Is it too much to ask that Louisiana’s officials in Washington not root against their own constituents?
Because that, at bottom, is what several members of the state’s congressional delegation boasted of doing when they cheered on a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act provision that allows millions of Americans — including lots of Louisianans — to buy affordable health insurance.
That’s not how they described their support for the plaintiffs in the King v. Burwell case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last week, of course.
Instead, they recast what was essentially a drafting error in President Barack Obama’s health care law — a single phrase that says tax credits are available only to those who buy insurance on state-administered exchanges, not those set up by the federal government — as something far more sinister. And they described the easily vilified IRS’s compliance with the law’s broader language, not to mention its clear intent, as dangerous government overreach.
Here’s U.S. Rep. and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who said he was honored to witness the oral arguments: “The plaintiffs made very strong arguments that exposed how the IRS ignored the clear and plain meaning of the law and exceeded their legal authority. The IRS usurped Congress’s authority to write laws and appropriate taxpayer money.”
Here’s U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany: “King v. Burwell is the Supreme Court’s chance to make a statement that the rule of law will be upheld.”
Here’s U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, like Boustany a physician, writing in “The Hill,” a Washington, D.C. political newspaper: “President Obama has created a precarious situation for millions of Americans. The result of this situation is a Supreme Court case, King v. Burwell, which intertwines the Obama administration’s overreach, access to health care and politics.”
And so they’re hoping the high court will declare the tax credits that make insurance affordable for millions of Americans invalid, to throw the entire health care and insurance markets into chaos and to effectively kill the law they hate so much, no matter the collateral damage.
That’s not what they say, either.
Instead, they and other Republicans, belatedly waking up to how bad it would look to leave all those people in the lurch, are offering reassurances. They insist there are Republican plans ready to go that would either help people through a transition or replace the Affordable Care Act. The details are vague because there is no one plan on the table, let alone a clear path toward passing legislation through a Congress that can barely muster the will to keep the lights on at the Department of Homeland Security.
Despite comforting words from Louisiana’s members and several prominent House and Senate leaders, there’s no GOP consensus as to what to do next — not in Congress and not outside of it. In fact, while some Washington leaders are looking for a painless way out, Gov. Bobby Jindal is out there on the presidential trail essentially calling those seeking to preserve parts of the Affordable Care Act cowards. He’s even arguing against the idea that expanding insurance coverage is a key goal.
“I don’t think conservative health care reform is about, ‘We’re going to compete with (the left) in terms of how many people we see have an (insurance) card,’ ” he told writer Philip Klein. “I do think it’s a mistake if we argue we can’t take back what Obama has already given.”
Hey, at least give Jindal points for honesty.
Still, during Wednesday’s hearing, the court’s leading conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined those Louisiana members of Congress in downplaying the potential harm.
“You really think Congress is just going to sit there while all of these disastrous consequences ensue? … Congress adjusts, enacts a statute that takes care of the problem. It happens all the time. Why is that not going to happen here?” Scalia asked.
“This Congress, your honor?” replied Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, prompting entirely justified laughter.
While the fateful phrase should never have made the law’s final draft, the truth is that, if Congress were at all functional, it would have been excised long ago. There’s no evidence in the legislative record that Obama or lawmakers intended to treat state and federal exchanges differently. In fact, there’s no real indication that the topic ever came up, other than in a speech by controversial MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who was an influential adviser to the Obama administration on health care.
As Scalia suggested, this is what normally happens when mistakes are discovered. And correcting the language wouldn’t prevent anyone from pursuing other, more substantive fixes as well. All it would do is protect some 165,000 Louisianans, according to federal estimates.
Is it really too much to expect their elected representatives to put their benefits, health care access and financial security first?