House GOP Can Pursue Obamacare Lawsuit, Judge Says

Federal judge’s ruling lets controversial lawsuit against Obama administration continue

US President Barack Obama reacts to a question about the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, at Taylor Stratton Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee, July 1, 2015.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Sept. 9, 2015, 4:07 p.m.

House Re­pub­lic­ans won a ma­jor vic­tory Wed­nes­day in the latest leg­al battle over Obama­care.

A fed­er­al judge in Wash­ing­ton said the GOP has leg­al stand­ing to sue the ad­min­is­tra­tion over its im­ple­ment­a­tion of a par­tic­u­lar Obama­care pro­gram — a law­suit that threatens bil­lions of dol­lars in health care sub­sidies, while aim­ing to val­id­ate Re­pub­lic­ans’ com­plaints that Obama has usurped too much power as pres­id­ent.

Judge Rose­mary Colly­er of the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Dis­trict of Columbia did not rule Wed­nes­day on the mer­its of the GOP’s ar­gu­ments. But simply al­low­ing the case to pro­ceed is a big set­back for the ad­min­is­tra­tion, which had urged Colly­er to dis­miss the law­suit im­me­di­ately.

Re­pub­lic­ans and con­ser­vat­ive leg­al schol­ars didn’t get everything they wanted from Colly­er’s de­cision — she re­jec­ted a por­tion of the law­suit that could have opened the door to a flood of law­suits over polit­ic­al dis­putes between the le­gis­lat­ive and ex­ec­ut­ive branches.

But she did leave crit­ics’ best anti-Obama­care weapon in­tact.

House Re­pub­lic­ans say the ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­ceeded its au­thor­ity when it im­ple­men­ted Obama­care’s cost-shar­ing sub­sidies, even though Con­gress had not ap­pro­pri­ated fund­ing for the pro­gram. (The sub­sidies in ques­tion help people pay for their co­pays, de­duct­ibles and oth­er out-of-pock­et costs; they’re sep­ar­ate from the premi­um sub­sidies the Su­preme Court up­held in June.)

The Con­sti­tu­tion gives Con­gress the power of the purse, House Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gued, and Con­gress ex­er­cised that power by de­cid­ing not to fund Obama­care’s cost-shar­ing sub­sidies. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion fun­ded the pro­gram any­way.

The White House said the dis­pute was simply a polit­ic­al ques­tion, and shouldn’t be settled in the courts. The House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives had not suffered an ac­tu­al in­jury, the ad­min­is­tra­tion ar­gued, and there­fore would not have stand­ing to bring its law­suit.

But Colly­er dis­agreed.

“Where the dis­pute is over true im­ple­ment­a­tion, Con­gress re­tains its tra­di­tion­al checks and bal­ances—most prom­in­ently its purse strings. But when the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess is it­self cir­cum­ven­ted, Con­gress finds it­self de­prived of its con­sti­tu­tion­al role and in­jured in a more par­tic­u­lar and con­crete way,” she wrote.

House Re­pub­lic­ans also chal­lenged delays in en­for­cing Obama­care’s em­ploy­er man­date, which could have opened the door to a wide range of leg­al chal­lenges. But Colly­er dis­missed that sec­tion of the law­suit.

Im­ple­ment­a­tion delays are pretty com­mon, and many leg­al ex­perts said al­low­ing Re­pub­lic­ans to chal­lenge delays in the em­ploy­er man­date could have set a pre­ced­ent for a nearly end­less parade of law­suits, for­cing the courts to settle what would nor­mally be a routine polit­ic­al back-and-forth.

Colly­er largely ad­op­ted the same reas­on­ing. Re­pub­lic­ans do not have stand­ing to chal­lenge the em­ploy­er-man­date delays, she said, be­cause they fall un­der the um­brella of typ­ic­al polit­ic­al dis­putes between the two branches.

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