This morning, the U.S Supreme Court saved the Republicans from themselves.
If the high court had ruled for the Obamacare haters in King v. Burwell, Republicans would’ve been politically screwed. Roughly 6.4 million Americans would’ve lost the federal subsidies that have enabled them to buy health coverage, and Republicans would’ve been stuck with the fallout. They’ve long yearned to kill Obamacare, but this would’ve been a case of “be careful what you wish for.” Indulging an ideological yearning is one thing; governing in the real world is another – and, naturally, the Republicans on Capitol Hill couldn’t even agree on how or whether to help those six million souls.
If the high court had acted to kill the federal subsidies, roughly 1.3 million Floridians would’ve been unable to afford the federal coverage; ditto, 161,000 people in Ohio, and 166,000 in Wisconsin. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Scott Walker would’ve been hit with this question: “OK, you got what you’ve wanted – a high court ruling that wrecks Obamacare. So what will you do to help the people in your state?”
Phew! Saved by a 6-3 ruling in favor of Obamacare!
So, let us now review: Republicans, conservatives, trolls, and their various unhinged allies, have lost on Obamacare in Congress, they’ve lost on Obamacare at the ballot box (when Obama was re-elected), and now they’ve lost twice in the Supreme Court – this time more decisively than in 2012, because, as I pointed out back in March, King v. Burwell was laughable from the start.
The whole case – ginned up by conservative lawyers financed in part by the Koch brothers – hinged on a single inartfully written phrase. The Obamacare law created marketplaces (or “exchanges”) that allow people to shop for health plans. Sixteen states set up their own exchanges; people shopping for coverage in those states were eligible for subsidies to help them buy it. But 34 states have refused to set up their own exchanges, so – again, under the law – the feds have stepped in with a federal exchange, and have offered federal subsidies to help those people buy coverage.
But the Koch-financed lawyers seized on one phrase in the law, which referred in passing to exchanges “established by the State.” According to their argument, this meant that Obamacare was designed to offer subsidies only to those people who bought coverage from state exchanges, not from federal exchanges. Therefore, the 6.4 million people on the federal exchanges would lose their subsidies, hence their coverage, hence the entire structure of Obamacare would collapse.
Of course, their argument was always nuts. They took the phrase wildly out of context. As the court majority (including two Republican appointees) rightly noted today, the law clearly offered subsidies to all – to those buying from the federal exchange, as well to those buying coverage from the state exchanges. Democrats would never have passed Obamacare without that proviso; it was never their legislative intent to undercut their own law.
And that’s precisely what Chief Justice John Roberts recognized today, in his majority opinion.
(Roberts also wrote the 2012 opinion that upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare. When that happened, various right-wingers naturally tried to smear him, claiming that Roberts had literally gone off his meds. Today, they’re already trolling him again. “Treason,” etcetera. At this point, what else do they have?)
Anyway, today, Roberts quoted previous court rulings to buttress the opinion: “We must read the words ‘in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme’….Our duty, after all, is ‘to construe statutes, not isolated provisions.'” The subsidies, he wrote, “are necessary for the Federal Exchanges to function like their State Exchange counterparts, and to avoid the type of calamitous result that Congress plainly meant to avoid.”
All told, “we must respect the role of the Legislature, and take care not to undo what it has done. A fair reading of the legislation requires a fair reading of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them.”
Perhaps that last sentence should be tattooed on the foreheads of those who have failed again and again in their reactionary efforts to prevent us from joining the rest of the western world.
And meanwhile, from the pits of despair, we have Antonin Scalia, who, in his dissent, crafted the most hilarious soundbite, pure grist for the Fox News blondettes: “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”