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Senator Johnson’s Obamacare Standing

 

Update: oops, I have been reminded that the Tenth Circuit in Schaffer v. Clinton, 240 F.3d 878, 885-86 (10th Cir. 2001), rejected the D.C. Circuit’s Boehner v. Anderson conclusion and held that a member of Congress lacked standing to complain of a pay increase that allegedly violated the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. Schaffer isn’t cited in DOJ’s motion to dismiss either.

 

Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) has brought a lawsuit against OPM in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in which the senator, along with one of his aides, challenges OPM’s regulations related to congressional health insurance options available under the Affordable Care Act. Specifically, the plaintiffs argue that OPM lacked the authority to grant employer subsidies for congressional health insurance purchased on the exchanges under Section 1312 (d)(3)(D) of the ACA. They also maintain that OPM improperly shifted to Members of Congress the burden of determining which legislative employees qualify as employees of “the official office of a Member of Congress” within the meaning of Section 1312 (d)(3)(D).

Andrew McCarthy has called this lawsuit “frivolous,” saying “it is no more constitutionally proper or practical for a legislator to sue the president over a public policy dispute than for the president to violate valid laws.” But while the suit may be “frivolous” in the sense that it is not a worthwhile use of the senator’s or the court’s time, it is not legally defective simply because the senator’s motivation is to win a political or public policy dispute. If, for example, Marbury was motivated by the desire to score political points against the Jefferson administration rather than by a genuine ambition to become a justice of the peace (which may have been the case, for all I know), this would not have been grounds to reject his case. At least I don’t think so.

The legal question is simply whether Johnson and/or his aide have suffered a personal injury that can be redressed in court. This is not a case, like Raines v. Byrd, 521 U.S. 811 (1997), where individual members of Congress are attempting to vindicate an institutional injury suffered by the legislative body as a whole.

The Justice Department, representing OPM, argues that the plaintiffs lack standing because they are not claiming any personal injury. For example, they “are not contending that the challenged OPM regulations have any adverse effect on their own health coverage.” DOJ Motion to Dismiss at 7 (emphasis in original). Instead, their “suit seeks to narrow the health-coverage options and benefits made available to themselves and other Members of Congress and congressional employees.” Id. (emphasis in original). How, DOJ in essence asks, can Senator Johnson have been injured by receiving a financial benefit such as an employer subsidy?

This is a fair question, but I can’t help noticing that the Justice Department failed to cite the only case (to my knowledge) to answer this question in a virtually identical context. In Boehner v. Anderson, 30 F.3d 156 (D.C. Cir. 1994), a group of members and congressional candidates, led by the future Speaker of the House, challenged certain congressional pay increases as contrary to the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. As in the Johnson lawsuit, the defendants argued that Boehner lacked standing to sue because his complaint was really a generalized about the conduct of government. Besides, the Secretary of the Senate (one of the defendants) added sensibly, “an increase in pay is not an injury.”

Boehner, however, argued that in his case it was an injury because his constituents would think less of him for receiving a financial benefit to which he was not legally entitled. This argument, essentially identical to Johnson’s, was accepted by the D.C. Circuit, which stated: “We do not think it the office of a court to insist that getting additional monetary compensation is a good when the recipient, a congressman, says that in his political position it is a bad.”

We will see if the federal court in Wisconsin follows this line of reasoning. If it does not, Senator Johnson still may be able to prevail on standing with regard to the “official office” designation issue. Here Johnson contends that OPM has unlawfully punted the responsibility for determining who works for an “official office” within the statutory meaning. This places a burden on the individual member to make this determination, without any guidance from OPM, and results in identically situated staffers being treated differently.

DOJ’s arguments against standing on this issue strike me as less than impressive. The primary argument is that the necessity of determining which employees work for an “official office” results from the ACA itself, not from OPM. That’s true, but it is OPM that has taken a legal determination that should be made by the agency and made it into an arbitrary choice to be made by members.

DOJ also argues that Johnson does not really have to undertake the burden of making this decision because he has the option of delegating it to the Senate’s administrative office. But that’s just another way of making the decision. Johnson knows what determination the Senate administrative office will make. If that is the legally correct determination, then OPM should have made that determination in the first place. Instead, OPM is essentially giving members the option to decide whether or not they want to follow the law. Since following the law will impose a cost on a member (particularly in comparison to another member who may decide not to follow it), that does seem to place an individual burden on each member.

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