Examining the Origins of “Robertscare”

In the end, applesauce won over baseball. Fourteen years ago, during Senate hearings regarding his nomination as chief justice of the United States, John Roberts used a baseball metaphor to explain his view of judges’ modest role:

Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire…I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat.

On two major cases related to President Obama’s signature health care law, however, Roberts violated his 2005 pledge, wriggling himself into lexicographical contortions to uphold the measure passed by Congress. As his then-colleague Justice Antonin Scalia noted in the second ruling—which posited that the phrase “Exchange established by the state” applied to exchanges not established by states—upholding Obamacare caused Roberts to embrace “pure applesauce.”

Political Flip-Flop

She writes that he initially voted with the four other conservatives to strike down the ACA, on the grounds that it went beyond Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. Likewise, he initially voted to uphold the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid. But Roberts, who kept the opinion for himself to write, soon developed second thoughts.

Biskupic, who interviewed many of the justices for this book, including her subject, writes that Roberts said he felt ‘torn between his heart and his head.’ He harbored strong views on the limitations of congressional power, but hesitated to interject the Court into the ongoing health-insurance crisis. After trying unsuccessfully to find a middle way with Kennedy, who was ‘unusually firm’ and even ‘put off’ by the courtship, Roberts turned to the Court’s two moderate liberals, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. The threesome negotiated a compromise decision that upheld the ACA’s individual mandate under Congress’s taxing power, while striking down the Medicaid expansion.

On the day of the ruling in June 2012, Chris Cillizza, then writing for The Washington Post, claimed that Roberts’ opinion “made good on his pledge to referee the game, not play it.” But the story Biskupic tells, which confirms prior reporting by Jan Crawford published shortly after the ruling, contradicts Cillizza’s view entirely. Roberts’ entire approach to the case consisted of playing games—and highly political ones at that.

The tenor of the passage reinforces how Roberts abandoned his stated principles in NFIB. Over and above talk of “the ongoing health insurance crisis” (perhaps a rhetorical flourish inserted by a liberal Atlantic writer) Roberts had no business feeling “torn between his heart and his head,” let alone stating as much to a reporter. Judges can feel both empathy and sympathy for parties in the courtroom and at the implications of their rulings. But facts remain facts, the law remains the law. Lady Justice remains blind for a reason.

An umpire—or a good umpire, at least—should make calls without fear or favor. If that means calling a third strike against the star slugger for the last out of the World Series, so be it. By his own admission, Roberts let factors outside the law determine his vote in the case. He abandoned his key test at a time when he should have followed it most closely.

Roberts’ Judicial Arrogance

I took that position not because I agree with Obamacare, but because Congress in 2017 decided to set the mandate penalty to zero while maintaining the rest of the law. Of course, Congress had taken no such action clarifying its intent on the law at the time of the ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius.

If the current lawsuit represents judicial activism, asking judges to take an action that Congress explicitly declined to embrace, then Roberts’ 2012 decision to uphold the individual mandate represents an act of judicial cowardice, running for cover and hiding rather than taking the decision that the law requires. For that reason alone, conservatives should refer to the law as “Robertscare”—for the justice who went out of his way to save it—rather than Obamacare. It shall stand as his epitaph.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

What You Need to Know About Friday’s Court Ruling

Late Friday evening, a judge in Texas handed down his ruling in the latest Obamacare lawsuit. Here’s what you need to know about the ruling (if interested, you can read the opinion here), and what might happen next:

What Did the Judge Decide?

The opinion contained analyzed two different issues—the constitutionality of the individual mandate, and whether the rest of Obamacare could survive without the individual mandate (i.e., severability). In the first half of his opinion, Judge Reed O’Connor ruled the mandate unconstitutional.

Wait—Haven’t Courts Ruled on the Individual Mandate Before?

Yes—and no. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate constitutional. In his majority opinion for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts (in)famously concluded that, even though Obamacare’s authors proclaimed the mandate was not a tax—and said as much in the law—the mandate had the characteristics of a tax. Even though Roberts concluded that the mandate exceeded Congress’ constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause, he upheld it as a constitutional exercise of Congress’ power to tax.

However, in the tax bill last year Congress set the mandate penalty to zero, beginning on January 1, 2019. The plaintiffs argued that, because the mandate will no longer bring in revenue for the federal government, it no longer qualifies as a tax. Because the mandate will not function as a tax, and violates Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, the plaintiffs argued that the court should declare the mandate unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge O’Connor agreed with this logic, and struck down the mandate.

What Impact Would Striking Down the Mandate Have?

Not much, seeing as how the penalty falls to zero in two weeks’ time. Striking the mandate from the statute books officially, as opposed to merely setting the penalty at zero, would only affect those individuals who feel an obligation to follow the law, even without a penalty for violating that law. In setting their premiums for 2019, most insurers have already assumed the mandate goes away.

