This week, Judge Roger Vinson of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida became the second federal judge to strike down Obamacare’s individual mandate. In doing so, Vinson struck down the entire law concluding “the individual mandate and the remaining provisions are all inextricably bound together in purpose and must stand or fall as a single unit.” Judge Vinson’s decision has prompted a long overdue national debate over the limits of the federal Leviathan. Specifically, is there anything, any form of human activity or, more importantly, inactivity, that lies beyond the heavy hand of Washington?
According to Heritage legal expert Robert Alt, there is no question that Judge Vinson’s declaratory judgment binds the parties to the suit, that is, the plaintiffs – 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business – and the defendant – the federal government. Vinson’s decision, moreover, is effective immediately (both the order and the mandate have issued). Translation: an HHS bureaucrat who so much as lifts his pen on behalf of any provision of Obamacare against the 26 states or NFIB members, is violating the court order and risks a possible finding of contempt of court.
Now, the White House faces a simple and straightforward choice: Will President Obama abide by a decision arrived at by a federal district court judge pursuant to all applicable federal procedural niceties, or, unilaterally ignore the rule of law, as he has done in the past?
The President’s top lawyers no doubt are working overtime on a legal rationalization for ignoring Judge Vinson’s ruling. This so-called “non-acquiescence” argument would allow the bureaucratic wheels to spin in, at a minimum, the 24 states not party to the suit and, depending on the audacity of their argument, possibly in all 50 states.
One can almost sense the disdain at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “We will never let one petty district court judge,” the irate White House official may say, “and a Reagan appointee no less – stop such a historic law from benefiting every American.” This was certainly the attitude demonstrated when President Obama repeatedly ignored federal court orders to cease his economically-crippling moratorium on domestic oil exploration last year.
States that were party to the suit against Obamacare certainly give credence to Vinson’s decision. “Judge Vinson declared the health care law void and stated in his decision that a declaratory judgment is the functional equivalent of an injunction,” Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said in a statement. “This means that, for Wisconsin, the federal health care law is dead — unless and until it is revived by an appellate court.”
There are other ripple effects. One example: how will budget scorekeepers such as the Congressional Budget Office “score” the budgetary implications of suspending Obamacare’s massive expansion of the Medicaid program? Fiscally-pressed states, for example, could scale back their Medicaid eligibility levels and still comply with federal law.
Washington, moreover, is about to engage in a series of gargantuan budget battles – the President and congressional leaders will unveil their respective budget blueprints for fiscal year 2012 and beyond shortly; the continuing resolution that funds government agencies expires on March 4th; and mounting government debt will push up against the debt ceiling later in the Spring. The budgetary “baseline” that lawmakers use to plot long-term health expenditures – with Medicaid being chief among them – is crucial to any budget debate. Also, employee benefit managers in NFIB firms with more than 50 employees no doubt are on the phone now with their health insurance providers, hoping to renegotiate downward the recent upward spike in premiums that greeted them as the first manifestation of Obamacare.
At a minimum, lawmakers may view the March 4th expiration of the continuing resolution as an opportunity to send a clear message to the President – uphold the law and comply with Judge Vinson’s decision. No ifs, ands, or buts.