Ever heard of the “plain meaning” rule? It is not, as I first thought, an admonishment to toddlers to speak clearly, although that would be an awesome, albeit unenforceable, rule. It is actually a real legal term that refers to a requirement that statutes under consideration by the courts generally be interpreted in accordance with their plain meaning. In other words, Congress has said exactly what they mean. Which it always does, of course.
The “plain meaning” rule, though, has an exception for absurdity. This exception permits a court to depart from the plain meaning of a statute when the result would be an absurd one that Congress could not possibly have meant. Hmm.. Second Amendment anyone? But I digress. The question, though, is how “absurd” a result must be before the exception kicks in. The Supreme Court has kept the exception narrow, one presumes to avoid completely absurd chaos stemming from the meaning of the word “absurd”.
Since we all know that Congress is generally acknowledged to be absurd, by whatever definition you choose, why am I talking about this? Because the Supreme Court is set to hear a case that challenges the Affordable Care Act and the decision could hinge on the plain meaning rule. The case concerns tax subsidies that currently help millions of people afford health insurance under the law. The New York Times says as much as 87% of people who got insurance coverage through Healthcare.gov were eligible for subsidies. The central question in the case, King v. Burwell, No. 14-114, is how to interpret a provision in the law limiting subsidies to “an exchange established by the state.” The challengers say the provision means that only people in states with their own exchanges can get subsidies. Since most states opted to let the federal government set up the exchanges, all the people in those states wouldn’t be eligible. In states like Mississippi that’s like 95% of all newly insured folks.
Michael Rosman, a blogger for the SCOTUS blog, explains it like this: “…the statute in question plainly provides that, in calculating the size of a subsidy, one must begin with the monthly premium of a qualified health plan offered in the individual market within a state that someone enrolled in ‘through an Exchange established by the State under Section 1311 [of the ACA].’ “State” is a defined term under the Act and plainly does not mean the federal government. In King, the federal government does not seriously argue that it would be absurd for Congress to limit subsidies to individuals in states that have state-operated exchanges (although it does argue strenuously that that is not what Congress meant). Rather, it suggests that there are other provisions of the ACA that would be rendered absurd if the phrase ‘Exchange established by the State’ were given its plain meaning. (Whether an absurdity in a different provision should be sufficient to reinterpret a phrase away from its plain meaning in the relevant section is another question).”
Clear as mud. The name Burwell in the title of the suit would be Sylvia Matthews Burwell, the Secretary of Health and Human services. As to King, that would be David King et. al, one of a group of four residents of the state of Virginia who don’t want to purchase insurance coverage. At all. From any source. So for Mr. King, if subsidies were not available he would be exempt from the requirement to get coverage and thus also from the tax penalty. With the subsidies, the coverage is theoretically affordable and thus he would have to pay the tax penalty if he isn’t covered.
This case is brought by four people who don’t want to pay for stuff. Why is the Supreme Court getting involved? Because of the supporting appellants: Senators John Cornyn (R, Texas), Ted Cruz (R, Texas), Orrin Hatch (R, Utah), Mike Lee (R, Utah), Rob Portman (R, Ohio), Marco Rubio (R, Florida), representative Darrell Issa (R, California) and the states of Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, West Virginia, Nebraska, and South Carolina, all staunchly republican states that have rejected medicaid expansion (except West Virginia) and state-run exchanges. For most of the residents of these states removal of the subsidy would likely leave them back in the ranks of the uninsured.
Oh, I see what the definition of absurd is now.