposition, Mr. Fisher describes a January 2014 meeting at the Office of Management and Budget during which OMB staff showed—but did not allow IRS employees to retain—a memo ostensibly giving the federal government legal authority to combine the cost-sharing and premium subsidies. Mr. Fisher said the legal brief lacked a “single, main argument.” It was “almost a commentary on elements that, in total, would draw the conclusion that these payments out of the permanent appropriation would be appropriate.”

Mr. Fisher said he disagreed with OMB’s legal analysis and believed that there was “no clear reference” to an appropriation for the cost-sharing subsidies in the health-care law. He testified that the IRS’s chief financial officer and deputy chief financial officer shared his concerns. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen allowed employees to air those concerns soon after the OMB meeting, he said, but ultimately allowed the payments to proceed. Mr. Fisher testified that it was “a very strong consensus” of people in “fairly senior positions”—then-Attorney General Eric Holder had received a briefing, Mr. Fisher recalled—that the payments should proceed.

There is a notable point in the deposition: “There could be many other people who think this is about health care. To us,” Mr. Fisher said, referring to himself and others who shared his concerns, “this was not about health care.” The issue is abiding by appropriations law, he said, not least because the Anti-Deficiency Act provides criminal penalties for federal employees who spend funds not legally appropriated.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee objected that Mr. Fisher was subpoenaed to testify, with Rep. Sander Levin calling it “another effort by the majority to try to undermine the Affordable Care Act.” Mr. Fisher, though, testified that he views the issue through a different prism.

Shortly before the federal ruling this month, both the House Ways and Means and the Energy and Commerce Committees issued subpoenas for internal documents relating to the cost-sharing subsidies. The panels have sought these documents for 15 months. The internal deliberations and potential conflicts raised by Mr. Fisher’s testimony could be part of the reason the administration has not released all those documents. It appears that there were questions about the legality of the cost-sharing subsidies within as well as outside the Obama administration.

This post was originally published at the Wall Street Journal Think Tank blog.