Words mean what they say. That’s the basis for the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Halbig v. Burwell invalidating the Internal Revenue Service regulation approving subsidies for Obamacare consumers in states with federal health insurance exchanges.
The law passed by Congress, Judge Thomas Griffith explained, provided for subsidies in states with state-created exchanges, but not in states with federal exchanges. That’s factually correct, and under the Constitution, the government can’t spend money not authorized by Congress.
“We reach this conclusion,” wrote Judge Griffith, “with reluctance.” Judge Roger Ferguson, writing for the Fourth Circuit whose King v. Burwell decision upholding the IRS was announced the same day, wrote that those challenging the government “have the better of the statutory construction arguments.”
One has a certain sympathy with both judges. They’re being asked to overturn a regulation that has paid most of the cost for health insurance for some 4.7 million Americans. But the problem arose not from sloppy legislative draftsmanship.
Under previous court decisions, Congress can’t force state governments to administer federal laws. So congressional Democrats, seeking to muscle states into creating their own health insurance exchanges, chose to provide subsidies only for those states. Those opting for the federal exchange would have to explain to voters why they weren’t getting subsidies.