Breaking new constitutional ground with a ruling that will be tested in higher courts, a federal trial judge in Washington, D.C., has cleared the way for a lawsuit by the House of Representatives claiming that the Obama administration is spending billions of dollars on the new health care program without Congress’s permission to do so. The administration plans to appeal Wednesday’s ruling, and this fundamental controversy over inter-branch relations seems destined ultimately for the Supreme Court. Never before has a lawsuit like this one gone forward in court.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, in a forty-three-page opinion, rejected the government’s argument that the House had no right to go to court at all, to pursue what officials have argued is nothing more than a political ploy by Republican lawmakers in their ongoing challenges to President Obama, and especially to the Affordable Care Act. On the contrary, the judge decided, at stake in the lawsuit is the specific grant to Congress by Article I of the Constitution of the power to control when federal funds are spent, and the House is threatened with fundamental harm to that constitutional role.
The ruling, however, is not a final decision that the House will ultimately win on its constitutional claim. The judge has now told both sides to come up with a schedule for how the case moves on from this point, toward such a final decision. In the meantime, however, officials at the White House and the Justice Department vowed to appeal — probably first in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The government would have the option, now or later, to go to the Supreme Court.
While the Affordable Care Act has been challenged repeatedly, in court, in Congress and in politics, by its critics, and while two of the most serious court challenges failed in the Supreme Court, the House’s lawsuit opens a new arena of constitutional combat that potentially could deeply undercut one of the main financial parts of the ACA. The government spent about $3 billion on that provision in the last fiscal year and projects spending of about $175 billion for it over the next decade.