House Can Sue Administration Over ACA, Court Rules

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By Matthew Loughran

Sept. 9 — In a blow to the Obama administration, a federal trial court ruled that the House of Representatives has standing to sue over an Affordable Care Act cost-sharing program for which Congress allegedly never appropriated funding.

In the Sept. 9 decision by Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the court found that the House has standing to sue both Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew for their departments' use of allegedly unappropriated funds in a cost-sharing program used to support the implementation of the law.

The court, however, dismissed claims in the suit that the administration's implementation of the health-care law's employer mandate also violated the Constitution. According to the court, the House didn't have standing to bring those claims because they involve the implementation of the statute and not a question of constitutional powers.

Out-of-Pocket Costs

The program under Section 1402(a)(2) of the ACA allows the government to provide cost-sharing offsets, or subsidies, to insurance companies to reduce the out-of-pocket costs of insurance coverage for certain policyholders in qualified health plans.

The House originally brought suit in November 2014, alleging that the administration had provided those offsets using funds from the Treasury that were never appropriated for that purpose.

According to the court, the House claimed that the program was subject to an annual appropriations process and that such appropriations had never been made.

The court found this claim sufficient to assert an institutional injury by the House and gave the body standing to sue in order to protect its constitutional prerogative to approve any and all government appropriations.

Employer Mandate

The House had also claimed that the administration violated the Constitution by delaying and narrowing the implementation of the so-called “employer mandate.”

Under that provision, certain large employers will be charged a penalty if they fail to offer affordable health insurance coverage to all of their full-time employees and dependents.

The complaint alleged that the Internal Revenue Service improperly delayed the implementation of that provision until 2015, and altered the percentage of full-time employees that must be covered in order to avoid a penalty.

According to the court, the agency's action involved the implementation of the statute and not a constitutional wrong that could be addressed by the House in the courts.

As a result, the court dismissed the claims regarding the employer mandate, finding that the House didn't have standing to bring them.

Political Question

The administration also attempted to get the court to dismiss the suit on the basis of it being a “political question” that is traditionally not heard within the judiciary.

However, the court here disagreed. Finding that the case involved the enforcement of constitutional rights and a judicial review of executive action, the fact that the legislative branch was a plaintiff didn't make it a political question.

In a statement released shortly after the decision was handed down, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said, “Spending this money is one of the most lawless things this administration has done. It is a perfect symbol of the president's disregard for Congress’s authority, and I’m pleased the court has allowed this suit to move forward. I'm confident the House will ultimately prevail because no administration can spend money without congressional approval. It’s time that we start reversing the president’s overreach and give power back to Congress.”

In an e-mailed statement, Jennifer Friedman, a White House spokeswoman, said, “The district court’s decision is unprecedented and the Department of Justice has indicated it plans to seek immediate appellate review. The law is clear that Congress cannot try to settle garden variety disputes with the Executive Branch in the courts. This case is just another partisan attack—this one, paid for by the taxpayers—and we believe the courts will ultimately dismiss it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Loughran in Washington at mloughran@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brian Broderick at bbroderick@bna.com