The collective sigh you heard this morning was a bi-partisan sigh of relief from our nation’s capital in response to the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act.
In a 6-3 ruling, the Court decided that the government was allowed to provide tax subsidies to help poor and middle-class families buy health insurance regardless of whether the coverage was purchased through a state or federally run exchange. The Court rejected the challenge that the law allows for subsidies to be paid only to those purchasing coverage through an “exchange established by the state.”
Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority explained that rather than focus on a specific word or phrase the law must be taken in its entirety:
“In this instance,” Roberts wrote, “the context and structure of the act compel us to depart from what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase…Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets not to destroy them…If at all possible we must interpret the act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”
In a bitter dissent Judge Antonin Scalia accused the Court of rewriting the law and then got in a personal dig:
“The Act that Congress passed makes tax credits available only on an “Exchange established by the state.” This court however, concludes that this limitation would prevent the Act from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law to make tax credits available everywhere. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”
Truth be told the Court could have gutted the law by holding to the letter of the phrase “exchange established by the state.” However reading the entire body of the Act makes it clear that the intent was to provide subsidies for all purchases whether made through a state or federally run exchange.
Normally housekeeping issues such as this are resolved quickly via the passage of congressional amendments. But this time the toxic, partisan atmosphere in congress reared its head and a court challenge was filed.
This is the second time that the president’s signature law has been challenged in the courts only to come away with a win. In this particular instance the 6-3 margin augmented by the normally conservative Chief Justice Roberts’ assent signals that from a legal standpoint the book on the ACA is closed.
As you might expect Democrats were both relieved and ecstatic. Defeat in the Court would have destroyed the most important accomplishment of the Obama administration.
Republicans dutifully played the part of wounded warrior; lashing out in dissent of the Court’s ruling. But behind closed doors they were just as pleased as Democrats with the decision.
Had the Court struck down the subsidy provision the law would have crumbled and millions of Americans would have found themselves forced to opt out of coverage that they could no longer afford. The blame would have been placed squarely on the shoulders of the Republican Party which authored the legal challenge and made repealing Obamacare its number one priority since the day it was signed into law.
Though Republicans have been united in their opposition of the ACA they have never reached consensus on a detailed alternative. A dissenting ruling from the Court would have forced Republicans to immediately come to a consensus for a replacement. The infighting between the far right, who have always wanted the law repealed in its entirety and the more moderate members who have wanted to tweak certain provision,s would have rendered the Party immobile and impotent; further cementing the image of a party unable to govern itself much less a nation. Republicans wanted no part of that optic. Particularly in the middle of a national campaign. Far easier to faux rail against the evils of Obamacare than to actually provide a governable alternative.
The president got in right today when he addressed the press from the Rose Garden shortly after the Court rendered its ruling:
“After more than 50 votes in congress to repeal or weaken this law…after a presidential election based in part on preserving or repealing this law…after multiple challenges to this law before the Supreme Court…the Affordable Care Act is here to stay.”
The Republicans next best shot at getting rid of the Affordable Care Act is to win the White House in 2016 and maintain their majority in the House and Senate. Then they can make their dreams come true and “repeal every single word of Obamacare.”
Perhaps by then they’ll have figured out a plausible alternative.