ObamaCare and Congressional (non)-intent

by Walter Olson on July 29, 2014

Last week, when two federal circuit courts of appeals came out on the same day with conflicting opinions on whether to enforce the literal language of the Affordable Care Act bestowing tax credits only on users of state-established exchanges, some journalists (at, e.g., Vox) took the line that the omission in the statutory language had been a mere drafting error not reflecting anyone’s intent. In subsequent days it was revealed that ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber had delivered remarks on multiple 2012 occasions suggesting that the lack of subsidies for federally sponsored exchanges served the function (as critics had contended it did) of politically punishing states that refuse to set up exchanges. Complicating further the question of intent, however, Daniel Fisher at Forbes writes of a Republican Senate staffer who did expect federal exchange enrollees to get tax credits.

Even if we accept the “drafting error” rather than the “pressure the states” explanation of the ACA’s language, it’s worth noting that after major legislation Congress ordinarily comes back to pass a fix-it bill to clean up drafting errors. [More: Tyler Cowen] That’s a lot less likely to happen when the landmark bill is forced through in half-finished form against a unanimous opposition party because going to conference committee would have required negotiating.

I well remember the pride displayed in some quarters about having forced a health care bill through against Republicans’ resistance, even though it was common knowledge that the bill’s details were not in anything like a finished state. I suppose the plan was to rely on a combination of creative executive interpretation and, where needed, judicial mulligans of the sort the Fourth Circuit just agreed to provide.