Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Spirit of the Law

Professor Farnsworth gets to keep his health insurance.
(c) Matt Groening

The Supreme Court just ruled, 6-3, that the King v Burwell challenge to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was a stupid challenge foisted on the Court by stupid idiot-faces.

I believe those exact words were in the majority opinion. Check SCOTUSBlog.

For any who haven't been following along, King hinged on the legality of providing subsidies to residents of states who hadn't set up their own health exchanges (basically those websites that give people the ability to purchase subsidized health insurance), a key pillar of Obamacare. If state governments refused to set exchanges up for political reasons or whatever, the law allowed the federal government to do it for them and provide subsidies directly to the buyers.


Yes, it did. There was a quirk in the wording of the exchange provision, which the plaintiff's lawyers used to argue that only states had the power to develop exchanges and provide subsidies, and if they declined, the federal government, which is not a state, could not do it for them.

Yes, really.

There's a philosophical discussion to be had about the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law, but I'm not the most qualified to lead it.

If the Supreme Court had agreed, though, millions of people would have lost the subsidies that make health insurance affordable for their them and their families.

But what is a state, really? To a student of international affairs, the "state does not mean federal government" argument was ridiculous on its face. When Americans think about states, we mean a specific, sub-national, legal and political entity with some degree of autonomy, but subject to the authority of the national government. Much like what other countries might call a provincial government. In the wider world, a "state" is just an entity, it just means the government body or institution relevant to whatever we happen to be talking about. "State security forces," for example, could be municipal police or the army. There is a national Secretary of State, and there are state Secretaries of State. Sensing a pattern here?

In that sense, the federal government is a state just as much as a "state" government. Of course it can set up health insurance exchanges under the ACA. It makes no sense or the federal government to pass a law in which it forbids itself from taking the necessary action to implement that law. No sense at all.

Now, the authors of the law may or may not have had my definition of "state" in mind when they wrote it, it'll be interesting to see if the majority opinion uses any of the same logic I did.

***UPDATE: They did not. Chief Justice Roberts' opinion focused mainly on the how completely absurd it would have been for Congress to design a law with the disastrous outcomes a King victory would have led to. Which was probably the right way to look at it. Justice Scalia, however, illustrated my point very well in his dissent, claiming precisely that "saying that an exchange established by the Federal Government is 'established by the State'..." renders all words meaningless. Heh. What a card.***

Either way, there are two peculiarly (and depressingly) American idiosyncrasies that this kerfuffle brought up.

First, there's our veneration of "states rights," the idea that American state governments are constantly defending against encroachments by that Kenyan/Arab/Socialist/Muslim/Fascist/Dictator in the White House. People like David King, or at least his lawyers, buy in. So it goes down like this:

White House: "Hey guys, we have this law now that's gonna help people. But you're gonna need to do some things to make it work."

State House: "The federal government MAKING us help people? No way! That's tyranny. Quit doing tyranny to us."

WH: "It's not-- sigh, fine. I'll just set it up for you."

SH: "Whatever. Sure. Now leave us alone. We'll call you when we need disaster relief, or to buy some tanks for our cops."

WH: "Deal."

David King: "OH HELL NO!"

I'm sure David King has his reasons for not wanting to buy health insurance, and it's hard to convince someone of something that seems to be so obviously in their best interest. But his lawyers took his desire to opt-out and hijacked it into yet another national argument on the legitimacy of Obamacare.

I think they took advantage of him to try and make a political point, and I think that's sad. Which brings me to the second American idiosyncrasy: the constant veneration of soldiers and the military in our culture, juxtaposed against the reality that an actual. Vietnam. veteran. like King somehow ended up in a situation where his health care wasn't all paid for anyway.

The cognitive dissonance there would be delicious if it wasn't so infuriating.


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