George Will is right. It’s possible that 4 little words might doom the Anything But Affordable Care Act:

The four words that threaten disaster for the ACA say the subsidies shall be available to persons who purchase health insurance in an exchange “established by the state.” But 34 states have chosen not to establish exchanges.

From a plain language standpoint, this isn’t difficult to predict. If this lawsuit makes it to the Supreme Court and if the justices rule that the plain text of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which I’ll call the Anything But Affordable Care Act from this point forward, means what it says, then I’d expect a 9-0 ruling that the IRS doesn’t have the authority to change the plain text of the ABACA:

So the IRS, which is charged with enforcing the ACA, has ridden to the rescue of Barack Obama’s pride and joy. Taking time off from writing regulations to restrict the political speech of Obama’s critics, the IRS has said, with its breezy indifference to legality, that subsidies shall also be dispensed to those who purchase insurance through federal exchanges the government has established in those 34 states. Pruitt is challenging the IRS in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, and there are similar challenges in Indiana, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

The history of the bill matters:

Congress made subsidies available only through state exchanges as a means of coercing states into setting up exchanges. In Senate Finance Committee deliberations on the ACA, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), one of the bill’s primary authors, suggested conditioning tax credits on state compliance because only by doing so could the federal government induce state cooperation with the ACA. Then the law’s insurance requirements could be imposed on states without running afoul of constitutional law precedents that prevent the federal government from commandeering state governments.

In other words, Sen. Baucus understood that the Supreme Court would likely rule the ABACA unconstitutional if the legislation required states to create health insurance exchanges. Without that coercion, only states with out-of-touch far left governors (like Minnesota, New York and Vermont) would’ve created state-run HIXs.

As big a deal as these things are, there’s an even bigger principle at stake here:

If courts allow the IRS’s demarche, they will validate this:

By dispensing subsidies through federal exchanges, the IRS will spend tax revenues without congressional authorization. And by enforcing the employer mandate in states that have only federal exchanges, it will collect taxes; remember, Chief Justice John Roberts saved the ACA by declaring that the penalty enforcing the mandate is really just a tax on the act of not purchasing insurance, without congressional authorization.

If the IRS can do neither, it cannot impose penalties on employers who fail to offer ACA-approved insurance to employees. If the IRS can do both, Congress can disband because it has become peripheral to American governance.

If the Supreme Court gets this one wrong, then it’s over. There are tons of constitutional principles at stake here. That’s before taking the plain language of the bill into consideration.

Let’s be clear, though. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I’m not. This is exceptionally straightforward. While it’s important from a constitutional standpoint, it also revolves around whether the justices will pretend that the plain text of the bill doesn’t mean what it means.

The original lawsuit was almost entirely about constitutional principles. This lawsuit is primarily, though not entirely, about the plain text of the ABACA. It’s difficult to think that Chief Justice Roberts will rule that the bill’s text doesn’t mean what it says.

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