by Simon Lazarus, Senior Counsel, Constitutional Accountability Center. Simon Lazarus helped draft an amici curiae brief in House of Representatives v. Burwell, filed by CAC on behalf of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Democratic Caucus, in support of the Administration.
On Thursday afternoon, May 12, District of Columbia District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled unconstitutional the Obama administration’s funding of “cost-sharing reduction” subsidies (CSRs) prescribed by Section 1402 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to complement the “premium assistance tax credits” prescribed by Section 1401, by assisting lower-income exchange subscribers to pay for medical services and products. According to an Avelere health study, at least 65 percent of all Obama enrollees are eligible for the subsidies, and 5.9 million people currently use them. The decision upheld a lawsuit filed in November 2014 by the House of Representatives, alleging that Congress had not enacted an appropriation covering the COS subsidies, and hence, the administration’s funding of them violated the constitutional command that “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”
When then-Speaker John Boehner first proposed the lawsuit in July 2014, a broad consensus of experts warned, in the words of former House legal counsel (for Congresses controlled by both parties) Charles Tiefer, that “it is a bad idea for a Speaker to file such an embarrassing loser.” Nonpartisan experts like Tiefer knew, as he wrote in testimony submitted to the House Rules Committee considering Boehner’s resolution to file the case, that applicable Supreme Court precedents dictated “no standing . . . for anything remotely like” the House’s lawsuit.
No good would be served here by restating the precedents that Judge Collyer chose to disregard or, as she put it, distinguish and limit. Briefs filed by the Department of Justice and allied amici have done that job, and will surely repeat when the case is appealed to the D.C. Circuit. But it is worth briefly spelling out the real-world consequences of Judge Collyer’s arguments purporting to distinguish pertinent standing doctrine, in light of the separation of powers policy considerations undergirding established congressional standing limitations.
In sum, given the political dynamics of inter- and, especially with respect to Congress, intra-branch behavior patterns and incentives, displacing those precedents in accord with Judge Collyer’s decision will provide irresistible incentives – for one house of Congress or, more realistically, internal factions with political leverage – to trigger lawsuits over a virtually limitless array of inter-branch or partisan disputes previously resolved through political processes, formal and informal.