Home / General / The <i>Halbig</i> Argument Is Terrible, Results-Driven Hackwork. Just Ask Its Supporters!

The Halbig Argument Is Terrible, Results-Driven Hackwork. Just Ask Its Supporters!


In the midst of her palpable excitement over the possibility that an asinine legal argument may be used to deny tens of millions of people health care, Megan McArdle inadvertently demonstrates another reason why the argument of the Halbig majority is asinine:

On the other hand, that outcome is hardly inevitable. Law professor Jonathan Adler pointed out in a conference call yesterday that Ohio would have to amend its constitution to allow the government to establish a state exchange, and barriers in some other states are high as well. State exchanges cost millions to build and to run. States can still apply for federal money to build exchanges, Adler said, but the annual operating costs have to come out of either user fees or tax revenue. In lower population states, or poor states, that might be enough to keep legislators on the sidelines. So might the fear of primary challenges, even if the administration comes up with some easy administrative workarounds to lower the cost. [My emphasis]

This is a point I discussed with Seder yesterday. One reason that the ACA empowered the federal government to set up state exchanges was because they anticipated opposition from Republican statehouses. (So much for the other terrible conservative argument-like rhetorical gesture floating around, “Congress wasn’t worried because it expected the states to go along!”) But another was that for low-population states — including those with public officials supportive of law — the administrative costs made it more logical for the federal government to establish the exchanges. So McArdle wants us to believe that Congress expected to federal government to establish state exchanges for multiple reasons…but wanted them not to work? That’s an absurd reading of the law. And statutory construction that leads to absurd results is inept.

It’s also important to keep in mind the burden of proof here. The Fourth Circuit unanimous opinion (as opposed to the Davis concurrence) was overly timorous, but it does do a good job on this point. Under Chevron, if a statute is ambiguous the courts have to defer to administrative judgments of statutory meaning as long as the reading is reasonable. And, at a minimum, the IRS reading is reasonable; administrative agencies are not required to use bad parodies of “textualism” to read statutes. The fact that nobody responsible for the statute thinks that the Halbig interpretation is correct should also be dispositive on this point. If a construction is plainly wrong, the contrary construction really should have at least some support from the architects of the statute. And if you don’t believe me, ask the authors of the neoconfederate joint opinion in Sebelius, who also assumed that subsidies would be available on the federally-established state exchanges, because this is utterly obvious.

While we’re here, consider this:

A lot depends on the 2016 election, of course: Do voters turn out for Hillary Clinton, to protest the loss of their subsidies, or do they turn out for the Republican, to protest this unpopular, unworkable clunker of a law?

Let’s leave aside the fact that while the ACA remains unpopular, voters like the Republican alternative (i.e. get rid of the ACA either tout court or piecemeal, and after that nothing) even less and hence if healthcare is a salient issue in the 2016 elections this is excellent news for Democrats. First of all, this “unworkable clunker” has led to millions of people getting health insurance, a figure that would be substantially higher had the statute not been ineptly re-written by John Roberts to enable Republican statehouses to reject the Medicaid expansion. Which brings us to the remarkable chutzpah on display here: conservatives inventing ad hoc legal arguments of varying degree of absurdity to prevent the law from working as intended then complaining that the law is “unworkable.” Republicans are thugs with wrecking balls asserting that building construction is unworkable.

As Cohn says, “these lawsuits are simply one more attempt to cripple Obamacare and yank insurance away from millions of people, no matter what it takes.” Just so, and if Adler tries to pretend his arguments about the Rule of Law (TM) his supporters feel no need to conceal the real agenda.

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