Then Why Is This Ruling Front Page News?

If the court case hinged solely on whether or not the (already-defanged) mandate should get stricken entirely, few would care—indeed, the plaintiffs may not have brought it in the first place. Instead, the main question in this case focuses on severability—the question of whether, and how much, of the law can be severed from the mandate, if the mandate is declared unconstitutional.

What Happened on Severability?

Judge O’Connor quoted heavily from opinions in the prior 2012 Supreme Court case, particularly the joint dissent by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. He ruled that the justices viewed the mandate as an “essential” part of Obamacare, that the main pillars of the law were inseparable from the mandate.

The judge also noted that some of the lesser elements of Obamacare (e.g., calorie counts on restaurant menus, etc.) hitched a ride on a “moving target,” that he could not—and should not—attempt to determine which would have passed on their own. Therefore, he ruled that the entire law must be stricken.

Haven’t Things Changed Since the 2012 Ruling?

Last year, Congress famously couldn’t agree on how to “repeal-and-replace” Obamacare—but then voted to set the mandate penalty to zero. A bipartisan group of legal scholars argued in this case that, because Congress eliminated the mandate penalty but left the rest of the law intact, courts should defer to Congress’ more recent judgment. Judge O’Connor disagreed.

What Happens Now?

Good question. Judge O’Connor did NOT issue an injunction with his ruling, so the law remains in effect. The White House released a statement saying as much—that it would continue to enforce the law as written pending likely appeals.

On the appeal front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general who intervened in the suit will likely request a hearing from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. From there the Supreme Court could decide to rule on the case.

Will Appellate Courts Agree with This Ruling and Strike Down Obamacare?

As the saying goes, past performance is no predictor of future results. However, it is worth noting two important facts:

1.      The five justice majority that upheld most of the law—John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotamayor—all remain on the Supreme Court.
2.      As noted above, Chief Justice Roberts went through what many conservatives attacked as a bout of legal sophistry—calling the mandate a tax, even though Congress expressly said it wasn’t—to uphold the law, more than a year before its main provisions took effect.

What About Pre-Existing Conditions?

On Friday evening, President Trump asked for Congress to pass a measure that “protects pre-existing conditions.”

I have outlined other alternatives to Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions. However, as I have explained at length over the past 18 months, if Republicans want to retain—or in this case reinstate—Obamacare’s treatment of pre-existing conditions, then they are failing in their promise to repeal the law.

“SCOTUSCare” Redux? How Brett Kavanaugh Helped Uphold Obamacare

In a 2015 dissent to an Obamacare case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously opined that the court had concluded “that this limitation would prevent the rest of [Obamacare] from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law.… We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”

Last week’s retirement announcement from Justice Anthony Kennedy, coupled with news placing Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, high on President Trump’s list to replace Kennedy, has drawn attention back to the legal wrangling over the law. Some observers have claimed that Kavanaugh, in a 2011 opinion written when the D.C. Circuit considered Obamacare’s constitutionality, supported the law’s individual mandate.

Extended Discussion of the Anti-Injunction Act

Most of Kavanaugh’s opinion discusses interpretations of statute that hardly qualify as an enlightening discourse of constitutional principles. Whereas his two circuit court colleagues upheld the mandate as a valid exercise of Congress’ power under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, Kavanaugh “dissent[ed] as to jurisdiction and [did] not decide the merits.”

Kavanaugh’s dissent arose from his belief that the 1867 Anti-Injunction Act precluded the court from deciding the merits of the individual mandate. The Anti-Injunction Act prevents individuals from challenging the validity of taxes in court until after they have paid them, which if applied to Obamacare’s mandate (which took effect in 2014) meant that a court challenge would not ripen until individuals had paid the mandate penalty on their taxes—i.e., in spring 2015, or nearly four years after the D.C. Circuit ruling.

Kavanaugh spends the better part of 50 pages—longer than the majority opinion justifying the mandate as constitutional—analyzing the Internal Revenue Code, and the Anti-Injunction Act, to support his belief that the mandate qualified as a tax under the act, forestalling any legal or constitutional challenge until after individuals had paid it. He cautions “the reader that some of the following is not for the faint of heart”—a true enough warning, as much of the opinion devolves into tedium that only a tax lawyer could love.

While Roberts disagreed with Kavanaugh’s reasoning about applying the Anti-Injunction Act to the Obamacare mandate, such differences over the interpretation of a 150-year-old statute hardly rise to the level of disqualifying for a potential Supreme Court nominee.

