When news broke this morning of the decision by a three-judge panel from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in Halbig v. Burwell, which states that because of a part of one sentence in the Affordable Care Act that was basically a typo, millions of Americans should lose the federal subsidies that allowed them to buy health insurance, I'm pretty sure a similar scene played out all around Washington. As word spread through the offices of conservative think-tanks, advocacy groups, and members of Congress, people gathered around TVs or computer screens, quickly taking in the decision. And there were smiles, laughter, maybe even a few high-fives and fist-pumps.
Not long after, a second appeals court handed down an opposite ruling on the same question. (If you feel like you don't understand the issue, the rulings, and the implications, I'd recommend Ian Millhiser's explanation.) We won't know for some time whether the Supreme Court will hear these cases and. if it does, it's hard to predict what the justices will decide. But back to those conservatives: What they were so excited about was, in a narrow sense, that they had seemingly won a victory over the villainous Barack Obama and his freedom-destroying Affordable Care Act. But what actually had them so pleased is the possibility that millions of Americans will lose their health insurance.
Am I being unfair? Well here's a challenge. Let's see if anybody can point me to a single prominent conservative—member of Congress, movement figure, media figure—whose response to that decision is not just what they're all saying (some variant of "This just shows what a terrible law Obamacare is") but also something like, "Of course, we don't want anyone to lose their health coverage, so if this decision is upheld we should pass a law correcting the drafting error that gave rise to this case and making sure those millions of Americans can keep getting the subsidies that make it possible for them to buy private insurance."
If they really cared about those millions of Americans and their fate, they'd want to do something about it, now that the lawsuit they filed threatens to take away that health coverage. So what are they going to do? The answer is, nothing. There will be precisely zero conservatives who propose to actually help those people. And if you ask the lawsuit's supporters what should happen to them, none will have anything resembling a practical suggestion. At best, they'll say that the millions who would lose their insurance if the decision stands were snookered by that con man Obama into thinking they could have affordable health coverage, so it's really all his fault.
The next time Republicans are wondering why so many people think their party is cruel and uncaring and will gladly crush the lives of ordinary people if it means gaining some momentary partisan advantage, they might think back to this case. They might remind themselves that the problem isn't that Americans just don't fully comprehend the majesty of Republican philosophy. It's that they see it quite well.
And while we're at it, here's a question for the news media. Remember when people got those letters from their insurance companies saying their old plans would be cancelled, and you went into a frenzy of ill-informed and misleading coverage telling their alleged tales of woe? I know, you feel bad for not doing any follow-ups showing how most of them ended up with coverage that was more comprehensive, less expensive, or both. But here's your chance for redemption! How about you do an equal number of stories—oh, who am I kidding?—how about you do half as many stories telling the tales of people who got coverage because of the subsidies, and would lose it if the Halbig decision stands?
You wouldn't have to work too hard to find them—after all, almost nine out of every ten people who bought insurance on the exchange got a subsidy, and their premiums were reduced by an average of 76 percent. If you're in Washington, just go to Virginia, which used the federal exchange, and you can find plenty of people who would lose their coverage if Halbig stands; if you're in New York, hop across the river to New Jersey. Those stories are out there waiting to be told, and showing how things like court decisions affect regular people is part of your job, not just when it makes the administration look bad, but even if it supports their position. Right?