The House can pursue some constitutional claims in a lawsuit against the Obama administration over appropriations and implementing the health care overhaul law, a federal district judge ruled Wednesday.
The ruling means Congress has cleared a high procedural hurdle in the separation of powers case, one that usually stops the judiciary from stepping into fights between lawmakers and the executive branch.
The House has legal standing to pursue allegations that the secretaries of Health and Human Services and Treasury are spending $175 billion over the next 10 fiscal years that was not appropriated by Congress, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., wrote in the 43-page ruling.
The House lawsuit asks the court to declare the president acted unconstitutionally in making payments to insurance companies under Section 1402 of the health care overhaul law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) and to stop the payments.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said the court's ruling showed that the administration's "historic overreach can be challenged by the coequal branch of government with the sole power to create or change the law. The House will continue our effort to ensure the separation of powers in our democratic system remains clear, as the Framers intended.”
Wednesday’s ruling does not address the merits of the claims. Collyer acknowledged that the court was taking a rare step, but doing so carefully into a high-profile dispute, so that it wouldn’t give the House standing to file other similar lawsuits.
“Despite its potential political ramifications, this suit remains a plain dispute over a constitutional command, of which the judiciary has long been the ultimate interpreter,” Collyer wrote. “The court is also assured that this decision will open no floodgates, as it is inherently limited by the extraordinary facts of which it was born.”
The dispute focuses on two sections of the health care overhaul law. The administration felt it could make Section 1402 Offset Program payments from the same account as Section 1401 Refundable Tax Credit Program payments. House Republicans say the health care law doesn't permit that.
The Obama administration, during the fiscal 2014 appropriations process, initially asked Congress for a separate line item for 1402 payments. Congress did not include money for such a line item. During oral arguments in the case in May, Collyer questioned government lawyers about why the administration could ignore Congress and then argue that the House couldn’t sue them.
The administration argued that the House has other options, such as political remedies or passing other legislation, they said.
Jonathan Turley, the attorney for the House, said in a statement that the ruling means that the House "now will be heard on an issue that drives to the very heart of our constitutional system: the control of the legislative branch over the 'power of the purse.' We are eager to present the House’s merits arguments to the Court and remain confident that our position will ultimately prevail in establishing the unconstitutional conduct alleged in this lawsuit."
Turley said the administration had argued that Congress couldn't seek judicial enforcement of its constitutional status. "The position would have sharply curtailed both the legislative and judicial branches. The Court has now answered that question with a resounding rejection of this extreme position," he said.
The case at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is U.S. House of Representatives v. Burwell, No. 14-cv-1967.