One of the great dangers of historical analysis is applying our modern standards and ex post facto knowledge to analysis of historical decisions. For example, I see modern students all the time assume that the Protestant Reformation was about secularization, because that is how we think about religious reform and the tide of trends that were to follow a century or two later. But tell John Calvin's Geneva it was about secularization and they would have looked at you like you were nuts (If they didn't burn you). Ditto we bring our horror for nuclear arms developed in the Cold War and apply it to decision-makers in WWII dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. I don't think there is anything harder in historical analysis than shedding our knowledge and attitudes and putting ourselves in the relevant time.
Believe it or not, it does not take 300 or even 50 years for these problems to manifest themselves. They can occur in just four. Take the recent Halbig case, one of a series of split decisions on the PPACA and whether IRS rules to allow government subsidies of health care policies in Federal exchanges are consistent with that law.
The case, Halbig v. Burwell, involved the availability of subsidies on federally operated insurance marketplaces. The language of the Affordable Care Act plainly says that subsidies are only available on exchanges established by states. The plaintiff argued this meant that, well, subsidies could only be available on exchanges established by states. Since he lives in a state with a federally operated exchange, his exchange was illegally handing out subsidies.
The government argued that this was ridiculous; when you consider the law in its totality, it said, the federal government obviously never meant to exclude federally operated exchanges from the subsidy pool, because that would gut the whole law. The appeals court disagreed with the government, 2-1. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million people may lose their subsidies as a result.
This result isn’t entirely shocking. As Jonathan Adler, one of the architects of the legal strategy behind Halbig, noted today on a conference call, the government was unable to come up with any contemporaneous congressional statements that supported its view of congressional intent, and the statutory language is pretty clear. Members of Congress have subsequently stated that this wasn’t their intent, but my understanding is that courts are specifically barred from considering post-facto statements about intent.
We look at what we know NOW, which is that Federal health care exchanges operate in 37 states, and that the Federal exchange serves more customers than all the other state exchanges combined. So, with this knowledge, we declare that Congress could not possibly meant to have denied subsidies to more than half the system.
But this is an ex-post-facto, fallacious argument. The key is "what did Congress expect in 2010 when the law was passed", and it was pretty clear that Congress expected all the states to form exchanges. In fact, the provision of subsidies only in state exchanges was the carrot Congress built in to encourage states to form exchanges. (Since Congress could not actually mandate states form exchanges, it has to use such financial carrots and stick. Congress does this all the time, all the way back to seat belt and 55MPH speed limit mandates that were forced on states at the threat of losing state highway funds. The Medicaid program has worked this way with states for years -- and the Obamacare Medicare changes follow exactly this template of Feds asking states to do something and providing incentives for them to do so in the form of Federal subsidies). Don't think of the issue as "not providing subsidies in federal exchanges." That is not how Congress would have stated it at the time. Think of it as "subsidies are not provided if the state does not build an exchange". This was not a bug, it was a feature. Drafters intended this as an incentive for creating exchanges. That they never imagined so many would not create exchanges does not change this fact.
It was not really until 2012 that anyone even took seriously the idea that states might not set up exchanges. Even as late as December 2012, the list was only 17 states, not 37. And note from the linked article the dissenting states' logic -- they were refusing to form an exchange because it was thought that the Feds could not set one up in time. Why? Because the Congress and the Feds had not planned on the Federal exchanges serving very many people. It had never been the expectation or intent.
If, in 2010, on the day after Obamacare had passed, one had run around and said "subsidies don't apply in states that do not form exchanges" the likely reaction would not have been "WHAT?!" but "Duh." No one at the time would have thought that would "gut the whole law."
Postscript: By the way, note how dangerous both the arguments are that opponents of Halbig are using
- The implementation of these IRS regulations are so big and so far along that it would be disruptive to make them illegal. This means that the Administration is claiming to have the power to do anything it wants as long as it does it faster than the courts can work and makes sure the program in question affects lots of people
- The courts should give almost unlimited deference to Administration interpretations of law. This means, in effect, that the Administration rather than the Courts are the preferred and default interpreter of law. Does this make a lick of sense? Why have a judiciary at all?