A Bit of Judicial Restraint…

Indeed, three-quarters of Kavanaugh’s ruling provides a worthy defense of judicial restraint—judges avoiding decisions on weighty questions wherever possible. He argues that courts should defer to Congress, which enacted the Anti-Injunction Act in the first place:

The jurisdictional status of the Anti-Injunction Act reflects the Constitution’s separation of powers in operation.  Under the Constitution, Congress possesses the power to tax and spend, as well as the power of the purse over appropriations of money. Congress zealously guards those prerogatives. Here, Congress has not afforded discretion to the Executive Branch to waive or forfeit the Anti-Injunction Act’s bar with respect to the assessment and collection of taxes. Rather, by making the Anti-Injunction Act jurisdictional, Congress has commanded courts to abide by the Act even when the Executive Branch might not assert it.

He also disregards efforts by the Obama administration, in attempts to provide policy certainty regarding Obamacare, encouraging the courts to decide the merits of the individual mandate before it took effect, rather than invoking the Anti-Injunction Act to bar the suits until 2015:

We must adhere to the statutory constraints on our jurisdiction no matter how much the parties might want us to jump the jurisdictional rails and decide this case now….By waiting, we would respect the bedrock principle of judicial restraint that courts avoid prematurely or unnecessarily deciding constitutional questions.

Followed by Judicial Activism

The last section of Kavanaugh’s opinion explains why he believes the courts should not decide the constitutionality of the individual mandate: “this case could disappear by 2015 because, by then, Congress may fix the alleged constitutional shortcoming and ensure that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate provision fits comfortably within Congress’ Taxing Clause power.”

In Kavanaugh’s view, the mandate could fit “comfortably” within Congress’ constitutional powers. Even as he “do[es] not take a position her on whether the statute as currently written is justifiable,” Kavanaugh concludes that “the only potential Taxing Clause shortcoming in the current individual mandate provision appears to be relatively slight” (emphasis in the original).

Several pages thereafter, Kavanaugh continues to answer a question nobody asked him, giving the legislature instructions on how to remedy the in-his-view minor constitutional infirmity:

This discussion about the potential problem with the Government’s Taxing Clause argument also shows how easily Congress could eliminate any such potential problem.  For example, Congress might keep the current statutory language and payment amounts and simply add a provision as basic as: “The taxpayer has a lawful choice either to maintain health insurance or make the payment to the IRS required by Section 5000A(a)-(c).” Or Congress might retain the exactions and payment amounts as they are but eliminate the legal mandate language in Section 5000A, instead providing something to the effect of: “An applicable individual without minimum essential coverage must make a payment to the IRS on his or her tax return in the amounts listed in Section 5000A(c).” Or Congress could adopt the approach from the House-passed bill, which expressly created a tax incentive and plainly satisfied the Taxing Clause.

Any of those options—and others as well—would ensure that this provision operates as a traditional regulatory tax and readily satisfies the Taxing Clause.

Kavanaugh’s Roadmap to Save Obamacare

Some will note the irony of Kavanaugh’s opinion stating that “no court to reach the merits has accepted the Government’s Taxing Clause argument.” Josh Blackman notes in his book “Unprecedented: The Constitutional Challenge to Obamacare” that Solicitor General Donald Verilli “advanced this very argument”—that severing the mandate to buy health insurance from the tax for not buying health insurance would make the latter constitutional—“at the Supreme Court.”

The gambit worked. Roberts ultimately relied upon that argument from Verilli by way of Kavanaugh to uphold the mandate as a constitutional exercise of the taxing power. That Kavanaugh, like Roberts, used the last few pages of his opinion to decry the “unprecedented” nature of a mandate upheld via the Commerce Clause power does not mitigate his favorable analysis of a mandate upheld via the Taxing Clause power.

Other analysts with more experience in constitutional and legal jurisprudence (and perhaps less experience in health policy) can opine on other parts of Kavanaugh’s record. But his opinion on Obamacare, while starting out with an admirable nod toward judicial restraint, unfortunately veered in an activist direction that gives this conservative serious pause.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

The Troubling Premise Behind the Latest Obamacare Lawsuit

On Thursday, a group of Democratic attorneys general received permission to intervene in a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republican officials. That lawsuit, originally filed in February, seeks to strike down all of Obamacare.

The lawsuit forces me to distinguish between policy preferences and the rule of law. Strictly on the policy, I want to repeal Obamacare as much as the next conservative does. However, in this case, striking down the law through legal fiat would represent judicial activism at its worst—asking unelected judges to do what elected members of Congress took great pains to avoid.

John Roberts’ Logic

Last December, Congress set the individual mandate penalty to zero beginning in January 2019. As others previously argued, the action eliminated the basis on which the Supreme Court found the mandate constitutional. Thus, the lawsuit alleges, the court should strike down the individual mandate—and, consistent with the reasoning of four dissenting justices (Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) in the 2012 NFIB v. Sebelius case—all of Obamacare with it.

