House Republicans Just Got a Big Win in Their Lawsuit Against Obamacare

Federal judge rules that Congress has standing to sue the Obama administration.


There's still another lawsuit against Obamacare working its way through the courts—and it just won a surprise victory.

A federal judge ruled yesterday that a lawsuit filed by the House of Representatives against the Obama administration over its implementation of the health law can proceed, an unusual grant of legal standing to one branch of the government to sue another.

The House's suit makes two arguments: First, that the Obama administration illegally delayed the employer mandate, and second that it illegally spent billions on Obamacare's cost-sharing subsidies without proper authorization from Congress.

(Obamacare's cost-sharing subsidies are separate from its larger insurance subsidies, and are designed to help beneficiaries above the poverty line but at the lower end of the income scale afford basic insurance expenditures, like copays. The House says that money was transferred to insurance companies to cover these subsidies without the necessary authorization from the legislature.)

Rosemary Collyer, a federal district judge in the District of Columbia, gave the House lawsuit the go-ahead on the second argument (though not the first, which she decided was essentially statutory in nature). 

The ruling that the House has standing to sue the executive branch is what makes this such a big deal, and such an important victory for House Republicans.

Many, perhaps even most, observers had assumed that the House suit would be dismissed for lack of standing, as the courts typically do not grant standing for one branch of the government to sue another, preferring in virtually all instances to let the co-equal branches work things out through the political process.

But in this case, Judge Collyer agreed that the House, as an institution, could demonstrate that it was potentially harmed by the administration's action, a prerequisite for a case like this to go forward. It's an unprecedented legal victory for the legislature in a spending case against the executive branch. 

Citing Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which says that "no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law," Collyer agreed that with the House's argument that its constitutional authority is threatened—in a sense usurped—by an executive branch that can essentially rewrite the law to spend money regardless of congressional authorization.

The argument advanced by the administration boiled down to the idea that because the executive is exclusively charged with implementing laws, Congress has no legal right to sue over how the executive chooses to do so. Judge Collyer didn't buy it, though, siding with the House's argument that neither the interpretation, implementation, not the execution of the health law was at stake. Instead, the House argued, that the Constitutional separation of powers itself was being undermined by the executive branch's decision to appropriate, or spend, money without proper congressional approval.

"The constitutional trespass alleged in this case would inflict a concrete, particular harm upon the House for which it has standing to seek redress in this court," Collyer wrote. Basically, because the authorization of appropriations is a core constitutional issue, and the House of Representatives would suffer a real constitutional harm if its case were proven correct, the House has the right to sue.

Standing to sue, of course, is not the same as legal victory, as the ruling stresses: "The Court stresses that the merits have not been briefed or decided; only the question of standing has been determined," wrote Collyer. Still, it's a victory for the House just to achieve standing, and a vindication of sorts, or at least a potential vindication, for those who've argued that Obamacare's implementation has run contrary to the rule of law.