After initially threatening to sue President Barack Obama over a variety of issues, House Speaker John Boehner settled on just one: the delay of the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate. The legality of that action, as law school professor Nicholas Bagley has pointed out, is questionable. But the lawsuit also implies that the executive branch should have limited discretion in implementing laws. And Republicans only have to look toward Governor Chris Christie to show how that doesn’t make much sense.
In 2013, Obama delayed for a year the employer mandate, which requires all businesses with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health insurance to their employees or pay a penalty. Infuriated, Republicans called the president’s unilateral action illegal. On this count, they may be right. But it will be nearly impossible for Boehner to convince the courts that the House has suffered concrete damage that gives them the constitutional authority to challenge the action. In all likelihood, the lawsuit is meaningless.
However, this case has implications beyond its legal importance. Simon Lazarus, the senior counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center, testified on Wednesday before the House Rules Committee about the historic discretion afforded presidents to implement laws.
“The Administration has not postponed the employer mandate out of policy opposition to the ACA, nor to any specific provision of it,” he said, according to his prepared remarks. “It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise, and at best misleading to characterize the action as a 'refusal to enforce' at all. Rather, the 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.” The key is that Obama delayed the employer mandate in order to prioritize the success of the entire law. It does not fundamentally change the legislation or attempt to undermine it.
Lazarus also gave examples when former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton used their discretion in implementing legislation. Bush, for instance, delayed certain EPA regulations not out of technical need, but because he opposed the policies. That is a much graver offense than delaying part of the law in order to increase the chances of its success. The Bush administration actively tried to undermine it. “Such intentional refusals to enforce or implement laws … do violate the laws in question, and are, by definition, failures to faithfully execute the laws as required by the Constitution,” Lazarus said.
Christie used discretion similarly in a decision regarding Tesla’s ability to sell directly to its customers. Under New Jersey statute, direct sales of automobiles are illegal. Christie opposes that law, but must enforce it—except, as he told CNBC’s John Harwood Wednesday, he gave Tesla a one-year grace period.
“The fact is we looked the other way for a year, to allow Tesla to do what they are doing,” he said. “I can’t just pick and choose the laws to enforce. So I give [sic] them what I felt was a reasonable period of time to operate the way they were operating.”
After a year, Christie believed that he had to enforce the law—and Republicans around the country freaked out. A.J. Delgado, of the National Review, questioned Christie’s commitment to the free market. “[Y]ou’d expect Christie, who claims to believe in free markets, to recognize a protectionist swindle, as he did when he took on the state’s powerful public-school teacher unions,” he wrote.
Legally, Christie’s selective enforcement on the ban on direct automobile sales might be more justifiable than Obama’s delay of the employer mandate. Executives frequently prioritize certain laws based on their limited resources. Obama defied a specific deadline in the law. But the functional implications of them are the same. Christie and Obama both used their discretion in enforcing laws to improve their administration’s governance. For Obama, that meant delaying the employer mandate to ease the implementation of Obamacare. For Christie, it meant giving Tesla a year-long reprieve from the direct-sales ban to give the legislature time to change the law.
That’s not to say that executives should have unlimited authority to adjust legislation. But they should be able to use discretion in implementing laws so that they have the greatest chance of success. The House’s lawsuit threatens to eliminate that discretion.
Danny Vinik is a staff writer at The New Republic.