Rule of Law

Lawmakers Take Sides in Health Care Case in D.C. Circuit

By Todd Ruger


Top Democratic and Republican lawmakers have jumped into a legal fight over the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement of a section of the Obama administration’s health care law.


Congressional Democrats who helped draft the Affordable Care Act—including Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—filed an amicus brief Saturday that defends the law in a case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. 


The brief urges the appeals court to uphold a ruling in January in Halbig v. Sebelius from U.S. District Senior Judge Paul Friedman. The judge found an Internal Revenue Service rule did not run afoul of the Affordable Care Act. The IRS rule granted tax credits to low- and middle-income residents of the 34 states that declined to set up a health insurance exchange.


Friedman found the goal of Congress to make health insurance more affordable did not support the plaintiffs’ argument that the language of the health care law only allowed the IRS to grant tax credits to residents of states that set up separate exchanges.


“In sum, as amici know from their own experience and as the record reflects, the availability of tax credits under the ACA should not turn on whether an individual purchased insurance on a federal or state Exchange,” the brief states. “Rather, such credits should be available to all qualified individuals regardless of where they live.”


Ruling otherwise could destabilize important aspects of the law crucial to achieving the health care reforms—such as the individual mandate and the system of exchanges more generally, “further evidence that such interpretation is wholly without merit,” the brief states.


The Constitutional Accountability Center filed the brief for a group of the lawmakers. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) signed onto the brief, which also includes more than 100 state lawmakers.


Republican lawmakers also have filed an amicus brief in the case, supporting the argument that the health care law’s reference to exchanges “established by the State” meant the IRS could only grant tax credits to residents of states that set up their own exchanges, separate from the federally run program.


“The district court’s decision is especially troubling because it effectively rewrites the plain text of a provision that was the specific subject of extensive negotiations in the Senate—negotiations that culminated in a compromise that made the ACA’s enactment possible,” according to the Republican amicus brief. “To judicially amend that provision now would change the terms of the deal, striking a new bargain that Congress did not and could not have struck.”


Lawmakers signing onto that brief are Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) It was filed by Charles Cooper, David Thompson, Howard Nielson and Brian Barnes of Cooper & Kirk, along with Michael Rosman, general counsel for Center for Individual Rights and Carrie Severino of The Judicial Education Project.


Oral arguments are scheduled for March 25 in the D.C. Circuit.