By: David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey
President Obama’s announcement on July 2 that he is suspending the Affordable Care Act’s employer health-insurance mandate may well have exposed his actions to judicial review—even though that is clearly what he sought to avoid.
The health-care reform law’s employer mandate requires businesses with more than 50 employees to provide a congressionally prescribed set of health-insurance benefits or pay a penalty calculated at about $2,000 per employee. The law was to take effect on Jan. 1, 2014, but Mr. Obama has “postponed” its application until 2015. His aim, the administration said, was to give employers more time to comply with the new rules. But it was also seen as a way to avoid paying at least part of ObamaCare’s mounting political price in the 2014 congressional elections.
Whatever the reason, the president does not have the power to stop the implementation of a law. If there is one bedrock constitutional legal principle, it is that the president must “faithfully execute” federal statutes. He cannot suspend laws he dislikes on policy grounds or because he fears their political consequences.
Mr. Obama, however, has made a habit of exercising an unlawful suspending power, refusing to enforce selected federal laws, including various provisions of the immigration laws against young, undocumented aliens; work requirements enacted as part of the 1996 federal welfare reform law; and the testing accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law.
One key problem with suspension power—aside from the fact that it destroys the balance of power between the two political branches—is that, when skillfully exercised, it sidelines the judiciary. The Constitution requires that a party commencing litigation must have what is commonly called “standing,” i.e., the party must have suffered or will suffer a legal injury that a court can redress. A determined president can head off litigation by effectively rewriting federal statutes in ways that do not create individual injuries so no party has standing.
By suspending the Affordable Care Act’s employer insurance mandate, however, the president has potentially given millions of Americans the necessary standing to challenge his conduct. This is because the Affordable Care Act is a highly integrated law, with many of its key provisions dependent on each other. In addition to the employer mandate, the law also contains an “individual mandate,” requiring most Americans to sign up for a required level of health-insurance coverage or pay a penalty.
The individual mandate was one of the core parts of the Affordable Care Act considered by the Supreme Court in the 2012 case of NFIB v. Sebelius, where the court upheld the statute against constitutional attack. Throughout that litigation, the Obama administration portrayed the individual mandate as an “integral part of a comprehensive scheme of economic regulation” that included the employer insurance mandate, which was intended to give millions of Americans a way of meeting their new obligation to have health insurance. In other words, suspending the employer insurance mandate prevents the individual insurance mandate from working the way Congress intended.
Like the employer mandate, the individual mandate by law will take effect in January 2014 (unless the president postpones that as well). Individuals who will then have to buy their own health insurance will arguably have suffered an injury sufficient to give them standing to sue.
Once in court, these litigants can argue that the very integrated nature of the Affordable Care Act would make it unlawful to apply one part against them, while suspending another section. They can also argue that only Congress can determine whether, once a statute is fundamentally changed post-enactment, it should survive or fall.
This inquiry usually arises when courts, having invalidated on constitutional grounds part of a statute, must determine whether or not Congress would have wanted the valid remaining parts of the law to remain in effect. The relevant constitutional doctrine is called “severability.”
As the Supreme Court noted in the leading severability case, Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (2006), the ultimate fate of the revised statute is decided based on the “legislative intent.” In the case of the Affordable Care Act, if the courts were, for example, to determine that the employer insurance mandate is unconstitutional, the well-established severability analysis would lead them to conclude that the individual mandate (and likely the entire law) must also fall because Congress did not intend those provisions to operate in the absence of the employer insurance mandate. The president’s suspension of that part of the law, therefore, should also produce the same result, rendering the remainder of the statute unenforceable.
This argument should find favor with judges who are weary of the use of suspension power that improperly aggrandizes presidential authority, diminishes congressional power, and denies the judiciary an opportunity to have its say. Courts would have to conclude that the whole statute must fall while the president’s suspension is in effect. While reaching this conclusion, they might also declare the suspension itself unconstitutional. Both results would mark a significant win for the American people.