Conservatives’ Choice: Power or Principle?

In the days immediately preceding and following the November 8 election, I observed a distinct evolution in thinking among some rightist thinkers. Some went into the election pledging an outright rebellion in the Senate should a Majority Leader Chuck Schumer use the “nuclear option” to muscle through a Hillary Clinton Supreme Court nominee, but mere days later thought that a Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should consider abolishing the filibuster to allow President Trump’s nominee a smoother path to confirmation.

One couldn’t help but hold on to one’s neck for the bad case of whiplash. Some who proudly defended the filibuster as a bastion of deliberative legislating when they feared Democrats would win the White House and take back the Senate suddenly, instead, when presented with a Republican Senate and president-elect, considered this principle a trifling inconvenience. Those situational ethics present a more fundamental question: Are conservatives willing to forego policy “victories” that might result from a raw use of power, when exercising that power violates critical philosophical principles rooted in a belief in limited government?

That’s one prism through which to view Kellyanne Conway’s announcement that the Trump administration may not enforce Obamacare’s individual mandate. Besides the fact that non-enforcement presents policy problems and makes repeal of Obamacare less likely, it violates a principle at the heart of conservatism: The rule of law.

Not Within the Law

The new president’s executive order on Obamacare, released Friday evening, instructed executive agencies to take actions “to the maximum extent permitted by law” to blunt the effects of Obamacare. There are indeed many ways the Trump administration can act within the scope of existing law to provide relief to consumers, many of which I outlined in a report last week. But blanket non-enforcement of the individual mandate doesn’t qualify as being within the law, any more than President Obama’s policy of blanket non-enforcement for certain classes of immigrants fit within statutory parameters.

Observers have noted the last administration’s many examples of executive overreach on Obamacare have given the new administration grounds to provide regulatory relief on multiple fronts. But two wrongs do not make a right. Take, for instance, the following analysis:

The Administration thus used the public pronouncements of its non-enforcement policies to encourage the regulated community to disregard provisions of [the law]. Prospectively licensing large groups of people to violate a congressional statute for policy reasons is inimical to the Take Care clause.

The quote comes from a paper by University of Michigan professor Nicholas Bagley, talking about President Obama’s 2013 “transitional policy” that allowed people facing cancellation notices to temporarily keep their pre-Obamacare plans. But the same description could apply to not enforcing the individual mandate as well. Conservatives believe that forcing individuals to purchase a product is unconstitutional—but so is an executive refusing to enforce the law. Is the answer to a constitutional violation really another constitutional violation?

Major Practical Concerns

Not enforcing portions of Obamacare also presents logistical questions. Effectively eliminating the individual mandate through non-enforcement could worsen adverse selection—when only sick individuals purchase coverage, raising premiums and driving out additional healthy enrollees. As I noted last week, the new administration does have ways within the law to mitigate against this particular problem, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be.

In many cases, non-enforcement could result in lawsuits. The Obama administration’s unilateral actions generally led to more people getting benefits—insurance subsidies, immigration status, etc.—which made it difficult to find someone with standing to sue.

By contrast, if the Trump administration decides (as some have suggested) to give insurers permission to sell policies that do not meet all of Obamacare’s mandated benefits, purchasers of said policies would have grounds to sue insurers. Obamacare’s mandated benefits are prescribed in law, and if the law is clear, its text trumps (pardon the pun) any regulatory edict from the new administration. Most insurers probably wouldn’t even bother offering such policies because of the legal jeopardy and uncertainty they would face in doing so.

Making Repeal Less Likely?

There’s another practical implication of not enforcing the mandate that should worry conservatives: ironically, it could make Obamacare’s repeal more difficult.

Over the past few weeks Washington has debated whether Congress should repeal Obamacare without enacting a simultaneous replacement. Some pundits have been forthright in admitting that they wish to do so because they fear some members of Congress have a different vision of what an alternative regime should look like. To put it bluntly, they wish to hold repeal hostage to their vision for an Obamacare “replacement.”

The executive unilaterally ending some of Obamacare’s worst effects—albeit temporarily—will take the pressure off members of Congress to do so themselves. The justifiable fear is that action on repeal will get bogged down by internecine squabbling over a vision for “replace,” making the sole movement on Obamacare an executive action—which any future president (or even the current one) could overturn.

Reinforce Congress’ Role

If President Trump unilaterally eliminating the individual mandate isn’t the answer, then what is? For conservatives, the solution should lie with the branch the Constitution’s Framers considered the most important: Congress, the legislative branch Article I of the Constitution establishes. Through its oversight powers, Congress has the ability to investigate and act upon regulatory overreach.

The last Congress was less feckless in blunting unilateral executive actions than some might think. Its preliminary victory in the case of House v. Burwell, regarding Obamacare’s cost-sharing subsidies to insurers, set a critical precedent that Congress has the right to litigate on matters of constitutional import—namely, the executive (in this case, the Obama administration) spending funds without an express appropriation from Congress. Hopefully the Trump administration will vacate the Obama administration’s appeal of the District Court ruling, allowing this precedent to stand.

Congress should continue to use its investigatory powers to explore executive overreach. It should obtain from the Trump administration documents regarding the cost-sharing subsidies that the Obama administration refused to disclose, despite subpoenae from Congress ordering them to do so. These documents will reveal why and how the Obama administration created an appropriation these subsidies out of whole cloth. More importantly, continuing to investigate the lawless actions of the Obama administration will send a clear message to dissuade its successors from acting similarly.

Obamacare Is Ultimately About Power

Obamacare was really never about health care so much as power—the power of government to regulate health care, tax health care, and force people to purchase health care (or at least health insurance). It seems somehow fitting that Obamacare gave the nation so many examples of executive unilateralism.

But to conservatives, the rule of law—in many ways the antithesis of raw power—stands pre-eminent. A Republican administration should not be tempted to “use unilateral actions to achieve conservative ends.” Such behavior represents a contradiction in terms. That’s why it’s important to watch the new administration’s actions closely in the coming days and weeks. Obamacare may not be worth keeping, but the rule of law is.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.