With the background of the last two posts, let’s consider whether “the President acted beyond his authority to execute the laws” by delaying the employer mandate, to paraphrase the question asked at the House Rules Committee hearing. Or, rather, let’s separate this question into two.
The first is whether the delay of the employer mandate was “legal.” This is the question that a court would ask if the issue were properly before it. For example, suppose that an employee sued his employer, alleging that he is entitled to employer-provided health care in 2014. Like Professor Dellinger, I am unsure why an employee couldn’t bring such a suit in reality, but for present purposes just assume that such a suit would present a justiciable controversy.
The employer would argue that its obligation under the ACA is contingent upon regulatory action (implementation of the reporting requirement) that has not yet occurred and further that the Secretary of the Treasury has the authority under IRC Section 7805(a) to provide transition relief in the implementation of a law relating to taxation. Providing a full evaluation of the merits of this argument would require more time and research than I wish to devote to the matter. Suffice to say that I personally would not wager a significant sum on the outcome either way, but I would be particularly loath to bet on the administration’s theory that Section 7805(a), which makes no reference to “transition relief” at all, somehow gives the Secretary authority to provide such relief in contravention of specific statutory mandates.
Note that the issues in my hypothetical lawsuit might be slightly different than if there were a direct challenge to the legality of the Treasury Department’s regulatory action under the Administrative Procedures Act, in which case the court might be more inclined to defer to the agency’s interpretation of its obligations under the law. For example, it is possible, as Professor Bagley observes, that a court would conceptualize the action simply as an exercise of enforcement discretion, rather than an attempt to waive legal obligations set forth in law. In other words, the Treasury Department did not actually delay the employer mandate (the story would go), but merely announced its intention not use scarce resources to collect penalties against employers who violate the mandate in the first year. This may not ultimately be a persuasive argument (Bagley isn’t persuaded), but a court is unlikely to view it as frivolous either.
In short, the courts will likely view the question of the “legality” of the employer mandate delay as the type of routine administrative law issue they face every day. This, more than a full-throated defense of the administration’s legal position, was the point Simon Lazarus and Professor Dellinger were making at the Rules Committee hearing. After all, every administration must interpret and apply thousands of complex statutory provisions (often conflicting and/or poorly drafted, to boot) every day. Even if an administration were just “calling balls and strikes,” to use Chief Justice Roberts’ phrase, it would inevitably be judged to have violated the law on a fairly routine basis. So even if the courts were to declare the administration’s action with regard to the ACA illegal, what’s the big deal?
This merely underscores that the question the House wants answered is not the question the courts will answer, even if a justiciable case were to be brought by a plaintiff with standing. They will not issue a decision on whether the Secretary, much less the President, has “faithfully executed the laws.” They will decide (at most) whether a particular administrative regulatory action complies with the law. Indeed, they may not even decide that, but merely conclude that the action is of the kind where the court should defer to the agency’s judgment as to whether or not it complies with the law.