By Abbe Gluck
I had hope to take a day off blogging about Halbig and King (the ObamaCare Subsidies cases), but I cannot allow another new, and inaccurate, narrative about ObamaCare to take hold. Over at Volokh, Ilya Somin argues that the holding in Halbig is not absurd because Congress uses statutory schemes all the time that try to incentivize states to administer federal law (and penalize them if they don’t). It is true we see schemes like that all the time–Medicaid is a prime example–but the insurance exchange design at issue in these cases is NOT one of them. This federalism argument was made before the D.C. Circuit and even Judge Griffith didn’t buy it in his ruling for the challengers. I tried to dispel this myth back in March, when I wrote the following on Balkanization. As I said there, this isn’t Medicaid—it’s the Clean Air Act.
“This is not a conditional spending program analogous to Medicaid.”
The challengers’ strategy in this round has been to contend that the subsidies are part of an overarching ACA “carrots and sticks” strategy to lure states into health reform and penalize them if they decline. On that version of the story, it might make sense that subsidies would be unavailable in states that do not run their own exchanges. In their view, the subsidies are therefore exactly like the ACA’s Medicaid provision (from appellants’ brief: “The ACA’s subsidy provision offered an analogous ‘deal’ to entice states to establish Exchanges—because Congress (wisely, in hindsight) knew it had to offer huge incentives for the states to assume responsibility for that logistically nightmarish and politically toxic task.”)
Putting aside the fact that no one thought the states wouldn’t want to run the exchanges themselves (indeed, Senators were demanding that option for their states), the exchange provisions simply do not work in the same way as Medicaid. Unlike the ACA’s Medicaid provisions, the exchange provisions have a federal fallback: Medicaid is use it or lose it; the exchanges are do it, or the feds step in and do it for you. In other words, this isn’t Medicaid; it’s the Clean Air Act (CAA). If a state decides not to create its own implementation plan under the CAA, its citizens do not lose the benefit of the federal program—the feds run it. The same goes for the ACA’s exchanges and so it would be nonsensical to deprive citizens in federal-exchange states of the subsidies. More importantly, if we are going to compare apples to oranges, the ACA’s Medicaid provisions have an explicit provision stating that if the state declines to participate, it loses the program funds (this was the provision at issue in NFIB v. Sebelius in 2012). The ACA’s subsidy provisions, in contrast, have no such provision, strong evidence that the subsidies were was not intended to be forfeited if the states did not participate. If the challengers are going to insist on strict textual arguments, this is exclusio unius 101: the rule of interpretation that provides that where Congress includes a specific provision in one part of the statute but does not include an analogous provision elsewhere, that omission is assumed intentional.”
It may be true that the ACA’s politics have created a landscape no one ever predicted—one in which federalism-focused states, whose congressional representatives were demanding the states’ rights to establish exchanges instead of the federal government—have decided that politics is more important than federalism and opted out. But what’s happened in hindsight doesn’t change what happened when the statute was enacted and how the statute is designed.