Even amid a spate of bad news about their Senate candidate’s chances in November, Democrats have been celebrating the way ObamaCare seems to have fallen off the country’s political radar recently. Though the president’s signature health-care law is still deeply unpopular, the issue has been largely eclipsed by general concerns about presidential leadership and scandals in the midterms. But the confidence on the part of the administration and its supporters that this issue was finally settled had to be shaken by a federal court decision yesterday that essentially eviscerated the ability of the law to function in most of the country. If it holds up on appeal, the ruling will not only largely undo the president’s legislative triumph but also set the stage for a new spirited debate on health care that Democrats were hoping to avoid.
A federal judge in Oklahoma ruled yesterday in Oklahoma v. Burwell that the government could not extend subsidies to ObamaCare customers in the 36 states where no state exchange currently exists. Judge Ronald A. White rightly decided that the president’s policy of giving the subsidies in all states flatly contradicted the wording of the Affordable Care Act which states that the tax credits could only apply to insurance purchased “through an exchange established by the state.” The administration had claimed it was “standing in the shoes” of the states that refused to set up their own insurance marketplaces, but this was correctly dismissed as an abuse of power with no basis in law.
Who’s to blame here? Democrats will blame Republican judges, but they should be castigating themselves. This is, after all, the bill that then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously said had to be passed before it could be understood. But in their rush to force it down the throats of the country in 2010, they made a fatal drafting error.
While the attorney general of Oklahoma, which challenged the Department of Health and Human Services in this case, praised the decision as “a victory for the rule of law,” there is more at stake here than the question of whether the administration can change an existing law by presidential fiat. This is no technicality. If upheld (other federal courts have split on the question), the ruling will cut off federal subsidies for more than 4.5 million of those who have enrolled in ObamaCare essentially gutting the effectiveness of the law. It cannot function without the subsidies. Since complying with the ruling would require Congress to amend the ACA to cope with the fact that a majority of states wouldn’t set up exchanges, this could end its implementation for the foreseeable future.
This means ObamaCare is heading back to the U.S. Supreme Court where Chief Justice John Roberts’ illogical decision allowed it to survive a challenge to its constitutionality. Would Roberts somehow step in again to save ObamaCare? There’s no telling which way he would jump. But no matter what he does, the president’s supporters can’t feel comfortable once again placing the future of the law in Roberts’ hands.
Just as important, this will also mean that the debate over ObamaCare will be heating up again in 2015. The expected skyrocketing of insurance rates caused by the law as well as what may be a disastrous impact on the economy when the employer mandate is put into effect already made Democratic predictions of its acceptance look foolish. But with the fate of the entire project now up in the air, the debate (which Democrats predicted would already be over) about the merits of this still unpopular law will be heating up next year.
Far from being consigned to the dustbin of history as the president and his fans have often claimed, the ObamaCare debate not only isn’t dead, but the flawed nature of the legislation has ensured it will be bedeviling Democrats in 2015 as much if not more than before.