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Who is Responsible for the Employer Mandate Delay?

There were a couple of things missing from the testimony regarding the legal merits of the employer mandate delay at Wednesday’s Rules Committee hearing. The first was any reference to the legal authority claimed by the administration when it announced the initial delay of the employer mandate under the Affordable Care Act. This is surprising because Mark Mazur, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy, was very specific in explaining the legal basis claimed for the administration’s action.

Mazur’s letter of July 9, 2013 to the Honorable Fred Upton, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, explains the decision “to provide transition relief with respect to three provisions of the ACA: reporting by certain employers under section 6056 of the Internal Revenue Code (“the Code”); reporting by insurance companies, self-insuring employers, and other entities that provide health coverage under section 6055 of the Code; and the employer shared responsibility provisions under section 4980H of the Code.” This “transition relief” meant “no employer shared responsibility payments will be assessed for 2014,” although employers were “encouraged” to “maintain or expand health coverage for 2014.” IRS Notice 2013-45. In effect, the Treasury Department waived the legal obligation of the employer mandate, which under the ACA was to take effect January 1, 2014, for a one-year period.

Mazur’s letter is succinct with regard to the legal authority for this action: “The Notice is an exercise of the Treasury Department’s longstanding administrative authority to grant transition relief when implementing new legislation like the ACA. Administrative authority is granted by section 7805(a) of the Internal Revenue Code.”

That’s it. That’s the entire claimed legal justification for the employer mandate delay: section 7805(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. But I did not hear that code section mentioned once during all of the Wednesday’s testimony. Instead, there was a good deal of discussion, much of it in fairly vague terms, about general principles of administrative law that recognize some agency discretion to adjust statutory deadlines in a “reasonable” fashion. Whatever the merits of that legal position, it was not the justification offered by the Obama administration to Congress.

Section 7805(a) provides, in its entirety, as follows:

Except where such authority is expressly given by this title to any person other than an officer or employee of the Treasury Department, the Secretary shall prescribe all needful rules and regulations for the enforcement of this title, including all rules and regulations as may be necessary by reason of any alteration of law in relation to internal revenue.

The one thing that is very clear from this language is the identity of the person empowered to prescribe the regulations referred to by the section. It is the Secretary of the Treasury. Not the President. Not the Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy. Not anyone the Secretary might care to designate. Indeed, one might plausibly read the section as not providing substantive regulatory authority at all, but simply as identifying the Secretary as the default authority for issuing all rules and regulations not expressly delegated to another official.

Yet during the entire Rules Committee hearing, I do not believe I heard a single reference to the Secretary, either by name or title. In contrast, there were many, many statements from both the majority and minority side ascribing the relevant decisions to the President.  See, e.g., Written Statement of Simon Lazarus (“[T]he President has authorized a minor temporary course correction regarding individual ACA provisions, necessary in his Administration’s judgment to faithfully execute the overall statute, other related laws, and the purposes of the ACA’s framers. As a legal as well as a practical matter, that’s well within his job description.”).

This is very peculiar. Whatever the scope of the authority provided by Section 7805(a), that authority clearly falls within the Secretary’s job description, not the President’s. Constitutional scholars, of course, have long argued the extent to which department heads and other executive officials can be given legal duties and authorities insulated from presidential oversight (the “unitary executive” debate), but that is a far cry from treating the Secretary of the Treasury as if he were the Charlie McCarthy to the President’s Edgar Bergen (yeah, I know, I’m old).  Hamilton must be turning in his grave.

Moreover, there is no indication in Mazur’s letter to Chairman Upton that President Obama had anything to do with the decision to extend the employer mandate. The letter is rather sketchy on the details of the decision-making process, but it clearly indicates that the impetus for the decision were “concerns about complying with the reporting requirements and the time needed to implement them effectively.” The Treasury Department evidently felt that there was not enough time to implement the reporting obligations of the law in a way that would avoid imposing burdensome or impractical requirements on the business community.  Moreover, Mazur makes it clear that the decision to extend the employer mandate was simply a necessary result of delaying the reporting requirements. See 7-7-13 Letter at 2 (“We recognize that this transition relief will make it impractical to determine which employers owe shared responsibility payments (under section 4980H) for 2014.”).

If Mazur’s explanation is even close to being true, it is apparent that President Obama could not have played a prominent role in making the decision to extend the employer mandate. Surely no one thinks that Obama was involved in drafting or evaluating the reporting requirements for employers and insurance companies, any more than he was writing code for healthcare.gov. The idea of extending the reporting deadlines, and as a consequence the employer mandate, would have had to originate with the Treasury officials directly responsible for these aspects of the law, and those officials presumably conducted a policy and legal analysis of this alternative among others for consideration by the Secretary of the Treasury. No doubt, given the policy and political importance of the issue, the Secretary presented his decision or proposed decision to the White House for approval, but this should have occurred well after the Treasury Department had thoroughly vetted the issue.

From this it should be apparent that the official accountable to Congress, at least in the first instance, for the decision to delay the employer mandate is Jacob Lew, the Secretary of the Treasury. Any analysis of the House’s remedies with regard to this decision must begin with that understanding.

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