Congress Has Spoken

There’s one major flaw with the lawsuit’s logic: While Obamacare did not contain a severability clause, Congress in its infinite wisdom last year chose to eliminate the mandate penalty—and only the mandate penalty. Severability tests the court established work to determine first and foremost “whether the provisions will work as Congress intended,” as the dissenters noted back in 2012.

Because Congress, in the time since Obamacare passed, quite clearly eliminated only the mandate penalty, it demonstrated its intent. Regardless of whether federal courts strike down the mandate—now an edict in law unenforceable by any penalty—as unconstitutional, they cannot, and should not, strike down any other portion of the law.

Anti-Democratic Principle

In essence, the lawsuit asks the federal courts to do what Congress decided last year not to do: repeal all of Obamacare. Rather than working to persuade Congress to go back, consider health care anew, and pass the full repeal lawmakers ran on for four straight election cycles, the litigants instead hope to nullify Obamacare through a deus ex machina intervention of five of nine justices on the Supreme Court.

As a matter of law, the court should do no such thing. Substituting the judgment of unelected judges for popularly elected members of Congress would further erode the institutions supporting the rule of law. The protests on both the left and right regarding last year’s health-care legislation would pale in comparison to any demonstration should five unelected judges now decide to strike down all of Obamacare, and with good reason.

Moreover, this apparent application of situational ethics—“conservatives” supporting judicial activism when it furthers their policy objectives—will only undermine future attempts to constrain legislating from the bench. When it comes to asking courts to strike down massive pieces of legislation, conservatives should be careful what they wish for, because they just might get it—not on Obamacare, but on other major bills they do support.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Congress Needs to Eat Its Spinach

The tax bill’s effective repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate briefly reprised the “broccoli mandate”—whether, as Justice Antonin Scalia asked during Supreme Court oral arguments on Obamacare in March 2012, the federal government could compel individuals to purchase certain foods.

But instead of broccoli, spinach might serve as a more apt analogy, for the way the tax bill came to repeal the mandate demonstrates the ways Congress refuses to eat its policy spinach, following the path of least resistance in making easy choices rather than tough ones.

Avoiding Tough Choices on Taxes

Cotton said the “looks of hesitance and outright terror on the faces of my colleagues” convinced him that Republicans had to repeal the mandate as part of the tax package. Translation: Republicans thought it easier to obtain revenue from repealing the mandate than to weed out the tax code of popular tax breaks—the point of tax reform, which Republicans initially sold as a way to simplify the Internal Revenue Code.

Remember how Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) sold tax reform as a way to allow Americans to complete their taxes on a postcard? That type of reform didn’t happen, because enacting that reform would have involved eliminating many more popular deductions than the final tax bill ended.

Revenue Neutrality and Spending

Another key point in the tax debate surrounded the issue of revenue neutrality. The “Better Way” platform released by House Republicans last year not only “envision[ed] tax reform that is revenue neutral,” it included a very clear standard for that metric: “House Republicans measure revenue neutrality by reference to a ‘current policy baseline’—i.e., achieving a level of federal revenues that is approximately $400 billion less over the ten-year [budgetary] window than the current law baseline.”

Congress may have valid justifications for reducing revenues, such as to increase economic growth, or to shrink the size of government. But the fact remains that, when faced with enacting a supposed “parade of horribles” to achieve a revenue-neutral tax bill, Congress chose to change the nature of the bill rather than to make the tough choices needed to achieve its original benchmark.

Likewise on spending reductions arising from the tax bill. Because the tax measure increased the federal deficit, the Statutory Pay-as-You-Go (PAYGO) act would normally require commensurate spending cuts offsetting the revenue loss. However, rather than allow these reductions to go into effect—or replacing the proverbial hatchet of automatic cuts with more targeted spending reductions—both Republicans and Democrats voted to exempt the tax bill from the PAYGO law, ducking another difficult choice.

Repeal Only Unpopular Parts of Obamacare

Repealing only Obamacare’s individual mandate—one of the most loathed parts of the 2010 health care law—echoes a problem Republicans faced during the “repeal-and-replace” debate last year: Many want to retain popular elements of the law, while repealing its unpopular features. Witness Republicans’ statements of support for keeping the status quo on pre-existing condition exclusions.

By repealing the unpopular parts of Obamacare but retaining the popular parts, Congress may have created an incoherent, and potentially unstable, policy that results in premium increases, infusions of taxpayer cash to “stabilize” markets, or both. Senate Republican leaders have already proposed the latter, precisely because they fear the political effects if the former occur.

Therein lies the problem with the congressional strategy: Avoiding tough choices generally only postpones them for a time—not forever. If insurers decide to leave markets after the mandate’s repeal takes effect in 2019, Congress will have to fix a problem it helped create. Likewise attempts by today’s Congress to reduce taxes, and not reduce spending, in shifting the blame to future generations.

At some point those bills will come due, so Congress might want to consider actually making some tough choices now, rather than creating even tougher choices in years to come.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.